On the Side — Ed Smith

I confess were it not for the jaunty yellow dustcover of Ed Smith’s book, I might not have picked the book up at all. In a world of the hyper attention grabbing photo cover, the simple playfulness of this book’s cover immediately appealed.

I had never heard of Ed Smith—who must clearly be a secret agent with such an anodyne name. A review of the author blurb, and the quickest of googlings, leads to the happy discovery Agent Smith writes a food website Rocket & Squash which I had been sadly, hitherto, unaware of.

Some of the strongest cookbooks have been produced by those who run food websites. Given the ease with which anyone can start writing, there is a terrible sea of content out there. As such whenever one website emerges from the primordial muck, it is normally a reliable indicator of quality.

On The Side, Smith’s first cookbook, is billed as a wide ranging collection of side dishes, the often forgotten, yet endlessly pleasing, supporting players in our meals. It is side dishes that provide the thoughtful counterpoint to the rest of the meal and can elevate the ordinary to the realm of the exceptional.

Yet despite my love of side dishes, I cannot help but feel this nominal focus—on food that is meant to accompany other food—is a slight disservice to what is inventive, considered, and enjoyable food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. No ribbon.

335 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Greens, leaves & herbs
  2. Vegetables, fruits, flowers & bulbs
  3. Roots, squash & potatoes
  4. Grains, pulses, pasta & rice

While we are chided not to judge a book by its cover, of course we will. I think the cover of this book is brilliantly designed and is a real rebuke to the reflective approach taken by so many other designers.

The cover—or rather, the dust jacket—of On The Side is tremendously interesting: there’s embossing, there’s debossing, there’s a cutaway corner, revealing the gorgeous red hardcover underneath. A large part of this book’s production cost must have gone to this splendid cover. And bravo to Smith and their publisher, Bloomsbury, for doing so. It would have only been too easy to produce something inane and charmless, such as the most of the books in Amazon’s bestsellers list at any one time.

The design of the rest of the book is not as bold, but is nonetheless impressive. The book commits to excellent typography in a way that few books do: after drowning in a sea of sans serif faces—including, ahem, our new logo—and after some not very pleasing serifs in some other titles this year, what they’ve gone with here is elegant, has personality and presence on the page.

Out of the cookbooks I have spent time with in 2017 this might just be one of my favourite designs: there is a sense of doing things differently, and not just doing so to be novel, but in the service of the principles of good design.

I also think the photography is exceptional: after some dreary examples—there’s a review I have been holding off on writing simply because the photography is so artificial and layered with filigree that it is terribly depressing—the photos in this book are incredibly attractive and make the food look beautiful. The book does the simple yet apparently quite elusive task of making the food the star. It is refreshing.

And, in something that has me moist-eyed with gratitude, the indexes of this book are thoughtful and useful. Stepping away from the convention of just one index, Smith provides a trio of additional indexes—or rather, to use his phrasing, directories. One is by main ingredient (so if you are making falafel for dinner you could see which sides are recommended), another is part of the kitchen needed to prepare the recipe (so if you are, say, baking bread, you can consult the stove top list) and the final is simply arranged my time.

All in all, the design of this book is beautiful and considered. It makes bold choices and those choices work. I am so happy that Smith has decided to abandon so much of the contemporary cookbook design vernacular and present something that is unique and valuable.

Thoughts

Sides are often the source of the greatest joy in a meal. And yet they are often criminally neglected. It is far from uncommon for people, when planning a meal, to pour all their time, attention and money into some elaborate piece of protein, and simply forget to give any love to the rest of the plate. Sides, if they are thought of at all, are often cursory and lacking any joy and thought.

This is a real shame. Sides give us such wonderful opportunities to show our creativity, and experiment with new flavours, approaches, techniques. In that they are usually cast in supporting roles, we should be a lot less afraid of failure and take some risks that we might not otherwise make. When I think of very good meals it is more often than not the sides I am thinking of so fondly. It is facile to create magic from a $70 piece of marbled wagyu. It takes skill and commitment as a cook to create magic from a cabbage and an onion.

This book is billed as a sourcebook for side recipes. It does not suggest to the casual reader that the book has greater potential than this. While I like the focus on sides—so few cookbooks give this area any attention—this does the book a slight disservice.

You should not think of this book as just a collection of sides: a word which, for many, might recall more the limp pub salad, with obligatory single industrial strength cherry tomato, than something of genuine excitement, than say a slow roast wedge of cabbage, stuffed with various delicious things, in the manner of Melbourne’s Town Mouse. I first ate that dish four years ago and can remember almost nothing about the meal (other than the agreeable company and my first taste of Patrick Sullivan’s wines) other than this superb cabbage. I have so many more examples.

I urge you not to view this book through a limited lens. Think of this book as a collection of excellent vegetable-focused recipes that can easily be combined for memorable, satisfying meals. The book does, almost covertly, make this much easier than you think: every recipe gives you two or three other sides that would work well together. These are in the context of providing a chorus of voices to support whatever the ‘star’ of the meal is. I encourage you to ignore any call for something else—you can, as we have done over many a night—make incredibly satisfying and wonderful meals with individual or small combinations of dishes from this book. The ‘this goes great with x, y, and z’ is a smart addition to the book.

At any rate, these recipes are often so good they would often outshine whatever you might choose to serve with them. I  struggle to imagine how anyone who cooks from this book would not, eventually, come to the same conclusion. I only wish Smith was a little more proud of his recipes and leaned a little less heavily on the ‘side’ angle.

The focus on these dishes being sides has a wonderful side (teehee) benefit: the recipes give a lot of flavour without days of faffing around.  Constraints often produce the best innovation and solutions. So, the constraint of producing food that is nominally meant to accompany other food (and thus cannot take five days to produce) has led Smith to create really enjoyable food.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Baby Pak Choi with Sticky Garlic and Ginger (a perfect simple vegetable stir fry: the garlic and ginger gives real vitality to the pak choi.)
  • Black bean, coriander and lime rice (I made this with the corn recipe below. It was a fantastic combination, and one that just demonstrates the clever way Smith thinks about food.)
  • Buttermilk, dill and soy seed wedge salad (one of the stars of this book: an incredible buttermilk dressing, pickled radishes, sticky seeds, iceberg lettuce. I want to eat this forever.)
  • Chard with chilli, shallot and cider vinaigrette (my favourite recipe of the year, I think. I have made this on so many occasions and each time I am blown away. The dressing in particular is masterful. And it has almost converted my chard-averse partner.)
  • Chicken stock and orange-braised fennel (cooked fennel is a somewhat new visitor chez nous, but it is always welcome. The orange both enhances the sweetness of the fennel but also accentuates the savoury anise notes. Delightful autumn food.)
  • Chinese cabbage with black vinegar (Outside of Asia, the wombok is criminally underappreciated. It is the most wonderful vegetable: at once deeply savoury, sweet, juicy, tender, crunchy, silky. This elegant little stir fry is rewarding.) 
  • Chorizo Roast Potatoes (How to improve a roast potato? Add chorizo it seems! Don’t eat chorizo? Investigate Julia Turschen’s kinda, sorta patas bravas.) 
  • Grilled Tenderstem Broccoli with Umami Crumbs (I challenge you to make this and not consider topping every dish with umami crumbs. It’s genius.)
  • Honey, thyme, and lime butter corn (there’s almost a south east Asian feel to this the way the sweetness of the corn and honey is contrasted with the peppy lime juice and woody notes of the thyme. Morish.)
  • Quick cucumber and daikon kimchi (I met a Korean person who was just so enthusiastic about kimchi it’s hard to eat it now without thinking of their cheerful advocacy. I think they might have been in the pocket of Big Fermented Cabbage, honestly. Whether or not they would like this quick kimchi inspired vegetable pickle I will never know, but I certainly loved it.)
  • Smacked Cucumbers (One of my favourite dishes, although I think I’m so wedded to the Fuchsia Dunlop version all others, including this variation, feel a little wan in comparison.) 

Why this book?

  • You want to improve your repertoire of sides
  • You want an excellent resource of modern vegetable-focussed dishes
  • You want to support excellent cookbook design

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#Konmari ░░░░ Summer And does it just spark joy?

This book, nominally a collection of side dishes, is a tremendous discovery and is a welcome addition to anyone’s everyday cookbook library.

At My Table — Nigella Lawson

Unlike almost every other author and book I have reviewed here, Nigella Lawson needs no introduction. She is celebrated and revered from Osaka to Oslo and everywhere in between.

She has sold millions of copies of her 12 cookbooks. These books have been translated into countless languages and been made into TV programmes. She has been called the queen of the frozen pea, of the traybake. She is casually referred to as the Domestic Goddess. She has driven food trends.

Her abiding love of food, and a certain emphasis on how sensual and evocative food can be, has made her a cultural icon. She is referenced in films and movies and podcasts and other books. She appears on TV shows, as a judge or a host, with impressive regularity.

She carries a tube of Coleman’s mustard in her bag with her at all times.

To live in 2017 is to be aware of Nigella.

Her latest book, At My Table, came out only recently. This was a happy occurrence, but especially in the context of having recently published my review of Diana Henry’s Simple. In that review I made some claims that I preferred Henry’s food. Drunk on the awesome power of semi-anonymous internet writing, I even went a bit further and accused Nigella of producing recapped that could sometimes be a little lacking in terms of flavour and excitement.

Now, like every other internet writer, I subscribe to the strictest set of ethics and principals. I could no more publish a lie as I could enjoy raw capsicum in a salad. Or cooked capsicum in a curry. Or capsicum on a pizza. Or in any other form except blitzed into a million pieces as a sauce or salsa. This statement of preference was an honest one.

And yet, reader, putting this claim out in the world niggled at me over the following weeks. It seemed to fly in the face of my professed admiration for Nigella, and all that she has done for food. It introduced an unpleasant ideological tension that threatened to remain unresolved.

When I received my copy of At My Table, I flicked through with some trepidation. I was expecting to find food similar to the clean and simple flavours of 2015’s Simply Nigella (a beautiful book with food that simply does not summon a trace of excitement in me). As I got deeper and deeper into the book something wonderful happened: my doubt faded away and I started to smile. This was the Nigella I always wanted to see. These are the recipes I want to make! Finally, I felt there was a chance to have my cake and eat it too: I could both love the idea and image of Nigella as well as love her recipes and food.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. A silver ribbon.

288 pages split across the following chapters:

Well, ahem, not this time.

In this book Nigella has abandoned all chapters and gone with a stream of consciousness freeform presentation. Recipes are roughly arranged in order of the food one would want to eat first thing in the morning and ending in what you might want to eat at the very end of a day.

I almost panicked. It sounds like such an odd, unfriendly decision that would make the cookbook impossible to navigate and to conceptualise. And yet, as begins to be the dominant theme of this book, it not only works but works quite well.

And when it occasionally feels a bit difficult to either find something specific or to maybe get some inspiration, right at the front of the book there is a contents page that gives you every recipe in a single double page spread. I applaud Nigella and her superstar designer, Caz Hildebrand for the decision.

After heaping praise on Simply Nigella’s design, I must confess I think this is an odd looking book. The cover feels old fashioned. I respect not buying into the look of every other 2017 cookbook, but I struggle to find a positive thing to say about the cover. Well, it is a wonderful photo of Nigella, I suppose, caught midway through strangling some naughty sourdough.

I am lukewarm about the design of the rest of the book. I like the continued signature use of Futura. I dislike the serif font this has been accompanied by, and the mid-grey colour used. The combination of a dusky pink and an odd grey is hard to read and unpleasant.

The photography, from the renowned Jonathan Lovekin, is also I think somewhat variable, although never quite bad, even at its least inspiring. There are a few exceptional, memorable shots, which are a delightful to see. And then there are the rest of the shots in the book which feel occasionally dated, as if they  were conceived of in a slightly different era.

I simply cannot say if the design of this book is the real Nigella, or is rather some conception of what a book about home cooking should look like. I can say that the design of this book does not speak to me, which is a pity given the recipes therein.

Thoughts

This feels like Nigella’s most personal book yet. I have no way of knowing how true this is. But between the design, the recipe selection, the headnotes and introductions, and the two episodes of the accompanying TV show I’ve sneakily managed to view, I am left with an impression of this book being a pure distillation of Nigella.

As such I am delighted to report that the recipes in this book are very good. Cookbooks are always victim to the tension between whatever is new and current on one hand and that which is familiar and reliable on the other. Generally, cookbooks that try to appease one of these polar opposites at the expense of the other do not work well.

At My Table strikes an appealing balance in this regard. Yes, we get nods at that which is au courant: coconut oil and coconut yogurt are frequent visitors, and aleppo pepper gets a big push. But at the same time, we also get a nice serve of recipes from the other side of the spectrum: a queen of puddings is straight out of a meal at Toad Hall.

Happily, a great deal of success can be found in recipes from the breadth of this spectrum. We should pause to acknowledge this achievement and indeed celebrate all those who dedicate themselves to mastery of their craft: Nigella does something very wonderful, where she improves and refines her voice and vision in a seamless way. There is no jarring ‘old’ Nigella and ‘new’ Nigella. Instead, we feel rather than notice improvement. 

I do wish there were slightly more vegetable based main dishes. Not that there are none, but those that exist do tend towards simpler flavours. We have all been spoiled by such excellent vegetable based recipes over the past few years that the ones here feel a little, well, uninspired.

This said, the bulk of recipes are interesting and compelling and delicious. It is food that lends itself to happy celebrations around a large table. Food should be this joyous and fun all the time. This feeling is At My Table’s real achievement, and I congratulate Nigella for producing something so lovely.

Here is a sample of what we have cooked so far (there is a sad omission of anything from the desserts section—our oven died at the most inopportune time.)

  • Turkish Eggs (Every book has the recipe. The one that you turn to again and again. The page that becomes dirtier than all the others. This is the recipe for this cookbook. Poached eggs on a garlic yogurt bed, topped with aleppo pepper butter.) 
  • Golden Egg Curry (Curries in past Nigella books have been somewhat less adventurous in their flavour profiles than I would prefer. This, however, was bold and aromatic and delicious.)
  • Catalan Toasts (not an improvement on my standard pan con tomate recipe. But certainly not bad.)
  • Beef and eggplant fatteh (If you like textural contrast, please make this. If you like delicious food, please make this. It is easy, it makes an excellent lunch the next day, it is delicious.)
  • Pasta with anchovies, tomatoes, mascarpone (I have long maintained that the only good tomato sauce is one that is cooked down and reduced, such that the flavour of unexceptional tomatoes becomes exceptional. This sauce was a clever way of creating a pasta dish that is savoury, rich enough and with a lot of personality without having to cook the thing for five years. I did fail in finding the nominated novel pasta shape, however. Forgive me, Signora Nigella.)
  • Capellini with Scallops (Success in finding the novelty pasta! Yet I thought this not quite the best way to showcase beautiful scallops.)
  • Radiatori with Sausage and Saffron (Another failure in the novel pasta game. And also a failure in including saffron. Despite these failures, the dish was quite delightful. The sweetness of passata is a pleasing counterpoint to the complexity of a good italian sausage.)
  • Sweet Potato Tacos (I made this almost as a joke. I thought surely it would turn out awfully. Never has the gap between my expectations and the end result been so sizeable. I want to make this again. It just works.)
  • Bashed Cucumber and Radish Salad (Simple and clean. I have, however, eaten so much of the garlic and black vinegar sichuan version of this salad that I felt this was a little too placid.)
  • Coriander and Jalapeno Salsa and Red-hot Roast Salsa (These two salsas should be in everyone’s fridge. Yes the coriander salsa quickly loses its verdant quality and becomes a more murky shade, but the flavours, oh the flavours, remain intact. The red salsa is a fantastic variation on the theme of roast tomato salsa.)
  • Coconut Shrimp (Real talk alert: You should make these. You should not, under any circumstances, make the suggested coconut yogurt dipping sauce. Serve these with some Kewpie mayonnaise or some hot sauce. Or combine kewpie, hot sauce and some yuzu juice. Just say no to the coyo in this case.)
  • Lime and coriander chicken (Okay, but in light of the other more exciting recipies in this book I am not sure why you would nesscarily bother?)
  • Cellophane Rolls (Ibid.)
  • Slow Roast 5-spice lamb pancakes (this exceeded expectations to a sizeable degree. If I could make a suggestion, make up double and eat this for twice as long. Actually, let me make a further suggestion: make some pickled radishes to go with your pancakes. While hoisin and spears of scallion and cucumber get you almost to flavour heaven, the addition of a quick pickled vegetable has a profound transformative effect.)

Why this book?

  • This is Nigella’s best book, potentially ever, but certainly since 2010’s Kitchen
  • You want a personal take on Nigella’s view of food – one that celebrates the joy of food
  • You want a collection of excellent and reliable recipes that balances the new with the familiar

Score

Nigella ░░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMari ░░░░ Summer And does it just spark joy?

Nigella taught me not to be ashamed of liking food to the extent I do. Her writing has meant so much to me over the years. Her philosophy resonates with me in that it celebrates food and life and pleasure in a way that refuses to give quarter to shame.

And yet because I’ve rarely cooked from her books, I have always felt a little bit like a fraud for being such a Nigella booster. I am, then, incredibly happy to report that At My Table is not just a great Nigella cookbook, but it is a great cookbook full stop.

Simple — Diana Henry

Diana Henry should be far more popular. I get the sense that outside of the UK, she is not as known or appreciated as she could be. This is not to say she languishes in complete obscurity outside the UK. Indeed, a glowing New York Times piece covered her output, something which is prodigious in both quantity and quality. Those that do speak of Diana Henry do so in reverent and knowing tones.

If I had to describe Diana Henry—and, I admit, writing a review does leave one with such a duty—I would liken her to another leading light of the food world: Nigella Lawson. I think both authors share a general approach and have similar writing styles. Indeed, the sticker on the cover of my copy of Simple certainly invites you to draw this parallel and make a such comparison.

I hesitate to say this because of my immense fondness and respect for Nigella, but Diana writes better recipes. And I think also has a more confident and modern palette and approach to food. I own all of Nigella’s books (perhaps when I get over my last every book from author x roundup I will do another one) and yet rarely cook from them. I only own a few of Diana’s recent books yet have cooked a fair amount from them all—and have loved everything I have made.

I have wanted to review Diana’s latest book, Simple, for some time. I became convinced I had to review the book after reading this unfair train wreck of a review. After all, when someone is wrong on the internet, something must be done. Of course, Diana does not need me to rally to her defence! Nonetheless, here we are.

Simple is Diana’s 9th book and is, I think, the strongest. The focus of the book is, as the title suggests, a collection of recipes that strive for maximum flavour at minimum fuss.

This is one of the key trends in contemporary food writing. Everyone, apparently, is super busy. And no one wants to open a cookbook that is filled with labour intensive recipes (or, even worse, sub-recipes!) The result is a proliferation of books aimed at cutting down the time one spends in the kitchen.

There are two ways this trend manifests itself: One, the sacrifice approach, results in nonsense books like 15- or 30- minute meals from the once joyful Jamie Oliver. Two, the smart approach, where books try to find smart ways of creating food with minimal labour and angst. Simple, happily, takes the latter approach.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. A glorious ribbon. Given the reported size of Diana’s cookbook collection it is no surprise to see such a thoughtful inclusion.

336 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Eggs
  2. Salads
  3. Toast
  4. Pulses
  5. Pasta & Grains
  6. Fish
  7. Roasts
  8. Chops & Sausages
  9. Chicken
  10. Vegetables
  11. Fruit Puddings
  12. Other Sweet Things

The design of the book is simple and elegant. Generous use of white space, elegant typography and restrained photography all combine to suggest a polished, calming book.

It’s something that immediately invites confidence. Nothing in this book tries too hard—instead it is quietly confident. It is Obama, not a certain orange buffoon.

A few days ago on twitter I rallied against a trend in food photography: where a few ingredients of the dish are ‘artfully’ (read: artlessly) scattered around the workstation/bench/table to frame the finished product. So, a roast lamb on a platter might be surrounded by a few rosemary needles and garlic skins. Or an otherwise pristine photograph of a cake on a tray might be ‘enhanced’ by an oh-so-casual scattering of sugar and flour on the table.

A few photos in this book come close to this crime. However, in another demonstration of Diana’s taste, things are arranged to look more documentary than clumsily staged.

The majority of photos in this book are strong. There’s a real consistency between photographs that speaks to a single, compelling vision. The lighting and styling is consistent, but not to the point of monomania. The photos are delightful.

I do think the type sizing is slightly smaller than would be ideal—cookbook designers, I suspect, forget that cookbooks are often used at much greater distance than regular books: so while size 9 type might be perfect in a novel held close to the head, size 9 type in a cookbook is far from ideal. I tend to end up squinting a lot while trying to cook from books like these.

There is a risk that to some the design of this book might feel a little staid. Take the cover of my edition as an example: pork chops in a cream sauce on a wooden table, is a study in various browns and beiges. It is a bold choice if not a bold design. Yet writing off this book as boring or old fashioned would be a great mistake, as it is anything but!

Thoughts

Diana loves food. You cannot avoid that impression. I also think she has a genius approach towards the concept of simple food. Under her expert guidance, simple food is not joyless, lacking food. It is not food that has been dumbed down to the point of becoming bad airline food.

Instead, as the subtitle on the cover proclaims, the book celebrates “effortless food [and] big flavours.” At times, after eating things from this book, I was in a state of disbelief: it had not felt like I had made any obvious sacrifices or compromises, and yet I had only been cooking for a short while minutes and had produced something tremendously exciting.

Diana’s talent (or rather, one of her talents) is an ability to pick apart the core of a recipe and discard anything unnecessary. The results are full in flavour, but without the heartache you might have otherwise suffered.

Simple’s strength is that it is not trying to be a soulless “30 minute recipes” clone. The recipes do occasionally ask for chunks of your time. But rarely is this all active time: it might ask you to roast something in the oven for 45 minutes after say five quick minutes of choppin’ and slicin’. I think this is a perfect trade off.

In fact, some of the happiest hours in my week are when I have something simmering away on the stove, and I have a few minutes to read something or otherwise entertain myself. It feels like joyfully stolen time.

At the risk of pouring further fuel on the hot trash fire of a review linked above, I take exception to any argument that this book is especially British or especially fussy. Diana’s palette is admirably global. The book features recipes inspired by Japanese, Korean, Indian and Mexican cuisines. Yet, I do not feel this has resulted in inaccessible or overly broad ingredient lists.

Similarly, the food is not fussy. Anyone who writes a cookbook review website, and cooks from new recipes more nights than not, is perhaps not best qualified to make the following argument, but here I go: dumbing down food is a bad idea. Dumbing down concepts stops people from ever learning or expanding their horizons. It leads to incurious people with incurious palettes. This leads to people further considering skills in cooking to be unnecessary luxuries, which is by and large the problem we find ourselves in now. This leads to joyless “5 ingredient” cookbooks.

I think Diana’s recipes do not require anyone to be a graduate of culinary school. They do require someone who is willing to try, and to open themselves to potentially doing things in a new way. Call me a fool, but isn’t that just what we ask from our cookbooks? Or that someone more experienced than we are teaches us things?

So, no, the food is not particularly British or boring: I suspect that reviewer was using British as a code for boring. And nor are the recipes fussy. The book lives up to its claim of providing recipes for “effortless food.”

Of course, no cookbook can please everyone. I have found one or two of the recipes in Simple to not appeal to my particular tastes. Diana, it must be noted, does seem quite fond of a creamy dressing. I am a real acid-fiend, so these can feel a little tame and muted to me. However this is easily fixed, and in a way that does not suggest the underlying recipe was fundamentally incorrect.

Here is what we have made so far:

  • Parsi-style scrambled eggs (it is hard to go back to regular scrambled eggs after eating these, so utterly alive and vibrant)
  • Griddled courgettes, burrata and fregola (We cooked this quite early on, so I was a little weary, but the end result was texturally diverse and with enough interest to be far more memorable than expected)
  • Tomatoes, Soft Herbs & Feta with Pomegranate (A perfect dish for warmer weather: it would also make a smashing bruschetta topping.)
  • Root, shiitake, and noodle salad with miso dressing (an exceptional dressing and a fair salad. The dressing could become a real favourite.)
  • Cool Greens, Hot Asian Dressing (I am a firm believer in the life affirming powers of a gutsy nuoc cham—and Diana’s version went very well with crisp greens. The avocado was an unexpected but pleasing touch.)
  • Warm salad of squid, bacon, beans & tarragon (This was let down by the dressing: a muted mixture of cream, oil, tarragon and lemon.)
  • Mumbai Toastie (I could comfortably eat on this for the rest of my days. The ultimate toasted sandwich. I wonder if I can convince the owner of Melbourne’s best new cafe/bakery to add this to their menu?)
  • Simple Goan Fish Curry (I was terrified of this for some strange reason, but it turned out to be a highlight. Complex, spicy, aromatic. Very good.)
  • Pork chops with mustard and capers (I followed Diana’s instructions and bought the best pork I could find, so I don’t know if the recipe was exceptional or the pork was exceptional and the recipe did not get in the way of that. At any rate, I often lay awake at night and think about this.)
  • Spaghetti with spiced sausage & fennel sauce (There are many sausage pasta recipes out there. Some are good. Some are not. This is my new benchmark. The fennel added a sweetness that made this dish so memorable.)
  • Korean chicken, gochujang mayo, sweet sour cucumber (Grilled chicken thighs, spicy mayo, refreshing pickled cucumber relish. You could not ask for a more compelling package.)
  • Chicken with Haricots & Creamy Basil Dressing (Chicken breasts have it tough. And are often tough. However cooked carefully, lovingly, they can be quite special indeed.)
  • Broccoli with Harissa & Coriander Gremolata (I can always use another trick to dress up old mate broccoli and this was a good trick. Our Harissa was a little mild, so I would have liked this to have a little bit more of a kick.)
  • Tomatoes, Potatoes & Vermouth with Basil Creme Fraiche (I think the basil creme fraiche does not add a lot to this dish and could safely be omitted. Omitting to make this dish at all would be a shame and deny you an excellent, easy meal.)
  • Baby potatoes with watercress and garlic cream (Not sold on the dressing in this, I confess.)
  • Fragrant Sichuan aubergines (A really accessible and really bloody good version of one of the greatest Sichuan dishes: fish fragrant eggplant. I am near to drooling just thinking about how good this was. Fussy English food, indeed not!)

Why this book?

  • You want to make good food without diving into complex recipes
  • You have a global palette and get tired of eating the same sort of flavours over and over again
  • You want to make the best pork chop recipe you will ever come across

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Diana Henry Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ “Skinny Latte” And does it just spark joy?

Diana Henry’s work needs to receive greater attention. She has an amazing palette and produces books of quiet confidence. She understand what it is to be a modern home cook, and writes books for that market better than anyone else I know.

Every Bill Granger Cookbook, Ranked

Bill Granger is the reason this blog exists. He came to me in a dream, dressed in white denim, and after a plate of hotcakes said it would be a totally good idea for me to review cookbooks. I was all, “Thanks dream-Bill!” We high-fived before riding off into the sunset on pistachio Vespas.

Ahem. Let me try again.

Bill Granger’s cookbooks are the reason this blog exists. His collection of cookbooks were my first real cookbook loves. They impressed me with their design, their simple yet flavour-focussed food, and the lifestyle they suggest as being possible. Yes, there were other cookbooks before, and of course many, many since, but these books continue to hold a special place in my collection. Some are exceptional, some are good, and some are better not even mentioned.

Here are Bill Granger’s cookbooks in order of least essential to most essential:

Bill’s Italian Food (2013)

This is the most recent Bill book. Until this book was released in 2013, Bill produced a new book every few years. It has been complete radio silence since then. And I view this book as killing Bill. I can only assume it had mediocre sales and Bill realised he could make much more money with a slowly expanding chain of eponymous restaurants.

Put simply, it’s not very good. The recipes feel uninspired and familiar. The art direction is serviceable but feels forced. By the metric of a book’s quality being somehow proportional to the amount of recipes I have cooked from it, Bill’s Italian Food is the clear runt of the litter.

Bill’s Open Kitchen (2003)

Bill looks very happy on the cover of this book. You are unlikely to look as happy with this book. The food and photography feel ancient, like something from a lost civilisation.

Look, it’s not entirely bad. With some work and a little love, the recipes are going to be salvageable. Yet, in light of the Bill books to come, I do not know why anyone would bother with this one.

Bill’s Sydney Food (2000)

Bill’s first book, this book has a lot of the classic Bill recipes. With the distance of 17 years, I feel comfortable labelling this book as something that has not aged entirely well. There’s a lot of goats cheese and balsamic and hints at the Asian vibe that Bill will later adopt in a more committed way.

Calling it dated is almost too heavy a charge. It’s more that it is quite simple and unadventurous. Our collective culinary appetites and capabilities have improved significantly since then. No one in 2017 really wants a recipe for poached eggs with wilted spinach or a ham and cheese toasted sandwich.

And to top off my complaints with this book, all of the baking recipes feature volume measures (cup measures) instead of grams. Grr. The only redepemtion is this book gives you the recipe of many an expensive breakfast: Bill’s ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter. Yam.

Simply Bill (2005)

This book is pretty similar to Bill’s Open Kitchen yet has a slight edge: it’s hard to put my finger on it, but the food in this book starts to feel appealing and modern as opposed to dated in a sun dried tomato and balsamic drizzle sort of way.

The photography is somewhat off-putting and fussy. The cover photo, of Bill with a rictus grin, is legitimately frightening. The large format softcover presentation of the book is quite unpleasant to use. Despite these complaints you get a hint of Bill greatness: elements of this book point to what Bill is capable of.

Everyday (2006) 

Everyday continues the trend of Bill books that start to feel modern. Although dated occasionally by photography or vogue ingredients (sweet chilli sauce in this case), there’s enough here that feels familiar.

The book is organised around the conceit of providing different recipes for different days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on). It would take a far more capable mind than mine to spot the differences in the recipes assigned to weekdays versus weekend days.

I have railed against this gimmicky method of recipe organisation before. I am comfortable with a book having a central theme: a central post on which to hang the book’s recipes. Yet when the gimmick gets in the way of discoverability, I think it is a real mistake.

Despite the regrettable gimmick, this book is solid.

Holiday (2009)

If you’re noticing a trend, it’s that the more recent Bill books are generally better (with an obvious exception!)

There are two components of this: the first is that the food presented in the book feels modern and aligned with the sort of food we (we here means the people who either buy cookbooks or read cookbook review websites!) actually eat. It’s food that is characterised by Asian influences, by middle-eastern flavours and techniques, and food that is often vegetarian, or at least food that uses meat as an accent. The other element is that Bill’s own creativity and writing techniques improve with each new book. It’s a privilege, borne out of the commercial success of Bill’s past books, that not all authors get: but when you compare some of the earlier books with the more recent books, the difference is clear.

I have not, I have to report, cooked a lot from this. In fact, it’s the newest addition to the Bill library. The few things I have cooked have been good, and the general feel of the book is positive.

Feed Me Now (2009)

The turning point. The books before are fairly average, and feel older than what they sometimes are. This book feels quite modern, even eight years after publication.

The photography is compelling: tight focus highlights the texture of food. The styling is restrained. The recipes featuring a compelling global mix of flavours that feels honest: miso fish, black bean quesadillas, roasted chicken curry. The book sometimes stumbles with these flavours, however: you get the sense that Bill has not mastered some of these global flavours.

Bill’s Basics (2010)

The next three books make up Bill’s best. You could forget about the proceeding titles and just pick up these three and you’d have a magnificent collection.

Bill’s Basics, seven years later, feels modern and delightful. The photography is excellent: focussing on the food and not over stylised knick-knacks. The book has loads of white space.

The recipes are also brilliant, both in terms of range and execution. I have a real fondness for cookbooks that have a breadth to their recipes. You could throw away loads of your other cookbooks and cook happily from this, eating baked orecchiette with sausage and cavolo nero one night and then tom yum the next night. Sure, some recipes need a little gentle adjustment, but never egregiously so.

Bill’s Everyday Asian (2011)

Bill certainly was firing on all cylinders in the early 2010s. Bill’s Everyday Asian digs down on an appreciation for Asian flavours in many of his earlier books.

The book represents contemporary Australian favourites: pork larb, massaman lamb curry, stir-fried prawn with tomato and chilli and so on. The recipes, as is I think will be readily apparent to anyone familiar with Bill, are not intended to be strictly authentic. They are intended to be accessible versions of familiar favourites, and the book succeeds in this.

The photography feels a little more alive and playful than the occasionally austere work in Bill’s Basics. Yet this is well balanced against a lot of white space. My only complaint is the tiny text: it looks smart, but makes cooking from the book harder than it needs to be.

Get Bill’s Basics if you want a mixture of food (Asian, Mediterranean, American-y). If you enjoy eating Asian food, than this book is the strong title. The recipes and the photography are better.

Easy (2012)

We have a winner! I am seriously impressed at the string of books Bill produced. I have cooked an enormous amount from this book, and have enjoyed almost every recipe. The recipes feel polished and honed in a way that earlier books do not feel.

I think the title is misleading: this book is not ‘easy’ in the way you would reasonably expect from the title. It’s more slightly simplified versions of quite impressive or involved dishes. Easy, in this case, is a spectrum.

The book is divided up into broad categories like Piece of chicken or Sack of potatoes. This is a smart way of diving up the book, if you’re determined to avoid a more orthodox ‘Starters, Mains, Dessert’ approach to organisation.

After the focus of Everyday Asian, this book returns to a more general focus. It does trend towards slightly more indulgent and richer fare. Our favourite recipe, one we have made at least once a winter since the book was released, is a Taleggio and Pancetta baked rigatoni. While I generally much prefer hard cheeses, I would sell my right pinky finger for a lifetime supply of Italy’s second best cheese. And this dish celebrates taleggio.

The photography and overall design of the book is compelling. Food is the star, with photos of Bill relatively few and far between. The book feels modern and I have a feeling it will for a long time yet.

I have thought about this book. It is not a book that will inspire generations of cooks. It is not a book that will teach you a lot about a particular cuisine. It is a book that you can cook from every night of the week and not get tired of. It will teach you to become a better, more confident cook. At least, it had that result on me!

Which Bill?

  1. Easy (The recipes may not be easy, but they are delicious and will help you become a better cook!)
  2. Bill’s Everyday Asian (Asian flavours through the lens of the supermarket shopper! If you’re just getting started in exploring cooking Asian food, this is a good beginning.)
  3. Bill’s Basics (like Easy, but slightly broader in recipe selection. Although those recipes are slightly less polished.)

About Bill

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ███ Sticky floors And does it just spark joy?

(The table above shows the range. The blue block shows where the top three sit.)

Power Vegetables! — Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach—the best food magazine out there—has announced it will be closing. Little reason or explanation was given for this upsetting news, although speculation points to a fallout between Peter Meehan (editor) and Dave Chang (majority owner).

In a world of overly polished food writing and photography, Lucky Peach was a glass of cool water on a hot day. It has style, personality and something to say. It was not perfect: it sometimes could not escape its bros talking about sriracha and kewpie mayo vibe. But it was (and for a little while longer, is) a blessed relief from the same generic content.

My favourite part of the Lucky Peach brand was, of course, the cookbooks! My review of 101 Easy Asian Recipes dives deep into my love of Lucky Peach’s flavour-driven approach to food.  It’s not authentic food (whatever that is, anyway) but it is delicious, easy and memorable food. It is food that I want to eat and cook and share.

Given the sad news, and given how much I liked their first book, it was an obvious choice to review their 3rd book: Power Vegetables! This book is a spiritual successor to 101 Easy Asian Recipes (101EARs) in focus, tone and execution.

Structure and Design

Harcover. No ribbon.

272 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Starters
  2. Salads
  3. Pies & The Like
  4. Soups/Soupy
  5. Ensemble Players
  6. Mains
  7. Mainly Potatoes
  8. Bread & Cake

Like 101EARs, PV! starts with a useful guide to ingredients (called, appropriately enough, POWER PANTRY). Therein are meditations on capers, shiitakes, kombu and a recipe for miso butterscotch which is incredibly compelling when you stop and think about it.

It is interesting to see the development of the format: 101EARs was, more or less, a straight recipe book. However PV! borrows more from the magazine’s format, which is to say a handful of interviews with au currant chefs are scattered throughout the book. While these are not the difference between night or dark, they are nonetheless pleasant inclusions in that they help explain the thinking and context of the book.

As I said in my review of 101EARs, I really like the over-the-top kitschy design. It remains as refreshing as when they first attempted it, although they pleasingly have made a few different art direction decisions. This helps things feel free fresh as opposed to simply more of the same. One example is that they’ve generally scaled back on the use of props and backdrops so when they are used it is to much greater effect. It is not high concept, but I cannot help but smile at the Mexican wrestler holding the corn on page 154–55.

The book is polished: recipes are well written, photography is well executed (do not confuse style with technical proficiency!). The book is a tight and compelling physical package. The design and writing team deserve points for making sure each recipe fits within a page (and is presented in a usable and helpful format to boot!)

Thoughts

The book starts with a manifesto, of sorts. Here, Meehan declares, there will be no pasta recipes or grain bowls. There will be the use of both dairy and fish (mostly fish sauce or anchovies).

It is smart cooking with vegetables, in other words. It is an approach I admire so much. Let’s not get bound up with an argument on is it or is it not vegetarian food, and let’s not fall in the trap of a lot of other vegetable-driven books where one slaps a vegetable on a grain and calls it done.

The rule about no pasta is a really good creative limitation and stops the book from taking some easy outs. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and the book is stronger for adopting this as a principle.

The approach is essentially similar to that in 101EARs and it is what makes Lucky Peach so important in the world of food writing. It shows how joyful food is when seen through the lens of flavour rather than arbitrary rules.

The food we made from this book was, as a rule, delicious and enjoyable. It was fun food to make and fun food to eat. Perhaps it leans slightly in the direction of overly aggressive flavours and seasoning (the vegetarian chili was a knock out punch of umami) but I so favour this approach over more insipid fare.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Saucy Fried Tofu or Vaguely Korean Watercress-Apple Salad (The recipe suggest a choice but you need to ignore that and make both together. Excellent textures and a prize winner of a salad. That said, I’m a sucker for apple in salads, so consider my obvious bias.)
  • Nam prik hed cabbage cups (Gosh this was good. A punchy assertive mushroom-y condiment is almost the essence of Thailand served simply on wombok leaves. It would be a sin against taste not to make this and make it again with rice and then again with noodles and then with some grilled meat.)
  • Chopped Cauliflower Salad (A very good chopped salad with an exceptionally good yoghurt-y garlic-y dressing. One that I think about whenever I am eating a bland salad.)
  • Pappa al pomodoro (How do the words ‘pizza soup’ sound to you? If you jump up and down with irrepressible excitement at the mere mention of it then it will be that good. If you roll your eyes and perhaps insert a finger under the neck of your cashmere turtleneck, move right along.)
  • Vichyssoise (Another example of the clever way Meehan et al approach creating recipes. A familiar if not much beloved soup is greatly improved through using dashi stock. Although the recipe suggests you serve it cold, it is of course delicious served hot. In any event, the chives and creme fraiche are mandatory.)
  • Elote (Indecently good: corn and mayonnaise and lime juice and chili powder.)
  • Roasted vegetables with fish sauce vinaigrette (I first cooked this recipe in the Momofuku cookbook. About a million times. I then cooked it from Food52’s Genius Recipes a few million times. This permutation—the most simple—is very good if only for legitimising using essentially any vegetable instead of the more common brussels sprouts.)
  • Zuni Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower (Perhaps a victim of the ‘no pasta rule.’ The original Zuni recipe, which the headnote acknowledges, serves the vegetable mess with pasta. We had this dish both ways—as a salad, per the recipe instructions, and with pasta per the original—and with pasta was clearly better.)
  • Memelitas with Vegetable Peeler Salad (We ate this three meals in a row, not because it was exceptional and amazing but it was so simply tasty and enjoyable as to provoke a state of sustained bemused desire that we could not stop eating it).
  • Roasted cabbage with banana blossom dressing (Odd but remarkable: the dressing, an enticing slurry of red curry paste, lime juice, coconut milk and fish sauce was compelling. The final dish was a masterful combination of textures. Plus I am quite bullish on any recipes that feature cabbage as the hero, as opposed to a sad supporting role.)
  • Kung Pao Celeries (This did not succeed. It was good, but clearly inferior to a chicken/prawn kung pao. It was the first, and only time, in cooking from this book that I thought the results would be much better with meat.)
  • McAloo Tikki Sandwich (Get inside me again, sweet excellent Indian potato burger).

Why this book?

  • You want to eat more exciting plant-based food
  • You love Lucky Peach or are at least Peach curious
  • For what it’s worth, you want to support Lucky Peach

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░ Rising damp And does it just spark joy?

PV! does not aim to change the world. It aims to apply the signature Lucky Peach magic to vegetable-based recipes. It succeeds more often than it fails.

I do not think I want to become a permanent resident in the world of Lucky Peach. Yet to visit is a treat and I encourage you to make the journey.

A New Way to Dinner — Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Most cookbooks give you recipes to cook. Wait, don’t close that tab!

I mean to say, the aspiration of most cookbooks is nothing more than giving you instruction sets to make new types of food. There is only so many recipes one needs. A handful of cookbooks could give you a lifetime’s supply of how to combine ingredients. The question quickly becomes “what’s next?”

For anyone beyond the complete kitchen beginner, cookbooks with something additional to teach are more rewarding and useful. Increasingly, I’m drawn to books with a clear ambition to do something beyond the basic steps of cook, serve, delicious.

Food52’s editors (Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs) have put together a cookbook with a grand ambition: to change how we approach putting together our nightly meal.

The book’s premise is that by spending a few hours of time on the weekend you can prepare for a week’s worth of delicious meals. The trade off is clear: sacrifice a little bit of time on the weekend to gain some back during the week.

The premise is nothing new. Time management experts (carrying degrees printed on napkins from Time University) have long gotten up on their soapboxes and told us to do this. And everyday, chefs in restaurant commit themselves to the art of the mis-en-place.

The question becomes: does this book teach us something new and valuable, or is it really a tired retelling of an old idea?

Structure and Design

  • Hardcover
  • 288 pages
  • No ribbon

The core format of the book is four weekly menu plans for each season. Two menu plans are from Hesser and two from Stubbs. Each menu plan provides for five meals and gives ideas for lunch and other ways to use the leftovers.

Each plan starts with a menu of what you’ll eat in that week. The next few pages are the battle plan for your weekend day of preparation. The following pages are then the recipies for each dish in that menu.

This is a book of unremitting production values. The writing throughout the book  is uniformly polished. Written in the signature Food52 tone, it is both inviting and casual yet also suggests a certain reserve or distance.

In terms of how the recipes are written, there’s a delineation between the steps you do earlier in the week as part of the day of preparation and the steps you do on the night the dish will be eaten. This is helpful if you are following the book’s approach but I could see it might get in the way of clarity if you were using this as just another cookbook.

The production values continue with the photography. Photos are aggressively styled.  I cannot get behind the overall Food52 ashetic. It’s so polished as to be avoid of any charm or individual personality. It’s almost as if they feed the contents of pinterest into a really smart computer and it outputs these results.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this book.

But—I have reservations:

Firstly, and most trivially, it is either a sign of success or failure that the recipes and menus from the two authors are indistinguishable. I cannot distinguish the recipes or writing  of one author from the other. It’s a positive sign in that it suggests the avoidance of gimmicks just for the sake of identification (it could have easily been Hesser’s recipes are all spicy fusion food and Stubbs are all home comfort food) but at the same time, the two present as a seamless organic seasonal trend conscious monolith.

Secondly, few books seem unaware of their privilege as this one. Every week will ask you to buy near industrial quantities of certain expensive ingredients. Worse, there’s often no suggestion as to alternatives if the budget cannot quite stretch to a kilo of black raspberries. The authors seem painfully unconscious of this element to their book. It is an expressly upper middle class lifestyle cookbook.

Thirdly, I’m not sure if the authors have considered the food safety elements to some of their preparations. One recipe asks you to cook almost a kilo of rice (!!), with the last recipe using that rice six days later. All food safety advice I can find suggests three days as being the absolute maximum for storing cooked rice. And aside from issues of food safety, there’s also an important consideration. Food simply starts to taste like fridge after a few days. The book sometimes asks you to make real sacrifices in the name of indulging the conceit.

On to what works about the book.

The technique (of preparing ahead of time) is not new. Yet, the version of this idea that the book puts forth is close to brilliant. Rarely does the book ask you to complete a whole dish. Instead, you complete time consuming yet easy individual steps like pick herbs, make dressings and sauces or prepare meal components (like make meatballs or grill some flank steak).

You know those currently popular meal delivery services? You are essentially replicating what makes those services so compelling, the idea that someone else does all the boring work of cooking, leaving you to do the fun stuff. Of course in this case, it is an earlier you who is doing the boring stuff, but the initial time and effort is quickly forgotten.

It’s a fantastic and workable approach and one that has allowed us to reclaim our weeknights without making huge sacrifices as to what we are eating. The New Way to Dinner model of preparation is superior to other competing styles of preparing your meals (such as making a whole dish and reheating it or make industrial quantities of one thing and eating it again and again).

And there’s something about this focused day of preparation that makes otherwise dull tasks seem more fun. It feels like a fun-spirited race against time: how can we get through these 9 or so prep steps as quickly as possible? It’s become a part of my week that I look forward to, oddly enough.

We’ve enjoyed this approach so much we’ve continued with it despite moving on to other cookbooks. I cannot imagine it will make sense for everyone, but it is going to be useful to a lot of people.

So a tick as to the overall approach. How’s the food? It ranges from very good to almost inedible.

Very good? A Thai beef salad was rewarding and delicious. We have made the fish tacos twice. The meatballs were not as good as the meatballs from Genius Recipes (another Food52 book) but were the second best meatballs I have made. A limeade is the perfect summer drink.

Inedible? Well, there were misses in both execution and concept: a 5 day old rice salad was inedible and awful. That Thai Beef Salad was great but less so on each successive outing. Some of the recipes in a summer menu were certainly not appropriate for stinking hot summer. Some dinners consist of a lot of food (too much!) whereas others amount to just a sandwich (not enough!).

Here are the menus from the two weeks we spent with this book:

Menu One (Summer, Merrill Stubbs)

  • Limeade with basil, blistered cherry tomatoes, Thai beef steak, jasmine rice and blueberry ice. (While the combo of mediterranean roast tomatoes and Thai beef salad didn’t work for me, every component of this meal was really good. The blueberry ice was outstanding.)
  • Fish tacos with pickled onions, Spicy Peach Salad and Chocolate ice cream with cinnamon and chili ‘dust’. (As mentioned above, the fish tacos are excellent. The spicy peach salad was fantastic and elevated mediocre peaches. The cinnamon  and chili ‘dust’ is a fun way to elevate supermarket ice cream, although you’d be unlikely to do it again and again.)
  • Penne with blistered cherry tomatoes and corn; strawberry ice cream (Average pasta and yes, you have to buy both chocolate and strawberry ice cream this week.)
  • Steak and avocado salad with crisp rice and cashews, and blueberry ice (Our crisp rice failed and simply merged into an unstoppable fried monster that still threatens smaller pacific islands. The salad makes use of the last of the Thai beed Salad which is not, it must be said, a dish that holds well.)
  • Jasmine rice salad, cantaloupe with chiles, lime and salad. (Inedible. Dry after six days in the fridge. This should not exist. We skipped the cantaloupe because one of us cantaeatit.)

Menu Two (Summer, Amanda Hesser)

  • Crab and avocado salad, blistered cherry tomatoes, watermelon (I am not a big crab man, and given the sudden sky rocketing of the price of prawns here, I was forced to substitute chicken instead. Despite going off-piste, I was entirely happy with the result.)
  • Meatballs with tomato and zucchini, quick tomato sauce, spaghetti, boiled green beans with mustard dressing, black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream (The meatballs were great, as was the fantastic mustard dressing for the beans. The ice cream—this week you make your own—did not quite work out: the quantities were way too much for our ice cream maker, so it did not quite churn properly.)
  • Watermelonade, Crab toasties, Peaches with sour cream and chili (The watermelonade was perfect and just the thing for summer. On the other hand, the peaches with sour cream feels like an awful choice for summer and so we abandoned it. The toasties were smart, though (although curiously named: toasties is short for toasted sandwich and is a term mostly used in Australia, whereas Americans seem to favour the word ‘melt’ which better fits what these actually were.)
  • Pasta with garlic, tomatoes, basil and brie, beans and their dressing and some more ice cream (The authors go on this weird bit about how they seem to think they are bringing back brie to which the rest of the cheese eating world will say “huh?”).
  • Meatball sandwich with fresh mozzarella and basil, watermelon or peaches (I think a sandwich is the best thing to do with meatballs, so I had no problems with this. I like that the menu suggestion is to just eat some fruit already.)

Why this book?

  • You want to eat good food without spending hours cooking each night
  • Or, you just want a decent collection of recipes and can overlook the recipes being formatted with the assumption you will be making them ahead of time
  • You are comfortable with the Food52 brand, aesthetic and tone

Score

Nigella ░░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ Old, old cooked rice And does it just spark joy?

I can—and do—recommend this book. However, keep some of my reservations in mind. This book is not going to be for everyone.

Small Victories — Julia Turshen

Anyone who is a collector is motivated by love. That once in a hundred feeling of stumbling across the one. The one that reminds you what drew you to building and maintaining this collection in the first place.

This feeling–a quickening of the pulse, a feeling of sheer luck–is exciting because of its rarity. If every new item to a collection inspired such extreme feelings, the net result would be indifference and boredom.

You have to acknowledge and accept the examples that are fine, okay, and bravely acceptable as they provide the backdrop for the truly exceptional titles to shine.

I will stop being coy and cut to the chase: I love Small Victories by Julia Turshen. It is my favourite new cookbook in a while. It does so many smart things that it makes other cookbooks seem insubstantial and superficial in comparison.

The extent to which I have fallen for this book is especially interesting when I consider that this was a title I was going to pass by. Why? Well, I know you should never judge a book by it’s cover, but I totally did with this one. The gingham trim, the sort of boring chicken soup, and my gut feeling that the small victories would really just be useless recirculated advice all lead to the conclusion that this one was safe to skip.

I am not even sure why I did actually buy it. At any rate, what matters now is that it has entered my life and I am the richer for it.

Structure and Design

Hardback. No ribbon.

303 pages across the following chapters:

  1. Foreword (by INA “USE A GOOD OLIVE OIL” GARTEN!)/Introduction
  2. Breakfast
  3. Soups + Salads
  4. Vegetables
  5. Grains, Beans + Pasta
  6. Meat + Poultry
  7. Shellfish + Fish
  8. Desserts
  9. A few drinks + some things to keep on hand
  10. Seven Lists
  11. Menu Suggestions, Give Back, Acknowledgements, Index

I have already talked a bit about the cover. Despite how much I love this book, I think the cover fails to match the tone and content of the book. The gingham spine is particularly misleading: it suggests a sort of old fashioned family classics like approach. The chicken soup, while attractive, is potentially the most boring dish from the book. The embossed titled is sort of corny. It’s just not a good cover.

Yet things improve immediately when you open the book. The end paper is this perfect cheerful yellow. Think of the yellow of a post-it note (let’s talk sponsorship, 3M?) only intensified by a hundred.  You continue to flick through the book and the impressions of the cover are quickly dispelled. This is a thoroughly modern cookbook, both in design and content. Yet the books modernity does not equal faddishness or tedious adherence to flavours-of-the-month.

The recipe format is a basic one and works reasonably well. A generous recipe headnote is a vehicle for Turshen to give a bit of context to the recipe as well as provide a series of small victories. These small victories are the central conceit behind the book: they are little juicy nuggets of advice or guidance. In an author without Turshen’s experience or passion they would be useless and a waste of time. However Turshen has been a private chef, a recipe developer for scores of cookbooks, and genuinely loves food and cooking. As a result these tips are useful, sometimes almost to the degree of being revolutionary.

Under the headnote comes the list of ingredients, split across three columns. Given that I have professed my love for this book, I feel comfortable in sharing another (minor) criticism: this way of listing ingredients is awful! The horizontal space it consumes means you cannot get an at-a-glance sense of what the recipe needs. It doesn’t allow for clustering like ingredients. It is a bad choice.

The recipe method is immediately below, and consists of paragraph long chunks split across two columns. This works much better than the ingredient list. The column size and paragraph length are perfectly calibrated to be consumable in a quick glance.

And on, say every second recipe, there is a little box that gives you a few different variations on the recipe (or in some cases a whole new mini recipe). Again, this is something that in the hands of a lesser author would be a waste of space. However these are genius and drastically increase how useful this book is. It is also a great way of teaching creativity and of building kitchen improvisation skills.

I am torn by the photography. It’s by ‘Gentl + Hyers’ which I can only assume is some sort of industrial lifestyle photography group operating out of an artisanal barn somewhere. It is often very good–the lighting is delicious–but it sometimes verges on being an unconscious parody of the Food52 style of photography.

The real weakness in the photography is that the book features a lot of photographs of ingredients rather than the finished dish itself. While I enjoy pictures of corn and of bowls of lentils, I am more curious to know what a finished dish might look like. It’s a curious choice of art direction, certainly.

Thoughts

The magic of this book was not apparent from reading it. The recipes looked, well, fine. Perhaps even a little simple. So it was with a bit of trepidation that we cooked the first few things from this book.

The results were exceptional. We were not sure what to think or to trust that something special was going on. As we ate we looked at each other and had conversations: “This is good, right? Like really good” “Can’t talk. Eating.”

So we cooked more and the good results continued time and time again. Eventually we relaxed and realised that those first few recipes weren’t a fluke, but simply characteristic of the smart way Turshen approaches recipe writing. The recipes make the most of her extensive experience in a way that not every cookbook author can manage. Quite frankly, I’m in awe of the magic she achieves with such concision, warmth and elegance.  In this book, Turshen has set a new benchmark for this style of cookbook. I really hope that she writes another.

While I could explore the catalogue of cookbooks she has worked on, I sense there’s something special and personal about this, the first cookbook published under her own name.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far (sometimes I say so far knowing I’ll probably never come back to the book. In this case it is an accurate statement of intent):

  • with Roasted Tomato Salsa (I had chilaquiles for breakfast at a cafe once and was not too impressed. Had my first experience of the dish been with these I would have been a convert a lot quicker. The salsa that forms the base for this dish is really incredible. A small victory from me is to forego making your own tortilla chips and use some from a bag.)
  • Sour cream pancakes with roasted blueberries (I must have put slightly more baking soda than was called for because these had a faint, almost ghostly, metallic aftertaste. Still, once I get the quantities right, this will become my new go to pancake recipe. The roasted blueberries are the perfect addition.)
  • Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup (the only clear miss from the book: this was just bland and insubstantial. Given the good rap Turshen gives it, I’m almost convinced I missed a step or my chicken was defective.) 
  • Bibb Lettuce with Garlic Dressing (an addition to my repertoire of go-to dressings. It’s essentially a basic mustard vinaigrette but with the addition of crushed garlic that gently pickles in the vinegar.) 
  • Julia’s Caesar (again, you get such a sense of Turshen’s experience and appreciation for maximal flavour with minimal effort: by using mayonnaise as the base, you get a quick tasty caesar dressing dressing without the potential concern of raw egg yolk.) 
  • Zucchini, red onion & pistachio salad (fantastic and nuanced textures combine to make a really glamorous and sophisticated salad. It is quick to make but looks and tastes much more impressive than the sum of its parts) 
  • Tin-Foil Kale & Cherry Tomatoes (potentially the stand out recipe from the book: you simply wrap kale, tomatoes and garlic into a foil parcel and then apply heat. The results are incredible and would convert anyone to kale. The perfect side dish.)
  • String Beans with Pork, Ginger & Red Chile (the culinary palette of the book stirs more to new-American, however I quite love the Asian inflections to some of the recipes. This is a fine rendition of a Chinese classic, yet one that won’t set the world on fire.) 
  • Kinda, sorta patatas bravas (see comments above about maximal flavour for minimal effort. These crispy potatoes go fantastically with a punchy tomato aioli. This would be a genius idea for a party.) 
  • Roasted Scallion + Chive Dip (I could eat a whole bowl of this. It is a super fantastic onion-y dip. And again demonstrates how well Turshen understands how to create flavour but also make food people want to eat. Oh it was good. And I got misty eyed with affection when she suggested you serve this dip with salt and vinegar crisps.) 
  • Kimchi Fried Rice with Scallion Salad (While I would have preferred this with brown rice—which stands up to the assertiveness of the kimchi better than milquetoast white rice—it was perhaps the best kimchi fried rice I have made. The scallion salad is a perfect addition and prevents the dish from being too one note.) 
  • Chopped Chickpea Salad (Simple perhaps to a fault, despite the off-piste addition of sizzled chorizo. Our go to chopped salad is slightly more involved, but more enjoyable: Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar and Grill chopped salad)
  • Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage + Parmesan (*love heart eye emoji* forever) 
  • A Nice Lasagne (this is a smart way of making lasagne with a tenth of the overall time and effort. The result is evocative enough of the full on lasagne bolognese to be satisfying and delightful.) 
  • Greek-ish Grilled Shrimp (this is a simple recipe. In fact, I was almost tempted not to make this recipe because of how simple it seems. Not making this recipe, however, would have denied us a real treat. Elegant and robust.)
  • Cold Elixir (I unexpectedly had an opportunity to try this. I swear there’s a magic in it as it actually made me feel a better as I suffered with a summer cold.) 

Why this book?

  • You love smart, clever cookbooks that somehow pull off quick AND delicious
  • You are willing to overlook a misleading cover
  • You want a book that provides real inspiration and encourages creativity

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ A summer cold And does it just spark joy?

You must buy and cook from this brilliant book! I love it and I am sure you will too.

Sirocco — Sabrina Ghayour

If Sirocco was a cage fighter it would be a bombastic, no-holds barred affair wearing the brightest neon leotard ever. Luckily, it is not a cage fighter and instead an exciting and flavour-driven cookbook.

Given the state of the world in early 2017, everyone should be in therapy: a mid-century couch to sit on, someone with a smart cardigan to listen, and a view over a river or lake to cover quiet moments.

Of course I imagine therapy is expensive. Cooking is however much cheaper. And, in its own way, therapeutic.

Cooking requires a certain degree of focus and concentration. A wandering mind will result in something burning, or at least an assertive char. The best food comes when you are in the kitchen, both literally and figuratively.

The more you are thinking about everything else in your life, the less likely you are to create something pleasing. The more you are focussed on the sounds and smells of the task before you, the more likely you are to both enjoy the time spent cooking and produce something good.

Of course, the therapeutic benefits of cooking are not solely from this meditative aspect. There is something special about simply creating something. For those of us with office/knowledge based jobs where we deal with abstract concepts and intangible things, it is a relief to touch and experience something real. It is a direct and simple pleasure, one that comes from turning one thing into something else through the application of creativity and care.

And then there is the obvious joy of nurturing and caring for people. Even if you are cooking for yourself (especially so, in fact!), it is an act of love to make food. It affirms our existence and acknowledges that no matter the superficial differences between two people, we share an inescapable common biology: we all need to eat. Or, more succinctly, everyone poops.

Cooking from Sirroco has been therapeutic and a treat. The resulting food has been a balm for frayed souls and a celebration of life.

Structure

Hardcover. Two jaunty ribbons to mark your place. A welcome extravagance.

240 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. My Kitchen Pantry
  3. Brilliant breakfasts & brunches
  4. Light bites & savoury snacks
  5. Spectacular Salads & sides
  6. Mouthwatering main dishes
  7. Superb bakes & sweet treats
  8. Index
  9. Acknowledgement

There’s a certain exuberance to the design of this book. Scroll up and take a second look at the cover: it’s this eye-catching whirl of colour and light.

This spirit continues within the book proper. Colourful pages and graphic elements, vibrant photography combine to suggest a sense of culinary play and fun. This is not a ponderous or sombre book, but rather a book that wants to be celebrated.

It does date the book however: even though it was produced last year, it feels much older. In an age of more minimalist approaches, the design sticks out and perhaps not in the best way. The cover for the US edition is much stronger. It conveys the book’s exuberance without being quite so overdone.

Ghayour’s writing has a certain charm and excitement to it. It does not quite match the level of exuberance suggested by the design and the photography, but that is arguably a point to be thankful for.

Occasionally, the method for individual recipes is not as clear as it needs to be. Given the informality of the food in this book this is mostly no big deal: however there are a few recipes where this lack of thought becomes a frustrating oversight.

The recipe format is workable: the usual headnote, a two column list of ingredients (sorted in use order and with accompanying preparations) and then relatively dense paragraph by paragraph methods. It does not set the world on fire, but it works well enough. A more generous line-spacing could have helped readability.

The photography speaks louder than the writing. It is enticing. There’s an immediacy to the shots that is compelling. The photography very much builds on the theme of vibrant, intense food.

Thoughts

If I am drawn to a cookbook it is because of an uncompromising appreciation for flavour. I do not want delicate hints of this or suggestions of that. I want big fat wallops of flavour. I want bright, direct flavours. I am comfortable if you take away from this I have a simple palette. I am shameless in this.

This book adopts a flavour focussed approach. While the book is heavily influenced by the flavours of the middle east, there is some fun combinations and experiments going on, rather than an attempt for strict recreations of regional fare.

If you were expecting a book with a strong and authentic coverage of say Iranian food, you might be disappointed. If you were expecting ideas for delicious and tasty food, then you will be delighted.

This is what we have made so far:

  • Bread Boats (this is one of the examples were the method is not up to scratch: there’s no advice other than make them ‘boat shaped.’ It was also difficult to stop the egg cascading down the sides and over the baking pan)
  • Bacon Pitas (the breakfast of champions. The spicy mango chutney based condiment is the thing of dreams and would make a lovely addition to any dish needing a real flavour kick)
  • Spiced beetroot yogurt (good but not great – it felt ever so slightly flat and in need of just a bit more oomph) 
  • Courgette, Saffron & Potato Kuku (again, good but not great. That said, I have a bit of a bias against kukus so, it could just be me)
  • Za’atar & Goats’ Cheese Puffs (the perfect companion to an icy cold drink. Flaky pastry, beguiling za’atar and tangy, rich goat’s cheese. Morish but tending towards a little salty, although this is obviously dependent on which goats cheese/za’atar you use) 
  • Mouthful spiced lamb kebabs (recreating the flavour profile of say a lamb schwarma in a dish that takes even a slowpoke like me half an hour is a real achievement. The accompanying harissa oil was *thumbs up emoji*. Although the recipe does not suggest this, you would be silly not to serve this with sumac marinated onions)
  • Lamb buns (this remains the best use for leftover lamb I have found. The sticky, savoury, sweet lamb goes fantastically with a cucumber and pomegranate relish)
  • Spicy Turkey Lettuce Wraps (like the lamb kebabs, this is a clever, quick and tasty idea for a midweek DIY meal)
  • Apple, sumac, red onion salad (the combination of sumac and onions is perfect. The apple adds a sweetness that brings out the natural sweetness of red onions. And the lemon in the dressing stops the whole thing from becoming one dimensional.) 
  • Prawn, broccolini, feta and almond salad (while I have mixed feelings about using ‘designer’ trademarked (and heavily litigated) vegetables, there’s no denying this salad is heavy on flavour and shows a certain textural sophistication)
  • Turmeric & spice-marinated cauliflower (the tomato sauce the recipe directs you to make with this dish elevates it from fine to very good) 
  • Crushed new potatoes with garlic, dill, grilled scallions & peas (if I have a weakness, and this is not a confession, more friendly banter, it would be for potato salad. This version skips the mayo and is the better for it. Spritely and memorable)
  • Stir-fried Tangy Prawns (it is hard to imagine I have lived a rich life without ever trying cooked cucumber. This dish is spicy and vibrant and one of the best recipies in the book)

Why This Book

  • You want a book that appreciates and chases flavour
  • You are happy to overlook a few recipes that are not quite as developed as they should be
  • You love the flavours of the Middle East

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ A forgotten wallet And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book. Why not buy a copy on Amazon?

Balance and Harmony — Neil Perry

Australia has no specific cuisine: the food Australians eat is as diverse as our population. Aside from a strong European background, the food we eat is heavily influence by the varied cuisines of Asia. Balance and Harmony falls into this grand pan-Asian tradition.

I have to confess I do not like Neil Perry. I like to imagine I could be friends with many cookbook authors, but I just don’t see Neil and me getting on. So while we’re not going to be best buds, I have a begrudging respect for the man.

His restaurants are first-rate. Although, as of late 2016, they are no longer technically his restaurants. In particular Spice Temple does exciting food inspired by the bold flavours of Sichaun. Rockpool Bar and Grill is a fine place for steak in an I-wish-I-had-an-expense-account setting.

So for the longest time I had resisted buying any of his books (despite happily eating at his restaurants). I broke a few months ago and bought most of the back catalogue.

The books, which range from just-fine to exceptional, did not make me fall in love with Australia’s most famous ponytail. Yet they do provide another reason to respect Perry’s contribution to food in Australia.

While the bulk of recipes in the book are Chinese (a mixture of Cantonese and Sichuan), Perry doesn’t restrict himself: the book also draws inspiration from Thai and Vietnamese food. I confess it’s a style of cookbook I find more useful than pure country-specific works. It reflects a focus on taste and flavours rather than something more didactic.

Structure

Hardcover.

399 pages split across three main parts:

  1. Finding Balance and Harmony in the Kitchen (Equipment and Ingredients)
  2. Basic Techniques and Recipes (Sauces, Dressings, and Pickles; Stocks and Soups; Salads; Braising and Boiling; Steaming; Stir Frying; Deep Frying; Tea-Smoking; Curry and Spice Pates; The Shared Table)
  3. Advanced Recipes and Banquet Menus (Tofu and Eggs; Pork; Beef and Lamb; Poultry; Seafood; Vegetables; Noodles and Rice; Fruit and Sweet Things)

Gosh this book is impressive. Luxuriously hardcover with abundant full colour photographs. A gorgeous ribbon and these almost washi-esque chapter dividers make it a real joy to behold.

The book has the design of a high end restaurant cookbook. However unlike those more ponderous tomes, this is so clearly a cookbook designed to be heavily used. There’s almost a tension between the preciousness of the design versus the everyday recipes. Despite this, I cannot help but cradle it fondly whenever I take it off the shelf.

This book was (and remains) expensive. My copy was bought second hand from, if I can read the stamp correctly, a public library somewhere in Massachusetts. This delights me: I like to imagine everyone else who may have held it in their hands and what they may have cooked. I have mixed feelings generally about second hand books, but this one feels as if it’s been handled reverently throughout its life.

The recipe format is simple: a headnote (these are more skipable than not) and then the ingredients followed by a somewhat visually dense method. The layout and writing is not something that sparks the imagination, or pulls you into another world, but it does go back to my point that despite the shiny coat, this is a book that’s intended to be used again and again.

I have to credit Perry’s recipe writing: he has a clear and simple voice. You never get lost in what to do and when, you just get the right guidance at the right time. You can imagine Perry teaching apprentice chefs with the same language (albeit with a few more colourful words thrown in).

The photography is just perfect. From one of Australia’s (if not one of the world’s) best food photographers, Earl Carter, it both highlights the food but also makes it feel accessible and approachable. The lighting on some of the shots is just incredible.

Thoughts

The food from this book has been, without exception, enjoyable and easy to prepare. This is the single biggest surprise I had about this book: I had expected that the food would be complicated, time consuming and just unapproachable.

Instead, the recipes turn out fantastically well. I think some of the best ‘Asian’ food I’ve ever cooked has come from this book, which I never would have expected. I can’t speak to the extent to which these recipes are ‘Westernised’, and I’m not overly concerned by that question at any rate.

I can speak to the flavours and the results that Perry’s recipes produce. And the new techniques I’ve learnt as a result of cooking from this book. Other than the obvious requirement of learning new recipes, I don’t necessarily ask that cookbooks teach me how to be a better cook. Yet this book has, almost by stealth, encouraged me to grow and develop my skills.

But I keep coming back to how good the food is—and how easy and well thought out the recipes are. The ingredients lists (sometimes a source of great panic in Asian cookery) are restrained to only the essential. The techniques never feel like you’ll need a battery of sous chefs to pull off.

The central conceit of the book is that it is concerned with balance and harmony in food. Each meal should be balanced and include flavours that work together and support each other. The simplest example that proves this approach is the pleasures of plain steamed rice with a salty stir fry.

While it is nice to have that balance in a single dish, it is difficult to do. Perry’s solution, and a key part of the book, is to provide suggested menus where he has balanced salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami across a few dishes.

I love this concept. But. From the prospective of weeknight cooking, even I don’t have the time or the interest to cook three or four different dishes (as much as I agree with and respect the approach). Perhaps on a weekend, this approach is more feasible?

Yet I am happy to report that the dishes stand fantastically on their own merit. And while I don’t have time to make a few other dishes, a salad or some sort of quick vegetable dish are easier to achieve and do help provide more of a sense of balance to the meal.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Pork Wontons (juicy and plumptious and I could eat one thousand)
  • Wonton soup with noodles (we used the dumplings above in a noodle soup and it was essentially perfect)
  • Stir Fried Cabbage with Chinking Vinegar (this goes to demonstrating how Perry makes magic from a few ingredients: and it’s very similar to a dish I love at Spice Temple)
  • Sweet Black Vinegar Pork Belly (there are too many bad pork belly recipes out there: this one is an example of how to do very well: rich, luxurious and with enough pop from the vinegar so as not to be cloying)
  • Sichuan-style steamed beef (an example of the book teaching new techniques: the steamed beef becomes so soft, tasty, juicy and perfect. The rice coating traps the juices and adds another textural element).
  • Stir-fried cos lettuce (you either hate cooked lettuce or you are down with it: I don’t think this recipe will convert the haters, but it will be a delight for the rest of us)
  • Mapo tofu (maybe not the best mapo but a really good one. Anyway, mapo tofu recipes are like bolognese recipes: there is no perfect recipe)
  • Prawn Toasts (I think prawn toasts were my gateway into liking actual prawns—I know—and these are some of the more soigné PTs you will try)
  • Spicy Tofu Salad (alive with textures and bound together with a punchy dressing)
  • Fried Eggs with Spicy Tamarind Dressing (despite the fun and extensive mess of deep frying eggs, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten. Although a fun tip from me is try adding some ground roast rice to the dressing.)
  • Chicken with Snow Peas and Sichuan Pepper (10 minutes of preparing, 10 minutes of cooking for a result that is incredible—you’d be delighted by this if you received it at any Chinese restaurant)
  • Stir fried prawns with Chinese chives and chilli (see above)
  • Sesame Noodles (not to end on a low point, but this dish was an exception to my belief that dishes in this book stand well by themselves: this definitely needed to be served with something else)

Why this book?

  • You love Asian food and want to learn some new recipes and techniques
  • You want deliciousness above strictly authentic recipes
  • You can overlook the Ponytail

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straight forward?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ||||| Monday morning And does it just spark joy?

 

You should buy this book! How about from Amazon?

Stirring Slowly — Georgina Hayden

Stirring Slowly’s subtitle says the book aims to provide “recipes to restore + revive.” These subtitles are usually marketing puff. In this case, the book succeeds at providing just that.

Writing recipes must be an exercise in compromise. There can be no such thing as the perfect recipe as there are going to be so many underlying motivations. One person is going to want a quick and easy meal, and the next is willing to spend five hours on a highly technically involved recipe.

There are considerations that are easy to gloss over: why has the author written a recipe in the first place, and why has a particular recipe been written in a certain way?

The recipe headnotes often seek to answer the first question: authors are often quite candid about the inspiration or heritage of a recipe. From a beloved family favourite to something shamelessly stolen from restaurant.

Yet there’s rarely discussion about a unique set of compromises (or to use a slightly less pejorative word: decisions) that are the DNA of a recipe. What has the author held back that they might do when making the recipe at home? What has the publisher or editor asked to be changed? Why this ingredient? Why not this technique? Why why why why.

Cooking, at times, falls into the realm of folklore. The great majority of people cook in a certain way without really understanding why they cook in such a way. There are some authors who seek to set out the science behind cooking with a view towards becoming a better cook. Cooking is, at the end of the day, a delightful mixture of chemistry, physics and biology.

Yet of course these considerations are potentially academic: if a recipe just works, as so many of the recipes in Stirring Slowly do, do we need to know the why when the how is so sufficient?

Structure

Hardback. White placeholder ribbon—always appreciated.

280 pages split across the following chapters: Introduction | Hints, Tips + Shopping | A Sunny Start to the Day | Bowl Food | Quick + Light | Low, Slow + Hearty | Versatile Veg | Bake Yourself Better | A Bit on the Side | Index

Firstly, a note of gentle consternation: white book covers. Why even. Like everyone else I buy most of my books online (books are an expensive habit). Invariably a white covered book arrives looking scuffed and a little worse for wear. This is as much a dig on online bookshops as it is book designers though.

To be clear, I’m not at all precious about these books once they arrive. I’m proud of splattered and creased pages. There’s even some crushed cumin seeds in the binding of my copy of Fresh India. But white covers, like white jeans and dress shirts, invite befouling.

The book is a tight, cohesive package. There’s very little that feels wasted or unnesscary. Most cookbooks (even those that have been featured here) have a few recipes that exist solely to pad the page count.

The recipe format follows a fairly familiar pattern. What’s interesting is that the ingredient preparations are within the body of the method itself and not in the ingredient list.  There have been a few times where I wondered what to do with a certain ingredient and then had to look through the entire recipe to know what to do. The alternative, where the ingredient list tells you what prep should be done for a specific ingredient (e.g. 5 carrots, diced) is sometimes easier.

However, pleasingly, the majority of recipes are keep to one page (or a facing spread). I don’t mean to keep harping on about this but it makes cooking so much easier.

The photography and food styling are strong, but sometimes lack a certain individuality. I was rapidly ticking off the boxes in my mental checklist of ‘food photography in 2016’. The photo of a juicy ruptured pomegranate (speaking of pomegranates…) on page 111 says it all. And I’m not sure if I understand the design distinction between the white bordered photos that accompany most recipes and the occasional full-bleed photo. This, though, verges on criticism for the sake of criticism.

Thoughts

There’s genius to this book. I’m not quite sure how Georgina manages it, but everything we’ve cooked from this book has been impossibly quick and impossibly delicious.

I am a slow cook. As much as I admire those who cook with professional effieceny and economy of movement, I simply cannot bring myself to emulate them. I potter, I stir, I taste and I take my time. Yet when I’ve cooked from this book I’ve been amazed by how quickly I’ve been able to get results on the table. And then amazed again when I tasted how delicious the end product is.

There’s a real effortlessness to the food in Stirring Slowly. It’s food that is not fussy or tired. It’s food that is exciting and almost magical and even a bit surprising. The addition of ice-crisped fennel and witlof turns what could otherwise be a trite pork belly salad into something nuanced and layered.

Let me repeat: I really don’t quite understand the dark magic at play that produces such great flavours so quickly. During testing for this book this week I’ve looked across the table at Nim with an expression of surprise and delight. It’s almost surprising given that the book is called Stirring Slowly which invokes a rather different mindset.

The recipes are aiming for a certain degree of nutritional value yet I do not think there’s any evidence of a slavish devotion to this goal (or, importantly, that there has been any sacrifice to flavour).

One of the key measures for how much I like a cookbook is the amount of recipes I want to cook from it. The ratio in this book of things I want to make versus things I could not see myself making is impressively weighted towards the former.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far:

  • Wholegrain nasi goreng with spinach: the sort of rice dish you dream about whenever you eat bad fried rice. Tangy with lime, sweet and savoury from the kecap manis, and with a kick from chili, garlic and ginger. Plus the brown rice provides a very different texture than the usual white rice. 
  • Pudla: this was the only thing from the book I wasn’t wild about. Had we not made really exceptionally chickpea pancakes a few weeks ago, I might have enjoyed this more. The salad that she suggests you serve as the filling is a fine salad, but the rocket feels a little tonally inconsistent with the overall flavour profile.
  • Kimchi and prawn okonomiyaki: I’m always a little scared of cooking okonomiyaki. It’s not complicated yet there’s a pivotal flip in the cooking process that (literally) either makes or breaks the end result. Plus it’s too easy to make an okonomiyaki that is dry, bland and rubbery. This was incredible: tasty, moist, and with a knockout sauce. 
  • One-pan creamy squash pasta: the best cookbooks encourage you to do something different or to try something you’ve always dismissed. I’ve long been weary of the idea of one-pan pasta because I thought it was essentially cooking for idiots. It turns out I was actually the idiot because this dish was incredible. Creamy, earthy, vibrant. Perfect. I’m not worthy. 
  • Roasted chickpea, cauliflower and sesame lamb: this was I think on the table in 15-20 minutes? And had a depth of flavour that recalls one of my favourite recipes from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem. However that recipe takes hours and this recipe doesn’t and is far more delicious than you’d expect. It’s the sort of effortless midweek dinner that you could serve to friends and they’d think you were some sort of genius. 
  • Sticky pork belly salad with fennel and chilli: okay this recipe lets you down a bit in that it does not encourage you to keep the cooking stock, which you absolutely must serve. Reduce and spoon over rice and any leftover pork (or in our case, altogether). Despite this omission (compromise, compromise, compromise) the salad is so good. The tender, sweet, sticky pork goes so well with a herb and bitter greens salad. 
  • An insanely good blondie: It was. I had always thought of blondies as incorrect brownies and yet again this book revealed the fallibility of my preconceptions. While it is tough adjusting to a world where I appear capable of being wrong, at least I have these blondies to eat and keep me going. 

Why this book?

  • You want to be amazed by how quickly you can make super great food
  • You are a little bit tired of the strictly predictable and want a book that encourages you to try new things
  • You want to make a very good blondie

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straight forward?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
Kondo ||||| Smelly socks And does it just spark joy?

 

You should get this book. And while you are at it, buy it from Amazon.