COOKING THE BOOKS
I recently started following the #7favouritecookbooks hashtag on Instagram which got me to thinking. If I were stranded on a desert island which books would I rush to take with me. Well apart from the obvious : Fergus Henderson’s “Nose to Tail Eating” (there must be some tasty wild animals on the island somewhere) and Richard Mabey’s “Food for Free”, it turns out that my favourite missives aren’t necessarily those which I cook from on a regular basis, but all have in common the fact that they evoke memories, stir emotions but most importantly encourage me to get into the kitchen and cook …
At the start of Ella Risbridger’s “Midnight Chicken” she highlights 3 important things to remember:
1. Salt your pasta water.
2. If in doubt, butter.
3. Keep going.
Ella suffers from anxiety and depression and the title of the book comes from an episode in her life when she found herself lying on the floor, looking at a chicken in her shopping bag and wondering if she would ever get up. She did … and this is the raw and honest account of how she managed to fall back in love with the world through cooking. Having experience of mental health issues myself I devoured this book in one go, during a particularly dark moment, on the sofa, on a wet Saturday afternoon. I laughed, I cried but perhaps more importantly I got up afterwards and made a pie. It wasn’t a recipe from this book, it wasn’t a particularly good pie but it didn’t matter. The joy of this book is discovering how food and cooking have the power to change lives. The recipes if you do choose to follow them are simple but heart-warming and each has a chatty intro and quirky title such as Life affirming mussels, Reading in the rafters parkin and Marital harmony sausage pasta. For anyone out there who thinks life might just be getting a bit too much, buy this book or borrow from the library (or from me) and know you are not alone in feeling like this. Then … roast a chicken … or bake a pie.
As many of you will know I am a bit of a fan of Christmas and once the clocks go back, turn into a slightly crazed version of one of Santa’s elves. Which is why a Christmas cookbook had to make it to the shortlist. But which one? Every year I devour Elizabeth David and Nigella’s festive texts and it’s never Christmas without Delia’s pudding and cheese straws! More recently Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles has made it’s way into the house but when it really comes down to it, “The Festival Season Handbook” screams out “Christmas” more than any other. Given to me by a friend a few years ago it’s as kitsch as you can get (jellied beetroot anyone) but immediately transports me back to Christmases of my youth when mam would start the sacred preparation of the cake way back in October and feed it right through the autumn so by the time Christmas came one whiff of it would put you well over the limit! Once you have stocked your Christmas larder with preserves, chutneys, candied nuts and turkish delight the book then offers you helpful suggestions for decorations, edible gifts and party games such as Consequences and Potato Pins – which as you can guess involves sticking pins into a potato … but with woolly gloves on!! Oh how we laughed …
I would hazard a guess that “Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course” has at some point taken pride of place on nearly every kitchen shelf in the UK. First published back in 1978, my hardback copy has been bashed, splashed and generally trashed but remains my go-to bible for many recipes, processes and cooking techniques. It’s also a handy reminder for basic recipe quantities – no matter how many times I make yorkshire puds I can’t remember the proportion of flour to liquid! This was the book that taught me how to produce a proper risotto and guided me through the dark art of pastry making. It’ll never win any prizes for innovation but if you’re a novice in the kitchen or just want to know how to make a proper bechamel sauce this is the book for you.
At the other end of the spectrum entirely is “Edible Selby” which is less of a recipe book and more a pictorial celebration of the exciting and creative world of food. Filled with photos, illustrations and hand written interviews Todd Selby takes you on a whirlwind tour of some of the most unusual and inspiring people and foodie places around the globe.
Sabrina Ghayour’s “Feasts” is a recent addition to my bookshelf but has quickly become a firm favourite. All the recipes contain the flavours of Persia and many sport a quirky twist on traditional British dishes, eg spicy lamb hotpot, saffron roast potatoes and pear & thyme tart. As I’m a bit rubbish at menu planning I love that fact that each chapter focuses on a particular meal or occasion, eg Breakfast & Brunch, Summer Feasts and Special Occasions, so you can be sure that each of the courses compliment one another. None of the dishes are overly complicated and the stunning photography makes you want to dive in and cook something right away – the marker of a really good recipe book. I can thoroughly recommend the goats cheese & filo pies and for the sweet toothed among you the fig & rose millefeuille takes a lot of beating.
Cake … love it … in all forms. So of course there has to be a baking related book on the list and for me it’s “How to be a Domestic Goddess” by the one and only Nigella Lawson. Yes she has turned into a bit of a caricature of herself on tv and surely no-one has a store cupboard like that (!) but you can’t help admire her enthusiasm and marvel at her tenacity which has enabled her to remain a household name for over 20 years. This is my favourite of her books, if only for the chocolate brownie recipe which for a number of years secured me an invite to many a party … until she showed everyone how to do it on telly !!!
Last (or probably more accurately first) to be bundled into my suitcase would be “Real Food” by Nigel Slater. I have said this before but I’ll say it again – I think he is simply the best food writer out there. I could in fact have taken 7 of his books to my island but felt that would be a bit of a cop-out! This was the first book of his I bought and it changed the way I thought about cooking. I realised that it doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to involve hundreds of hard-to-find, expensive ingredients and it doesn’t have to take hours to prepare. In his own words “By Real Food I mean big-flavoured, unpretentious cooking. Good ingredients made into something worth eating. Nothing fancy, nothing extravagant. Nothing careless or slapdash. Just nice uncomplicated food”. By comparison his writing style is lyrical, almost poetic in nature and his descriptions of food quite simply make my mouth water uncontrollably:
” … it is a bowl of warm ochre soup, soothing … a bowl that both whips and kisses you …”
I think I’ve made every recipe in this book more than once but if you are going to try just one then you won’t beat the slow-fried potatoes with thyme and taleggio for simplicity, flavour and compliments !! And if you like this book then don’t hesitate in buying all his others – they are simply the best.
Hopefully I’ve inspired you to hot foot it to your bookcase to dig out your favourite cookbook. Do let me know what it is – there’s always room for another on the shelf … Oh and if anyone’s stuck for ideas for my Christmas pressie, Nigel Slater has 2 new books out this year.