There is a certain thrill that we food-obsessed people get when we pick a book to adopt into our lives. For that’s what we do. Or hope to do. Cookbooks, to my mind, aren’t meant to be passive entities, read through and popped on a shelf. I want a cookbook to become a friend. Or better still, a teacher and a friend.
I confess to having a wide and rather messy collection of cookbooks.They spill out of a good-sized bookcase in the spare room, onto the purpose-built shelf above the fridge and, increasingly, under my bed. I blame Amazon and Waterstone’s. But now I am much more selective, often trying to rifle through copies at shops, or borrowing from the library, until I make a decision. But even still, while making my careful selection (I ration myself these days) I am inwardly hoping that my instincts – and not a little research – are true. I don’t buy cookbooks to impress people, to gather dust, to prop up a wobbly table. I want it to be a book that becomes sticky, greasy, covered in flour; with stuck together pages causing me to curse..
I realise there is a vogue for the more coffee table oriented book, the book that is possibly bought just to impress ourselves and others with our immaculate taste and cultured nature. Those books can be incredible, as works of art and as inspirations: chef-designed dishes, using ingredients and equipment (there is always equipment) in vogue and tangential ways. Or the aspirational book, with its dappled meadow picnics and charmingly tumbled down barns. I love those too. But I don’t necessarily want to cook from them.
No, when I choose a cookbook these days – a potential friend for life – I want to feel a connection beyond the beauty of its pages. As I run my fingers down its smooth, unsullied pages I wonder if my chosen one is going to live up to the promise of its achingly beautiful cover.
At first I go a bit mad and stick those tacky (in more ways that one) coloured notes on many pages, with little notations like (these are real notes): “Have to make this for ****,” “Try this with tofu instead of pork(!!!).” “Use as a template/Scottish ingredients.” I protect open pages with a tear of clingfilm and write notes in a separate book.
Then it becomes a friend. A friend that doesn’t mind the spills, smears and scribbles. That’s when I know that a book has become part of my life. And like a good friend I will swear unswerving loyalty, deferring to it when inspiration is lacking, or just admire the skill and creativity of its creator.
Today’s non-recipe post – a food to glow first, I think – is a wee collection of books I turn to again and again. Some older and some quite new. I also include a few ones that I would like to have (no hints being dropped…) and some books that although not recipe-oriented, are ones that have influenced my way of thinking about food, and whose eloquent and persuasive writing are a joy to read. I hope you see something that strikes your fancy. Or nod in agreement and think – “Yes, that’s my friend, too.”
Note: I’ve given links to the dreaded Amazon, although I would have liked to name individual but geographically limiting independent shops. Try your independent bookseller first!!
Now, what do YOU recommend???
The Ones That Live Above My Fridge (and have loads of tacky bookmarks)
The Modern Pantry Cookbook by Anna Hansen Canadian-born, London-based chef Hansen is my kind of cook, combining “seemingly bizarre” (her words) ingredients to great effect: Goats’ Curd Pancakes with Pomegranate Molasses Roast Grapes; Chocolate Liquorice Delice with Cocoa Chilli Wafers. I have found on a couple of occasions that I have unwittingly come up with similar food combos as Hansen – albeit with a lot less sophistication and skill. Breathtaking audacity and very clear instructions contained within. One for the adventurous and somewhat skilled omnivore cook. Get to know Hansen with this interview in The Telegraph.
Another creative food combiner is Sara Forte, the “veggie enthusiast” behind The Sprouted Kitchen. I have yet to fully explore this beautifully photographed book (hubby is behind the lens) but I have riffed on her Nori Popcorn and tried a version of her Quinoa Collard Wraps with Miso-Carrot Spread recently. Process pictures, explanatory sidebars and a good Ingredients and Tools section round out the about 100 mainly veggie but a little meaty/fishy recipes. See this review from The Kitchn.
Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey is a big favourite of mine – bold flavours, unfussy instructions – and he gets most of his recipes from the people he met while making his TV programme of the same name. You can practically smell the spices leaping from each page. 150 recipes from all over southeast Asia with conversationally-written anecdotes and stunningly colour saturated photos. Lovely. For the omnivorous cook, although there are loads of vegetarian and vegan dishes. Here’s a link to his website to learn about his other books and TV programmes. I also have Rick Stein’s India, another fabulous and practical book with the same high production values as all of his previous 15 books. We have been to one of his Padstow Cornwall restaurants, and it was fantastic – as expected.
Inspiration in spades from the authoritative vegetarian author, chef and gardener, Deborah Madison. I use her book Vegetable Literacynot only for recipe ideas, but also reference. I think it is probably the most comprehensive book about vegetables that I have seen. It is quite a hefty tome so you won’t be reading it in bed of an evening (unless spinach eating has given you arms like Popeye’s), but it is one that I look to for gaining/reinforcing knowledge about all things vegetable, herb and edible flower. Most recipes are beautifully simple: think Egg Salad with Tarragon, Parsley and Chives; Smoky Kale and Potato Cakes; Chard Stems with Sesame-Yogurt Sauce and Black Sesame Seeds. Sprinkled throughout are bits of kitchen wisdom and suggestions for companion ingredients. A real gem.
In a similar vein I also adore anything by Alice Waters, most especially The Art of Simple Food 1 & 2.”Perhaps more responsible than anyone for the revolution in the way we eat, cook, and think about food, Alice Waters has ‘single-handedly chang[ed] the American palate’ according to the New York Times. Her simple but inventive dishes focus on a passion for flavor and a reverence for locally produced, seasonal foods.” I couldn’t have said it better my self. Any lover of good, wholesome, simple food needs these books. (quote is from Amazon blurb).
Anything from the pen of Diana Henry is good by me. A writer of great elegance and wit, writer and TV presenter Ms Henry has authored cookbooks that read like the most delicious of travelogues. My favourite of her numerous books is the evocatively named Roast Figs Sugar Snow: Winter Food to Warm the Soul, but I truly love all of her captivatingly written books. She has a real flair for Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African ingredients – related cuisines that I rate very highly, as a look at my Index will reveal. See especially Crazy Water Pickled Lemon (my copy is thick with notes and scrappy bits of paper). Read this interview at the Good Food Channel.
Likewise the charming and uber-talented Israeli-born chef, Yotam Ottolenghi. He has reached a deserved status where one name only – Ottolenghi – suffices. King of all things Middle Eastern, I have and use all three of his books – Ottolenghi The Cookbook, Plenty (his paean to vegetables and nothing but), and my fave, Jerusalem. I reference him a lot in my recipes. And my groaning shelves of exotic spices I blame squarely on him. Must-have cookbooks. All three. His hummus is sublime, btw. Click here for all things Ottolenghi.
Not a cookbook, but I have learned so much from and enjoyed reading What To Eat? 1o Chewy Questions About Food and Drink by award-winning food journalist Hattie Ellis. Fascinating and superbly written.
And A Few I Really Want To Get Soon…
The Ethicurean Cookbook – modern British cooking from the walled garden restaurant in the Mendip Hills. Rave reviews. Big on foraging.
Eat Drink Vote by Marion Nestle – an illustrated guide to food politics. In know, I know, but we need to know about about the food we eat and the machinations behind the scenes of Big Food. Love all of her previous books so I am looking forward to digging in and getting righteously angry all over again. It is US-focused but has lessons for all Western countries: where the US leads, others often follow…
The Food of Vietnam by Luke Nguyen – he’s so engaging on the telly, and as he is covering just about my favourite cuisine I am chomping at the bit to get this one. He travelled extensively and sometimes dangerously for this book, and the telly series that went with it.
Eat: The Little Book of Fast Food – no book recommendation can skip the offerings of this most down-to earth of cooks. Nigel Slater‘s latest reads like a a collection of slightly too long tweets – 600 dinky little recipes for when we’ve no time and no ideas. Clever, modern, now. Not keen on his shows so much, but I do like his warm writing.
River Cottage Veg by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall – it’s not his latest, but it – and River Cottage Every Day – are favourites with me. Simple, clever recipes for the skilled and not so skilled cooks. Lots of family-geared recipes but for anyone who wants good food quickly. For veggies and omnivores alike. Live part of the dream that is the River Cottage.
Green Kitchen Stories – lush, lustful Swedish lifestyle blog-made-book. Top quality images and really inventive and thoughtful recipes from the vegetarian wholefoodie couple, David Frenkiel and Luise Vindahl. Awfully photogenic too. Drat. Getting this come hell or high water.
Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails With A Literary Twist by Tim Ederle – I’m a sucker for a daft but clever pun. My wildcard book. Have not a scooby (idea) where this will lead. Trouble, I suspect…