First, Catch by Thom Eagle

First catch

What’s the USP? When is a cookbook not a cookbook? When its a ‘hymn to an early spring meal’, all 226 pages of it. This is food writing in the purest sense, a series of extended essays ruminating on the process of cooking a single meal; a sort of exercise in culinary mindfulness.

Who’s the author? Thom Eagle is the head chef of Little Duck: The Picklery, a ‘fermenting kitchen and wine bar’ in East London (unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount on fermentation in the book) and writes the food blog ‘In Search of Lost Time’. First, Catch is his debut in print.

What does it look like? A novel. Forget glossy photographs, this is all text interspersed with some black and white line drawings of pots, pans and assorted ingredients by artist Aurelia Lange.

Killer recipes? Here’s the thing, Eagle says ‘recipes are lies’ so there aren’t any. At least not in the list-of-ingredients-followed-by-a-method format that we all know and love. Instead, they are snuck in by stealth, so for example, a recipe for quick-cured lamb loin, complete with measurements for the simple salt and sugar cure appears spread over three pages at the end of chapter one, ‘On Curing With Salt’ and one for salsa verde is nestled quietly in chapter 10 ‘On Wild and Domestic Celeries’.

What will I love? Eagle is a thoughtful sort of bloke with a particular view on all things culinary which gives the book a distinctive tone. When was the last time you heard someone say that they ‘go out of their way’ to visit old salt-pans’? Eagle has travelled from Kent to Sicily to look at the damn things, trips which have helped him, and now, in turn, his readers ‘appreciate the importance of salt throughout our history’.

What won’t I like? Eagle is very self consciously ‘a writer’ (he studied American Literature at uni) and consequently there is a fair bit of ‘food writing’ to get through; raw vegetables aren’t seasoned but ‘subjected to the violence of lemon and salt’ which you’ll either think is incredibly creative writing or just plain irritating, depending on your taste in literature.

Should I buy it? It may be a little pretentious and overwritten, and it’s debatable whether the ‘stealth’ recipes are an improvement on the traditional format, but Eagle has genuine insight into the practical and philosophical sides of cooking, as well as extensive knowledge of international cuisines and culinary history, making First, Catch well worth reading.

Cuisine: Modernist British
Suitable for: Anyone really interested in cooking and food writing
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

Read an extract

Buy this book
First, Catch by Thom Eagle

Room for Dessert by Will Goldfarb

room-for-dessert-2d.jpg

What is it? Will Goldfarb has worked in the kitchens of Ferran Adria, Tetsuya Wakuda, Paul Liebrandt, and Morimoto. He is one of the top pastry chefs working today and is featured in the fourth series of acclaimed Netflix series Chef’s Table. In his first book, he shares 40 recipes, plus additional basics like sorbets, gelatos and mousses, from his acclaimed Room4Dessert restaurant in Bali.

What’s the USP? Along with the highly complex and bizarrely-named recipes called things like ‘Footsteps, or Burbur Injin’ (black rice pudding), each with their own obscure and sometimes almost unintelligible introduction, the book contains an extended biographical section and ‘The Lab of Ideas’ that provides an insight into Goldfarb’s unique creative process.

What does it look like? The modern, often minimalist desserts are all illustrated with overhead photographs which do some of the less visually impactful creations like Pom Pom Yeah: The Horse Thief (a take on Mont Blanc) no favours at all and makes you wonder what Violet de Meuron (frozen horchata with a dramatic purple hibiscus and onion skin ‘veil’) would look like from another angle.

Is it good bedtime reading? Let’s put it this way, there’s plenty to read, but whether or not you should be looking at it before trying to go to sleep is another matter. Goldfarb has a fascinating life story to tell but does so in such an oblique manner that he sacrifices clear narrative substance for a ‘clever’ turn of phrase and an odd pseudo-poetic style (not dissimilar to that employed by Sean Penn in his much-derided recent novel Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff),  that your frustration with the many gaps in the story might well keep you up at night. Best stick with the latest Laura Lippman.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? Not at all, as long as you’re in Bali. Otherwise, see how you go asking for lontar nectar, fresh moringa leaves or snake fruit at your local Nisa (this is unfair, many of the recipes don’t include exotic ingredients and you should be able to source most of what you need with some diligent online shopping).

What’s the faff factor? This is a book by a progressive, experimental professional pastry chef written for his peers. What do you reckon it’s likely to be?

How often will I cook from the book? Determined hobbyist cooks who want to one-up their nerdy friends or intimidate their dinner party guests with their dazzling pastry skills will be all over this like a rash. Mere mortals will simply admire from the safety of their sofas.

Killer recipes? It’s difficult to say. Is Plat du Jour’s combination of yoghurt sorbet, coffee anglaise, grilled aubergine puree, vermouth gel, white chocolate and ginger ‘Toblerone’ and brioche, soaked in milk and blonde coconut nectar and cooked French toast-style, a winner? Who knows until you’ve made it and eaten it.

What will I love? You will have never read a cookbook quite like it.

What won’t I like? You will have never read a cookbook quite like it.

Should I buy it? If you are a professional pastry chef working at the cutting edge of cuisine, fill your boots. Others should approach with caution unless strongly attracted to whimsy and folderol.

Cuisine: Modernist desserts
Suitable for: Modernist pastry chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 (or 5 if you’re a modernist pastry chef)

Buy this book
Room for Dessert
£39.95, Phaidon

Well Seasoned by Russell Brown and Jonathan Haley

Well Seasoned

What is it? Former Michelin starred chef/patron of the much missed Sienna restaurant in Dorchester and now head honcho of the Creative about Cuisine food writing, photography and consultancy business has teamed up with leading food blogger Jonathan Haley for his first book that’s all about ‘exploring, cooking and eating with the seasons’; a guide to ‘seasonal living’ that doesn’t just tell you that crayfish are in season in May, but where and how to catch them.

What’s the USP? In addition to Brown’s seasonal recipes and accompanying photographs, the book contains a month by month guide to the year that encompasses seasonal ingredients, what you can expect to find growing wild in the fields and meadows, what you can forage for on land and at sea and what feasts and festivals to celebrate.

What does it look like? Beautifully designed by Matt Inwood (who has also worked on books by Tom Kerridge and Jason Atherton among many others), the introductory pages of each monthly-themed chapter have their own colour – an icy blue for January, a warm sage green for July – giving the book a lively feel and providing a suitably hued contrasting frame for Brown’s seasonal landscape and nature photography which is every bit as impressive as his food photography.

Is it good bedtime reading? You’ve got to love a book that goes that extra mile with some well-written prose to enjoy away from the stove and blogger Jonathan Haley has provided that in spades with chapter introductions and a series of ‘Out and About’ ‘Food and Foraging’ and ‘Feast and Festival’ articles that appear in each chapter.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? Although the book encourages the reader to get out there and forage for their own food, the recipes are kind to the more indoorsy cooks amongst us and you should have little trouble finding all the specified ingredients or suitable alternatives. A list of recommended suppliers at the back of the book should help fill in any gaps.

What’s the faff factor? As this is written by a former Michelin starred chef, you won’t be surprised to encounter some degree of complexity in some of the recipes, but that is more than balanced by plenty of very approachable, straightforward dishes.

How often will I cook from the book? The seasonal theme and mix of everyday and special occasion dishes ensure Well Seasoned will be a well-thumbed tome.

Killer recipes? Warm salad of new season’s spring lamb; harissa mackerel flatbreads with quick-pickled cucumber; hay-baked leg of kid goat; sauteed squid with chorizo and piquillo pepper dressing; white chocolate mousse with cherry compote.

What will I love? Brown and Haley have really taken their seasonal premise seriously and have unearthed all manner of useful and sometimes arcane information (who knew that the Celts called the first of May Beltane Day and that there is a cake named in its honour? The recipe is included in the book).

What won’t I like? If you were hoping for a collection of recipes from Sienna restaurant, this is not it.

Should I buy it?  Seasonality should always be a top priority for any serious home cook or chef and Brown and Haley have created a year-round reference work that should find a place on the shelves of amateur and professional kitchens alike up and down the land.

Cuisine: Modern British
Suitable for: Home cooks and professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Well Seasoned: Exploring, Cooking and Eating with the Seasons
£25, Head of Zeus

Cook from this book
Harissa mackerel flatbreads with quick pickled cucumber
Warm salad of new season’s spring lamb
Iced strawberry parfait

Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman

Smitten Kitchen Everyday

What is it? Five years on from her debut book, this is the second outing for New York-based dating-turned-food blogger extraordinaire Deb Perelman of New York Times profiled smittenkitchen.com with over 100 recipes for ‘real people with busy lives’.

What does it look like? What is it about American-published cookbooks that makes them just so damn desirable? I’m not an uber font-nerd but the Minion typeface used here (originally developed by Adobe for Macs in 1990 according to a note at the back of the book) is particularly attractive and clean looking. At over 300 pages, the book has a certain authoritative weight and the glossy paper makes the 127 full-colour photographs pop.

Is it good bedtime reading?  Set aside that Grisham, the generous recipe introductions include plenty of culinary-related personal anecdotes and opinion, as well as cookery lore and background to the recipes themselves, making it a nighttime page-turner par excellence.

Killer recipes? Charred corn succotash with lime and crispy shallots; pea tortellini in parmesan broth; Manhattan-style clams with fregola; winter squash flatbread with hummus and za’atat;  ricotta blini with honey, orange and sea salt; raspberry hazelnut brioche bostock; chewy oatmeal raisin chocolate chip mega-cookies.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? Despite an almost encyclopedic approach to global cuisine, you should have no trouble finding the vast majority of ingredients in a good supermarket.

What’s the faff factor? Make no mistake, this is ‘proper’ cooking and many of the recipes have several elements that need to be brought together at the point of serving, but with a little planning and organisation, they should be stress-free.

How often will I cook from the book? Every day (duh!).

What will I love? This is an American book, but, God bless them, they’ve included gram or millilitre equivalents for cup measures which rockets the book to the top of the usability charts for UK readers (other US publishers please take note). The guide for special menus at the back of the book that highlights vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and diary-free recipes (of which there are many) is particularly thoughtful.

What won’t I like? Me, if I find out you don’t love this book as much as I do.

Should I buy it? Only if you like cooking delicious food. Otherwise, give it a miss.

Cuisine: American/International
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 5 Stars

Buy this book
Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites
£25, Square Peg

Cook from this book
Crispy tofu and broccoli with sesame peanut pesto
Smoky sheet pan chicken with cauliflower

Akelare: New Basque Cuisine by Pedro Subljana

Akelare

What’s the USP? Recipes from one of the great innovators of modern Spanish cuisine.

Give me some background. Global restaurant fashions come and go, but San Sebastian in Northern Spain, with its thrilling mix of casual pinxcho bars and cutting edge high-end restaurants, remains a place of true gastronomic pilgrimage. It’s home to a constellation of Michelin stars including Arzak, Mugaritz, Martin Berasategui and Akelare, run by legendary chef Pedro Subljana for nearly forty years.

Occupying a commanding position west of the city centre on the slopes of Mount Igueldo with stunning views over the Bay of Biscay, Akelare has maintained three Michelin star status since 2007 for its imaginative and playful ‘New Basque Cuisine’ (the Spanish equivalent of Nouvelle Cuisine).

What does it look like? Stunning. It’s more like an artist’s portfolio than a cookbook with visually arresting images of dishes such as ‘zebra squid’; roast loin of hare a la royale with chestnuts and razor clam with veal shank.

Is it good bedtime reading? Move along please, there’s nothing to see here.

Killer recipes? An amuse bouche based around bathroom toiletries that includes tomato flavoured liquid soap, onion sponge, Idiazábal cheese moisturiser and bath salts made from potato starch, prawn and rice ‘sand’.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? Zopako bread, Beasain onion morcilla and ‘cortrezas de trigo’ (wheat snacks similar to pork scratching) may well be difficult for British cooks and chefs to lay their hands on.

What’s the faff factor? On the inside cover, it says, ‘This book was printed using the font ‘faff’. Look up the word ‘faff’ in the dictionary and you will see a picture of the cover of this book. I took the book to my doctor and he told me it had a terminal case of faff. I showed the book to Darth Vader and he said, ‘The faff is strong with this one’. It is number one on the faff parade. It was pulled over by the police for being three times over the faff limit. An Irishman, a Scotsman and an Englishman went into a bar specifically to agree that Akelare: New Basque Cuisine by Pedro Subljana had the highest faff factor of any cookbook ever published. So, um, yeah, there’s a lot of faff.

How often will I cook from the book? Don’t take this the wrong way, but unless you are a professional chef interested in modernist, progressive cooking, you are highly unlikely to have the skills, resources or time to tackle these recipes. I certainly don’t.

What will I love? A short introductory section, including a page from Subljana himself, prefaces the main body of the book. Articles on the restaurant’s cookery school and associated Basque Culinary Centre, service at the restaurant and suggested wine pairing for the featured recipes round out the book.

What won’t I like? Just 23 out of the book’s 240 pages are taken up with recipes in English meaning methods tend to be on the sketchy side, not ideal with such technical food. Spanish and Basque translations of the text occupy a significant amount of space; fine if you’re reading a free in-flight magazine but a tad galling if you’ve splashed out thirty quid on a relatively slim glossy cookbook. Although beautiful to look at and a real pleasure to browse, the book suffers from a case of style over substance, something that New Basque Cuisine itself could be accused of.

Should I buy it? There are two reasons to buy this book: as a memento of a meal enjoyed or an invitation to make a reservation at the restaurant if this sort of Spanish sleight of hand still floats your culinary boat in 2018.

Cuisine: Progressive Spanish
Suitable for: Chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars

Buy this book
Akelare
£30, Grub Street

Bread is Gold by Massimo Bottura

Bread is Gold

What is it?
Italy’s greatest gift to modern gastronomy, the three Michelin-starred, Modena-based chef Massimo Bottura of the former number one restaurant in the world Osteria Francescana follows up his 2014 book Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef with a compendium of recipes from his charitable ‘soup kitchen’ project Refettoria Ambrosiano that he created for Expo 2015 in Milan set in Teatro Greco, an abandoned and restored 1930’s theatre. The project continues to run as a community kitchen for homeless shelters using waste food from supermarkets.

What’s the USP?
All the dishes in the book were created by Bottura and dozens of other high profile chefs from around the world from ‘waste’ food from the Expo including wilted veg, bruised or over-ripe fruit and meat, fish poultry and diary close to their expiration date that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Who are these mysterious ‘friends’ who share the author credit?
Massimo is a well-connected guy and counts the likes of Alain Ducasse, Rene Redzepi, Daniel Humm and Ferran and Albert Adria among his many mates (more than 45 chefs have contributed to the book).

If Refettoria Ambrosiano is a soup kitchen, am I getting 400-odd pages of soup recipes?
Not quite. There are a dozen or so soups and broths including Redzepi’s Burnt Lime soup and Fish Soup with Bread Gnocchi by Antonia Klugmann from L’Argine a Vencó restaurant in Italy, but the 150 recipes cover the usual starters, mains and desserts. Given the nature of the project (a chef jetted in for a day and improvised a meal for a hundred people using whatever ingredients were to hand) some repetition of ideas and ingredients is inevitable. So there’s nine meatballs recipes, two for meatloaf and dozens involving stale bread; no surprise given the book’s title.

About that title, bread isn’t gold is it? Otherwise that loaf of sliced white going mouldy in my cupboard would be worth a fortune.
It’s the name of a Bottura signature dish created in memory of his late mother and based on the chef’s childhood memory of eating zuppa di latte or milk soup for breakfast which he made by grating leftover bread into a bowl of warm milk with sugar and a splash of coffee. The recipe, included in the book, is made from layers of salted caramel ice cream, caramel bread croutons and bread and sugar cream topped with a bread crisp sprinkled with edible gold dust.

Why should I buy the book?
Food waste in professional kitchens continues to be a big talking point and Bottura is leading the discussion. The book provides lots of inspiration for how to use produce that might otherwise end up in the bin which means you’re not only doing the world some good, but it could well help you cut your food costs. As well as the recipes, it’s also a great read with a one-page introduction to each chef, explaining how they prepared their meals and telling the story of the project.

What won’t I like?
At £29.95, you might expect hard-covers and glossy pages. What you actually get is soft covers and what appears to be recycled, matt paper which means the images are not as pin sharp as you might like. However, it’s all in keeping with the ‘make do’ ethos of Bottura’s Food For Soul charity that Refettoria Ambrosiano is a part of and to which all royalties from the book will be donated to, so stop complaining!

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
£29.95, Phaidon
Bread Is Gold

At My Table by Nigella Lawson

Nigella At My Table

What is it? TV tie-in to Nigella’s latest BBC TV cookery show with about 100 recipes celebrating home cooking.

Nigella who? You’re kidding, right? Nigella is the famously sultry queen of British food writing and broadcasting who could sexualise a sultana at 100 paces. She has ten other books to her name including How To Be a Domestic Goddess, numerous TV shows and appearances and a hugely popular website.

In 2013, she transcended foodie-fame to became tabloid fodder due to a messy divorce from former ad-man and art gallery owner Charles Saatchi. In the same year, revelations were made about her drug use during a court case involving the couple’s personal assistants.

What does it look like? A cook book. There are recipes. There are (mostly) overhead shots of the dishes to illustrate the recipes. The food styling is kept to an absolute minimum and anyone hoping for images of all those gorgeous rose-gold utensils, copper KitchenAid stand mixer, or indeed Nigella in her now-famous map-of-Venice silk dressing gown from the TV series will be sorely disappointed.

Is it good bedtime reading?  Sort of. This is first and foremost a recipe book but Nigella has such a distinctive and well developed writing voice that the extended introductions are just a joy to read at any time.

Killer recipes?  Coconut shrimp with turmeric yoghurt; Turkish eggs; toasted Brie, Parma ham and fig sandwich; sweet potato tacos; white miso hummus; roast loin of salmon with Aleppo pepper and fennel seeds; Chicken barley (the list goes on).

Will I have trouble finding ingredients?  You may need to head online for Nigella’s favourite ingredient du jour, Aleppo pepper, but the book seems to be designed with the supermarket shopper in mind.

What’s the faff factor?  Nigella doesn’t understand the meaning of the word. She is faff antimatter that annihilates the very idea of unnecessary arsing about in the kitchen. If she can make something simple and easy, she will.

How often will I cook from the book?  At My Table is a book you could turn to for mid-week meal inspiration, a weekend baking session, special occasion dining or when entertaining friends. So if you like Nigella’s style, you won’t be leaving her on the shelf.

What will I love?  The sheer range of the recipes, from simple tray bakes with familiar, comforting ingredients and flavours like chicken and peas to more exotic creations such as Moroccan vegetable pot and brussels sprouts with preserved lemon and pomegranate. ‘Subverting the spiralizer’ cocks a well deserved snook at the clean eating brigade by re-purposing the movement’s emblematic gadget to make down and dirty shoestring fries.

Nigella is always reliable when it comes to desserts and baking and At My Table doesn’t disappoint with the likes of sunken chocolate amaretto cake and warm blondie pudding. She knows her booze too and negroni sbagliato made with prosecco, Campari and red vermouth is destined to become the drink of the chattering classes, and just anyone who buys the book.

What won’t I like?  Some may object to Nigella’s shortcut style (‘better behaved cooks would tell you to skim off the frothy bits that rise to the top but, frankly, I’m to lazy to’ she admits in the method for her chicken barley stew) but we know what we think of those people don’t we?

Should I buy it? Despite the almost utilitarian design, you should welcome Nigella to your table. You won’t regret it.

Cuisine: British/Eclectic
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking
£26, Chatto and Windus

Broth to Bowl by Drew Smith

Broth to Bowl

What is it? Sixty-odd soup recipes based around six base broths and their variations.

Who wrote it? Drew Smith, a former Good Food Guide Editor and author of Oyster: A Gastronomic History with Recipes.

What does it look like? The clean, elegant layout makes it a pleasure to use and Tom Regester’s unfussy photography and simple food styling means soup has never looked so good.

Is it good bedtime reading? Apart from a short introductory chapter, this is primarily a recipe book for the kitchen rather than the nightstand.

Killer recipes? Quick tom yum; flaming oxtail broth; scampi, pea shoots and tofu in miso broth.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? There is nothing really obscure here and you will probably find most things you need in your local Waitrose, although you will need to shop in the organic aisle for your veg (‘you don’t want to be making a consomme of pesticides’ warns Smith). Head to your nearest Asian supermarket for some of the ingredients used in the chapter on kombu and develop a good relationship with your neighbourhood butcher and fishmonger (if you are lucky enough to have them) for items like pig’s trotters, oysters and gurnard.

What’s the faff factor? Depends on which recipes you choose. If you cook from the ‘Meat’ chapter, you’ll need to spend 2 days preparing the basic beef bone broth before you’ll be able to tackle some of the actual soups. On the other hand, you can whip up gazpacho in a few minutes. On the whole though, Smith favours ‘cooking slowly’ so be prepared to stick around for a few hours to tend something gently bubbling away on the hob or in the oven.

How often will I cook from the book? If you follow Smith’s example, at least once a week, otherwise you’ll need to be in the mood for a bit of a kitchen project.

What will I love? Smith’s obvious passion for his subject comes through loud and clear; he really wants you to not just enjoy eating soup, but take great pleasure from making it. If you are in tune with the concept of mindfulness, you will lap up Broth to Bowl.

What won’t I like? At 160 pages, the book is a bit on the short side. You may wonder why Smith couldn’t come up with more variations on each of the broths. Some aspects of the recipes are glossed over. The introduction for vegetable tea says to ‘ vary the spices, vegetables and herbs with the seasons’ but gives no example substitutions. The method for basic beef bone broth says to ‘ ‘spread the meats and bones across the bottom of a large casserole’ but the ingredients list doesn’t include bones. Garnishes are dealt with in one page with no recipes and no suggestions of which soups in the book they could be served with.

Should I buy it? If you eat soup on a regular basis and are looking for inspiration of new things to put in your bowl, then, despite some shortcomings, this could be the book for you. You may also want to consider A Celebration of Soup: With Classic Recipes from Around the World (Cookery Library) by Lindsey Bareham.

Cuisine: Modern European
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars

Buy this book
Broth to Bowl: Mastering the art of great soup from six simple broths
£20, Modern Books

Hook Line Sinker by Galton Blackiston

Hook Line Sinker

The silver-edged pages of Hook Line Sinker glint in the light, like the skin of the fresh sea bass featured on the cover of this strikingly designed book – it’s even wrapped in a transparent PVC dust jacket. It looks just as good on the inside too (not surprising; it’s from the company that published Sat Bains’s sumptuous Too Many Chiefs Only One Indian) with bold typography and images of not just the food but also the Norfolk coast that is the book’s inspiration.

Galton Blackiston is ideally qualified to write a seafood cookbook.  A keen fisherman from childhood, he’s been chef patron of Michelin-starred Morston Hall for 25 years where seafood is an important part of the menu, and more recently opened No 1, a modern fish and chip restaurant in Cromer.

Blackiston’s approach to seafood is simple; ‘it has to be fresh, needs to be cooked with precision, and there’s little room for error. You just need to have a good seafood supplier and cook it well’. He’s applied a similar ethos to compiling the recipes, not attempting to write a definitive seafood guide, simply gathering some of his favourite restaurant dishes from over the years that also work for the home cook.

Although there is a chapter dedicated to main courses, Blackiston eschews the traditional starter category (there’s no desserts, no one wants a fishy pudding after all), instead organising the remaining recipes into ‘quick and easy’, ‘small plates’, ‘stress free’ and ‘spicy seafood’ allowing readers to dip in according to mood and time available.

The thorny, complex issue of sustainability isn’t addressed (a bluefin tuna dish is included, a fish that has suffered from plummeting stocks) and the recipes stick to better-known varieties like salmon, prawns, scallops and crab. But the dishes are nevertheless delicious, ranging from a classic fillet of sea trout with samphire and beurre blanc to lager, soy and ginger-fried whitebait with wasabi aioli.

What comes across loud and clear from this collection is that Blackiston has a singular culinary mind; yes, he’s included crowd pleasers like salt and pepper squid, but dishes like crab jelly with pea panna cotta set the inventive tone. Hook Line Sinker has been 25 years in the making. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait a quarter of a century for the follow up.

This review was originally published in The Caterer magazine

Cuisine: Modern European
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Hook Line Sinker: A Seafood Cookbook
£25 Face Publications

The Complete Practical Cook by Charles Carter

Reviewed by Sam Bilton

Long before chefs began coveting stars, their reputations were built on the social standing of their patron. The bigger the ‘nob’ you worked for, the more prestige your position as a chef held in the 18th century. Charles Carter’s patrons included the Duke of Argyll, General Wood and several lords. He had the advantage of having working in several European countries where he had been exposed to a wider variety of flavours (like garlic) than many of his English counterparts. He was very proud of his achievements and doesn’t shy away from telling the reader so in the introduction to The Complete Practical Cook (1730).

Despite his lack of modesty, a lot of what Carter says still holds true today. He believes cookery is an art and that good cooks should be rewarded for their skill. He is highly critical of unscrupulous cooks who pass off other’s work as their own. He even starts the book by extolling the virtues of a good stock, a maxim which is as true now as it was in the 18th century.

The recipes are very much of their time, with many many meat-based dishes beloved by his wealthy benefactors. Nose to tail eating was definitely the order of the day. The recipe for Olio Podreda (a type of Spanish stew) contains 11 breeds of bird including pheasants, ducks and larks plus beef, pork, veal and mutton, not to mention hogs ears, trotters, sausages and ham. The dish is served with a ‘ragout’ of pallets, sweetbreads, lamb stones, cockscombs and a hefty dose of truffles. You get the meat sweats just by reading the recipe.

A few recipes, like To Pot Otter, Badger or Young Bear, are decidedly odd and are likely to offend some 21st century sensibilities. However, others like Buttered Crab, Eggs à la Switz (a spiced up version of eggs florentine), Pike Babacu’d or Beef la Tremblour (slow cooked rump or sirloin ‘till it is so tender that it will tremble or shake like a quaking pudding’) sound reassuringly familiar once you get past the archaic language. Some like Tamarind Tort or Caraway Cakes are crying out to be rediscovered by a modern audience. Unlike modern cookery books there is no strict division between savoury and sweet dishes reflecting the way meals were served à la francaise. Carter even provides a number of diagrams at the back of the book with suggestions for different dinners according to the season or occasion.

Clearly for the 21st century cook, this is far from a practical book. The recipes are designed to cater for large households so inevitably require scaling down. Some of the ingredients he uses, like eringo roots (candied sea holly roots) or ambergris (whale vomit) are difficult to come by or are best avoided. Carter claims this book will make cooks more inventive and a certain degree of ingenuity is required to make these recipes work today. If you have any interest in England’s culinary heritage it’s worth persevering with The Complete Practical Cook if for no other reason than to prevent it from being forgotten.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Food historians
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

SAM BILTON
Sam is a food blogger at comfortablyhungry.com with a keen interest in food history. She also runs a historically themed supper club called Repast.

Ensenada fish tacos by Rick Stein

071_EnsenadaFriedFishTacosI.jpg

For many years the beaches on the north coast of Cornwall were patrolled by Australian lifeguards, originally because they had the surf life-saving skills that were unfamiliar to the locals. For me, this meant many summers of friendship with pleasant Australians,all of whom seemed to be sunny and optimistic. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you, with a summer in Cornwall and lots of locals finding you irresistible? One such lifeguard was Rudi, who used to return year after year. Everyone was extremely fond of him – so much so that we filmed a little sequence about a trip he’d made to Ensenada on the Baja California coast, where they made fabulous fish tacos. We cooked some on the beach in Cornwall by the lifeguard hut, and Rudi took Chalky, my Jack Russell, out for a little surfing lesson. Sadly, when back in Australia five years later, Rudi died of cancer and I always thought that one day I’d get to Ensenada and find the tacos.

Serves six
12 x 15cm Corn tortillas
(page 44 or bought)
600g cod fillet
100g plain flour, seasoned
with pinch of salt and
6 turns black peppermill
1 litre corn or vegetable oil
For the batter
200g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
275ml ice-cold beer
For the toppings
¼ small white cabbage,
finely shredded
1 avocado, stoned,
peeled and diced
Pico de gallo salsa
Hot chilli sauce, such as
Cholula or Huichol
For the chipotle crema
2 Chipotles en adobo
(page 298 or bought)
3 tbsp mayonnaise
3 tbsp soured cream
Juice of ½ lime

Warm the tortillas in a dry frying pan, in a microwave or in the oven. Get your toppings – shredded cabbage, diced avocado, pico de gallo salsa, and hot chilli sauce – ready. Mix the ingredients for the crema and set aside.

To make the batter, sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a roomy bowl. Using a balloon whisk, incorporate the beer until you have a smooth batter. Set aside.

Cut the fish into fingers about 1cm thick. Heat the oil in a large pan to 190°C. Dip a few pieces of fish into the seasoned flour, shake off the excess, then dip them into the batter. Fry for 2–2½ minutes until crisp and golden. Repeat until you’ve cooked all the fish, draining each batch briefly on kitchen paper to remove excess oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt.

Serve the fish immediately in warm tortillas, with the toppings on the table for guests to help themselves.

Buy this book
Rick Stein: The Road to Mexico (TV Tie in)
Read the review

This is Mine by Mark Dodson

This is Mine

You may know that Mark Dodson has held a Michelin star at The Mason’s Arms, his Devon pub, since 2006. You’ll probably also know that he’s a former head chef of The Waterside Inn. But you may not realise that he’s the only Brit ever to hold that position or that he spent a total of 18 years at the restaurant. And you almost certainly won’t have a clue that his favourite film director is Quentin Tarantino and that he has a huge collection of vinyl and gig ticket stubs.

You’ll discover all this and more reading his debut cookbook (the obscure title is explained by the cover strapline ‘I believe that every good chef has a cookery book in them…this is mine) which includes a glowing introduction by Michel Roux Snr (‘I look upon Mark as I look upon my son’) and a brief but illuminating biographical section.

Dodson describes his cooking style as ‘good honest food, featuring local ingredients wherever possible presented with style and taste’, neatly summing up the 70 recipes that are categorised into soups, starters, mains and desserts. In addition, there’s a section dedicated to game, a passion of Dodson’s with preparations ranging from classic roasted grouse with bread sauce and a crouton spread with farce au gratin (a sort of pate made from grouse and chicken livers) to wood pigeon with curried brussels sprouts.

Dodson has been cooking since the 70’s and his classical background is reflected in garnishes like turned and Parisienne-balled vegetables, fanned duck breasts and chicken cooked in a brick. There’s also a fair amount of 90’s-style stacking of food, but there’s a nod to modernism with dragged purees and pickled and smoked elements. Dodson also looks far beyond Britain and France for inspiration; smoked chicken comes with Thai-style salad and salmon is marinated in soy, mirin and yuzu.

The book won’t win any prizes for design with a dated and unimaginative layout and oddly lit photography that makes some dishes look washed out and unappetising. The editing could have been improved too with recipe introductions not delineated from the method and no instructions on how to prepare some ingredients in some recipes, making for a frustrating read at times. However, the book does offer an invaluable opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge accrued by one of the UK’s most respected and experienced chefs. This is Mine should also be yours.

This review was originally published in The Caterer magazine.

Cuisine: Modern European/French
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars

Buy this book
This Is Mine
£25 A Way with Media

The Road to Mexico by Rick Stein

The Road to Mexico by Rick Stein

Restaurateur and seafood expert Rick Stein has been absolutely bloody everywhere. He’s written numerous cookbooks (many of them with an accompanying TV series) covering France, Spain, India, the Med, the Far East, most of Europe and the UK. Now he’s turned his attention to Mexico and California with The Road to Mexico. The book, and TV series, retraces Steins steps from nearly 50 years ago when, as he explains in the introduction, he ‘crossed the border from the USA at Neuvo Laredo and headed for the city of Monterrey’ and ordered some tacos in a bar.

His recent experience of Mexico was undoubtedly more luxurious than his original trip, swapping hitch-hiking, Greyhound buses and German cargo ships for a pale blue convertible Mustang, but the food probably hasn’t changed all that much in intervening half-a-century. Tortillas, tacos, enchiladas, corn, chilies and avocado abound. Recipes include ‘the original Caesar salad’ from Caesar Hotel in Tijuana made with salted white anchovies; refried beans, guacamole and roasted red tomato and chilli salsa. A short section on staples like guacatillo sauce made with tomatillos, avocado and chilies and a list of essential Mexican larder ingredients make the book a perfect primer for the first-time Mexican cook.

Each of the seven chapters that cover breakfasts and brunch, street food, vegetables and sides, fish and shellfish, poultry, meat and desserts and drinks is prefaced by a short essay by Stein, which, combined with the comprehensive and informative recipe introductions and the vividly colourful location photography makes for a satisfying travelogue.

Because the recipes are arranged into categories rather than place of origin, you’ll need to watch the series to get a proper sense of the regional variations of Mexican cuisine, and to understand why California has been included. Stein avers that ‘there is so much Mexican influence in Californian food’, and while that is true, recipes like Italian cioppino (monkfish, mussel and prawn stew) from Tadich Grill, chicken noodle soup with yellow bean sauce from chef Martin Yan’s M.Y China and Alice Waters’ rhubarb galette Chez Panisse (all in San Francisco) don’t reflect that influence.

So, the book’s premise might be a bit shaky and the recipe selection scattershot, but that shouldn’t prevent you from cooking from it. Recipes are well written, easy to follow and for the most part straightforward to prepare. Stein has an unerring nose for a great dish and The Road to Mexico has enough of them to make it a must buy for Stein’s many fans and anyone who wants to find out more about one of the world’s greatest, and most fashionable, cuisines.

Cuisine: Mexican/American
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Rick Stein: The Road to Mexico (TV Tie in)
£26 BBC Books

Cook from this book
Ensenada fish tacos
Turkey breast with pasilla chipotle chilli butter sauce
Mexican rice pudding with honeycomb

Downtime by Nadine Levy Redzepi

Downtime

What is it?  An enticing collection of sophisticated recipes for the home cook by a new name in food writing

Redzepi – why does that sound familiar? Nadine Levy Redzepi is the wife of world-famous Danish chef Rene Redzepi of Noma fame.  This is her debut book.

What does it look like? The book’s design has all the Nordic stripped back chic you might hope for. The mostly overhead food photography by Ditte Isager is simple and uncluttered, allowing the dishes to speak for themselves. High-quality glossy paper means the reproduction of the images is so lifelike that you almost want to plunge a fork into the pages.

Is it good bedtime reading? A forward by hubby, plus an introduction and comprehensive autobiographical ‘A Life in the Home Kitchen’ section by the author that covers her Portuguese and Scandinavian food roots, along with chapter introductions and chunky recipe introductions means Downtime won’t just live in your kitchen.    

Killer recipes? Beef glazed celeriac with buttermilk sauce; cheese ravioli with brown butter egg yolks, parmesan and sage; kale and mushroom carbonara; quinoa salad with spiced onions; brownies with flaky salt and white chocolate chunks.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients?  It seems that great care has been taken to make these recipes as accessible as possible so you should be able to find everything you need at your local supermarket.

What’s the faff factor?  Minimal. The recipes are all about making delicious food for your family rather than exercising your cheffy inclinations. That said, three Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller’s elegant recipe for ratatouille (from the film of the same name) is included in the book.

How often will I cook from the book?  With everything from soups to pasta dishes and roasts to desserts (including a twist on tiramisu with a cheesecake-like crust), you could easily find yourself reaching for the book on a daily basis.

What will I love?  The book’s luxurious look and feel and the accessible and well-written recipes.

What won’t I like?  I’ll get back to you on that.

Should I buy it? If you feel that your repertoire of daily dishes has become somewhat stale, then this book will give your home cooking that inventive boost you’ve been searching for.

Cuisine: Nordic/international
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 4 Stars

Buy this book
Downtime: Deliciousness at Home
£26 Ebury

Cook from this book
Roasted ratatouille with orzo
Lasagne with sausage meatballs
Danish apple dessert

Author interview: Stephen Harris

040 SH seaweed.jpg
Stephen Harris photographed by Toby Glanville

How did The Sportsman book come about?
I wasn’t planning to do a book at all particularly, but then I got an email from Phaidon. I thought, I quite fancy doing something with them, they make such lovely books. My motive really was to make a souvenir, a representation of The Sportsman and the work that we’ve done over the last 17 years, so it was as simple as that really.

I love a cookbook when it’s not just a collection of recipes, but also tells the story of the restaurant which The Sportsman does brilliantly.   
Oh, thanks, that was the plan. I’m the same, I think we’ve probably got quite similar tastes in that respect. Just another recipe, photo, recipe, photo book can be lovely, but if you cook a lot you don’t often need that and its quite interesting to have a story, isn’t it?

I was a little bit intimidated by having to write the whole story, so I tried to do it episodically. I can write 1000-1500 words but as soon as it goes over that I’m a bit out of my depth, so I wrote essays. It appealed to me because I like that kind of Pulp Fiction thing where you move around in the story. It doesn’t insult the intelligence of the reader, it allows the reader to work it out for themselves.

Having written for The Telegraph for two years, I often have to assume no knowledge or intelligence on the part of the reader because that’s part of newspapers, everything has to be crystal clear- recipes that idiots can cook and all that kind of stuff. It was really nice to do a bit where actually I didn’t have to worry about that. I had a bit more of a free hand.

What are your favourite recipes from the book?
A few stand out. The one I’m really loving at the moment, it’s just gone back on the menu, is the pot roast red cabbage, that feels like a very modern dish. Rene Redzepi did this thing where he took a whole cauliflower, and, like a lot of people, I thought what a lovely idea. It makes you question the nature of a chicken versus a vegetable and why do we treat them differently. I thought I’d try a traditional cooking method applied to a winter vegetable and the result was spectacular. I love that dish.

The slip sole with seaweed butter is always going to be a big thing with us because that feels like a recipe with all the loose ends tied up, everything seems to work. It’s a local fish, its seaweed from the beach outside the pub, its butter from the diary, its salt from the sea, there’s something almost holistic about it.

You see slip soles on a lot of other people’s menus these days.
I know, I’m so chuffed.  I love it, I think some chefs get annoyed when their ideas get copied but I actually see it as flattery.

Unusually, the book contains recipes for some fundamental ingredients, right down to salt.
That was the route that I chose twelve or thirteen years ago – to go elemental rather than poncey. We got to the point where the kitchen was quite well set up, I had a good team and I was able to start thinking about my own style. It was almost like a fork in the road; shall I go down the route that most two and three-star chefs do where they refine everything, and they trim all the fun out of the food and I went the other route which was to go a bit more elemental, to think about things like salt and butter and bread the very basics of restaurants and to try and elevate them and make them as good as they could be.

Then this whole idea sprang up that there were some things I could make in my own kitchen that were better than I could buy from any supplier.  I used to love Echiré butter that you used to get in posh restaurants like Nico’s, it was so delicious, but I couldn’t afford it. But when I made my own butter that made a lot more sense. I always have to remind people that nobody was making their own butter in restaurants back then, so it was a radical idea, but it was also fantastic because it was a reflection of the landscape as well.

Has writing the book clarified in your own mind what your style is or was that already evident to you?
It was already there, but yeah, you’re right. Whenever you have to reflect a bit, inevitably it crystallises things and makes them a bit clearer. In that respect it was good. It was more just having to dredge into my own brain really and allow myself to look at it from that point of view. I don’t know whether it was revelatory, but it was a fun process.

How would you describe your cooking, it’s very distinctive isn’t it?
I suppose so, yeah. The Sportsman is like two restaurants in one. I’ve never really said it and not many people have observed this, but we do an a la carte which is for somebody who lives in Whitstable and wants to pop out for lunch, and then we do a tasting menu and it’s the tasting menu that I’ve put most work into in the last 10 years. When I wrote about a style of my own that was really it.

Olivier Roellinger and those kind of chefs developed a certain style. So Roellinger, I give the example in the book, was very much reflecting the spice trade in Saint-Malo; Michel Bras with his foraging reflecting the landscape on the plate, and that’s what the tasting menu is about really, it’s a bit more kind of highbrow but at the same time I’m also very keenly aware of not alienating people. My palate and my taste are quite traditional, and I love really tasty food. I think that’s the style.

It’s interesting that you mention chefs like Roellinger and Bras because you’re in the same category but you’re in a pub on the Kent coast. Have you ever been tempted to move The Sportsman into swanky restaurant premises?
No, I’ve never had a problem with that. I’ve always thought that anything’s possible where I am. The elephant in the room is their three Michelin stars versus our one, but I don’t mind that, I’m enjoying watching the arbiters of the food world struggling with the modern definitions of what’s good. We’ve added to that in a way. It’ll take you three or four visits to the Sportsman to realise, “oh wait a minute, this is really quite a serious restaurant”.

I’ve never had a problem with the idea that a pub is basically just a building same as a restaurant is and you can do whatever you like within reason. We don’t have locals because we’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no village around us, so that helps us to do whatever we like.  The usual things that apply to pubs don’t apply to us. Because I have carte blanche then it’s just about what feels right rather than what anyone’s trying to tell you to do.

How has your cooking evolved over the time The Sportsman has been open?
I started off, I was a keen amateur and cooked dinner parties for friends. I loved everything-Chinese food, Italian food, I was a bit more ‘global-kitcheny’ as we all were back in the 90’s. Then I found a way to teach myself to cook by going to Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, La Tante Claire and all those places that were around in the 90’s and copying them.

When I was a kid of 14, I bought a guitar and to learn how to play it – it’s not like now, you go on Youtube and any song you want to play you can watch someone play it – then I used to go to gigs, stand at the front and watch the guitarist, watch what his fingers did and try and do it as soon as I got home. And I suddenly realised that’s how I taught myself to cook. I went to the restaurant, ate the food, then I understood what it was supposed to taste like so when I went home to cook it, with the aid of quite a lot of books, it was the memory of what it was supposed to taste like in my head.

So that style of copying Ramsay and Marco and Nico was the first five years of the Sportsman. We would knock people out because we got close. We weren’t some rank amateurs who were out of our depth, we were delivering. It’s just that I wanted a bigger picture. I noticed that all the great chefs find an angle and my angle was the surrounding history of this area. I didn’t want to copy old recipes, I just wanted the landscape and the history to inform the tasting menu more than dominate it.

I started almost closing in on myself. It sounds restrictive but the reason I did it was because it such a remarkable few miles. It was owned by the kitchens of Canterbury Cathedral in the Doomsday Book, so for a thousand years it was their larder. There’s everything you need here – fish, seafood, lamb, pigs, salt making, hedgerows, it just goes on and on. I wrote them all down once and I thought, that’s enough, that’s a menu. There’s a concept behind it rather than just whatever’s nice that day. The food, when we send it out, feels like it reflects the surrounding area.

What’s your involvement with Noble Rot in London?
It started out as a wine fanzine. Dan and Mark who wrote it worked in the music industry with my brother Damien who lives in Brighton. Dan was married to my cousin who had also been working for Island Records. I met Dan and we hit it off about wine because we both like those slightly nerdy, culty wines.

He came and had a look in my cellar and saw Raveneau and Leflaive and all these great names and we bonded over that. Then three years after doing the magazine they said they wanted to start a wine bar and I just said, let me know when you do it, because I didn’t want them to mess the food up. I said, I’ll help you, thinking that they’d get a little wine bar like Sager and Wild and of course they found a 50-seater restaurant, but you know, sod’s law.

I got the chef and gave them some recipes to use; I just go up every couple of weeks and keep an eye on it now. I think they’re going to do another one in which case I will get back involved a bit more heavily. We’re really lucky, we’ve got a great head chef and a good team and so far, there haven’t been too many alarms, but I didn’t want the call at eight in the morning saying we haven’t got any staff, I can’t get involved on that level.

So, you’re still based at The Sportsman?
I’m still here at The Sportsman, its where I want to be. I don’t want a chain of restaurants, this is where I’ll be staying. I still cook every day. It’s different to how it was because for the first 10 years it was quite easy. Although we were busy it wasn’t mad, and you’d get the odd shift where you were quiet.

Now its 100 plus covers a day, every single day and that starts to mean that you have to have somebody running a section. That really has to be their whole job because there’s a lot of things to think about, a lot of planning, ordering, making sure everything goes out right.

I have chefs on each section and my job is to go through everything with them, taste all the stuff, monitor the food that’s coming out, coming up with new dishes, finding new ingredients, I like to meet the farmers I use and all that sort of stuff. That’s more my job, but that doesn’t preclude me from being in the kitchen every day, but I just tend to get in the way now. But it’s still great, it’s lovely. As I get a bit older it suits me better than working a section and doing 13-14 hour days.

My head chef has been with me 17 years my sous chefs have been with me for 10-12 years, it’s a bit of a family business as well, my brother is here, Emma my girlfriend works up front and does various things for the restaurant, although I’m the only one that tends to get mentioned. That was another thing in the book, I wanted to let the others share a bit of the blame, that’s why I put the interviews with them and let them talk to the editors, just to share it rather than it all being on me.

Talking of being in the spotlight, have you ever been tempted to do TV?
There’s been a couple of television companies sniffing around, but it’s all the same old shit – amateurs cooking and you judge them. It’s like, ‘haven’t you made enough of these programmes yet?’ I wouldn’t mind doing something interesting, but I think I’m a bit too old now, I think I missed the boat. Ten years ago I would have been a good choice, but I’m not bothered, that’s cool.

Chef’s Table came here a while ago to do a recce but we haven’t heard anything back from them. I like their stories, they’re a bit more interesting than your average one and I think that’s what Phaidon were drawn to, the story. You might be a really great chef cooking, knocking out three-star, two-star food but if you haven’t got much of a story, what kind of a book are you going to do? And I think that’s the same with Chef’s Table.

This is your first book, will there more?  
I don’t know, I don’t think so. Actually, that question came up because when I wrote down all the recipes there were nearly 250 and we only had room for 55 in the book, so there is a lot of stuff left over. You can knock out a hundred of them because they’re dated slightly, but there’s still a lot that’s not in there so it’s possible. I don’t know how it works, if they ask me I’d have to think about it but no plans at the moment.

Read the review

Buy the book
The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
£29 Phaidon

Cook from the book
Salmagundi
Slip sole in seaweed butter
Warm chocolate mousse

River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers, Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Rose Gray

River Cafe 30

River Cafe 30 commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most influential restaurants in London. Before Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray opened what was a nine table lunchtime-only canteen for the architects and designers who work in the converted Thames Wharf warehouse in Hammersmith that houses the restaurant, there were only fake trattorias serving generic Italian fare. The River Cafe introduced the notion of regional Italian cooking to the UK; of new season’s olive oil, cavalo nero, Tuscan bread soups, hand made pasta and the infamous flour-less Chocolate Nemesis cake, a recipe that no home cook it seemed could master, me included.

Taken purely as a collection of recipes, there is much to recommend River Cafe 30. This is simple, delicious, ingredient-led food requiring, in most cases, minimal skill from the home cook. If you can’t afford the premier league Italian produce that the restaurant’s reputation stands and falls by, then you’ll still derive a huge amount of pleasure from knocking up dishes like linguine with crab; spinach and ricotta gnocchi and pork cooked in milk. The ‘salsa’ chapter alone could transform your repertoire with killer sauces like bagnet made with capers, anchovies, bread, parsley, garlic, eggs, vinegar and oil.

However, this is not a book for the faint of wallet. The basic pasta recipe requires 13 eggs and that chocolate cake, one of a number of recipes recycled from the restaurant’s famous ‘blue’ cookbook from 1995, calls for well over half a kilo of ‘best quality’ dark chocolate. Follow River Cafe 30 to the letter and you’ll be bankrupt and homeless, although you will have a bit of extra fat to live off before you have to sell your extra virgin olive-oiled body to the night.

River Cafe 30 is a beautiful object with a vivid colour scheme inspired by the restaurant’s bright pink wood-fired oven, yellow pass and blue carpet. There are reproductions of menus drawn or painted on by artist fans that include Cy Twombly, Peter Doig, Damien Hirst and Michael Craig Martin along with evocative black and white photography depicting life in River Cafe’s open kitchen (one of the first in the country) and a moving tribute to the late Rose Gray by Ruth Rogers.

But where is the celebration of the countless chefs that have passed through The River Cafe’s kitchen? Not one word about Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall or Theo Randall, to name but three of the most high profile alumni. Three decades of culinary history are condensed into two brief pages of text plus some architectural drawings, a sample of one of the first menus and an article published in the New Yorker magazine in 1996.

Recipe introductions are sparse with little information about why dishes have been singled out for inclusion, their regional derivation or how they fit into the restaurant’s history. There isn’t even so much as a hint of how to use all those salsas.

Despite high production values, there is more than a whiff of cash-in about River Cafe 30. No doubt it will sell by the bucket load, especially to special occasion diners in search of a memento (River Cafe remains an exceptional place in which to eat your tea), but I can’t help but feel that this is a missed opportunity to properly celebrate one of Britain’s true culinary landmarks.

Cuisine: Italian
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars

Buy this book
River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers, Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Rose Gray
Food Photography by Matthew Donaldson
£28 Ebury Press

Cook from this book
Mezze paccheri, black pepper and langoustine
Risotto al Amarone di Valpolicella
Veal shin slow cooked with Barolo and sage

Book extract: First, Catch by Thom Eagle

First catch

I seek out and devour food writing in all of its forms – from lengthy and flowery introductions, through drily academic histories to the tersely scribbled instructions you sometimes find tucked into old cookbooks. But when I think of all the recipes I have read, professionally or otherwise, stacked up as it were in one gigantic pile on an overflowing workbench, the main sensation I feel is frustration.

All those neat little lists – take this, take that – as if cooking begins when you pick up an onion, or finishes as the dish goes on to the plate. So much more surrounds a meal and its making than just the bare facts of its enumerated parts. At the top of the page it just says ‘two onions,  chopped’, but someone had to grow them, to pick them, to store and transport and buy them, all before you take them from the vegetable rack or the fridge, halve them from root to tuft, and peel off the outermost layers of brown parchment; before you cut first in a wedging arch and then across, remembering the cook who taught you to let the onion fall into its own layers rather than force it apart into rigid dice, and wondering perhaps in passing why you are doing so, when the other recipe said sliced, when the other recipe contained no onion at all. The Koreans have a description for the specific qualities of a person’s cooking which translates as something like ‘the taste of your hands’; they know, I suppose, that knowledge rests in muscle and bone, which is never written down.

I have nothing against recipes. In fact I use them all the time, and am suspicious of cooks who claim never to do so. Recipes are a record of social and emotional histories as well as a means of travelling to almost any country or place you care to name, including, of course, the past. Anyone who tries to separate food from all of these things cooks for reasons I do not understand; it can only, I think, be vanity, trading the deep satisfaction of time for immediate gratification.

Yet, while useful to cook from, there is so much that recipes miss. The satisfaction of peeling a ripe, thick-skinned tomato, for instance, or unzipping a pod of broad beans; the smell of rosemary hitting gently warming olive oil; the yielding of a wing of skate to a gently pressing finger; the sight of a simply laid table in spring, awaiting the arrival of both people and lunch. None of this can be captured in a written recipe. These are sensations we feel behind the lines of our cookbooks, but the rigid lists that now fill them leave little room in which to do so, let alone to think about what we will do with this dish once we have cooked it. ‘Serve immediately’, these instructions end, but who to? Even a thousand recipes don’t make a meal.

Of all the contexts surrounding the acquisition and transformation of food, I think the meal itself is the most often forgotten. We cook in competition with ourselves now, imagining some bespectacled judge pacing around our chopping board and offering disparaging comments on our knife skills, our plating and our personal hygiene, while we collect and compare recipes of so-called genius and perfection, to be followed to the last detail. Whatever tortured dish emerges from such a process is designed not to be dug into with a questing fork, but to sit as it were under glass, to be admired one-on-one, alone. A plate is one part of a course, which is one part of a meal, so why fuss over the recipe so? I’d rather have, for example, a litre of wine, a pile of fresh pea pods, and many hands to peel and pour – with maybe a piece of cheese for afterwards.

Extracted from First, Catch: Story of a Spring Meal by Thom Eagle (Quadrille, £16.99)

Buy this book
First, Catch by Thom Eagle

The Mushroom Cookbook by Michael Hyams & Liz O’Keefe

The Mushroom Cookbook cover

What is it? A directory of the most widely available mushrooms, both wild and cultivated, plus a collection of 50 mushroom-based recipes. Michael Hyams, based in Covent Garden Market, is apparently known as The Mushroom Man and supplies markets and restaurants with fungi while co-writer Lix O’Keefe is a chef, recipe developer and food stylist.

What’s the USP? From morels to mousseron and portobello to pom pom, Hyams describes in detail 33 of the most widely available wild and cultivated mushroom varieties, listing alternative names, their Latin name, where the mushroom can be found and when, along with a detailed description of its appearance, flavour and texture and how it should be prepared and cooked. In the second half of the book, O’Keefe provides 50 ways to cook your fungi.

What does it look like? It’s a game of two halves. The first half that contains the directory is a reference work with the emphasis on providing simple, clear and well organised information. The photos are mainly of unadorned mushrooms against a white or grey background accompanied with step by step illustrations of how to clean and prepare them. By contrast, in the second recipe half, there is a serious amount of food styling going on with all manner of folded napkins, trays, boards, slates and other props to liven up proceedings.

Is it good bedtime reading? Although there is a lot to read in the book, it’s more of a reference work than something you’d want to cuddle up to last thing at night.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? There are a decent selection of fresh and dried mushrooms available in supermarkets these days and doubtless, you will find suppliers online (none are given in the book however) but for the more obscure varieties like lobster and saffron milkcap you might have to head out on an expert-led foraging trip (don’t try it by yourself – as the introduction points out, the book is not designed to be an identification guide for foraging and there are lots of poisonous varieties out there).

What’s the faff factor? A mix. There’s simple like creamy mixed mushroom and tarragon soup and there’s I’m-simply-never-going-to-make-that (mushroom sushi).

How often will I cook from the book? It really depends how much you like mushrooms; for most people, once in a while.

Killer recipes? Chinese mixed mushroom curry; Asian mushroom and pork ramen; wild mushroom and boar sausages

What will I love? The price. A 250 page, full-colour illustrated hardback cookbook for £15 is excellent value.

What won’t I like? Some of the recipes, like mushroom sushi, are a little gimmicky, there are some odd flavour combinations (Camembert and blackberry fondue on your mushroom burger anyone?) and some of the dishes like whole roast salmon with garlic pesto and truffle look messy and unappetising.

Should I buy it? At the knock-down price, it’s worth picking up for the mushroom directory alone.

Cuisine: Modern eclectic
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars

Buy this book
The Mushroom Cookbook: A Guide to Edible Wild and Cultivated Mushrooms – And Delicious Seasonal Recipes to Cook with Them
£15, Lorenz Books

Iced strawberry parfait by Russell Brown

WS Iced strawberry yoghurt parfait June-2

I dug up a wild strawberry plant some years ago from a hedge in my mum’s garden. Remarkably, given the neglect and various house moves, it is still alive and producing fruit. The harvest of a small handful of fragrant berries indicates that the strawberry season has properly started. There aren’t enough for a dish so instead they get muddled in the bottom of a flute and topped up with some sparkling wine. Pure essence of summer!

We need to look for a more abundant supply for this iced parfait, a classic combination of ripe fruit and something creamy. The essential part is a really flavoursome fruit purée, so choose your berries with care for this. The purée wants to be pleasantly sweet and may need a touch of sugar. The fruit sugar – fructose – is really good for enhancing the flavour of fruit compotes and purées and can be bought from most supermarkets or health food shops.

As an alternative, buy a good-quality strawberry purée. These are often intense in flavour and many only have a small added sugar content. The frozen purées available from specialist online shops are a great thing to have in the freezer for an impromptu dessert or cocktail.

Serves 8

NOTE: Start this recipe 24 hours ahead

For the parfait

4 large free-range egg yolks

2 tbsp water

100g caster sugar

85g full-fat natural yoghurt

1 leaf of gelatine, soaked in cold water

200g strawberry purée

100ml double cream mixed with 2 tsp semiskimmedmilk

lemon juice to taste

To serve

300g ripe strawberries

1ó tbsp caster sugar

16 shortbread biscuits

1. Place the egg yolks in a small, heatproof bowl that will fit over a saucepan to make a bainmarie.

2. In a heavy-based pan, mix the water and sugar and warm gently until the sugar has dissolved, then increase the heat and bring the syrup to 110˚C. Whisk the syrup gradually into the egg yolks and then place the bowl over a pan of simmering water. Whisk gently until the egg mix reaches 79˚C. At this stage the mix will be thick, creamy and quite stiff. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature, whisking occasionally. Whisk the yoghurt into the egg mix.

3. Next, drain the gelatine and place with a few spoonfuls of the puree in a small pan and heat gently, stirring constantly to dissolve the gelatine. Whisk this back into the remaining puree and then whisk the puree into the yoghurt mix. Whip the cream and milk to very soft peaks and gently fold this through the fruit mix. Add lemon juice to taste. (The gelatine can be omitted, but using it makes the parfait slightly softer and easier to cut, as well as holding its shape better on the plate as it starts to defrost.)

4. Lightly oil a small loaf tin and line with a double thickness of cling film, using a clean tea towel to push the film tightly into the corners of the tin. Pour in the parfait mix and freeze overnight.

5. Remove the parfait from the freezer 20 minutes before serving. Hull the strawberries and cut into pieces if large. Mix with the sugar, which will draw a little moisture from the berries and form a glaze. Slice the parfait as required,

wrapping any leftovers tightly in cling film and returning to the freezer if you don’t use it all at once.

6. Serve the sliced parfait with the berries and biscuits. More cream is, of course, always an option.

Extracted from
Well Seasoned: Exploring, Cooking and Eating with the Seasons
£25, Head of Zeus

More recipes from this book
Harissa mackerel flatbreads with quick pickled cucumber
Warm salad of new season’s spring lamb

Read the review

Harissa mackerel flatbreads with quick pickled cucumber by Jonathan Haley

WS Harissa mackerel June-1

These spicy flatbreads are perfect for an informal summer lunch. The cooling cucumber and light yoghurt dressing are a great match for punchy North African spices and rich fish.

To remove the pin bones (the line of small bones that runs down the centre of each fillet), use a small, very sharp knife and cut at an angle either side of the line, creating a V-shaped channel. Lift one end of the strip with the tip of the knife and pull away gently in one piece. As an alternative, the bones can be pulled out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers or tweezers while pressing down gently on the fillet behind the bone. It’s not difficult but your fishmonger will also happily do it for you.

Serves 4 as a generous starter or light lunch

For the dressing

150g natural yoghurt

40g harissa paste

ó lemon, juice only

For the pickled cucumber

ó large cucumber

Maldon sea salt

50ml cider (or white wine) vinegar

50g caster sugar

For the fish

4 large, fresh mackerel, filleted and pin bones removed

4 tsp harissa paste

1 tbsp oil for frying

8 large, soft flatbreads

1. Preheat the oven to 150˚C.

2. Make the dressing by spooning the yoghurt into a small bowl. Stir in the harissa, add the lemon juice and stir well.

3. Peel the cucumber and slice in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds using a teaspoon and slice into ócm crescents. Season the cucumber with a generous pinch of salt.

4. Prepare the pickling liquid by stirring the sugar and vinegar together until dissolved. Pour the liquid over the cucumber pieces and put to one side, turning occasionally while you prepare the fish.

5. Spread 1/2 tsp of harissa paste onto the flesh side of each mackerel fillet. Add the oil to a large, non-stick frying pan on a high heat and fry the fish, skin side down, for about 3 minutes. The fillets will curl up as they hit the heat but gentle, firm pressure from a palette knife will flatten them out again. Don’t be tempted to move them around the pan. When the skin is browned and crispy, turn and fry for 30 seconds more, flesh side down.

Extracted from
Well Seasoned: Exploring, Cooking and Eating with the Seasons
£25, Head of Zeus

More recipes from this book
Warm salad of new season’s spring lamb
Iced strawberry parfait

Read the review

Warm salad of new season’s spring lamb by Russell Brown

WS Salad of new seasons spring lamb April-1

It is only later in April that spring lamb becomes more widely available. There may have been some for Easter but, as Jon has mentioned, leaving it until a bit later in the season is a sensible option. From the cook’s point of view, it is the delicacy of spring lamb that we want to enjoy; the meat is paler and has a sweeter flavour than when it is more mature, and this really shines through in this light warm salad.

The prime cuts of lamb – the loin, fillet, rack and rump – all work well cooked to medium rare or medium, while the harder-working muscles, such as the legs or shoulders, benefit from slower roasting or braising. The one problem with small portions of lamb is that the membrane between the fat and the meat very rarely breaks down before the meat is cooked. A rump will usually work, given its larger size, but a piece of loin is often better cooked as a lean eye of meat.

Serves 4 as a light main course

1 x 300g piece lamb loin, trimmed of all fat and sinew. (Reserve the fat.)

oil for frying the lamb

25g unsalted butter

100g rustic bread, cut into croutons

1 head of chicory

100g ricotta

2 tbsp light olive oil

15g Parmesan, finely grated

1 lemon

100g watercress, large stalks removed

2 tsp capers

Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Start by rendering the lamb fat for frying the croutons. Cut the fat into small pieces and colour in a heavy pan. Add enough water to cover by 1cm and then simmer gently until all the water has evaporated. You should be left with liquid fat and the solids. Strain and reserve the rendered fat.

2. Season the lamb loin well with salt and pepper. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy nonstick pan. Seal the lamb all over to create a rich, dark colour. Add a second tablespoon of oil to cool the pan slightly and then add the butter, turning the lamb in the foaming butter over a low to medium heat for 3–4 minutes – aim for medium rare. Remove the lamb to rest on a plate in a warm place, retaining a dessertspoonful of the fat from the pan.

3. Fry the croutons in the rendered lamb fat until crisp and golden.

4. Break the chicory into individual leaves and cut any really large leaves in half at an angle.Wash and dry.

5. In a small food processor, blend the ricotta with the olive oil, Parmesan, a good grating of lemon zest and 2 tsp of lemon juice. Season to taste.

6. Toss the leaves together and scatter the croutons on top. Slice the lamb thinly and arrange on the leaves. Mix any lamb juices with a little of the fat from the frying pan and drizzle over the meat. Spoon the dressing and scatter the capers over the top. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and a little more grated lemon zest.

Extracted from
Well Seasoned: Exploring, Cooking and Eating with the Seasons
£25, Head of Zeus

More recipes from this book
Harissa mackerel flatbreads with quick pickled cucumber
Iced strawberry parfait

Read the review