root, stem, leaf, flower by Gill Meller

root stem leaf flower

What’s the USP? Go wild (go wild!) go wild in the country, where nettles in a bush are absolutely free. It’s time to eschew meat and fish for all that lovely fruit and veg that you know will do you good. And here’s Gill Mellor with dirt on his hands and love in his heart to show you ‘how to cook with vegetables and other plants’.

Who is the author? You’ll know Gill Mellor from such books as Outdoor Cooking: River Cottage Handbook No.17 and Time by Gill Meller previously reviewed on this site and awarded a whopping 4 stars (I must have been feeling generous that day. I’m kidding. Or am I?). As I mentioned in that review, Meller is an alumni of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage organization and is a chef, food writer and teacher. His first book Gather won the Fortnum and Mason award for Best Debut Food Book in 2017.

Is it good bedtime reading? There’s a fairly chunky introduction to the book and the recipe introductions are interesting and informative, but this is a cookbook for the kitchen rather than one for the bedside table. If you actually enjoy what there is to read will depend on your tolerance for Food Writing with a captial F and capital W; the stuff that usually results from an English degree and a lifetime reading Elizabeth David, Richard Olney and Nigel Slater. It’s the sort of adjective-heavy prose where radishes have a ‘tussle of coarse green leaves on top’ and you find ‘lucent green’ gooseberries among a ‘burr and wrangle of thorns’.

It will also depend on your tolerance for being told how to shop and cook. There is nothing particularly radical in Meller’s suggestion to eat organic, local and seasonal, or in his assertion that ‘we need to be eating less meat and fish’ and that what we do eat should come from ‘ethical and sustainable sources’ and from ‘animals that have led natural, happy lives’. But it’s easy for him as a professional food writer to say that and less easy for those working full time with a family to feed and limited time and financial resources to live up to those lofty ideals. Meller places all the onus on the individual to do the right thing and makes no suggestion that changes should be made at the food supply chain level in order to make produce that meets his stringent criteria easily available and affordable to all. Instead, there is the implication that you are falling short as a human being if you don’t buy organic, sustainable, ethically produced goods. And frankly, fuck that.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? If you are going to adhere to the Meller mantra of organic, sustainable, ethically produced stuff, then you will be narrowing the field substantially. However, most of the actual ingredients are not that obscure and you should be able to track them down without too much effort, especially if you are willing to eat ordinary people’s food. You’ll die sooner and be killing the planet with every single bite, but at least you’re not a serial killer with someone chained up in your cellar. Are you? I mean, if you are, I don’t approve obviously, but it’s interesting, isn’t it? I know lots of people are bored with serial killers but I think there’s an enduring fascination. Drop me a line, there’s a contact widget somewhere on this site, tell me about your sickness.

What’s the faff factor? Have we stopped talking about serial killers already? Oh well. WHAT’S THE FAFF FACTOR? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW? IS THAT REALLY WHAT’S BOTHERING YOU RIGHT AT THIS PRESENT MOMENT IN TIME? Sorry, I don’t know why I’m shouting. I haven’t had my meds today and lockdown is really starting to get to me. Faff factor, yes, good point. You should know about that before you buy a book. You work hard for your money, you don’t want to waste it on something you’re never going to use. It’s a reasonable question. I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal about it. I mean, I write the bloody questions myself, it’s not as though someone is dictating to me what I need to tell you. So, faff factor. Faaaaaaaaf faaaaaactor. Try saying that out loud. It’s funny. Like the Shadrack scene in Billy Liar.You know the bit. Actually, you’re probably too young. Or from a country where they never showed the film on the telly. You should stream it. Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, faffing about. No, the recipes are fine really, they’re mostly short and straightforward. You can judge for yourself; I’ve posted a couple of recipes for you to try (the publisher only allowed two instead of the usual three for some reason. Gill’s special. So special.) The links are at the bottom of the page because this is such a well-designed site.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? You will find the odd ‘small pinch of sea salt’ which is fine, and a ‘small handful’ of this and that which is OK if you’ve got small hands or know someone who has that could come to your house and grab a handful of herbs for you, although exactly how small their hands need to be isn’t really clear. Just be sensible about it. Perhaps ask a child. No, don’t do that. Unless you’re related to them, then it’s OK.

More annoying is ‘the juice of half a lemon’. Why do recipes rarely give ml measures for lemon juice? I mean, it’s a liquid just like any other isn’t it? And the amount you put in a recipe will affect the final result. I don’t know if you’ve bought a lemon recently, but the amount of juice that you get out of them varies massively from a meager teaspoon to a flood. They are as unpredictable as, erm, something that it’s politically correct to describe as unpredictable. I’m not sure what that might be. Me. I’m unpredictable. The amount of juice you get out of a lemon is as unpredictable as the mood I’ll be in when I wake up on any given day. And that’s pretty unpredictable. Imagine the mood I’m in now, writing this. You don’t want to know.

How often will I cook from the book? How often do you imagine you might fancy ‘tomatoes in the hole’ instead of toad? That’s the question you need to ask yourself. Ultimately, the amount you use this book will depend on precisely how middle class you are. That’s just the truth. Take this stupid quiz and find out. When you discover that the stupid quiz appeared in the Mirror and you decide you don’t want to take it because you don’t want anything to do with that disgusting rag, congratulations, you are middle class and you will cook from this book a lot. If you do decide to take the quiz, it doesn’t matter what your score is, you have read something in the Mirror and are by default not middle class and the book will collect dust languorously on your shelf. Power to the people.

Killer recipes: Do we have to do this? OK (sighs) they include: sweetcorn, rosemary and smoked cheddar soufflé; squash, lentil, tomato and rosemary pie; salted chocolate pumpkin tart; asparagus and quinoa salad with peas and broad beans.

What will I love? The photography by Andrew Montgomery is up to his usual very high standards and there’s a good amount of variety in the recipes, given the relatively narrow subject matter. That was sensible wasn’t it?

What won’t I like so much? Meller’s editors have failed to dissuade him from writing poems. I love poetry. I read lots of it, from Renaissance to 21st Century (give Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough a go) and I even write some myself. I’m just not convinced a cookbook is the right platform for it. Or maybe I just don’t like Meller’s poems. Sorry Gill.

Should I buy it? This book isn’t really for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not for you. There’s nothing really wrong with it, so if you need some inspiration in the fruit and veg department and you feel the stylistic issues I’ve outlined above won’t be problematic for you, then go ahead. Oh, I forgot to mention the recipe titles. Unnecessarily overwritten, arch and twee constructions like ‘A tart for May’ and ‘Aubergines and roast tomatoes for everything’ are like fingernails down a blackboard to me (the same goes for the book’s title and the lack of capitals). But most of them aren’t like that, they’re just normal so it’s not the end of the world. Don’t let it put you off. I know it probably wouldn’t but I’m just saying. It’s honestly more about my odd sensitivities to certain tropes of Food Writing, which I think far too much about, than anything else. I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s fine, really.

(Have you had enough of this yet? I could go on all day like this. Once I get on a roll it’s difficult to stop me. What shall we talk about next? No, maybe you’re right, let’s leave it there. Till next time then.)

Cuisine: English
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower: How to Cook with Vegetables and Other Plants

£27, Quadrille Publishing Ltd.

Cook from this book
Courgette flatbreads with lots of herbs and goat’s cheese
Raspberry and rhubarb crumble

Courgette flatbreads with lots of herbs and goat’s cheese by Gill Meller

Courgette flatbreads Gill Meller

Cooking courgettes slowly with garlic and olive oil has to be one of my favourite ways to deal with this summer vegetable. Fistfuls of herbs go in at the end, then you could simply pile the courgettes on to warm bruschetta, but these flatbreads are infinitely better.

MAKES 3

FOR THE FLATBREADS
500G (1LB 2OZ) STRONG WHITE BREAD FLOUR,PLUS EXTRA FOR DUSTING
1 TSP FINE SEA SALT
1 TSP FAST-ACTION DRIED YEAST
2 TSP CRUSHED FENNEL SEEDS
FINELY GRATED ZEST OF 1 LEMON
2 TBSP EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL, PLUS EXTRA FOR GREASING
4 TBSP NATURAL YOGHURT

FOR THE TOPPING
4 TBSP EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
2 GARLIC CLOVES, THINLY SLICED
1.2KG (2LB 10OZ)COURGETTES, SLICED INTO 5MM (¼IN) ROUNDS
1 SMALL HANDFUL OF DILL, CHOPPED
1 SMALL HANDFUL OF MINT,LEAVES PICKED AND THINLY RIBBONED
1 SMALL HANDFUL OF BASIL, CHOPPED
1 SMALL HANDFUL OF CHIVES, CHOPPED
150G (5½OZ) SOFT GOAT’S CHEESE
PINCH OF CHILLI FLAKES (OPTIONAL)
SEA SALT AND FRESHLY GROUND BLACK PEPPER

Make the flatbreads. Place the flour, salt, yeast, fennel seeds and lemon est in a large bowl. Add the oil, yoghurt and 275ml (9½fl oz) of water and mix everything thoroughly until it forms a dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, until soft and smooth. (You can use a stand mixer with a dough hook for this part.) Shape the dough into a rough round and place in a lightly oiled bowl; cover with a clean cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for up to 24 hours.

When you’re ready to make the flatbreads, start the topping. Place a large, heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Add half the olive oil and when it’s hot add the garlic and sizzle for a few seconds, then add the courgettes. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the courgettes slowly over a gentle heat,stirring regularly, for about 25 minutes or so, until they break down but still retain a little of their shape. They should be soft without colouring too much and almost spoonable in texture.

Take the pan off the heat, stir all but a handful of the herbs into the courgettes, then season again to taste with plenty of salt and pepper. Place 3 baking sheets in the oven (alternatively, bake one at a time if you have limited oven space) and heat the oven to 240°C/220°C fan/475°F/ gas mark 8.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, then cut it into 3 equal pieces. Form each piece into a nice neat round and leave to rest for 20 minutes or so. When you’re ready to bake the flatbreads, roll out the pieces of dough. They want to be quite thin, but don’t worry if they’re not especially round, that doesn’t matter.

Take the hot baking sheets out of the oven and place a rolled-out dough on each. Spread the courgette mixture evenly over the top of each. Dot the goat’s cheese over the top of the courgette mixture and trickle all over with some of the remaining olive oil. Add the chilli flakes, if using, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, too.

Place the trays in the oven for 12–14 minutes, or until the dough is puffed up and golden around the edges. Remove from the oven and slide onto a board. Sprinkle with a few reserved herbs and serve.

Cook more from this book
Raspberry and rhubarb crumble by Gill Meller

Buy this book
Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower: How to Cook with Vegetables and Other Plants
£27, Quadrille Publishing Ltd.

Read the review

Raspberry and rhubarb crumble by Gill Meller

Raspberry and rhubarb crumble Gill Meller

When you sit down to a bowl of warm raspberry and rhubarb crumble, it’s easy to forget that the apple ever existed at all. In fact, you forget anything that begins with A, or anything green. For in that moment, your world literally crumbles away, leaving you with reds and gentle, sugary pinks and the magic that happens when these two ingredients are cooked together. I like to pack my crumble topping full of oats and bake it separately from the fruit, at least for a while. It becomes remarkably crunchy this way.

SERVES 4

FOR THE OAT CRUMBLE
100G (3½OZ) PLAIN FLOUR
PINCH OF FINE SEA SALT
100G (3½OZ) UNSALTED BUTTER, CUBED AND CHILLED
75G (2½OZ) UNREFINED CASTER SUGAR
75G (2½OZ) JUMBO OATS

FOR THE FILLING
ABOUT 400G (14OZ)RHUBARB STALKS, TRIMMED AND CUT INTO 2–3CM (¾–1¼IN) PIECES
ABOUT 200G (7OZ)RASPBERRIES
100G (3½OZ) UNREFINED CASTER SUGAR
1 TSP VANILLA EXTRACT

First, make the oat crumble. Heat the oven to 175°C/155°C fan/335°F/gas mark 3–4. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and rub them thoroughly together until you have formed clumps and lumps. Line a large baking tray with a piece of baking parchment. Tip out the mixture onto the tray and distribute evenly. Set aside.

Make the filling. Place the rhubarb in a 25cm (10in) baking dish. Add the raspberries, sugar and vanilla along with a couple of tablespoons of water and tumble everything together. Place the dish of fruit in the oven as well as the tray of crumble and bake for 20 minutes, turning the crumble mixture over three or four times during baking, until clumped together, biscuity and golden. Spoon the crumble mixture onto the fruit and continue to cook for a further 10 minutes, or until the rhubarb and raspberries are soft, the juices are bubbling away and the crumble is
golden brown.

Cook more from this book

Buy this book
Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower: How to Cook with Vegetables and Other Plants
£27, Quadrille Publishing Ltd.

Read the review

Sun and Rain by Ana Roš

9780714879307

Self-taught Slovenian chef Ana Roš highly unusual path to the professional kitchen is set out in the biographical section of this fascinating and visually stunning book. She trained as a professional dancer and was a member of the Yugoslav national ski team before going on to study international science and diplomacy. Her plans for a career in international diplomacy changed when she met her future husband and natural wine expert Valter Kramar. The couple decided to work in Kramar’s family countryside restaurant Hiša Franko in the remote Soča Valley where Roš eventually took over the running of the kitchen. International acclaim followed with Roš taking part in culinary events like Cook IT Raw and being featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table documentary series.

Roš‘s lack of any formal culinary training has led to a highly individual style based on the abundant natural larder of the extreme north-west of Slovenia. A community of local foragers, shepherds, cheese makers, hunters and fishermen (some of which are profiled in the book) supply Roš with trout, deer, goats, dairy produce and fruits which she transforms into eye-catchingly plated dishes such as marble trout roe with rosa di Gorizia chicory and yeast; veal consommé, celeriac and young linden leaves, and beeswax peaches and elderflower.

The majestic natural glory of the Soča Valley is well represented in the photography of Suzan Gabrijan who has also captured the rugged elegance of Roš’s food. Even by publisher Phaidon’s consistently high standards, this is an exceptionally beautiful book. Disappointingly, however, apart from two photographs taken in the kitchen, there are no shots of the restaurant interior or exterior which is a puzzling and frustrating omission.  The recipes are hived off into a separate chapter at the end of the book so that it’s necessary to flick back and forth to the images of the finished dishes if you want to understand exactly what you are looking at.  These minor niggles criticisms aside, Sun and Rain is a comprehensive look at the life, culinary philosophy, and cooking of a remarkable figure in the modern culinary scene that will inspire any progressive thinking chef or very keen home cook.

Cuisine: Slovenian/Progressive
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

This review was first published in The Caterer

Buy the book
Ana Ros: Sun and Rain (Food Cook)
£39.95, Phaidon

Cook from this book
Summer Pear by Ana Roš
Bread by Ana Roš
Goat cottage cheese ravioli by Ana Roš

Penne with artichokes, peppers, spinach and almonds by Ainsley Harriot

088_ainsley_Artichoke_pasta

This pasta dish has a Spanish twist with chargrilled artichokes and roasted red peppers combined with toasted almonds. It’s a delightfully simple and tasty recipe using storecupboard ingredients and great for a mid-week supper. Use the best quality jarred artichokes you can find – the chargrilled ones in oil really do add extra flavour to the dish. If you aren’t following a vegan diet, top with some grated vegetarian hard cheese.

SERVES 4
400g dried penne pasta or other short pasta of choice
1 x 175g jar chargrilled artichoke hearts in olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 medium–hot red chilli, finely chopped
3 roasted red peppers from a jar, sliced
50g Spanish or Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
35g chopped almonds, lightly toasted
extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
100g baby spinach leaves
2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus extra to garnish
zest from 1 lemon
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a handful of flaked almonds, lightly toasted, to garnish (optional)

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a rolling boil, add the penne, stir once, then cook until al dente, according to the packet instructions.

Meanwhile, strain the olive oil from the jar of artichokes into a large frying pan, then cut the artichoke hearts into quarters and set aside. Set the frying pan over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and chilli and cook for 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the artichoke hearts to the pan along with the red pepper strips and olives, season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Cook for 2–3 minutes to warm through, then stir through the almonds and a good drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Cook for 1 minute, then add the spinach to the pan, a handful at a time, and allow to just wilt down.

Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the vegetables along with 2 tablespoons of the reserved cooking water, stirring to combine. Add the parsley and lemon zest and check for seasoning.

To serve, share the pasta among warmed pasta bowls, drizzle with a little extra olive oil, if needed, and scatter with the parsley and toasted flaked almonds, if using.

Cook more from this book
Lentil and haloumi bake
Mediterranean sea bass with potato bake

Buy the book
Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook
£20, Ebury Press

Read the review

Lentil and haloumi bake by Ainsely Harriot

067_ainsley_Lentil_Halloumi_Bake

While I was in Corsica, I tried many delicious vegetarian dishes that were simply prepared yet full of flavour from fresh herbs and garlic. Marjoram is a versatile and aromatic herb that works beautifully with vegetables; it’s similar in taste to oregano but with a milder sweeter flavour. This dish is easy to prepare for a mid-week dinner – just toss it all together in the one dish! For a creamy topping, serve with a little Greek yoghurt or hummus. This is great on its own or with my Quick Flatbreads.

SERVES 4

2 courgettes, cut into 2-cm slices
1 red onion, cut into 8 thin wedges
1 medium aubergine, cut into small cubes
2 red peppers, de-seeded and cut into chunks
1 red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 tsp fresh marjoram leaves (or 1 tsp dried oregano)
1 x 400g tin lentils, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
250g cherry tomatoes
1 x 250g block halloumi, thickly sliced
zest and juice of ½ lemon
8–10 basil leaves, shredded with a few reserved whole for garnish
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6.

Put the courgettes, onion, aubergine, red pepper, chilli and garlic into a large, shallow baking dish, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, season well, then scatter over half of the marjoram and toss together. Roast for 16–18 minutes.

Remove from the oven and toss through the lentils and balsamic vinegar, then stir in the cherry tomatoes and sit the halloumi slices on top. Drizzle with another 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle over the lemon zest and remaining marjoram.

Roast for a further 16–18 minutes until the tomatoes start to blister and release their juices and the halloumi is golden around the edges. If you like, you can brown the halloumi a little more under a hot grill for 1–2 minutes after baking.

To serve, drizzle with a little oil, squeeze over the lemon juice and scatter with the fresh basil.

Cook more from this book
Mediterranean sea bass with potato bake
Penne with artichokes, peppers, spinach and almonds

Buy the book
Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook
£20, Ebury Press

Read the review

Mediterranean sea bass with potato bake by Ainsley Harriot

105_ainsley_Mediterranean_Seabass_Potato_Bake

We ate some beautiful baked fish on our journey around the Mediterranean. One of the most memorable was in Corsica – a whole baked fish served simply on a bed of potatoes and onions. Sometimes, it’s the simplicity of dishes that make them taste so delicious; pared-back cooking really allows the ingredients to shine. This is also great with bream or snapper, or you can bake a whole fish on top of the potatoes for 18–20 minutes instead of using fillets. Try throwing
in some capers, if you fancy.

SERVES 4

4 sea bass fillets, skin on
2 lemons: 1 thinly sliced; 1 for squeezing
4 large waxy potatoes (Désirée work well), peeled and thinly sliced
1 red onion, thinly sliced
2 large tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
120ml white wine
2 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs
3 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tsp fresh marjoram or oregano leaves
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
fresh bread, to serve

Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6. Line an ovenproof dish with baking parchment. Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and squeeze over a little lemon juice. Set aside.

Layer the potatoes and onions in the bottom of the lined ovenproof dish, season well with salt and black pepper, then add a layer of tomatoes. Sprinkle over the garlic, then place a few lemon slices on top. Drizzle over the oil, squeeze over some more lemon juice and pour in the wine. Add the bay leaves and thyme sprigs, 2 tablespoons of the parsley and sprinkle over half of the marjoram leaves. Season well with salt and pepper, cover with foil and bake for 25–30 minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven and lay the fish fillets in the dish skin-side up. Sprinkle with the remaining marjoram and bake uncovered for a further 12–14 minutes or until the fish is cooked through (it should flake easily when cooked).

Use a spatula or fish slice to carefully remove the fish from the dish, cover loosely with foil, and keep warm. Return the vegetables to the oven to bake for a further 4–5 minutes (if needed) until the potatoes turn golden brown in places.

Remove from the oven and serve immediately, scattered with the remaining fresh parsley, with some fresh bread on the side.

Cook more from this book
Lentil and haloumi bake
Penne with artichokes, peppers, spinach and almonds

Buy the book
Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook
£20, Ebury Press

Read the review

Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook

9781529104677

What’s the USP? A diverse collection of recipes from the Mediterranean region, including dishes from Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco and Andalucia. The book also investigates the influence of Jordanian cooking on the food of the Med.  

Who is the author? For British readers of a certain age, Ainsley needs no introduction. He is a beloved broadcaster who has achieved national treasure status. If Ainsley Harriot is an unfamiliar name to you, he is probably best known as the presenter of the hugely popular 90s tea-time cooking challenge show Ready Steady Cook. He is a trained chef (he once headed up the kitchen at the  Long Room of Lord’s Cricket Ground) but also found success in the ’80s and ’90s as a comedy performer in the duo The Calypso Twins. He has presented numerous food-themed  TV series including Ainsley’s Big Cook Out, Gourmet Express and Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook and is the author of 17 cookbooks.

Is it good bedtime reading? With a three page introduction and two pages covering storecupboard essentials, this is not a book that will live much outside of your kitchen. That said, many of the recipe introductions go beyond just offering serving suggestions and substitute ingredients and contain lots of interesting nuggets of information Harriot picked up on his travels. But they add to the enjoyment of cooking from the book rather than making it a book you’d want to sit down and read, other than for the purposes of choosing a dish or writing a shopping list.  

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? The book covers an awful lot of culinary ground but this is Ainsley ‘Mr Mainstream’ Harriot we’re talking about so, as you might expect, you’ll encounter very little difficulty getting hold of everything you need from your favourite supermarket including baharat spice blend and pul biber. Most keen cooks will find they already have many of the storecupboard ingredients to hand.

What’s the faff factor? It’s tempting to say the book is faff-free but some of the recipes do require a bit of work. For example, if you want to make cheese and walnut-stuffed aubergines, you’ll need to simmer the aubergines, cool, cut in half, scoop out the flesh, chop it up and mix with bread soaked in milk, grated cheese, chopped garlic, beaten egg, finely chopped walnuts, lemon zest, chilli flakes and herb de Provence, put the mixture in the dried and oiled aubergine skins then fry or bake and finally serve with basil, walnuts and cheese.  But it’s all very far from Michelin starred madness and nothing a keen cook would baulk at. 

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? There is the odd ‘drizzle’ of oil and ‘handful’ of coriander or spinach leaves (I’d imagine Ainsley’s hands are about twice the size of mine)  but in the main, the recipes are detailed enough for a competent cook to follow.

How often will I cook from the book? You might well find yourself referring to Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook on a weekly basis. As well as the broad geographical scope which keeps things interesting, the book has recipes for everything from delicious lunchtime dishes like herby sesame falafels with hummus to the vegan-friendly Mediterranean stuffed peppers and beef tomatoes.

Killer recipes:  Rachida’s spiced roast cauliflower and chickpea curry; Mediterranean sea bass and potato bake; dukkah crumble fish pie; best-ever beef and red wine stew with olive and thyme dumplings; beef kofta rolls; harissa lemon chicken skewers with glazed aubergines and garlic-mint sauce; orange cardamom panna cotta with spiced mandarins and pistachio crumb.

What will I love? The sunny Mediterranean feel of the dishes and the location photography will lift your spirits and inspired you to cook on even the most miserable of rainy, grey-skyed British summer days.

What won’t I like so much? If you are like me and super sensitive to Jamie Oliver-style recipe titles that give the reader the hard sell, you might bristle at the likes of ‘best-ever beef and red wine stew with olive and thyme dumplings’ or ‘mighty pork and chargrilled pepper sandwich’. Thankfully they are few and far between and don’t spoil what is otherwise a very enjoyable book.

Should I buy it? If you’re looking for an undemanding introduction to the flavours of the Mediterranean that covers what may be some unfamiliar ground in a very accessible way you can’t go far wrong.

Cuisine: Mediterranean
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy the book
Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook
£20, Ebury Press

Cook from this book
Penne with artichokes, peppers, spinach and almonds by Ainsley Harriot
Lentil and haloumi bake by Ainsely Harriot
Mediterranean sea bass with potato bake by Ainsley Harriot

Table Manners by Jessie and Lennie Ware

Cover of Table Manners by Jessie Ware and Lennie Ware

What’s the USP? The hosts of the hugely popular Table Manners podcast bring together popular recipes from the series, alongside homespun family favourites and a smattering of traditional Jewish dishes.

Who are the authors? Jessie Ware is a critically-acclaimed pop star with four albums under her belt. Lennie is her mum – a joyful presence on the podcast, where the duo have celebrity guests over to dinner in their South London home. The podcast has had a regular presence on the charts since launching with guest Sam Smith in November 2017. Since then, they’ve hosted around ninety episodes, featuring pop stars, actors, politicians and plenty of famous food writers.

The show makes the most of Jessie and Lennie’s irresistible chemistry – the loving bickering between parent and child, their mutual reverence for home-cooked meals, and the occasional awkwardness that comes from having frank, relaxed conversations whilst your mother is present (a recent episode saw Aisling Bea explaining the difference between ‘doggy style’ and ‘dogging’ to an endearingly curious Lennie).

Is it good bedtime reading? There’s not quite enough here to call the Table Manners cookbook bedtime reading. There’s a relatively lengthy intro by Jessie (which has that distinctive writing style usually seen in celebrity biographies – easy to read, but informal and a little… ghostly) and a significantly briefer intro by Lennie (which is exactly as straight-forward and dryly sentimental as your own Mum’s occasional Whatsapp messages).

Beyond that, there are short chapter introductions from the duo, as well as brief descriptions ahead of each recipe, which Jessie and Lennie take turns to do. There’s no real depth or insight in most of these – at least, nothing that fans of the podcast won’t already have heard plenty of.  Curiously, then, for a celebrity cookbook, Table Manners real draw is the recipes themselves. Now that’s a pleasant surprise.

Why’s that, then? Because – and there’s a little generalising here, but bear with us – celebrity cookbooks are generally a bit crap. For the most part, they’re built around the cult of the celebrity themselves and, with so many celebrities living intensely regimented existences, the recipes tend to be basic, uninspiring and intensely worthy.

Pop star cookbooks in particular tend to be soulless collections of healthy bean stews and endless salads or, in the case of the curious sub-genre of cookbooks by rappers, big portions of American stodge. It’s rare to find a book that is filled with genuinely tempting recipes, foodie knowledge, and a true representation of the author’s personal food culture.

There have been, of course, a couple of exceptions to the rule. Action Bronson’s Fuck, That’s Delicious has been widely lauded, and Kelis (who happens to be Cordon Bleu trained) has, in My Life on a Plate, created a book that genuinely deserves a place on any bookshelf. But titles like these are few and far apart. That Table Manners might well deserve a spot alongside them is a decent feat.

What will I love? Though the two authors don’t really show their personalities off in their writing, they absolutely shine through their dishes. On the podcast, Lennie’s cooking, in particular, often sounds absolutely irresistible and it’s nice to see that come across here as well.

In keeping with the show’s premise you’d be proud to serve any of these dishes at a dinner party. Despite Lennie’s frequent hesitancy towards vegan cooking on the podcast, there are plenty of options for vegans and veggies alike throughout the book.

The highlight of the entire collection is a chapter dedicated to the Jewish dishes that have played a big part of family life over the years. Lennie’s chicken soup has found a cult following of its own since Table Manners started three years ago, and it’s showcased here alongside brisket, gefilte fish and the most alluring chopped liver I’ve ever seen.

What won’t I love? There’s not much to call this book out on. The crisp, bright design does have a distinct air of a ‘clean-living’ cookbook, but there’s no proselytizing here – in fact, though many of the recipes might fit the mould, you’d likely not even think about it if the design didn’t so frequently echo that of an Amelia Freer or a Hemsley title.

Should I buy it? Table Manners is a lovely collection of recipes – bright, delicious dishes that capture the heart and soul of the podcast and its stars. The excellent selection of Jewish recipes will offer many readers insight into a cuisine they might not have explored before. It isn’t a vital addition to any shelf – but it still has plenty to offer.

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Brighton-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas.

Cuisine: European/Jewish
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Table Manners: The Cookbook
£22, Ebury Press

Cook from this book
Turkey Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
‘Triple Threat’ Chocolate Brownies
Chicken Soup

What is Cooking by Ferran Adrià and elBullifoundation

What is Cooking Ferran Adria

What’s the USP? This is not a cookbook and there are no recipes. According to the authors, it’s ‘a compilation of the connected knowledge needed in order to answer the question: ‘What is cooking?’. According to me, it’s nothing less than an intellectual land grab by one of the world’s most famous chefs in an attempt to place himself at the forefront of the study of cuisine and gastronomy as a formal academic subject.

Who is the author? Ferran Adrià is one of the world’s most famous chefs. Along with his brother Albert, he is the architect of what is commonly known as ‘molecular gastronomy’ but which Adrià refers to as ‘techno-emotional’ cuisine.

He closed the doors of his restaurant el Bulli back in 2011 and has since dedicated his time to the elBullifoundation, which, the website says is ‘a private, family-run foundation, promoted by Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler. Established on 7 February 2013, it came out of the need to transform elBullirestaurant, with a vision based on the desire to continue promoting innovation and creativity through the language of cooking and to preserve the legacy and spirit of elBulli for society’.

In practice that means publishing books, mounting exhibitions, the production of a documentary series about el Bulli restaurant, consulting services and whole raft of other projects including the development of educational courses. The one project that Adrià has been talking about almost since the day elBulli closed is the launch of elBulli1846, the re-purposing of el Bulli restaurant as ‘an exhibition lab’ for ‘studies, investigation and experimentation to generate knowledge around the theme of efficiency in innovation’. Although the website explicitly says that elBulli1846 is not a restaurant, that has been talk in the past of some food being prepared and served there, but no one seems to know if and when that will actually happen and if it does, who gets to eat it.

Is it good bedtime reading? Put it this way, there is a lot to read but it might keep you awake all night puzzling out just what it’s all meant to be for. To take an example, in the 48 page introductory section (broken down into a pre-foreword statement, a foreword by Adrià himself, a one page summary, a ten-page descriptive index and a 25 page introduction) you will find a flow chart that explains that, if you want to run a business that generates a gastronomic offering you will need a team of professionals from the sector that have a business culture and that they will need resources for different systems including storage tools and plating tools. In other words, if you want to run a restaurant, you need trained chefs who want to earn money and they will need things like fridges, tongs and spoons. The book continues in this vain, finding complex, opaque ways of expressing very simple and common ideas, for much of its 400-odd pages.

For example, in Chapter One: Let’s Start by Understanding Lexical-Symantic Aspects, you’ll ‘discover’ that ‘not all liquid is a beverage’ and that sometimes it’s food in a liquid state. Congratulations, you now know what soup is. You’ll also find out that 19th century food writer Brillat-Savarin ‘devoted his life to the tasting and enjoyment of food in different settings, which suggests a concept of alimentation that was not limited to survival, but that encompassed hedonism and recognized quality’. I hope you were sitting down for the earth-shattering revelation that people sometimes eat for pleasure.

In the same chapter, you’ll also find the definition of a word used no less than 913 times in the book- ‘elaboration’. Adrià would like you to use the word in place of cooking because ‘helps to give a more specific understanding of a stage within the culinary process’, which is a bit like trying to force your friends to call you by a nickname you’ve coined for yourself. However, Adrià is such a respected figure in modern gastronomic circles that he might just pull it off. Start practicing now if you want to be in with the cool kids, ‘I’m just going to elaborate this Aldi frozen minced beef pie in the heat supplying apparatus that is located within the area dedicated to the preparation of elaborations’. See, it’s fun!

Let’s for a moment imagine that it’s acceptable to take up 85 pages of a 464-page book introducing your subject and defining your terms. It might be then not unreasonable to expect that by chapter three you would be getting to the meat of the subject, that the author would be communicating some information, some facts from their research or at least some opinions or philosophy. And yet on page 97 we are confronted with this piece of spectacularly circular nonsense, ‘We can speak of interpretative creativity when the creation corresponds to the skilful interpretation of other, already existing creations. Whether or not this can be regarded as a level of creative outcome is a matter for debate, as it is a very subjective question.’

But there must be some concrete answers somewhere in the book, surely? How about in the section titled ‘We suggest several main criteria to discover the types of cooking a cook or a restaurant does’. Let’s take Adrià’s own dish, Pea Spheres. Here’s some of the things I ‘learned’ from reading about how it’s classified under 17 different criteria: it’s hedonistic food designed to produce pleasure; it’s an elaboration with food use; it’s an elaboration for the savoury world; it’s served in a fine dining restaurant and designed for customers of middle to high class social profiles, the working classes need not apply; it is an elaboration from a professional kitchen but amateurs with a spherification kit could reproduce it; it’s of the highest level of quality, sophistication and refinement, it is no less than creative culinary art. So, what do I do with that information? How do I apply that to the real world? If I use those same 17 criteria to analyse and categorise the fish and chips I’m having for my tea tonight, how will that change anything. I already know its savoury, it’s working class, it’s not particularly sophisticated and I could make it at home, but I can’t really be arsed. The process seems to be pointless.

But surely, Ferran Adrià and his multi-disciplinary team haven’t spent the last decade producing something of absolutely no value, have they? One last chance. Let’s read ‘As an action that is repeated over time, cooking generates consequences’, a chapter that views cooking from an historical perspective. The first line is ‘History is the time frame in which ‘everything’ happens.’ It’s not looking good is it? Anyway, let’s persevere. What does the book have to say about the Neolithic period? ‘With the Neolithic period came permanent settlements, and this sedentariness brought about sedentary cooking. Gradually, as a result, specialization emerged, with different elaborations giving rise to specialized cooking.’ That’s pretty much it. No specific examples of what the different elaborations or specialized cooking might actually be. It’s time for me to stop this. I’ve gazed long enough into the Adrià abyss. I can feel the Adrià abyss gazing back into me.

What will I love? I particularly enjoyed the infographic titled ‘The chef model: cooks, periods, styles and movements in contemporary fine-dining cuisine in western society’ which lists some of the biggest names in western gastronomy since the turn of the 20th century including Escoffier, Fernand Point and Alain Ducasse but reserves the largest font size on the page for the names Ferran and Albert Adria. History is always written by the victors.

That aside, the book looks great, and, er, that’s about it.

What won’t I like so much? In the introduction, the claim is made that ‘In spite of the large number of publications dealing with cooking or cuisine, we were unable to find any that offered a direct response to our seemingly simple question.’ One has to assume that eBullifoundation is including in that rather sweeping statement authoritative works such as the 1350 page Larousse Gastronomique (which in fact does have a page-long entry on the term ‘cooking’), the 900 page The Oxford Companion to Food (it too has entries on the terms ‘cook’ and ‘cooking), Grand Livre de Cuisine d’Alain Ducasse and Le Repertoire to mention just a few. Set alongside those august tomes, the book singularly fails to justify its own existence.

I admit I may have missed the point, that I may not be sufficiently intelligent to understand how the Sapiens methodology works. Other readers, who may well be more sophisticated and erudite may possibly get a great deal from it. At the time of writing, there has been no other meaningful published review of What is Cooking (i.e. where the reviewer has actually read some or all of the book) and I don’t know anyone who has bought a copy and publicly expressed their views. I can’t imagine anything but praise from Adrià’s peers so the critical jury is currently out. You’ll just have to take my word for it at the moment.

Should I buy it? It’s £100. If you’ve got that to spare, if you wouldn’t miss it at all and if you are the world’s biggest Ferran Adria fan, then go ahead. Otherwise think very carefully before you are parted from your money. If you work in the fine dining sector, it’s worth considering whether you will actually learn anything of value by wading through 464 pages of powder dry theory. Will it help you do your job better? Will your understanding of the craft of cooking and cuisine have increased in a way that you can apply in a practical way to your business? Because there is very little pleasure to be derived from What is Cooking. In truth, this review has been an unpleasant ordeal, a tiresome bore and I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy, of which there are many and to which I’ve probably just added one more.

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review rating: 1 star (for the design)

Buy this book
What is Cooking: The Action: Cooking, The Result: Cuisine (FOOD COOK)
£100, Phaidon