Potato by James Martin

Potato by James Martin

What’s the USP? I can’t believe you didn’t get this from the title. It is Potato, a book that celebrates the potato, by the human equivalent of a Maris Piper, James Martin.

I know that name. He’s the Saturday morning guy, right? Martin has been a mainstay of our weekend television for sixteen years now, yes – first on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, and more recently for ITV’s Saturday Morning with James Martin. But let’s not pretend those are his only credentials – he won acclaim from restaurant critic Jay Rayner for his work at The Talbot Hotel and, last year, relaunched everybody’s least favourite option at the food court, SpudULike in collaboration with potato company Albert Bartlett.

So this new book is a cynical ploy funded by Big Potato? Now, now. It’s also entirely possible Martin is massively enthusiastic about taters. Whatever the case, ingredient-focused cookbooks are something of a miniature trend right now, from Claire Thomson’s Tomato to the Lea-Wilson family’s Sea Salt. Also, at the very least, the book gives us one of the most unintentionally funny front covers in recent memory: an uncertain looking Martin in front of what may as well be a stock photo of spuds, and, in massive letters at the bottom of it all ‘Potato James Martin’. Brilliant. Five out of five for that then.

So it’s a five star cookbook then? Woah, woah, woah. Easy now. It’s a five-star cookbook cover. The actual book itself is a lot less impressive. Titles that lean in heavy on single ingredients live and die on two things: the insight they offer around that ingredient, and the use they make of the ingredient in the recipes. Claire Thomson, for example, is a passionate champion of the tomato, and offered a range of vibrant and original dishes in her title. Sea Salt, which presented a wealth of recipes that used salt but, for obvious reasons, didn’t make it the star ingredient, struggled.

Martin doesn’t offer us much insight at all into the history of the potato, which is a great shame, given the fascinating impact it has had on our culinary world. A staple of diets across South America for perhaps ten thousand years, they did not find their way to Europe until the late 1600s, and yet have since become an indispensable part of our daily cuisine.

Our potato-loving author doesn’t seem all that bothered with sharing this history with us, though. In fact, the history of the spud gets about two sentences of attention across the entire book. But then, this is not a title for those who are looking for effusive food writing. The recipe introductions occasionally offer a little insight into a dish’s provenance – but frequently Martin phones them in with the briefest filler text. His introduction to a recipe for a sandwich is printed simply as ‘Why not?! The question is: to butter or not to butter…? You know it makes sense!’

It might make sense, James, but do you?

What about the recipes themselves? There are some dishes to play around with here, certainly, but for the most part Martin delivers to a core audience of fans who don’t want to try anything too wacky. Potatoes might be the embodiment of unshowy workmanship in vegetables, but their versatility also opens them up to a much more interesting range of recipes than those on show here.

Martin leans on the most obvious of dishes but does them well. And so, we have Coquilles St Jacques, Tartiflette, Fish and Chips, and Lamb Hot Pot. There’s also plenty of room for the greatest hits that always pop up in the cookbooks of popular TV chefs: beer can chickens and hasselback potatoes.

Does he venture any further afield than France for his recipes? Thankfully, yes – and this is where some of the cookbook’s few unexpected ideas get a look in. There’s the always tempting South African curry-in-a-loaf-of-bread, Bunny Chow, and Sweet Potato and Pecan Cookies. One recipe pairs a humble crab cake with a katsu curry sauce – though Martin is quick to credit this to Ynyshir’s Gareth Ward. And that’s… that’s about it for the book. There’s a short section towards the back that offers up stand-alone potato recipes for those occasions when you want to knock up some Pommes Parisienne or Dauphinoise as a side, and a very handy chart that shares the various uses of twenty-eight of the most common varieties, but neither of these are worth the price of admission by themselves.

Should I buy it? The thing with potatoes is that they aren’t exactly under-represented in cookbooks already. Do you have five to ten cookbooks on your shelf? Are two of them centred on English or French cuisine? Then you’ve probably already got most of what you’ll find here at your fingertips. This is a book for fans of Martin, and people who enjoy owning cookbooks with inadvertently funny front covers, and that’s about it.

Cuisine: European
Suitable for: Beginner home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars

Buy this book: Potato by James Martin

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

 

More than Yorkshire Puddings by Elaine Lemm

More than Yorkshire puddings

What’s the USP? It all depends on who you’re asking. According to the front cover, More Than Yorkshire Puddings features ‘food, stories and over 100 recipes from God’s Own County’. This isn’t exactly the truth, though. The back cover does a much better job, promising ‘both much-loved Yorkshire favourites and a wealth of multicultural recipes’. 

Who wrote it? Yorkshire-born food writer Elaine Lemm, who seems equally confused about the purpose of her book. In her preface, she starts by explaining the long route taken to get to this point. She originally pitched her idea to publishers Great Northern several years ago: a cookbook championing the culinary wealth of Yorkshire. There is more to Yorkshire than Yorkshire puddings, and she planned to celebrate all of it. In a move that is far funnier than it really should be, Great Northern promptly turned her down, waited six months, and then commissioned her to write a book solely about Yorkshire puddings. It did very well, by her own account.

A few years on and, as Lemm is keen to point out, after a change of management at Great Northern, she finally gets to offer us the book she envisioned all along. And the end result is… well, still very different from what was originally pitched.

Different how? More Than Yorkshire Puddings takes its title and ignores the final word. It offers us some classic Yorkshire dishes, sure. But the overwhelming majority of the book has nothing to do with Yorkshire at all. The back cover blurb does allude to this, suggesting that we’ll be offered a look at Lemm’s culinary journey. But what journey is really on show here? There’s no real throughline that connects the recipes. Some are inspired by her time training in Tuscany. Others are presented without any apparent reason or context at all.

There’s plenty of room on my bookshelves for cookbooks that capture the culinary id of the author. Titles filled with relatively disparate dishes connected by stories, or personality. But Lemm’s book frequently falls back on others for inspiration. A recipe named ‘The Ultimate Chilli’ comes with the disclaimer ‘at least according to my husband… given it is not my thing!’ Elsewhere, a recipe for BBQ Rib Eye Steak, Grilled Asparagus and Teriyaki Sauce, though tempting, appears to be provided unedited, photo and all, ‘courtesy of British Asparagus’. It makes for a cookbook that under-delivers on every promise it makes. 

So does Yorkshire feature at all? Yes! Enough to confuse readers further, but not so much to offer any real value. Though the front cover promises ‘over 100 recipes from God’s Own County’ there are only 88 recipes in the book itself, and barely 30 of them are even tangentially connected to Yorkshire. 

It’s a real shame, because being England’s largest county, Yorkshire has a wide and fascinating culinary culture to draw on. It is, indeed, more than Yorkshire puddings. There are varied traditional foods, including parkin, pikelets and curd tarts – only two of which are covered (briefly) here. It is home to the world famous Rhubarb Triangle, represented by just two recipes and a single mention. Hell, it’s the county that’s given us Jelly Babies, Kit-Kats, and Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. They aren’t high cuisine, but they’re all iconic parts of the British culinary landscape. But Lemm doesn’t seem that committed to the concept that she’s apparently been fighting for years to deliver. A brief introductory chapter knocks through the classics (yorkshire puds, game pies and treacle tarts), before the book gives way to a hodge-podge of unrelated dishes, from Cantonese Ginger Fish to dhal, stromboli, and chicken marbella. There’s a two page spread dedicated to the filipino noodle dish pancit, and the book rounds off with a recipe for risalamande, a sort of Danish Christmas pudding. 

What will I love? Look, the dishes themselves often look very tasty. It’s just that they usually have nothing to do with Yorkshire. You’ll love the rich, bright Torta di Pomodoro, the Burrata and Grilled Peaches, and the Coconut Shrimp – but is that what you bought a book about Yorkshire food for?

What won’t I love? Apart from the confused premise and pick and mix approach to recipes? More Than Yorkshire Puddings also boasts one of the worst indexes I’ve ever seen in a cookbook. There’s no individual listings for ingredients, types of dish, or even Yorkshire places referenced – it lists only the 88 recipes of the book and does so using the exact name used on the page. Which means that readers looking for the classic gingerbread cake parkin will need to know not to look under ‘P’, but rather ‘T’ for ‘Traditional Yorkshire Parkin’. Looking to make a Yorkshire Curd Tart? You’ll want to remember that Lemm’s recipe is for individual ones, and so they’re listed under the letter ‘I’. 

Should I buy it? Probably not. There’s a wealth of interesting cookbooks drawing on traditional British foods at the moment, including recent additions from Ben Mervis and Carol Wilson. Though both of those cover much bigger regions, they’re frankly still likely to feature slightly more dishes that authentically represent Yorkshire cuisine than this book.

Cuisine: British/International
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cook
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars

Buy this book: More than Yorkshire Puddings by Elaine Lemm
£19.99, Great Northern Books Ltd

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

Sea Salt by The Lea-Wilson Family

Sea Salt by Lea-Wilson Family

Sea Salt is the latest book to build itself around a single ingredient – but in letting that ingredient be ‘salt’, it might also be the most shoddily realised. See, salt isn’t a flavour most people aspire to taste. We use salt, every day, sure – but only to enhance the other flavours in our dish. ‘Salty’ is a term we use negatively to refer to our food. And so building an entire book around the concept of ‘salt’ doesn’t really work. Sea Salt doesn’t say ‘look at all these lovely dishes we built around salt’, but rather ‘here is a collection of dishes we like, that can be made even better with salt’.

The authors are ‘The Lea-Wilson Family’, but don’t worry if that means nothing to you. This isn’t a cookbook from the latest household of podcasting celebrities (see: Jessie and Lennie Ware, Chris and Rosie Ramsey, Idris and Sabrina Elba); this is the clan behind salt company Halen Môn. There is, then, a rather vested interest in selling the virtues of salt and, by extension, their specific range of goods.

You should buy Sea Salt for one reason, and one reason only: it has some lovely representation for Welsh food and culture. As well as each recipe’s name being transcribed in both English and Welsh, there are a few dishes that really champion what is perhaps Britain’s least recognised cuisine. So we have instructions for a Welsh Rarebit, of course, but also Fritto Misto and Moules Frites that, though Italian and French in origin, champion the local seafood.

The rest of the dishes look lovely and fresh, but offer very little originality. Worse: when something exciting does pop up, it often reveals the decidedly middle class world of the Lea-Wilson family. No sentence in a cookbook has ever isolated me more from the author than ‘use the mincing attachment on your mixer’. It’s not the fact they have one – it’s the fact they don’t seem to consider for a second that someone might not.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars

Buy this book
Sea Salt by The Lea-Wilson Family 
£26, White Lion Publishing

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

Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew

Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew
Tokyo Up Late is a guide to the after-dark dishes of Japan’s sprawling capital city. Taking you through the long night with recipes that reflect that breadth of gastronomical options Tokyo offers even in the depths of the witching hour, the book attempts to offer something fresh in the increasingly crowded Japanese cookbook market. Whether it succeeds is another matter entirely.

Starting with the food you may find in izakayas – Japan’s popular type of bar, which often serves a range of light meals and snacks that put your local Greene King to shame – the book also offers a look at a cross-section of the city’s society. From makanai (meals served to restaurant workers at the end of their shifts) to fast food, convenience stores and the late night snacks eaten once the evening comes to a close, there’s plenty of ideas here, but very little that hasn’t been shared elsewhere already.

The author is Brendan Liew, whose last book, Tokyo Local, offered a similar look at the practical everyday eating of the city. Liew’s writing here is well researched, but frequently let down by the book’s design, which clumps paragraphs together into a hard to read mass. It’s not the only design flaw in a title that often feels fairly claustrophobic to look at. Gorta Yuuki’s photography and Yuko Yamaguchi’s food styling both work hard to overcome the oppressive colour scheme and blocky prose, but it’s too big an ask.

You should buy Tokyo Up Late for a friend who has a real obsession with recreating Japanese food at home, and the commitment to follow through. Whilst many of the ideas here have been presented previously (and more accessibly) in books like Tokyo Cult Recipes or Tim Anderson’s recent Your Home Izakaya, Liew is a stickler for authenticity, and regularly calls for hard-to-find ingredients like zarame or usukuchi soy sauce. There are some tasty looking dishes here, including a lovingly-presented egg sando and a tempting instant ramen carbonara. But Japan’s cuisine is well-represented on bookshelves at the moment, and this is unlikely to be anybody’s first port of call – especially at the end of a long day.

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars

Buy this book
Tokyo Up Late by Brendan Liew
£26, Smith Street Books

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

Taste Tibet by Julie Kleeman and Yeshi Jampa

Taste Tibet by Julie Kleeman and Yeshi Jampa

Taste Tibet is a collection of recipes from Tibet, drawing on the warming foods that feed local cooks in the often challenging climate of the region. 

The author is Julie Kleeman, who works in close collaboration with her husband Yeshi Jampa. Kleeman might do the heavy lifting on the writing front, but it’s Jampa who brings the authenticity, having learnt how to cook in a tent on the Tibetan plateau, where he grew up herding livestock with his family. The pair now live in Oxford, serving Tibetan dishes from a restaurant that shares its name with this book.

You should buy Taste Tibet for an insight into the culture of the region – though perhaps not as much insight into its ongoing independence movement as you might expect. Those looking for comforting foods will certainly find something here – though the book received a spring release, its dishes are better suited to the colder months. There’s not as much variety as one might hope for – the same base ingredients star in an overwhelming amount of the dishes. It’s tempting to put this down to the limited options available to locals in the region, but that doesn’t ring entirely true – Taste Tibet is one of a number of recent books exploring the cuisines around the Himalayas, and others (including Santosh Shah’s Ayla and Romy Gill’s On The Himalayan Trail) manage to do so with much more variety. Perhaps opt for those, unless you are specifically interested in Tibet.

Cuisine: Tibetan
Suitable for: For beginners/confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars

Buy this book
Taste Tibet by Julie Kleeman and Yeshi Jampa
£25, Murdoch Books

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

Restore by Gizzi Erskine

Restore Gizzi Erskine

What’s the USP? ‘A modern guide to sustainable eating’. Restore seeks to debunk myths around ‘good’ food, and take an in-depth look at restorative farming – that is, bringing back greater biodiversity and reinvigorating the planet through mindful food production.

Who wrote it? Gizzi Erskine, who has had a pretty diverse career thus far. Having trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine, and worked in such prestigious kitchens as St. Johns, Erskine made her way into TV via the now-problematic Cook Yourself Thin. From there: cookbooks, more TV work, modelling and more.

Over the past year alone Erskine has appeared to juggle four fairly distinct roles: frank sex podcaster for Spotify’s ‘Sex, Lies and DM Slides’, lockdown fakeaway creator with friend Professor Green, Instagram influencer and lux cookbook writer.

I say ‘lux cookbook writer’ because, as with Erskine’s last book, Slow, her new title presents a distinct take on home cooking. They ask for readers to take on a particularly mindful approach to their food – considering how it is sourced, what it means for the planet around us. They also present certain challenges – dishes frequently require a significant amount of time to prepare, or the sourcing of relatively hard to come by ingredients. We’ll get to that.

Is it good bedtime reading? Not particularly. Erskine’s ambition in ‘Restore’ is the championing of a sort of home cooking that seeks to better the planet through the more responsible sourcing of ingredients. In terms of reading, though, this amounts to one distinct theme: a lot of very worthy preaching about the various ways our food habits are damaging our world.

Erskine’s concerns are fair, though hardly new in the cookbook world – and herein lies the issue. Restore is a very drab read. Everything Erskine discusses has been shared with us before, and in a more enjoyable, more readable way. It’s a lot to pile the gloom of contemporary farming issues on cookbook readers, and the best cookbooks balance this out with engaging writing that highlights positives, and offers practical solutions. Restore manages neither. Many of the recipes fail to tempt the reader, and there are issues with those that do.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? The problem with writing a sustainable cookbook has always been one of accessibility. There’s a reason that our society has failed to adapt to more planet-friendly approaches to our cooking, and overwhelming it’s a matter of cost.

Introducing her vegetable section, Erskine makes a passing mention to the development of her understanding of ‘social economic’ factors since the release of Slow. She talks about wincing at conversations she’s had in the past and… that’s about it. Onwards to the vegetable chapter that asks for dried Mexican chillies, Lebanese cucumbers, purple potatoes and dehydrated tamarind blocks. Restore remains resolutely middle class, as so many ‘sustainable cookery’ books have been before.

One of the most popular traits amongst these books has long been a call to cut down on meats. Erskine makes this incredibly easy for readers, by including two short chapters on the subject that include almost exclusively meats that the average reader will struggle to get their hands on. It’s just a shame that many of the most interesting recipes on offer here require the tracking down of game birds and meats that I’ve only previously seen on sale in rural butchers, or that one really fancy Budgens in Crouch End.

When Erskine opts for the more readily accessible animals, she seems to go out of her way to choose cuts that are unavailable in the supermarkets that the majority of the British public shop in. Bone-in beef shin, whole lamb neck, rolled pork belly, pig trotters and sheep lungs are all on the shopping list. Is this aversion to the mass meat production of supermarkets very much the point of Restore? Yes, but what is presented here as sustainable for the planet will not be sustainable for the majority of families in Britain today.

Killer recipes: Greenhouse Romesco Sauce with Chargrilled Spring Onions, Guinea Fowl alla ‘Diavolo’, Rabbit à la Moutarde, Wild Garlic Stuffed Mutton, Jamaican Goat Curry Patties, Tepache

Should I buy it? If you’ve an excellent local butcher, and the disposable income that such a thing warrants, there’s plenty to dig into here. Erskine also provides plenty of vegetable options, though these are generously less tempting (and frequently implies the reader has an allotment or greenhouse from which they can sustainably source their food). There are, however, plenty of other titles available that offer the same message as this book in a more accessible and enjoyable way.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Two stars

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

Buy this book
Restore by Gizzi Erskine
£26, HQ

Cook from this book
Bibimbap
Green shakshuka