Outside by Gill Meller

Outside by Gill Meller

What’s up?  You haven’t had a look on your face like that since your tortoise died. 

I’m not sure I can go through this again 

Through what?

It’s another one. By him. 

Have you had a stroke? What are you talking about?

Gill Meller, he’s got a new book out.

Who?

Don’t tell me you don’t remember. The last one was during lockdown. I’m still not really over it.

Oh, you mean Gill Meller, alumni of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage organization and chef, food writer and teacher. His first book Gather won the Fortnum and Mason award for Best Debut Food Book in 2017 and his other books include root, steam, leaf, flower and Time, both of which you’ve reviewed.

Why are you talking like that? You sound like a newspaper article or something.

I’m not talking like anything. Anyway, I don’t know why you’ve got such a problem with him, I think he’s great. The books always look fantastic, and his recipes are ace. Let me see. Oh, it’s Andrew Montgomery doing the pics. I like him. That one of Meller in the woods, that’s stunning.

Hmm, what do you know? I’m the cookbook blogger. Give it here. Actually, before you do, check something for me.

What? That Gill Meller is still better looking and more successful than you, you bitter old…

Poetry. Is there any poetry in the book? 

Oh, good point. That’s what tipped you over the edge last time wasn’t it? Let me have a look. Nope, nothing, unless you count the recipe for ‘The Bacon Sandwich’ which is better than an Amanda Gorman stanza.

It’s called ‘the’ bacon sandwich? 

Yeah. Why? What’s the problem with that?

Nothing. Not really, it’s just, you know…

Oh God, I remember, you’ve got a problem with his recipe titles, haven’t you? ‘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’ is what you said. What is wrong with you?

Tell me some other titles, go on. Do your worst, let’s get it over with. 

Well, sorry to disappoint you, but they’re all just sort of normal.

What?! Let me see. 

Alright, don’t snatch! Learn some manners.

This is weird, ‘Salted cabbage salad with chestnut mushrooms and flaked seaweed’, ‘Wild garlic polenta with barbecued asparagus and crispy stinging nettles’. They are just sort of normal. No poetry, no offensive recipe titles. It’s almost like he’s read my review. 

Oh, do not flatter yourself! You sound ridiculous.

I’ll have you know I’m an internationally renowned food writer.

*yawns*

What is Outside actually about? Let me have a look at the back cover. ‘We shouldn’t be shutting doors anymore – we should be opening them’. That’s terrible advice. One, obvious security issue, who leaves their front door open? Two, you’re going to let all the heat out and no one can afford to do that, hasn’t he heard about the cost-of-living crisis? And three, you’re not really using the full functionality of a door if you’re just opening it are you? Doors by their very nature open and close. You might as well just have a hole in the wall if you’re never going to shut it. Stands to reason. 

Very funny, have you considered a career in stand up? Russell Howard must be shitting himself.    

Anyway, it doesn’t make any sense, I’m going to have to read the introduction, aren’t I?

I see you’ve deliberately ignored the bit on the back cover where it also says ‘Gill Meller’s new book Outside is a thoughtful celebration of the joys of cooking and eating outdoors’, but you know, comic effect is more important than accuracy. And it is your bloody job to read the introduction. 

Suppose.

*sighs*

Read out the best bits otherwise there’s just going to be a blank space.

You mean a silence? 

Erm, yeah, whatever. 

I’m through the first paragraph, no problem. I think everything’s going to be OK…

Well done you. Keep going. You’re a hero. 

Oh shit…spoke too soon. 

What is it now? Jesus. 

Writing. Creative writing. So much. Can’t breathe. Heart is racing. Must stay calm. 

Read it out, you’ll feel better. We’ll all feel better. 

What do you mean ‘we’ll all feel better’? Who is ‘we’?

Just read it, there’s a dear. 

So, he’s writing about moving to the countryside from the town when he was a kid and getting into bird watching as way of adapting to the change. Which is all fine, and then he says, ‘the rooks would fall on to the wing and dance up over the pine, tumbling, shrieking, wheeling to the weather. They cut a shifty, marauding form, but squabbled with eloquence as they turned and raked together, a black ballet in the afternoon.’ 

Gosh. That’s…a lot. It’s very descriptive though, isn’t it? I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy a black ballet in the afternoon. Don’t get distracted, what’s the book actually about?

OK, now were getting to it. He’s having a Proust’s madeleine moment except it involves a flask of soup and some bread. The general idea seems to be that by cooking and eating outside we can reconnect with a kinder gentler time when we were closer to nature and not so tied to technology. 

What, by having a picnic? 

Actually, yes. 

Well, you can’t beat Ginster’s and a packet of Frazzles in the park can you? 

Don’t forget your four pack of Special Brew, will you? That doesn’t sound very ‘elemental’ does it, you’re not going to discover ‘another aspect of our primal hardwiring’ with that heart attack on a paper plate are you? No, Gill has something a little more sophisticated in mind for you, like wild mushroom and thyme sausage rolls or a ham hock, potato and parsley terrine.  

Ooh, fancy. Actually, I do fancy that. Go on, what else is in the book?

Why don’t you have a look yourself? 

Because you’ve got to tell me. Otherwise, this doesn’t work.

What won’t work? Honestly, you are in a strange mood today. Well, there’s a chapter on cooking over fire, one on eating out (don’t even think about making a joke, it’s beneath even you) that’s based around raw preparations, a chapter on camping out (I’ll just pause for a moment here. Are you done? Good) which is really just more cooking over fire, a section on wild things (foraging) and an early autumn feast that’s based around setting a sheep on fire by the looks of things. 

That doesn’t sound very PC. 

Hold that call to PETA. It says, ‘A Sheep on Fire’ but what it actually means is ‘A Sheep on a Fire’ which is an entirely different thing. It’s already dead and has had a pole stuck up its…

That’s quite enough detail thanks. So, what are you cooking for us tonight then, oh former Masterchef semi-finalist. 

Can you be a ‘former Masterchef semi-finalist’? You either are or you aren’t. It’s a bit like being a president. 

What, do you tart about insisting people call you by your title? When they ask you for your name at Starbucks do say ‘Masterchef semi-finalist Lynes’.

No, of course not. At least not since the, er, incident. I’m not cooking anything if you’re just going to take the piss.  

Just pick a recipe.

Alright, I’m thinking. I’m not setting fire to a sheep, that’s for sure. I could make the hispi cabbage with miso, honey, tamari and sesame. Sounds nice. Oh, hold on, I’ll need ‘a bed of hot chunky embers’ and some clay to wrap the cabbage in. Maybe not. Smokey anchovies with baked wet garlic? But where am I going to get fresh anchovy fillet and wet garlic from? Venison cured with blackberries, elderberries, juniper and bay…no good, got to marinate the meat for 24 hours. 

You’re just looking for problems, aren’t you? Give me the book. Look, what’s wrong with lentils cooked with garlic, chilli and rosemary with baked eggs and kale. Or spatchcock chicken, aioli and toast. Or a lovely vegetarian ‘Campervan’ stew?

*shrugs*

Sorry, I didn’t hear you. 

I said ‘nothing’. 

Right then. Supermarket it is. Well, shall we go?

Yes, let’s go. 

They do not move.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: For confident home cooks/professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book: Outside by Gill Meller
£30, Hardie Grant

 

Curry Everyday by Atul Kochhar

Curry Everyday by Atul Kochhar
Curry Everyday is a curry cookbook that isn’t entirely about curry. Instead, it’s introduced as a kind of culinary cultural exchange programme where the plant-based recipes are linked vaguely by the techniques, ingredients and heritage of making curry.

In the foreword, Atul Kochhar, Michelin-starred chef, restaurateur and author of this book as well as Atul’s Curries of the World and 30 Minute Curries defines curry as “a spiced dish with a sauce, gravy or masala base”. And here they are: Cauliflower Korma, Paneer in a Tomato and Cashew Nut Gravy and a series of dals, featuring alongside their colleagues from other countries such as Japanese Katsu and Thai curries. Then there’s soups and stews, Laksa, Iranian Fesenjān (called “Persian Curry” here) and saucy spiced things like Shakshuka which in a dim light and a bit of goodwill, give a decent impression of curry. And finally, what can only be avant garde, Free Jazz interpretations of curry like Pad Thai, Tteokbokki, Momos, stir-frys and salads.

There is much to love in this book. It’s a backpacker’s tour of continents, subcontinents and countries with recipes from places that are certainly underrepresented in my culinary output. There’s dishes from Yemen, Zimbabwe, the Maldives, Ethiopia, Nepal, Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan as well as Indian recipes from all points of the compass. Its globe-trotting nature however means you’ll need a multilingual spice cupboard or a well-stocked international supermarket nearby and some disposable cash.

The book is all business: a brief foreword, sparse introductions and meticulous descriptions of preparation, occasionally calling for bespoke spice powders without substitutes. I did however make one recipe that began with the preparation of sweetcorn and instructions to set aside for later use, only for it never to be mentioned again. In the scheme of things, not something to write to your local MP in outrage over but somewhat annoying when the recipe is called “Potato and Sweetcorn Curry” (so you can sleep easy, I chucked it in at the end).

This omission felt at odds with the otherwise exacting nature of the recipes and summarises some of the contradictions in this book: a publication called Curry Everyday that isn’t really about curry or for cooking from every day. There’s certainly curry recipes, though many that aren’t and while there’s meals that can become weeknight staples, lots call for complex ingredients making for longer cooking times. But like the sweetcorn, put it aside, forget about it and enjoy a fascinating and diverse range of recipes from across the world.

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Beginner, confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book: Curry Everyday by Atul Kochhar 
£26, Bloomsbury Absolute

Review written by Nick Dodd a Leeds-based pianist, teacher and writer. Contact him at www.yorkshirepiano.co.uk

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

Taste by Stanley Tucci

Taste: My Life Through Food is a food-centric memoir with recipes.

The author is Stanley Tucci, the much loved American actor, writer, film producer and director, most noted for his performances in The Devil Wears Prada and The Hunger Games. However, foodies will know him best for the films Big Night and Julie and Julia and his excellent food and travel TV series Searching for Italy. He is the author of two cookbooks, The Tucci Table and The Tucci Cookbook.  

You should buy Taste: My Life Through Food first and foremost if you are a fan of Tucci. The handful of recipes are for very familiar Italian dishes such as pasta alla Norma or are so simple, like a tomato salad or lamb chops, as to hardly warrant a recipe at all. Perhaps I’m missing the point.

However, you do get the recipe for Timpano, the spectacular centrepiece dish featured in Big Night that Tucci describes as ‘a baked drum of pastry-like dough filled with pasta, ragu, salami, various cheeses, hard boiled eggs, and meatballs’. There’s also some of Tucci’s favourite cocktails (including his now notorious shaken not stirred negroni), his wife’s recipe for roast potatoes and American BBQ chef Adam Perry Lang’s chimichurri sauce among other things.

But Tucci is an engaging writer and you will have fun discovering his childhood in upstate New York (as well as a year in Florence), his time working as a nineteen year old bar man in Alfredo’s restaurant in Manhattan and anecdotes from his life in the movie business.

Cuisine: Italian
Suitable for: For beginners/confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci
£20, Fig Tree

This book has been shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food Award. Read more here.

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Freekeh, Wild Wheat and Ancient Grains by Ruth Nieman

Freekeh
Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains is a collection of 80 ‘healthy’ recipes based around ancient grains including freekeh. The book’s six chapters also chart the 10,000 year history of the discovery and cultivation of grains including barley, rye and sorghum and wild wheats such as emmer and einkorn. 

The author is London-based food writer and former nurse and then caterer Ruth Nieman who specialises in the food of the Middle East. Her first self published book The Galilean Kitchen included home recipes from women of the northern Israeli region.  

You should buy Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains if you are interested in food history and finding out more about lesser known ingredients, as well as eating nutritious dishes such as pearl barley soup  with fennel, dill and feta which Nieman says is protein rich and contains fibre and antioxidants. The tone tends toward the  academic and there’s a distinct lack of food styling in the photography which gives the book a less than polished feel which may limit its appeal for some readers. 

Cuisine: Middle Eastern 
Suitable for: For beginners/confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Freekeh by Ruth Nieman
£20, Prospect Books

This book has been shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food Award. Read more here.

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Grand Dishes by Anastasia Miari and Iska Lupton

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What’s the USP? A global tour of grannies, learning about their lives and their cooking. Other grandmothers, it turns out, really did make exceptionally good food that tied together family relationships and defined the tastes of the generations that followed them.

Mine, on the other hand, didn’t really do any cooking but did have a habit of keeping the lunch meats from half-eaten café sandwiches in her pocket to feed to the dog later. She didn’t own a dog, but just hoped to see one at some point. The food ideas of the late, great Chris ‘Nanny’ Thomas have not made it into Grand Dishes.

Who wrote it? Iska Lupton and Anastasia Miari, two friends who were inspired by their own grandmothers to travel the world interviewing other grans about their lives and their food. ‘This book is not about what it’s like to be old,’ the book tells us on a number of occasions. ‘It’s about what it’s like to have lived’.

This is the first food book for either of the authors, though in a sense that doesn’t matter – we’re here for the Abuelas and the Nonnas, the Nannys and the Grandmas.

Is it good bedtime reading? There’s a very balanced prose-to-recipe ratio here, with the majority of the book split first into chapters (Soups & Sides, Vegetables, Fish, Meat, Something Sweet) and then divided by grandmother. The obvious flaw here is that grannies aren’t easily able to share both a recipe for trout and another for jelly – though I can think of a few I’ve met in my time who would be tempted to pair those two.

Each granny is given plenty of room to breathe (no factory farmed Bubbies here). As well as an introduction from Lupton and Miari that tends to mythologise their experience in meeting and eating with their subject, there’s a story from the grandmother that might cover where they’ve come from, or how food has impacted their lives. Finally, there’s a recipe or two, drawn from the grandmother’s kitchen but kindly edited by the authors for both consistency and – importantly – the inclusion of measurements that were often eschewed by instinctive grans.

Perhaps best of all, each woman has a little fact sheet that tells us where and when they were born, what their mother tongue is, the name of their grandchildren, and what those grandchildren call them. No getting in this book unless you’re a full-fledged gran! We’re not letting just any old lady in this book. You’ve gotta have the gran-specific nickname to prove your status!

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Generally speaking, you should be fine. Lupton and Miari really have drawn in grannies from all over the place here, with Grandma Anne in New Orleans, Abuela Juana Maria in Cuba, and a wealth of ex-pat grannies who have relocated from the likes of Thailand and South Africa. Despite this, most ingredients are easy to pick up in even the biggest supermarkets. Occasionally a guest recipe from a professional chef will throw you into disarray though. Why is it everybody else’s gran shops at Tesco, but AngloThai chef John Chantarasak’s just happens to use salted duck egg? Typical.

What will I love? The book has been put together with immense love for all of the women involved, and it shows. The range of recipes on offer is immensely varied, too, and features meals that feel genuinely unique even amongst my fairly large cookbook collection. Grandmother Sharon’s Outer Banks Shrimp Stew with ‘Pie Bread’, for example. Or perhaps Miss D’s Pastry Pig Ears.

What won’t I love? The other side of the same coin is that there’s very little coherency between the recipes offered by the 60-plus grandmothers in here (that’s both a fair representation of quantity and age). As a result, this is less a book for casual cooking and one for browsing and inspiration. People often reach for Jamie Oliver’s books thinking ‘I want something quick and nutritious), or Claudia Roden’s thinking ‘I feel like something with a Mediterranean feel tonight’. What are you reaching for here? ‘I’m really craving food that’s been approved by a septuagenarian I’ve never met’?

Killer recipes: Bobee Harriet’s Corn and Crab Bisque, Grandmother Dona Margarita’s Mexican Rice with Chicken Offal, Abayeye Shewa’s Kale and Mustard Leaves Cooked With Garlic, Abuela Juana Maria’s Cuban Plantain Soup

Should I buy it? Grand Dishes often feels a little more like a coffee table title than a traditional cookbook. Though there are plenty of delicious recipes here, the real focus of the book is always on the stories of the women that sit at its heart. This weighting means that the title might be a little limited for those who have limited space in their lives and their kitchens for cookbooks – but those who want something warm and cosy to read that might also offer them an idea or two for dinner will be well served here.

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book

Grand Dishes 
£25, Unbound

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

This book was longlisted for the Andre Simon Award 2021. Read more here.

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The Latin American Cookbook by Virgilio Martinez

The Latin American Cookbook

What’s the USP? The latest entry in Phaidon’s ongoing quest to publish the definitive cookbook for every cuisine in the world, The Latin American Cookbook joins an increasingly heavy shelf that includes The Silver Spoon (and a few of its spin-offs) as well as titles dedicated to Japanese, American and Jewish foods.

The range was already fairly curious, with most titles priced at £35 despite the fact that some measure roughly twice the size of others. Each book follows roughly the same format – hundreds upon hundreds of authentic recipes, a smattering of pictures, and the occasional joy of having a dish require you to do something obscene to an animal you’ve previously only seen in a wildlife reserve.

Who wrote it? Virgilio Martínez is our guide to the biggest region to draw Phaidon’s attention so far. The Peruvian chef might also be the series’ most interesting author to date; he’s certainly the only one whose Wikipedia page has a section titled ‘Piranha smuggling incident’.

Martínez has previously broken onto our cookbook shelves with an exploration of his native Peruvian cuisine in LIMA, and a classic fancy-chef-does-good coffee table volume named after his restaurant Central. Here, though, he expands his vision to offer us over 600 recipes from over 20 different Latin American countries. No wonder the title also credits travel writer Nicholas Gill and Martínez’s own Mater Initiative as co-authors – this is a big undertaking by any measure.

Is it good bedtime reading? It would be unfair to say that I am not entirely a fan of Phaidon’s international cookbooks – I’ve just checked, and currently have six on my shelves, including currently out of print titles for France and Spain. But in their relative uniformity they are consistently flawed in a number of key places. Most significant among these: they are absolutely terrible reads.

Phaidon’s books are recipe collections, and little else. Though there are occasional exceptions, the series almost always features very minimal prose besides the recipes themselves. No change here, then: the introduction, given twelve pages in the contents, is actually one and a half pages and several very beautiful pictures presented without context (bar a single sentence for each tucked on the very final page of the book). Chapters, too, are limited to a couple of hundred words for an introduction.

The individual recipes offer a slight surprise given Phaidon’s form, generally offering at least a small paragraph that explains the dish, and how it might feature in a traditional meal. This doesn’t sound like much and, indeed, it isn’t – but this bare minimum is more than several of the publisher’s titles have mustered. It makes all the difference in a book where the overwhelming majority of the dishes are both unfamiliar to readers outside of each given nation, and also lack an accompanying photograph to give the home cook a little extra context.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Oh, very. Perhaps this is the result of the ‘cookbook by committee’ that Martínez has created via the involvement of his Mater Institute, but the recipes here are incredibly inconsistent. Though it’s admirable to attempt to deliver coherent instructions for British English and American English audiences alike, there is confusion to be had when spring onions are sometimes listed as ‘spring onions (scallions)’, other times as ‘spring onions (salad onions)’, and other times still as ‘salad onions (scallions)’. This sort of mess is only compounded further when the reader is introduced to a wealth of specialist ingredients that they won’t be familiar with, and certainly haven’t been introduced to in the non-existent chapter introductions. Achiote paste, for example, is generally listed as being the same as annatto paste – but on at least one occasion both are listed separately for the same recipe. This should be an easy fix – readers should be confused whether or not ‘loroco’ is a type of edible flower or a type of edible vine. There’s a decent sized glossary at the back, but it’s ineffective – both of the above ingredients are listed but I’m still no clearer.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Another mainstay of Phaidon’s international range. The short answer is: absolutely you will. In fact, there will be long sections of The Latin American Cookbook in which readers will struggle to find a single recipe that can be completed according to instructions using all the ingredients listed. Of the Fruit chapter’s twenty-five recipes, I can only reliably source the ingredients for seven dishes. For all but those of us in the biggest of cities, with the most intimate knowledge of local world supermarkets, the likes of yam beans, chira (banana flowers) and chicasquil (tree spinach) remain an exotic fantasy.

Many of these ingredients are presented without substitution suggestions, which essentially wipes out the practical use of at least a third of the recipes. Others require one of no less than fifteen different peppers that will be totally new to most readers (and equally inaccessible). It’s possible in most cases to guess a sensible substitute for these – but as a general rule, Martínez will have no interest in helping you make your choice.

How often will I cook from the book? Whilst there’s technically enough recipes here to keep you fed for the best part of two years, you’re not going to manage that. For a start, you’ll spend most of that time on the road trying to find a reliable source of queso Oaxaca. But for elaborate and authentic weekend meals, there’s still plenty to love here. I spent a couple of hours putting together a Mexican mole known as ‘tablecloth stainer’ and, though during the initial process the dish looked my likely to find its way to the bin than my stomach, there was a moment of alchemy at which point everything coalesced into a rich and delicious meal I would never have thought myself capable of. This is all you can ask for from a cookbook, really – the chance to create something entirely beyond you and to feel, if only for a minute, like a wizard, or a Michelin-starred chef, or somewhere inbetween.

What will I love? There’s no way to deny The Latin American Cookbook’s commitment to authenticity. This is what fans of the series seek, and it’s delivered here in spades. Yes, it means that many of the dishes are damned near impossible to accurately create in your home kitchen – but that’s not really the point, is it? We can’t seek to understand another nation’s cuisine only through those dishes that can be made using exclusively the ingredients available in your local Morrisons. And who amongst us doesn’t get a small thrill from seeing a recipe that calls for large-bottomed ants? How many cookbooks can you name that have a generally fairly unpleasant picture of fried guinea pig?

What won’t I love? Maybe the picture of the fried guinea pig, if you’re vegetarian.

For all of the authenticity and wonder present in The Latin American Cookbook, there’s still plenty of questions that need to be answered. Could the publisher have sprung for an editor who’d introduce a little more consistency to the recipes? Why didn’t Martínez and his team put a little more effort into providing the reader with clarity on substitutes where possible?

Perhaps the most interesting question, though, is why had Phaidon made Latin America share a cookbook when there is such a wealth of flavours across that sprawling continent and a half? Mexico, which features prominently in this book, already has an entire title of it’s own, which is almost double the length of this. Cuba, a nation with a population of 11 million or so, was given a volume specific to its cuisine, but the enormous nation of Brazil, with an additional 200 million inhabitants and all the diversity of culture and cuisine that entails, finds itself tucked between the dishes of nineteen other nations.

Killer recipes: Brazilian Black Bean and Pork Stew, Chilean Corn Pie, Colombian Braised Beef, Creole Stew, Ecuadorian Easter Soup, Guyanese Pepperpot, Reddish Mole, Yucatán-Style Barbecued Pork

Should I buy it? Fans of Phaidon’s existing range will know what to expect here, but for all its authenticity, The Latin American Cookbook comes up short for accessibility. Though there are plenty of delicious dishes to discover, home cooks looking for an easy weeknight route into Latin American food would perhaps be better served seeking out one of the more focused books on the market.

Ultimately, The Latin American Cookbook’s ambition is never fully realised. Too authentic to be a practical collection of recipes, and yet too messy to serve as a definitive reference book – its audience is out there, but there’ll be plenty more who will be disappointed by the missed opportunity.

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

Buy this book
The Latin American Cookbook by Virgilio Martinez
£35, Phaidon

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

This book was longlisted for the Andre Simon Award 2021. Read more here.
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Happy Cooking by Candice Brown

Candice Brown Happy Cooking

What’s the USP? The blurb describes Happy Cooking as a cookbook filled with recipes to make you smile! Which sounds incredibly twee, and a little bit exhausting – which is a huge shame, because if you venture even so far as the introduction you’ll quickly discover that Happy Cooking is a little more than that. From comforting treats to dishes that will keep an anxious mind occupied, the book is actually a much more mindful approach to mental health and cooking.

Who wrote it? Candice Brown, who some might recognise as the winner of series seven of The Great British Bake Off. Brown has been busy since her win, opening up a pub in Bedfordshire and, like so many of us, living with a number of mental health problems. In a candid opening, Brown talks about her depression, PTSD, chronic phobia and recently diagnosed ADHD.

Happy Cooking, then, is her attempt to broach these subjects whilst acknowledging the role food has in helping us face up to, or simply cope with, our own mental health. No ‘guilty food chats, no rules and no judgement’.

Is it good bedtime reading? Perhaps not as much as you’d expect. Brown doesn’t lean in particularly hard to the theme, beyond short introductions to each chapter. Often the intros to the recipes themselves don’t refer to mental health at all, and would sit just as happily in any other cookbook. This could have been an annoyance but, in all honesty, is actually quite welcome. Mental health – and depression in particular – is such an amorphous and individualistic beast that any attempt to provide confident and universal answers will always come across as misjudged and ill-informed. Better, then, to keep it to personal experiences, and broad ideas that are easy to identify with.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Not at all – this is straight-forward cooking with very few of the dishes coming from any further afield than western Europe. Sriracha is about as exotic as this book gets, and supermarkets don’t even bother sitting that in their international food sections anymore. You’ll find sriracha with the other condiments now. Heinz does a version. Heinz!

What’s the faff factor? How much faff do you want? Brown has smartly recognised the different ways we approach cooking when struggling with our mental health. There are times when you need rich and comforting food quickly, but simply do not have the energy for anything complex – the Fancy Eggs that open Brown’s initial ‘Quick Pick-Me-Ups’ chapter look delicious, and will readily sate this desire.

At other times, the troubled mind relishes the escapism of cooking, and getting lost in more hands-on and prescriptive tasks like an elaborate recipe can help to fill that space. The ‘Keep-Your-Hands-Busy Cooking’ chapter, as well as confirming Brown’s fondness for the hyphen, is filled with these, from Bacon, Cheese and Chive Croquettes to Apricot and Amaretto Pastel de Nata.

How often will I cook from the book? There are lots of recipes here, though the nature of the chapter on nostalgic foods means that many dishes are very familiar. Brown offers nothing new in her recipes for various roast meats or ‘proper’ fish and chips. But those looking for recognisable flavours and simple, cosy meals will no doubt be able to dig something up regularly.

Killer recipes: Pork Meatballs with Creamy Mustard Broccoli and Orzo, Kedgeree Hash Browns, Apple and Pear Sweet ‘Dauphinoise’

Should I buy it? A lovely premise for a cookbook is let down a little by the underwhelming range of dishes on offer – though a few gems do shine through. The question is, who will enjoy this best? Fans of the Great British Bake Off will certainly discover a few recipes to quench their thirst, and those trying to understand how best to cook around their own mental health needs may draw a few scant ideas. Ultimately, this feels a little like a missed opportunity.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Happy Cooking: Easy uplifting meals and comforting treats
£22, Ebury Press

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

The Female Chef by Clare Finney and Liz Seabrook

The Female Chef

What’s the USP? Interviews with and recipes from 31 leading British chefs/cooks (despite the book’s title, there is much debate in the introduction and the interviews about which is the correct/preferred title) including Angela Hartnett, Thomasina Miers, Andi Oliver, Gizzi Erskine, Ravinder Bhogal, Olia Hercules and er, Elizabeth Haig (click here to catch up on the controversy that has recently sprung up around Haig).

Who wrote it? Food writer Clare Finney won Food Writer of the Year in Fortnum and Mason’s Food and Drink Awards in 2019. She contributes to a wide variety of national publications. This is her first book. Liz Seabrook is a portrait and lifestyle photographer.

Is it good bedtime reading? Finney ponders the question Cooks or Chefs? in her  introductory essay, a question more fraught than you might imagine. Finney says that the words ‘cook’ and ‘chef’ are ‘inherently gendered’ and that ‘several women in this book have chosen to reject the label ‘chef”. However, she also explains that ‘the question ‘Do you consider yourself a chef or a cook?’ continued to prompt an extraordinary array of discussions’. I don’t have room to detail the various viewpoints here but the 30 short interviews (Sam Evans and Shauna Guinn of the now closed Hang Fire Southern Kitchen in Barry are interviewed together) are well worth reading to discover them for yourself.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? The first recipe in the book is Anna Jones’ Dhal with Crispy Sweet Potato and Quick Coconut Chutney.  Ingredients include ‘2 sweet potatoes’ no size or weight indicated, ‘olive oil for drizzling’,  ‘vegetable or coconut oil for frying’ a ‘thumb-sized piece of ginger’ (my wife’s thumb is roughly half the size of mine) ‘bunch of fresh coriander’ (according to my local Asda, a bunch is either a 30g bag or a ‘growers selection’ which is about three times the size and would be enough coriander for a week’s worth of recipes). There are plenty of other recipes in the book with similarly vague ingredients lists, although with 30 different contributors (Ravinder Bhogal of Jikoni restaurant in London has failed to cough up a recipe for some reason) the accuracy waxes and wanes as you might expect as the recipe writing style varies.

You may say at this point, well, can’t you just use your common sense you annoying (male) pedant. To which I would respond, have a look at these recipes for Pasta Salad by professional chef, baker and YouTuber Brian Lagerstorm which include gram weights for every ingredient including the water and salt to boil the pasta in and all the vegetables (he does specify ‘a splash of olive oil’ to dress the cooked pasta with directly after cooking but I’m going to let him off that one minor detail as it is an instinctive part of the process).  They are just very well developed and written recipes that anyone could follow. Cookery books are manuals and should have the appropriate level of detail. If you bought a woodwork book and it said ‘drill a hole in some bits of wood and screw them together’ you’d quite rightly be pissed off that it didn’t specify the type of wood, size of the hole and the type of screw (that’s a very male example isn’t it. Or is it?).  Recipes are really not that different. Although if you’re cooking up screws and bits of wood I  don’t want to eat at your house.

Will I have difficulty finding the ingredients? With dozens of contributors, all with their own unique styles, the book covers a lot of culinary ground, so it’s not surprising that one or two more difficult to track down ingredients appear in the recipes. Erchen Chang of BAO restaurant in London uses doubangjiang (fermented broad bean paste) for her Braised Pork Gua Bao that’s available in Chinese supermarkets or online at Sous Chef, and Pamela Brunton of Inver in West Scotland pairs Gigha Halibut (which, unless you have a top class fishmonger nearby, you can order from the Fish Society) with coastal greens such as sea blite and sand wort (again, the Fish Society has something similar). Good luck finding tasso ham for Sam Evans and Shauna Guinn’s Shrimp and Tasso File Gumbo though, you might have to make your own.

How often will I cook from the book? There are some recipes, like Angela Hartnett’s Anolini that requires chuck beef, veal rump, Italian sausage, beef brisket, smoked bacon, Toulouse sausage, a free range chicken and much else besides that might be once a year or even once in a lifetime cooks. However, there are plenty of everyday dishes like Skye Gyngell’s Leek, Potato and Parsley Soup and Lisa Goodwin-Allen’s Sundried Tomato and Goat’s Cheese Quiche that make this a genuinely useful book to have on your shelf.

Killer recipes: Wadadli spiced roast chicken and coconut gravy; beef kofta; apricot tarte tatin; braised squid, parsley and potatoes; Thai noodle soup; Tahini and preserved lemon cookies; fish curry and pumpkin maize meal.

Should I buy it? Eight of the 29 recipes (as mentioned above, Ravinder Bhogal hasn’t contributed a recipe and Sam Evans and Shauna Guinn contribute one between them) have already been published elsewhere so if you already have a large cookbook collection it might be worth checking how many of the recipes you already own if that is your main reason for buying the book.

Finney’s prose can at times tend towards the overheated (for example, of Thomasina Meirs’ Wahaca Mexican restaurant group, she claims that ‘it’s impossible to overstate the impact the chain has had on our culinary landscape’. Um, OK) but she has succeeded in identifying a group of genuinely interesting talents, some of which may be new names to readers or at least under-reported, which makes this a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in the modern British restaurant scene.

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

Buy this book
The Female Chef: 30 women redefining the British food scene
£28, Hoxton Mini Press

Gelupo Gelato by Jacob Kenedy

Gelupo Gelato Jacob Kenedy

What’s the USP? This little square book offers up a wide selection of recipes for various ice creams and associated forms – ‘a frosty masterclass in the simple art of gelato’, or so the publishers claim.

Who wrote it? Jacob Kenedy, who is perhaps best known for his restaurant Bocca di Lupo, a favourite of London food critics since 2008. He has since opened the neighbouring Gelupo, a gelateria of similar renown. Here, then, is the recipe book for the latter venture – a small but dense volume that runs the gamut from classic favourites (fior de latte, pistachio, hazelnut) to less expected flavours (rice, for instance, or the elderflower, cucumber and gin granita).

Is it good bedtime reading? There’s no denying that Kenedy squeezes plenty of extra reading into the book, starting with an extended introduction to gelato. That said, the information in this section can be a little confusing; Kenedy claims that gelato is simply the Italian word for ice cream and that there is no difference between the two – only to admit in the very next sentence that ‘there is something a bit special about Italian gelati’. This isn’t all that useful if you’re trying to get your head around the differences – which most writers do not struggle to identify (fat content is a major factor).

Elsewhere the book offers more useful insights, though – the importance of scraping the bowl in a game where ingredient ratios can make such a big difference, the best way to store gelato (pre-freezing your containers to aid that transition to the freezer). Each recipe has an introduction too – many draw on the cultural significance of the flavours, whilst others simply espouse the virtues of a particular combo.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Yes. Many of the recipes rely on the use of stabilisers like locust bean gum powder and glucose syrup. Thankfully, Kenedy is happy to offer more supermarket-ready alternatives, like arrowroot and light runny honey. That said, his willingness to compromise for home cooks is not limited – both the hazelnut and pistachio recipes specifically require pastes that need to be sourced online. This is a shame when these two flavours are so iconic in the gelato world – perhaps Kenedy is keen to maintain authenticity here, but I’m much keener on the idea of actually being able to make the damn ice cream.

What’s the faff factor? Ice cream is never a simple task, regardless of what cookbooks try to tell you. Even the smoothest of processes for a churned ice cream will involve creating a custard base, giving it time to cure in the fridge, and then wrestling with your maker of choice. Kenedy spells out each step fairly clearly here, but he can be a little vague in his instructions – perhaps the result of not knowing precisely which equipment the reader is using.

How often will I cook from the book? How often does anyone actually use their ice cream maker? I bought one earlier this summer and quickly went on something of an ice cream making bender – I still have the remnants of malted milk, strawberry, peach and cherry and chocolate ventures in my freezer right now. But once that initial burst fades – maybe once a month? At a push? If you live with someone who you’re trying to justify the purchase to?

What will I love? Hands down the stand out feature of the book is its absolutely gorgeous contents page. No dull list here: instead, each flavour in the book is represented by a minimalistic coloured circle laid out in an 8×10 grid. It’s an impactful start to the book that would look just as good framed on the living room wall of some beautiful couple who are absolutely not the type to consume ice cream ever.

What won’t I love? For all the variety and exciting flavours, there are a few more familiar options that have been left out. Strawberry ice cream is off the table – instead you’ll have to opt for a strawberry granita, wild strawberry sherbet, or strawberry & pink peppercorn. All told, though, the book’s problem isn’t the lack of choice (Kenedy has filled it with a ridiculous selection to suit every taste), but the lack of precision and attention to detail.

Killer recipes: Lemon & Rosemary, Whisky & Vanilla, Pear & Blackberry Crumble, Roast Plum Sorbet

Should I buy it? If the flavours tempt you, and you already have a very solid grasp of the art of ice cream making, then Gelupo Gelato has some great ideas. For most people, though, this title shouldn’t be the top of the list when learning to create ice cream at home – there are more useful books like Dana Cree’s Hello, My Name is Ice Cream that are better suited for that.

Cuisine: Italian
Suitable for: Confident home cooks/Professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Gelupo Gelato: A delectable palette of ice cream recipes
£14.99, Bloomsbury Publishing

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

Cookbook review round up Summer 2021

East London Food by Rosie Birkett and Helen Cathcart

East London Food

What’s the USP? A second edition of the best selling guide to the restaurants, bars, cafes, bakeries and food shops of East London written by an expert resident.

Who is the author? Rosie Birkett is a food writer with columns in the Sunday Times and Good Food Magazine and the author of A Lot on Her Plate and The Joyful Home Cook. Special mention must go to photographer Helen Cathcart, whose portraits, food and location shots really bring the East London Food world to life.

Why do I need a guide to East London Food? Over the last decade, East London has emerged as the culinary powerhouse of the capital with Michelin-starred restaurants, artisan bakeries and breweries and everything in between.  If you want to expereince some of the best food in the UK, you have to visit East London, and this book is your essential guide.

Can I cook from it though? There’s just a baker’s dozen recipes, the one disappointment of the book. I would have swapped some of the perfunctory one paragraph write ups of some of the included places (most get several well researched and written pages) for more recipes. But you do get things like butternut squash, whipped yoghurt, harissa and crispy sage from Morito in Hackney and Chicken and Girolles Pie from the Marksman pub in Haggerston.

Should I buy it? If you are a restaurant nerd, someone who travels to eat or a Londoner that wants to know more about their cities culinary DNA, it’s a must.

Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
East London Food (Second Edition): The people, the places, the recipes
£30, Hoxton Mini Press

Foolproof BBQ by Genevieve Taylor

Foolproof BBQ Genevieve Taylor

Whats the USP? Barbecue recipes, it’s no more complicated than that.

Who is the author? According to her website, ‘Live fire and BBQ expert, Genevieve Taylor is the author of eleven cookery books including the bestseller, Charred, a complete guide to vegetarian barbecue, The Ultimate Wood-fired Oven Cook book and How to Eat Outside.’ She’s also something of an all-rounder having written books on soup, stew, pie and er, marshmallow (it’s not easy being a food writer, I can tell you. You’ve got to take the gigs when you can get them).

Killer recipes:  Devilled chicken wings with spicy tomato relish; lemon and oregano souvlaki with tzatziki; spicy coconut lamb chops; cajun fish tacos with slaw and line cream.

Should I buy it? If you’re partial to a bit of barbecue and fancy a lively collection of globally inspired skewers, burgers, sandwiches, grilled meats, seafood, vegetables and even desserts, with some delicous sounding sauces, slaws and relishes thrown in for good measure then you won’t go far wrong. Not life changing, but a reliable little volume that will no doubt become a summer regular.

Cuisine: Barbecue
Suitable for:
Beginners/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating:
Three stars

Buy this book
Foolproof BBQ: 60 Simple Recipes to Make the Most of Your Barbecue
£12.99, Hardie Grant Quadrille

Super Natural Simple by Heidi Swanson

Super natural simple

What’s the USP? Its, uh, a vegetarian cookbook. In 2021, that rates of course as one of the rarest of all the USPs. Hardly ever see a vegetarian cookbook. Or a vegan one come to think of it. They should publish more of them. Help save the planet wouldn’t it? This one is for when your pushed for time and need simple recipes with only a few ingredients and you’ve misplaced your phone and can’t get a Deliveroo. You know, those times. Again, not many books with simple recipes for when your hectic life doesn’t allow you to spend too much time in the kitchen. I think the idea could catch on.

Who is the author? I have to admit to being ignorant of Heidi Swanson until this book arrived on my doormat, but she is a big noise in America. Voted one of the 100 greatest home cooks of all time by Epicurious.com (I’m not on that list for some reason and I’m seriously good, so that gives you some indication of the quality of that particualr line up), she’s the author of several other New York Times bestsellers with the words Super Natural in the title. She definately isn’t Alison Roman. Or Deb Perelman.

Killer recipes: Ten ingredient masala chilli;  grilled corn salad with salty-sweet lime dressing; grilled rice triangles; spicy chickpeas with kale and coconut; feisty tofu with broccoli, chilli and nuts.

Should I buy it? Look, there really isn’t such a thing these days as a really bad cookbook; the industry has becme so adept at churning them out that you will get something out of this. It looks pretty good in a bright, modish retro sort of way and there’s enough content to warrant the price (you’ll get it cheap on Amazon anyway). I get the feeling that Swanson’s earlier books might have more about them, but I’ve never read them so I can’t be sure. Fans will be delighted by the book no doubt and probably furious at this review, but, that’s life isn’t it? One thing that might influence your decision is that fact that Swansons website has over 700 recipes for free on it. Something to think about.

Cuisine: Vegetarian
Suitable for:
Beginners/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating:
Three stars

Buy this book
Super Natural Simple: Whole-Food, Vegetarian Recipes for Real Life
£22, Hardie Grant Books