Cooking At The Merchant House by Shaun Hill

Merchant House

There had been a ten year gap between The Shaun Hill Cookery Book (also known as The Gidliegh Park Cookbook) and Cooking At The Merchant House when it finally arrived in 2000. In between, Hill had knocked out a vegetable cook booklet for the BBC, contributed recipes to “A Spoon At Every Course by Mirabel Osler, and apparently spent the advance for a book called Masterclass which eventually surfaced as How to Cook Better.

Of course, he was also busy doing other things, such as running a restaurant, consulting for BA and Tescos and the odd bit of broadcasting on Radio 4. But I’m extremely glad he took the time to record the recipes that formed the menus at his wonderful and late lamented Ludlow restaurant.

Dishes such as Warm Artichoke Heart with Peas and Mint Hollandaise; Fresh Goats Cheese Gnocchi and Lobster with Chickpea, Corinander and Olive Oil Sauce bring back fond memories of numerous meals eaten at The Merchant House.

In addition to the excellent recipes, Cooking At The Merchant House goes some way to telling the story of the life of the restaurant.  Hill is a gifted writer of prose and it’s a great shame that there is not more of it. I am told by ‘sources close to the author’ that a great deal more was written and submitted, but was sacrificed to photos and general design considerations. Nevertheless Cooking From the Merchant House remains an essential purchase for any serious cook, professional or amateur.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Cooking at the Merchant House
Shaun Hill
£0.01 Conran Octopus

No Place Like Home by Rowley Leigh

No place like home

Rowley Leigh is the grand old man of the new wave of British cooking that sprang up in London in the late 80’s. Along with Alastair Little and Simon Hopkinson, Leigh dragged the capital’s restaurant world kicking and screaming into the modern age.

Although some very familiar recipes feature, such as Piedmontese Peppers or Nicoise Salad, Leigh brings a great deal of originality and excitement to the table in this, his first book and, as you might guess from the title, focuses on what works best at home, rather than fancy restaurant food. Roasts pepped up with some interesting side dishes, barbecues or a satisfying tart are the mainstay of the recipes you will find here.

If all that sounds a little dull, fear not. How about a Red Mullet, Aubergine and Potato Sandwich, Breast Of Veal with Pork, Spinach and Garlic Stuffing, or a sigature dish of Scallops with Minted Pea Puree?

The book is organised around seasonal, themed meals such as an autumnal “club dinner for the rich uncle” which includes oysters and grouse. The lovely line drawings of Lucinda Rogers make this a beautiful and original book but on that you will certainly want to cook from as well as look at.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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No Place Like Home: Seasonal English Cooking (The Food Lovers’ Library)
Rowley Leigh
£9.99 Clearview

Think Like A Chef by Tom Colicchio

think like a chef

“God, my feet are killing me”, “If that commis messes up again he’s out the door”, “Wow, who’s the new waitress”. Just some of the thoughts that probably pass through the mind of your average chef on any given day. Happily, Think Like A Chef, the first cook book published by Top Chef judge and former head honcho at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, has it’s mind on slightly higher things.

First comes some basic techniques like roasting, and in particular, braising. Then Colicchio focuses in on three of his favourite ingredients: tomatoes, mushrooms and artichokes, demonstrating how they can be used as building blocks to simple or complex dishes.Chef Tom would like to “help you trust your instincts” and “free you from the feeling that you must follow a recipe”. The book is based on Colicchio’s cooking classes and as a result has a slightly unusual format.

Next, a chapter is devoted to a number of recipes based around a trilogy of ingredients, and illustrates how the application of various methods and techniques can produce a variety of results. Further chapters on components and favourites round out the “course”.

Colicchio is, suprise suprise, of Italian extraction. His food is influenced by his early home life, so pasta features heavily. However, his professional career has seen him working alongside such diverse talents as Alfred Portale of the Gotham Bar and Grill, Thomas Keller and Michel Bras. Colicchio has taken a little from each to create his own style.

Photography is as stunning as you would expect, and looks particularly attractive on the high grade glossy paper used for the book. The design is clear and uncluttered, with an understated use of colour which gives the whole thing a very classy feel. The book is very well written, with easily followed instructions and recipes. Key recipes from the book include Braised Fresh Pork Belly, Seared Tuna with Roasted Tomato Vinaigrette and Fennel Salad and Artichoke Ravioli with Artichokes, Peas and Asparagus. The book also contains some wonderful condiments like corn relish and balsamic onion marmalade.

The unusual approach makes a welcome change from the bog standard recipe a page formula but most importantly, Colicchios passion for food and his desire to educate come through loud and clear, which makes for a highly entertaining read.

Think Like A Chef is useful not only for it’s excellent recipes, but also as a reference work for fundamental cooking techniques like stock and sauce making as well as the definitive method for braising meat fish and vegetables. Essential for all dedicated cooks.

Cuisine: American
Suitable for: Beginners, confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Think Like a Chef
Tom Colicchio 
£16.99 Crown Publications 

Casa Marcial: The Cuisine of Nacho Manzano by Benjamin Lana

Casa Marcial

Nacho Manzano is best known in the UK as the executive head chef of Ibérica, the chain of stylish Spanish restaurants he helped launch in 2009 in London and which now has branches in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow.  But this book focuses on the food at his two Michelin-starred restaurant Casa Marcial in the tiny hamlet of La Salgar and the surrounding region of Asturias in northwest Spain where Manzano was born and continues to live and work.

The rugged, mountainous landscape is beautifully captured in Lobo Altuna’s images, which are almost worth the price of the book alone, and illustrate the first half of the book that tells Manzano and his family’s story. What is now one of the leading modernist restaurants in Spain began life after the Spanish Civil War as a cider mill and shop selling traditional wooden clogs run by Manzano’s great grandmother. In the 60’s, Manzano’s father Marcial ran it as a bar with food until finally Manzano and his sister Esther opened Casa Marcial in 1993.

The second half of the book contains recipes for the restaurant’s ’60 best dishes’ organised into vegetables and rice, fish and seafood, poultry and meat and desserts and fruit. Signature dishes include ‘house scrambled eggs over torto’, a deep fried maize flour flat bread typical to the Asturias region that Manzano put his spin on at the tender age of 15 when he topped them with eggs flavoured with caramelised onions and local Cabrales blue cheese; and ‘rice with pitu de caleya’, a take on a traditional Asturian feasting dish made with the local free range pitu de caleya or village chicken, a formerly neglected ingredient that Manzano has championed to become the Spanish equivalent of poulet de Bresse.

Given that the Manzano family have their own fishing grounds (although La Salgar is in the Sierre del Sueve mountains, it’s just 6 kilometres from the Bay of Biscay) it’s no surprise that just under half the recipes in the book are dedicated to seafood. Manzano takes a fin to tail approach with refined and stunningly presented dishes such as cod tripe with red pepper consommé and pil, the classic gelatinous sauce made with the cod’s skin and bones.

Manzano is a truly individual culinary mind and Asturias is a fascinating and under reported gastronomic region; Casa Marcial makes a fine introduction to both.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Spanish
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Casa Marcial
Benjamin Lana
Photography by Lobo Altuna
€38, Planeta Gastro

Chiltern Firehouse: The Cookbook by Andre Balazs and Nuno Mendes

Chiltern Firehouse

Chiltern Firehouse opened in Marylebone in early 2014 in a blaze of publicity and quickly became the hottest restaurant in the city (that’s enough bad puns for one review). Despite rave reviews (the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin said ‘the menu is touched with genius’) there was more media interest in which famous names owner and hotelier Andre Balazs (of Chateau Marmont, Hollywood fame) could attract than the dishes coming out of the open kitchen headed up by cult chef Nuno Mendes. This beautifully produced book, filled with thrilling recipes will help redress the balance.

If you’ve followed Lisbon-born Mendes’s career in the UK over the last decade from the molecular gastronomy-era Bacchus in Hoxton, through the influential Loft Project pop up to the critically acclaimed Viajante in Bethnal green, his appointment as head chef of an upscale American-style brasserie might have seemed leftfield. But reading the book’s frustratingly short autobiographical section (it comes to a sudden halt when Mendes arrives in London in 2004), you learn that the chef has worked not just for Ferran Adria and Jean George Vongerichten but at Wolfgang Puck’s big, busy Postrio in San Francisco and Mark Miller’s groundbreaking Southwestern cuisine restaurant Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, making him almost uniquely suited to the job.

He pays tribute to his mentors with dishes such as ‘Firehouse Caesar’, based on Miller’s recipe but with added crispy chicken skin, and a take on Puck’s herb gnocchi served with morels, peas, Parmesan cream and edible flowers. But mostly this is undiluted Mendes, filtering his Portuguese  heritage and travels to Spain, North and South America and Asia through his own very distinctive gastronomic lens in signature dishes such as the infamous crab doughnuts and visually arresting barley and oat risotto with courgettes, artichokes, spinach and herbs.

Recipes ricochet around the globe, from a Louisiana inspired Cajun Quail to Chinese-style lobster XO noodles and a Portuguese-Japanese fusion of grilled octopus with aubergine, daikon and mushrooms; a disparate-sounding collection but one unified by balanced and considered flavours, casual yet elegant presentation and simple good taste.

No attempt is made to hide the fact that Chiltern Firehouse is a glamorous destination; there’s an excellent chapter on the cocktails served in the fashionable bar and the many full page shots of the chic front of house team could have been ripped from the pages of Vogue. Yet there is true substance beyond all that style, enough to inspire and excite any experienced chef looking to expand their culinary horizons.

Cuisine: American/Portuguese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Chiltern Firehouse
Andre Balazs and Nuno Mendes
£30, Preface

Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook

Gotham

You may be forgiven for thinking that the Gotham Bar and Grill was Bruce Wayne’s favourite place for steak. In fact, it’s a very successful restaurant in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Alfred Portale has been it’s chef for well over three decades, during which time he has won the coveted New York Times award of 3 stars. Every successful restaurant must have at least one cookery book to display in it’s lobby and sell to wide eyed tourists, and the Gotham is no exception .

The Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook is more than a souvenir for the travelling gastronome however. The book, with it’s 200 recipes and numerous sidebars containing information on techniques and ingredients provides a complete introduction to modern restaurant food.

The book is beautifully presented on high quality paper, with colour photographs throughout. All the food for the illustrations was prepared by Portale himself . Colour is also put to good use within the text, giving the book a distinctive and lively look.

Portale has an impeccable C V, with time spent working for Troisgros and Guerard. Unusually, he also studied flower arranging which has obviously had an influence on his style of presentation. His signature “Seafood Salad” would not look out of place on your mantelpiece.

Step by step photographic guides are included to demonstrate how these more complex presentations can be achieved. Alternative family style options are also included for those not disposed to attempt elaborate arrangements of food on plates.

Portales obvious passion for food and meticulous attention to detail is communicated throughout the book, despite being ghost written by Andrew Freidman. The extent of this passion is revealed when the reader is informed that about twenty different recipes for curry were tested before settling on the one finally included in the book.

Being an American publication, recipes refer to measurements in terms of cup”, and ingredients such as cilantro and fingerling potatoes. However, this does not prevent the book being highly desirable and very usable for Europeans, albeit with a little patience and care.

As well as the special occasion recipes, the book includes some excellent everyday dishes with a whole section dedicated to soups, snacks and sandwiches. The dessert section is comprehensive with “Warm Chocolate Cake with Toasted Almond Ice Cream” being particularly appealing.

The Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook will be of interested to those of us who enjoy reading collections of recipes as much as the latest Harry Potter. It constitutes a very good introduction to readers beginning to explore and develop their culinary skills, as well as providing lots to excite accomplished cooks wanting to serve something a little bit different at their next dinner party. A recommended purchase.

Cuisine: American
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook
Alfred Portale
$45 Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp

Modern Baker

Prior to the recent ‘clean eating’ backlash, the subtitle of this book might have been ‘A Healthy Way to Bake’. Instead, scorn poured on the nutritional claims made by the likes of the Hemsley Sisters and ‘Deliciously’ Ella Mills by a BBC documentary earlier this year may have prompted the publishers to take a more circumspect approach. A disclaimer at the front of the book reads ‘health claims made have been researched and do not state fact but indicate that this is what research suggests’ which some might think is having your nutritional cake and eating it.

Melissa Sharp’s big idea is ‘gut health’, fuelling microbes in our intestines with fibrous prebiotics (fruit, veg and wholegrains) and probiotics (fermented foods) to help produce the serotonin that keeps us all happy and boost our immune systems. That Sharp adopted this regime while being treated for and surviving cancer; has launched a successful business off the back of it (the Modern Baker Café in Oxford) and has received government funding to explore her ideas further lends the book credibility.

Written in conjunction with School of Artisan Food-trained baker Lindsay Stark, the 120 breads, cakes and biscuits included are all interesting, unusual and delicious sounding. It’s a consistently stimulating read and one that makes you want to get in the kitchen and bake gluten-free chocolate, raisin and hazelnut sourdough with tapioca and buckwheat flours or an apple and almond butter cake with coconut oil.

Modern Baker doesn’t just cover the sweet things in life (all made with unrefined sugars of course). There’s a tartine of Brussels sprouts, feta and hazelnuts with coconut ‘bacon’ that’s  made with tamari, maple syrup, smoked paprika and coconut flakes; savoury pesto and walnut sourdough buns and a range of breads including broccoli and Stichelton sourdough (no commercial yeasts are used in the book).  And a huge bonus is that all the recipes are vegetarian and many gluten free, dairy free and suitable for vegans.

In recent years, we Brits have gone baking mad with a consequent glut of recipe books to feed the fad. That Sharp and Stark have managed to add something different to the mix is to be applauded. All rise for the Modern Baker.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Baking
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Modern Baker: A New Way To Bake
Melissa Sharp with Lindsay Stark
£26 Ebury Press

Sabor: Flavours from a Spanish Kitchen by Nieves Barragan Mohacho

Sabor

Nieves Barragan Mohacho’s food has that elusive X factor. Just as you wanted to eat everything on her menus when she was executive chef of the Barrafina group of authentic tapas restaurants in London, so you’ll want to dive straight in and cook the recipes in this, her first solo cookbook outing. Within hours of being delivered, its pages are stained with tomato and smoked paprika and I’m planning a shopping trip for Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheese, Moscatel vinegar and Arbequina olive oil so I can delve deeper into Mohacho’s repertoire of regional and modern Spanish dishes. Sabor is destined to spend more time on my kitchen counter top than my coffee table.

Sabor (Spanish for flavour) is the name of Mohacho’s first venture in partnership with JKS Restaurants. Unusually, the cookbook has been published in advance of the restaurant’s October opening, so it’s difficult to judge how closely the recipes will reflect the menu. Mohacho will be serving dishes from the Basque country, her home region, as well as Galician octopus and the book does include a rich Basque bean stew made with black Tolosa beans, pork ribs, chorizo and morcilla, and a recipe for boiled octopus with smoked sweet paprika and potatoes.

Other restaurant-ready dishes include a colourful and beautifully presented salad of chicory, anchovy and salmorejo (an addictive cold soup made with tomatoes, red pepper, garlic, bread, sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil) and quail marinated in chilli, lemon thyme and garlic and served with honey infused with cloves and star anise.

But the book is really all about home cooking and Mohacho has included childhood favourites such flat green bean, tomato and potato stew and ‘My mum’s braised rabbit in salsa’. Even these domestic dishes offer something novel with ingredients that may be unfamiliar to UK chefs such as dried choricero peppers which are typical of Basque cuisine.

Yet Mohacho is not tied to her heritage. ‘I’m not precious about tradition’ she writes in the introduction and points out that she uses ingredients not common in Spanish cooking such as skate which she serves with pipperada, a Basque pepper stew she’s given her own twist to with the addition of chorizo.

You won’t discover ground breaking techniques or elaborate methods of presentation. But by reading and using Sabor, you will be powerfully reminded of the supreme importance of flavour in cooking, and that can only be a very good thing.

(This review was first published in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Spanish
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Sabor: Flavours from a Spanish Kitchen
Nieves Barragan Mohacho
£25 Penguin Fig Tree

Cook from this book
Persimmon, goat’s cheese and land cress salad
Pork belly and mojo verde
Doughnuts and hot chocolate sauce

Salt is Essential by Shaun Hill

Salt

We are living in gastronomic end times. Culinary Armageddon is upon us. A chef with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns on his horns emerged from the sea and turned the air into carrot. Then, a chef emerged from the earth having two horns, a head like a lamb, his body as a sheep, a tail like a wolf and feet like a goat, speaking with the voice of a dragon, directed his peers to make an image in homage to the Beast of the Sea on the plates before them, wrought from the very memories of their childhood.

And behold, a white horse: and he that sat on him had some oysters and some pearls, though never would he taste them, and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. And there went out another horse that was red: and he that sat upon him carried moss and lichen, and there was given unto him a great sword. And lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a citrus based confection that tumbled from his grip. Whoops. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was The Death of Gustatory Ambition, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to cook over open fire the beasts of the earth. And the sun turned black, the moon to blood. The sky receded like a rolled blind and the stars fell to the earth.

But there was a voice of hope. And I turned to see the voice that spoke to me, his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire. And I saw in the right hand of him a book, ‘Salt is Essential’.

It’s been 12 long years since Shaun Hill’s last book, the baldly titled How to Cook Better. In that time we’ve seen the weird excesses of molecular gastronomy (in Salt is Essential, Hill reveals he gave the keynote speech at a biennial workshop in Sicily organised by Nicolas Kurti, the Oxford physics professor who coined the term. Heston Blumenthal took Hill’s spot the next time around and the rest is history) replaced by locavore fundamentalism which in turn has been usurped by a caveman-like obsession with fire and smoke. In the highest echelons of gastronomy, diners feast upon live insects and plankton.

While all this has been going on, Hill has remained aloof, continuing to cook, first at The Merchant House (click the link for my review from 2002) and then at The Walnut Tree Inn, the sort of food that the practical application of his craft for a mind-boggling 50 years has proved to him to be correct. And now he’s distilled some of what he has learnt into the all-too-short 190 pages of Salt is Essential.

Thanks to Kit Chapman’s excellent book Great British Chefs published in 1989, I discovered Hill (who was then cooking at Gidleigh Park) early on in my own personal gastronomic journey and have subsequently read virtually everything he’s published. Over the years, his understated dry wit and pragmatic approach to his subject have wormed their way into my brain and profoundly influenced how I think, and write about food.

For those not familiar with Hill’s take on the world of cooking (I would never accuse him of anything so crass as having a ‘philosophy’ about food), Salt is Essential provides the perfect primer. This is food writing with an iron back bone and as much attitude as Mark E Smith on an amphetamine jag. Chapter titles such as ‘Creative thinking is a bad idea if you know nothing’, ‘A well done fillet makes no more sense than an undercooked stew’ and ‘Soya beans are best left for cattle feed’ are clear signals that we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.

In a series of essays and elucidating recipe introductions, Hill combines opinion with practical advice, historical fact with personal anecdote and common sense with hard-earned insight to provide a hugely entertaining and edifying read. So you learn that ‘larger eggs have thinner shells and absorb air more quickly. This means that although fresh, they are more likely to lose shape when cooked and the yolks are fragile’; Worcestershire sauce is a cousin of both Thai fish sauce and the ancient Roman sauce garum, all three being made with fermented fish; and that Elizabeth David’s ancient precursor was a chap called Archestratus from the fourth century BC who knew all about the best cuts of tuna and ‘advised against allowing Italians near your sea bass a they had a tendency to cover the fish with cheese and pickle’ (a scholar of Latin, Greek and ancient history, Hill has been an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter and has written several books on ancient food with Professor John Wilkins, including Archestratus: Fragments from the Life of Luxury about the man himself).

As one of the prime movers of the late 80’s modern British cooking movement that took inspiration from across the globe, it’s no surprise that Hill’s recipes cover everything from risotto bianco to twice baked Lancashire cheese soufflés. Hill is widely travelled with a particular fondness for the Indian subcontinent and his tandoori marinade, made with lots of cumin, black peppercorns, cardamom and cloves is worth the cover price alone.

He also has a particularly good nose for dishes from northern, central and eastern Europe (one of his first jobs was at the Gay Hussar, the famous Hungarian restaurant beloved of politicos in London; his wife Anja is Finnish and has written several books on the food of Finland) such as karjalan piirakka, a rye pastry snack from Eastern Finland, and turos placsinta, sweet cream cheese pancakes from Hungary.

Although a few of the recipes demand a commitment in terms of time, money or concentration (you’ll need 3 kilos of veal bones, a kilo of diced beef shin and 12 hours of your life that you’ll never get back to make a classic demi glace sauce and just the odd five hours to make Hill’s extremely delicious version of baked beans), the vast majority are straightforward yet still likely to expand your culinary repertoire in ways other books might well fail to do. I may not rush to make the Maksalaatikko Finnish pig’s liver pudding with lingonberries, but lamb’s sweetbread pies; malfatti (ricotta and spinach dumplings) or puntarelle salad with anchovy and garlic dressing? Just try and stop me.

While Salt is Essential is aimed primarily at the home cook, I would implore every young professional cook, dazzled by the glittering parade of over-hyped superstar chefs and their weighty art-wank tomes, to read it. For therein lies your, and the dining public’s salvation. Amen.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

Buy this book
Salt is Essential: and other things I have learned from 50 years at the stove
Shaun Hill
£25 Kyle Books