Quick and Easy Gluten Free by Becky Excell & The Gluten-Free Cookbook by Cristian Broglia

The most common thing people say to you when they find out that you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease is this: ‘well, thank god it’s happening to you today, and not ten years ago. There are so many gluten free options now.’ 

It’s meant to be helpful. A kind statement to offer a sense of reassurance as you begin your path through the joyless, run-down end of Flavour Town. But it ignores two fundamental truths. First, that almost without exception, gluten-free alternatives are significantly more expensive and absolutely nowhere near as tasty. And second, that you are not capable of seeing the positive side, because you are in mourning. You have just lost the ability to enjoy good pasta, pizza, or bread that comes in slices larger than a cream cracker. A cream cracker that you also cannot eat, for that matter.

Telling a newly diagnosed coeliac that they’re lucky the supermarkets now stock three types of shit biscuit is a bit like telling a recent widower to be grateful that their winter fuel costs will be more affordable now they only have to heat the house for one.

All of this is to say hello, my name is Stephen. Two months ago I was diagnosed with coeliac disease, and I’m still fuming.

Gluten is one of those invisible qualities in food that exists almost everywhere, has a phenomenal impact on the texture and quality of what we eat, but is also barely ever thought about by anyone who doesn’t absolutely have to. It rocks up in all the obvious places – anywhere you might reasonably expect flour to be involved. But it also works its way into foods you would never necessarily think of, like soy sauce, crisps and even, thanks to shared factory environments, Dairy Milk chocolate.

I’m lucky in one way I will happily admit: I’m already confident in the kitchen and know my way around lots of the simpler gluten-free substitutes. I also have a fairly decent amount of cookbooks that are filled with recipe ideas that are, in many cases, naturally gluten free. But one of the biggest issues facing coeliacs, and those with gluten intolerances, is that of convenience. Sufferers aren’t able to grab any book off the shelf, select the dish that looks best in the moment, and dive straight into cooking. There are ingredients to check, and processes to adapt. And so, to this end, gluten-free cookbooks offer many a lifeline.

The undisputed queen of the gluten-free cookbook world right now is Becky Excell, an influencer who was herself diagnosed with IBS in 2009, and has since released four titles aimed at enabling those on gluten-free diets to enjoy the sorts of food they might otherwise have considered forever off the table. Her latest, Quick + Easy Gluten Free, specifically offers up a range of meals that will take less than 30 minutes to cook – a godsend when takeaways are almost entirely inaccessible for those avoiding gluten. 

Like her previous books (which have included How to Make Anything Gluten Free and How to Bake Anything Gluten Free), Excell’s book focuses on offering authentic-tasting versions of dishes that traditionally would feature unworkable ingredients. Her approach of replicating those much-missed takeaway staples like crispy Vegetable Spring Rolls or even a Gluten Free Boneless Banquet inspired by KFC is an inspired change from the health-kick leanings of many other GF cookbooks, which often cater more to fad dieters than they do to those forced to give up their favourite foods.

Quick + Easy Gluten Free isn’t perfect by any means. Excell’s writing is firmly stuck in blog-mode, and she relies too often on recipe introductions that simply tell us how much she used to enjoy eating the dish before her diagnosis got in the way. Listen: I get it as much as anyone. We’re all mourning here. But Becky, you’ve got this, and there’s no need to tell your readers how good a dish once was when you’ve generally managed to create a near pitch-perfect copy. 

There’s a good variety in Excell’s book, too – from Swedish Meatballs to a Sticky Jerk-Style Chicken that isn’t authentic but is absolutely delicious nonetheless. Too often gluten free cookbooks end up offering the same small rotation of dishes – uninspired, unoriginal, and limited to exactly the drab corners of the food world that you feared upon initial diagnosis. Quick + Easy Gluten Free avoids this – but another recent addition to the free-from bookshelf manages to absolutely destroy any notion of gluten-free eating restricting your diet. 

I have long-standing issues with Phaidon’s global cookbook range, and was predictably wary about The Gluten-Free Cookbook, which was released at the beginning of the year. Phaidon’s books are notoriously low on both pictures and descriptions of the dishes they feature, which means home cooks often have to undertake an additional Google, or simply hope for the best when undertaking a recipe. At the same time, though, Phaidon is always on the money for authenticity, and so a sprawling volume featuring over 350 gluten-free recipes from around the globe will prove hard to resist to anyone who, like me, has no intention of letting coeliac disease get in the way of ambitious, fun cooking. 

Organised into broad chapters (‘Breakfast’, ‘Meat and Poultry’, ‘Desserts and Sweet Treats’), the recipes in Cristian Broglia’s book rarely seek to replicate more troublesome dishes, à la Becky Excell. Instead, the majority are already naturally gluten free favourites from every corner of the globe. Even the ‘Bread and Wraps’ chapter focuses almost exclusively on recipes that traditionally use alternative flours, from Serbian corn bread to the teff of Ethiopia’s injera. This is a joy: the opportunity to explore international flavours freely, without worrying about what’s going into the dish is what every person on a gluten-free diet dreams of.

Unfortunately, one of Phaidon’s common problems does get in the way here: too often in these huge recipe tomes poor editing leads to mistakes getting through into the final edition. In other cookbooks, this isn’t a huge issue. But here it could cause major discomfort for readers. At varying points throughout the volume, ingredients like Shaoxing cooking wine, Worcestershire sauce and gochujang are called for but all of these generally are not gluten-free, and nowhere does Broglia give adequate warning. Still, this is a relatively easy issue to fix, and given how useful the title will be to those on a gluten-free diet, one hopes there’ll be many future editions in which these amendments can be made. 

For now, then, readers will just have to undertake a little extra vigilance as they work their way around the world through The Gluten-Free Cookbook’s pages. There’s a phenomenal range to choose from: Belgian roasted potato soup, shrimp pad Thai, Canadian poutine, and several of Brazil’s most famous traditional dishes, including moqueca, pão de queijo and feijoada. Ingredients aren’t always easy to source, but that will prove no obstacle to an audience well-versed in digging around to find gluten-free goods that don’t taste like cardboard. 

It’s never going to be easy going gluten-free, but Becky Excell and Cristian Broglia have each offered up a spectacular cookbook that will make life a lot easier for thousands upon thousands of people. Either one of these titles could well claim to be the only gluten free cookbook you’ll ever need, but together they represent an absolutely indispensable gluten-free cookbook shelf.

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Beginners, confident home cooks
Quick + Easy Gluten Free Review Rating: Four stars
The Gluten-Free Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Buy the books
Quick + Easy Gluten Free
£20, Quadrille
The Gluten-Free Cookbook
£35, Phaidon

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

Mezcla by Ixta Belfrage

Mezcla by Ixta Belfrage

Mezcla, meaning ‘mixture’ in Spanish, is a celebration of fusion food and represents a journey through author Ixta Belfrage’s childhood experiences of Italy, Brazil and Mexico. You may recognise Ixta as the co-author of Flavour alongside benevolent culinary overlord Yotam Ottolenghi. 

Many of the recipes are the meeting point of these cuisines. Cannelloni enchiladas for instance, with the tortillas swapped for lasagne sheets or the Brazilian beef dish rabada com agrião covered in Mexican mole. Alongside, are plenty of other dishes that take inspiration from around the globe and introduce us to unique interpretations of familiar dishes.

There is so much joy to be found in this book, not least from Yuki Sugiura’s photography which is almost as satisfying as eating the actual dishes. The recipes are positively unsubtle, vibrant and as if designed by algorithm for maximum satisfaction (there’s a recipe for half a loaf of sourdough with cheese, honey and chilli butter for goodness sake). 

Highlights of the quick cooks include oyster mushroom skewers covered in rose harissa and roasted until charred; a ricotta dip with hot sauce and pine nuts; marinated prawns with burnt lime; and a bavette steak covered in a soy and maple butter. A butternut and sage lasagne gratin, in which I wanted to submerge myself and never return, is a standout of the Entertaining section, alongside noodles made from omelette with a charred red pepper sauce; a mushroom and sesame roll; and a prawn lasagne with habanero oil.

It must be noted as the Belfrage does in the foreword, that fusion food comes with baggage. Despite all cuisine in some way being a result of thousands of years of migration, invasion, trade routes and cultural exchange, there are legitimate concerns around appropriation and the dilution of tradition.

We are in safe hands here though. Mezcla presents distinctive takes on recipes that feel familiar and new at the same time while still respecting the traditions from which they derive. It is a mezcla of playful, personal and imaginative cookery with recipes and inventiveness that you won’t find anywhere else.

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

Buy this book
Mezcla by Ixta Belfrage

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

That Sounds So Good by Carla Lalli Music

That Sounds So Good

What’s the USP? What we have here is one of my favourite themes a cookbook can have: food is good, but sometimes it’s exhausting, let’s make it easier. That Sounds So Good offers up ‘100 real-life recipes for every day of the week’, and in its introduction author Carla Lalli Music says each of the dishes in the book ‘is designed to help remove any psychic and emotional barriers that get in the way of cooking at home’. A lovely sentiment, if one that sounds like the author’s editor might also be her therapist.

Who wrote it? Carla Lalli Music, who is perhaps best known for her video work at Bon Appetit, until she quit in 2020 in solidarity with her BIPOC colleagues, who had been chronically mistreated by the organisation. Music is also behind 2019’s Where Cooking Begins, which focused on uncomplicated recipes, and was as much about how to shop for food as it was how to cook what you bought.

Is it good bedtime reading? Better than many cookbooks. Often the titles with the most to read are those that have specific themes that allow for deep-dives on history, culture and so on. A short essay on the cheesemaking process. A few pages on the socio-economic impact of grains on Western European culture. Given that Music’s book is essentially ‘here are some nice recipes to try’, she gets a decent amount of writing in. From a lengthy introduction that takes in essential kitchenware and revisits ideas around food shopping to chunky histories for various recipes, there’s a lot to browse here.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Everything is kept neat and simple here, with ingredients kindly presented first in metric and then in the usual US-friendly imperial measurements. There’s also handy little sections at the bottom of each recipe that cover variations and substitutions that might aid the process.

How often will I cook from the book? Music’s promise of real-life recipes is definitely fulfilled here, and you could plausibly find yourself revisiting this book a few times in any given week. Perhaps the biggest achievement is that the end results don’t look or feel like quick and easy dishes thrown together in a relatively short amount of time.

When Jamie Oliver offers up an idea for a Gnarly Chicken with Sizzlin’ Broccoli, or whatever the hell he’s suggesting this time around, it does the job, but it rarely looks particularly impressive. Music’s dishes manage so much more: they are rich and varied, feel fresh and healthy, and would impress any guest passing through your dining room that evening.

Killer recipes: Pantry Eggs in Purgatory, Seared Sweet Potatoes with Kale and Lime Pickle, Spaghetti with Melted Cauliflower Sauce, Banana Galette with Cashew Frangipane… there are honestly too many to mention.

Should I buy it? Carla Lalli Music has hit upon a winner with this book, which offers an absolute wealth of original ideas and inspired twists on classic dishes. It almost does itself a disservice by reducing its central promise, ‘100 real-life recipes for every day of the week’ to a fraction of its vibrant cover. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s something of a cost of living crisis going on right now, and books like Music’s are exactly what we need. Filled with affordable food and adaptable recipes, I can see dishes like Brothy Basil Beans and Split Pea Soup with Mustard-Chilli Sizzle offering some affordable warmth in many a cold home this winter. The dishes here don’t just sound good – they look good, taste good, and feel good too.

Cuisine: American
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Buy this book: That Sounds So Good by Carla Lalli Music
£25, Hardie Grant Books

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

Hazelnut Roulade with Rosewater and Raspberries by Cindy-Marie Harvey

Hazelnut Roulade with rosewater & raspberries

Paired Wine: Sparkling Rosé NV from Wiston Estate 

If you are reading this recipe on a dark, grizzly November day, I urge you to make this roulade and open a bottle of Wiston Sparkling Rosé. You will instantly be transported to a long, lazy, summer Sunday lunch in a sunny English garden. Roulades are a bit of a go-to in my kitchen if I need something that looks very impressive but is a doddle to make, be it sweet or savoury. Although I have suggested raspberries here, you could use redcurrants, rhubarb or strawberries, all of which match the red-fruit aromas in this delectable sparkling wine. As an aside, this rosé is also the ideal wine to serve with sweet-cured bacon and ricotta pancakes for brunch!

SERVES SIX TO EIGHT

4 egg whites
225g caster sugar
50g roasted hazelnuts, finely chopped, plus extra to serve
300ml double cream
Rosewater, to taste
200g raspberries, plus extra to serve Neutral vegetable oil, to grease 

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/gas mark 6. Grease a Swiss roll tin (23 × 33cm) with neutral vegetable oil and line with baking parchment.

Put the egg whites into the scrupulously clean bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk until stiff points form.

Still whisking, gradually add the sugar, about a heaped teaspoon at a time, and whisk well. By the time all the sugar is added the meringue should be glossy with very stiff peaks. Spread into the prepared tin, sprinkle with the nuts and bake for 8 minutes – it should be lightly coloured.

Reduce the temperature to 140°C fan/160°C/gas mark 3 and bake for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, lay a large sheet of baking paper on a flat surface.

Remove the meringue from the oven and turn it over onto the sheet of baking paper (the nutty side will be underneath). Carefully peel off the lining paper from the meringue. Allow to cool for about 10–15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Add the rosewater according to taste. It is quite enthusiastic in flavour, so start with 1⁄2 teaspoon and taste to see if you need more.

Spread the whipped cream over the cold meringue and scatter with the raspberries.

Now form it into a Swiss roll shape. Using the base sheet of paper as an aid, roll the meringue firmly from one long side. Wrap in a fresh sheet of baking paper and chill in the fridge for an hour before serving.

Serve the roulade in thick slices, perhaps with more fresh raspberries on the side and a few chopped hazelnuts.

Cook more from this book
Roasted Monkfish Tail with ’Nduja, White Beans and Samphire by Cindy -Marie Harvey
Twice-Baked Goat’s Cheese and Wasabi Leaves Soufflé by Cindy-Marie Harvey

Buy the book: Watercress, Willow and Wine

Read the review

Read an interview with Cindy-Marie Harvey

Twice-Baked Goat’s Cheese and Wasabi Leaves Soufflé by Cindy-Marie Harvey

Goats Cheese and Wasabi

Paired Wine: Bacchus from Lyme Bay Winery

These are perfectly behaved soufflés, with the second baking giving you, the cook, a comforting reassurance rather than blind panic as guests arrive. Surprisingly perhaps, since wasabi is associated with Japanese cuisine, this type of horseradish is grown in the south of England, and its fresh leaves give a peppery kick to dishes. It is available online but if it is hard to find, here you could instead use chives or watercress leaves (no stems). The citrus notes of the goat’s cheese match those in the Bacchus beautifully.

SERVES SIX

50g butter
25g panko breadcrumbs, blitzed briefly in a blender until very fine
40g plain flour
300ml milk, preferably full-fat
150g soft goat’s cheese, chopped or crumbled
3 tbsp chopped fresh wasabi leaves (washed and dried thoroughly)
3 large free-range eggs, separated 50ml double cream
30g Parmesan cheese, grated
Sea salt and black pepper

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

Melt about 10g of the butter in a pan and sparingly brush the insides of six ramekins (approx. size 250ml). Coat the first with panko by rolling the breadcrumbs around until the base and sides are fully coated then tip the rest into the next ramekin and so on.

Melt the remaining butter in the pan over a medium heat. Add the flour and stir to cook for about 2 minutes.

Gradually add the milk – it should be full-fat but as I seldom buy it for one recipe, semi-skimmed works too if that is what you have in the fridge. Stir and gently bring to the boil. Cook for 3–4 minutes until it thickens. 

Remove the pan from the heat, add the cheese, wasabi leaves and egg yolks. Beat well, taste and season, bearing in mind that you must slightly overseason to offset the neutrality of the egg whites. 

Whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Mix an initial spoonful into the yolk mixture, which helps to blend it, and then carefully fold in the rest using a metal spoon, trying not to knock the air out.

Divide between the ramekins, almost to the top. Run a fingertip around the edge – this gives the soufflé a better chance to rise. 

Put the ramekins in a deep-sided baking tray. Fill the tray with boiling water so that it comes halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake for 15–20 minutes. Remove from the oven and out of the water bath and allow to cool. You can make these ahead at this point and keep in the fridge for baking later or the following day. 

When you are ready to serve, preheat the oven to 200°C fan/220°C/gas mark 7. Run a round-bladed knife around the inside edge of the soufflés and turn out into a buttered ovenproof dish. You can do this in individual dishes or a larger ceramic serving bowl. 

Pour the cream over the top, sprinkle with the Parmesan and bake for 10 minutes. Serve at once, possibly with a simple watercress salad on the side. 

Cook more from this book
Roasted Monkfish Tail with ’Nduja, White Beans and Samphire by Cindy -Marie Harvey
Hazelnut Roulade with Rosewater and Raspberries by Cindy-Marie Harvey

Buy the book: Watercress, Willow and Wine

Read the review

Read an interview with Cindy-Marie Harvey

Watercress, Willow and Wine by Cindy-Marie Harvey

High-Res Cover image

Watercress, Willow and Wine is a celebration of all things English wine covering the regions, vineyards and the wines themselves.  There are food pairings for a featured wine from each of the 33 wineries included in the book in the form of some of the best ingredients and food items produced local to the vineyard, as well as a matched recipe.

The author Cindy-Marie Harvey is a wine expert and former wine importer and owner of Love Wine Food Ltd, a private wine tour company. She has travelled continually for almost 25 years, visiting iconic wine estates across Italy, New Zealand, South America, Portugal and many others. This is her first book.

You should buy Watercress, Willow and Wine if you are curious about English wine and want to learn more, and would like to try some delicious recipes to match with some bottles you may not have tried before. How about mackerel tacos and gooseberry compote with a glass of Ridgeview Blanc de Noirs fizz, or linguine with crab, bottarga and lemon with Rathfinny’s Cradle Valley White?

Covering vineyards in the English counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Surry, as well as urban wineries in London and Gateshead, the book also acts as a useful touring guide to English wine country.

In addition to an overview of the English wineries and profiles of each of the wineries – some like Nyetimber that you will certainly have heard of, and some like Sugrue you may not have – Harvey has included lots of other useful stuff like a guide to the grape varieties used in English wine making, a glossary of wine terms and a guide to matching food and wine.  Beautiful hand drawn illustrations from Chloe Robertson complete the package.

As Julia Trustram-Eve of Wines of Great Britain says in her introduction, ‘The wine industry of Great Britain is at a pivotal moment in its history, so it couldn’t be a better time to discover more about this exciting wine region’. We agree and recommend you pick up a copy of Watercress, Willow and Wine, you won’t find a better introduction to English wine.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: For beginners/confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book: Watercress, Willow and Wine
£25, Love Wine Food Books

Cook from this book
Roasted Monkfish Tail with ’Nduja, White Beans and Samphire by Cindy -Marie Harvey
Twice-Baked Goat’s Cheese and Wasabi Leaves Soufflé by Cindy-Marie Harvey
Hazelnut Roulade with Rosewater and Raspberries by Cindy-Marie Harvey

Read an interview with Cindy-Marie Harvey

Live Fire by Helen Graves

Live Fire by Helen Graves

Live Fire is a book so dedicated to the subject of barbecue that it will convince you that you can cook over live fire all year round. But this isn’t just a barbecue book for all seasons, it’s for all cuisines too with carefully researched recipes from around the globe, bolstered by interviews with experts in many of the national and regional traditions featured.

The author is a widely published London-based food writer and editor of the highly rated, independently published Pit magazine that’s not just about food and fire, but also is about it, if that makes sense. Live Fire is Graves’s first book.

You should buy Live Fire if you are new to barbecue and need some guidance on equipment, accessories, what fuel to burn and cooking techniques. But you should buy it especially if you are an experienced barbecue cook and are looking to expand your repertoire.  With more than 100 recipes covering everything from a simple plate of sugar snap peas with mint (the sort of thing you’d imagine Fergus Henderson cooking if you let him near the barbecue) to expert-level smoked and braised ox cheek tacos, Graves has got every skill level, taste and occasion covered.

Things get even more interesting when Graves delves into those aforementioned global live fire culinary traditions that include suya – spicy beef skewers from West Africa, Vietnamese bun cha – barbecued pork with noodles and a dipping sauce, and Jamaican jerk chicken among many others. Each comes with a well researched and fascinating essay, making the book as much of an entertaining and informative read as it is a cooking manual.  That said, it’s worth the cover price alone for Graves’s version of the legendary tandoori lamb chops from Tayyabs restaurant in Whitechapel.

There are many barbecue books on the market, but none I’ve seen are quite like Live Fire. Even if you don’t have a barbecue and never intend buying one, I’d still recommend getting hold of a copy of this book. As Graves points out, you can use a cast iron griddle pan to cook many of the recipes. The result may not be quite the same, but at least you won’t be missing out on all those delicious dishes.

Buy this book: Live Fire by Helen Graves
£26, Hardie Grant

Cuisine: Barbecue
Suitable for: For beginners/confident home cooks/professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

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

The Year of Miracles by Ella Risbridger

The Year of Miracles Ella Risbridger

The best food writing is never really about the food. There is almost always something else that sits at the heart of the food writing that most appeals to us; the essays, memoirs or cookbooks that we read cover to cover as though they were a novel. Food, when written well, is a character that interacts with the world around it. In the same way that The Great Gatsby isn’t really about Gatsby, or Nick, the very best food writing uses food to tell us more about ourselves, and who we are as individuals. 

Nigel Slater remains one of the finest food writers around – whether he’s using food nostalgia as a means to explore family is his memoir Toast, or simply to meditate on the value of the seasons in books like his two Greenfeast volumes. Even Julia Child seems to have a sort of philosophy on her mind when she writes about food. In My Life in France she writes that ‘No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing’, and comes across as a sort of gourmand Yoda. 

The Year of Miracles is the second cookbook by Ella Risbridger and, like its predecessor Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For), is about so much more than the recipes within. As debut cookbooks by non-household names go, Midnight Chicken was a phenomenal success, becoming a bestseller both in classic hardback and the less traditional novel-sized paperback formats, and winning Cookbook of the Year at the Guild of Food Writers Awards in 2020. 

And, excellent a collection of recipes as it was, this success is every bit as much down to the real subject matter of the book. It was a book not about food, but finding peace for oneself through food. About coming to terms with what life has given you, and learning how to build something you want around that. Much of the book speaks lovingly of ‘The Tall Man’ – Risbridger’s partner with whom she shared a home. Their relationship is portrayed evocatively as one that, though not without its clashes, was built on mutual respect and a deep, empathetic love. Which made the revelation that was tucked away amidst the acknowledgements a tremendous gut punch for those readers who were not already aware of Risbridger’s story. Much of the book was written whilst her partner was receiving treatment in hospital. Around the time she handed in her final draft, The Tall Man passed away. Though this part of Risbridger’s life doesn’t directly feature in the book itself, it impacts it at every turn, with the author’s view the world inevitably tied to what that world is presenting to her. 

Now, three years on from the publication of Midnight Chicken, we are gifted The Year of Miracles. It doesn’t feel entirely right to call the new title a sequel – we should reserve those for superhero films and YA adaptations on Netflix. This is simply: a life, continued. We return to Risbridger at the beginning of 2020, as she leaves the tiny flat she had shared with The Tall Man (here named Jim, though this is a pseudonym, as are all the other friend’s names throughout the book). Some months have passed since Jim’s death, and though she continues to grieve, the action of moving into a new home with a close friend feels like the opportunity for a fresh start. Of course, fresh starts were few and far between at the beginning of 2020, and so a food diary about change and new beginnings turns into something that is about grief, and solitude, and friends, and the family we build for ourselves as the world falls apart around us. 

Fans of Midnight Chicken will find nothing to disappoint them here. Everything that made Risbridger’s first book so lovable returns for this, her fourth (she’s tucked a children’s novel and a poetry anthology in between). Elisa Cunningham’s bright illustrations return, offering imperfect visions of dishes that are sort of meant to be imperfect. Risbridger does not fuss with stiff, precise recipes. Her dishes are flexible, so that they can fit around whatever life is throwing at you. Her ingredients lists are gloriously candid, filled with little asides offering ideas for substitutes, or simply reassuring you. She calls for vanilla extract a number of times – the first comes with a plea ‘(not essence! never essence!)’, the second with practical advice: ‘(don’t worry about using very expensive stuff; they’ve run tests and you can’t tell in baked goods)’.

The recipes themselves are similarly unpretentious, with instructions that kindly explain why you do the things you do or, just as frequently, politely request that you ‘just trust me’ on the matter. As in Midnight Chicken, the dishes are a mix between big meals you might serve to friends (Bourride! Pho! Fish Pie!) and small moments of sustenance that will keep you going when you need them most. These dishes are often the most fun in the book – a celebration of the unlikely combinations we discover in our early adulthood, and can be raised infinitely with a smart food-centric mind like Risbridger’s. Here we have a Salt & Vinegar Crisp Omelette, Jacket Potato Garlic Soup, or Marmite Crumpet Cauliflower Cheese. 

These recipes might not speak to everyone, but they will resonate with many. Risbridger approaches food as a restorative action. For the soul, for the heart, and for just about anything else that might need it. Every element of The Year of Miracles offers an element of comfort. Even as we touch on grief, guilt and the frustrations of living through a pandemic, Risbridger’s prose is written with such a contemplative warmth that it is impossible not to feel comforted – if only in knowing that we are not suffering alone. 

As the miraculous year ticks along, and the seasons change, and lockdowns are lifted, we are exposed more and more to the friendships that fuel both Risbridger and the book itself. The best food writing is never really about food. Here, it is a way of connecting with friends, with those we love, those we have lost, and those we are only just getting to know. The food has as much to say as anyone in this story, and it serves as a means to bring people together – for a conversation in the park, a cry in the kitchen, or a singalong in the back garden. We don’t need food for any of these things, but it is there nonetheless, and it is something that can be shared between whoever might be nearby. Something to bring us all together. 

It seems very likely that we can expect a third cookbook from Ella Risbridger at some point. After these first two, it would be a huge shame if there were not. What’s harder to guess is whether that third book will be all that similar to the two that came before it. The Year of Miracles itself was never intended to look like this, with the author initially pitching a ‘cheerful dinner-party’ cookbook. Perhaps that’s what we’ll get next. In a way, you sort of hope for it. For Risbridger to have an opportunity to explore something new. And down the line, maybe, there’ll be time again for another book like this. Not a sequel, simply: a life, continued.

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

Buy this book:
The Year of Miracles by Ella Risbridger
£22, Bloomsbury Publishing

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

 

Greenfeast by Nigel Slater

Greenfeast is a two-part collection of seasonal, no-frills plant-based recipes from multi-award winning author, journalist and presenter Nigel Slater. These books represent some of his most recent output, alongside A Cook’s Book, in a career now spanning three decades. My parents cooked from his books, as I do now and in a testament to his quality and longevity, I wouldn’t be surprised if in thirty years time my children do too. His work is to have a constant reassuring presence in the kitchen, the culinary equivalent of calling your mum or putting on a favourite jumper. (He also really looks like my friend’s Dad, so maybe I feel like he’s been a bigger part of my life than most people.)

The first volume Spring, Summer contains lighter recipes for lighter nights, the kind of thing to throw together to eat on a picnic blanket and moan about how hot it is. The second collection of recipes, Autumn, Winter are heartier and more nourishing, ones to draw the curtains, leave to simmer and long for the days of moaning about how hot it is. Both books are divided into vague chapters such as In a Bowl, On a Plate and With a Ladle – the latter being to serve, not to consume with. Regardless of what you eat them with, the recipes are straightforward, informal and wholly appetising.

You should buy Greenfeast if you want to grab a few ingredients, mix together with a handful of this, a dollop of that and get something tasty to eat. There’s plenty to go on here: broths, stir-frys, curries, salads, pastas, stews, burgers and more. Some are spectacular in their simplicity like Spring, Summer’s mushrooms on toast with a pea, herb and lemon puree; and orzo with smoked mozzarella and thyme from Autumn, Winter. Most recipes though are unfussy, hearty food. Spring, Summer highlights include aubergine, chilli and soy; shiitake, coconut, soba noodles; and fettuccine with samphire and lemon. From Autumn, Winter: milk, mushrooms and rice; sweet potato, cashew nut and coconut curry; and beetroot with sauerkraut and dill. The writing is masterful – it’s Nigel Slater, guys – descriptive, homely and approachable all at once. You get the impression that these are the sort of things he would cook you if you popped round for tea, waiting politely while he nips out to the garden to grab a few more broad beans to chuck in the lasagne.

The seasonal approach to cooking is a great idea in principle but considering we have roughly three days of summer in this country, most recipes will be suitable for all year round. If you were to get one, I would say Autumn, Winter has the most diverse and interesting recipes, though both would make great additions to the kitchen shelf for the next thirty years or so.

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

Buy this book:
Greenfeast: spring, summer
£24, 4th Estate
Greenfeast: autumn, winter
£22, 4th Estate

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