What’s the USP? Emma Warren’s third cookbook proudly declares to eschew many of the most famous dishes of Spain, the country she has called home for the best part of twenty years. Instead, Spanish at Home explores food popular in domestic kitchens across the country. It’s a nice idea, if one that immediately lends itself to a sort of fantasy. Homecooking, after all, is a concept leaden with romanticism and nostalgia.
We have our own language to describe the food cooked at home. It is honest, and ‘humble’ – another term whose meaning shifts dramatically depending on who is being asked. Home cooking – at least, the concept of ‘home cooking’ that so often is championed in cookbooks, is fuelled as much by the loving intentions of the person making the food as it is by the electricity or gas that powers the stove itself. And so Spanish at Home is about the food made in home kitchens across the length and breadth of Spain – drawing on the ‘generous hospitality’ that Warren has experienced during her time in the country.
Is it good bedtime reading? There are a few short chapter introductions throughout, and a paragraph or so ahead of each individual recipe. Though these are brief, Warren writes enthusiastically, and occasionally slips in little nuggets of information for extra flavour. Nevertheless, this is a book that is intended to be opened on the kitchen counter rather than underneath a bedside lamp.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Unfortunately, I suspect sourcing all the ingredients for dishes featured in Spanish at Home will often seem out of reach. Food writing frequently champions home cooking as though it is one thing that unites us all: our desire to offer good food to the people closest to us. And the sentiment is, I suppose, ultimately true. Whether we cook alone with the kids in the other room, or together as part of a large community, the food we make at home seeks to build up our loved ones, to give them strength and ensure that they are healthy.
But this idea, life-affirming though it might be, doesn’t change the fact that nations differ greatly. Spain is not far from the UK, in the grand scheme of things, but many of the ingredients here will not be practical for home cooks looking to replicate these Spanish dishes.
Sometimes this is a matter of sourcing. The difficulty of finding certain fresh seafood in the UK is not a problem unique to Spanish at Home. I can get my head around the absence of cuttlefish from our high street food retailers, but until very recently it was much simpler to buy fresh mussels that had not been vacuum-packed with a ready-made cream sauce, and I don’t know quite what’s changed there. But difficulty here is not solely the fault of UK retailers: ‘chicken ribs’ feel like a fairly niche ask for the Arroz del Campo, and as the recipe lists other ingredients including rabbit and snail, it is plausible that the recipe will never be in serious contention in any home, at least in its intended form.
Mostly, though, the barrier to getting your hands on all the necessary ingredients will be your budget. Perhaps, in Spain, meat is distinctly cheaper. Perhaps Emma Warren’s experiences of Spanish home cooking have mostly occurred in the houses of well-off families. Whatever the case, something has been lost in translation. These dishes, though desperately good-looking, are also frequently very costly.
Take one of the highlights of the book, for instance: the Ragú de Cordero. Captured by Rochelle Eagle’s sumptuous photography, it should be hard to resist. But once you spot that the recipe (to serve four) calls for both a kilogram of boneless lamb shoulder and a supplementary rack of lamb, the average reader may be less tempted. Readers may not even get to the point where the recipe requires ownership of a bottle of Cognac to finish the dish.
For another exquisitely presented dish, Carrilleras de Cerdo, Warren espouses the affordable virtues of pig cheeks – but short of one extraordinary trip to a Morrison’s in Brighton (also in Waitrose sometimes -ed.), I have never seen this cut of meat outside of a butcher shop. Calling around the butchers of Nottingham, I’ve yet to find it in any of those, either.
How often will I cook from the book? Clearly, not as much as you might like to. But that isn’t to say all hope is lost. There are still plenty of (mostly vegetable-led) dishes that are entirely accessible to British home cooks, from minestrone soup to panzanella salads. The patatas bravas, served with two homemade sauces, were absolutely gorgeous when I made them, and those looking to experience something truly unique would be well advised to try the Arroz Cubano, which somehow allows banana, fried egg, tomato and rice to team up in perfect unison.
Killer recipes: Beans in salsa ‘gravy’, beef fricassee, red wine-poached pears and saffron ice cream.
Should I buy it? Ultimately, the problems with Spanish at Home are not problems with Spanish at Home. Instead, they are problems with our over-reliance on supermarkets, the increasingly homogenised range of meats available to us, and, importantly, with the romanticised view we have of home cooking. When we talk about home cooking in £26 cookbooks exploring other cuisines with hungry eyes, we are talking about the food we make at home when we most want to impress. Food that takes a lot of time or a huge wealth of ingredients. When we talk amongst friends about home cooking, we think of the simplest of dishes, and of cuts of meat that are frugal, yes, but also accessible. I would dearly love to eat a great deal of the recipes in Spanish at Home, but the home we are given access to here is, generally speaking, not one I will be able to visit nearly as frequently as I might like.
Cuisine: Spanish Suitable for: Confident home cooks Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars
A friend does a great impression of a former housemate. It’s at exactly the moment they realise it’s much quicker to make mashed potatoes by chopping it into smaller bits first, rather than boiling one giant potato and mashing it whole. We’ve all been there. A fizzle and a crack as old neurons make new connections, a deluge of endorphins, a brief moment of shame and eureka: a higher plane of consciousness.
Get used to this feeling reading The Wok, a book of such astonishing detail and craft that comparisons to other weighty tomes like encyclopaedias seem somehow derogatory. J. Kenji López-Alt has built his reputation on this meticulous, science-oriented approach to cooking and has seen him garner a huge online following with over a million subscribers to his excellent YouTube channel as well as regular contributions to major publications and a growing collection of cookbooks.
His latest is substantial in both size and scope. Physically, it’s the sort of thing that used to be compared to the Yellow Pages but now is probably more like a stack of iPads. Though the heft is a reward for the sheer breadth of information found on its pages, ranging from the basics of stir-frying and chopping all the way to Scoville units and the glutamic acid content of certain foods.
Woks are versatile creatures and the chapters reflect this, being summarised by either ways of cooking with a wok, like Stir-Frying, Braising or Deep Frying or cooking with wok-centric ingredients like Rice or Noodles. Each chapter mingles technique, scientific explanations and applicable recipes like in the section dedicated to stir-frying chicken for instance, you will find an explanation for velveting, the scientific reasoning behind it and then a recipe for Sweet and Sour Chicken.
If you’ve ever enjoyed something cooked with a wok whether from China, Japan, Thailand or even at your local takeaway, it’s likely to be here. There’s recipes for ramen, tempura, dumplings, curries, all types of noodles, classic takeaway meals, traditional dishes, oils, and condiments. The recipes are written with such exacting measurements and instructions it’s almost impossible to get wrong and are so precise, you’re often told exactly where to place the ingredients into the wok (swirl your sauce around the side!). Trust in the process and it’ll deliver probably the best homemade version of that particular dish you could hope for.
The book has elevated every part of my cooking with a wok. Dishes like Fried Rice, Dan Dan Noodles, Pad See Ew and Lo Mein that benefit from the turbocharged gas burners in restaurants were as good of an approximation I could have wished to achieve at home (I’ve yet to try the suggestion of using a blow torch to achieve more authentic results). Recipes less demanding of high heat like Kung Pao Chicken, Khai Jiao (Thai-Style Omelette), Mapo Tofu and Soy Glazed Mushrooms were all exceptional. Better still, The Wok has improved my cooking even when not following the book. Using the lessons learned like the specific size of the vegetables, the order of cooking the ingredients or how you heat the oil has meant the quick Tuesday night stir-fry is as good as it’s ever been.
There’s no avoiding The Wok is theory heavy, more a Cook’s Book than a cookbook. Scientific explanations are almost always lurking over the next page and how much you engage with these will depend on your appetite for it. They are tiny marvels in themselves, using a data and process driven approach to justify any conclusions though personally, I find overly academic accounts of kitchen alchemy can leave me a little cold, like gazing at a rainbow and being told it’s just water drops and light dispersion, actually.
This however, is a pocket-sized gripe. Much like López-Alt’s The Food Lab, Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heatand Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, The Wok is a book that isn’t content with showing you how, it wants to show you why. Sure, you can teach a man to fish but you could also show him how salt interacts with protein on a molecular level until he makes the best Kung Pao Prawns this side of the river. For a little time and energy, this is a book that will change how you cook for a lifetime.
Cuisine: International Suitable for: Confident home cooks/Professional chefs Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
What’s the USP? A month-by-month guide to the culinary year, exploring seasonal produce and timely dishes with contributions from a wealth of chefs, writers and other folk with high-functioning tongues. This is the second edition of The Food Almanac, which suggests an earnest effort by publisher Pavilion to make this, if not an annual event (volume one was published two years earlier in 2020) then at least a regular one.
Who wrote it? A picnic basketful of names are involved, though once again the central voice is that of Miranda York. Though York has been a key figure in food and culture writing for a short while now, last year’s inaugural almanac was her first book. As with that edition, this volume draws on a range of voices of varying levels of familiarity. There are entries by Diana Henry and the currently inescapable Jeremy Lee, as well as Rachel Roddy and Olia Hercules. Some of the book’s most enchanting moments come from less established names: Nina Mingya Powles, author of meditative food memoir Tiny Moons, offers up a delightful recipe-as-poem in November.
Is it good bedtime reading? Once a month, for a night or two, The Food Almanac will offer absolutely perfect bedtime reading – at once uniformly thoughtful and exquisitely varied. In each chapter the reader can explore a choice selection of seasonal offerings. An introduction by York that focuses on a specific ingredient, a deeper dive that expands on cultural context, or offers another perspective and a matching recipe. There’ll be a further section or two that might take the form of a guide to the ‘Easter Buns of Europe’, or a collection of ideas for warming tonics for a cold January day. Perhaps you’ll have a short personal essay to follow, before a three-part menu for the month, each curated by a different food writer (Ravneet Gill’s menu for July focuses on seasonal fruits; a month earlier, Nik Sharma presents us with Indian-influenced dishes, including a subtle but delicious Spiced Pea Soup that I couldn’t resist making half a year early).
How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Curated and edited with every bit as much care as the rest of the book, each recipe is presented with clarity and precision. The joy of a collaborative title like this is the sheer variety of approaches to cooking on display – but York reigns everything in to ensure consistency amidst the cornucopia of ideas.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Most dishes are bracingly straight-forward, and based on seasonal ingredients. If you are seeking to source these in the allotted months (or a few weeks either side) you’ll mostly be in luck. Of course, our supermarkets are experts in allowing us year-round access to most fresh produce, so you’ll rarely struggle if you do want to attempt a summer dish in the depths of winter.
That said, occasionally the almanac may tempt you with something a little more difficult to source. Much is made in September of sea buckthorn – a forager’s delight that will be out of reach for many across the UK.
How often will I cook from the book? You would hope at least once a month, but then, that isn’t really the point of The Food Almanac. If you decide to try out one of the five or so dishes on offer in each chapter, you’ll likely find joy on every occasion. But if you instead take the time simply to enjoy the wonderful food writing and spend a little longer thinking about the month’s seasonal offerings, the book will have been well worth the purchase.
Killer recipes: Solyanka, Braeburn Eve’s Pudding with Calvados, Wild Garlic and Prawn Noodles, Sambal Bajak, Strawberry Popcorn Knickerbocker Glory, Mexican Flans with Mezcal Raspberries, Salt Mallard and Pickled Prunes, Deep-Fried Sprout Tonnato with Crispy Capers
Should I buy it? Oh, goodness, yes. The Food Almanac is an opportunity to look at the gastronomical year through the eyes of some of our best food writers, offering a chance to rediscover the seasonality of our homegrown produce in the age of supermarket ubiquity. It’s an absolute joy, and only the strongest-willed amongst us will be able to resist skipping ahead and gobbling it all up in just a few sittings.
Cuisine: International Suitable for: Confident home cooks Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
What’s the USP? As the title (which bears a striking similarity to the BBC TV show Thrifty Cooking in the Doctor’s kitchen with Dr. Rupy Aujla on which Monroe appeared as guest) suggests, this is a ‘bumper’ collection of recipes intended to be wallet friendly without sacrificing flavour. The book also includes Monroe’s ‘Home Hacks’ – money saving tips and tricks to help you budget in the kitchen.
Who is the author? That’s a very good question and one that not even Monroe herself seems to know the answer to. That probably sounds a bit cryptic if you aren’t familiar with the name Jack Monroe but will make perfect sense to anyone who has followed her career over the last decade or so.
If you are new to Monroe, before continuing to read this review, I would recommend reading Tattle’s Jack Monroe Wiki (a word of caution, Tattle is very definitely a site for grown ups. While the Wiki is entirely factual, if you stray to the forums be prepared for some very strong opinions and even stronger language).
For a more potted version of events in Monroe’s public life and career, see the Awfully Molly blog which is partly based on Tattle’s work. Author Katie Roche’s Jack Monroe: An Investigation is also well worth reading. At the time of writing this review, a further investigation into Monroe’s fund raising activities was due to be posted on justpikachoo.com. This recently published Guardian profile is also well worth a read.
If you don’t want to do the reading (although I strongly recommend you do, it is quite the ride) Jack Monroe is the author of seven cookbooks, a food writer, journalist, blogger and activist campaigning on poverty related-issues and in particular hunger relief. She appears occasionally on TV, mostly as a poverty pundit but has demonstrated recipes on This Morning and Daily Kitchen Live among other programmes.
There has been some public debate about her effectiveness as a campaigner as well as her abilities as a food writer and TV presenter. Nevertheless, she has half a million followers on social media and makes what is estimated to be a healthy income from her Patreon account which, at the time of writing had somewhere between 588 and 647 subscribers each paying between £1 and £44 a month. Until recently, subscribers had received little of the content and rewards promised by Monroe. Currently, the account has just one post which is in fact an apology from Monroe for not supplying said content and rewards.
Although she does attract a fiercely loyal following (referred to by Monroe as her ‘flying monkeys’ who vociferously defend her against any negative comment on social media) and has celebrity supporters including restaurant critic Jay Rayner, food writer Tom Parker Bowles and TV cook Nigella Lawson, she is a controversial figure to say the least. Before parting with your hard earned money for this book, it is worth investigating Monroe’s background in order to assess if you are comfortable supporting her financially.
I personally have no wish to do so but was forced to spend my own cash as repeated requests for a review copy were ignored by the publisher (never a good sign when a publisher appears not to want reviews ahead of the publication date). As I don’t want it in my house longer than it takes to review, I plan to donate my copy to my local Amnesty International book shop (I changed my plans and got a refund instead. My thinking was that, even if Amnesty made a few quid from the sale, some poor charitable soul would end up with a duff book so it seemed best for everyone if I just got my money back) .
Is it good bedtime reading? `This is the first book on this blog that comes with a health and safety warning. Prior to it’s release, Thrifty Kitchen trended on social media due to a downloadable preview of the book available via Apple books and other online stores going viral for the contents of an introductory section titled ‘If You Don’t Have This, Try This’. Among some truly bizarre ‘home hacks’ (which bear more than a passing resemblance to to Viz magazines famous top tips) was the advice to use a mallet and ‘a small sharp knife’ as a can opener.
Such was the resulting furore that publishers Pan MacMillan briefly withdrew the ebook of Thrifty Kitchen from pre-sale to make some hasty edits and then published a safety statement saying that ‘Bluebird has amended text in the e-book edition, and will do the same for future reprints, removing or amending some of the content that has been flagged, and adding enhanced safety information at the back of the book.” In a reply to Twitter account @AwfullyMolly (a blogger highly critical of Monroe), food bank charity Trussell Trust, which was due to receive up to a thousand donated copies of Thrifty Kitchen, said, ‘The books that will be donated to our food banks will contain an addendum that addresses any health and safety concerns and we will not be distributing any books via our food banks in the current form.’
Many of the other ‘home hacks’ have been criticised online for being batshit crazy including using a square of cotton, four carabinas and an s-hook in place of a colander or hoarding the water from a condenser tumble dryer in recycled drinks bottles to use for mopping the floor with. There is a very strong sense of a teenager being forced to do their homework by a stern parent about these parts of the book. It may be that they were included at the request of the publisher and Monroe struggled to come up with enough useful and credible hints and tips, was bored and taking the piss to see what she could get away with. And she got away with an awful lot as it turns out.
What has been included either doesn’t work (my wife tested the firelighter made with an empty loo roll tube stuffed with tumble dryer fluff – no, really – and it was literally a damp squib although some people apparently swear by the method), doesn’t really address a real problem (using a flannel to dry yourself after a shower in order to save space in the washing machine – what?!) or saves virtually no money (using old t-shirts as cleaning cloths. I’d rather keep wearing the t-shirt around the house – I have some that are nearly 20 years old – and buy a new cloth. Hasn’t Monroe ever heard of the pound shop?). Also, I have never managed to make icing sugar from granulated sugar by blending it (although apparently food writer Nancy Birtwhistle can).
The less said about ‘The Quarterhack’ the better. OK, I suppose I ought to say something. Basically, this translates from Monroe-speak as checking your kitchen cupboards, fridge and freezer for what food items before you do the weekly big shop so you don’t waste money. That advice is almost so sensible and obvious that it’s not worth writing down, except we’ve probably all done a spur of the moment shop or just couldn’t be bothered to check what we already had and have ended up with five jars of pesto or three bottles of soy sauce. OK, just me then.
Monroe takes things a step further however and suggests dividing a sheet of A4 into four columns (hence ‘quarterhack’. Christ.) and heading them Protein, Carbohydrate, Fruit and Veg and Snacks. You then note down every single item of food you have in your house under the appropriate column and then you…I don’t know, I gave up reading and ordered a Dominoes at that point. All you need to know is that it’s an unnecessarily complicated and unworkable methodology for what should be a very simple thing.
Monroe also claims the ‘quarterhack’ is how she manages to feed two adults (including herself) and her son for £20 a week. This is probably the most pernicious claim in the book. It’s one that Monroe makes regularly and which has seen her compared to Conservative politicians who claim that those living on the poverty line only need to learn how to budget better and how to cook in order to feed themselves. If Monroe does actually only spend £20 a week on food, it’s because she has spent a larger amount in the past in order to stock up her cupboards, fridge and three freezers (yes, she has said on social media that she has three freezers). It’s a ludicrous claim, allowing only 95p per person per day for food. Unless you are serving up plain lentils three times a day, there is just no way to meet that figure. Tellingly, Monroe offers no example meal plan setting out exactly how to feed three people a day for £20 a week, probably because she can’t.
So the short answer to ‘is it good bedtime reading’ is no because you are much better off not reading it. Let’s move on to the recipes. Bound to be on safer ground there, this is Monroe’s seventh cookbook after all.
How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Fucking hell. If I see ‘generous fistful’, ‘a few pinches’ ‘plenty of’, unspecified amounts of oil ‘for greasing’ or ‘for frying’ (it doesn’t matter what it’s for, how much? A teaspoon, a tablespoon? It’s not hard is it?), unspecified amounts of ingredients for garnishing (how much ‘optional bread and blue cheese for the Roasted Roots Soup? FFS, just work it out and write it down!!) unspecified varieties of mushrooms and potatoes (yes they really do matter, especially if you are going to roast the potatoes and you want them to ‘fluff up at the edges’, Charlotte or Ratte for example are not going to work. Just say King Edwards. How could that be difficult? How could it be difficult for an editor not to notice? Did the book even have an editor, at least one that gave a shit?) unspecified ‘soft fresh herbs’ (what if I don’t know the difference between soft and hard herbs. I mean, rosemary is quite soft isn’t it? Is that what you mean? Can’t you just bloody say what you mean?) I will bloody well scream.
And why does every clove of garlic in MonroeWorld have to be fat? Do I have to throw away the skinny ones? That’s not thrifty is it? I was going to count the number of times the world ‘generous’ appears in the book but I’m not an actual nut job. It’s a lot though, and it’s very annoying and very vague (edit – a kind reader of this blog with a Kindle version of the book has confirmed that Monroe uses the word 89 times, which is a generous amount and one way of meeting the publisher’s required word count).
Among all this vagueness, Monroe goes to the effort of specifying ‘cold fresh water’ in her recipe for Lemon and Rosemary Roast Potatoes (annoyingly, there is no rosemary in the recipe, just dried mixed herbs which don’t contain rosemary. Why isn’t it called Lemon and Herb Roast Potatoes? Hello, editor, are you there?). Maybe this is to ensure you don’t use the supply from your collection of 2l bottles of tumble drier water that is no doubt now cluttering up your under-sink cupboard.
Will I have trouble finding ingredients? No. Monroe is famously a loyal Asda shopper so you will have no problem buying any of the ingredients in the book.
What’s the faff factor? Probably not high enough to be honest. Some of the recipes are almost comically short. Lemon sardines on toast are just that, tinned sardines (which are already cooked) fried in their own oil and lemon juice (can you fry something in lemon juice?) served on a thick slice of toast. That’s it. You can buy sardines in oil and lemon by the way. Instant cheesy mash is a mix of instant mashed potato flakes, dried skimmed milk powder and dried hard cheese which you put in a jar and then throw away because no one in their right minds wants to eat a mix of potato flakes, milk powder and rancid dried cheese. Chicken and cannellini soup is a tin of beans that is simmered for 20 minutes for some reason (the beans are out of a tin, they’re already cooked) in water, a stock cube, lemon (why?) and ‘plenty of black pepper’. No fat clove of garlic for some reason, that would have been highly appropriate and added some character and flavour to the soup. But yum I guess. Chicken porridge is oats cooked with milk and a stock cube. Oh stop it, you’re spoiling us.
As with many of the dishes in the book (see below), you will find similar recipes online for chicken porridge. They are slightly more complex in that they actually have herbs and spices and other ingredients that make them worthwhile cooking. It’s a common theme in Thrifty Kitchen; Monroe adapts a recipe found easily online but in the process of making it ‘her own’ she often removes ingredients that make the thing worth the effort of cooking.
She admits in the book that this is the basis of her working method, saying ‘This is how I work when trying something new; I compare and contrast three or four recipes, picking out fundamentals and common denominators, then weave in what I think will be the best bits from each, to my own tastes and intuition. Most of the time it works a charm.’ There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this of course, many recipe writers work in a similar fashion I’m sure, after all, Felicity Cloake based an entire Guardian column and several ‘Perfect’ books on it. The key objective however is to come up with something better than already exists not just something different so you don’t get sued.
How often will I cook from the book? There may be 120 recipes but the same ingredients seem to pop up again and again. Ask yourself how much you like eating lentils, crab and fish paste, tinned tomatoes, lemon in just about bloody everything and endless cans of various beans. One of the utterly astonishing things about the book is that, although Monroe uses cannellini, borlotti, chickpeas and butter beans etc throughout the book, they are always tinned and she never recommends the much cheaper dried versions, surely the staple of any truly thrifty kitchen?
I found little in the book to inspire me into the kitchen. I love a roast chicken and am always on the look out for new ways to cook one. I often use Simon Hopkinson’s famous version from Roast Chicken and Other Stories and there is an excellent recipe in The Bull and Last Cookbook that includes a wonderful red wine gravy. I would also highly recommend spatchcocking a chicken and cooking it in an air fryer if you have a model that’s big enough. A 1.5kg bird will cook to bronzed perfection in about 40 minutes, a more thrifty method than using your oven. Surprisingly, Monroe never mentions air fryers or slow cookers in the book, two thrifty pieces of equipment that would be as much use as the bullet blender she recommends to make the white sauce mentioned below.
So what is Monroe’s signature roast chicken move you ask? Well, you take your chicken and put it in a lightly oiled roasting tin (there is no other fat used in the cooking process. Yeah, I love a dry chicken too), season it with salt and pepper and cook it for an hour or ‘according to package instructions’. That’s right, you’ve paid £19.99 (or if you are thrifty, £9.99 via Amazon, who you can send it back to for a refund once you’ve realised your terrible mistake) for a book to tell you to follow the instructions on the ‘package’ your chicken came in. Bad luck if you bought it from your butcher. She serves it with ‘coronation slaw’. I never want sultanas with my chicken so, fuck that. The introduction to the recipe is bizarre, banging on about geese and her Greek Aunty Helen and not mentioning chicken, or what to do with it once. It’s like no one checked to see if it made any sense or that it might be the introduction to another recipe entirely.
I don’t really want to eat Butter Bean, Veg and Stuffing Stew for my tea, but even less I don’t want to cook a recipe that advises me to toss chopped onion and garlic cloves sliced in half (why do I want great lumps of garlic in my stew?) to a dry cold pan, then pour over oil and seasoning and then turn the heat on. I think this is meant to be some sort of energy saving ‘hack’ (although she doesn’t actually say anything in the book about it) but how much energy do save by not heating you pan for thirty seconds so your ingredients cook properly? And if Monroe is so worried about saving fuel, why does she then say to cook very finely diced carrots and already cooked tinned butter beans for 40 minutes. And then cook for a further 10 minutes after adding thinly sliced courgettes and the stuffing crumbs. Imagine the claggy mess you’ll end up with.
In an introduction by Nigella Lawson, not written for the book but taken from a BBC 4 Radio programme, she calls Monroe a ‘kitchen savant’ with ‘a deep and instinctive understanding of the alchemy of cooking’. Far be it from me to contradict one of our finest food writers, but the butter bean stew recipe and many others in the book read like they were written by someone with little understanding of cooking techniques and not much interest in eating. That appears to be born out by the three recipes I tested from the book.
Instant white sauce
A quick and simple recipe that produced a sauce of sorts. It’s not much of a surprise when you discover that there are dozens of similar recipes online like this one. The only problem was that it tasted rank. Well, what do you expect from microwaved milk, flour, oil and mixed dried herbs (one of Monroe’s favourite ingredients sadly. Who uses mixed dried herbs anymore)?
Not a spelling mistake, just Jack’s little joke. Spinach and parsley bread rolls that her son squished together before baking so they looked like an arse. Ha. Ha, and indeed, Ha. I’d have more of a sense of humour if the recipe didn’t make me look like an arse too. For a cookbook aimed at non-expert bakers, including a recipe for bread that is around 80 per cent hydrated (i.e. has a lot of water in it. Not unusual in modern baking but a tricky technique to master) makes little sense. The use of plain flour rather than strong bread flour is also perplexing and probably a significant factor in why the recipe didn’t work as it should have done.
I followed the instructions as best as I could. However, the dough was so wet and sticky, made even more slack by the addition of defrosted frozen spinach (the recipe made no mention of draining the veg so I didn’t) which pushed the hydration level up even further, that it was impossible to knead on the worktop as per the recipe. With high-hydration doughs I would usually use the stretch and fold method made famous by US baker Chad Robertson and now much copied, but unfortunately not by Monroe. I ended up manipulating the dough as best I could with a dough scraper, an implement I would imagine few of Monroe’s intended audience would have and not something she recommends in the book’s Basic Kitchen Equipment section. I persevered for the prescribed 10 minutes but the result was less than ‘springy’.
Once ‘kneaded’ the dough needs to rise for three hours. Three feckin’ hours! Instead of doubling in size as per the recipe, the dough just laid there like a food writer sleeping through the Guardian knocking on their door at 12.30pm to get them to a photo shoot for a Saturday supplement cover story that shows them in an extremely bad light, even though they themselves think it’s good PR for them.
The lack of rise may have been due to the way the dough was mixed. Monroe says to blend the spinach and parsley with warm water and then add to the flour and yeast. By the time I’d finished blending, the water had lost most if not all its heat. I often use cold water when making a dough but I then prove the dough overnight in the fridge. So I could have made this work but testing my baking skills and knowledge was not the point here, it was to see if the recipes in the book actually worked.
Using my dough scraper again I managed to form the dough into, well, small bits of dough and left them to prove again for another hour during which time fuck all happened.
I then baked the rolls, if you could call them that for an astonishing 50 minutes at 140C. They needed a further 10 minutes to cook through. Why the long bake at a low temperature I have no idea and Monroe doesn’t explain. The oven needed to pre-heat too. It was the least thrifty bread recipe I think I’ve ever cooked. The result was at least edible if not particularly nice, the baked spinach and parsley gave the bread a faintly metallic taste and the long slow bake didn’t seem to have made any difference to the finished result. They could have been baked at 220C for 10-15 minutes and come out of the oven the same.
From start to finish, the process took close to six hours. As I had planned to spend the day in the kitchen that wasn’t a huge problem as I could get on with things while the dough was resting, but it’s a ludicrous amount of time only to end up with a bog-standard result that a more traditional method would have achieved in half the time. Although its not exactly like for like, compare this one hour pizza recipe from the brilliant YouTube chef Brian Lagerstrom. It’s been properly developed and tested and I can vouch that it works a treat and is delicious. It’s a useful recipe to have when you are stuck for ideas for a weeknight meal, which I’m not sure I would say about any of the recipes in Thrifty Kitchen.
These didn’t work. I mean, look at them. That’s after 50 minutes of cooking time. Apart from the addition of Marmite ( a nice idea by the way) the recipe ingredients and measurements are virtually identical to any you’ll find online or say, Delia Smith’s version (I like Gary Rhodes’s recipe from new British Classics which works a treat) so the mix should work.
The first problem arose from the amount of mix Monroe says to use. Three tablespoons in a standard poaching ring just isn’t enough so you end up with something closer to a pancake than a crumpet. Secondly, the instructions state to use the smallest ring on the hob at the lowest setting. I happen to have an induction hob (hardly that rare these days) so the lowest setting is really low. Even though I pre-heated the pan at a higher setting as instructed, the crumpets, which should have taken around 10 minutes (that’s the minimum time according to Monroe, but she gives no maximum) just never cooked through. I cooked a second batch using more mix and a higher heat but they still refused to set properly and tasted unpleasant. Everything went in the bin, including the leftover batter which there shouldn’t have been any of. I halved the recipe which should have made four crumpets but the mix would easily have made eight three tablespoon crumpets. Did anyone check?
I intended to test more Thrifty Kitchen recipes, but it was so dispiriting, spending the morning in the kitchen and having very little to show for the time, effort and money spent on ingredients and fuel. Both the crumpets and the white sauce went straight in the bin. The bread was one of the most exasperating and tricky doughs I have ever made, and I bake a great deal, but the result was at least edible.
Killer recipes: Well, you might find yourself a digit missing if you follow the tin opener ‘hack’ but nothing will actually kill you, probably. I am of course kidding. Regular readers of this blog will know that ‘killer recipes’ refers to the dishes that make the book irresistible and a must buy. That doesn’t apply in this case. Thrifty Kitchen remains eminently resistible.
Should I buy it? I’m honestly struggling to come up with a good reason what anyone would want to part with the best part of £20 to own this book. As discussed, its useless from a home hack point of view, the recipes are for the most part unappealing and badly written and there is very little truly thrifty about the book. Yes, there’s recipes for veg peelings and fish paste but who the fuck want’s to eat those? Where are useful budget-friendly meal planners and shopping lists? At Jamie Oliver’s website, that’s where. For free. They don’t even cost £19.99. Nada, zilch. And they are bloody great. So please, do yourself a favour and save your money.
120 reasons you don’t need to buy this book (a project that will never be completed)
I started out when I wrote this review with the intention of completely negating the need to buy Thrifty Kitchen by finding exactly similar or as close as possible recipes available free on the internet by another author. I decided to stop after two chapters as it was massively time consuming, I felt I’d made my point and I have TV boxed sets to binge watch, bitches. I have included my finding as I think it shows that often, the free alternatives are a more enticing proposition than Monroe’s versions.
It should be noted that there is no accusation of plagiarism, the purpose of this is to provide a resource for those that can’t or don’t want to afford to buy Monroe’s book. Recipes titles on the left are Monroe’s from the book and, unless otherwise indicated, the linked recipe has the exact same title, although ingredients and method differ to varying degrees. The recipes linked to here are not necessarily the earliest posted online, just the first I came across so I’m not claiming they are necessarily any more original than Monroe’s versions.
I am aware that some of the recipes published in the book and billed as ‘brand new’ on the back cover have already appeared, either on Monroe’s blog or as part of commercial tie-ins with companies such as Del Monte and Netflix (Refried Potatoes with Blue Cheese is available here and a similar but much nicer sounding version by US chef Paula Deen here. It should be noted that Paula Deen is a very controversial figure too so I’m not endorsing her in anyway, but that recipe does sound bloody good) but I haven’t listed these as I am only one man and this is enough work by itself and I’m pulling 100 hour weeks and DO YOU WANT ME TO STOP BREATHING!
Many cookbooks have emerged recently that started development during the lockdowns of the last few years. Sam and Sam Clark looked for ways to simplify their cooking to feed a five person household while compelled to stay under one roof. Luckily for the rest of the family, the Clarks are professional chefs and the husband-and-wife team behind Moro and other restaurants that focus on Southern Mediterranean dishes and flavours. The result of this endeavour is Moro Easy, a cookbook aiming to make their restaurant’s dishes accessible to the home cook through uncomplicated methods and ingredients.
Moro Easy delivers on straightforward and interesting dishes with many living in the sweet spot between undemanding and delicious, the kind of recipe that makes cooking tasty food deceptively easy and makes you think maybe one day, you too can open your own restaurant. On the menu could be the fish tagine with potatoes, peas and coriander requiring you to just whizz up a spice paste and bake fish in it for 8 minutes. Or a series of labneh recipes that are about as quick to make as they are to read.
Then there’s the ones that are a little more involved and bring you back to reality. For instance, it would be wise to stay focused on the kale purée with polenta unless you’re looking to paint your kitchen green.
However, books that have time limits or difficulty levels in their names set a high threshold of success. How easy is easy? How quick is quick? I remember the furore over the release of Jamie’s 20 Minute Meals when it transpired they did not in fact, take exactly 20 minutes. If you have a food processor at your disposal some recipes will take minutes of preparation. Without one, it’ll depend on your tolerance for chopping. Simple recipes also live and die by the quality of the ingredients you can source. A recipe with few components like Peas with Jamón and Mint will be inherently more delicious if the ingredients are of a higher quality.
There is a joy to be found in simple food, using the smallest amount of ingredients and effort to produce something remarkable. The best recipes here are the ones that just let the ingredients do their thing, roasted squash covered in cinnamon and a sweet and spicy vinegar is outstanding, as is aubergine dotted with tomatoes and tahini sauce. Mostly, they’re rustic and wholehearted dishes, the sort of thing you could eat entirely with chunks of bread. This isn’t a bad thing, I’ll be friends with anything that can be eaten using carbohydrate cutlery. On the whole, it’s an enjoyable book but something that’s more solid than spectacular.
Cuisine: Southern Spanish and Mediterranean Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars
What’s the USP? The latest entry in the Japaneasy series of cookbooks keeps it simple, offering up a selection of simple to make dishes that recall the bento options found at conbini convenience stores across Japan. There’s also, as the name suggests, a heavy focus on food served in bowls – which is very often the most comforting way to have one’s food served.
Who wrote it? Tim Anderson, the American-born, British-based Masterchef winner who specialises in Japanese cooking. Like, really specialises in it. Anderson is currently knocking out a cookbook a year, it seems, and they’re usually very accessible and filled with delicious ideas.
Is it good bedtime reading? Cookbooks that focus on simplicity often carry that through to every element of their composition too, from design to the food writing itself. Thankfully, while Anderson sticks with the clean, attractive layouts returning readers will be used to, he also continues to inject a few sections to peruse between recipes. As well as your standard equipment sections, there are asides on bento culture, and the best way to enjoy rice. They aren’t exactly essays, but they make for a much more readable and enjoyable experience than comparable offerings from other publishers.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Anderson tries, as ever, to keep his dishes as accessible as possible. There’ll be plenty of requests for staple ingredients of the cuisine, like mirin, dashi powder and sesame oil, but none of these are particularly hard to source these days. Where more unusual ingredients are suggested, Anderson offers a readily accessible alternative.
What’s the faff factor? As the title suggests, everything here will be relatively simple to knock together in your kitchen at home. Thankfully, he’s dropped the often terrible puns that the otherwise brilliant Vegan Japaneasy insisted highlighting said ease with. Now the dishes speak for themselves, and are all the better for it.
How often will I cook from the book? This is the sort of book that could be pulled off the shelf weekly. It is filled with simple dinners that will offer new options for a quick meal after work. With its focus on bento lending the book a ‘small plates’ vibe at times, there’s also plenty of opportunity to put on a fairly impressive, hassle-free Japanese dinner party.
What will I love? Japaneasy Bowls and Bento is a bit of an all-rounder. As well as a good selection of weeknight-friendly dinners, the bento-led focus of the book means it also offers great ideas for your packed lunch, or for a dinner party of small plates.
What won’t I love? It’s a small thing, but the lovely shiny blue lettering on the cover is not up to much at all – it only took one trip to my kitchen work-top for some of it to wear away. But all good cookbooks look a little worn in the end – perhaps this one is just keen to skip to that stage.
Killer recipes: Enoki bacon rolls, Microwaved runner beans with yuzu ginger miso, Pork belly bowl with salted leek relish, Crab and spinach doria
Should I buy it? The big question for many will be whether or not they already own a Tim Anderson book. While Japaneasy Bowls and Bento is a solid cookbook with plenty of tempting recipes for easy weeknight meals, earlier titles in the range offer a similar selection. This doesn’t break and new ground, so it’s worth heading to your local bookshop and comparing each title to figure out which one works best for you.
Cuisine: Japanese Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars
When anyone asks about the best Thai dishes that have been exported around the world, Pad Thai is certainly among the most sought after. My visit to the country’s capital in search of the best Pad Thai in Bangkok revealed how easy it actually is to cook this dish. It has a wonderful combination of sweet, sour and salty flavours with a good crunch of peanuts. Forget about ready-made sauce in a jar, you can make your own by combining tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce – it’s as simple as that.
200g/7oz flat rice noodles ½ tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra for the egg 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped 10 raw king prawns, shelled and deveined, but tails left on 1 egg 125g/4½oz bean sprouts 50g/1¾oz garlic chives (kow choi)
1 spring onion, cut into thin strips and soaked in cold water until curled, then drained 10 sprigs of fresh coriander, leaves picked 2 tsp dried chilli flakes ½ lime, cut into 2 wedges 2 tbsp salted peanuts, lightly crushed
Prepare the noodles according to the packet instructions; drain and set aside. In a small bowl, mix the seasoning ingredients with 2 tablespoons of water and stir well.
Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over a high heat. Fry the garlic for 30 seconds, then add the prawns and cook for 1 minute. Push the prawns to one side of the wok or frying pan and drizzle in a little more oil. Crack in the egg, scramble it, cook until dry and then add the noodles and seasoning mixture. Cook for 2 minutes, then stir in the bean sprouts and chives, continue to cook for 1 more minute and then turn off the heat.
Transfer to two serving bowls and garnish with the spring onion, coriander, chilli flakes, lime wedges and peanuts. Serve at once.
I visited Singapore many years ago on holiday and stumbled across a wonderful, well-organized food court whose name I can’t recall, but I vividly remember the stall that served delicious biryani. The chef showed me all the layers in the huge cooking pot he used to cook the aromatic rice. This experience always comes to mind every time I cook or read anything about biryani.
FOR THE JACKFRUIT & CHICKPEA CURRY
2 tbsp ghee, butter or vegan spread, plus ½ tbsp extra for the rice 4 white onions, halved and thinly sliced 4 medium and ripe tomatoes, finely chopped 1 x 565g/20oz can jackfruit in brine, drained and rinsed 1 x 400g/14oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
FOR THE RICE
500g/1lb 2oz/2½ cups basmati rice, soaked in water for 20 minutes then drained 3 green cardamom pods, lightly bruised 3 cloves 1 cinnamon stick 10 black peppercorns 1 tsp cumin seeds 2 tsp salt
FOR THE SAUCE
200g/7oz/scant 1 cup quark or natural yogurt 2.5cm/1in ginger, finely chopped 5 garlic cloves, sliced 1 tbsp ground coriander 2 tsp ground cumin 2 tsp mild chilli powder 1 tsp ground turmeric 2 tsp salt 1 tsp garam masala 10 sprigs of fresh coriander, roughly chopped 20 fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped 4 tbsp frozen peas
3 tsp saffron water (a pinch of saffron threads soaked in 2 tbsp warm water for 20 minutes) 3 tsp rose water 20 fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped 10 sprigs of fresh coriander, roughly chopped
To make the curry, melt the ghee, butter or spread in a large saucepan over a medium-high heat. Next, stir in the onions and fry for 10 minutes until golden to dark brown. Remove half the onion and set aside for later use.
Stir in the tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes until softened. Add the jackfruit, chickpeas and all the sauce ingredients, except for the peas, and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the peas, together with 200ml/7fl oz/scant 1 cup of water, and cook for a further 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, place 1.8 litres/63fl oz/7½ cups of water in a large saucepan and add the spices and salt, then bring to the boil and stir in the rice. Cook for 8 minutes. After the first 4 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook for the remaining 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and drain.
Put the remaining ghee, butter or spread in a deep saucepan and scatter over one-third of the rice followed by 1 teaspoon of the saffron water and 1 teaspoon of the rose water. Scatter over one-third of the mint, coriander and fried onions, followed by one-third of the curry. Repeat the same process until everything has been used.
Cover the pan with aluminium foil, put over a low heat and cook for 8 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the biryani rest for 5 minutes, then remove the foil and divide between four serving bowls. Serve at once.
Black Power Kitchen is part cookbook, part manifesto. A combination of 75 mostly plant-based dishes that draw on recipes from across the African diaspora and emotive essays that speak of the power food has in connecting communities and creating shared histories and futures alike.
The authors are Jon Gray, Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, members of New York food collective Ghetto Gastro. The group, which comprises chefs and food enthusiasts and has been making a name for itself since 2012, breaking into wider public consciousness in recent years as they collaborate with big brands while delivering important social action, feeding Black Lives Matters protesters and offering a thrilling vision of what food can do within a community.
You should buy Black Power Kitchen for both the passionate essays that shine a light on the collective’s vision for food in Black communities and beyond, and for the recipes, which are thoughtfully conceived and playfully reimagined takes on both iconic dishes and bright new ideas. Like last year’s Black Food by Bryant Terry, which also took a collaborative essay-led look at the diaspora’s rich food heritage, Black Power Kitchen is heavy on plant-based recipes, with a smattering of seafood and chicken dishes thrown in for good measure. But this is no clean-eating vegetable-led cookbook. The recipes are bold and creative, from a Jamaican jerk-inspired mushroom dish that includes a barbeque miso glaze, to a thrilling vegan take on the Brazilian feijoada. Pescatarians can add an unmissable take on the Japanese takoyaki that draws on Caribbean cooking to offer up a saltfish-led twist. The recipes can be a little more ambitious than casual home cooks will want to approach regularly, but the results will be amongst the best food you’ve ever made – your only disappointment will be that there aren’t more dishes to draw on.
Cuisine: African/International Suitable for: Confident home cooks Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars
What’s the USP? Mamacita is, on the face of things, a cookbook about Mexican food, and the immigrant experience. But it is also a lifeline. It was originally compiled as a self-published cookbook that was sold to help author Andrea Pons fund her family’s legal fees as they attempted to navigate the US immigration system. Now it finds its way into print once more, via a more traditional publisher, with additional recipes and plenty of glossy photos. It’s the American dream come true.
Is it good bedtime reading? There’s much to enjoy as a casual cookbook reader here. Though there isn’t much extended reading besides a thorough introduction at the beginning of the book, Pons shares her story, and that of her family, throughout the recipes themselves. This is a life, and a community, seen through food – and exploring each dish, and understanding how it fits into a bigger picture, makes what might otherwise be a fairly straight-forward collection of recipes a whole lot more enjoyable.
How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Despite listing a UK price on the back cover, this is a very US-centric cookbook, with measurements only listed imperially. If you can work around this, though, you’ll enjoy Pons’ uncomplicated writing.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Where are you cooking? Again, if you’re in the UK, you’ll have a more difficult time – even the most simple authentic Mexican ingredients, from chipotle in adobo to corn tortillas, can be a struggle to source here. Americans will likely fare better. The back pages list resources for immigrants in the US – but a list of resources for those looking to pick up Maseca flour and authentic Mexican cheeses might have been a useful addition too.
How often will I cook from the book? There’s plenty to love here, including showy dinner party dishes like Conchitas de Pescado (a fish gratin served in scallop shells). But the heart of this recipe book is family cooking, and so top of the agenda is simple, delicious food that’s easy to make at home. I tried out the Sopa Azteca at home last week during my lunch hour. It’s a fallacy that a good soup takes a long time, and the rich bowl I mustered up in little over thirty minutes couldn’t make a stronger case for the prosecution.
Many of the dishes here would make fantastic weeknight dinners from families with relatively open minds. Why would anyone bother with an Old El Paso dinner in a box (everything is included! All you need to buy is chicken breast! And an onion! And two bell peppers! And a jar of our branded guacamole!) when the same money and effort will put Pons’ stunning Pork in Green Sauce with Potatoes on the table?
Killer recipes: Chilaquiles, Pollo al Curry, Chicken in Adobo, Pork Chops in Spicy Tomato and Poblano Sauce, Mexican Bread Pudding
Should I buy it? Mamacita isn’t a perfect book. You sort of suspect that being self-published, and then picked up by Princeton Architectural Press (who, unsurprisingly given their name, have limited experience with cookbooks) might explain a few of the simple missing elements that another cookbook wouldn’t have skipped over. But these are relatively small qualms – this is bright and positive food, beautifully written about and passionately presented.
Cuisine: Mexican Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars