At Home by Rick Stein

Rick Stein at Home
What’s the USP? Lovably grumpy old German sausage Rick Stein returns with his ‘what I did in lockdown’ opus. Prevented from his usual globetrotting tendancies by the worldwide lurgy, Rick regals us with ‘recipes, memories and stories from a food lover’s kitchen’.

Who wrote it? After more then a quarter of a century years on British TV screens and getting on for 50 years (!) of running his world famous The Seafood restaurant in Padstow Cornwall, Stein is something of a British national treasure. He’s written numerous cookbooks (many of them with an accompanying TV series) about his world travels that include France, Spain, India, the Med, the Far East, and Mexico.

Is it good bedtime reading? The clue is in the ‘memories and stories’ part of the subtitle. If you’ve seen Rick on the telly, you’ll know he loves an anecdote and to generally bang on about stuff and he’s in his element in this book. He pontificates about the joys of cooking in lockdown in the book’s main introduction (a subject we can only pray will soon be purely historical in nature) and provides substantial  introductions to each of seven chapters which cover bar snacks, first courses, fish and shellfish (of course; Stein is still the English culinary Poseidon), poultry, meat, vegetarian and desserts and drinks.

In addition, there are short, chatty essays on the subject of sourdough, gadgets, the art of stocking making, low calorie cooking for a quiet night in, Christmas, avoiding food waste (Stein is somewhat obsessive about this subject and keen to use ‘wrinkly shrivelled mushrooms, yoghurt that’s so out of date it nearly catching up with itself next year, little blocks of rock hard cheese, garlic clovres and ginger almost dried out, excessively bendy carrots, squishy tomatoes and red peppers’ and even dumps chopped up left over pizza into his nasi goreng), recipes that helped him get through lockdown, recipe testing, store cupboard ingredients, foraging and preserving.  With most of the 100 recipes coming with substantial introductions, this could serve as your cookbook at bedtime for at least a week.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? The very first recipe in the book, feta and spainach filo ‘cigars’, calls for a ‘big pinch’ of chilli flakes. Elsewhere, there’s a ‘small handful’ and ‘handful’ of coriander and a ‘good handful’ of parsely (what might be the exact differences I wonder?). More annoyingly, the recipe for slow-cooked pork carnitas tacos needs a ‘handful’ of radishes, yet Rick is able to weigh out 150g of pitted green olives to go into his beef and pork meatballs with a spicy tomato sauce. Generally speaking however, ingredient list and methods are well written and detailed enough so that you shouldn’t  have trouble following the recipes, especially  if you are a confident cook.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Although Stein draws inspiration from around the globe, the vast majority of ingredients will be stocked by large supermarkets. Exceptions may include Arbroath smokies, oysters, scallops, gurnard, grey mullet, sea bream, John Dory, red mullet, espelette pepper, Chinese salted black beans, pandan leaf, goose, sea buckthorn berries and sloes.

How often will I cook from the book? As indicated by the chapters listed above and Stein’s well known freewheeling global cooking style, there is a lot of variety to the recipes and you will find something appropriate for any day of the week and pretty much any occasion, from an easy mid-week meal of chicken and prawn stir fry to a roast goose with sage and onion stuffing and apple sauce fit for Chritmas Day.

Killer recipes: Deep fried coconut prawns; stir fried salt and pepper squid with red chilli and spring onion; hot smoked salmon kedgeree; tarka dal, chicken fricassee with morels; crisp Chinese roast pork; apple tarte tatin and much else besides.

Should I buy it? If you are an avid Stein cookbook collector you may recognise a few of these recipes, but apprently every one has been re-cooked and slightly tweaked so don’t let that put you off. If you are new to Stein, this is a great place to start with a wide ranging collection of accessible and delicous recipes that you will want to cook again and again.

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

Buy this book
Rick Stein at Home: Recipes, Memories and Stories from a Food Lover’s Kitchen
£26, BBC Books

Gastro Obscura by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras

What’s the USP? Well, it isn’t a cookbook, for one.

Oh. Right. You do know this is a cookbook review blog, right? The clue is right there in the title. Yes, yes, but Gastro Obscura has earned its place on our shelves too. It’s decidedly cookbook-adjacent.

Insofar as that’s where you’ve put it on your shelves? No – in that it’s a big and beautiful hardback about food that has come out just in time for Christmas. Gastro Obscura is a food-based spin-off to the globally-minded Atlas Obscura website. The original site – and its first book by the same name – is a crowd-sourced collection of weird and wonderful attractions around the world, be they strange museums, unusual folk traditions or unexpected attractions.

And let me guess – Gastro Obscura is the same thing, but for food? You got it. Organised by continent, and then by country, there are almost five hundred entries. From ‘North Korean Diplomacy Noodles’ to Jeppson’s Malört, an almost undrinkable liquor from Chicago, the book touches upon every corner of the globe.

I imagine it makes pretty good bedtime reading? Maybe more ‘cosy late night armchair reading’ – it’s a pretty hefty thing. But it is infinitely explorable. Very much fitting into that mould of intriguing coffee table books that are intended to be dipped into on a whim, I still managed to read the whole thing cover-to-cover in a matter of days.

There’s an element of focus that the food theme provides that gives Gastro Obscura a little more purpose than the original book (which has admittedly sat on our bookshelf, mostly unread, since being gifted to my partner a couple of years ago). Where that first title could be a little hit and miss, everything here brings you back to those inescapably fascinating questions we all have about food – why do we eat what we eat? What is everyone else having for dinner tonight? And, most importantly: can I have some?

‘Can I have some’? Yes! One of the smartest additions to the book is a little paragraph next to each entry that tells you how to go about trying the food in question. This might be a fairly general tip (“The days of cocaine-laced bordeaux are over, but try regular bordeaux – it’s very good.”) or, more frequently, a tip directing you to a direct source. If I ever find myself in Botswana’s Okavango Delta you can bet I’ll be heading to African Horseback Safaris to try their pizza made in a termite hill oven.

This all sounds very out of reach. In many cases, the entries absolutely are. The Siberian sashimi competition at Festival Stroganina sounds remarkably difficult to get to, and I doubt I’ll find myself at any of the Antarctic base stations listed here. But for every genuinely obscure choice, there’s plenty of Gastro Not-So-Obscura options. The section dedicated to the US is huge, and if I ever find myself on the east coast in late September, you better believe I’ll be making the detour to West Virginia’s annual roadkill cook-off.

In fact, there’s plenty of very accessible entries here – sauna sausages in Finland, a full marathon that includes 23 glasses of wine in (you guessed it) France – even a secret subterranean cave bar in my hometown of Nottingham that I had no idea existed. There is also a smattering of recipes – though they are surprisingly tame (Finnish mustard, Korea’s budae jjigae) and frustratingly not listed together in the index, meaning you are left to stumble upon them in the course of your reading.

Should I buy it, then? If you love trying unusual foods, or exploring other cultures, there’s much to love here. But let’s not ignore this book’s true raison d’être: a Christmas present for difficult-to-buy-for relatives. Not everyone is a fan of big hardbacks they’re only going to flick through sporadically – but if you’ve got a friend or family member who is really into their food, this could be the perfect Christmas present for them. I, for one, am in the process of writing an email to everybody I know informing them that, thank you very much, but I already own Gastro Obscura. I know how those buggers think.

Cuisine: Global
Suitable for: Curious foodies
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide (Atlas Obscura)
£32, Workman Publishing

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

The Whole Chicken by Carl Clarke

The Whole Chicken Carl Clarke

What’s the USP? It’s nose-to-tail cooking, but for chickens! So beak-to-tail-feather, then. The Whole Chicken breaks down the bird both literally and metaphorically, with chapters dedicated to all our favourite cuts, as well as mince, offal, bones, skin and, in a move that technically fits the bill but feels a little too eager to get the chicken on the table, eggs.

Who wrote it? Author Carl Clarke has definite chicken-cred. I mean, I imagine his credibility is at rock bottom with actual chickens – he keeps eating them. But through Chick ‘n’ Sours and spin-off Chick’n he has two of the coolest bird-and-apostrophe-centric restaurants in London to his name.

Is it good bedtime reading? Though Clarke skips out on chapter introductions (who needs to be told that thighs are the best bit of the chicken for the umpteenth time?), he quickly makes up for it with passionate and practical introductions to each recipe. Forget about the bedtime reading though, it’s the kitchen dance-offs that you’ll be focused on: the book offers five brilliantly curated playlists to keep you entertained whilst you prepare, cook and eat the whole of your chicken.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Not even a little bit. Clarke goes into a decent amount of detail throughout. There’s a refreshing commitment to clarity, in fact. The book lists both metric and imperial measurements at every opportunity, and even features both British and American terms where necessary (cling film/plastic wrap, etc).

What’s the faff factor? Clearly marked at the side of the page. A small scale next to each recipe ranks the dish as either ‘easy peasy’, ‘almost breezy’, or ‘worth the effort’. That said, quite a lot of the dishes fall into that latter category. The scale isn’t particularly consistent either. The Next Level Breville grilled sandwich is listed as ‘worth the effort’, and whilst it’s certainly a lot more of a commitment than your usual toastie, it pales by comparison to the Chicken Nuggets with Kimchi Bacon Ranch Dip and Spicy Shake.

What will I love? The sheer range of dishes on offer here. Clarke draws on a number of different cuisines, though East Asia and the United States are perhaps the most obvious influences. Everything here looks absolutely delicious, and the design of the book itself only emphasises this. The Whole Chicken is intensely cool, and you’ll be a little surprised to find that it’s willing to hang out with you and your other cookbooks.

What won’t I love? There’s a disappointing amount of recipes representing the less commonly used pieces of the chicken. Given the title of the book is ‘The Whole Chicken’, you’d perhaps expect a little more attention to be paid to these areas. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the book is dedicated to those traditional cuts. The entire offal section comprises of just five recipes, meaning that those looking for inspired uses for chicken heart (a delicacy in several countries) will find just one stand-alone recipe. The same goes, inexplicably, for the liver, gizzards and feet – despite each of these having myriad uses in various global cuisines.

Killer recipes: My Friend Romy’s Butter Chicken Recipe, Doritos-Coated Schnitzel with Fried Eggs and Anchovies, Gunpowder Wings, Xian-Spiced Chicken Scratchings and Cherry Cola Chicken Legs.

Should I buy it? Despite not fully realising the promise of its title, The Whole Chicken does offer up an irresistible wealth of dishes drawn from genuinely global influences. It isn’t the first book to do a deep dive on the chicken, but it feels very much of its own space. I have Diana Henry’s lovely A Bird in the Hand on my shelves too, but comparing the two here feels a little like throwing Delia Smith in the ring with David Chang.

Cuisine: Global
Suitable for: Beginner to confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

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

Buy this book
The Whole Chicken: 100 easy but innovative ways to cook from beak to tail
£22, Hardie Grant

Vegetarian round up: The Part-Time Vegetarian’s Year and Italy: The World Vegetarian

What’s the USP? Two USPs, actually! Having explored meat-free options from India and Japan with their initial installments earlier this year, Bloomsbury’s ‘World Vegetarian’ series takes its first step into Europe with Christine Smallwood’s volume on the food of Italy. Meanwhile, Nicola Graimes follows up 2015’s The Part-Time Vegetarian with a seasonal take on her flexitarian cooking.

Are they good bedtime reading? Once the recipes are out of the way, there’s not a lot of extra-curricular writing in Smallwood’s book on Italy. Like many cookbooks that form part of a larger series, this is a fairly utilitarian affair. This isn’t a book for reading over cosy winter evenings, but rather a practical volume you can take down from the shelf when you need dinner on the table in forty minutes.

The Part-Time Vegetarian’s Year has a lot more to offer on this front – the division of a cookbook by seasonal availability has been something of a trend in the last couple of years, and lends itself brilliantly to vegetarian cooking (as Nigel Slater demonstrated with his brilliant Greenfeast books). So here we have practical advice about how best to utilise your freezer, how to minimise your food waste and, of course, handy lists of which vegetables are in season when.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? One of the most underrated elements of vegetarian cooking, I think, is that recipes are usually incredibly easy to source. Dishes rely on the flavours of the vegetables and the method of cooking to extract as much flavour as possible out, and as such rarely call upon more hard-to-source ingredients. Smallwood’s book, drawing as it does from a cuisine that has been so warmly taken in and appropriated by Britons, features nothing but instantly recognisable ingredients that can be found most anywhere you care to shop. Graimes might send you out into the world for hoisin sauce or silken tofu, but you’re not going to consider that much of a challenge, are you?

How often will I cook from the books? Both titles are filled with interesting and vibrant dishes – though Italy: The World Vegetarian probably has the upper hand on this front. Smallwood’s dishes are ready made for weeknight cooking, and you could easily find yourself picking out a simple but effective recipe from this book once or twice a week.

Graimes’ Part-Time Vegetarian’s Year asks a little more from the reader – both in terms of culinary skills and commitment of time to the dishes. The results are equally as tempting, though, so will likely find their way onto your dinner table a couple of times a month without any trouble.

What will I love and what won’t I love? For all of The World Vegetarian’s positives, the book is just a bit, well, drab. It’s hard to really put your personality into a pre-existing format – and in terms of Smallwood’s involvement this is much more ‘Gary Barlow takes over X-Factor’ than ‘Taika Waititi shakes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe’. We’re spoiled for vegetarian cookbooks at the moment, and sheer practicality isn’t necessarily enough of a selling point to really make a mark. This is something The Part-Time Vegetarian’s Year understands – it’s significantly more vibrant, and the reader gets a much stronger sense of Nicola Graimes’ voice and personality. It’s also, dare I say it, more fun. The flexitarian options allow for the entire thing to feel more interactive, more of a loose guide than the overt instruction manual vibes of Smallwood’s book.

Killer recipes: Italy: The World Vegetarian’s highlights include Sciatt with Cicoria, Spicy Farro Soup and Assassin’s Spaghetti. The Part-Time Vegetarian’s Year travels a little further afield to offer Sesame Empanada Pie, Mushroom Noodle Larb and Spiced Leek Flatbreads with Mint Aioli.

Should I buy it? Both will find a place on any vegetarian’s shelf. Smallwood’s entry to the World Vegetarian series is perhaps better suited for cooks seeking to expand on their own repertoire of dishes – though it’s probably the more useful of the two offerings, it lacks the pizazz we tend to seek in the books we give to others. The Part-Time Vegetarian’s Year, however, has exactly that. It’s accessible and fun – and the flexitarian element means it will be equally loved by both vegetarians and those looking to cut their meat-consumption down in the future.

Cuisine: Italian/Global
Suitable for: Beginners/Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars/Three stars

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

Buy the books
The Part-Time Vegetarian’s Year: Four Seasons of Flexitarian Recipes
£25, Nourish Books 

Italy: The World Vegetarian
£20, Bloomsbury Absolute

Jikoni by Ravinder Bhogal

What’s the USP? A ‘proudly inauthentic’ cookbook, that mashes together flavours from across the globe – with particularly heavy influences from South Asian and African cuisines and a whole lot of love for tamarind.

Who wrote it? Jikoni is the passion project of Ravinder Bhogal, the chef and restaurateur behind the Marylebone joint of the same name. Born in Kenya to Indian parents, Bhogal grew up in Britain, and has clearly learnt a joyful irreverence towards the strict cultural boundaries we impose upon food. This, as someone who regularly makes katsu curry schnitzel with spätzle, is an idea worth getting behind. You get the sense that Bhogal would have no qualms adding chorizo to a paella, if she thought the dish called for it.

Is it good bedtime reading? There’s plenty to be getting on with here, with short essays to open each chapter, occasional treatises on ingredients or dishes, and vivid descriptions to introduce each recipe. Bhogal’s writing is locked into the language of the contemporary cookbook, which is to say that the heady nostalgia and wide-eyed admiration of the food she grew up with doesn’t necessarily feel new or exciting to read, but will have you salivating over the very concept of a samosa nonetheless.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? The short answer is yes, probably. Whilst the majority of ingredients are easy enough to find, many recipes have at least one addition that will stump your local supermarket. Often these are optional, though, allowing you to choose an inauthentic recreation of Bhogal’s inauthentic dishes.

As an added bonus, most elements of the dishes are created from scratch, meaning the number of ingredients frequently tumbles deep into double figures. The Duck and Pistachio Pierogi with Hot Yoghurt Sauce and Pul Biber Butter requires around 30 individual ingredients, including multiple varieties of some: dried and fresh mint, ground allspice, and allspice berries. Stocking up for even two or three of these dishes will be enough to topple most spice racks.

What’s the faff factor? Max faff. All the faff. Here’s the thing: everything in Jikoni looks, and no doubt tastes, absolutely delicious. But my god, is it a lot of effort. Take the Prawn Toast Scotch Eggs with Banana Ketchup. That is, without a doubt, one of the top five most appetising recipe names I’ve ever seen in a cookbook. Prawn toast scotch eggs. Jesus Christ. Even at a conservative estimate, I reckon I could devour six of those right now – and that’s before we even consider that the recipe calls for quail eggs. Did I say six? Let’s double that, easily.

But now take a moment to ruminate on that title. Scotch eggs are a faff at the best of times. But we’re replacing the sausagemeat with raw tiger prawns that need peeling, deveining and processing into a suitable substitute? And then we’re making our banana ketchup from scratch? Don’t get me wrong – it’s all very do-able. But this is not a weeknight dinner cookbook. This isn’t even a weekend treat cookbook, for the most part. This is a dinner party host seeking redemption for all their past sins cookbook.

Killer recipes: Bhogal’s recipes are frequently a little overwhelming at first glance, but when they tempt you, boy do they tempt you. The inspired Duck Rendang looks as tasty as anything I’ve seen this year, and I’m sure I’d have made it multiple times already if I only had an easy source of fresh turmeric and galangal (and dried bird’s eye chillies, and shrimp paste). In fact, the curries are frequently attention grabbing, from Goose Leg Qorma to the Massaman Pork and Peanut Curry with Pineapple Relish. The Oyster Pani Puris, too, look incredible – but also seems like the most complex and stressful dish in the whole book, despite a very reasonable seven ingredients.

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

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

Buy this book
Jikoni: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from an Immigrant Kitchen
£26, Bloomsbury Publishing

Cook from this book
Lamb and Aubergine Fatteh
Lemongrass Poussin with Green Mango and Peanut Salad
Banana Cake with Miso Butterscotch and Ovaltine Kulfi