Junk Food Japan: Addictive Food from Kurobuta by Scott Hallsworth

Junk food japan

Former Nobu head chef Scott Hallsworth drops more f-bombs than a Martin Scorsese movie character.  The four-page biographical introduction piles on the profanity with more than two dozen swear words; there’s a chapter entitled ‘Sushi’s F**ked-Up Friends’ and recipe introductions are littered with bad language.

Hallworth’s two Kurobuta restaurants in London are billed on their website as ‘Rock’n’Roll Izakaya’ (the Japanese version of a gastropub) and the Western Australia-born chef makes no secret of his unfulfilled musical ambitions. But his indie-rock swagger comes across on the page as more Kevin the Teenager than Nick Cave and falls short of the effortless cool of The Meatliquor Chronicles by Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins, a book (and restaurant) that Junk Food Japan owes a spiritual debt to.

But tune out the four-letter white noise and plenty of exciting, modern and iconoclastic east-meets-west ideas emerge. Hallsworth explains that the term Junk Food Japan began as a menu category that included tuna sashimi pizza (the recipe is included in the book) and then developed into the ‘no-nonsense, almost playful way of creating dishes’.

Although the book contains dishes that resemble fast food including fried chicken and hot wings, they’re refined versions that belie the ‘junk food’ tag, so the chicken is poached in master stock before being fried in a shichimi (Japanese seven spice power) coating and the hot wings are barbecued in a spicy  sauce made with gochujang, sake and white (the list of specialist suppliers at the back of the book is useful for tracking down the more obscure Japanese ingredients Hallsworth uses).

The traditions of Japanese cuisine that can appear daunting and limiting to neophytes are for the most part swept aside making Junk Food Japan an approachable introduction to a complex subject. Nigiri, the oval sushi rice pillows that are usually topped with raw fish are here finished with thin slices of dashi-poached veal and anchovy mayonnaise and pickled cucumber sushi rolls are topped with a Wagyu slider, chicken liver parfait and yuzu marmalade sauce to create a sort of Japanese version of Tournedos Rossini.

Dishes range from straightforward one pot wonders like marbou dofu (spicy minced pork and tofu) to the more technically challenging sushi creations, offering chefs of all levels something to get their teeth into. While I could have done without the potty mouthed posturing, Junk Food Japan is lively, informative and full of enticing recipes. It’s a great book, I swear.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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Junk Food Japan: Addictive Food from Kurobuta
Scott Hallsworth
£26 Absolute Press

Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook

Gotham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Celler de Can Roca by Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca

El Celler de can Roca

Xanthan gum. Kuzu thickening agent. Calcium gluconolactate. Is your mouth watering yet? No, me neither. Reading the recipes in this hefty, lavishly produced volume about the world famous three Michelin starred restaurant in Girona, Spain, you can’t help but think of the ingredients on the back of a packet of Haribo.

This is the English translation of a book originally published in Spanish in 2013. In those four years, food trends have moved on from the gels, spheres, soils and foams beloved of molecular gastronomy that litter the pages of this book to a far more naturalistic approach. In their measured world of rotovals and sous vide cooking, the Roca brothers (head chef Joan, pastry chef Jordi and sommelier Josep) are so far removed from the wild heat of an open flame that they risk leaving themselves out in the cold.

Nevertheless, there is plenty here to amuse cooks of the progressive persuasion in search of inspiration. A ‘vienetta’ made from black truffle and white asparagus ice cream is a hoot, while Artichoke Flower, built from artichoke petal crisps and served with foie gras soup is a visually stunning creation. Convoluted dishes with grand titles like ‘The World’ (a selection of five snacks inspired by the brothers’ travels to Mexico, Peru, Morocco, Korea and the Lebanon) are broken down into bite-sized recipes for each element which are often quite straightforward and can be cherry picked by those not wanting to replicate Roca plates verbatim.

The 90 recipes included take up less than half the book’s generous 480 pages which leaves plenty of space for a detailed history of the thirty year-old restaurant, a report on a day in the life of El Cellar written by noted Catalan author Josep Maria Fonalleras, and articles on things like the restaurant’s interior design and its wine cellar. A chapter on sauces is particularly revealing – who knew that the ‘sexual tissues’ of sea urchins make good thickeners? But whether or not you find meditations on concepts like ‘techno-emotional cuisine’, ‘transversal creation’ and ‘chromatism’ edifying will depend on how much of a proponent of modernist, avant garde cuisine you are.

Beautifully designed and photographed, El Cellar de Can Roca is unquestionably a desirable object. Fans of books by Ferran Adria and Nathan Myhrvold will lap it up; those of a more classical bent may find the whole thing just too pretentious to swallow.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Spanish
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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El Celler de Can Roca
Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca
£30 Grub Street

Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp

Modern Baker

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

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

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

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

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

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

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

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

On the Side: A Sourcebook of inspiring side dishes by Ed Smith

On the sideWhen blogger Ed Smith of Rocket and Squash says in the introduction to this, his first foray into print, that side dishes are ‘often the best bit’ of a meal, it’s difficult to disagree. After all, what’s a steak without chips?

For the most part, Smith looks beyond the obvious – he suggests scorched sweet potatoes with sobrasada butter to go with that steak – and gleefully raids the global larder to brighten up kale and edamame with miso and sweet chilli and add spicy depth to mushrooms with za’atar. Left field ideas like adding yeast to cauliflower puree to provide ‘an (enjoyably) cheesy mustiness’ or coating corn on the cob in gochujang mayo and coconut make for an enjoyable and stimulating read.

It’s a particularly well organised book, with recipes not only grouped into four chapters covering greens, leaves and herbs; vegetables, fruits, flowers and bulbs; roots, squash and potatoes and grains, pulses pasta and rice, but also listed in three directories headed ‘What’s your main dish?’, ‘Where is the side dish prepared?’ (i.e. on the counter, on a hob or in the oven) and ‘How long does it take to make’. That means it’s easy to identify the ideal recipes to suit what’s on your menu, your kitchen set up and time available.

‘Alongside’ suggestions at the end of every recipe make it simple to pick two or three sides that pair with each other to make a meal in themselves (‘I think as eaters we’re creeping away from the idea that there must always be a standout piece of meat or fish in a meal’, claims Smith) or to match with a main course.

There are a few missteps. Smith doesn’t bring anything new to over-familiar dishes like boulangere potatoes, colcannon and cauliflower cheese and some of the recipes including broccoli with tarragon and agretti with olive oil are so simplistic that they hardly warrant inclusion.  But overall, Smith has come up with more than enough inventive ideas to ensure that cooks won’t leave his debut effort on the side.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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On the Side: A sourcebook of inspiring side dishes
Ed Smith
£20 Bloomsbury

Sabor: Flavours from a Spanish Kitchen by Nieves Barragan Mohacho

Sabor

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review was first published in The Caterer magazine)

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

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

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