Two of my friends, Jack and Harry, are brothers. Sometimes it seems as though Jack and Harry have very little in common, besides the fact that they are both singer-songwriters with a satisfying mid-Wales accent. But the truth, of course, is that they share many traits. Perhaps the biggest of these: they each are blessed with a confidence in their own opinions hitherto not seen outside of the central residence of Vatican City.
In most folk, this sort of conviction of belief might come across as arrogant. But Jack and Harry deliver their righteous indignation with a charm and a knowing sense of silliness. After all, absolutely nothing Jack or Harry share their opinions on actually matters, and I think they know it. And so I’m able to enjoy the ludicrous confidence I am faced with as they pretend the first three Billy Joel albums don’t exist, or chastise me for having the audacity to drink Orangina despite not being a Parisian schoolboy. None of this matters. It’s all just supplementary colour; decoration to a life well lived.
Andy Baraghani’s The Cook You Want To Be reminds me a little of Jack and Harry. Baraghani, who trained at Chez Panisse before working for Bon Appétit as a Senior Food Editor, is perhaps as present in his cookbook as any food writer has ever been. Yes, the cookbook can be an intensely personal literary form, and writers like Nigel Slater have made a career out of delivering food-forward diaries. But Baraghani somehow moves beyond this. He is more than the author of The Cook You Want To Be; he is an ingredient in each recipe, his opinions and obsessions worn on his turmeric-stained sleeves.
From the very outset, Baraghani writes with passion and walks a tightrope of self-awareness. The book’s title often seems like a deliberate misdirection – though his advice frequently encourages the reader to grow and develop as a cook, it is only rarely that we aren’t pressed in very specific directions. We are told which brand of Japanese mandoline to use, we are gently pushed to use more herbs, teased if we don’t love garlic. Is this The Cook You Want To Be or The Cook Andy Baraghani Wants You To Be? Does it really matter, when the food tastes this good?
And the food does taste good, that much is not in doubt. Baraghani’s dishes draw heavily on his Persian background, his training at Chez Panisse, and what he eats at home. The result is a book that is, not unlike the author, unpretentious but still a little showy. Take the Buttery Beef and Peanut Stir-fry, which I knocked up on a weekday evening in less than half an hour. Twenty minutes of that was marinating time. The final dish was scrappy-looking but full of depth of flavour. The sort of thing that will catch a visiting friend off-guard, which is possibly the best thing one can do when cooking for someone else. Surprise: this is incredible.
Dishes are split into sections with tellingly possessive titles (‘Snacks to Share… or Not’, ‘Soup Obsessed’, ‘Fish, I Love You’), but the real theme here is always Baraghani’s tastes and desires. Some of my favourite cookbooks are those that focus solely on what the author loves best, from Neil Perry’s Everything I Love To Cook to Colu Henry’s Colu Cooks. But it doesn’t work if the author doesn’t have anything fresh or exciting to put on the table. Baraghani has plenty, and there’s often a tantalising stickiness to his dishes, be they Caramelized Sweet Potatoes with Browned Butter Harissa or Jammy Egg and Scallion Sandwiches. The food here celebrates itself and asks to be relished, to be wolfed down and savoured, lips and fingertips licked for every last speck.
There are irresistible vegetable dishes tucked amongst the sticky goodness and the self-assured writing (“When you make this dish (not if)’, “I wish you could press a button on this page and hear the sound effects of how I feel about this recipe”). From Roasted Carrots with Hot Green Tahini to Fall-Apart Caramelized Cabbage Smothered in Anchovies and Dill, Baraghani is constantly encouraging you to rediscover the most common of ingredients.
The Cook You Want To Be is one of those most glorious of things: a cookbook with real character. Baraghani’s presence is so keenly felt on every page – there’s no dry, anonymous advice here. Everything is served with a little slice of a big personality. And it’s a joy to see this singular vision place so much importance upon something with such low stakes because cooking like this doesn’t really matter, not really. Like all the little things Jack and Harry have needlessly precise opinions on, nothing in this book is a matter of life and death. But finding joy in this small, delicious stuff: that’s what makes life matter in the first place.
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Buy this book: The Cook You Want To Be by Andy Baraghani
£26, Ebury Press
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas