Christopher Hirst selects his favourite cook books of 2017
6. A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones
Fans of Anna Jones’s 2014 bestseller A Modern Way to Cook will need no urging to snap up her new volume of imaginative vegetarian combinations, The Modern Cook’s Year (Fourth Estate, £26). As the title suggests, this hefty tome is organised on seasonal lines with detours for soup (‘not chicken soup’ utilises fennel, celery, olive oil and lemon), cakes (lemon and cardamom upside down cake – yum), infusions etc. One difference with the new book is that Anna has accumulated a ‘curly haired little man’ called Dylan, now heading for two, who is a devotee of chard and ricotta pasta. Anna speaks highly of fermented items in The Modern Cook’s Year, including kombucha (a sort of fizzy sweet tea) and the wildly trendy kimchi. But for those unpersuaded by such fashionable effervescence, there are no end of recipes that will lure all but the most unnerving carnivore. How about tarragon-blistered tomatoes, served on griddled sourdough with a dressing of whizzed-up parsley and oil? Or the late spring nibble of broad beans, mozzarella and salad on toast with elderflower dressing? It’s conceivable that we might have come up with those ideas ourselves but other combinations, such as crushed new potatoes, broccoli and blood orange cream or beetroot, rhubarb and potato gratin point to a singularly fertile culinary imagination. After the 22 recipes featuring tomatoes and 20 with lemons, Anna’s favourite ingredients are kale (14), lentils (13), beetroot (11) and courgettes (8). We will all be eating more vegetables in due course. Cheap meat inevitably involves inhumane treatment of animals which will surely become unacceptable. Anna Jones makes vegetarian food not only worthy but exciting. You only have to think of butter bean stew with kale and sticky blood oranges, tomato tart Tatin, golden saffron mash with winter greens and poached eggs to know that the vegetarian option means no diminution in satisfaction or flavour.
7. The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
At an early stage in the 20-odd course tasting menu at The Sportsman at Seasalter in Kent, you encounter a dish that explains why this unassuming pub on the shoreline was declared UK’s Best Restaurant in this year’s National Restaurant Awards. Not only is the starter of slip sole cooked with memorable precision (a decade on, I can still remember its al dente bite) but its emollient coating of buttery green speckles is the perfect finishing touch. In his revelatory book The Sportsman (Phaidon, £29.95), the pub’s gaffer Stephen Harris explains the secrets of this maritime marvel. The butter is homemade – just chilled double cream churned in a stand mixer – while the green speckles come from gutweed or sea lettuce gathered from the beach. The inspiration came from the seaweed butter sold by the St Malo butter maker Jean-Yves Bordier, Harris recalls his first batch: ‘The butter turns bright green and tasted sensational. It was moreish in the way things that are very unami tend to be.’ Like Harris’s cooking, everything rings right about this book. It has a laudatory foreword by Marina O’Loughlin (‘Stephen’s kitchen now delivers food that tastes quite bracingly of itself… my favourite place to eat in the British Isles’), while Harris’s insistence on Kentish terroir is underlined by an essay on Seasalter from a local archaeologist. Harris admits, ‘I have never worked under a great chef, and so I have had to figure everything out for myself.’ In consequence, we learn his progress towards salt-baked gurnard: ‘I always liked the idea of gurnard more than the reality. It is nearly always roasted… but I find the skin to be bitter. One day I thought I would try to bake it in a salt crust and the results were extraordinary.’ Not only is the gurnard a local catch but also the salt in which it is baked. ‘Any chef who lives in a place called Seasalter and doesn’t try making his own salt is asleep on the job.’ Harris’s cooking is not wildly experimental (thank God) but it is sound, intelligent and profoundly honest. As you would expect, the book is heavily weighted towards fish: raw scallops (small ones) dressed with walnut oil and apple balsamic and served raw as a starter; pickled herring (the fillets artfully arranged to resemble a starfish); ray or skate with cockles and brown butter; and, of course, oysters. Locally sourced carnivorous temptations include pheasant and bread sauce, a slice of raw venison fillet topped with pickled turnip and crisp cavil Nero and even pork scratchings with a dipping sauce made from equal quantities apple sauce and wholegrain mustard (you could copy for roast pork). Endowed with an Orwellian clarity, Harris’s prose is a constant delight. Here’s his reaction after discovering the Jersey cream of the White Horse Farm, Biddenden: ‘How could I make anything as beautiful as this product? How could I beat some strawberries picked from a local field, served with the unpasteurised cream from these magnificent beasts? From that moment on, I resolved to create dishes that would allow this exceptional produce to shine, and what’s more, to never allow my ego or technique get in the way.’ I cheered aloud at the modesty and wisdom of this approach. Like his restaurant, Harris’s inspiring book is a nonpareil.
Best of the Rest
The Road to Mexico by Rick Stein (BBC, £26)
Rick Stein’s passion for gutsy, fresh flavours powered his excellent books on Spain and Eastern Europe so it comes as no surprise that he adores Mexico, where the heat is turned up a few notches. From ceviche of bass and prawns to tortilla soup with chipotle, every page gets the juices flowing though Rick remains a discriminating guide. Discussing the favourite Mexican sauce of chilli and chocolate called mole, he admits ‘it is often too sweet’.
Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons by Raymond Blanc (Bloomsbury, £50)
This high-gloss ‘personal tour’ by the irrepressibly loquacious maitre of the Quat’Saison includes 120 recipes. Only a dedicated few will come near the elegant plates that punctuate this tome but we can all muse on the possibility of making tuna tartare with fennel salad, wild mushroom fricassee, chicken liver terrine…
Trullo: The Cookbook by Tim Siadatan (Square Peg, £25)
Assured Italian cooking presented in friendly style (monkfish: ‘one of the scariest-looking fish in the sea’) by the gaffer of a favourite Islington eatery. When Fergus Henderson of St John writes. ‘This book is going to rock the world of pasta’, he is referring to dishes like farfalle with tinned sardines, cabbage, garlic and dried chilli.
At My Table by Nigella Lawson (Chatto, £26)
More inventive, intelligent cooking from La Passionata of Chelsea. Who wouldn’t want to eat flash-fried squid with tomato and tequila salsa or spatchcock chicken with miso and sesame seeds? You may feel manipulated – the constant greed exhibited in Nigella’s intros is somewhat at odds with her newly slender appearance – but there is no denying her prowess or taste.