Spices, senses and simplicity figure large in Christopher Hirst’s selection of the best cookbooks to give this Christmas…
Fortnum & Mason: Christmas & Other Winter Feasts by Tom Parker Bowles (Fourth Estate, £30)
With Christmas cookbooks from Nigella, Delia, Jamie, Gordon and Elizabeth David possibly jostling on your shelves, how much do you need another, however stylishly produced? F&M’s contribution to the genre scores by expanding the Yuletide season from Bonfire Night (venison sausages with lentils) to Burns Night (cock-a-leekie soup). Punctuated by cheery Edward Bawden sketches from F&M catalogues, the recipes range from the obligatory (though Parker Bowles is less than passionate about the ‘arriviste’ turkey) to the heterodox. A fondue made with Beaufort and Stilton rather than the virtually legally stipulated Gruyere and Emmenthal will raise eyebrows in the Alps. The dumplings to accompany braised oxtail are bound with butter rather than suet, while bubble and steak is supercharged with Stilton. For a Boxing Day stabiliser, can I thrust you in the direction of goose cassoulet? It is even better if, along with the goose left-overs, you fortify the beans with scrapings from the bottom of the roasting tray. The most attractive cookbook published this year will make the perfect Christmas present though ironically 25 December will be too late for many of the recipes.
Fish & Shellfish by Tom Kitchin (Absolute, £26)
As with Christmas, name-chefs feel an irresistible urge to write books on seafood. Contrary to the population at large, they love this wild food from the depths for its appearance, freshness and versatility. I have around half a dozen chefs-at-sea books but one of them will head for Oxfam to make room for this exceptional work from the Edinburgh Wunderkind. Lacking the high-powered salamander (professional grill), we’re unlikely to achieve the sun-burnt glory of the Cajun-spiced haddock fillets with potato mousseline, similarly sea trout with sorrel butter sauce may pose problems (I’ve scarcely ever seen large quantities of sorrel on sale but all a chef has to do is pick up the phone). Still, most dishes will be feasible if you have the good fortune to live near a good fishmonger. The book’s host of seductive photos include the dark-green gobstoppers that are queen scallops with seaweed butter and golden deltas of sea trout fillets with sorrel butter. Home-cooked turbot on the bone will cost a fraction of the £75 you have to pay in the fashionable Shoreditch eatery Brat. Cheaper still is roasted cod head with citrus dressing though you’ll have to summon up the nerve to ask your fishmonger to rummage in his waste pail.
Jamie Cooks Italy by Jamie Oliver (Michael Joseph, £26)
Jamie was trained in the kitchens of Carluccio and the River Café, two of the top Italian restaurants in the UK, and that experience has resonated throughout his career. Based on the home cooking of a vigorously opinionated squad of ‘nonnas and mammas’, Jamie Cooks Italy contains many dishes that will tempt Italophiles. I was particularly lured by pot-roast rabbit with sweet peppers and pancetta along with corteccia pasta with broccoli and anchovy. Though a passionate primer on Oliver’s culinary heartland, Jamie Cooks Italy is weakened by his patronising approach. Would it have been impossibly off-putting to give the Italian names for dishes? Fish in crazy water is more evocative as pesce all’acqua pazza. An urge to be original drives some recipes wildly off course. The excellent Tuscan bread salad panzanella is essentially a way of using up stale bread but Oliver’s version merely specifies ‘bread’ that has to be roasted, along with tomatoes, for two hours. And where is the unbeatable store-cupboard sauce known as puttanesca? In the section on octopus, we are not informed that the pictures feature the tastier Mediterranean type (two rows of suckers on the tentacles) rather than the more chewy Atlantic variety found here (one row). On the plus side, Oliver includes examples of Italy’s excellent cucina povera such as cache e pepe (spaghetti flavoured with black pepper, pecorino and butter) and a soup of pasta cooked in octopus broth. The hefty proportion of vegetable recipes accurately reflects the true nature of Italian cooking.
Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound by Sybil Kapoor (Pavilion, £24)
Interspersed by brief essays ranging from the ‘challenging’ nature of certain textures (particularly offal) to the pervasive smells of the environment (in rural north India, ‘the evening air is fragrant with the aromatic smoke from dried cow-dung fires’), this thoughtful and richly suggestive work utilises a taxonomy that is new in cookbooks: the significance of our senses when dining. The desire for sizzling hot food (Kapoor suggests peppered venison steaks) is no rarity – in China, the boiling heat of Mongolian hot pot is a major carcinogen – but sometimes we’re better off with tepid. Kapoor notes that spiced pea and potato frittata doesn’t work if served too hot or cold. ‘Serve it tepid and the silky potatoes merge seamlessly into the omelette.’ Considering accompaniments in the section devoted to ‘Taste’, Kapoor maintains that Turkish coffee ‘is transformed from delicious to sublime by eating a sticky date’ while consuming olive focaccia with smoked salmon paté makes the paté taste ‘odd’. Depending on their taste and experience, readers may feel a twinge of sympathy with Kapoor’s perceptions. The experience of Spam fritters in childhood still serves to put her off mortadella. This is a book to stir up appetite and memory alike.
The Borough Market Cookbook by Ed Smith (Hodder, £25)
Tourists may come mainly to snap but for the Londoner there are two certain consequences following a visit to Borough Market: 1) They will have the wherewithal for one or more notable meals; 2) Their purse will have been lightened to an equally impressive degree. Strange to relate, this picturesque celebration of the South Bank’s cornucopia focuses on only one of these. Ed Smith’s recipes utilising Borough Market ingredients are arranged loosely on a seasonal basis. I say ‘loosely’ because the ‘Spring’ recipe for hot smoked salmon (from Oak & Smoke in Arbroath) with spring crudités looks so tempting that I intend trying it shortly. The ‘Summer’ section includes scrambled eggs and summer truffles (from Tartufaia) though the plutocratic fungi are ‘generally thought of as an autumn and winter ingredient’. A rather more affordable suggestion from ‘Autumn’ is corn on the cob (Jock Stark & Son) with honey, thyme and paprika butter. The accompanying photo reveals that even in Borough Market, you can get three sweetcorn for a quid. Sticking to the seasons, I’ll be sampling carlin pea, salami and chicory salad (Spice Mountain/Taste Croatia) on Carlin Sunday (the fifth Sunday in Lent falls on 7 April in 2019) and may even stir myself to make galette des Rois for Epiphany on 6 January or, more likely, buy the ready made article from Olivier’s Bakery.
Copenhagen Food by Trine Hahnemann (Quadrille Books, £25)
If you can’t make the trip across the North Sea, this knowledgeable guide from a Danish food writer/café owner is the next best thing. So tempting is Hahnemann’s haul of comfort food – ‘burning love’ is buttery mashed potato topped with bacon and fried beetroot, aebleskiver is a little yeasty doughnut consumed in December with glogg (mulled wine) – that you’ll be making the trip in reality very shortly. I certainly plan to. If meatballs such as frikadeller (‘a true Danish classic’) and krebinetter (‘a classic Danish dish’) still play a major role in national cuisine, vegetarian dishes like baked cauliflower with garlicky kale or cavolo nero with Jerusalem artichokes are gaining in appeal. Interspersed among the recipes are valuable tips about where to go and where not. It’s not every cookbook devoted to a national capital that would suggest you should avoid ‘Dealer Street’, named ‘for obvious reasons’. My personal addiction lies more in the direction of the beetroot and salmon sandwiches or prawns with dill or seared cod roe with mayo…
Ottolenghi Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury, £25)
Sooner or later, many food writers issue a ‘simple’ option. River Café, Hugh F-W, Alice Waters, Diana Henry are just a few examples. This may seem strange since simplicity should surely be a prerequisite for all domestic recipes. Still, Ottolenghi makes a strong point in his introduction concerning a reader of one of his earlier books who ‘thought there was part of a recipe missing as they had all the ingredients they needed in the cupboard’. The exotic is often an essential element for Ottolenghi. Even in his Simple book, numerous recipes call for za’atar and sumac. However, there’s plenty here that do not require a handy Waitrose. I could cook his fried broccoli and kale with garlic, cumin and lime without leaving my house. In a somewhat contrived exercise, all recipes from soup to puds are assigned colour-coded labels based on the letters of the book’s title. ‘S’ is ‘short on time’, ‘I’ is ’10 ingredients or less’, M’ is ‘make ahead’, ‘P’ is, bafflingly, ‘pantry’, etc. One quality common to all dishes in this book is that they are irresistibly tempting for both cook and consumer. And, yes, simple. For one of the world’s most distinctive tastes, there’s little to beat sweet potato chips (page 144).
The Mezze Cookbook by Salma Hage (Phaidon, £24.95)
The sub-title, ‘Sharing Plates from the Middle East’, could scarcely be more cutting-edge. Some of the most fashionable tables in London are laden with these tantalising, spicy nibbles. In her introduction, the prize-winning author says that snacks such as m’juderah (lentil and bulgar wheat) and fasiola (beans, onion and tomato) were an essential part of her childhood in Lebanon. Despite living in London since the Sixties, she has ‘always craved the social food from my homeland’. A delicious litany follows: ‘labneh, babaganoush, hummus…kibbeh, freekeh, ful medames’. Of babaganoush, she writes, ‘For anyone who thinks they don’t like eggplant, I implore you to try this deliciously smoky, garlicky dip.’ A mixture of roast squash, cavolo nero and freekeh (roast green wheat) is described as ‘without a doubt one of the most popular recipes with friends and family in the book.’ After the roast cauliflower with tahini and smoky paprika, you can nibble pistachio and pomegranate cake with Lebanese cardamom coffee: ‘The only coffee my husband will drink.’ Lucid and detailed, Hage’s recipes provide the template for the tastes of the Lebanese table. As for the sociability, it’s up to us.
Photo credit: pipnstuff on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND