The Cook Book Season

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The Most Tempting Cook Books of 2016 reviewed by Christopher Hirst

From a good crop, I found myself most tempted by the Fortnum & Mason Cook Book. Snack followed snack in greedy profusion. It looks great as well. How did F&M manage to combine humour with luxury in its promotional material over the years?  Anyone who feels that everything possible has been said about the food of southern Europe is in for a surprise with the appearance of authoritative new books on Spanish, Italian, Lyonaisse and Basque cuisines. As for the ingredients, Tom Stobart’s The Cook’s Encyclopaedia is a most welcome re-issue, ranking alongside Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food for readability and scope.

Fortnum & Mason: The Cook Book by Tom Parker Bowles (Fourth Estate, £30)

The format is appropriately grand for the first cook book (‘300 years in the making’) from the grande dame of Piccadilly and the quirky illustrations from the F&M archive, mainly by Edward Bawden, are elegant and funny. However, Tom Parker Bowles insists in his introduction, ‘This is a book that should become splattered and worn with constant use.’ Disguised by the glamorous production and thick creamy paper, it is a practical compendium of English nibbles, pies and puds in the tradition of Jane Grigson’s English Food and Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter.

Though toasted crumpets topped with Marmite and poached eggs sounds like a treat from Scouting Today, it was ‘created for the opening of [Fortnum’s restaurant] 45 Jermyn St.’ Heinz baked beans with chorizo is an even more surprising mainstay on F&M’s menu.

I was delighted to discover that Fortnum’s Welsh rarebit accords with my formulation by including an egg with the cheese (though personally I’d stick to just using the yolk). The richly satisfying Scotch woodcock (a creamy version of scrambled eggs on toast topped with anchovy fillets) has already become a firm favourite in our house.

I also made F&M’s lobster Benedict, located in the breakfast section but perhaps better for supper. By going to Lidl for a frozen Canadian lobster (£5), this plutocratic nibble becomes affordable. I did not, however, follow Parker Bowles’s genial urging to make your own Béarnaise sauce for the lobster Benedict. (‘Glass bowl. Gentle heat. Have faith’). Because there’s so much going on at once with lobster Benedict – you have to sauté spinach, poach eggs and toast muffins all at once – I cheated with a readymade packet of fresh sauce. My wife’s view of the result: ‘I love eggs Benedict but this has the edge. Pretty damn good.’

My future plans include canapés Ivanhoe (toast topped with a creamy slurry of smoked haddock accompanying baked mushroom) and F&M’s superior shepherd’s pie that utilises slow-cooked shoulder of lamb. The inclusion of a tempting rendition of steak tartare reminds me that it’s far too long since I indulged in this sanguinary treat.

There are a few mystifying omissions. Surely Fortnums must have served soup at some stage? And why does the selection of classic cocktails exclude the mighty Manhattan? But these are mere quibbles considering the simple, yet luxurious banquet offered in this lovely book. It is the perfect Christmas present for 2016.

Brindisa by Monica Linton (Fourth Estate, £29.95)

This great paving stone of a book from the doyenne of Brindisa tells you everything you need to know about Spain’s superb cuisine from tortilla (‘don’t worry about perfect looks, it is the taste that matters’) to the churros or sugary fritters consumed by both schoolchildren and all-night clubbers staggering home. We learn the somewhat daunting technique utilised by the mother of a Brindisa cook to makes churros. ‘She would spoon the mixture into a funnel, holding her finger over the narrow opening and then releasing it when she wanted the mixture to flow into the hot oil.’

Tempting (at least to me) oddities include an onion and lemon salad that is apparently a sure-fire hangover cure in La Mancha and salt cod with honey, apples and pine nuts. Impressively inclusive, the Brindisa book offers six pages on scrambled eggs, four on stocks, nine on savoury fritters, four on vinegars… The 17 pages on beans include a recipe for ‘slow-cooked butter beans’ from our own Jeremy Lee, who rightly notes. ‘A beautifully braised, silky bean… with a bit of pork is an absolute joy that can bring grown men to tears.’

The 224 pages devoted to tapas and the slightly larger raciones include a fascinating section on tinned fish and shellfish. Though tinned cockles in brine are a bit of a rarity in my part of the world, I found that the suggested dressing (see below) from Brindisa’s executive chef Josep Carbonell also worked brilliantly with fresh cockles. I look forward to making many more Iberian discoveries in this mighty tome.

Dressing for cockles

Combine 1½ tbsp of olive oil with ½ tbsp of sherry vinegar, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1½ tsp of juice from the cockles and ½ tsp mild paprika. Pour over cockles and serve with good bread.

By the Atlantic by Caroline Conran (Prospect, £17.99)

In this successor to her multiple prize-winning Sud de France, Conran heads west for a succulent tour of South-West France and Spain. Her recipes range from the familiar, such as Warm Octopus Galicia Style (‘one of the best ways to eat octopus. If the potatoes are waxy, firm and freshly cooked, the flavours together become magically enhanced’), to the recondite. Basquaise Tripe is a casserole with tripe, trotters and wine that is thickened with eggs.

Conran’s enthusiasm for the hefty flavours of the Basque region echoes throughout these pages. Tackling an oxtail pot au feu, she stresses, ‘Cooking marrow bones with the oxtail adds tremendously to the texture and flavour of the sauce.’ Another tip concerns the game stews known as civets. ‘Should you ever feel like making a civet and you do have the animal’s blood, just mix it with a little vinegar to stop it curdling.’

But memorable dishes of the region do not have to be unremittingly carnivorous. Basque Gaspacho has ‘a real punch to it and is utterly refreshing’. Pondering black rice, customarily eaten with squid, clams, mussels and miniature cuttlefish, she exclaims, ‘There can hardly be a more striking dish than a glistening plate of black rice with a fat piece of lobster on top.’ Little courgette flans ‘often appear with roasted meat’, while a sauce of chorizo, tomatoes and paprika ‘brings a characteristic glow to any fish’. Keen and knowledgeable, Conran’s book is a hugely knowledgeable guide to the region that has produced three of the world’s top 10 restaurants.

Cook’s Encyclopaedia by Tom Stobart (Grub Street, £14.99)

Tom Stobart (1914-80) is one of Britain’s most under-regarded food writers. A mountaineer and film director who produced the official film of the conquest of Everest, he wrote this impressively erudite work towards the end of his life. Despite this astonishing range of achievements, Stobart does not have an entry on Wikipedia.

If you think you don’t need the Cook’s Encyclopaedia because you already own the Oxford Companion to Food, you may wish to consider the view of Stobart’s masterpiece by the Companion’s author Alan Davidson: ‘A MUST, comprehensive, well-organised and well-written.’ Running to 450 pages, it covers every foodstuff you’re likely to encounter along with explorations of cooking techniques, preserving and other techniques.

Entries are spiced with personal experience, the odd recipe and occasional flashes of humour. Stobart’s experience of brawn ranged ‘from a delicate flavoured, pale pink, tender brawn to a tough, greyish jelly with bits of chopped gristle embedded in it.’ Though he praises celery when braised (‘a wonderful vegetable’), he is less persuaded by celery soup (‘tends to be bitter’).

Occasionally, wonderfully odd details catch the eye. We learn how 19th century Parisians caught frogs with a bit of red cloth at the end of a fishing line (‘the frog, thinking it has found a tasty morsel, closes its mouth firmly upon it’). In the entry on octopus, Stobart notes ‘the Japanese are reputed to consider that the eyes are the best part.’ A bargain for the price, this most readable reference work deserves a place on the shelf of any food lover.

Eataly: Contemporary Italian Cooking (Phaidon, £29.95)

Described in Wikipedia as ‘the largest Italian marketplace in the world’, Eataly has factory-sized branches in New York, Chicago, Milan, Turin and elsewhere. You might expect this book, based on an Eataly recipe series, to display an in-your-face devotion to the latest food trends. Fortunately, the reverse is true.

The introduction declares that the recipes ‘embrace the philosophy of the Slow Food movement’. Though you encounter occasional innovations, such as vegetable and shrimp tempura or mixed pasta with octopus, ricotta and citrus fruits, the book takes a generally conservative approach to the world’s greatest domestic cuisine. Quite right too. If you have something pretty close to perfection, why mess with it?

Most of the book’s elegantly restrained pages are devoted to dishes of that are both classic and fashionable – risotto alla Milanese, polenta with cheese, baked radicchio and leek – though creations from named chefs crop up occasionally. These tend to be as simple as pumpkin soup augmented with tempura-battered sage leaves and balsamic vinegar.

You’ll look in vain for such ancient warhorses as saltimbocca and ossobuca but this monumental book (over 550 pages) is an exemplary guide to modern Italian cooking, rooted in tradition but lighter and more elegant in execution.

La Mere Brazier by Eugenie Brazier (Modern Books, £25)

Eugenie Brazier (1895-1977) was a major influence on modern French cooking and propelled her native Lyons to its current eminence. Patronised by de Gaulle and Dietrich, her restaurant became the most famous in France.

Yet Drew Smith, the distinguished translator of this memoir/cookbook, writes that ‘the recipes revolve round a very limited number of ingredients… which makes this a very a very practical, easy-to-use manual.’

A dish could hardly come simpler than her chicken soup, cooked for ‘old regulars’, which is merely chicken consommé with tapioca, egg yolks and cream. Her recipe for poached eggs concludes with an aside on ‘devilled eggs’: cook butter until it turns nutty, add a splash of vinegar and pour over poached eggs.

Amid her classic dishes, there are some surprises. Chicken with crayfish sounds interesting. Intriguingly, a savoury called Chester cake requires Lancashire cheese. Sometimes, the recipes seem a little too simple. Her fondue recipe runs to just five lines but you can bet that Mere Brazier’s version was transporting.

She flew into one of her famous rages when a chef fresh out of cookery school ‘produced an elaborate concoction of crayfish’. The crayfish should, of course, have been ‘presented simple, steamed, cut in half and laid on a lettuce leaf.’ It is the same mode of presentation used by one of our most acclaimed chefs, Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis. Like a potent reduction, this book is packed with concentrated knowledge from a culinary genius.