Gillian Nelis, Assistant Editor of The Sunday Business Post, put out a tweet today looking for cookbook suggestions for a Christmas round-up – that was all the excuse I needed to drop all efforts at earning a buck to feed the childer and indulge myself a while with a little trawl through my collection. I grabbed a pile at random – on another day, I might well have picked an entirely different set of titles, save the couple of ‘essentials’ that have been with me for years.
I recently met Masterchef winner Mary Carney and over the course of a long and very entertaining interview, we got around to the subject of cookbooks. Curiously, not one of her top ten featured on my bookshelves – indeed, some of them I’d barely heard of but I took note of each one and put them on my shopping list. I once believed a canon of roughly ten books was just about all I or any self-respecting cook needed. Mostly they were written by the ‘ladies’ (Elizabeth David, Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey), long before ‘men’ actually cooked.
I had a particular sneer, utterly withering and scorchingly contemptuous, which I reserved for gifts of ‘sleb-chef’ tomes, entertaining notions that I existed on a plain far above this piffle. Yet I continue buying cookbooks and I’ve kinda gotten over myself and have even sprung for a few of the formerly scorned sleb-chef tomes an’ all! So, here’s what I gathered up today, some old and two new ones from this year (which I reviewed earlier in the year in the Irish Examiner).
Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle & Julia Child
This was published in 1961 and my old second-hand copy is a very early edition indeed, battered and bruised, with a series of simple line-drawings the height of its visual appeal. It’s a little like listening to radio as opposed to watching television, the pictures are formed in your head. Factual and didactic, even a little preachy, it is a million miles from the autobiographical soul-baring of many of the modern kitchen bibles. Nonetheless, it has served me as a great reference book over the years, even if I’m cocky enough these days to turn up a snoot at some of the recipes, fancying my way is naturally better!
A Book of Middle Eastern Food
By Claudia Roden
As with Mastering the Art …, I have an old second-hand copy – and there’s not a single illustration in the whole book. Roden however brings a lot more heart to her subject, happy to add little autobiographical details to ‘leaven her bread’; furthermore, while Beck, Bertholle & Child had a sizeable enough canon to rely on for reference, Roden’s book is a serious exercise in food scholarship, bringing together many Middle Eastern cuisines from far more esoteric sources. And she taught me how to make Dukkah, a simple but viciously addictive condiment of salt, spices and roast nuts!
Pompous, arrogant, parochial (ie any cuisine other than French is at best a curiousity akin to watching monkeys on bikes), all criticisms easily levelled at this enormous lump of former forest. Yet I don’t know how many nights I’ve dragged out supper perusing its pages, either dipping in at random or seeking a specific piece of information. That very annoying fellow who acts as if he knows everything and, unfortunately, very often does.
Desserts By Pierre Hermé
By Pierre Hermé with Dorrie Greenspan
I read this solely for inspiration, a possible flavour combination or a technique that could be applied elsewhere, in what I would term the real world. Hermé operates in a stratosphere far above the rest of the planet (Chef Guillaume Lebrun, who trained with Hermé, said in the Patrick Guilbaud 30th birthday book, ‘the boy Hermé is a bit special’, or words to that effect). To emulate Hermé and attempt one of his recipes is always an immensely enjoyable and educational experience even though I am fully aware the results might well be something you scrape off your shoe for all the resemblance they bear to anything the man himself creates.
The Ballymaloe Cookbook
By Myrtle Allen
I love this deceptively simple book, the first real IRISH cookbook. We have grown up as a nation of diners but for all the detours and diversions down the routes of fusion this and nouvelle that, more and more of Ireland’s best chefs are returning to the zen kitchen philosophy that Myrtle first laid out.
Forgotten Skills of Cooking
By Darina Allen
I don’t really go to this for the recipes as much as for the assembly of traditional food knowledge and old techniques of cooking, curing, preserving and so on and so forth. Hours spent browsing of an evening, lead a body to dreams of total self-sufficiency, a truly local larder supplying a diet fit for a king. One very large king.
The Flavour Thesaurus
By Niki Segnit
When I first heard of this, I dismissed it as a soulless attempt at cooking by numbers. Then I investigated a little further than the title. Then I bought it. Now I love it. Segnit, has a great knowledge of food yet wears it very lightly. She writes beautifully and humourously and while— depending on your level of experience— the flavour combinations may be old hat or fresh inspiration, she achieves the ultimately splendid result of nudging the reader towards inventing their own flavour combinations. Favourites may come and go from my top cookbook list, but I fancy this one is here for the long haul.
My Recipe Book
By Joe McNamee
I’d be more than a tad heartbroken, if I lost every book in my collection but providing the insurance scam worked out ok, I should be able to replace them all. Except one, my own notebook full of clippings, cuttings and recipes, anything that I have created and refined over the years to a level of perfection that suits me, ends up in this cheap old notebook. And if you’re cocking a disdainful brow at the ‘filty’ cover, mark you well that it was Mrs Swashbuachaill what bought it for me. Irreplaceable. Mightn’t be much good but irreplaceable!
The following two reviews were published in The Irish Examiner, April 2011
Supper Club: Recipes and Notes from The Underground Restaurant
By Kerstin Rodgers
I am intensely curious about supper clubs (underground restaurants run from home or other temporary venue), would love to attend one, better still, operate one, even just once. Yet I was wary of a dust jacket claiming Kerstin Rodgers (Supper Club/Recipes And Notes From The Underground Restaurant – Collins) as ‘one of London’s most influential people’ and would an ever-so-contemporary design incorporating lifestyle pics, archive clip-art and funky fonts be a triumph of style over substance. And then I wound up reading it from cover to cover in one sitting.
Rodgers has run The Underground Restaurant in her London home since January 2009 and this is manifesto as much as cookbook, beginning with a brief history of supper clubs, then her ‘food’ biography followed by an extremely useful DIY guide. So, the place scrubs up well but what’s on the actual plate?
She begins with hors d’ouvres, nibbles and drinkies for the freshly-arrived, a commitment to best produce obvious, unleashing a Middle Eastern troika that draws the eye, alerts the belly, Baba Ganoush (an aubergine dip), Pitta Breads and Dukkah, all made from scratch. Dukkah is a condiment, usually consisting cummin, coriander, hazelnut and salt, dry roasted and ground. It is commmonly sprinkled over food or used as a dip and is utterly addictive. Its inclusion bodes extremely well. Then she throws in a Richard Bertinet-inspired recipe for Foccaccia Drops and we settle in for the long haul. Soups, salads, starters, fish, meat and desserts, her standards never drop.
Rodgers is big on themed evenings, Harry Potter nights (getting her in hot water with Warner Bros copyright people) and an Elvis-themed evening including Deep-Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches and 7-Up salad washed down with Coca-Cola, a cholesterol-laden banquet somewhere between hilarious and horrific.
Rodgers is a pescatarian/vegetarian and like many non-meat eaters, isn’t overly influenced by Classical French cuisine although is obviously aware of the fundamentals. Like many a good self-taught cook, she has evolved her style, coherent, distinctive and original, from a global melange of cuisines, particularly Asian and Middle Eastern.
Though a non-meat eater, she brings in guest ‘chefs’ with excellent recipes, including a suitably complex but very promising Quintessential Chicken from (current ‘Best Restaurant in the World’) Noma Sous Chef Ben Greeno. (Many serious pro chefs use the underground restaurant model to refine menus before opening an actual restaurant.) In the home straight, I even find myself contemplating a shot at creating the Flower Ice Bowl which melts away before diners’ eyes. Great food, great fun, there is certainly room on the cookbook shelf for Kerstin Rodgers.
For the Love of Food
By Denis Cotter
Denis Cotter (For The Love Of Food /Vegetarian Recipes From The Heart – Collins) has achieved international renown for his Cork restaurant, Café Paradiso. He is also one of the few to have made valuable contributions to the global culinary canon in recent times, his second book, Paradiso Seasons winning ‘Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World’ at the 2004 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Cotter is not only a very gifted cook who just happens to be vegetarian (as opposed to a gifted vegetarian cook) but can also write.
While his three previous books had clear thematic backbones, FTLOF is a little more nebulous, less earthy, less earthbound. Indeed, Cotter admits to no themes at all other than food, love and their multiple permutations. Some of the biographical intrusions have a wistful humour, as when he considers/contemplates his just-completed half-century.
The recipes, as always, are superb, beginning with breakfast. For a man who holds no truck with the ’30-minute meal’, these are not designed for manic Mondays when running desperately late, trying to get all and sundry out the door before it turns Tuesday. Put it this way, the first recipe, Vanilla & Coconut Risotto with Spiced Mango and Pistachio ain’t exactly weetabix and soggy sliced-pan toast.
A beginner to the limitless potential of vegetarian cooking might be better off with one of Cotter’s previous books. But for lovelorn epicures of all castes, herbivore to carnivore, this is a truly heartwarming pleasure.