BOOK REVIEW: Prize-winning cookbooks that add entertainment to the mix
Cookbooks are a bit like clothing: most people only wear a small number of items even though their wardrobes are full; and only a few recipe books are taken regularly off crowded kitchen shelves.
The popularity of cookbooks continues to grow and they must now entertain in ways that go beyond presenting 20 new recipes for cooking a chicken. The three prize winners of the 2018 Fortnum & Mason Food and Drinks Awards do just that.
The food book winner is Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles (4th Estate), which, as the title suggests, is one to reach for if you are preparing for a northern hemisphere-style Christmas. But it will work equally well in SA’s winter months when soups and stews are most needed.
Slater’s cookbooks excel in a narrative style. Taking the form of diaries, he chronicles his thoughts about seasonal produce, his daily meals and food memories. The stories that introduce his recipes provide a peek into his life and home.
Winter is Slater’s favourite season — he loves the invigorating cold and the warmth of candlelight. His recipes are so tantalising one almost wishes for winter all year round.
This being a book building up to and recovering from Christmas, it is well endowed with fruit cakes, mincemeat, pies and tarts. My favourite recipes are a poached pear with matching granita and a braised brisket with porcini broth.
I am also earmarking "gnudi" to impress my guests — a deceptively simple ricotta and parmesan gnocchi that Slater says requires light handling by the hands of an angel.
Then there are cakes: ricotta and filo or banana and carda-mom with tropical fruit salad. One of his favourite recipes is cheap and warming — lamb belly boulangère: lamb breast, oil, shallots, rosemary, thyme, chicken stock and potatoes. Easy and delicious. Job done.
The Fortnum & Mason cookery book winner is The Sportsman (Phaidon). The eponymous seafront pub in the tiny Kent village Seasalter won the 2017 UK Best Restaurant award.
Chef Stephen Harris transformed a grotty pub into a destination restaurant with a Michelin star. While keeping the informal pub feel, he has developed a following for his creative approach to seasonal and British cuisine, and his promotion of the Kent terroir.
The first section of The Sportsman tells the story of how the chef and restaurant rose to their current status. Harris was previously a punk musician, history teacher and financial adviser. A self-taught chef, he ate his way around the top London Michelin star restaurants, bought the accompanying cookbooks and honed his craft.
Anyone who dreams of opening a restaurant will be inspired by his story. This is in part a coffee-table book, not only in size, but also because of the many pages of evocative photos by Toby Glanville that capture the sometimes melancholy beauty of the Kent coast.
The recipes are most likely to be used by adventurous cooks and amateur chefs. I had a go at one of the simpler ones — pot-roast red cabbage. It was a revelation. A halved red cabbage slowly pot-roasted in butter transformed one of my favourite salad vegetables into a dish of utter simplicity and lusciousness. If I ever feel the desire to churn my own seaweed butter, cure my own bacon, or make my own salt or scallop roe powder, I know where to go for expert guidance.
The Debut Food Book winner is the New York Times bestseller Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Canongate) by Samin Nosrat.
Nosrat began her career at the world-famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where she was introduced to the four elements of cooking, referred to in the book title, as the basis of making tasty food.
She draws a great deal on her experience of learning to cook at Chez Panisse and thus, for those with an interest in that restaurant established by Alice Waters, it feels like sitting in the kitchen alongside her.
Nosrat is not only an accomplished chef but a natural teacher too. Reading her 440-page book is akin to taking a home economics course with an entertaining, self-deprecating, patient and meticulous instructor who introduces readers to the techniques and tips used by professional chefs.
She believes cooking is part artistry and part chemistry. She wants her readers to develop the confidence to dispense with recipe books through understanding the science of cooking. After this has been achieved, home cooks can develop their creativity in their kitchens rather than copying recipes designed by others. Salt, Nosrat suggests, has a greater effect on flavour than any other ingredient. It enhances sweetness and reduces bitterness. She also declares that a dish can only taste as good as the fat with which it is cooked. Each cuisine has its own fat of choice, so to make cooking authentic, the appropriate choice must be made — West African cuisine, for example, makes use of watermelon seed oil.
Nosrat describes acid as salt’s alter ego — "while salt enhances flavours, acid balances them". As for heat, this book will teach you everything about roasting and toasting, sautéing, stewing, simmering, searing and grilling.
While the book is a tremendous source of information — the first 200 pages are an exposition on the role of salt, fat, acid and heat — it may at times be overwhelming for a new cook. And there is much to be absorbed for experienced cooks.
The fun illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton and Nosrat’s humour lighten what could otherwise be too technical a book for general appreciation. She describes an emulsion (for example, vinaigrette) as "a temporary peace treaty between fat and water", with mustard acting as "a mediator attracting and uniting two formerly hostile parties". When describing how to rescue a split mayonnaise, she instructs readers to whisk "with the urgency of a swimmer escaping a shark".
The recipes range from the most basic — how to boil an egg or make a tomato sauce for pasta – to the more complex Chicken Pot Pie. Nosrat is always at one’s shoulder, providing advice and suggestions.
Having friends over for dinner, I followed her instructions for salad of roast beetroot, blood orange and avocado with a citrus dressing. Cue the compliments. Nosrat is spot on about the balance of salt, fat and acid.
Although her recipes call for more salt than I am comfortable using, I now stand at my stove thinking carefully about the heat the ingredients I need, what fat to choose, when to salt, and how best to add acid to give my food, in Nosrat’s words, "zing".
This trio of books will expand your repertoire in the kitchen, but even if you just prefer the stories and the photos there is plenty to chew on.