New books for this cook - or why the British excite me so...
Click on the photo for an enlargement to see the text
Taken on my bedroom balcony overlooking our swimming pool. Yes I know how lucky I am.... ;-) Admittedly, it wasn't nearly as warm as it looks ; a crisp 13C when I took that photo!
I'm just back from a few days in Brisbane, where I found it to be a fairly uninspiring city (sincere apologies to Brisbane readers, but Melbourne can spoil you so...), although I admit that the weather was warm, sunny and perfect. Just before I left last week I spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon browsing the shelves of Melbourne's Books for Cooks , to use up my birthday gift voucher. I had such a lovely afternoon, topped off by a great dinner in a pub nearby. I do love Books for Cooks - if you can believe it, it is actually a larger store with a wider range of books than the much more famous Books for Cooks in London's Notting Hill! It has a large range of second-hand and rare cookbooks as well as new items, which increases its size, but it doesn't have a kitchen or cafe like the one in London. I went to a fantastic spice workshop there last year, to launch the Hemphill's new book, Spicery, where I was offered so many tasty little tidbits I barely needed dinner - a wonderful, wonderful place!
I browsed the shelves for hours, amusing myself by looking at many, many books occasionally putting one aside to add to my teetering, towering shortlist. I seriously considered Baking By Flavour, which Zarah Maria has so enthusiastically recommended, but it was hardback and expensive. Additionally, the (very friendly, very helpful) shop assistant owned the book and said whilst it was enjoyable, it had a few too many unusual and unavailable ingredients for the Australian cook. It was also in American non-metric measurements, which I really can't cope with - in baking I have to have the accuracy of specific weight measurements! I don't cope well with vague instructions like '16 tablespoons of butter'...just tell me 125 grams, and I'm much more relaxed and confident!
I did notice that the shop was much stronger on British and Australian titles, rather than American ones, I was searching for the Barefoot Contessa book amongst other US ones, but couldn't find many. I briefly considered Thomas Keller's Bouchon, but realised as I was looking through it that what I really wanted was a book written by a passionate foodie, about food that was prepared simply, with a minimum of fuss and without taking all night; nobody wants to sit down for dinner at 11pm. And that thought lead me right back to the British and Australian books. Fuelled by patriotic pride I sat down with Bill Granger's books, that so many overseas foodies rave about (especially "Sydney Food") but I'm a little ashamed to say that they just didn't quite do it for me. Yes, the pictures looked gorgeous, and Bill is a highly sexy man, but I guess living in Australia I'm surrounded by his style of recipes and cooking and I didn't see very much that was new; the type of recipes he creates are too similar to those featured weekly in the cooking sections of the Australian newspapers; light, fresh, summery, simple. Yes, all good, but we're coming into a cold Melbourne winter, and I wanted something more. I realised I wanted something British.
Geez, I love the British, and the new British food writers and chefs. I love their no-nonsense, witty style of writing and the way of returning to home-style cooking. I guess it might be the familiarity of their ingredients, style of language and similar culinary histories, but they feel so comfortable to Australians. For all that we now look to Asia, the UK still features large for much of Australia. The Brits are also looking towards the Asian influence in Australian food - so between the two countries, foodies are having a wonderful time! I spotted some Nigel Slater books on the shelves, and recalled that every Nigel Slater recipe I had seen on the internet had caused me to pause and think "ooooh! that sounds good". In fact, I made his recipe for orange and cardamom jelly last year for a Sugar High Friday.
So, I ended up curled on the overstuffed couch in the window of the shop reading through Slater's 'Appetite'. The first half of his book is prose - ideas about cooking, suggestions about food and his own ideas on preparing meals. In searching for some information to write a proper review of the book, I came across this on another blog, (with a rather unique URL!) and seriously, it says everything I wanted to say, in just the way I wanted to say it, but possibly done better. Thank you!
His book explains everything I knew instictively about cooking but had never heard from someone who actually knew how to cook: recipes are not gospel and should be used only as a guide. He reminds us that recipes were originally used by chefs to keep track of where the housekeeping money was spent. And as he so correctly points out, being told to “put it in the oven for 35 minutes” will not give the same result for everyone, since everyone’s setup is different, everyone’s meal is different. Everyone’s palette is different.
Another thing I love about Nigel Slater’s book is the straightforward way he presents his food. There is no trace of snobbery in his writing. In fact, he writes as elegantly about the delights of a Big Mac as he does of any of his other recipes. Lines like “there is nothing wrong with using a stock cube, not all stock has to be home-made”...
...Also unusual about Nigel Slater’s book is the way the writing lends itself to casual reading. Unlike the other cookbooks in my collection which have a brief introduction and go straight to the recipies, Slater’s book has a conversational tone, and almost half the book is given over to best practices - how to best cook a steak, how to best store food, and how to best enjoy your food. This leads to ‘Appetite’ being the kind of book you can pick up and read at any time, not just when you’re looking for ideas for something to cook.
I also can’t argue with anyone who extols the beauty of a simple sausage and mash done well.
The recipes in Appetite don't have "real' names either, rather they are presented as ideas "A creamy, calming pasta dish" or "a clear reviving soup". Truly, this is an inspirational book, and I can foresee its regular use in our house.
I had a few dollars left from my voucher, and decided I wanted a non-recipe book by a food writer as well. I ended up getting Ruth Reichl's new book 'Garlic and Sapphires' written about her years as food critic of the New York Times. When she arrived in that city after being food critic of the Los Angeles Times, every top restaurant in the city was looking out for her, with photos of her posted to their fridges, and promises of money to waiters who found out information on where she would be dining. So she decided to start reviewing New York's restaruants in disguise; creating characters for herself and noting with amusement or horror at how much the service and politeness at each restaurant altered with each persona she created. Some restaurants horrified me with their pretentiousness toward certain types of people (old women, regular house-wively types), which was exactly what she was hoping to portray in her reviews and this book. I think any foodblogger out there would really enjoy this; particularly if you're from the US. I personally found it interesting how vague the restaurant reviews were; Ruth would visit each place up to 5 times before writing a review, but still the dishes were described so vaguely. The Australian reviews are much more lengthy and detailed about each dish. I'd be interested to learn how reviewers write in other papers around the world)
Up in Brisbane yesterday, we stumbled into a publisher's overstock clearance shop. Not expecting much, we thought we'd be out in a few minutes, but I had my arms full within 30 seconds. The first thing I spotted was Nigel Slater's "Toast" , the story of his childhood in 50s & 60s Britain, remembered through food - fabulous! I've read a few chapters and am really enjoying it - alternately shuddering and laughing at the horrors of 60s suburban British cooking; I think this book will be really great. And for $6.95, who can complain?
I also picked up a copy of Jill Dupleix's Simple Food , which I've wanted for a while. Many Brits and Aussies don't know that Jill is a native Australian who was food writer (and editor?) of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald for many years before being head-hunted by The Times in London to be their cookery writer. I already have her Very Simple Food and Take Three, which I've written about enthusiastically before, and I loved her simple recipes. Like Nigel Slater, they're more ideas than strict recipes - simple in idea (sometimes they make you slap youself over the head and thing "DOH! Why haven't I ever thought of that before?!") and very attractive. She does all her own photography too, you know? I usually grumble about over-talented people, but can't fail to adore Jill. Along with Stephanie Alexander, she's my favourite Australian cookbook writer. And by buying her book this weekend, I partly assuaged my guilt at turning my back on Bill Granger and his Aussie cooking.
I rarely indulge in new cookbooks, so this has been an exciting time for me. I'd be interested to know what you've bought recently - do tell!