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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

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!


  • Hi Niki,

    I came across your blog while I was surfing. But the captivating point here is your broad knowledge of food and the awesome pictures that you have here. All the photos that you have posted here makes me drool, esp those cakes!!

    Anyway, I just want to say nice work! and I can see that you are enjoying it every moment!

    Izel Ang

    By Blogger scubscub, at 5/17/2005 05:14:00 pm  

  • Gosh! Thanks so much for your compliments; yes, I am enjoying this life as a foodblogger very much at the moment, especially as I know there are people reading. It was always fun when I knew there was only me and a handful of others reading the posts, and I started it for my own enjoyment, but to have other people find it and enjoy it is a really wonderful feeling!

    By Blogger Niki, at 5/17/2005 05:18:00 pm  

  • Hi Niki,
    I just found you blog again...
    and since I read it last time I have a food blog too :) I have added you to my Australian food blog section.

    By Blogger eat stuff, at 5/17/2005 06:06:00 pm  

  • Hi CE - Thanks, and I've added your to my list as well. There seems to be an increasing number of us, finally!

    By Blogger Niki, at 5/17/2005 11:41:00 pm  

  • Niki! I have to tell you, I've spent the last hour pouring over Jill Dupleix's website - her recipes look lovely. Any that you would reccomend?

    By Blogger tara, at 5/18/2005 01:08:00 am  

  • Let me see: Trader Vic's Tiki Party, Nigella's Feast (which, I'm sad to say, has not impressed me even a little), Retro Desserts (a cute little board book which had Alex proclaiming it 'Alex's book'), Retro Fiesta, Happy Hour: Drinks and Eats with a Fifties Beat, Gourmet 1966 and 1968 (an entire year's worth of magazines, cover to cover, in a hard-bound book. So heavy, I have a hard time lifting it)...I'm sure there are more, but I'm blanking just now.

    By Blogger Stephanie, at 5/18/2005 01:47:00 am  

  • Stephanie - I thought of you when in Books for Cooks as they had a whole retro cookbook display! It was fabulous, and very amusing. One of their sections is retro/kitsch - and filled with stuff from the 50s, by daggy soap opera stars or all about weird things ('The Marshmallow Fluff cookbook'!)
    I spotted a very cool looking book called Diner Desserts, which I think you and Alex would have really loved!
    Interesting that you don't like 'Feast' so much; I really enjoy it. I probably have read it more than cooked from it though. I guess it must be my British chef fanaticism coming out again!

    By Blogger Niki, at 5/18/2005 01:51:00 am  

  • Hi,

    I can't remember how I found your site (I think it was from Mimi Smartypants), but I love your site! It's inspired me to try new recipes. Thanks!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/18/2005 05:49:00 am  

  • You thought of my while out and about? I'm touched!

    I really, really want to like Nigella's books. I think I found the dishes a little too simple. And I certainly didn't care for her attitude towards vegetarians!
    I'm not giving up, though...I hope to get How to be a Domestic Goddess before the year ends.

    By Blogger Stephanie, at 5/18/2005 06:28:00 am  

  • re: bill granger,
    don't feel bad for not liking him..although I'm normally a bad Australian, i have to agree.. all those photos of him with his smiling kids make me feel a bit sick and the recipes just don't seem like anything new.

    will have to check out nigel slater though.

    By Blogger joe cupcake, at 5/18/2005 09:18:00 am  

  • Laura - thanks so much! :-) I'm tounched, and trying recipes is always a good thing in my book!

    Stephanie - Yes, I think of you whenever I see an amusing retro item. You see, I once went out with a guy who had the same interest, and I really loved it.
    I think you will prefer Domestic Goddess to Feast; it's really the most popular Nigella book, and definitely the one with the clearest focus and intent. I've made quite a bit from it and had success with about 95% of the recipes.

    Esther - thank god. I'm relieved I haven't been attacked for my non Bill-Granger love. It seemed a bit too much like a fairy floss book; pretty but little substance. And I really just can't take to something called 'Sydney Food'; the Melbournian in me rebels and recoils. :-)

    By Blogger Niki, at 5/18/2005 09:40:00 am  

  • Agree about Bill Granger and Jill Dupleix. My favourite game with Nigella is to play spot which writer she pinched the recipe from.

    Can I be cheeky and ask where the remainder shop was? I've been trying to find _Toast_ for a while and all the remainder shops seem to have moved from their old spots. I've got _Appetite_ but I use _Real Cooking_ and _The 30 Minute Cook_ a lot more.

    I'm also very fond of the Grigsons, Jane and Sophie.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/18/2005 05:18:00 pm  

  • Anna - You're so right about Nigella. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable reading some recipes that she admits she gathered from somebody else. I mean, I do like her collection, but I do feel it seems like she's acted as an editor, and collated a lot of submissions from other chefs!
    Sophie Grigsons' shows are on the Food Channel on Foxtel at the moment, but I've never managed to actually catch an episode. To be honest, her voice kind of scares me, so maybe I haven't tried too hard? I think I should; lots of people mention her and her mum.
    The shop was in the shopping centre attached to the Brunswick Street train station in Fortitude Valley. As you come up the ramp, past the ticket inspector and enter the food court - turn to your left and it's there. It looks fairly temporary, and brightly lit. It had a surprisingly good collection, but I don't think I saw another copy of Toast there, I'm sorry to say.

    By Blogger Niki, at 5/18/2005 05:52:00 pm  

  • My favorite new purchase is the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. (I think it came out in 2002.) I've made the leg of lamb, roasted chicken with bread salad and asparagus, rice, onion and pancetta soup. All have been awesomely yummy and I'm jonesing to make the espresso parfaits.

    What I really love about the cookbook is the gentle asides about preparation. Granted, the recipes are quite long for it, but I really appreciate the narrative quality, especially when you're making something for the first time. It reminds me a lot of Maida Heatter, another favorite cookbook author. Most of her dessert recipes run pages long but they're chock full of great ideas and suggested tweaks.

    It reminds me of the other night, when I was making a recipe by Mark Bittman (How to Cook Everything, Minimalist Cook, etc.). The instructions called for melting sugar in a pan, "just until it starts to color."

    I wondered, "Does he mean just browned around the edges or barely but uniformly colored? What if some of the sugar starts to color but other parts aren't melted yet?"

    If it were a recipe by Maida or Judy, you can bet there would be two paragraphs about what exactly the sugar was supposed to look like.

    I also really like Jack Bishop's Vegetables Everyday. I'm always trying to come up with new ways of preparing veggies and this cookbook has about 365 recipes.

    By the way, did you catch the rather snarky review in the New York Times of Reichl's latest book? It was a bit on the juicy side. I think it was published about a month ago.

    And here's an amusing interview with Reichl that appeared in a Chicago newspaper last Sunday. The interviewer made the mistake of taking her to a very, very bad restaurant.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/19/2005 05:04:00 am  

  • Aha! Here's that article on Garlic and Sapphires in the New York Times Book Review.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/19/2005 06:26:00 am  

  • I think Nigel Slater is fabulous and seriously under rated. I have read he has been offered his own TV food shows many times but refuses as he feels the food is more important than the chef and the food shows are always more about the chef than the food. My last purchase was Tetsuya's book which really is a work of art. I'll be in Brisbane in June so I will check out the remainder store if it is still there. Did you get to Cru or Anise?

    I agree with Augustus about Apricots on the Nile - a delightful book. I once cooked a dinner for 8 people, entirely from the book which was a huge success.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/19/2005 08:48:00 am  

  • Hi Niki
    I've been a bit busy & now trying to catch up with everyone i have missed over the last couple of weeks.
    I just finished garlic & sapphires last night & planning a review of it soon.

    you know, somehow i missed nigel slater in the UK. But you have piqued my curiosity to check him out big time.

    i did so much overtime i think i can afford a few cookery books. I think i am even going to sign up for a cookery course too.

    look forward to reading more

    By Blogger Sam, at 5/20/2005 07:34:00 am  

  • I just finished reading Garlic & Sapphires (an excellent girlfriend bought if for me for my birthday! what an great mate!) The book is fantasctic her writing style is so easy.

    Books for Cooks [sigh]...it seems every time I read your blog I find another thing to add to my top ten (food-related)things to mis about Melbourne list!

    Thank you for reminding me about all those things I love and miss about Melbourne.

    We're planning a trip for next Feb as a mate is getting married, so will have to set up a shcedule to get my fix of all the great melbourne foodie haunts! It's 10 months away and I am already longing for it!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/20/2005 09:15:00 am  

  • Hi Niki
    You probably know this already, but if you liked Ruth Reichl's G&S, I reckon you'd love Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples -- they are more memoir-y than G&S, but her recollections of growing up with the Queen of Mo(u)ld, her mum, are brilliant. Enjoy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/25/2005 03:15:00 pm  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/09/2008 01:16:00 am  

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