Sunday, 26 June 2011

A review of some cookbooks wot I recently got

"Morning darling, now listen up a second will you. How is it that when we last went shopping *BONK!!!!* I wasn't allowed to buy a dress *THWHACK!!!!* because we're watching the pennies and yet you *KERPLUNK!!!!* can buy all of these books online? Why is that darling? Can you explain? *SHHPLANNKKK!!!!*

Bleary-eyed, bewildered and ever so slightly battered, I finally awake. Thinking that the ceiling has possibly collapsed on my head, I peer through a gap and spot her at the base of the bed, arms crossed with one brow raised in an arch of grievance. Having glanced at the logos on the cardboard pressed against my face, my frazzled brain begins to put the pieces together and and it soon becomes clear that my recent purchases from Amazon have arrived. Purchases which fly in the face of recent protestations of clothes purchased a few days previous. I breathe in deeply and take my time, trying to think of the best way to respond to such an abrupt alarm call. Finally, I decide that this situation is best dealt with a degree of tact and humility so I rise up and take action.



You know what? I wish I had seen the wooden hair brush in my wife's hand before I said that. Because of all the items that were thrown at my head that fateful morning, it was the brush that really, really...really smarted.

I am grateful to say that such scenes of domestic strife rarely happen in our household but before I carry on with this brief review of cookbooks wot I recently got, I would just like to announce to husbands and boyfriends of the world: If you decide to have a splurge chaps, always have stuff sent to the office.

Nuff said.

So first is up is Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden. Now I know James fairly well having met him on numerous occasions and I've also nipped up to his flat in North London a couple of times to eat at the popular supper club he runs with his sister. He is friendly, funny, young, good looking, writes well and most importantly, James is a great cook. Which makes him a bit of a bastard in my book. And when I first thumbed through his authorial debut, I was slightly dismissive. Recipes using tinned goods from the cornershop? Vignettes of late night feasts after the pub closes? Definitions of harissa, sousing and trendy Hoxton drinks? What the hell could this whippersnapper ever have to say to me? A tired, balding, family man in his mid 30's? "Bastard!" I screamed again, flinging the book into a corner. But since that outburst, I have to say I've been having a proper ferret through and I really am starting to warm to his ideas and recipes. Particularly the notion that cooking should be stress free and enjoyable and that we should all feel free to twist or tweak dishes without constraint. A no brainer suggestion really and one that plants James firmly in the accessible 'cooks' camp of food writing over the sometimes overly technical 'chefs' camp. Which isn't to say that the recipes are ordinary. Far from it and I am very eager to try his Ox Cheek Chilli and Pork Wellington, fantastic alternatives to familiar dishes. I've already taken on board his Lemongrass and Basil Granita for my supper club. If I can let the jealousy subside for long enough then I might give credit where credit's due if it goes on the menu again but in the meantime, Small Adventures is an assured first outing and James is worthy to be considered a 'New Voice' in food. The bastard.

Next is The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, another debut that has been much lauded by all and sundry, winning prize after prize. Before I kick off, you should know that the actual basis for buying this compendium of flavour pairings and combinations was due to the fact that I must have spent more on overdue library fines borrowing the book rather than owning the damn thing. I have been keeping this greedily to myself for the last 6 months or so without renewing so hurrahs all round then because this really is a great book, one that I am now proud to own. And now the people of Upminster might be able to take a peek at it too. So what's so good about it? Well by turns the book is informative, enlightening, intelligent, humorous and also makes for great reading in the toilet where it's all peaceful and quiet. Simply put, Segnit takes 99 ingredients and then groups them using themes, applying characteristics to each group such as 'Earthy' or 'Spicy'. And then she goes on to suggest pairings and recipes, some which are familiar such as lamb and mint. And some that are down right strange, such as bananas and bacon (think Devils on Horseback but with er bananas instead of prunes). At times it's bonkers stuff but everything is made all the more entertaining by Segnit's notes, personal stories and the historical references that she's unearthed for each suggestion. All in all she comes up with 980 different pairings offering an abundance of opportunity for the adventurous and not so adventurous cook. I particularly liked her take on that MasterChef classic, black pudding and scallop. As she vividly described in The Flavour Thesaurus, the scene of a delicate bivalve "trembling like an ingénue, on a filthy old black pudding's knee", for some reason I couldn't help but think of Greg's gurning, sweaty face. A brilliant book that I will keep dipping in and out of for a long time to come

The Frugal Cook by Fiona Beckett came out a couple of years ago and may well have passed me by hadn't it been for some debate on Twitter regarding Sainsbury's 'Feed a Family for £50' campaign. Mindful of our increasing food budget at home, I was chatting and sparring with other tweeters as to whether it offered a good deal or whether it just offered a boring, carb-loaded and somewhat un-ethical diet. Especially when it came to provenance and quality of ingredients. Fiona then entered the fray on line saying that she always believed that you were going to be better off buying every couple of days over a whole week's shop, thus reducing potential for waste. She also added that if you can be strict with your shopping list and plan ahead and resist temptation in supermarkets then there's no reason why your food shop should ever be overly expensive. With a final remark she casually threw in "I've got lots of other tips in my book you know, incidently the second edition has just come out" and then whoosh, she was out of the room. And so I headed straight for Amazon. Authors of the world, this is Twitter at it's best, engage with your audience and they will buy your book. At least I will anyway. I must admit I've yet to explore Fiona Beckett's book properly and pick out some recipes to try although I have taken on board some of the golden rules to cut your food bills. Such as shopping only when you really need to and to avoid impulse buying. Though it is interesting, standing there in the aisle, wrestling the inner demons within my soul whenever I start to reach for two bumper bags of Twiglets on special offer. Must. Buy. Twiglets. No Luke! Use The Force Luke! Use The Force!

The last book in this merry bunch is Offal: The Fifth Quarter by Anissa Helou, a sensuous celebration of all the bits and bobs of the animal that we tend to ignore. The head, the tail, the feet and the 'oh-my-God I can't look' innards. I didn't say that but I have heard a squeamish couple squeal the very same in the butchers before, gibbering madly at a tray of kidneys. And I get the feeling that this is the kind of response that Anissa Helou is trying to rally against, not that she delivers the message in a preachy, holier than thou way. No, as she interweaves childhood memories and other stories into the recipes along with some lipsmacking photography, the whole approach is one of encouragement. And some of the recipes look very good indeed. I've already made her Jamaican Oxtail in Red Wine with Bird's Eye Chillies which was surprisingly simple and fiery hot (probably a touch too hot as I went against her instruction and also added 2 scotch bonnets - ouch) but it aptly demonstrated just how delicious offal can be so please do try the recipe below. And there are tons of other recipes to have a crack at yet. I am actually thinking about putting on an offal-only dinner party for some of my more adventureous friends and family. Or what about an offal theme for a supper club? The shopping list is bound to produce quizzical looks from my butcher though. And from the people standing around me. Asking for cock's combs will probably elicit the biggest response and I will have to explain further that I am after the fleshy, red comb that adorns the top of a rooster's head. And not some toothed device to carry out some funky pubic topiary.

Jamaican Oxtail in Red Wine with Bird's Eye Chillies
serves 4

2-3 tablespoons coconut oil
750g oxtail
1 bird's eye chilli
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped celery
2 mild chilli peppers
1 whole head garlic, cut in half
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
120ml tomato ketchup
120ml good red wine


Put the coconut oil in a large saute pan and place over a medium-high heat. Add the oxtail and the chilli and brown the oxtail, taking care not to let the chilli burst.

Add the onions, celery, peppers and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to tast and cookm stiring occasionally, until the onion has softened.

Stir in the ketchup and let it bubble for a few seconds. Then add the wine and let in bubble for a minute or so. Stir in 120ml water. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered for a couple of hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. Check on the sauce every now and then to see that it doesn't dry out. If it gets too dry, add a little water. Taste and adjust the seasoning at the end of cooking. Remove the bird's eye chilli and serve very hot, accompanied with plain rice.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get myself off to Primark. I've seen a copy of the dress that Mrs FU was after in there.

Much cheaper.

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