Cooking – the books.

Well honestly, I’m quite deflated. It’s like my souffle’s sunk, my meringue’s gone flat and my custard’s curdled. It seems I only have five of the Observer’s top 50 cookbooks ever!

This either indicates that I am hopelessly untrendy or that I am a lousy, seriously uninformed cook. Whichever is true, I’m not sure I can live with the shame. Well, ok, I lied about that. I just made shame my new best friend.

I’ve always been the type to buy cookbooks I’ll lilke and use rather than buy “yah” cookbooks to decorate the kitchen bookshelf and impress friends. It’s surprising how people always check what you’ve got, though, which in my case is several handfuls of Jamie Oliver, a generous serving of Nigel Slater, a good pinch of Nigella and only a quarter of a teaspoon of Delia.

While it’s good to try new recipes, the oldtried and tested cliches are still the absolute favourites. Things like boeuf bourgignon, coq au vin, ham in coke, queen of puddings, raspberry pavlova… are always requested no matter how many new recipes I’d like to try.

It also occurred to me that while I have around 370 books logged as read on one of those bookish websites, I completely omitted to include my favourite cookery books.

The favourites are dead easy to tell. The earliest ones have spattered, hard-to-separate pages. Back then, I didn’t even have the confidence to move them more than 12 inches from the hob back! Later books are bookmarked with other related recipes on pieces of paper from various eras “to try one day” or they are paperbacks which are now so dilapidated that each time I use one, I have to put the pages back in order.

The exception is an old paperback; Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cooking, which I have always treated with the same respect one might accord to the family Bible. No spatters on that and many times I’ve just read it rather than cooking from it. I still find it absolutely extraordinary that she was living and writing a stunning culinary life surrounded by the fragrance of garlic, fresh herbs and lemons while down in Wales, we thought Fray Bentos steak and kidney pudding out of a tin was a big treat with home-made chips. My Dad smothered his in HP sauce. Mind you, when I saw Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert last year he spun a whole routine out of the fact that sun-dried tomatoes were still considered completely alien in Pontypridd.

So does your choice of cookery books matter? Not really. It’s more important that, whichever recipe you follow – or maybe you just make it up, freefall and hope to land successfully – you enjoy creating something which will please family and friends.

I started with a Marguerite Patten hardback book, just to get to grips with the basics and moved on to the fabulous Good Housekeeping Cookbook, which is still a staple. It has suggested menus for everything from a casual supper for six to birthday buffets and wedding breakfasts. It tells you – with diagrams – how to bone things and goes on about the importance of good pans and sharp knives.

But Katie Stewart’s little paperback The Times Cookbook has been a day-to-day treasure with everything from perfectly roasted beef and Yorkshires to the queen of puds.

The Sainsbury’s Book of Cakes, provided inspiration for birthday cakes – from the leaning pale blue spaceship with outsize rivets (silver dragees) and the chocolate castle full of medieval lego figures, the ever-popular chocolate hedgehog cake and the disastrous blanketweed- green typewriter cake I made for a friend. I could tell she was a real friend because she didn’t laugh and she did actually serve it. It looked ok covered in candles in a dimly lit room. I think she cut it and made everyone have a piece in the dark.

The one I’m most fond of is the Superwoman Diary by Shirley Conran. It has the raspberry pavlova recipe that’s dead easy to make but which everyone thinks is my signature dish and Shirl won me over instantly with that famous “life is too short to stuff a tomato” line.

The one failure was Madhur Jaffrey’s curry book – included on the Observer best cookbook list! When I bought it, it was exciting and exotic to read but I couldn’t source half of the Indian herbs and spices and I had no idea what a cardamom pod was. I ended up buying some black cardamons, which, in the curry, tasted reflexively, spit-outably nasty.

I’m sure Madhur meant me to buy the fragrant little green ones – because when it came to curries, the mere memory of black cardamoms made us opt for take-aways for many years afterwards.


About janh1

Part-time hedonist.
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8 Responses to Cooking – the books.

  1. IsobelandCat says:

    This is quite timely as I mean to weed out my mother’s cookbooks. But neither her shelf or mine feature celebrity chefs beyond Elizabeth David, (and I agree with you, it’s for reading rather than cooking from) and one Delia Smith that someone gave me. But we both have copies of Rose Elliot’s books and they are very well thumbed. Her lentil and mushroom au gratin has the basis for many a lentil meal. My current favourite recipe book is from the Australian Woman’s weekly collection. The brown rice risotto beats all that dull arborio stuff hands down. Rather predictably it’s one about vegetarian cookery, and I got it for 50p in the charity shop. I also love Eat Your Way Through the Menopause, by Marilyn Granville, which should really be called Healthy Scrumptious Eating for Girls and Women because it’s about lifelong eating habits.

  2. janh1 says:

    A friend of mine is a big fan of Rose Elliot. I could borrow one of them and try a few things.

    Are you vegetarian, then Isobel? I was for a year but I have to say I need iron and the most effective way for me to get it is from steak and liver, which I happen to like anyway.

    I have the Cranks Cookbook, which I used a lot for the soups, the salads and the excellent vegetarian crumble and puds.

  3. IsobelandCat says:

    Yep, more or less life long. I got the go-ahead from my mother when I was twelve. She thought as I hadn’t grown into liking meat by then, I was unlikely to, so I might as well learn how to eat properly as a vegetarian.
    I give blood and never have any problems with iron levels. But then I eat a lot of pulses. I have just tucked into butter beans and parsley. Yum!
    Do you like coriander? Lentils and coriander is a great combo.

  4. janh1 says:

    That was v sensible of your mum. I know parents who have refused to co-operate or allow their children to follow veggie instincts, which causes a lot of conflict.

    They sacked me from blood doning, sadly. Said I needed every morsel of my dodgy iron stores.

    Yes I love the freshness of coriander. What colour lentils though? Brown, green, red? Or can you just pick any one? 🙂

  5. IsobelandCat says:

    The little brown ones are my favourites. soak and rinse them a few times. Cook the lentils and rinse them again. This helps to de-fart them, so definitely worth making the effort. Then cook with onion, garlic, a teaspoonful of bouillon or a vegetable stock cube, add mushrooms, carrots or whatever you have any lying about, and lots of black pepper if I’m coming round. When it’s nearly cooked, add a bunch of rough chopped coriander and stir it in. Serve with fresh crusty bread. Maybe a bit of parmesan.
    You can make it as soupy or dry as you like.
    Rose Eliot liquidises hers, but I don’t. It’s less like invalid food this way.

  6. IsobelandCat says:

    Just a warning – it tends to look like a swamp.

  7. janh1 says:

    LOL How to De-fart Your Lentils.. Very useful. A form of air conditioning, then. Particularly useful before an important meeting in a confined space!

    Sounds more soupy than swampy. Anyway it sounds good to dip crusty bread into!

  8. IsobelandCat says:

    Works for all pulses actually. Well kept vegetarian secret. Not always used by vegetarian restaurants alas, and of course you only discover the truth later…
    Let me know how you get on.

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