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Thursday, 13 September 2012

a very small book addiction

I'm a girl. That I should enjoy shopping will be of little surprise, no doubt (though you would think Husband would have gotten over it by now... sadly not). Whilst I seem to have little problem earnestly declaring a brand new dress to have 'been in my wardrobe for aaaaages', and getting away with it, he seems a little more adept at identifying new cook books. This is unfortunate, seeing as I appear to trot home with a new one every week. Despite rapidly decreasing shelf space, I really can't help myself- as I've said, I love cooking and writing in roughly equal measure, and so naturally letting me into Foyles is like letting Pete Doherty loose in a chemists.

In my experience there are three kinds of cook, at least as far as cookery literature goes:

Category One: This type of cook holds recipe books in much the same regard as a bomb disposal team would their 'how-to' guide; that is to say, there is no veering away from any given recipe, at any given point. Ingredients are painstakingly measured out, and their trust in the narrator is absolute. If Jane Asher tells them their sponge needs 20 minutes at 180 degrees, then no way on God's earth is it coming out early- even if there is a suspiciously acrid smell emanating from the cooker, and the smoke alarm is screaming at them.

Category Two: Cookery books, magazines and websites serve more as a form of inspiration than instruction, and recipes are adapted according to season, quantity, or mood. These cooks have faith in their own senses and intuition- or at least they pretend to. Their food can be imaginative, daring, and occasionally disastrous.

Category Three: Now I mean no offence, but from what I can ascertain this category is dominated largely by men. This can be seen as both good and bad, I suppose: I'm fairly certain Heston never felt the need to stay safe within the realms of Mrs Beeton et. al., and without his flagrant disregard for the 'rules' of cooking, we'd exist in a snail-porridge free world, which would be very sad indeed. That said, I've lost count of the number of times I've come home to a decimated kitchen, a husband coated in flour (amongst other less-identifiable substances), sheepishly announcing that his tequila bread has 'gone a bit wrong.' Apparently tequila and yeast are quite volatile when mixed. In short, category three cooks have failed to cast a glance at a cookery book. Ever.
Now seeing as I find myself firmly entrenched in category two territory (if more of its 'disastrous' side, perhaps...), I hereby present my own cookery book shortlist. As it seems this entry is in danger of reaching 'Silver Spoon' proportions (keep reading, if you don't know what I'm talking about), I shall divide the books into two lots. Hopefully this will keep you all tantalised- or, at the very least, minimise the chances of you nodding off. The first lot (below) will include more well known, 'iconic' publications. The second (to come...) category consists of books that, whilst not obscure, are arguably a bit less recognised. All of the books I'm including have been read cover to cover by me- even the really long ones- and are indispensable, well-thumbed resources.
And so, in no particular order...

 1. The Silver Spoon, Phaidon Publishing:
The Silver Spoon is widely toted as 'the bible of Italian cooking', and with over 2,000 recipes it's certainly long enough to justify the reputation. First published as 'Il Cucchiaio d'Argento' in 1950, it's been tweaked and translated numerous times, and I will say that despite this, it's definitely worth still baring its original context in mind. It features very traditional Italian fare with a hint of post-war austerity still clinging to its recipes, which regularly feature cheap, easily obtainable produce like perch, tench and offal. However, this is something inherent in Italian cuisine- it does rural peasant food famously well, and The Silver Spoon provides mouth-watering, solid and reliable recipes in abundance. In terms of value for money, the book is fantastic: half encyclopaedia, it will teach you almost everything you need to know about food and how to cook it, and the recipes themselves have aged well- every serious cook should give it at least a cursory flick-through. And you know what? Simple Italian works well, and that's why The Silver Spoon still sells.

2. Je Sais Cuisiner ('I Know How To Cook'), Ginette Mathiot:
Another hefty tome, Mathiot's guide to French cooking is regarded as the Gallic equivalent to The Silver Spoon. Both feature as much in the way of ingredient advice, cooking techniques and seasonal guides as they do actual recipes. Published much earlier, in 1932, Mathiot is very much present in the book's narrative- the  bossy (or confident, I suppose you could say) and succinct instructions proffered by the French matriarch give the book a rather amusing dimension, and make it very readable. The recipes themselves are far less intimidating than you might come to expect from a compendium on French cooking, but just as sophisticated.

3. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, Louisette Berthole and Simone Beck:
Another French one, but where Je Sais Cuisiner is rather like being lectured on cooking by your stern maiden aunt (in a good way), Mastering the Art of French Cooking is like being let loose with the fun auntie who buys you age-inappropriate presents, and lets you lick the bowl. All within the context of 1950s France, of course. The recipes in themselves are classic staples, but it's the tone of the book I love so much. As the lead writer, Child's clamouring to prove herself equal to the rigours of French cooking (borne of being a Yank in France) is palpable. The work essentially serves to demystify much of French cuisine, and it does so in a thoroughly charming way. The narrator is immediately likeable, which is important given the book's teeny-weeny print and lack of pictures.

4. Great British Recipes, Jamie Oliver:
Sorry, who? Exactly. Love him or hate him, you do know him- and he's certainly a man on a mission. This hyperactive, cheery celebrity chef has waged an assault on our country's eating habits which, let's be honest, were probably in need of a bit of attention. I'm a patriotic person- I love local produce, and I love quintessentially English food. However I've found that of late, many chefs and restaurants have been too concerned with appearing stubbornly British and have turned a tad, well, xenophobic. And that's why I bloody love Jamie. I do. I'd wear a Jamie Oliver badge if I could find one. Yes, he can be irritating. Especially when you're hungover and struggling to muster enough energy to cook baked beans on toast- the last thing you want to see and hear is Mr. Oliver telling you that in seven minutes you can concoct a fantastic meal for a family of thirty-six. Or something like that. But I love his attitude to food; YES, buy local produce. YES, avoid supermarkets (we'll ignore the fact that he's the Sainsbury's poster boy- in his books and magazines, he rarely advocates supermarket shopping,) but embrace our HUGE cultural heritage!

Great British Recipes is a fantastic source of ideas that embody all of Britain's cultural influences, and is a great tool of inspiration in the kitchen. Its recipes are easy to read, easy to cook, and even easier to eat. It is not, however, 30-Minute meals: there are a lot of over-night marinades and slow cooks. In fact, my favourite recipe is the slow roast pork belly, which I've tweaked endlessly to suit whatever occasion I pull it out the bag for, as it really is very adaptable. However, it does take a good nine-hours of love and attention. I had to sleep in half hour stints the first time I attempted it- I soon learnt it is not a Sunday lunch dish- early evening at the very least.... But then sometimes a little bit of sleep deprivation can be worth it.

So there you go- the first four. I do hope you're all still awake...

mrs hunt.x

Thursday, 6 September 2012

please sir, can I have some more?

I'm a bit odd, and will happily slurp down a chilled, decidedly 'summery' soup in the depths of December. And since December is all-too rapidly approaching, I thought I'd hark back to those early days of summer: for me, there is nothing more mood lifting than celebrating the mercury hitting twenty degrees (since let's face it- we are British...) with a super-cool soup.

When most people think 'cold soup,' their minds understandably jump to Gazpacho, in one of its numerous regional variations. Now call me a cheat, but I rarely bother making my own; the reality is that most decent delicatessens stock fantastic stuff in cartons, saving a huge amount of time and effort on your part. Balancing the seasoning and acidity of a Gazpacho is notoriously difficult, so if you find a brand you like, don't see buying it as a cop-out.

Amongst others, there is also the Vichyssoise vein of cold soupage, but it's not my favourite. For me, the best soup to usher in those early summer days, and one that will see you through to mid-September, is anything bright green and with a healthy amount of gin. Now, when I first started putting gin into soup, I'm fairly certain my husband suspected me of having some kind of borderline alcohol dependency; admittedly, if the gin wasn't going into my food, it would be going into my tonic. Or both, for that matter. But my logic is very convincing: the botanicals found in most gins match perfectly with all those foods we associate best with summer- think cucumber and lemon, for example- so it gives a green summer soup a perfectly innocent kick.

What You Need:

  • 2 sticks of celery (hold on to the leaves)
  • A large handful of borage, if available. Failing that, 2/3 of a cucumber.
  • 1 courgette
  • 1 average-sized bag of watercress
  • A couple of slices of decent quality white bread, crusts off.
  • Juice of 3 unwaxed lemons, and the zest of 2 (reserve half for the  the garnish)
  • 100g of soft British goat's cheese, or feta.
  • 100g frozen peas
  • 1 handful of applemint (or ordinary if you can't find any)
  • 50ml Hendricks gin (as it has a more pronounced cucumber flavour, but any gin works well)
  • A good slug of cider vinegar
  • 1 cup of crushed ice 
  • Tabasco/generic hot sauce to serve (optional)

Plus: a blender.

Try to allow some degree of flexibility with your ingredients: asparagus works well if you throw in a couple of stalks, but it is worth bearing in mind that its season is very short (just a couple of months from the end of May, depending on weather.) Obviously you could use asparagus imported from Israel or some other far-flung country, but it kind of defeats the object here. This soup is amazing because you could probably source everything within a twenty mile radius, if you tried hard enough- depending on how many local goats are hanging around. Essentially, if you have anything non-toxic and of the right hue hanging around your garden, just chuck it in. Lettuce, broad beans and chives can all be subbed-in as necessary, depending on your mood. Just be creative.

What You Do:

Seeing as this soup is raw, there's not much scope for screwing it up. That is unless (like me) you feel the urge to stick a wooden spoon into your blender halfway through the blending process. Large chunks of wood are an optional extra.

1. Chop up your celery, keeping a few of the leaves for a fancy garnish. Throw it in the blender with the roughly chopped borage/cucumber and courgette.

2. Pulse a couple of times to achieve a lumpy, thick-ish base, and then tear up your bread, adding this on top. Follow this with the rest of the veg, and then the cheese. Feel free to keep some back if you want to crumble it on top with the rest of your garnish. Blend it.

3. At this point, the jug will probably need a bit of a jig to ensure everything is getting mushed. But like I said, don't use a wooden spoon.

4. Add the gin, lemon juice and cider vinegar, followed by the zest of one of your lemons. If you are using the unwaxed variety, you'll notice that the scent and oils are a lot stronger than in its waxed variety. I'm sure I don't need to explain why.

5. Season like there's no tomorrow- this can take it. In the unlikely event that you do go over the top, it's easy enough to counter balance with a bit more gin, lemon juice, cucumber... anything. Whizz it all up until you get a smooth-ish consistency, and then heap on the crushed ice. Bash it all up again, and then check for seasoning. This really is quite a personal soup, and you can add as much or as little of the ingredients as you like to suit your taste.

6.Serve chilled, with a few pretty bits and pieces of anything that went in there initially adorning the top.  I get incredibly excited by the contrast between cucumber and chilli on my tongue, so I'm not shy with the Tabasco, but it's always up to you.

So, before it's too late, try to squeeze in one more summery soup. Before you know, it'll be leek and lentil all round...

mrs hunt.x