Book reviews

I love reading cookbooks, and collating the recipes that I want to try out. Over the past few years, I have probably gone through more than 500 books. The benefit of “reading” a zillion recipes, and having tried a few hundred, is that I can now visualise the end result and decide whether a recipe is worth trying, and is something the family might enjoy.

I also find that I that I might not like every genre of recipe from every author. For e.g. much though I love Ottolenghi’s savoury recipes, I’m not a fan of his baking recipes. I have for instance tried making macaroons from his first book (Ottolenghi – The cookbook) and they were average at best.

20 years ago, my “go to” books would have been written by Delia Smith, and I still own her Summer & Winter Collection and her “How to cook” series. With Delia, her recipes for what I would call family comfort food are timeless, and very reliable. Her instructions and timings both work. I haven’t had similar success with her baking recipes. There are a few exceptions though. To date, I follow her recipe for Tiramisu (from the Winter collection). I have made it over and over again, and it’s fantastic. I have tried about 10 other Tiramisu recipes, from Ina Garten to Jamie Oliver, and just find the balance of the coffee, the sweetness, and the mouthfeel of Smith’s the best.

To get going with my cookbook reviews, I have first listed the books/authors I like best, and find myself turning to time and again. These are reliable books, the recipes, quantities, and the result is predictably good. To me a good cookbook is one where the results are always successful, and you end up with a dish you expected after reading the recipe. There should be no gaps, nothing sloppy and nothing that leaves doubts in the readers mind.

Recent cookbook reviews

Thomasina Miers’ Mexican Food

Thomasina Miers Mexican Food

I chanced upon this book accidentally, and ended up buying it for a pittance at the local library. This is the first time I have actually bought a book on Mexican cooking, but have been pleasantly surprised by some of the delicious sounding and relatively light recipes in the book. Having said that, I made the not so light Chorizo & Potato quesadillas, and they were scrumptious, served with a fresh salsa. I have also tried some of the salads & salsas, and they seem quite authentic. Always wary of Tex-Mex, I wanted to check the authenticity of this book with my reliable Mexican friend. She said Mexicans never use Cheddar cheese, so I am assuming that Miers’ has used some leeway, as a few recipes do call for that. I have perfected a recipe for homemade corn tortillas, and Miers’ is almost identical to mine, so I am reassured.

Overall this book is a good starting point for anyone interested in exploring Mexican food.

She also provides a recipe for “Churros”, which we all love (deep fried sugar coated dough, what’s not to love?) and I am dying to try it out. I have a few different recipes I have been stashing away for churros, and several use a choux pastry base with egg. Her version is without egg, so I am intrigued.  Posting soon, I hope.

Rick Stein’s Long Weekends

Rick Stein’s Long Weekends

Stein’s new book is a good repository of recipes from across Europe acquired on Stein’s travels. Oddly, what I found most interesting were his baking recipes. Knowing his attention to detail, and the success I have had trying out his other recipes, these are worth a go. There’s a recipe for Portuguese custard tarts, as well as a very promising German apple cake. Happily, we will be holidaying in Portugal soon, so I am looking forward to eating some pastel de nata, first  hand.  Upon my return, I will no doubt hanker for more. Mr. Stein’s recipe will be handy. The other recipes look good, but nothing stands out, and I still believe that his seafood books and Far East Cooking are more interesting.  This may well be because I am inured by a deluge of recent cookbooks in the bistro/modern cooking genre.

Heston Blumenthal at Home

Heston Blumenthal at home

There are several books by famous chefs which attempt to demystify restaurant food. Blumenthal’s is quite special as it combines classic recipes with some avant garde thrown in. I own a copy of the book, but by no means is it simple home cooking. It’s very specifically for someone aspiring for restaurant quality food at home. 

Visually the book is stunning, but what I love most is the section on stock making (coming soon in a blog) and the science behind it all, that Blumenthal excels in. The recipes are truly cutting edge and several require specialist tools or ingredients. With respect to cooking from the book, I have gone down the trodden path, having tried the bone marrow gravy and the chicken with sherry & cream (and there is lots of it, so for the faint hearted!). There are other rather  more adventurous recipes like the garden salad with vegetables in soil, which I am not sure if I will ever attempt. Some recipes do call on vast amounts of fat, which I am not sure are entirely essential. All in all, a good cooking bible to have on hand, but one where it’s hard to pin down a recipe that you will actually make.

Rating – 3/5
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My all-time favourite cookbooks and authors

Ina Garten

“Barefoot Contessa’s Cookbook” and “Barefoot Contessa’s Parties” are both excellent. What I love about her recipes is the precision, she even states the quantity of salt, and so as long as you follow the recipes properly they are practically foolproof. Her baking and dessert recipes are avowedly American, and tend to be high on sugar, but delicious nonetheless. But they are very reliable, so if you need to make a batch of cookies or cake and don’t know where to start, you can’t go wrong with one of her recipes.

Yotam Ottolenghi

When I first bought Ottolenghi’s cookbook, not many people had heard of him or his fabulous little restaurant in Notting Hill. He’s written many more books since, and his recipes are absolutely fabulous. “Ottolenghi The Cookbook”, and “Jerusalem” are my go to books if I need inspiration for a meal. His food tends to be lighter and fresher and with a lot more vegetables which makes it perfect for a weekday supper. If I have to cook for vegetarians, his book “Plenty” is one of the best there is, and has more than enough ideas to emulate.

Julia Child

At the risk of sounding old and doddering, I have to admit my fondness for Julia Child. Several years ago, I managed to track down her original TV shows (in black and white!) and watched them all. She is truly timeless, and she did for French cooking what no French chef has been able to do. Her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is unsurpassed in my view, making fine French cooking plausible in a home kichen. Her recipes for French sauces, steaks, and her baking recipes are all marvellously reliable and detailed. If I am cooking steak with a simple Béarnaise sauce, or creamed spinach, I will turn to Julia. I have tried making Béarnaise/Hollandaise in many different ways, including Delia’s blender method (which is how we made it at the bakery) and the more traditional method using a double boiler. Julia’s in comparison is brave (avoiding the use of a double boiler) but with perfect results as her instructions are spot on.

Rick Stein

Rick Stein is another of my favourite authors. I have several of his books and his fish and seafood recipes are near perfect. What I love about Stein’s recipes is his attention to details, when it comes to “exotic” cuisines. I have a few of his books, but one favourite which is not often seen nowadays (as his more recent titles are marketed better) is “Fruits of the Sea” This is one of his earlier books, but is a excellent amalgamation of different types of seafood & fish recipes from around the world.  From this book, his Malaysian style fried sea bass is absolutely perfect and doesn’t skimp on any authentic Asian ingredients. Having lived in Singapore, I have seen several local cookbooks, which one would be think are more authentic for Asian cooking. However, I find that Stein’s Asian recipes are excellent. Like Indian food, chefs tend to throw in ingredients without precise measurements, which is fine if you know what the end result should taste like and you then adjust the flavourings at the end, but that’s the not the case with Stein. I have books by well-known stalwarts like Ken Hom, or Ching but Stein’s stand out. Same for his Indian, or Middle-Eastern. Despite being a British chef, he delves into each cuisine in detail and doesn’t “simplify” recipes.

Fuchsia Dunlop

I can’t complete this list without mentioning Fuchsia Dunlop. She has done to Chinese cooking what Julia Child did to French. She spent 10 years in China and it shows in her recipes. There’s no westernisation of the recipes and all her recipes are authentic. I really enjoyed cooking from her book “Every Grain of Rice”, especially when I lived in Singapore, as the fresh ingredients were much easier to find. I still cook from her book, and have rarely been disappointed. Her book amply demonstrates that Chinese cuisine can be quite healthy and fresh, and is very vegetable centric. Outside of China, it’s hard to paint this picture of Chinese food, as our only exposure tends to be restaurant food.

Harumi

I have two of Harumi’s books, “Everyday Harumi” and another one titled Modern Japanese cooking, but if you are going to get one Japanese cookbook, I would recommend the former.  I have a few other Japanese cookbooks that I have acquired over the years, some of which are very reliant on finding local fresh ingredients that are hard to procure outside of Asia, but Harumi’s book sticks to recipes for which ingredients are relatively easy to find. The results are authentic, and occasionally I might tweak the recipes a bit, but overall this is the book to turn to if looking for a simple but truly Japanese recipe to follow. The cold soba noodles recipe from her book is a family favourite and the Mentsuyu sauce made the proper way is perfectly balanced.