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The Reading List

September 23, 2012


I’ve been thinking about doing a post on cookery books for a while now. Obviously the whole ethos of Cupboard Surprise is about not sticking too rigidly to recipes, about getting the gist of basic principles and adapting them to whatever is available. So my use of recipe books in the traditional sense is pretty limited. It’s rare for me to be in the kitchen with a recipe book open in front of me paying careful attention to each step – and not just because whenever I do try that the book in question ends up covered in food (I did once bake something complicated from an internet recipe with my laptop open in front of me – this is definitely living dangerously when you’re as clumsy as I am.)
But cookery books do have their place, and I do have a small number of favourites that I think are worth sharing. In my view there are two things that make a cookery book worth owning, and often (not always) they are mutually exclusive:

1. It arms you with basic skills, or what I think of as “root” recipes. It equips you with methods for, say, making bread or sponge cake, barbecuing effectively, or the best way to peel a mango or bake a potato, so that you can adapt these skills to other dishes you make. And it provides you with ideas – such as mashing up butternut squash with cream instead of serving it in chunks (An idea that I ended up turning into one of my new favourite pasta dishes, though my final recipe bears little resemblance to the original), or adding pomegranate juice to a marinade (at which point I’d be thinking “what other, less expensive, fruit juices would work here?”). These are inspiration books – creative starting points that provide you with raw material to go off and get creative and resourceful. They are the polar opposite of the student cookbook I was given many years ago which turned out to be essentially eighteen different stir fries. Seriously, once you’ve made one stir fry you’ve made them all – and surely the whole “use up the contents of your veg drawer” purpose of making stir fry is negated a bit when you have to go out to buy specific ingredients to make the exact stir fry the book is telling you to make.  Does anyone actually read a stir fry recipe that says “200g baby corn” and think “oh no I haven’t got any baby corn, I’ll have to go shopping before I can make this.” I mean, please…

2. The food porn. I’ve spoken about this before. The books with the gorgeous photographs and sumptuous descriptions, and seem to have been put together by artists rather than cooks. I own several of these. I hardly ever cook from them – I feel a bit like the recipes contained are not really for the likes of me, and as my presentation skills leaving something to be desired, even if I tried, I’d just be left sadly disappointed as my final dish would never look anything near as beautiful as the one in the book. They make me feel a bit like the pallid skinned middle aged couple trying to recreate high budget erotica in a bedroom with an overflowing laundry basket and kids asleep in the next room. Most of the time such things are probably best left firmly in the fantasy world.

What follows here is a small list of my favourite cookery books. Books I love and go back to repeatedly, and recommend that everyone buys, borrows, steals, or photocopies the best bits in the library. None are difficult to get hold of or expensive. If you do get them from Amazon please look at the “New and Used” section first. Apart from often being cheaper, it’s also a good way to support smaller retailers who survive by selling through Amazon, rather than automatically giving all of your money to The Man (does anyone else find it concerning that when you type “Amazon” into Google, the first thing that comes up is neither the river, nor the mythical female warrior tribe?)

You’ll notice most of my favourite books are from the US. Shoot me down for my lack of patriotism if you like, but I honestly think Americans do vegetarian cookery better than the British. Despite there invariably being a section at the front dealing with vegetarian nutrition, the dishes in British cook books are often very unbalanced, with no protein component – it’s not a massive problem as I can chuck in a tin of chickpeas or a handful of flaked almonds when this happens, but it irritates me nevertheless, as it just acts as fuel for all those annoying “But where do you get your protein?” people. There is also an annoying tendency to rely on dairy products in general, and cheese in particular. Perhaps this is because there are so many varieties of cheese widely available in Europe, whereas not so much in the US. American books are more vegan friendly.  Americans are also much much better at using all kinds of beans; maybe it’s the Mexican influence and the wider availability of different beans, which is something I like. In the UK, for most people: Beanz Meanz Heinz.


On the other hand, it takes a while to get used to US cookery writing: it took me ages to figure out that “cilantro” means coriander, and not parsley, that “green onions” are spring onions, and a skillet is a frying pan. I still don’t really understand what “biscuits” are, other than you eat them with gravy, so I hope they’re not anything like Rich Tea or Hobnobs. I do like the tendency to cook by volume (in cups and tablespoons) rather than by weight. It’s much simpler and quicker, and easier to work out how to increase the quantities if you need to.

The List

The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions by Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman

I only bought this recently, and it’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever spent my overdraft on. Not just for vegans, it’s a bible for anyone who wants to avoid meat, dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, sugar or animal by-products – there’s a chapter for each of these things. The ethos behind the book is that it provides you with the information you need to take any favourite non-vegan recipe and replace the relevant ingredients with vegan alternatives in a way that won’t completely wreck the flavour or texture. It tells you which non-dairy milks are best for which uses (they aren’t all equal), how to decide what the role of an egg is in a recipe before you decide what to substitute (depending on whether it’s acting as a leavening agent, a binder or a moistener), it explains how  to cook tofu that doesn’t taste like you imagine that slop they eat at the beginning of the Matrix would taste, and shows you how to make your own meat substitutes, dairy free ice cream and “cheese” out of cashew nuts (yes, really). There are relatively few actual recipes in the book but the ones it does have are divided between incredibly useful (seitan, pizzas, cookies, tofu scramble) and delightfully bonkers (vegan Eggs Benedict anyone?). This is the one book I think anyone even thinking about vegetarianism, veganism, or free-from diets absolutely has to own.


Babycakes by Erin Mckenna

I was given this by a friend who visits the US a lot – it contains some of the recipes from the Babycakes bakery in New York – I’ve never been, but apparently the lunchtime queues are round the block so that has to be a good sign!

I’ve made a few of the recipes from this book: the chocolate brownies are brilliantly gooey considering there are almost no traditional ingredients in them, and the cookies I really like because they are much lighter than standard cookies, so you don’t get that icky too-many-cookies feeling after eating a few. Mainly I like this book for the ideas it gave me: such as substituting coconut oil for butter (really, really good!), apple sauce for eggs, and taking brownies out of the oven five minutes early for extra gooeyness. I’ve adopted a lot of these principles into my general baking with good results. It also passes the food porn test with flying colours as the pictures of the goodies are gorgeous (I’m not sure about the picture at the back of the stunning supermodel-like bakery staff though – how are they all so slim and clear skinned?).

There are some slight drawbacks: The recipes may not be to everyone’s taste – many of them aren’t as sweet or as stodgy as the dairy and sugar filled counterparts, which might put some people off (I confess I’ve actually made some of these recipes replacing normal sugar for the suggested substitute, or standard plain flour for gluten free); and not all of the ingredients are easy to get in British supermarkets. If you’re really desperate to try something in here though, most of the ingredients can be found online at reasonable prices.


How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

I have had a bit of a girl crush on Nigella for years. Not only does she have amazing hair and a cleavage that makes me wonder whether anyone else ever looks at her hair, but I love that whole burlesquey, theatrical personality: her sense of the camp and slightly ridiculous really comes across in this book (one of the recipes even has Malibu in it). It’s written with warmth and humour and is just generally great fun to read – it feels a bit like having afternoon tea with your posh, sexy, talented friend who you would clearly hate if she wasn’t such a sweetie. (I also like the fact that whenever I see Nigella on telly she makes as much of a mess of her kitchen when baking as I do – although her TV kitchen is obviously a million times nicer than mine.)

Mostly this sits firmly in the “Food Porn” category, but there are some useful recipes in here as well – there is a whole chapter on bread that includes traditional loaves, flatbreads and delicious bagels that are well worth spending almost all day making. My favourite biscuit recipe – which I know off by heart now and is very adaptable – also comes from the “Children” section of this book. You do need to use a bit of judgement as some of the cooking times and quantities are sliightly out – so it’s not  for those who demand perfect precision (although if that’s you God only knows why you’re reading this blog!).  None of the recipes in this are quick – it’s a book for people who love to bake, and who consider setting aside a whole Sunday to make a pie or a rustic loaf to be a luxurious indulgence, rather than a chore. But in an era of “Easy Meals in 10 Seconds for People Who Are So Busy They’ve Forgotten Where the Kitchen Is” type books, sometimes it’s kind of nice to read something by someone who just really loves cooking.


Supernatural Every Day by Heidi Swanson

Heidi Swanson writes the 101 Cookbooks blog, which is well worth a read . She’s also a professional photographer who lives in San Francisco, so unsurprisingly, this book and its predecessor Super Natural Cooking are beautiful to look at and flick through. The blurb at the beginning that gives her thoughts about various different grains and pulses and spices and the like is quite interesting to read too – she is very much in favour of experimenting and developing the skills to create your own versions of the dishes too, which is good to see. In my opinion this is far better than the first book, as it’s full of recipes that seem quite reasonable to make on a regular basis and there’s less faffing around with things like soaking and other long winded preparation. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything in this to the letter, as there are a lot of ingredients that are nigh on impossible to come by in Cardiff (such as farro), but there are some nice ideas. I especially like her white bean spread with rosemary – which is a rich and satisfying alternative to houmous. I also made the multigrain pancakes to use up some rye flour that I bought on a whim because it was cheap then didn’t know what to do with – and I like her idea of folding things like fruit actually into the batter before frying, rather than just eating them as a filling. I’m hoping to make more things from this in future so maybe I can report back on the successes. There’s a chapter on drinks which I’m quite keen on having a go at.


So there are my top choices. Any more recommendations from anybody?!


One Comment leave one →
  1. September 24, 2012 08:22

    Yottam Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty’ – great inventive fresh tasting veggie recipes, ticks the food porn box and even holding the soft padded book cover is part of the experience. Every recipe in this book has worked and worked well, not many others i can say that about.

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