Cookbooks offering more than just recipes but an insight into the writers’ culture, passion or experiences are introducing new, colourful voices to the culinary scene. Food writer Nicola Miller picks her favourites
It’s been an interesting season for cookbooks. There’s more room for books about subjects once considered too ‘niche’ for mainstream publishers, we’re seeing more writers who hail from outside the traditional white, middle class demographic, and I’m pleased to see books of food essays being published too. They are a cost-effective way of discovering new voices.
I enjoyed Women on Food, edited by Charlotte Druckman (Abrams, £21.99), which examines issues pertinent to women in food today via a series of interviews, questionnaires and essays. Of note is Be My Guest (Canongate, £12.99), Priya Basil’s elegant conversations about the meaning of hospitality, food and race in one small and beautiful book; and the mighty Alpine Cooking by Meredith Erickson (Ten Speed Press, £40). Aran: Recipes and Stories From a Bakery in the Heart of Scotland, by Flora Shedden (Hardie Grant, £22), is another wintry book which will have you longing for cake, a warm hearth and a rug. Scotland has been well-represented this year. Then there are the season’s big releases: vegetable-rich cookbooks from Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater. It has been so hard to choose my favourites, but here they are:
A Little Library Year: Seasonal Cooking and Reading by Kate Young (Anima, £25)
This is the book to curl up with on Christmas Day. It’s a big cosy hug of a read, written with such love and care and although it covers Kate’s travels from her family home in Australia to England and all points inbetween, it reads as an evocative love letter to this, her adopted country. Divided into seasons, Kate’s recipes and suggestions for timely books to read as you cook and then eat are seamlessly blended. She’s widely read, and it shows. Sections include ‘long winter nights’ with recipes for pear and cardamom crisp, and a mussel supper for one; there’s a series of autumnal game recipes inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World; or you can read F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and cook a ginger-beer ham in brioche buns or make a chocolate ice cream with coffee and calvados inspired by Vienne’s feast in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. I heartily recommend The Little Library Cookbook, Kate’s first book, too.
A Taste of Scotland’s Islands by Sue Lawrence (Birlinn Ltd, £25)
I have always been a fan of both Sue’s cookbooks and her appearances on the panel of BBC R4 Kitchen Cabinet. Her recipes are well-tested and utterly reliable. I often recommend her Book of Baking to novice cooks. Here, she embarks on a deeply personal odyssey around 20 Scottish islands from Luing to Great Bernara; some of these are places I hadn’t heard of. We meet producers and cooks who share with us hundreds and hundreds of years of Scottish culinary heritage. Sue is a wonderful advocate for Scottish produce and thanks to the Internet it has never been easier to buy these foods, although the photos in this book have made me determined to tour the Scottish Isles. Bake the Puckle bread with cracked wheat, the root and sea vegetable salad from the Outer Hebrides, Mull haggis pastilla (so clever!), Islay whisky crab rarebit, a raw bramble cheesecake, and a rhubarb, honey and oat crumble.
Leaf by Catherine Phipps (Quadrille, £25)
What I love about Catherine’s writing is that it doesn’t turn on the whim of food fashion. It’s borne of her spirit of passionate discovery which, I think, is in part fed by her love of children’s literature. There’s something very fresh about the way she approaches her subject: this is experience and knowledge hard-won over time. Indeed, LEAF has its beginnings in Catherine’s long- term obsession with the story Rapunzel, whose own mother’s desire for greens resulted in her daughter’s imprisonment. LEAF is exquisitely designed but so are many cookbooks that invariably leave you cold because the recipes or research are weak. That’s not the case here, I’m in love with Catherine’s recipes: bubble n squeak waffles, cime di rapa, and scamorza croquetas. Samphire w courgettes, basil and brown shrimp. There are eight pages of especially quick and easy salads, and a section on foraged leaves includes wise words on wild garlic and its underperformance when cooked. I’m desperate to make tarragon vinegar butter beans, soothing herb custards, a divine-sounding blackcurrant leaf ice, a spiced lamb w spinach lifted by lime leaves, coriander and laksa leaf.
When Pies Fly by Cathy Barrow (Grand Central Publishing, £24.13)
Kitchens used to have something called a pie safe and in lieu of something similar, Cathy Barrow is your human equivalent. Her skill and experience will keep you and your pies safe, whether you are a complete novice or an experienced baker looking to develop your repertoire. This, her second pie book, along with Pie Squared, her first, are my favourite pastry books. When Pies Fly is American but metric conversions mean it is easy to use on this side of the pond. The different pie and pastry doughs are kept to their own section and the pie recipes are further divided into galettes, hand pies, pie poppers for snacking, framed pies, strudel, puff and phyllo, fried pies, empanadas, kolache from Eastern Europe and finally, knishes. It’s a dazzling trip around Planet Pie. I love the sound of the more unusual chai-spiced plum and walnut empanaditas, pineapple and toasted coconut kolaches, and crab rangoon pie poppers. But there’s the comfortingly familiar, too: you’ll find recipes for apple dumplings, glazed fruit tarts and galettes, and a nifty cheeseburger hand pie.
Spirited by Signe Johansen (Bluebird, £14.99)
This is another book I’d be delighted to receive as a Christmas gift, although it might be more sensible to buy it beforehand because with the party season (and its inevitable recuperation) coming up, Spirited will really come in handy. This is not a drinks book that sparks feelings of inadequacy about how little one knows about booze, mixers and non-alcoholic drinks, and you don’t even need to be a drinker to enjoy it. There’s no undercurrent of ‘machismo snootiness’ (to quote Signe) and this book doesn’t make gendered assumptions about what drinks men and women like, nor does it assume prior knowledge. There’s nothing clubby about her tone. Above all, though, this is an accessible and fun book that will broaden your horizons. I hadn’t thought of classifying drinks according to savouriness, for example, and there’s an entire chapter on them. (Masala chaas made from iced buttermilk, coriander, chili, and cumin sounds fabulous.) Sorrel spritz, sherry cobbler, a liquorice latte, and a Campari and clementine flamingo caught my eye, too.
AMÁ: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock (Abrams & Chronicle, £21.99)
AMÁ is dedicated to the millions of immigrants “who every day fearlessly cross borders for a better life” and therefore it is also a tribute to Tex-Mex cooking, the journeys people make and the tables they sit at. “The only thing authentic about Tex-Mex is that it isn’t authentic: It evolves and adapts,” the authors say, offering us a cookbook that has mass appeal (even here in the UK where admittedly, some of the ingredients will be harder to find). It’s packed with stories and memories from the authors’ childhood and because of this, there’s an overwhelming sense of place, not only of AMA, the Los Angeles restaurant owned by Josef Centeno, but of California, Mexico, and the other border states. Light and airy photography avoids all the usual Tex-Mex clichés and the food is exceptional: white beans, nopales and dried shrimp in a yellow mole. A potato fritter in broth, French Texas toast, pork ribs with purslane, and an Oaxacan arroz con leche con dulce de garbanzos, chili-lime shrub and a recipe for their famous margaritas tempt me very much.
Sour by Mark Diacono (Quadrille, £25)
Guaranteed to get your parotid glands contracting in joy, Sour is a transformational book; one that will truly change the way you think about this vital, yet under-sung, flavour element. Mark’s writing is witty and packed with cultural references and you don’t need to be a cook to enjoy this book; we all eat, after all. Even the youngest of children are attracted by the push-me, pull-me of sour it seems. Watching my young grandson sucking on a lemon slice and shuddering with prickly-backed pleasure reminded me of this. There are instructive sections on souring skills (how to make vinegar, kombucha, fermented fruit, and vegetables), a little bibliography for further reading (so important!) and recipes to make your mouth water. I’ve already drunk the ginger-rosemary Tom Collins (delightfully lethal) and made the tamarind pork ribs, red grapefruit and radish kimchi, and rosehip vinegar. I want to try Mark’s sourdough soup, blackcurrant yoghurt cake, a recipe for home-made sherbet lemons (!) and rhubarb and radish salad in the coming months.
Zaika by Romy Gill (Orion Books, £20)
Vegan food has broken free of its earnest chains at last, thanks to chef/writers like Romy Gill (who is soon to present a brand-new series of Ready, Steady, Cook!) and Zaika, her first book, is an exuberant celebration of food. It just happens to have no animal products in, that’s all. Romy blends the dishes she ate growing up in India with influences and ingredients gathered from England, where she has settled. Recipes like elderflower pakoras show what a brilliantly creative cook and chef she is. They speak of remembered comforts and the assuaging of homesickness through food and cooking. I loved sabut matar (freshly podded peas flavoured with turmeric, masala, Kashmiri chilli and mango powder); a chapter filled with the Indian breads which are an important staple of Punjabi cooking (make the gram flour turmeric pancakes); there’s masses of recipes for pickles and preserves (try the tamarind date chutney); a stunning roasted cauliflower with rose harissa, and posto boras (Indian poppy seed cakes). This is a beautiful book and it is suitable for all levels of cooking experience.
From the Oven to the Table by Diana Henry (Mitchell Beazley, £25)
What appears to be a relatively simple concept for a book− recipes for dishes cooked in the oven─– belies just how tricky it can be to pull off. Books like these can end up feeling rather formulaic and also dismissive of the fact that good cooking always requires some effort, whether that be in the building of flavour (something Diana is a master at) or the preparation of ingredients, or the time it takes to shop for ingredients. This, Diana Henry’s twelfth book does not neglect any of these factors, whilst ensuring that busy cooks get the most bang for their buck. As always, the writing is crystal clear and filled with love, the instructions are designed for all skill levels, and its tone is confiding and honest. And the food! There’s a dramatically moody cassis and bay-baked pears with blackberries; a homely chicken with capers, lemon, and thyme (in fact there’s a whole section on that delicious stalwart of home cooks everywhere – the chicken thigh); roast cabbage wedges with xo crumbs; roast sweet potatoes with cayenne and spinach (I love the page of quick and easy things to do with the spud), and a gloriously autumnal bowl of roast mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes and celeriac with brown butter and horseradish.
Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye (Bloomsbury, £26)
MiMi’s parents were anxious that she not lose touch with Burmese culture and not only taught her its language but ensured she grew up eating and cooking the food of her family’s homeland. And thank goodness they did because in Mandalay, what we have is a thoroughly modern exploration and explanation of what Burmese food and food culture are without too much nostalgia, which can get in the way. There are over 130 ethnic groups in this matrilineal and matriarchal society, and they live in a country that is in parts uninhabitable, resulting in many geographically distinct cuisines. However, the recipes in Mandalay aim to represent what MiMi refers to as ‘mainstream’ Burmese cooking as well as what makes it unique and she guides us through specific ingredients, equipment and technique so as to render it accessible to cooks who don’t live in large cities with easy access to these things. It’s worth pointing out that MSG is a standard ingredient in Burma. Anyone questioning this doesn’t understand Burmese food culture and MiMi explains its use and importance very clearly. Mandalay is a fascinating, generous and clear-eyed book filled with family photographs and memories and the recipes are well-tested and easy to follow. (There’s a pronunciation guide included.) Goat and split pea curry, pickled ginger and sesame salad, Burmese fried chicken seasoned with lime, turmeric, garlic and ginger, a steamed mackerel dish with vinegar, fish sauce, chilli, and lemongrass, braised butter beans, a Shan mustard green pickle, and sticky rice doughnuts with jaggery syrup will give you an idea of this book’s versatility and usefulness.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale