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Food writer Nicola Miller reviews new cookbooks with all the right ingredients to tempt you

Life Kitchen: Recipes to revive the joy of taste and flavour by Ryan Riley (Bloomsbury, £20)

When Ryan Riley was 18, his mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and as her illness and its treatment progressed, one of the things that she should have found pleasure in – eating – became, in Ryan’s words, “a mere occasional necessity”.It is a cruelty that one of the worst things about having cancer can be the debilitating effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy which may persist long after treatment has stopped. The ability to smell and taste, and the motivation and energy to cook and eat, can be severely impacted. Life Kitchen, with its new cooking school and nationwide schedule of classes for people with cancer and their loved ones and now, this book, seeks to mitigate this.

What makes Ryan’s book extra useful is his collaboration with other experts such as Professor Barry Smith, founding director of The Centre For the Study of the Senses, and the feedback Ryan received from people attending Maggie’s Cancer Centres who road tested his recipes. There’s a solid evidence base underpinned by a recognition that every person’s experience of cancer and its effects will be different. To this end, we are asked to consider texture, sound and heat and visual appeal and to use knowledge of our body’s sensory pathways to find new ways of enjoying cooking and eating again. This book is about finding kinship and community through food and combating some of the loneliness that this disease can cause, both inside and outside of the ‘cancer community’. This is food your entire family will want to eat; you won’t be left sitting at the table, toying with your food whilst everyone else gets to eat the things you can’t.

Life Kitchen (31316306)
Life Kitchen (31316306)

My favourites? Some of Ryan’s little flavour tricks such as mint pickled pomegranate seeds to scatter over meals for a visually bright burst of flavour, and a ‘library of mayonnaise’ flavours, jacket potatoes with black garlic, spring onion and feta (comforting and deeply savoury), baked yoghurt with rose (it’s important that meals sound delicious, too), fruity ice lollies for sore mouths (let’s not forget the invigorating importance of coldness when taste and smell is impaired) and Marmite cheddar crumpets with tarragon mushrooms, which sounds both traditional and modern.

How To Drink Without Drinking by Fiona Beckett (Kyle Books, £15.99)

If you find yourself sat at the dinner table with a soft drink and feeling like a child surrounded by grown-ups nursing their carefully-paired glasses of wine, then Fiona Beckett’s book is for you. Fiona really knows her stuff. She’s one of our leading wine writers with a column in The Guardian and her ‘Matching Food and Wine’ website offers a wealth of approachable information, so I am delighted to see Fiona take up the baton for fans of no-alcohol drinks. I love the section on ‘what to drink instead of’ which covers all kinds of food and drink pairings (kvass with smoked fish is very clever), matches drinks to cuisines, and offers tips on ‘best bets at the pub’ and other social occasions because quite often, soft drinks can seem to lack a sense of sophistication. Fiona’s suggestions help redress that. If you’ve dressed up to go out, you might not want to sit at a table with a plain old Diet Coke; you might want to look like you’re drinking alcohol even when you are not (for all kinds of reasons) and Fiona is cognizant of this.

Alongside delicious recipes for cordials and shrubs (quince and lemon fruit stock made from peelings; a ‘Paddington’ marmalade-inspired fruit syrup); alcohol-free cocktails (a divine breakfast martini and a beautiful pale green ‘Croquet’); drinks made from alcohol-free beer, wine and cider (red wine hot chocolate; mulled cider with roasted apples); ferments (tepache, the Mexican fermented pineapple drink) and lattes, shakes and lassis (lavender milk is so pretty), there are lots of juices and smoothies, teas, tisanes and coffee, and guides to sugar syrups, flavoured waters and what to keep in your drinks cabinet.

How to Drink Without Drinking (31316308)
How to Drink Without Drinking (31316308)

Carpathia: Food From the Heart of Romania by Irina Georgescu (Frances Lincoln, £22, out March 17)

“There is a lot to say about Romania’s cuisine, but there are very few voices that have told the stories,” says Irina Georgescu in the introduction to her first book, Carpathia, named for the mountain range of her homeland. Romania is much misunderstood, and our shared European heritage is underestimated; there’s much about its food which British people will find deeply familiar (not that something needs to be familiar to be of value). Irina celebrates Romanian home cooking and “the amalgamation of influences that we’ve made our own” which have distilled into a way of eating that is communal and familial, and bound up with the seasons, local produce and local ways of preparing them, all of which, in Irina’s hands, become something relatable no matter where you live. I adore the sound of gutui cu pui (pan-fried chicken with caramelised quince) with its Swabian, Austrian-Turk and Avar influences, a breakfast dish of cheesy polenta with soured cream and a runny fried egg and a rugged stew of butter beans, sausage and red onion salsa. There’s a dreamy ‘little honey bee cake’ called Albinita whose layers of honey sponge sandwich a semolina and rosehip jam filling, a salata de peste packed with smoked mackerel, tarragon and mayo, yoghurt and cheese flatbreads nicknamed ‘Romanian popcorn’, pilaf with smoked prunes and caramelised leeks (Irina tells you how to make the smoked prunes), and all manner of pickles and preserves (including an exquisite confiture made from viola petals). There’s not one single recipe I don’t want to make.

A Blissful Feast by Teresa Lust (Pegasus Books, £tbc)Teresa Lust is the author of Pass the Polenta: and Other Writings from the Kitchen, one of my favourite collections of food essays and I am very glad to take possession of this, her second book. Books on Italy and its food are a popular genre and rightly so, but some of them can be a little too romanticised. Like anywhere, Italy is experiencing a sea change in eating habits and the typical food writers’ tendency to depict Italy as as a country where everyone eats well all the time and for not a lot of money, seems a little outdated. That being said, this is a country where the preparation of food is still bound in regional tradition and ritual and Teresa Lust walks a careful path, negotiating the food memories associated with her own Italian heritage whilst meeting modern-day exponents of the art and craft of Italian cuisine. Chapters are themed by recipe and we, alongside the author, learn about their history, and about the traditions of technique before finally arriving at the method. I like the sound of renaissance turkey with prosecco, white raisins and bay leaves, a gnocci with melted butter and fontina from Piedmont, and an intriguing soup made with the shoots of the hop plant, inspired by Ada Boni. A Blissful Feast is, first and foremost, a story about the author’s journey from chef to cook, guided by home cooks. It makes one yearn for Italy and for a now-deeply-familiar culinary heritage that may not be our own.

Vegan Japan Easy (31316310)
Vegan Japan Easy (31316310)

Vegan: Japaneasy by Tim Anderson (Hardie Grant, £22)

The design of this book is sublime; cover, end papers – everything – and with recipes by MasterChef winner Tim Anderson who is incredibly knowledgeable about Japanese food (he has written two other books, Japan Easy and Tokyo Stories), you know these recipes will be manageable and – most importantly – delicious.

Japan is a food culture that lends itself readily to vegan meals. Meat and dairy tend to be used sparingly anyway and the rich flavours of fish-rich dashi can easily be replaced with the fermented soybean and rice products that are so common in Japanese cooking. Tim offers the vegan (or not, as the case may be) cook a lot of advice about what to include in a vegan Japanese larder (and don’t worry, large supermarkets tend to stock these ingredients if you don’t have a small independent ‘world foods’ store nearby).

The book begins with information about the building blocks of Japanese food (how to make dashi; how to cook perfect rice) and then offers recipes for sauces such as tonkatsu, a wafu dressing (sweet onion and ginger) and seasoned vinegars and soy. There’s even a way to make Japan’s famous ‘Kewpie mayo’ at home (it’s umami-delicious).

As I read the book, my eye was caught by the suggestion that I might take plain edamame and turn them into ‘super soy power pods’ by dressing them in triple sesame or a chilli ponzu. There’s even a vegan cheese and onion version for crisp lovers. What else did I like? Sweet miso-roasted beets, plates of sweetcorn curry croquettes, a bubbling hotpot of kimchi and miso, a cauliflower katsu curry, pages and pages of ramen and udon (I loved Tim’s riff on French onion soup with oodles of noodles, and a spicy sesame, aubergine and courgette version). Then there’s food for the tired, drunk or hungover (‘rough night rice’, and a ‘fridge drawer rice’ dish) and a section on puddings (no-churn white peach and sake sorbet and some incredibly dark and rich soy sauce butterscotch brownies). You don’t need to be vegan to enjoy this and you won’t miss your meat and dairy either. You’re in the hands of a master flavour-blender here.

Beyond The North Wind: Russia in recipes and lore by Darra Goldstein (Ten Speed Press, £28)

Darra Goldstein writes of being 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, enfolded in Russia’s “legendary winter. . . the cold and snow that defeated Napoleon. . . but really, it’s not so bad – in fact, it’s enthralling” which is as good a metaphor for Russian food as I’ve ever encountered. You might think you ‘know’ Russian food, but the chances are, you don’t – or – what you do know is based on outdated stereotypes. This is a book that celebrates innovation across time and place and focuses on the meals cooked and eaten by ‘ordinary Russians’ as opposed to an emphasis on the heavier, French-inspired cuisine of the countries Czarist past, and what Darra refers to as the “kitschy dishes of the Soviet era”.

The ‘lore’ part of Beyond The North Wind is enchanting and not in a clichéd folksy way either. Russia is a presented as a dynamically evolving country, especially with regards to its own food culture. There are accounts of an encounter with a shower filled with a pot of giant Kamchatka crabs legs with a leg span longer than Darra herself, and a wonderful essay about stoves where we learn that Russians held their stoves so dear to their heart they referred to them as “our own mother”. Darra also tells us that Russian folk tales use the stove to evoke a character’s laziness – an intriguing contradiction. I particularly loved the section on ‘honey-eaters’, the bears that prowled the great forests who were so feared that naming them directly was thought to call forth the evil eye. When I was a teenager, my father worked in the Soviet Union during the 1980 Moscow Olympics and he brought back enamelled badges of the Games’ mascot, Misha The Bear. Darra writes of how the Russians appropriated the bear as cultural symbol, therefore divesting it of some of its power to terrorise.I found it so hard to single out a few recipes but these particularly stood out: venison meatballs with roasted celery root and mushrooms; little ‘unbuttoned’ fish pies whose name (which comes from the verb, ‘rasstegnut’ which means ‘to come undone’) is a play on their appearance; flavoured salts made with torn up rye bread or ground roasted spruce leaves; roasted radishes with garlic and caraway; mashed potatoes with parsley root and sour cream; baked fishcakes made with halibut; a magical-sounding cake made with flour ground from bird cherries (available online); and two gorgeous buckwheat recipes: a buckwheat and honey ice cream, and baked apples with caramel sauce and puffed buckwheat. Recipes use American cup measures, but it is easy to convert these if you don’t have a set of cups.

The Girl From Tel Aviv: family recipes, kitchen secrets and childhood tales by Limi Robinson (Savyon Press, £35)

“What connects Shabbat to Elvis Presley?” asks Limi Robinson in the press release for The Girl From Tel Aviv and, to be honest, she had me at that. I’m not going to tell you here though. That’d spoil the surprise. This is a deeply personal cookbook, filled with nostalgic recipes from Limi’s childhood in Tel Aviv and her life as a married woman and mother in London’s Stamford Hill. Limi writes with wry humour (there’s an anecdote about how her terror of blood tests was dealt with which made me laugh: “don’t worry: just think in the Holocaust they suffered more”); this is personable writing which nonetheless gives an insight into how Jewish pleasure in food has been hard won, and each recipe is accompanied with evocative photographs by Manos Chatzikonstantis.

Recipes don’t just reflect Limi’s Moroccan Syrian heritage. Jewish food has a breathtaking genealogy and her food reflects this ranging from Iraqi beetroot kubej soup where golden raisin and minced meat dumplings float in broth sharpened with apricots and lemons, to a Chinese-influenced velvet orange chicken dish which was one of the first recipes Limi learned to cook in London. There’s the familiar (a meaty street food shawarma; pickled herrings; a tuna focaccia version of the famous sandwiches of Tel Aviv, and comforting cheese blintzes) and the less so (a carrot cake topped with carrot halwa; a spiced haricot bean and beef shin soup called fasulya; leek and chard fritters eaten at Rosh Hashanah, and Moroccan ‘married’ sardines’). I also love the sound of the ‘legendary’ kindergarten fish balls, the recipe of which has taken Limi years to perfect in order to recreate one of her most-loved childhood foods. Anyone who has tried to make the chocolate crunch, beloved of British schoolchildren of a certain age will relate. What a labour of love this book is.

Plant Power (31316312)
Plant Power (31316312)

Plant Power by Annie Bell (Kyle Books, £17.99)

I really trust Annie Bell. She gets less of the attention afforded other chef/food writers despite a career spent writing for British Vogue, YOU magazine and the Independent. She has written so many books and her Baking Bible, and Gorgeous Cakes are two of my most-consulted. Building on Gorgeous Greens which, although vegetable-focused, was not vegetarian, we now have Plant Power which looks at all the ways one can incorporate more protein into one’s diet without eating meat or fish. There are 75 recipes suitable for vegetarians and vegans underpinned by nutritional information (Annie is qualified in the field) which avoids the clean eating trap which has laid waste to so many other food writers who ought to know better.

I eat meat but I want to cook from this book. Pickled cucumber and matcha soup with seaweed has invigorating lemon verbena at its heart whilst its earthy, hearty opposite, ‘the ultimate baked beans on toast’, is spiced with cumin, cinnamon and balsamic vinegar. In a similar vein is Annie’s chilli bowl and she gives us some ‘pep up’ suggestions to replace the depth of flavour that meat affords it. (I really like her suggestion to use nutmeg instead of cinnamon.) Most of the recipes are for savoury meals, although there are a few sweet things (date and walnut Bircher muesli, and figs with pecan-vanilla butter) and there’s the familiar (shepherds pie with a crisp celeriac topping) and less so (socca pancakes made with squash; a watercress, hazelnut and ginger soup). This is a workhorse of a book and should not be overlooked.

The Botanic Kitchen (31316314)
The Botanic Kitchen (31316314)

The Botanical Kitchen by Elly McCausland (Bloomsbury Absolute, £26, out March 19)

Elly McCausland was the winner of both the Guild of Food Writers award for her blog, Nutmeg Seven, and the Jane Grigson Trust Award for The Botanical Kitchen in 2019. The latter award was conferred pre-publication, such was the promise of this book and the Trust’s faith in her has been well-rewarded; Elly’s writing comes from a deep wellspring of knowledge and passion for her subject – the many ways in which we can use all parts of a plant in cooking. The opening essay asks you to consider the nutmeg and by the time you come to its end, it is as if the air is filled with its scent. She is a magical, travelling minstrel of a writer in possession of a wealth of literary, cultural and historical references to enrich and deepen our understanding of an eating philosophy that isn’t just lyrical but practical, too. Her recipes are well-written and achievable and dramatic; they stir the imagination. Just listen to these: black barley with beetroot, blood orange and smoked fish; stir fried pineapple with tofu, greens, and toasted cashews; smoky lapsang souchong braised beef ribs with honey, prunes and buttered almonds; a sausage crumble named for ‘Scarborough Fair’ because it contains parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, and a plethora of puddings (blueberry and lavender ice cream, apple, walnut and poppy seed tart and an intriguing Czech bubble cake).

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale