Food writer Nicola Miller takes a look at some cookbooks which will tantalise the taste buds
These are just some of my favourite food and cookbooks of the last few months. It’s been an odd year where my only travel has been vicarious, so I am grateful to these authors who have helped to make lockdown and its aftermath bearable.
Ciudad De Mexico by Edson Diaz-Fuentes (Hardie Grant £26)
‘There is an infinite number of culinary journeys that we had as a family, which I will never forget. Some kept evolving as we tried new and different foods, and some of them remained unchanged weekly rituals,’ writes Edson Diaz-Fuentes in this, his first book. Diaz-Fuentes is the co-owner of Santo Remedio, a Mexican restaurant in Shoreditch. Its name translates as ‘holy remedy’ or, in other words, a fortuitous or serendipitous solution to a problem. Until recently, it was hard to find the food Diaz-Fuentes enjoyed growing up in Mexico City and sourcing some ingredients remains a challenge.
This is where ‘Ciudad De Mexico’ proves helpful because many of these easily-followed recipes are born of their author’s creative problem-solving. We’re given an easy-to-follow technique for making our own queso fresco; a recipe for molletes uses Red Leicester cheese because, in a pleasing nod to his nation’s culinary history, its colour is obtained from annatto, the seeds of the Mexican achiote tree; he passes on the benefit of his own experience in substituting tinned tomatillos for fresh, and for Padrón rajas con crema he suggests using Padrón peppers instead of poblanos which are pretty hard to find here. There’s a taco filled with celeriac and mushroom with Pipián Verde, a beautiful amalgamation of Northern European root vegetables and the mushrooms beloved of Mexicans everywhere, plus straight-up recipes for the classics (horchata, salsas, teleras, crema, wheat and corn tortillas). Diaz-Fuentes even suggests substituting Thai basil or Tarragon in the spirit of multi-cultural London. If you adore Mexican food and want to learn how to make it at home, this brightly delicious book for you.
An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, shapes, sauces, recipes by Rachel Roddy (Penguin Fig Tree £25)
Rachel Roddy could write about the cleaning of guttering, and it would be beautifully engaging. She is an extraordinary and fully-embodied writer, and when I describe this, her third book, as a journey into the world of pasta, I am short-selling what a soaring and glorious read it is: ‘Food history is fascinating,’ she says, ‘even more so when the pursuit of it is driven by appetite, and the desire to eat.’ The intensely curious Roddy is an earthily sensual writer unencumbered by an excess of ego: she is more than happy to give others the spotlight.
Roddy describes pasta as ‘a small word for a universe of shapes’, and to this, I would add a universe of stories too, from stracci; a pasta that allows you to let rip (and a recipe for a Roman spring stew using it); a tale of angel hair pasta for nourishing new mothers made by nuns since the seventeenth century (and Roddy’s own pleasure in pressing these fragile nests in their packaging until they shatter); and a ruffled pasta named for a princess who died in a concentration camp. These recipes are comfortingly familiar, not at all daunting in their execution no matter how multi-step the recipe, and exquisitely described. How could you not want to make a recipe whose ‘sauce swirls into pink’ (mafalde with tomato sauce and ricotta) or a bowl of orrecchiette with ‘bursting tomatoes’ (pomodori scoppiati), anchovy crumbs and a ‘rich, slumping sauce’?
Herb/ A cook’s companion by Mark Diacono (Hardie Grant, £26)
I always look forward to a book by Mark Diacono and ‘Herb’, published earlier this spring has not disappointed me, filled as it is with his trademark wit, and enriched by decades of experience in growing, cooking and eating. It slots very naturally into his oeuvre. This writing is irreverent when it needs to be (because he eschews many conventions of food writing, thank goodness). Only Diacono could write about the making of parsley honey, and mention simmering one’s walking socks in sugar and Charles Bukowski’s wild horses in the same breath and get away with it, and offer a recipe for allorino where he invokes the tempting of Jesus in the desert by the Devil.
Diacono is skilled at conveying essential, practical knowledge about the growing of herbs without making you feel like you have picked up the bathroom reading of a posh gentleman gardener. He wears his learning lightly without being lightweight. There are guides to cultivation, detailed descriptions, and what they refer to as each herb’s ‘affinities’- the flavours and ingredients they are best suited to. Try his marjoram and thyme flower salt (so good on fries with a scent reminiscent of monster munch, he says), a tarragon remoulade or, as he calls it, ‘posh coleslaw’, a bay chestnut and chocolate cherry cake, and a kedgeree flavoured with fresh curry leaves.
Sumac: Recipes and stories from Syria by Anas Atassi (Murdoch Books, £25)
When Anas Atassi left his home for university, he missed his Syrian mother’s home cooking and traditional Arabic hospitality. Hence, he began to cook for himself after years of watching his mother in the kitchen, and cooking shows on television. As he remembers, ‘it was the physical distance that sparked my desire to understand the foundations of the traditional food of Syria,’ and he tells us about recipes that have been passed down through time, across countries, and modified according to what was available to buy and cook. This is especially poignant when you remember that there is little chance of a return to their mother country for the Syrian diaspora at the time of writing. But ‘Sumac’ is also a wonderful reminder that we should not allow the narrative of this country to be solely about the current war and resulting humanitarian crisis.
This book is about hope, family, connecting through food and the marrying of tradition with the new, imbued with what Atassi calls ‘Nafas’ (or ‘breath’), the way life is breathed into cooking ingredients so they ‘combine harmoniously’. He tells us that Nafas is the highest compliment you can give to a Syrian cook, and sumac is the ‘red thread’ which connects every dish. And what recipes! Batata harra (potatoes with garlic and coriander), a recipe for mortadella from Aleppo flavoured with allspice and pistachio, shorbat adas ( a traditional red lentil soup), makloube (a spectacular eggplant and beef pilaf), samke ( fish in spicy nut sauce) and a dreamy qumara-al-deen (apricot and orange blossom juice with pine nuts) all tempt. Atassi amply caters to the famously sweet tooth of the Arabs too. I can’t wait to bake a spiral shabiyat, a golden coil of pastry filled with Syrian-style ricotta and raspberry, drink Soos (a sweetly sour liquorice drink), and bake his recipe for forgotten date cake that fuses Syrian and Saudi ingredients.
Crave by Ed Smith (Hardie Grant, £25)
With Ed Smith, flavour comes first, and that’s not as common as you might think, and this has held true from his first cookbook, ‘On The Side’, to this, his third. ‘Crave’ is a proper cook’s book by an author who trained as a chef at Westminster Kingsway and then made his writerly bones with his blog, Rocket & Squash, which remains a must-read. He’s a triple threat, a talented chef, writer, and artist, giving us a book that is handsome in its design, but it doesn’t just look good. It is user-friendly and approachable too because Smith understands how many cooks think. Arranged into chapters that reflect his belief that “most of the time, we simply cook the things we do so that we can eat what we fancy. It’s no more complicated than that,” his recipes are grouped by flavour profile. So we have ‘fresh and fragrant’, ‘tart and sour’, ‘chilli and heat’, ‘spiced and curried’, ‘rich and savoury’ and ‘cheesy and creamy’ - categories that reflect the ‘key characteristic or an edge’ of each dish.
This system is helpful when you are hungrily pacing around the kitchen because you don’t know what you fancy eating, ending with a valuable ‘directory of alternative cravings’ if you are stuck. Every photo is beautifully styled, but there’s no frippery: Smith’s (mainly) flat-lay images are not strewn with ingredients or half the contents of a kitchen props cupboard, and you will be able to replicate his gorgeous plates of food at home. You see the food, and you want to make it, then eat it. It’s hard to select a few recipes to highlight here because they are all wonderful but here you go: honeyed halloumi with apricot fregola; a chicken, sour cream and dill pickle soup (which sounds both of the Deep South and northern Europe); a blood orange and watercress platter; kale and coconut dal; a sumptuous Cape Malay hogget curry, and turmeric and saffron poached pears with spiced crumble. Extra points for the bibliography, too; I wish more cookbooks included one.
The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo (Picador, £14.99)
‘He was a bold man who first ate an oyster,’ Jonathan Swift is reputed to have said. I would also say the same about fruit. The fresh produce we consume today has been bred for ease of eating and sweetness and has had much of its original spiky sharpness and impenetrability smoothed out in the process. So it is even more impressive that somewhere, someone decided early gooseberries were worth persevering with, worked out that medlars require bletting and damsons need cooking.
In ‘The Book of Difficult Fruit’, Lebo celebrates the essentially untamable aspects of 26 different fruits from aronia to zucchini via sugar cane, medlars and ume plums through a series of essays whose framing goes far beyond the culinary. There’s sex, death, illness, and ‘life’s recognition as itself’, as Lebo writes, quoting M.M Mahood as she asks the question, ‘why bother with inedible fruit?’
‘Huckleberries can’t be farmed,’ Lebo writes. ‘Medlars must rot in order to sweeten. Wheatberry dust is more explosive than gunpowder.’ She melds drama, obscurity, darkness and ‘the limits of her own taste’ into one intoxicating narrative; her words have push and tug. A chapter on the abortifacient effects of juniper berries explores how this use is coded in old horticultural texts and literature, reminds us that abortion has always been a normal and natural part of life and ends with recipes for jelly, and bitters, made from the plant’s berries. We read about the toothlike seeds of the pomegranate, ‘incisor-shaped, fat at one end where a blood blush pools,’ the fruit a jewel box from which life bursts forth, and the inhibiting effects of its estrogenic flesh on the fertility of rats and guinea pigs. These are bewitching stories about human observation and perseverance from a wonderful writer.
Bress ‘N’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee recipes from a sixth-generation farmer by Matthew Raiford (Countryman Press, £22)
‘I am a little bit of a “from-ya” and a “come-ya” meaning, in the Gullah-Geechee context, someone from here and a visitor,’ writes Matthew Raiford. ‘But I am no longer passing through. I am the prodigal son who returned, only with my arms wide open for the land I thought I had left behind,’ Formed from the rich coastal territories that stretch from the Carolinas through Georgia and down into Florida, they are home to the Gullah-Geechees, the descendants of enslaved Africans. Raiford’s return to the ancestral lands of Gilliard Farms in coastal Georgia where his family still lives and works has birthed this, his first book, whose title is taken from a Gullah Geechee phrase meaning “bless and eat”.
He is a champion of local ingredients and works to preserve landrace plants such as Carolina Gold rice, Georgia Rattlesnake watermelons, Sea Island red peas, and wild blackberries. ‘It is a tradition among the Gullah Geechee that when we need answers, we turn to the wisdom of the ancestors, our source,” he tells us, seeing his farm as a laboratory where the perseverance and resourcefulness of the spirits inform his own dynamic creativity.
Because of this, some of his ingredients will be unobtainable outside of the American South, but a capable and resourceful cook will cope with this- a quality that is very much part of Gullah-Geechee culture. If you cannot buy Sea Island red peas, substitute black eye peas for Raiford’s Reezy-Peezy. It won’t be traditional, but it will still reflect the journey made by his ancestors who planted peas and rice with the seeds brought from Africa. Then use the best produce available to make his gorgeous watermelon steak salad with heirloom tomatoes and sangria vinaigrette, Gullah rice, Effie’s shrimp Creole, Nana’s chicken and dumplings, hot buttermilk biscuits with honey butter, and a simple five-ingredient ‘magic’ cobbler.
La Vita è Dolce by Letitia Clark (Hardie Grant, £26)
Letitia Clark.is a trained pastry chef, and you could describe this, her second book, as self-actualisation made if not flesh, then cake. La Vita è Dolce was written at her home in Sardinia at the beginning of the pandemic, so it is ‘a celebration of Italian-inspired sweet things we can make and bake in our own kitchens.’ she writes. It certainly is, reflecting the irrepressibly, joyful and theatrical nature of Italian dolci and how best to incorporate this into your own baking and eating life.
Very few of us are trained pastry chefs, Clark says, and so she has given us a book that comfortably allows for inexperience. Too often, baking instructions can seem daunting and dryly scientific, but Clark is keen to demystify this; she does not want cooking to be a drama ‘or something you feel you just can’t do.’ So before you start, make sure you read the section on ‘essentials’ and general recipe advice. It’ll stand you in good stead.
La Vita è Dolce is a beautiful, lyrical book filled with exquisite descriptions and evocative photographs to lure in even the most nervous of bakers. Her recipes work; you can do this they say. And to read their titles is to be transported to Italy: the cutest tiny peach and almond cookies with ricotta cream; a roasted nut, Amaretto, vanilla bean and dark chocolate cake; the famous ‘Nipples of Venice’ made with chocolate and chestnut (and also made by Vianne in the film ‘Chocolat’); a candied clementine, fennel seed and polenta cake; a perfect pure panna cotta; a fig and red wine crostata and little jam flower cookies.
Ripe Figs: Recipes and stories from the Eastern Meditteranean by Yasmin Khan (Bloomsburythat Publishing, £26)
Yasmin Khan doesn’t need to travel far to find the Eastern Mediterranean living as she does in Green Lanes, home to settled, Turkish, Cypriot and Greek communities. They are one of the many benefits of migration, she writes, and humans have always travelled, often for pleasure and engagement. But economic, political and social turmoil also drives the movement of people, and in ‘Ripe Figs’, Khan weaves these human experiences into a compelling and moving narrative of loss, adaption, and resilience.
Khan writes, ‘there’s this peculiar trait, I think, in modern travel writing, An imperative to write about your travels as if you are already living your best life...but not all travel is like that. Not all trips are enjoyable. Some things travel with us, even if we’d rather they didn’t.’ Here we have a candid writer who does not shy away from drawing parallels between her own losses (Khan has endured several miscarriages, including one during the writing of this book as she made plans to interview activists running refugee kitchens) and those of the displaced people she meets on her journey through Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. But the light Khan shines on them is one of beauty and hope, too. Sharing a meal of chickpea stew and jollof rice at Melissa, a drop-in centre for migrant and refugee women in Athens is an opportunity for the women to tell their stories, as is the kibbeh she eats made by Syrian refugees from Damascus now living in Istanbul. Glasses of rose-infused cordial are taken in Cyprus’s Nicosia Square as she talks to young Greek-Cypriot activists and the sweetness of the drink is a stark contrast to their awkward silence as she asks about this divided island. Back home in her London kitchen, Khan recreates the food she ate so we can make it at home too. There’s a page of delicious things on toast (grape molasses and tahini, kaymak, honey and walnuts, recipes for sour cherry or apricot jam); a spiced cornbread with feta inspired by lunch in Istanbul; a Turkish shepherd salad; a pear, apricot and rosewater pudding adapted from a traditional Cypriot dish called charlotte; a fig and peach galette; smoky butter beans in all their earthy paprika glory; Turkish bride soup, and a hearty Greek stifado.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020