Thursday, November 21, 2013

My top 10 cookbooks

Looking for a present for the cook in your life, especially if that's you? These are my favourite 10 cookbooks in the 40 year journey from kitchen duffer to food photographer, from a few 'tried and tested' recipes and 'good plain cooking', to promiscuous eating - one-night stands with recipes that catch my eye. It's not that I don't enjoy them and want to repeat the pleasure but there's the lure of new sensations, feeding my inner Casanova.

'I have also been extravagantly fond of good food and irresistibly drawn by anything which could excite curiosity.' Giacomo Casanova, History of my Life

Feel free to add your favourite cookbook to my list and if I don't have it already, I'll add it to my wish-list.

Pink Reims biscuits

I want to say thank you to some of the cooks who've enriched my life and shared their love of food.

1974 The Cookery Year
amazon link The Cookery Year 1974 edition
'Jean can't cook. She has her nose in a book all the time.' My mother's description was probably accurate on both counts but it didn't stop her presenting me with my first cookery book when I left home at eighteen to go to university. I learned to cook from books and from experiments, with many disasters. 40 years later, this book is still on my shelf, long after I lost the parents who wrote 'Best culinary wishes' on the fly leaf and signed with love.

The 'basics' sections at the front and back are still the best I know, and the pages with clear explanations on cooking methods and terms are the most spattered with grease and stains of all my books. Organisation by month is good for using produce in season, the basis is British but recipes are varied and international. There are prettier cookbooks but if I could only have one, this would be my choice - well done, mother.

Favourite recipes - Welsh cakes, sweet and sour pork, dolmas (nowadays made with fresh vine leaves from the garden)

1975 Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking link
This was my second cookbook, an exploration of other cultures and cuisine. For someone from the sort of British army background where 'sauce' was considered filthy foreign muck, it was an eye-opener. I cooked more disasters than edible meals from its pages but I learned from my mistakes. I also learned that food is a way of relating to people all over the world, and that I'd missed opportunities already. When we lived in Hong Kong, my mother helped our amah gain promotion to cook-amah by learning to make chips (!). I wish I'd sat cross-legged with her on the floor by her wok and watched her make her own meals. But I was nine, Ah-ho liked my little sister and in those days I expected people to choose between us.

1982 The Sunday Times Book of Real Bread - multi-authors link
It's not fashionable in these days of gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan (and my family includes all manner of special dietary requirements) but I love freshly baked bread and cheese. Some women love chocolate; I can't resist dairy products. I was probably a mouse in a former existence. This book is remarkable for its contributors as well as its bread recipes from round the world; top cookery writers of the time have chosen their favourite bread recipes, tips and techniques. There are few photos and this is only for someone who seriously loves baking bread. I highly recommend the Cretan Olive Bread.

1985 500 Recipes for Jams, Pickles and Chutneys - Marguerite Patten
amazon uk link
Now a Collector's Item, first published in 1963. My 1985 edition contains 500 recipes for jam, pickles and chutney that all work. That's it. No frills, no photos, no entertainment. Marguerite Patten was my mother's favourite cook, author of the one cookbook in our house. Unfortunately that book went missing so this is as close as I get to inherited recipes, apart from the three favourites that my sister and I pieced together; our mother's Christmas cake, meat roll and pear suchard.

1993 Feasts of Provence - Robert Carrier link
A mix of travel and cooking that shows an insider's Provence. Robert Carrier knows and loves the region and the food. He introduces us to the people who share recipes with him. This is where I now live and the classic Provencal recipes are here, including ratatouille, but the book also conveys a style of life and cooking. Garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, tapenade, toasts, grilled fish and sunshine.

1994 The Complete Indian Cookbook  - Mridula Brijikar link
As with many of my cookbooks, I bought this one from one of the special discount offers that reps brought to the school where I was a teacher. I've cooked dozens of the recipes and all of them have worked perfectly to give me the sort of Indian dishes I love. A photo with each recipe so you know what the end product should look like, clear instructions and ingredients that don't scare you.

2000 Vegetables - Antonio Carluccio link

One of the TV chefs who has inspired me, Carluccio also changed the cooking of my sous-chef (aka my husband) with this book. It's organised alphabetically by vegetable, under its Italian names, which is fun when you get the hang of it. Making the vegetable into the star changes the perspective of many cooks and if you want meat as well, simple grilled meat can be served with these yummy vegetable dishes. Like most TV cooks, Carluccio introduces personal anecdotes into his books and gives you travel reading (Italy) and entertainment as well as recipes.

My other favourite source to feed vegetarian visitors is Rose Elliot's Vegetable Cookery but that never had the same impact on the sous-chef so Carluccio wins.

2004 Recettes Gourmandes des Boulangers d'Alsace Vol 1 and Vol 2
Another  that's apparently a Collector's Item now. I found this French gem in the Bakers' Tent at the Christmas Market, Strasbourg, 'the Christmas Capital of the World', Alsace. Completely authentic Alsace bakers' recipes and my Christmas wouldn't be right without something from this book - open it and smell the cinnamon in the mulled wine, hear the merry-go-round, taste fresh bretzels and shiver with cold. Maybe I should offer to bring out an English translation?

2005 Larousse de la cuisine
amazon uk link
I bought the earlier 2005 version of this when on a camping trip. It cost the most I've ever spent on a cookbook and was my first French one. I learned French food and cooking terms this way. 'La bible de la cuisine' is huge and French. It is organised alphabetically, which is incredibly difficult to find your way round but great fun for random enjoyment. The photography is beautiful and the recipes are inspirational, even if you can never find them again. The best French lesson I've ever had and a book I often dip into.

2011 The Hairy Bikers' Family Cookbook - Mums Know Best - Si King & Dave Myers

amazon link Mums Know Best
Mums Know Best combines nostalgia for family food traditions with an international repertoire that struck me paradoxically as the best of British cuisine. This collection of Britain's favourite family recipes, handed down through generations, draws from origins in Scotland and Lebanon, England and Nepal, That's exactly what Britain is good at - multi-cultural cuisine.

The DVD that goes with the book adds to making the recipes. It shows the Hairy Bikers visiting people's homes to choose recipes for their events and for the book; the events brought tears to my eyes as all the people lined up to talk about their hand-written recipe books and memories.That's what it's all about - not the Michelin chefs, culinary secrets and artistic presentation. It's about you and me, cooking good food for our friends and families, passing recipes on to the next generation.

When my son told me, 'You're an excellent cook,' I wish his Grandma could have heard him.  And she would never have believed that I would write a cookbook myself.

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Near misses for the top 10:-

The Covent Garden Co - Soup & Beyond. Truly creative and tasty soup recipes from the company that put fresh soup onto supermarket shelves twenty years ago.

Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef. Jamie Oliver is another TV chef who changed popular cooking and his first three books all make good reading and inspiring cooking.

Delia Smith's Winter Collection and Summer Collection. I fall asleep watching Delia on TV and am not fussed about cakes but I love her savoury recipes. She was the first to make Mediterranean ingredients and cooking style seem easy to British cooks. Her roasted vegetables, onion soup and casseroles are favourites.

Ken Hom's Hot Wok is perfect for me in its fusion of Asian and European style cooking. I like Chinese dishes but often find the recipes scary.

Jane Sigal Backroad Bistros Armchair travel round France through a superb collection of traditional recipes. No photos.

Over to you. Which is your favourite cookbook?

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