Take 5 cookbooks

Last night I was chatting to fellow food lovers Gower Cottage Brownies and Presents Queen (aks The Foodie Gift Hunter) about cookbooks and in particular first cook books and the first things we cooked.

Now as anyone who has read this post about food book I did knows I now have many many food related books….but of course a long long time ago I started with none….

Here’s five books that have heavily influenced my cooking and count as first in some way or another

The Play and Cook Book, Marguerite Patten (1973)

This is genuinely the first cookbook I had that was my own. It was undoubtedly a gift but curiously I don’t recall who from. By the time I got it I suspect I already helped out cooking things like scones or fruit loaf with my mum and grandma. Neither had hardly any cookbooks and mostly cooked from memory or handwritten notes of recipes passed to them. We did have the Dairy Book of Home Management which I spent countless hours flipping though and looking at the pictures and projects. The book is in great condition mainly because I spent lots of time looking at it rather than cooking from it and also because I learnt very early to keep the cookbooks away from the action. Even my most used cookbooks have no splatters!

The three things I recall making from it are: Stuffed eggs, Eggs in a Nest and Rainbow Squares. The Rainbow Squares were a great disappointment it seemed impossible to get the coloured effect for each layer of the sweet even.

Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (1982)

The copy in the picture is actually my husbands, my copy has gone AWOL and is a BCA special smaller format on really thin paper…it’s been well used and the pages are falling out. It’s the book I really learnt to cook from. In truth I learnt to cook from my Mum’s copies of the three separate paperbacks printed to go with the television series rather than these subsequently compiled versions. The first recipe I remember cooking on my own is Normandy Pork with Cream and Apples as a welcome home dish for my Mum after she had been on a school trip, I was 14. Other dishes I recall fondly are Paprika Liver, Scone base pizza and Lemon cheesecake. It’s still the book I turn to fist for basics and timings, though i promise I don’t make scone base pizza anymore. I don’t care what anyone says about Delia this book is a great place to learn.

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (1929, this edition 1984)

Okay now this isn’t a cookbook…but there is a description of food in it that made me want to cook something simple….the book is about the first world war and the part i recall is where some troops have become detached from the column and happen upon a farmhouse…they look for food…

‘There is not much to eat,’ Piani said. ‘They’ve cleaned it out.’
Bonello sliced a big white cheese on the heavy kitchen table.
‘Where was the cheese?’
‘In the cellar. Piani found wine too and apples.’

The soldiers drink some wine and eat slices of cheese and then they move on and back to the horror of the war and the wet and the mud.

In my mind there is a further passage where they simply cook pasta and slice cheese into it…I can’t find it now as I scan through, but the description stuck and the idea something as simple as pasta and cheese can be delicious stuck…and morphed into a regular recipe at home of creating pasta dishes from what ever we had (and calling the result pasta mix!). Of course any self respecting Italian is probably horrified by this gung ho approach…but there happens to be no Italian blood in my family and in Lancashire in the early 1980s I think we didn’t mind whether it was authentic or not just that it was easy, economical and tasted good. The idea lives on in dishes like this.

Middle Eastern Cooking, Claudia Roden (1986)

This is from a series that Sainsbury published in the mid 1980s and edited by Jill Norman. It’s got lovely vibrant illustrations by Julia Binfield. Supermarkets don’t seem to commission cookbooks as much these days but in the late 80s and early 90s there were great compact versions of books by well known authors to be had at bargain prices. I’ve quite a haul of them (not all are quite as nice as this in design terms). All of them though took me on a journey into cuisines I knew little about and got me to experiment with mexican, indian, middle eastern, chinese and more. My favourite recipe from this particular book is the Lentil and Spinach soup with Lemon…a wonderfully thick tasty soup thats easy to make.

The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan (1992)

My first Christmas present from my husband, way before he was my husband. This is where I learnt to make fresh pasta, really rich ragu and the best ever lasagne, light yet full of flavour. It’s a sort of Delia of Italian cooking for me and the place I go to check first for an Italian recipe.

All that without even knowing who Nigel Slater was….five books that have shaped how I eat and cook…what are your important five??

2011 bread experiments #1

So what was loaf one then and how did I select it? I used a random number generator which lead me to Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf p161, which has a picture on…so i flipped forward to the first recipe after that to find on p163


Sounded yum. It uses the usual Dan Lepard low knead technique that I’m a big fan of and have written about here.

It was pretty easy to make and came out with a lovely soft crumb. It made fantastic cheese sandwiches and wonderful toast.

Definitely one to repeat.

I haven’t found the recipe online anywhere so just some pictures this time.

2011 bread experiments ‘the rules’

In my last post I talked about some of the bread I made in 2010 and said I was going to challenge myself to make a different loaf each week in 2011. To make its a bit more fun I decided to select two of my bread baking books and I’m going to bake my way through them both but in a RANDOM manner.

Here’s the rules I’ve set myself:

  1. I must select the bread to be baked randomly, using either a random number generator or by asking for numbers from people on Twitter.
  2. If the selected page doesn’t have a recipe on it then I moved forward in the book to the next nearest recipe.
  3. If the recipe is a sweet bread or bun I can skip in and do another random generated page number. WHY? because we eat so little sweet stuff I know it will get wasted.
  4. If the selection is something I’ve already made I do the next nearest recipe in the book moving forward page number wise.
  5. I blog each loaf at least with a picture and whether I think its a great recipe.

The two books are River Cottage Bread Handbook and The Handmade Loaf. I’ve used both a bit last year so I know they are good.

So what loaf is going to be first….

Reviewing books

Other posts have revealed my fondness for books and printed matter generally. Over the years I have had to invest heavily in IKEA Billy bookcases to help keep this predilection from taking over the house. Its sort of worked but I know there are many books I have that I have looked at only a few times and then moved on to the next must have item. Some of the books cast aside were great, some mediocre, some utter rubbish. But mostly when it comes to food related books I still have every single one of them. I have made attempts to catalogue them all so that at least I can find them when needed, I have thought about selling those I rarely use or didn’t hit the spot for me, after all one girls junk is another’s dream item.

This love of printed matter takes on a new slant when, on Twitter, publishers are offering review copies to bloggers and at events generous souls are popping them in goodie bags. What is a girl to do? Well clearly one thing is to review them. And I did one full review of a book I got from a publisher, and I enjoyed it: both book and review. But the others that you can see above have created a little conundrum so I haven’t yet managed to review them. Why? Well its not that I only want to write positive things on my blog, but essentially I do want to mostly write about things I enjoy and can enthuse about a sort of ‘goodshoeday recommends’ approach. And some of these books I do heartily recommend (as you will eventually see) but I couldn’t always find much to say. I don’t want to simply repeat a press release and I don’t want to be bland or negative unless I’ve read a book cover to cover and as you will guess from the intro I don’t always do that with books I pay for!

I also don’t want to be obliged to cook a recipe just to be sure the it works (or doesn’t). There is endless debate about this with many saying if you haven’t cooked a recipe how can you properly review the book and those who, like me, think its in no way essential. I guess it depends who’s going to read the review and who the book is aimed at. If its “the basics of cooking in 100 pages” then yes it should all work if its “this is mostly full of pictures and ideas” well I guess they should still work but then its more about the inspiration than the exact quantities, after all who follows recipes exactly (except possibly when baking).

So I have a pile of books I have garnered for free. To date I haven’t reviewed them. Well all that’s about to change because I’m ready to launch my all new patented method of book reviewing The GSD flip-thru (TM) . In the interests of objectivity I will be reviewing the books in individual blog posts in the order I received them, which is from the bottom of that pile upwards……

Bet you can’t wait for the first review ;0

Food geekery (what I talk about when I talk about food writing)

You’ve got your copy of Fire & Knives.

You’ve turned it over in your hands. Admired the neat hand(man)bag size. Fondled the paper. Scanned through quickly. Wondered where to start. Felt a curious warm feeling. Loved the retro design and adverts. Touched the paper (again). Mulled over the contents, undecided whether to read from front to back, dip in randomly, pick the most enticing item first, or save it until last. You’ve held it close to your face; breathed in the wonderful print and paper aroma. Given thanks that the editor and publisher (one Mr T Hayward) had the idea in the first place AND upgraded the paper beyond the bounds of known gsm ratings (did I mention the paper already) to bring you the ultimate in new geeky food writing.

Touch it, smell it, read it.....
Touch it, smell it, read it.....


Well, its only going to last a certain time. You can devour it voraciously. You can eke it out article by article. You can re-read. But there’s only so long 108 pages can last. And its not the 3 months until the next issue is due.

So what are you going to do in the meantime? You could watch the F-Word. Or various Jamie or Hugh identikit TV programs. Flip through Olive or BBC Good Food or……you could read recipe books and blogs. But I know you’ll feel bereft. Because you’ve found something slightly offbeat, quirky, interesting. You might not have loved every article but they were all good. That’s not to say that other glossier publications, books and TV shows don’t have a place. It’s simply that sometimes you want real far out there food geekery.

Fear not. There are more quirky publications than you might imagine. Here’s some thoughts on things to try whilst you wait for the next issue of Fire & Knives. And a little tale of how one thing leads to another.

It’s all Elizabeth David’s fault….

Ah good old ED...

The first vaguely food geeky thing I read was Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. OKAY. I know. Cue eye-rolling all round. Well hang on there. Its not like I’m talking last week. And I know its tedious and a well worn path to cite ED as an inspiration blah blah blah. I didn’t learn to cook from ED; I didn’t learn to love food from ED; I had already learnt plenty of that elsewhere. What I did find was writing that made you wish you’d been there too and writing that added that extra geeky layer of information about food, its history, its provenance. Why did X do this, why was Z traditional and so on. And at the back of the book a reference to a journal dedicated to food studies and food history….

…….Petits Propos Culinaires (PPC)

PPC - most quirky....
PPC - most quirky....

So of course I subscribed, I wanted to know everything there was to know about food. Back then, and I’m only talking the late 80s, there was no blogging, no twitter, no internet community, no easy way to find other people obsessed with food. So I subscribed and I read, avidly, and I still do. PPC is a curious mix of learned border-line academic articles and good stuff written by mates (not my mates, the publishers mates), and a few things you wonder what they are doing in there. And then you realise the same people are also involved in two other off the wall food things….

….firstly….Prospect Books….

A selection from Prospect Books....
A selection from Prospect Books....

Prospect Books was (and is) the publisher of PPC. But they also publish delightfully quirky and sometimes completely nutty books. Over the years I’ve found treatises on trifle and on marmalade, facsimiles of Hannah Glasse, whole books devoted to the Mallorcan dish pa amb oli (bread and oil), or Afghan food and much more besides. Prospect books was started by the Alan Davidson with his wife. It’s now run by Tom Jaine and it’s as wonderfully quirky as ever.

and then…. the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery…..

this is about as fascinatingly quirky and geeky as it comes in the food world. Again inaugurated by Davidson with the likes of ED, Anne Willan and Nicholas Kurti being in there from the beginning, it set out to provide a place for those interested in food to discuss it in a relatively academic way. This is way way way before degrees in Gastronomic Arts started to appear. It was a curious meeting of all those who loved food and had a deep interest in it whatever their background. It wasn’t an academic conference in the sense that anyone could go (the same is true today), you pay your money you get to turn up. Along the way I’ve heard the likes of Margaret Visser, Claudia Roden, Raymond Blanc, Paul Levy, Heston Blumenthal and many others. The food has always been fantastic, how could it not have been. Its sad that H&S regs stopped the ‘bring and share’ lunch but with the likes of Fergus Henderson, Bompas & Parr and Raymond Blanc cooking up a feast this year why would you want to miss out. In my experience its pretty hard to get to present a paper unless you are in the know, but if you are after an uber eclectic experience then this is the place to find it. The papers that are presented are collected and published the following year. They are a mine of information but are not for the faint hearted.

So as I’ve delved deeper and wider into the world of food geekery I’ve come across other things worth reading too. I’ve harboured a desire to really understand and explore all aspects of food and meaning and that’s meant I’ll read everything and anything once and also means I’ve devoted more of my free time than I can count to reading about so many aspects of food. Its lead me to quite academic places, ending up with deciding to do an MA (nearly there on that with just my dissertation to complete very soon). But its been great fun. Here’s some of the other things I’ve found:

Best Food Writing:

Awaiting the 2009 edition
Awaiting the 2009 edition

Going to the Oxford Symposium and reading PPC lead me to a lot of the other things on this list, but I spotted this annually published collection on a holiday to the States and I’ve been buying it ever since. Its been another way I’ve found out about good writers and publications. Its been published since 2000 and you can still get all the back copies if you trawl around on Amazon. You’ll find some of the other people I mention here rubbing shoulders with a range of writers from primarily, but not exclusively the US. Its like reading the great writing from lots of magazines and newspapers and tends to send you out on a flurry of subscribing to RSS feeds, adding too many things to your Amazon list and the like. And I believe that the 2009 edition includes an article by the aforementioned Mr T Hayward – I am awaiting delivery of my copy any day now – hey it just arrived whilst I was loading this post :)

Simple Cooking:

Homespun charm...
Homespun charm...

This is about as home spun as it comes. Its charming and informative. John Thorne knows his stuff and is always keen to investigate the whys and wherefores of recipes, try out knew things and share what he found. Its almost blog like in the way its written, except he’s been doing this since before any of us had the internet, first in print and now in a choice of print of PDF download. Although many of the dishes are American, John eats his way round the world from his home in Massachusetts. To help you catch up there are a number of books of John’s collected writing though for me they don’t have quite the charm of receiving an email saying the next issue is ready to download and then reading from cover to cover (well actually there aren’t any covers but you know what I mean).

The Art of Eating:

Always insightful...

Another US production, this time from Edward Behr who is based in Vermont. It ranges from in depth articles on produce to restaurant and book reviews. Its primarily North American and European based in terms of cuisines but the articles and reviews are insightful, thorough and its on very nice paper.

Jeffrey Steingarten:

Torn from Vogue
Torn from Vogue

Steingarten has been the food writer at Vogue since 1989 and before his first collection of pieces (The Man who ate Everything) was published in 1997, I used to buy US Vogue just to read him, tearing the pages out to keep and throwing away the rest. He is detailed, obsessive and humorous by turns, bent on finding ways to make wonderful food at home. It’s always amazed me that Vogue was prepared to have his writing sit alongside the fashion and fluff. This is a man who blocks up the vents on his oven in an attempt to get it to proper pizza oven temperature and who talks in graphic detail about the killing of a pig in his quest to make the perfect boudin. Always interesting, always quirky. The man is brilliant. I just wish US Vogue didn’t cost about £5 a month to buy.


Nearly every copy ever...
Nearly every copy ever...

Ok we are getting quite hardcore geeky with this one. Published by the University of California Press this is starting to get fairly academic in style. Mind you its got a good line in glossy paper and provocative covers. It’s a range of social science type articles but I’d mostly say its social science ‘lite’. You don’t have to be a fully paid up anthropologist, sociologist or cultural studies person to be able to get where it’s coming from but it’s not light and fluffy either. The articles aren’t academic papers but I suspect stem from academic research. It covers a lot of ground from offbeat food related art works, old cookery books to traditional foods, issues of food supply and technology and more.

Oxford Companion to Food:

Magnum opus....
Magnum opus....

This is Alan Davidson’s magnum opus. It’s a great reference work on so many aspects of food, wonderful for dipping in and out of when you think, “I just wonder where/what/how…”. Its great but there are gaps and that’s part of the appeal, its not as all encompassing as you might like but for me that spurs the imagination to go and find out more from other resources. Of course if you don’t have all of AD’s books on fish then you should get them too, they are fascinating studies by a man who’s day job was as a diplomat and then spent his spare time being passionate about food and becoming esteemed in his own right, finally winning the Erasmus prize in 2003 for his contribution to the birth of Food Studies.

Surrounded by groaning bookcases....
Surrounded by groaning bookcases....

There’s so much I’ve missed off. I could go on and on and on. My bookcases are stuffed full of books about food and I reckon that less than a ¼ are what most people would think of as recipe books. The rest are a combination of reference books, books about a specific ingredient, or region, or country, there’s food history, food science, food culture, out and out academia, pictures and humour. Old books, new books, books for reading cover to cover, books for dipping in and out of. Biographies, magazines, journals, facsimiles, originals, unread and well thumbed. All in all I’m surrounded by in excess of 800 food related books and counting.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about food writing. Go on release you inner geek and try something new this Christmas.

The Young Ones (Students can cook)

Book Review: The Ultimate Student Cookbook

Back in the mid 1980s we had Maggie bent on breaking the unions, the birth of the Apple Mac and The Young Ones on TV. In their different ways all three have had a hand in where we are today, and where we are today when it comes to being a student is a very long way from 1984 (the year, not the Orwell novel).

Although the food in The Young Ones might have been a little bit exaggerated its highly probable that it’s much closer to what students were eating in the 80’s than the things students cook up now, or so it would seem from my review of The Ultimate Student Cookbook.

I have to confess here that I managed to get through college without haven’t to cook much at all. I had the good fortune to go somewhere that had a great kitchen and we could live-in for the whole three years. We were pampered. It was kind of like a Holiday Inn but with better food. You could have cooked breakfast every day if you wanted and boy was it good cooked breakfast. Huge salads for lunch or hearty stews and curries and then proper evening meals and that’s before the special events where it was rumoured the salmon and crayfish had perhaps not been acquired through the usual university purchasing channels. And this was not Oxbridge. I shudder to think how many calories we consumed, we were well fed though we learnt very little about cooking on a budget, that came later, after we left when it dawned on us how very lucky we’d been.

Food, like everything else, has moved on in leaps and bounds since the 80s with a proliferation of ingredients and a widening experience of world cuisines. And it’s the same for students, their expectations are higher but they’ve still got to cook on a budget (at least I assume they have, I don’t know many actual real live students).

The Ultimate Student Cookbook

So to The Ultimate Student Cookbook, which is a gathering together of the best recipes of The Beyond Baked Beans books and website that Fiona Beckett has developed over the last six years with additional insights from real students who really cook. And they do really cook, like really rather frighteningly well. In fact on my first flick through the book I thought ‘uh-oh these people might actually be off putting for the average student cook’. After all one of them has done a 3 month stint at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck experimental kitchen (Sig), one has honed his skills at Ballymaloe AND has his own catering company (James) and the third grew up travelling round Europe and thus sampled rather a lot of good food (Guy).


I’m a bit in awe of them.

And I’m probably just about old enough to be their mother, and I count myself as a pretty good cook, what’s an inexperienced 18 year old going to think? I sort of wanted there to be a cooking ‘rags to riches’ story, someone who’d learnt about good food and how to cook from The Beyond Baked Beans books but that was not to be.

Along with the students awesome level of food experience there was a bit too much of an English counties middle class feel running through the lists of kitchen kit and essential ingredients which was quite off putting, in fact almost irritating. It felt a bit like: “don’t bother reading this unless your parents kitchen was hand built by Smallbone, about as large a football pitch, stuffed full of must have gadgets and probably located south of Watford Gap….”. Didn’t they know that in plenty of places fresh coriander is still hard to come by, nam pla would be expected to be a violent video game and a real coffee maker a fanciful dream.

But I persevered and once I got into the core of the book this sense began to dissipate. Yes the three students clearly know their stuff, as of course does Fiona, but when you get to the recipes their voices start to work well together; a kind of conversation between some of your mates and the coolest mum on the block. The students come across as happy to eat fish-fingers gussied up 4 different ways, student classics such as Bolognese and Chilli, or frankly much more adventurous stuff and they are hugely genuinely enthusiastic about food in all its many guises, including I suspect the odd kebab van special when needs must. Fiona is like the best of guides, there when you need her to be firm and always quietly in the background letting things progress at their own pace the rest of the time.

Look: cheese on toast AND cheese toastie!
Look: cheese on toast AND cheese toastie!

After much to-ing and fro-ing through the book I decided it was time to try some recipes; I had to keep diverting my husband from the idea of the fish-fingers, that being his student staple. I think he’s disappointed that none of the four ways is a 2009 take on a fish-finger sandwich, no doubt he’ll be perfecting one and logging onto Beyond Baked Beans to tell the student populace all about it. Instead I chose to do the pan-fried toastie for a solo lunch one day and the umami salmon for a dinner later the same week. The pan-fried toastie because I love toasties but don’t make them often at home and I think this technique might be the answer, the umami salmon because it sounds a bit off the wall and it contains just about every single one of my husband’s favourite condiments all mixed together.

Looks pretty studenty to me....
Looks pretty studenty to me....

First up the toastie. I freewheel this a bit because I don’t fancy onion in it and I don’t have any cheddar to hand so I adapt Guy’s additional suggestion of blue cheese and bacon to blue cheese and salami. It’s really easy to make and quick and very tasty and probably simple to do for two with a big enough pan. Back in the day I used to do toastie making duty at the college shop – we had a proper grill and lovely metal cages to hold the toasties together, the bread would toast just right and the filling be just gooey enough without being too gloopy. I don’t think those funny little toastie makers that seal the bread together do anything like the same thing and its too easy to burn your mouth on the lava hot cheese. The pan-fry technique gives as good as result as those uni toasties I remember in. Some things never change – you can’t beat a good toastie. This recipe is a big win.

Umami in the making
Umami in the making

Next it the salmon – I’m a bit suspicious of the curious list of ingredients but Sig’s treatise on umami is fascinating and, having by this time, met Sig very briefly to do a cheese swap (via the curious power that is Twitter and the meeting point of the UKFBA food bloggers stall in Covent Garden), I feel I really need to give the recipe a go. So I knock up a batch of the umami mix, slather it on some salmon fillets and shove them in the oven as the recipe instructs, serving it with boiled new potatoes and spinach. The umami mix packs a reasonable punch although I think I may have added a little too much lemon juice and one of the ingredients dominates. The umami cuts through the oiliness of the salmon and the plain vegetables balance the whole meal nicely. It gets scored 7/10 and is deemed a good addition to the regular repertoire though we both think the umami needs a little adjusting, less mustard more of the other ingredients.

The rest of the book contains a good mixture of recipes from the basic to the more fancy and groups them as quick/easy for 1 &2, cheap/tasty for 3 & 4, flash/show off and dessert things, with some cocktails chucked in for good measure. They are a sophisticated lot these students cocktails I ask you! Each recipe is also clearly badged for vegetarian friendly, price, prep time and cooking time, these are one of the really useful features because being at the top right of the page you can quickly flick through for ideas that match your budget and time frame. There are clear pictures of pretty much every recipe so you can see what the finished dish should look like (they do look pretty real rather than glossy magazine styling) and throughout there are useful sections on basic techniques such as stir frying, making cheese sauces as well as how to make your food look good and whether measurements matter.

A quick search of Amazon reveals that there are a few other books you could choose from if you or your loved one(s) are off to college in the next few weeks and rather curiously they nearly all have ‘ultimate’ in the title! So which might be the ultimate of all these ulitimates? We’ll I’ve only had the chance to take a peek at one of the others (and to be fair in far less detail) it covers plenty of the same ground and although the title suggests it might be a carb-fest I’m sure there’s more to it than pasta and pancakes….the cartoon strip style layout is a bit odd and more likely to appeal to parents or grandparents than actual students. All the books seem to be pretty much the same price.

If you can’t reorganise your college place so as to get away with not having to cook for a further three years then I suggest you take three real students and one friends mum into the kitchen with you rather than a someone styled as a celebrity chef….because these Students Can Cook.

I really did start off by not liking the book but was won over which just goes to show that first impressions might count but often turn out to be misleading – so remember that during Fresher’s Week.

You can see other reviews here:

Purely Food Blog

Thanks to:

Absolute Press for providing me with a review copy of the book.
My husband Ian for his insights into his student cooking days (frighteningly like The Young Ones, it seemed).
Matt Inwood, Absolute Press’s Art Director for answering my many questions about how the student contributors were selected.
Sig and James for impromptu discussions on the making of the book generally and the umami salmon in particular.