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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.