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One cook’s companions

One of the most frequently given gifts is ‘the cook book’. Recipe books, food encyclopaedias and books on gastronomy often form the largest section of book stores and have a ubiquitous presence in most homes.

Within this genre there are many varieties – techniques, nose to tail, vegetarian, vegan, low-fat, celebrity chef and ‘from the TV show’ – it is a vast range.

Cook books go through as many trends and fads as does fashion. At the moment baking is making a big comeback, particularly ‘vintage’ cakes, while at the other extreme are the ‘grow, cook, eat’ books.

The key thing about a cook book is that the recipes should work. Obvious, I know, but they often don’t, and the recipes which fail can appear in books by well-known chefs. This is why I value personal recommendations and, while selecting books is a personal experience, I have some essential books which I happily recommend to novice and experienced cooks alike.

My favourite books become friends. I’ll often refer to Marcella, Kylie, Charmaine et al – ‘Let’s have Patricia’s roast chicken with her balsamic tomatoes’, or ‘What does Stephanie suggest goes with cauliflower?’.

I’ll declare now that most of these books do not have a lot of pictures, some have none at all. I’m particularly interested in cooking not food styling. This way my individual style can come through in a dish.

I like Marcella Hazen’s The essentials of classic Italian cooking as a broad approach to Italian cuisine beyond pasta and pizza. There is a large ‘fundamentals’ section which introduces techniques, components, sauces and equipment. To give you an idea of how extensive the range of recipes is in this book, risottro, gnocchi, polenta and crespelle (thin pancakes) each have their own chapters.

For French I go to Patricia WellsAt home in Provence for bistro style, and Julia Child Mastering the art of French cooking and Larousse Gastronomique for the classics and techniques.

Because I am a savoury rather than sweet tooth, I only have volume one of Julia, and the concise edition of Larousse. These get me through. If ever you see a term used in a cook book you don’t know, and it’s not in Larousse, it’s probably made up. Julia is great for the basics. As she said in the introduction, ‘This is a book for the servantless cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, timetables, children’s meals, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat’.

Patricia’s book does have pictures, but not of each recipe. I love her vegetable dishes which can often be either served on the side or with a green salad for a nice mid-week main. Try her Provencal roast tomatoes, and have a splatter guide on hand for the deglazing #protip.

I think most people who really enjoy cooking have Stephanie Alexander’s The cook’s companion (I have the orange covered edition). For those unfamiliar with the book, it isn’t presented by courses but by ingredients. Stephanie will do every step in a methodical manner and it pays to read all the way through a recipe before you begin lest you come across ‘soak for four hours’ half-way through. The most value thing in this book for me are the little recipes and tips in the side columns. The most irritating thing is the cooking times. Despite using a array of ovens when cooking with this book, I always have to cook for considerably longer than directed. If you are looking to have only one cook book, or to give a good present to a new cook, this would be the one.

For broad Asian cuisine, I turn to an absolute classic, The complete Asian cookbook by Charmaine Solomon. This was first released in 1976 and may be a little basic for our now sophisticated palates. However, if you don’t want an individual comprehensive book on Korean, Sri Lanka or Singapore, etc recipes, this covers the bases nicely.

Madhur Jaffrey’s A taste of India, is a combination travel guide, food history and recipe book covering all of India. My favourite section is general notes on ingredients and making your own garam masala and five-spice mix.

For quick, fresh and easy it is hard to beat Kylie Kwong’s Simple Chinese cooking. Again, this has a wonderful section on equipment and ingredients. There is also a section on ‘eating Chinese style’ covering how to use chopsticks, menu planning and what to drink with your meal. This book is naughty in that it will list separate recipes for basically similar dishes. But that is a little quibble. If you like pictures, there is one for each recipe.

Most of these books I have bought from second-hand book shops. The most expensive is probably Stephanie’s, but it is an investment.

My books don’t stay pristine for long, they come in the kitchen with me and it is easy to tell my favourites by the splatters on the pages. Cook books so good you can lick them.

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