The gift of a food book for your nearest and dearest comes with its challenges. There’s a hefty chance you’ll be cooked for from them so it’s important to choose discerningly. Fortunately, this year’s crop will have you salivating even before the ingredients are unleashed. Here are our top picks:
Zaika by Romy Gill
Romy Gill is a phenomenon, a self-trained chef with incredible warmth, passion and gritty determination. From making phenomenal samosas to sell at school fairs and running cookery classes in local halls, she’s opened her own restaurant, been awarded an MBE and is in huge demand at culinary conferences around the world. What’s more, she’s landed one of the presenter spots for the revived Ready, Steady, Cook! (airing next Spring) and written the beautiful Zaika, a vegan cookbook, which doesn’t read like one. It is her collection of Bengali family recipes she enjoyed growing up, which have inspired her, and will appeal to all those seeking a more flexitarian approach as well as die-hard vegans. It is also a heartfelt memoir to her mother who sadly died before the book was published.
What makes Gill’s recipes ultra-appealing is that they are short and they avoid hard- to-find ingredients. Among many wonderful ideas, I’d single out turmeric hummus, tamarind and date chutney, grilled corn on the cob with ground turmeric, black lime and salt, baby aubergines with dill and coconut, zarda, a sweet rice pudding with almonds and cardamom and her spiced-up cocktail ideas.
Published by Orion £20
The Vinegar Cupboard by Angela Clutton
Sour is becoming far more palatable and every modish home cook and chef is taking an interest in fermented foods and gut health, so food historian/writer Angela Clutton’s first book about the amazing versatility of vinegar (which won the Jane Grigson award for first book) couldn’t be more timely. Part-history, part-science lesson, part-recipe collection – with advice on how to taste, store and most importantly use vinegar creatively – this is an extraordinary book, and, I have to confess, one I wish I had written! Though, I believe Clutton has the edge in her passion for vinegar. She explains how to use vinegar as a preservative to pickle a seasonal glut of veg or fruit, make marinades, heighten and brighten the flavours of a dish or cut through sweetness, add to pancakes and bakes for a light lift, and make an astonishing range of next level salad dressings. Warning, for those of us who love to acquire more “prada for the larder”, this book is likely to set off a buying frenzy.
Dishes that have received rapt compliments include scallops in malted butter sauce, a vibrant, warmly spiced balsamic roasted squash, radicchio, feta salad with cherry vinegar marinated raisins, pumpkin soup with enoki mushrooms and Chinese black vinegar, salt and
vinegar roasted potatoes, a sophisticated take on the chippy, and, for party canapes, pickled devils on horseback. I especially like Clutton’s chapter on drinking vinegars, also known as shrubs, as the Victorians originally called them.
Published by Bloomsbury £26
The Whole Fish cookbook by Josh Niland
When Nigella calls him “a genius”, Jamie says “mind-blowing” and even Noma’s Rene Redzepi is “inspired”, this is a book anyone who cares about the future sustainability of our food sources and loves fish has to own. I was fortunate enough to hear Sydney based chef Josh Niland talk at Galway’s “Food on the Edge” conference earlier this Autumn and what he says is groundbreaking. He makes us truly think about fish afresh and treat it as the complex source of protein it really is that should be considered with the same nose-to-tail reverence as meat. As the book reveals, shockingly, most chefs/cooks only use, on average, 43% of the fish, that is the fillets, which is, frankly, crazy. Whilst most of us are unlikely to be purchasing dehydrators and turning fish eyes into sophisticated crisps nor making swordfish bacon, neither the fish head terrine with pickles nor the trout belly rillette with almonds and radishes nor the fish collar cutlet with fennel mayo would be too challenging for more adventurous home cooks.
What was life-changing for me is Niland’s advice, NOT to rinse fish again once home from the fishmonger who really shouldn’t keep it on ice as it accelerates its deterioration and odour. What’s more, he makes even the most proficient fish cook, reconsider how they poach, fry and roast fish.
Published by Hardie Grant/Quadrille £26
Andaluz: a food journey through Southern Spain by Fiona Dunlop
Cookbooks that are also travelogues for armchair sampling the essence of a new region give particular pleasure, and, especially if the journeys are eminently possible. Fiona Dunlop clearly adores Southern Spain and its’ Middle Eastern and North African religious, cultural and culinary influences and conveys this with evident relish. As Dunlop says the cooking is earthy, abundant and unpretentious, simple not cerebral. The depth of her research is impressive and fascinating. I loved reading about 9th century Baghdadi musician, Ziryab who moved to Cordoba in 822. Sybarite Ziryab revolutionised palace banquets introducing fitted, tooled leather tablecloths, glazed ceramic plates and delicate crystal glasses besides introducing a new way to dine starting with salad or soup, continuing with fish, fowl or meat and vegetables before ending with fruits, desserts and nuts to “close” the stomach replacing, ironically, the “uncivilised” small plates served in no particular order of the Visigoth heathens. Next time, a server wants to explain how they serve small plates, I am telling them this is a throwback to heathens!
The book is a mix of diary, restaurant and bar recommendations with plenty of colour about their owners and their dishes. There are many alluring recipes from the more ambitious soupy seafood rice made with squid and red shrimps or carabinero (red prawn) and hearty, wintery Alpujarran chestnut soup with chicken, chickpeas, potato and pumpkin. Mozarabic beef and chicken meatballs in almond and saffron sauce.
Published by Interlink Books £24.99
The Quality Chophouse: Modern recipes and stories from a London classic: William Landen, Daniel Morgenthau & Shaun Searley
A true one-off, The Quality Chop House dates back to 1869 and has been both “Progressive Working Class Caterer” and favourite of the culinary literati. Restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin has written the foreword and unabashedly calls it her favourite restaurant where its’owners serve sensational food with all manner of culinary discoveries, a wine list of dreams and simply want to make their guests happy. Now they have produced probably the best contemporary cookbook on utilising the cream of British produce seemingly simply yet honed to perfection. Somehow, they seamlessly marrying innovation and equality. Classics given the QCH idiosyncratic flair including Cullen Skink, roast grouse, their much talked about mince on toast, and treacle tart.
I like the advice in their snack section to buy time when entertaining and I am totally converted to the sweetcorn and marmite butter, their ultra-silky whipped cod’s roe and curious to try mackerel scratchings. It is hard not to utterly fall for cookbook authors who describe as “filthy in a very good way indeed” a starter of smoked eel tartine, brown crab mayonnaise, smoked chilli ketchup and crispy shallots. Some of the recipes are very cheffy, the famed confit potatoes are best experienced in situ, though I am tempted to try the confit egg yolk, just for the sheer chef lunacy. At the other extreme, endearingly the book includes some family recipes as cooked for the restaurant team and lots of posh sandwiches from the wine shop. Great photography and affectionate vignettes on producers too.
Published by Hardie Grant £26
Leaf by Catherine Phipps
Catherine Phipps is a very clever, evocative writer, sometimes almost a little too knowingly so, yet this is an exquisite book with the most beautiful cover of the year of filigree delicate culinary leaves washed in pink. Certainly not just a book of salads, Phipps creativity is always inspiring, and Leaf takes in soups, salads, brunches, starters, mains, puddings, baking, preserves, and drinks. As Phipp says herself, leaves work so well in food because they combine visual appeal with texture and deliciousness – from the bitterness of shiso to the most blowsy scented pelargonium leaves. She also advises on how to use leaves in infusions, vinegars, to smoke fish and infuse chocolate and much much more.
There are the loveliest ideas for using leaves I would not have considered such as tomato leaves left from yet another failed crop of tomatoes which add a particular fragrance to tomato sauces.
Perhaps most useful of all is the advice on how to store herbs which all too often wilt and yellow. Phipps instructs to separate leaves from stems unless using within hours. Laborious yes, less so whilst listening to a podcast. Then bunch the stems together and either store wrapped in damp kitchen paper or straight into a tub in the freezer, especially parsley and coriander stalks, which don’t lose any favourl, and are brilliant for stocks and bouquet garnis. Phipps is adamant that if the leaves are carefully washed and dried and stored in an airtight container in the fridge, they can last for up to two weeks. Impressively, Phipps dries her own figleaves and makes her own Japanese furikake salt.
So many recipes entice from elegant herb and white fish broth, fish wrapped in fig leaves (mental note to plant a fig tree next Spring) to roast red cabbage and camargue rice salad, pear and rosemary upside down cake and banana, thyme chocolate bread that makes great French toast.
Published by Hardie Grant/Quadrille £25
Casa Cacao by Jordi Roca
There have been many books on chocolate but none in the utterly fascinating detail of Jordi Roca, the celebrated dessert chef from El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Girona, Spain. Considered by many to be the best pastry chef in the world, Roca set himself a new challenge of journeying to South America to properly discover the origins of chocolate and then use this knowledge to make the best cacao in the world for the recreation of new totally revolutionary desserts. He travelled into the deepest parts of the Amazon and Colombian jungles and through plantations in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. This book lays bare what chocolate is truly about: the different terroirs of cacao and what characteristics the crops have and how the cacao cob is transformed into the fermented and dried bean from which we obtain chocolate. Although most of the recipes are more suited to professionals, those of us who have a genuine and deep interest in chocolate will find this book utterly riveting and revelatory.
Published by Grub Street £35
Poilane: the secrets of the world famous bakery by Apollonia Poilane
As much cultural and culinary history as bread book, this charts the extraordinary history of Poliane from its earliest days on Rue Cherche Midi in Paris to the present day. It explains the fantastical bread dough chandelier made by Salvador Dali and the tragic sequence of events that meant Apollonia took over the bakery on her parents death in an aircrash whilst studying at Harvard. There’s a wonderful introduction by Alice Waters remembering when she first discovered Poilane and explaining how she believes Poilane has transformed our taste for real bread. There are lots of clever and unexpected recipes from dukkah croutons to sourdough granola, a chocolate ganache with date and walnut bread crust and the ultra-comforting pain de mie. A treat for bakers and Francophiles too.
Published by Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, £35
Dishoom by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar and Naved Nasir
Fans of the restaurant and their bacon naans, and they are many, will adore this exquisitely produced book that makes the reader feel as if they are going on a gentle walking tour of south Bombay, peppered with much eating and drinking. Learn about the actual cafes that inspired so many of co-founders Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar and Naved Nasir’s recipes. Haarala Hamilton’s photos are ravishing so it works as a travelogue for those considering a trip too. There are lots of great ideas for entertaining such as cheese and masala sticks, simple lunches including spiced chicken livers on fire toast and Parsi omelette, and for entertaining, gems from butter garlic crab to double marinated spicy lamb chops and pineapple and black pepper crumble. Fans of Dishoom can also listen to Spectator Life’s Table Talk interview with Shamil and Kavi here.
Published by Bloomsbury £26
Moorish by Ben Tish
Quite simply this is the most foodstained and used book in my kitchen. Moorish is seductively vibrant and absolutely the kind of cookbook for everyone who, like me, and chef Ben Tish whose new Sicilian-inspired restaurant is sensational, enjoys the bold spices and sun-soaked flavours of characterful Mediterranean cooking mixed with Moorish influences.
I reads as a book of someone extremely well-travelled and versed in the area who truly knows how to make ingredients sing. I particularly love the Jewish-Moorish recipes such as partridge cooked and stuffed with coriander and an exotic celebratory dish that was comprised of a complex layering of omelettes, meatballs, mincemeat, aromatic spices and rose water – the dish left to cook overnight on Friday ready for the Saturday sabbath. If that’s not too profane, and I’m Jewish, it would be good for Christmas Eve!!
The recipes are spice-heavy in the best possible sense with plenty of saffron, fennel seeds, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom. Some of my favourite recipes are mackerel and salted grapes with cucumber, yoghurt and fennel, outrageously moreish olive oil roasted potatoes with green peppers, chilli and green olives, whole cinnamon spiced chicken and pilaf and rose scented meringues with roasted cherries.
Published by Bloomsbury £26
And if you fancy penning some recipes of your own, Sudi Pigott runs one day food-writing workshops. Visit www.sudifoodie.com for more information.