Cooking the Books Retro Style – a Review of Nigella’s Classic ‘How to Eat’

Nigella’s How to Eat is considered to be a cooking bible for many.  It’s held up for it’s beautiful prose and her ability to empower the reader to cook confidently and intuitively. It’s also known for being good for explaining classic recipes in a really straight forward way – roasts, stews, pastry, victoria sponges, trifles – it’s all there.

I fully expected to be wowed by this 1998 legendary cookbook. It had been sat on my shelf for two years untouched apart from a stunning mushroom ragout I made as part of the 69-er cookbook challenge. Neglecting this book had actually been more to do with it not having any photos than anything else. But I felt duty bound to review read it as part of my  ‘Cooking the Books’ series because I’m such a big Nigella fan.

My Nigella experience until this point has been a heady one.  I’ve been cooking her recipes for over seven years and everything I’ve ever cooked (with perhaps two exceptions) has been not just a success, but a true triumph.  Her recipes combine incredible and exotic flavours with an idiot proof recipe – allowing me to be lavished with praise by work colleagues and dinner party guests in exchange for very little effort on my part.  Favourites included the toffiest banoffee cheesecake, the sweetest, juiciest egyptian tomato salad, a fragrant courgette and lime curd cake, a dense chocolate guinness cake and the laziest, but most impressive cherry cheesecake. In fact I could fill the page with my Nigella wonder dishes – she’s done a lot for me (and my popularity!).

But How To Eat was a different deal.  It was classic food (little of her more recent fun stuff) and if I’m honest a little on the dull side!  And the sprawling way it’s written and designed makes it an uphill battle – there’s Nigella ramblings about general cooking and eating advice, interspersed with haphazard recipes on the same page and with NO photos.  I really wanted to like it, but I found it a drag.  However as you can see below we did still enjoy some really tasty food so I won’t knock it too much! I guess I just didn’t find it punchy and inspiring like her other books.

The Favourites

  1. Pea orzotto – effectively pea risotto made with pearl barley instead of rice with loads of cream and butter! Unsurprisingly it was creamy and rather tasty.
  2. Mushroom risotto – just an easy and delicious risotto with some porcini mushrooms thrown in.
  3. Lebanese moussaka – not a moussaka as we know it. In fact barely anything like it.  A stew of tomatoes, chickpeas and aubergines with cinnamon and all spice. Earthy, sweet, spicy – a great dinner.
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Pea orzotto, mushroom risotto, lebanese moussaka

The Disappointments

  1. Vegetable Curry – as curries go this was again ‘alright’ but quite bland for a curry. The raita saved it, but it wasn’t even Nigella’s.
  2. Sausages and onion and wine gravy – I think we didn’t help ourselves by buying crap sausages – butchers’ ones would have made a big difference.  The gravy was just very average if I’m honest – for the 30 mins of simmering you would expect it to pack a punch and it didn’t.
  3. Fish pie – again, I thought – a Nigella fish pie, she’ll take it to another level.  She didn’t.  It had some porcini mushrooms in it which I thought might spice things up, but nope, there was nothing special about this pie.
  4. Beer braised beef – I thought this would be amazing – it was just quite nice.  The prunes were a lovely touch though!
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Vegetable curry, sausages and onion and wine gravy, beer braised beef, fish pie

I’m glad I did this How To Eat immersion, just so I can say I’ve read it as it’s held in such high regard.  But it’s definitely not a book for contemporary recipe inspiration! Yes it was written in 1998 so you can’t expect it to be that modern, but Nigella’s Domestic Goddess was written in 2000 just two years later and is bursting with adventurous, inspiring bakes that still stand up in 2016.  Clearly things got better on the recipe front for Nigella after this first book.  But that’s my slightly negative experience of the book, if you like Nigella’s writing style and want to learn how to cook some classics in an idiot proof way – fill your boots!

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Cooking the Books: A Review of John Whaites’ ‘Perfect Plates’

I relished the chance to get cracking with my immersion into John Whaites’ Perfect Plates.  I did a Rustic French cooking course in May at his new cookery school and he was a bubbly delight of a man and obviously an excellent and passionate cook. I expected his book to be as full of personality and great ideas as John himself and I wasn’t disappointed.

So the premise of the book is that all the recipes contain just five ingredients – another reason to like the book – that sounded nice and simple. The rules are that basic ingredients like oil and seasoning don’t count as an ingredient.

I really enjoyed cooking from this book.  It was a little bit of a shock after Anna Jones’ guilt free very healthy cooking to embrace heavier, carbier dishes, but – who cares they tasted good.

The Favourites

It’s difficult to pick out favourites as everything we cooked was impressive but here we go:

  1. Braised Fennel with Halloumi and Grapefruit – I’d just got back from holiday so needed something to brighten my day and blast away my blues.  A simple assembly job here creating a joyful colourful dish singing with flavours.  The sour of the grapefruit and the salty halloumi hit the spot.
  2. Lamb, Cherry and Yellow Split Pea Tagine – Jamie kindly cooked this slow cooked dish while I was out on a ramblers hike in Yorkshire.  I returned shattered and hungry and very happy to devour this tender tasty stew.
  3. Mushroom and Sage Gnocchi – This felt like utter decadence. Fried gnocchi with mushrooms with crispy fried sage. Buttery naughtiness!
  4. Ham and Fennel Pasta – After pre-holiday dieting  being able to eat ham with pasta and cream felt like a heavenly treat.  And those ingredients are lovely together – the subtle fragrance of the fennel with the strong meaty ham and cream in the background work so well.
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1: Braised Fennel with Halloumi and Grapefruit 2: Lamb, Cherry and Yellow Split Pea Tagine 3: Mushroom and Sage Gnocchi 4: Ham and Fennel Pasta

The Very Very Goods

  1. Four-hour Tomato Pasta Sauce – I wanted to use up the glut of homegrown tomatoes we had post holiday.  Luckily we had a lot as you need 1.5kg of them! Apart from having to blanch and skin all the tomatoes this was such an easy dish – just a long wait until serving.  It was sweet and delicious.
  2. Roasted Radicchio and Figs with Stilton and Balsamic Onions – Despite the fact we couldn’t find any radicchio and had to use chinese leaf instead, didn’t stop it from being excellent.  It was a bung everything in the oven and roast type of dish and the flavours were beautiful –  roasted fig and melted stilton is wonderful.
  3. Tahini and Honey Chicken and Paprika Potatoes –  Put all five ingredients in the oven and roast and hey presto you have beautiful nutty sweet chicken and potato dinner.
  4. Roasted Courgettes and Tomatoes with Mozzarella and Basil – Another throw it in the oven dish – lovely and lazy and satisfyingly melty and tasty.
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1: Four-hour Tomato Pasta Sauce 2: Roasted Radicchio and Figs with Stilton and Balsamic Onions 3: Tahini and Honey Chicken and Paprika Potatoes 4: Roasted Courgettes and Tomatoes with Mozzarella and Basil

I think this book is great for time poor people who like to eat restaurant quality food. It’s easy to follow the instructions, the recipes are generally simple and quick apart from a few slow cook recipes which are still straight-foward they just have a long time in the oven. And when you only have to buy five ingredients per dish it makes shopping a breeze. I thought it was a good range of dishes too and they were all dinner party worthy – so a great way to impress friends with minimum effort!   It’s fun, colourful, easy-going and light-hearted just like John.

 

Cooking the Books: A Review of Anna Jones ‘A Modern Way to Cook’

I woke up to  what a fantastic range of neglected cookbooks I have during my 69-er cooking challenge. For those not in the know, my boyfriend Jamie and I cooked out of each and every one of the 69 cookbooks on my shelves in just 69 days. The challenge left me craving to return to my cookbooks and to get to know them better. And so a new project emerged: I would spend a week or two cooking recipes from a chosen cookbook then write up a review which I would call ‘Cooking The Books’.

For my birthday in May I received a beautiful looking book called a Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones.  The couple of recipes I had tried had been really delicious and healthy so it was time for a full immersion.

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Anna Jones trained as a chef with Jamie Oliver at Fifteen.  She’s a vegetarian and passionately believes that meatless cusine can be exciting.  And her book really delivers. I found her recipes simple to make but somehow exotic and surprising.

Here are my favourites:

  1. Salted Almond Butter Choc Bars.  These were basically like really fresh tasting bounty bars but better for you! Made of ground almonds and dessicated coconut and coated in dark chocolate (see the header picture of the blog). And I loved the salty after taste. These got scoffed down very quickly.
  2. Nordic Breakfast Bowl. A lovely slow cooked porridge with grated apple, almond butter, raisins, coconut yoghurt and all manner of nuts and seeds.  Don’t make this if you’re in a hurry to get to work. There are a lot of ingredients – having said that it probably in reality only took ten minutes to make – I just left a trail of destruction after me because of the various bags of nuts and seeds I used. A lovely gentle flavour party for the morning and a welcome change to my dull standard brekkie of weetabix.
  3. Curry Leaf and Smoky Celeriac Pilaf – this was like a vegetarian kedgeree – spicy, fragent and unusual, the celeriac adding an extra layer of interest to the dish.
  4. Lentils with roast tomatoes and horseradish – this was a plate of multi-flavoured, multi-textured delciousness!  Wholesome earthy lentils provided the base to sweet squelchy roast tomatoes with creamy horseradish for a kick and garlic and thyme breadcrumbs for crunch.
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Nordic Breakfast Bowl
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Curry Leaf and Smoky Celeriac Pilaf
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Lentils with Roast Tomatoes and Horseradish

Not my favourites but still pretty damn tasty

  1. Courgetti with Pistachios, Green herbs and Ricotta – a plate of light lemony loveliness. A great diet dish without any sacrifice on flavour.
  2. Saffron Polenta Bake – another wholesome, exciting flavour combo – saffrony polenta, chunks of feta, toasted pinenuts and cherry tomatoes.
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Courgetti with Pistachios, Green Herbs and Ricotta
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Saffron Polenta Bake

The dish that bombed!

Frying Pan Squash and Cavolo Nero Pie.  I suspect we might have been the culprits as to why this dish went wrong and not Anna Jones. It was a filo pie that you started in a frying pan and finished in the oven.  We were told we could use kale instead of cavolo nero.  Well our resulting pie was just a disintegrated  pastry mess with big chunky hard to eat lumps of kale.  It was not a success. To be fair it tasted ok though.

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Frying Pan Squash and Cavolo Nero Pie

I’d highly recommend Anna’s book – her healthy, colourful veggie recipes show real imagination and flair. Ingredients are thrown together in a way I’ve not experienced before. The food is stylish, subtle, fragrant and beautiful to look at.  And bonus, it’s all really good for you. It was the perfect pre-holiday food for us to get us ready for baring flesh by the pool!