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.

 

Eating Three Courses for £7 at Books for Cooks, the Famous Notting Hill Cookbook Shop

I need to clarify to begin with that I didn’t in fact eat three courses for £7, I ate two courses for £5.  But I needed you to know that you COULD eat three courses for £7. This is such a deal!

My friend Lolita let me in on this hidden gem back in May.  Books for Cooks is a fantastic bookshop entirely dedicated to cookbooks and so it’s my idea of heaven.  And! Even better they have a daily test kitchen where they sample recipes from their cookbooks and serve them to the public at a meagre cost.  I was shown photographic evidence of the food Lolita had eaten and I knew I had to go as soon as possible.

My visit wasn’t entirely straight-forward.  I was accompanied by my friend Vic and her toddler Bella, both Vic and I accepting the challenge of entertaining a toddler during quite a fancy meal.  We could do this surely! Well Bella was certainly as enthusiastic as me about the cookbooks. She merrily pulled as many as she could off the shelves to have a good old look.  As the delicious starter (chilled minted pea soup) arrived, it became apparent we would need to eat in shifts.  One to walk Bella outside, one to eat and repeat!

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Chilled Minted Pea Soup

Chilled minted pea soup then?  Little did I know how much I would like a cold soup – it sounds a bit weird.  But it was thick, refreshing, sweet and delicious – it was a winner.

Next up was beef bourginon with crushed new potatoes.  What’s not to love about a beef bourginon? It was admittedly a small portion, but with pudding in mind and it only being midday, this did make sense.  And it really was a rich, tender bourginon and those great buttery crushed potatoes on top were a lovely touch.

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Beef Bourginon with Crushed New Potatoes

Unfortunately despite having plenty of room for a pud, Bella had reached her saturation point.  I jealously surveyed the three varieties of cake being doled out (guinness cake, apricot sponge and carrot and walnut cake).  I just about managed to be a grown up about it, promising myself that I would return one day and have the full three courses.

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The day’s menu and the delicious cakes I nearly ate
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Delightful Bella, momentarily distracted from pulling all the books off the shelves

I heartily recommend you visit the test kitchen at Books for Cooks whether you are interested in the cookbooks or not, you will be very interested in the delicious and bargain priced meal.  The staff were lively and welcoming and clearly loved having their bookshop crammed with greedy customers.  I will most definitely be back to browse the colourful bookshelves and eat more food.

Find out more about Books for Cooks here: https://www.booksforcooks.com/

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!

 

It’s damn well bloody over! 69-er is COMPLETE.

And it ends with mixed feelings (and an expanded waistline!).  I’m sorry that there’s no longer going to be anything pushing us out of our comfort zone of routine dinners.  That there won’t be anything that motivates me to whip up a cake or some scones after dinner when I normally couldn’t be arsed.  That it may not occur to me any more to sling together a casual salad or soup for a saturday lunch instead of a sandwich.  However I am relieved that I stand a chance now to lose the weight I’ve put on in the last 9 weeks.  And that I can do other things in life other than cook and pick recipes!

So what have been the wins?

Engaging with cookbooks I normally can’t be bothered to open has been a wonderful discovery.  Who’d have thought that cookbooks without photos actually work?  I love a visual demonstration of a dish to inspire me but a number of my cookbooks didn’t help me out with that. And guess what? The food tasted just as good without the photo.

If a cookbook is old it doesn’t stop it from being excellent – Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef (1999) helped me to make the best beer bread in the world and Nigella’s How To Eat (1998) provided the recipe to an exquisite mushroom ragu.

Even if I don’t particularly like a chef on tv (Rick Stein – I find him very whingey) doesn’t mean that they can’t write an amazing cookery book. I was literally blown away by Rick’s creamy leak cannelloni.

It’s forced me to try different sorts of cooking – I often avoid my Asian/Indian/Chinese cookbooks because the ingredients can be difficult to source.  But we managed and the dishes were a joy.

Conquering bread was a HUGE deal for me.  I’ve talked about making bread for YEARS and with this challenge I made pitta bread, beer bread and potato bread.  My fear of breadmaking has gone.

It’s confirmed to me that some of my favourites will remain favourites.  I refer to them again, but Nigella and Jamie never failed to deliver amazing food throughout the challenge.

And what will I be taking with me going forward?

I’m going to be more curious about my cookery books and not stick to my comfort zone of my three favourite healthy cook books. Different styles of cooking have different merits and it’s fun to mix it up.  I hope to make an attempt to return to as many of those 69 books as possible.

Finally let me talk you through the last eleven recipes of the challenge. They were all pretty lovely – apart from the Basil and Mango Smoothie (Innocent Smoothie Recipe Book) which was a bit bland.  You can look at all the dishes on the collage below, but I’ll pick out my top 3 faves.

  1. Beetroot and Feta and Mint Salad – Fabulous Baker Brothers.  A bit faffy to make as you had to roast the beetroots then de-skin them with rubber gloves.  Messy work I can tell you. But this was a beauty of a dish – fresh and wholesome and deliciously oniony.
  2. Leek Cannelloni – Rick Stein.  This took ages to make and involved four pans on the go at once.  Every element required steeping and simmering and several stages (eg infuse the milk for the cheese sauce for 20 mins with bay leaves, onions & garlic before you even make the cheese sauce!).  And the lasagne sheets we had to boil in a pot ended up stuck together so we had to chuck them out and have a pasta-less cheese bake. However this didn’t matter and the effort was worth it.  It was out of this world.  The tomato sauce was rich, the leeks with ricotta were a great combination and the cheese sauce was so  flavourful and creamy – it was the icing on the cake.
  3. Baked Cheesecake – James Martin.  I went through a phase about six years ago when I’d have people over for dinner and I’d ALWAYS make a cheesecake.  I was obsessed – I must have tried ten different varieties of cheesecake.  So since that overkill, I don’t make cheesecakes, until the challenge that is.  As it turns out I think it’s the best cheesecake I’ve ever made – the lemon zest and whisky soaked sultanas added a subtle and sophisticated twist to a traditional recipe.

So now 69-er is over, what next? Well certainly for the next two weeks before my holiday I’m going to be doing a lot of healthy eating recipes to lose those extra pounds I’ve gained. So expect a post about that.  And for the next challenge – I’m not quite sure yet, but it would be nice to start another juicy challenge in September.  A food waste challenge or mastering a cuisine are appealing ideas.  Do comment and let me know if you have any suggestions for me!

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69 in 69 – I’m raising the bar

We’re only on day 14, and we’re up to 15 recipes, so it feels appropriate to change the challenge to completing 69 recipes in 69 days.  I’m sure we can do it and I’ve moved the deadline day to 28th July instead of end of September. Go us!

And rather than drown you in detail, here is a quick whistle stop tour of all the nine recipes we cooked this week:

Beetroot Brownies: Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache (all the cakes in this book are made from vegetables).  These brownies were a revelation.  Easy to make even if the beetroot peeling and chopping was a little messy on the hands.  And MY GOD, they packed a punch – moist, rich, earthy.  I couldn’t get enough of them.

Moroccan chicken kebabs and panzella salad: Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cook Book. I’ve wanted to make panzella salad ever since I had one that blew my mind in Tuscany a few years ago.  Who would have thought that some stale bread, tomatoes and cucumber could taste so good?  But it’s quite something.  And the whole meal was a magical combination for a stunningly sunny bank holiday sunday.

Griddled nectarines with feta salad: Good Food 101 Veggie Dishes. This was a saturday lunchtime quickie – just a few simple ingredients compiled in ten minutes.  A gorgeous, light combination of salty feta, sweet melty hot nectarines and fresh mint.

Jamie chose a slow roasted Persian Lamb recipe with pomegranate salad: Good Food 101 Slow-Cooking Recipes. I was not keen – it involved pomegranate molasses and a pomegranate – I wasn’t convinced we’d find either of those in the Stockport suburbs of Hazel Grove.  However Jamie’s enthusiasm won out.  He even MADE the pomegranate molasses!  The thing that impressed us most was the pomegranate salad.  Yes the lamb was succulent and delicious (four hours of cooking in molasses), but the salad was tart, juicy and beautiful – a wonderful compliment to the lamb.

Smoked haddock with white beans and parsley : Gordon Ramsey Cooking for Friends was last friday night’s supper treat.  Jamie found it a bit fiddly – there was pureeing and faffy stages to the dish, but as the consumer of the dish, I was delighted.  It was stylish and showy to look at and just felt like something that you would be served in a posh restaurant.  Bacon and smoked haddock is a great combination and the bean/thyme mash was lovely.

Jamaican chops: Caribbean Food Made Easy with Levi Roots.  A week day simple dinner for us – pork chops slow cooked in a fiery, sweet tomato sauce with celery, peppers and lime. Easy to assemble, tasty and comforting.

Salmon fillet wrapped in proscuitto with herby lentils, spinach and yoghurt: Jamie Oliver The Return of the Naked Chef was a desperation choice.  It was late in the evening and I needed to pick something easy for the next day.  Everything else in this cookbook looked long-winded, but when I spied this I was a happy girl.  Speedy, simple and healthy.  And it really delivered.  It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing dish but prosciutto and salmon REALLY works – the salty meat enhances the salmon and those herby lentils were a nice earthy, flavourful background to the dish.

Keralan Coconut Curry: Anjum’s Indian Vegetarian Feast.  Another beautiful book that had never been cooked from. The curry was creamy, spicy and had lovely depth – for me it was delicious but nothing earth shattering as I’ve had many similar curries, but it really wowed Jamie.

Spurred on by last week’s pitta success I baked oatmeal and potato bread: Home Baking Cookbook.  It was a cheap and easy number (apart from having to make the mash which was a pain!).  Admittedly we did burn the entire top of the loaf, but it really had no affect on the flavour.  It was a dense bread wholesome bread – perfect for making picnic sandwiches with the leftover feta from the salad. I’m definitely getting into this bread making thing – it’s satisfyingly easy and I love the therapeutic process of kneading the dough.

It’s been an intense week of cooking and eating and I’ve loved it.  This challenge is proving to be a real adventure – it’s a heartening and nostalgic experience re-connecting with my neglected books.   Fancy joining me in a similar challenge? Comment below and fill me in!