Some of the books of 2013
Sweet Greek: Simple Food & Sumptuous Feasts , by Kathy Tsaples (Melbourne Books), $39.95
Sweet Greek takes its name from the author’s shop at Prahran Market, and it is one of the better books on Greek food, and one of the best accounts of Greek life in Australia. It tells Kathy Tsaples’ own story, and that of her family. It’s an attractive book, and the recipes are clearly easy-to-follow, and have a family authenticity about them all. There are some really good vegetable dishes (for me, always the strength of domestic Greek cooking), and a range of menus for the occasions of the Greek year – Easter, Independence Day, her father’s name day. The roast shoulder of lamb for Easter is particularly good, so is the cauliflower salad, the version of spinach quiche, the stuffed vegetables, and the beetroot salad, with fetta.
Toscano’s Family Table, by Joanne Toscano (Slattery Media), 49.95
Let me declare my interest here: I am dependent on the Toscano family for much of the quality of the food on my table. I shop at Toscano’s, and have for nearly 30 years. The greengrocer has grown from a simple single-fronted store that was started by Joanne’s grandfather more than 50 years ago into three large stores (Kew, Victoria Gardens, Malvern Road). What I love about the store (and the family) is that the quality of the produce is so high, and that there is always someone around who can tell me where it was grown, and by whom.
That knowledge, constantly updated, is in the book, along with a terrific range of Italian family recipes. For some years, there have been tips and recipes in-store, and this book is an extension of those. Some familiar dishes, and many less known – fennel and celeriac soup, mushroom ragu on sloppy polenta, lemon polenta and ricotta cake.
Nearly half the book is an alphabetical guide to fruit and vegetables – when they are in season, where they are grown, how best to prepare them.
Love Italy, by Guy Grossi (Lantern), $100
Certainly the biggest book of the year – and not the book to have open on the kitchen bench, because it is bigger than many kitchen benches. This is a cook’s tour of Italy – Guy Grossi’s road-trip through Italy to meet favourite producers and to explore their cooking and eating.
Wonderful people – like the Pieropan family (wine), and Leonardo and Silvia Gagliardo (white corn), and Sergio Dondoli (gelato). Good recipes, too – most of them achievable, all of them for food you would want to eat (okay, a couple of exceptions for me).
What makes this so special is the journey, and the underlying insistence that good food and wine come from the earth thanks to the knowledge of skills of the people who tend the earth. Good cooking owes much to good agriculture.
This is a large, affectionate and handsomely photographed tribute to those in Italy who maintain the country’s gastronomic reputation.
New Classics, by Philippa Sibley (Hardie Grant) $50
Philippa Sibley is best known for her desserts, but there’s a great deal more to her cooking than that. New Classics may not be aptly named, since so many of the dishes aren’t quite classic in most people’s sense of the word. Puy lentil soup with tiny meatballs and salsa verde is one example, and the risotto with pine mushroom, marrons and chestnuts is another.
Cookbooks by chefs often show a confusion of identity. I think this does, because it’s unclear about whether it’s book for beginners or skilled cooks. There are lots of very good well photographed instructions: how to make lamb stock, how to make crème anglaise, how to prepare tuna fillet, and so on… That’s the part for beginners. The recipes, however, are pretty much for skilled cooks, or the kinds of dishes we would expect to find in a restaurant – for example, roasted hapuka with corn puree, grilled horn peppers and sea urchin butter. To be fair, that kind of dish is balanced by the simplicity of grilled haloumi with zucchini pickles. But most of the dishes are Philippa Sibley’s new classics, the dishes on which she has made her name.
and earlier books.....
Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ebury Press) is a great book - a celebration of a city as well as the partnership between Ottolenghi and Tamimi. Their restaurants are in London, not Jerusalem, but the book is about the foods of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular. I've cooked a number of dishes already - which is unusual, because normally I only make one or two from any new book. This time, it's shakshuka; silverbeet with tahini, yoghurt and pine nuts; turkey and zucchini meatballs; and chicken roasted with fennel and clementines. No clementines, so I used orange slices instead. The book has great popularity in our family: my sister has a copy, so do my sons. We're all cooking from it, and phoning each other to comment.
Those who have access to The New Yorker will find a profile of Ottolenghi by Jane Kramer in the December 3 issue. Interestingly, and sadly, Tamimi and Ottolenghi probably couldn't do what they do in Israel. But for them - Tamimi is Palestinian, Ottolenghi Jewish - there's no difficulty in London.
Maha, Shane Delia’s first book, has now been around for a while. Another book on the Middle Eastern theme. It’s named for the restaurant in Bond Street, Melbourne (it runs between Flinders Lane and Flinders St), and that in turn is named for his wife. Shane, in his early 30s, is one of the strengths of Melbourne restaurants. Of a Maltese family (who were bakers in Malta), he was trained in formal cooking, married a wonderful Lebanese girl whose parents also taught him about food. So his cooking style is a fabulous blend of styles and intense flavours. He’s a clever and generous man.
The book is an endearing combination of recipes and family stories, full of warmth, affection, and a profound respect for food and family.
I cooked one of the dishes last night: sumac roast chicken with currant and burgul stuffing. The stuffing calls for 80g coarse burghul (soaked then squeezed dry) mixed with 2 finely chopped brown onions that are cooked in olive oil until soft, then with 400g minced chicken. It’s seasoned with garlic paste, ras-el-hanout, thyme, and salt. Then 30g currants are mixed in. That mixture, I found would have been plenty for two large chickens.
Shane bastes the chicken with sumac butter. The recipe calls for 300g softened butter mixed with 70g ground sumac – I think that amount would do for three chickens! I used about 60g butter, mixed with a tablespoon of sumac. I spread some of the mixture between the chicken and its skin, smeared some over the bird before it went into the oven, and used the rest to rub on to it while it was cooked.
I served it, as he suggested, with fattoush – although not his recipe, because I didn’t have any purslane. Claudia Roden’s fattoush recipe uses lots of herbs (parsley and mint), and less garlic, and for me, it suited the chicken well, particularly on a warm thundery evening.
MAHA Middle Eastern Home Cooking, by Shane Delia (Lantern Books)
Re-issued: I saw a new edition of When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman in Readings in St Kilda. Ten Speed Press was the publisher, I think. It's a remarkable book, still. First published in 1976, it was a kind of feminist reminder of the strength of women's cooking in France, at a time when the male chefs were flexing their publicity muscles and taking the credit for fine food in France. This is an account of eight women and their food. They come from various regions of France: the starting point is the author's grandmother and her cooking in Poitou and Paris in the mid-1930s. The last is Magaly and her cooking in Provence in the 1970s. The book is ful of good recipes, of course, but more than that, it's imbued with affection. Particularly useful are the notes preceding each recipe which tell how difficult it is to make, how long it will take, the best season in which to cook the dish, and a suggested wine. It's a book for those who like cooking, and who want to know more about the people who produce good food. The eight women come to life quite remarkably in the pages.
Also re-issued, I note, is Marcella Hazan's The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It's three of her books put together in one large volume. For me, Marcella Hazan is to Italian cooking what Claudia Roden is to middle-eastern food - an essential reference. Marcella Hazan is one of the very few writers whose recipes cannot be improved. Over the years, I've found that whenever I modify one of her recipes, the results are never as good. It's one of the books that should be on every good cook's shelf.
A Foodlover's Guide Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela by Dee Nolan, photographs by Earl Carter. (Penguin).
This is one of the best food books I’ve come across in recent years. But it's much more than a food book - it's a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, a long exploration of place and people, of flavours and the meaning of food. It's a gorgeous lavish book that works as well visually as it does to read.
I met Dee years ago (when we were both living in London), and have admired her as a person, and her work as journalist and then as editor, in the UK and in Australia. Last time I heard, from a mutual friend, she had bought the family farm in South Australia and was growing olives, lentils and lamb.
The book is an extraorinarily thoughtful and considered account of the old pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of St James (or Saint Jacques) are at rest in Galicia, in Northern Spain. The pilgrimage route has found new life – a couple of friends have walked parts of it – in recent years. This is not only about the trail, but the food and wine found along the way. Earl’s photographs are like another rich text – they support Dee’s account, but add their own story about the people, the light and the landscape.
I was told on a visit to Rioja that pilgrims were one reason for the enduring success of wine across northern Spain. Pilgrims – who were the religious backpackers of their time – had to be housed and fed. Wine was a drink, rather than an optional extra, and an essential part of the Mass. So there was a ready market for wine. And there’s now a nice sense of a circle closing – the monasteries that in centuries past would have provided bed space for pilgrims are now often converted to paradores, luxurious hotels that have given new life to old buildings.
The book includes accounts of the food and wine producers who are part of all the places she visits. It’s one of the most joyful books I’ve read – a celebration of being alive and observant. And on a practical level, the recipe for Armand Arnal’s confit of lamb shoulder, is one of the many reasons to acquire the book.
The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie, with an introduction by Geraldene Holt (Southover Press, 1994) has been claiming much of my attention. I first heard of Lady Clark through the first edition of 50 Fabulous Chocolate Cakes, when a reader provided her recipe for chocolate cake, as it had appeared in a book by Florence White.
Tillypronie is in Aberdeenshire in Scotland, and it is a luxurious estate with a wonderful garden, available for rent.
Lady Clark (nee Charlotte Coltman) was an impressive woman; her husband and his family were equally impressive. Her father-in-law, Sir James Clark, was a physician to Queen Victoria. Her husband, John Forbes Clark, was in the diplomatic service. They married in 1851, and spent time in Paris, Brussels and Turin before returning to the UK, where they divided their time between London and the royal residence of Bagshot Park. The writer Henry James knew the Clarks and stayed with them at Tillypronie.
Lady Clark maintained a recipe collection. Some recipes came from the cooks they had (the one in Turin was said to be particularly good). It was a collection that spanned the years from her marriage (and perhaps before) to her death in 1897, and it gives an extraordinary picture of cooking and eating over half a century. She always noted the source of any recipe, and made extremely useful observations about how things ought to be done. For example, she notes that for coffee made Lord Aberdare’s way, the beans should be half Mysore, half Mocca.
Everything is in her collection, from how Mrs Barton’s cows are fed, to how to prevent the taste of turnips in milk.
The cakes, breads and pastries are going to keep me busy for a while. There are Balmoral dessert biscuits from the Queen’s baker at Balmoral Castle, wafer biscuits to eat with ices, and any number of ginger cakes and gingerbreads. I am fascinated by the bread recipes, and by all the recipes for yeast. If only I can get some yellow hops (fresh green are too bitter, she says), I can start making my own.
A question for all of you reading this: does anyone know what German yeast is? Or was? (remembering this was written in the 19th century.)
A last moving note about the book. After her death, Sir John Clark approached someone asking that a selection of her recipes be published. The first edition appeared in 1909 (the year before he died). The edition I have was first published in 1994 – and I found it from Book Depository.
ON FRENCH COOKING
While working with Philippe Mouchel on his cookbook and trialling all the recipes, I've been re-reading the French cookbooks in my library, looking especially at older recipes and different versions of the same dish. I've come across things that have disappeared from the cooking repertoire - a salsify flower omelette, for example. Salsify, also known as oyster plant, looks like a long skinny black radish. It's quite popular in Japanese cooking, I have learnt from Philippe, and used to be grown in Australin gardens (looking at old nursery catalogues). It must have been grown in England, too, because Marcel Boulestin gives the recipe in Simple French Cooking for English Homes (published by William Heinemann), of which I have a 1926 edition. He explains that salsify flowers are "to be found in the garden in the late spring", and that the best variety is the Spanish one with yellow flowers.
More achievable are the recipes in Anne Willan's French Regional Cooking (Hutchinson & Co, 1981). Anne Willan, who founded La Varenne cooking school in Paris in 1975 (then moved it to Burgundy), is an excellent writer. The book, which divides France into regions, provides a considered account of the cooking of each region and clearly written recipes. If you don't know it already, track down From my Chateau Kitchen, which is about the acquisition of an old chateau in Burgundy, the cooking school, the garden, and the food.