Just as autumn arrived this year, so too did my copy of Anna Jones’s third cookbook: The Modern Cook’s Year. The book has quickly become a staple in our kitchen and, as autumn has fallen slowly into winter, so I have fallen for many of the recipes within.
If Ottolenghi introduced me to how delicious vegetarian food can be, it was Anna Jones who made it accessible. For me, as for many, she moved vegetables firmly from the side dish to the centre of the table. Sometimes she celebrates their simplicity - raw or gently cooked, with a simple dressing. At other times, she draws in more complex flavours from across the globes - dals, chillis and stir fries, which make use of bold, international ingredients to elevate the vegetable.
I am a huge fan of her first two books, but The Modern Cook’s Year might well prove to be my favourite yet - purely based on the sheer number of recipes I want to cook immediately. These are my initial impressions after a season with the Cook’s Year. If autumn and the beginning of winter are any indication, I can’t wait to cook through spring and summer.
Style and structure
The Modern Cook’s Year is ordered by the seasons, with a fluidity that allows for those ‘in between’ weeks and months - just think of the last warm days and first chilly evenings that knit together summer and autumn, but can’t be pinned definitively to either season. To take this merging of seasons into account, Anna divides the book into six, rather than four, chapters - each covering the seasonal produce of roughly two months, but also acknowledging the fruit and vegetables that bridge the chapters.
This seasonal structure isn’t only based on the fresh produce available at a given point, but on the rhythms we adopt throughout the year, our changing relationship with nature and, therefore, the food that we feel like eating at that time of year. A tomato tarte tatin in summer, perhaps; a chard, leek and walnut tart for autumn.
As part of the seasonal structure, grey pages throughout the book mark ‘milestones’ that punctuate Anna’s year - from the practical to the more mindful. For autumn, there is an excellent section on ‘making friends with your freezer’, which includes everything from advice on portioning to reflections on the importance of preserving and extending the bounty of the warmer months. I also adored her thoughts on cooking with grace, and look forward to the summer sections on flowers in the kitchen and veg-centred barbecues. Other milestones are less likely to punctuate my year, such as juicing or a ‘reset’, but will surely appeal to others.
Frequently found flavours
With such a seasonal book, the frequently found flavours will evolve throughout the year, slowly merging from chapter to chapter in a cyclical pattern. Cooking through autumn (and reading ahead to those winter and spring recipes that use veg also available in autumn), it is clear that certain ingredients abound. There are root vegetables and squashes; brassicas and onions; store cupboard staples like lentils or tinned tomatoes. With a few exceptions of difficult-to-source ingredients, such as molasses, smoked water or spelt flour, recipes are often simple and there are plenty of quick meals.
Those who own Anna’s previous books will recognise what I think of as the yellow ‘pick and mix’ pages, which suggest different routes to creating a staple dish. For autumn, there are ‘roasting tray dinners’ built from the layers of a main vegetable, a soft vegetable, a hearty add on, a liquid, a herb and a flavour boost. During the year, readers will find a similar format for soups, fritters, flatbreads and salads, amongst other things. Here, and throughout the book, suggestions are offered to alter dishes for dietary requirements, particularly for vegans.
The dishes in The Modern Cook’s Year seem a little heartier and more comforting than those of Anna’s previous books, which definitely appeals to my tastes (I am the Queen of Cosiness). As the weather has turned steadily colder through autumn, it is these cosy dishes to which I have frequently turned. Squashes and root vegetables, in particular, have made regular appearances at the dinner table: a carrot dal and a squash dal; smokey pumpkin, red lentil and apricot kofte; and squash polpette with pesto-coated spaghetti.
Brassicas have been there in abundance through the autumn evenings. We love the cauliflower ‘steaks’, which are studded with taleggio cheese and coated with a mix of capers, olives, peppers, breadcrumbs and herbs - then baked until the former is molten, the latter is crisp, and both are golden. Brassicas often appear in pasta dishes, too, which are always a favourite for me. There’s a simple spaghetti with chard and ricotta and a more time-consuming roast kale and smoky mushroom lasagne. Or the supremely creamy, comforting kale and squash pasta bake (which reminds me very much of a favourite recipe from Stirring Slowly, another fantastic cookbook).
For more frugal meals, we’ve turned to the recipes that make use of the jars, tins and packets in the cupboard. Yellow split pea soup with green olives made for a few very happy lunches, particularly when paired with a hunk of wholemeal bread. Orzo with tinned tomato sauce and feta is a quick, mid-week supper. Even the most hearty dishes, however, are lifted to lightness by a smattering of heady spices or fragrant herbs, a spoonful of harissa, miso or vinegar, or Anna’s characteristic use of lemon as another seasoning. This may be comfort food, but it doesn’t mean it can’t also feel bright and fresh.
Next on the menu
With the Christmas season upon us, I’m looking forward to trying out the centrepiece dishes to feed gatherings of families and friends. First on my list is the spectacular roast squash, stuffed with pearl barley, sweet roast fennel and cheddar, then topped with buttery oats. The celebration celeriac and sweet potato pie, with a cheddar and herb pastry, might be a vegetarian option for Christmas Day. Desserts, too, will impress: maple toffee apple and pear crisp, toasted coconut rice pudding with sticky prunes, and sea salted chocolate and lemon mousse.
For busier evenings spent writing cards, wrapping presents and crossing last minute items off the to-do list, I’ll try out Christmas Eve orchiette (not only for Christmas Eve, I hope). A quick dish of pasta and broccoli cloaked in a thick jacket of melting soft cheese, then given brightness and crunch by a crispy hazelnut and lemon topping. I can’t think of many meals that promise more comfort and joy.