A season with The Modern Cook's Year: my review of Anna Jones's latest cookbook

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 an uncomplicated dressing of oil and lemon. 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. 

Chard and ricotta spaghetti, A Modern Cook's Year

 

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. 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.

Cauliflower steaks, A Modern Cook's Year

New favourites

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.

Roast squash recipe, A Modern Cook's Year

Slow cooking with Rachel Roddy: from Five Quarters to Two Kitchens

Autumn has definitely arrived in full force. The trees are flaming red, russet and gold; the nights are growing darker; my boots have been re-heeled and two new cardigans have been ordered. So it seems remiss of me not to have mentioned a favourite food writer who has accompanied me in the kitchen during spring, summer and, more latterly, into October. I am speaking of Rachel Roddy, whose recipes I turn to in her Guardian column and her two books, Five Quarters dedicated to Rome and Two Kitchens split between Rome and Sicily. 

I recently heard Angela Frenda, Food Editor of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, speak of the absence of food writing in Italy. There is a strong tradition of restaurant criticism, she said, and there are many cookbooks, but the stories that accompany recipes are not told. Rachel Roddy, though not Italian herself, is changing matters by setting down the family tales and traditions that are inseparable from Italian cookery. 

What differentiates Rachel from other food writers is the clarity of her own voice and the voices of the Italian people from whom she takes inspiration. Her recipes don’t always grab me immediately, but I am slowly pulled in by her evocative, seductive writing - perhaps by a story of the local trattoria, or a local market trader, or a neighbour. A friend of mine asks her other half to read Rachel’s writing aloud, because of its mellifluous tone and ability to transport the reader (or the listener) to Italy. 

Rachel’s books are not those that I cook from most often, and they rarely introduce new ingredients or flavours, yet they do reinforce an approach to life and to food that I adore - unhurried, mindful, rooted in the seasons. Just as reading her words aloud is soothing for the ears, cooking and eating her recipes is soothing for the whirring brain. Cooking courgettes gently in olive oil and water until they are almost collapsing can calm your soul; eating them with silky strands of mozzarella and hunks of bread calms the stomach. 

Rachel’s recipes are typically composed of a few simple ingredients, but ones which bring the most joy: vegetables, cheese, pasta, pulses, sometimes butter, always olive oil. A baked pasta with ricotta and spring vegetables brought me much popularity amongst my friends this summer. Who couldn’t find happiness in huge shells of pasta filled with lemon- and parmesan-flecked ricotta, tangled with sweet peas and ribbons of courgettes, then baked in a béchamel sauce?

My vegetable-focussed style of cooking means that I do not often explore Rachel Roddy’s meat recipes, but simplicity abounds here, too. Chicken in breadcrumbs, served with mashed potatoes and peperonata (red pepper stew), was one of the most comforting dinners in recent memory.

It is not just an appreciation for simple ingredients, but Rachel’s slow approach to cooking these ingredients, that produces the most delicious flavours. There is caponata, rested for an hour, ideally three; pepperonata, cooked for 30 minutes until thick and jammy; cherries softened for 12 minutes in a syrup of red wine and bay. She exhorts you to take time and care making pasta - kneading it until smooth the rhythm of your favourite music, then letting it relax awhile before rolling. 

This is not to say that all Rachel’s recipes take a long time. She calls her soft almond pasticcini “coat-on biscuits”, because they can be made swiftly, the moment you walk in the door, possibly still with your coat on. They’ve been popular with my family during some troubled moments this year, their lemony brightness alleviating heartache. Then there are multiple sauces that can be pulled together in the time it takes to boil your pasta. Another favourite is a kind-of Italian tuna nicoise, in which you hard boil the eggs and chop the vegetables whilst the farro cooks. 

Where speed is needed, there is no panic, but rather quick, purposeful movements. Perhaps the best example of this is the firm swoosh of egg and parmesan through cooling pasta to produce that that classic carbonara sauce, which clings to the spaghetti. Her courgette ‘carbonara’ (she avoids calling it this directly, for fear of angering purists) has brought much joy at home, many likes on Instagram and frequent requests for the recipe. 

These are just some of the Rachel Roddy recipes that I have enjoyed and I’m certain there will be many more joyful mealtimes to come. I am still planning to try the mushroom and herb tagliatelle in the Guardian and the cherry and ricotta tart from Five Quarters; I’ve bookmarked several recipes from my new copy of Two Kitchens, such as fish in tomato sauce with capers. Then, of course, there’s the recipes I’ll often return to, chief among them those soft almond biscuits and anything with pasta. 

Baked pasta with ricotta and spring vegetables
Caponata, Rachel Roddy
Soft almond biscuits, Rachel Roddy recipe
Courgette carbonara, Rachel Roddy recipe

Cookbook review: Practical Cookery, 1935

Household cake

In his old age, my Grandpa collected elastic bands on his walking stick. The wooden handle, worn smooth by his knobbly hands, became a mass of reds, greens and browns by the time it reached the base. So, when my mum handed me an old cookbook that was really more a bundle of tattered pages bound together with an elastic band, I could guess to whom it had belonged. Practical Cookery by Marjorie Michael had originally belonged to my Grandpa’s mother and she had handed it down to him, along with the instructions and extra recipes that he has scribbled in the margins.

My parents couldn’t understand my fascination with Practical Cookery, as I pored over the recipes and carefully reordered the pages. But, for me, this is a piece of social history. It is perhaps the closest I’ll ever get to my culinary heritage - though, as I would find out, not a heritage I necessarily wanted to claim (more on that later…). My auntie squealed with excitement, and a little sadness, when she spotted it on my bookshelf. For her, it evokes memories of my grandparents’ divorce. When my Grandpa was left to fend for himself, he turned to his mother’s book as an authority on how to get a meal to the table. 

Practical Cookery is structured around courses, from soups, to meats, vegetable dishes and eggs, through to pastry and puddings. It begins with a section entitled ‘Food Values’, which gives advice on ‘body building’, ‘energy giving’, ‘blood hardening’ and ‘bone hardening’ foods. A forerunner to Jamie’s Super Food books, if you will. Each chapter opens with hints for the cook, but otherwise instructions are direct and sparse. A level of basic knowledge is assumed that many millennials, accustomed to the handholding of modern cookbooks, have lost. The temperature of a ‘moderate’ or ‘hot’ oven, how much of a flavouring to add, what you are testing for when you skewer a cake and many other things go unexplained. In a hyper-visual culture, it’s also strange to cook from a book with no pictures. Are my potatoes browned enough? Is my sauce the right consistency? I yearn for photographic confirmation that my meals are ‘correct’.

I decide to spend a week cooking from the book. “Really?” asks my other half as he dubiously eyes a recipe for boiled tongue. I reassure him that tongue will not be on the menu - I’m interested to see how someone who follows a pescatarian diet, which is how we predominantly eat, would fare in the 1930s. As I write my rather limited weekly shopping list, I realise how fortunate I am. In my supermarket, for instance, I can buy miso to use in a marinade for aubergines, before roasting them until they are meltingly soft and suffused with a deep umami flavour. When this cookbook was written, not only would miso be unheard of, but even aubergine would have been nigh on impossible to find. And so many things that I use regularly to create fragrant vegetarian curries - fresh chilli, cumin, coriander, turmeric, tamarind paste - are not there to add colour. 

There are, I admit, some nods to food from further afield, but the consequences are often unappetising flavour combinations. The curry sauce consists of infusing stock with desiccated coconut (so far so good), then adding apples, onions, sultanas, lemon juice and jam (less good). A pineapple and banana salad sees the fruit mixed with cream cheese, walnuts, lemon, lettuce and grated carrot, then dressed in mayonnaise. Even recipes from Europe are controversial. Italians would weep to read the instructions for ‘risotto’, in which rice is “boiled quickly”, before stirring in cheddar and tomato sauce at the last moment. 

Beyond a squeeze of lemon or a grating of nutmeg, I decide to stick to ingredients found closer to our shores. But while I never expected to find excellent recipes from other cultures, I am surprised that the best of British produce is not celebrated. So many of the Spring ingredients that I enjoy at the moment are nowhere to be found. There is no rhubarb, no chard, spring greens or broad beans. Herbs that can be grown in our gardens - thyme, dill, sorrel, mint - are not harnessed to add bright, clean notes to dishes. Just occasionally I stumble across simple, sympathetic cooking of seasonal ingredients, such as asparagus cooked in lots of butter and served on toast. Most of the time, though, it is a case of a little parsley and a lot of potato. 

Just as there is little celebration of seasonal British produce, there is also little pleasure taken in the process of cooking itself. My favourite food writers, from Rachel Roddy to Meera Sodha, have taught me that time and care coax the best out of ingredients. Yet in an era when every task took much longer, from washing clothes to the weekly shop, it seems time is a luxury. Prep time, in particular, must be minimal - ingredients are thrown in a pot, or in the oven, and left to cook. Onions are not sweated gently until they are sweet and mellow, but sliced and quickly fried or boiled vigorously with other ingredients. All vegetables are treated equally: twenty minutes for boiled potatoes, twenty minutes for (very soft) green beans and peas. Onions are not sweated gently until they are sweet and mellow, but sliced and quickly fried or boiled vigorously with other ingredients. The result is, with some exceptions, rather a mush. 

This style of cooking is about function rather than flavour; a utilitarian process of getting the basic nutrition required. I am saddened by the thought that my forebears did not experience the joy of cooking, that journey from base ingredients to delicious meal. I wonder if they found joy in eating together, either? Did they have time to chat the evening away over the debris of empty plates and wine glasses on the dining table? The baking chapter is the one place where care and time is often found, perhaps in kneading dough, resting and rolling pastry or making preserves. Steamed sponges soaked in syrup; stale bread transformed into custard-steeped puddings; intricate tarts and flans; delicate biscuits and petit fours; cakes that don’t need mountains of buttercream to taste delicious. Here, there is pleasure in the making and in the eating, too.

Below is a list of what we ate during the week. I quickly discovered that what are listed as vegetarian meals are often, in fact, side dishes and learned to scale up the portion sizes accordingly. Even so, after several dinners that were essentially just boiled vegetables, we turned to peanut butter on toast as a second course. 

  • Savoury baked fish: White fish fillets are covered in grated onion, sliced tomato, parsley and breadcrumbs, before being baked. This was quite tasty, although the cooking times left the onion a little raw and the fish slightly overdone.
  • ‘Spanish’ rice: The inverted commas are needed here, as there wasn’t much that the Spaniards would recognise in this dish. Rice is boiled with grated onion, grated carrot and diced tomato, stirred with Cheddar cheese and curry powder, then poured into a wetted moulds to set before turning out. I had learned my lesson from the still-raw onion of the previous night, so I deviated from the recipe slightly by gently frying the onion before beginning. It wasn’t a sophisticated meal, but it was soft and gooey, with a background warmth from curry powder. Comforting, nursery food.
  • Green salad (side dish): A much more classic salad than the pineapple and banana number mentioned above, this contained cucumber, tomato, radish and lettuce. The French dressing was delicious (if a little incongruous when paired with the Spanish rice) and is a recipe I'll definitely return to.
  • Vegetable hotpot: Sliced vegetables - potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, celery, turnips, onions and lentils - are layered with dabs of butter, then stock is added to the pot and it is baked for an hour and a half. The result soft and bland, though inoffensive. Proof that most things are improved by a poached egg and a good grind of pepper. 
  • Curried lentils with rice: I was relieved to find a dish where onions not boiled, but gently fried in fat - here, with curry powder added for the last minute. Lentils, desiccated coconut, sultanas and stock are then added and simmered until soft. Although it did not have the depth of flavour I have come to expect from a dal, it was sweet and warming. 
  • Spaghetti tomatoes: This was one of several recipes for stuffed tomatoes in this book. You start by halving and hollowing large tomatoes. Chopped cooked spaghetti is mixed with a white sauce and the tomato pulp, spooned into the tomatoes and covered with croutons and grated cheese. Bake in the oven or under the grill until golden brown. It was like a fresher, tastier version of tinned spaghetti hoops. 
  • Apple flan: A recipe that shows simple is best. You need nothing more than very crisp, slightly sweetened pastry crowned with a ring of sliced apples. There is no frangipane or icing, but it is spread with a mix of butter and sugar that turns the apples a golden, caramel brown upon baking.
  • Household cake: The cakes in this book aren't the decadent, multi-layered, over-iced affairs of the modern day. The idea of a cake for a special occasion is a fruit cake packed with dried cherries, currants, sultanas, raisins, peel, almonds and spices. This a more simple, everyday cake that uses less fruit, fat and eggs. I was concerned it would be dense, with only 1 egg and a method of mixing that is more similar to making a crumble than beating air into a cake. Yet, though thin, this cake is glorious and rather light. Crisp on the outside with a very soft, buttery crumb in the middle. It’s light enough to eat every day, but tasty enough to feel like a treat. It’s the type of thing my granny would have eaten with a wedge of cheese and my dad would spread liberally with butter, but I think it’s best eaten unadulterated. It works equally well in a lunchbox or with a cup of tea in the afternoon. Recipe below.
Savoury baked fish
'Spanish' rice
Apple flan
Spaghetti tomatoes

 

 

Household cake

 

Ingredients

  • 6oz flour (or 4oz flour and 2oz ground rice)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • A little grated nutmeg
  • 3oz of sugar
  • 3oz butter
  • 2oz currants
  • 2oz sultanas
  • 1oz peel
  • 1 egg
  • Milk and water

Method

  1. Grease tin and line the bottom only with greased paper.
  2. Prepare fruit (I presume this means weigh out!)
  3. Mix flour, salt and baking powder.
  4. Rub in fat until the mixture is like fine crumbs.
  5. Add beaten egg and sufficient milk to make a slack dough.
  6. Mix in fruit. 
  7. Put into tin and bake in a moderate oven (I baked at 180°C) for 45 minutes - 1 hour. Test with a hot skewer or a hat pin (I love this!). 

Cookbook review: Fresh India, Meera Sodha

Have you ever been so captivated by a novel that its story weaves with the fabric of daily life, until the characters seem real and you long to return to them each evening? For me, this captivation process is intensified by cookbooks, which not only introduce you to new characters (flavours, ingredients, dishes), but instruct you on how to bring them to life in your home. The best cookbooks are a unique form of storytelling that empowers the reader to recreate what is on the page.

And so it is that I have been enthralled by the writing of Meera Sodha, who many fellow Bristolians may know for her collaborations with the local Thali Cafes. Her latest cookbook, Fresh India, has become indispensable to the evenings and weekends that I spend in the kitchen. I can no longer remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with its tastes and smells, the rhythm of thrice washing rice or the sizzle of curry leaves, mustard seeds and spices jumping in hot oil.

On a recent trip to Kerala, the time that I spent cooking with our host impressed upon me how quick, fresh and vibrant Indian cuisine can be. It was rare for her to leave something for a long marinade or patiently build a rich sauce; instead, the meal’s building blocks (usually vegetables) were thrown into a wok with an instinctive mix of coconut, tamarind and ground spices. Alongside these distinctive South Indian flavours, I was surprised to encounter more familiar ingredients such as beetroot, squash and beans, with their earthy flavours enhanced by the interplay of spices. 

This light and lively style of cooking is championed by Meera Sodha in Made in India and, more recently, her vegetarian book Fresh India. The latter opens with her reflections on the ‘Gujurati way’: fresh, vegetable-first and totally at odds with the heavy, brown curries often associated with Indian takeaways. Happily, the Gujurati way also complements seasonal British produce. Indeed, Meera’s influences from Gujurat and her travels across India are merged with ingredients from her upbringing in Lincolnshire – leek, cauliflower, beets and chard. 

In this way, Fresh India not only offers a creative style that is alive with aromatic flavours, but also encourages us to cook in a way that is good for our health and the environment. 

Squash, black-eyed bean and coconut curry

Initial impressions: structure and style

It is hardly a surprise to find that Meera, who was taught to cook by her mother, writes like a mother – in equal measure practical and nostalgic. She at once provides practical advice and reminisces about the stories linked to each recipe. 

Fresh India opens with Sodha’s essential cookery tips, including sections on how to use the book, helpful weights and measures and her top ten tips for raising your game in the kitchen. Practical suggestions continue to be peppered throughout the books, from presentation skills to menu ideas to a glossary of pulses.For me, the alternative contents has been a particularly accessible method of encouraging my first forays into the book, with suggestions for midweek meals, weekend cooking, lunch boxes, batch cooking, allotment gluts and seasonal recipes. 

Her early emphasis on cooking with the seasons is carried forward into the structure, with chapters focussed on ‘hero ingredients’ such as greens, roots and squashes, or aubergines. This ingredient-led format helps us to eat both seasonally and economically – where a dish only requires half a butternut squash, for instance, there will be a recipe on the following page for using the leftovers.

Sodha’s pragmatism is rooted in a respect for ingredients and an understanding of how to bring the best out of each one. She advises us to cook onions for as long as possible so they are sweet and mellow, or to take the time to decorate dishes because we eat with our eyes. Her affection for food spills out in the preamble for each chapter and recipe, where we learn the story of the dish’s inception: who inspired it, the memories attached to it and how she has made it her own.

 From the tales of the best street food traders in India to the rhythms of rural life in a Lincolnshire farming village, her recipes and the people behind them are threaded together by shared flavours. It is these stories, told in Meera’s bright, honest writing style, that capture my imagination and make me yearn to cook her food.

Frequently found flavours: ingredients that appear often

Although Meera features dishes from across the Indian subcontinent, there are certain ingredients that she returns to again and again, with a particular focus on the vibrant, piquant flavours of Western and Southern India. Tamarind, coconut, ginger, green chilli, garam masala, cumin, coriander, tumeric, chickpea flour and lentils all abound in Fresh India. Often, there is a quick tarka of curry leaves, mustard seeds and spices sizzled in oil, then used to crown the dish.

Some of the recipes include almost all of these ingredients to create many layers of fresh, clean flavour. In the vegetable sambar, a traditional yellow lentil stew from South India, sturdy vegetables like squash and aubergine stage the sweet-sour dance of tamarind and coconut with the zing of chilli, fenugreek, cumin and coriander. And then there are surprising ingredients more typically associated with other regions, such as the presence of pomegranate and bulgar wheat showcasing the historical fusion of flavours between the Middle East and India.

Meera also champions to produce more familiar to the British cook: beans, brassicas, pumpkin, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and onions are all elevated by aromatic Indian flavours. For instance, there is shredded roti with red cabbage and carrot, cauliflower korma, kale subji and corn on the cob in peanut sauce. Even the humble potato is transformed, whether crushed with creamed coconut and spices to fill chickpea dosas or married with classic Gujarati spices in a rainbow chard aloo.

Butternut squash shikh kebabs, Fresh India

New favourites: recipes I now cook regularly

The diversity of recipes in Fresh India means that I can, and do, cook from it throughout the week without feeling like I am eating the same cuisine every night. 

Having so far cooked from the book during autumn and winter, I have naturally gravitated towards the recipes with seasonal squash, pumpkin and root vegetables at their heart. A favourite has been the gentle, comforting olan, in which squash is roasted until its edges caramelised, then cooked until it almost collapses into a sauce of soft, jammy tomatoes, tender black-eyed beans and coconut milk. Squash has also graced our dining table in a more vibrant guise, dressed in a tangy marinade of coriander, garlic, green chilli and spices for the Portuguese-inspired cafreal.

Quick curries that appear often in our kitchen include the bhara baingan (aubergine and pea) and the chana saag (spinach, tomato and chickpea). Many recipes also work well for packed lunches guaranteed to induce envious comments from colleagues. Sweet-smoky butternut squash shikh kebabs are perfect wrapped in parathas, with greens and a mint yogurt to sooth the gentle heat of ginger, chilli and cumin. The ‘hara bara’ kebabs, bright with greens and fresh herbs, are also easy to transport and need nothing more than the bitter-sweet burnt lime raita and a crunchy green salad alongside. 

Banana and cardamom buns, Fresh India
Sweet saffron strained yogurt, Meera Sodha

Next on the menu: dishes I’m planning to make

During a recent Cookbook Club evening inspired by Meera Sodha, it dawned on me during the dessert course that I have yet to set forth into the sweet section of Fresh India. Within the next few weeks, I promise to fill my tins with pistachio, orange and date biscuits, whilst my fridge will house a jar of gulab jamuns - little milk doughnuts fried until they turn the colour of caramel, then soaked in rose syrup. The rhubarb and ginger compote crown my daily porridge, whilst the Bengal baked curd with tamarind berries will be a weekend treat. 

I’m also longing for the imminent arrival of spring and summer vegetables, so that I can get stuck into the chapters exploring greens and aubergines. I’ll be starting with the aubergine fesenjan in its sour-sweet sauce of pomegranate and walnut, and the baby aubergines cooked in a rich, tangy gravy of peanut, coconut and coriander. Matar paneer will be sublime with the sweetest summer tomatoes to accompany its greens and I dream of warm evenings, when I can sit outside with a glass of white wine and a plate full of leek, pea and mint samosas. 

 

Sweet or savoury, Meera Sodha’s recipes have brightened my hurried al-desko lunches and warmed the coldest winter evenings; I’m equally certain they will compliment the summer season. It’s unsurprising, then, that I heartily recommend Fresh India to everyone I encounter, vegetarian or not. After all, this is not really a vegetarian cookbook, but rather a book filled with delicious recipes that happen to be vegetarian. From sturdy root vegetables to delicate dairy products, Meera’s aromatic spicing animates even the most unassuming ingredient and showcases the best seasonal produce. 

Matar Paneer, Fresh India

Cookbook review: Simple, Diana Henry

Flourless chocolate cake

Much has been said about Diana Henry as a food writer who reads, whose voracious appetite for literature (epicurean or otherwise) has influenced the development of her own evocative voice. Yet, for me, it is equally important that she is a food writer who cooks - not in a restaurant kitchen, but in a home kitchen. 

In Simple, as in her other books, Henry’s experience of cooking at home is evident in her honest way of looking at food. She acknowledges that most of us never buy the utensils listed in the ‘cooking equipment’ section; she understands that many of us require meals that are quick to prepare; she reflects the change in our eating habits, with fish, vegetables, grains and pulses receiving as much consideration as meat dishes.

Cook Simple (2004) was a guide for less confident or time-poor cooks, perhaps those balancing a baby in one hand and a baking tray in the other, who required low-effort cooking. Whilst Simple retains this practical outlook, Henry offers a wider range of techniques and flavours to transform simple ingredients into something special. From refreshing salads to hearty, comforting meals and make-aways, this is not only food that you can cook, but food that you really, really want to cook. 

Initial impressions: structure and style

The structure of Simple supports readers to build layers of flavour: each chapter is based on a key building block for a meal, which is then assembled in a variety of different ways. There are chapters on eggs, salads, pulses, pasta and grains, fish, chicken, and so on. There is even, much to my delight, a chapter dedicated to toast. 

This structure is flexible, so you can use chapters (or blocks) both independently and together. For instance, the aubergine, chickpea, walnut and date recipe from the Pulses block is a wonderful side for a dish from the Roasts chapter, but works equally well on its own as a light lunch. Henry encourages the reader not only to combine, but to adapt, recipes - perhaps adding a grain to make a dish more substantial, or substituting one green for another depending on the season.

Each chapter features Henry’s reflections on the food group at its focus, written in her evocative style. We are transported to a quiet trattoria in suburban Rome to experience the joy of pasta; we trudge to the university spud van when, as a 2am essay crisis hits, only a jacket potato will do; and we kick off our shoes and turn up the music as we tuck into a hot dog. Together, we take in the simplest of pleasures: toast with butter or making a quick meal from a can of beans, a tin of anchovies. 

Each vivid memory precedes practical advice on how to cook the ingredient in question. We are told how to prepare pasta to retain its flavour and bite, rather than overcooking or cloaking it in a sauce, and to cook eggs with care to create a luxurious, silky texture. At each turn, Henry’s eloquent descriptions persuade us, and her instructions guide us, to bring the best out of every ingredient. 

Aubergine, chickpea, walnut & date
Root, shiitake and noodle salad

Frequently found flavours: ingredients that appear often

Throughout Simple, international ingredients are used to elevate more familiar flavours. Henry’s longstanding affection for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines is especially evident. Pomegranate brings out the natural sweetness of roasted carrots and appears again later, this time with olives and chickpeas, to brighten a warm cauliflower salad.  Aubergine, preserved lemons, feta, tahini, dates, sumac and many other Middle Eastern items also appear regularly.

Other common ingredients stem from Henry’s research into colder climates for Roast Figs, Sugar Snow - spelt, caraway, blackberries. Dill is particularly prevalent. It appears often in the fish chapter, but its faintly aniseed flavour is also used elsewhere to balance creamy feta or to add clean, fresh notes to harissa roast carrots. Then there is spice and sweetness from Asia. Miso stands up to the robust, earthy flavours of root vegetables and mackerel, and a chilli, ginger and lime dressing heats up cool greens for a sprightly summer salad. 

And it’s not always international ingredients that transform suppers into something special. Crab, for instance, adds an element of luxury to more everyday ingredients, from toast to pasta to cod. Vermouth, too, is ubiquitous, lending character and complexity to roast lamb, baked tomatoes or a prawn pilaf. In these recipes, Henry shows that everything from the local catch in your fishmongers to the bottle of booze gathering dust at the back of your cupboard can be used to create variety in your cooking. 

New favourites: recipes I now cook regularly

As is the sign of any good cookbook, there are now a number of recipes from Simple that are on regular rotation in our house, as well as others that are reserved for more special occassions. 

Pappardelle with cavolo nero, chilli, garlic and hazelnuts has become a go-to speedy supper, for it is simple and frugal, yet very tasty. The root, shiitake and noodle salad is the solution when we have been craving something fresh and vibrant, yet seasonal, during the winter months. By the opposite token, the orzo with lemon and parmesan has offered rich, oozy comfort on cold nights curled up on the sofa. 

We’ve made the salmon en papillote and the prawn pilaf, both from the fish section, for several weekday dinners. For an alternative to a Sunday roast, I recommend both the parmesan roast chicken with cauliflower and the Moroccan-spiced chicken with aubergine and dates. Follow up with the bitter flourless chocolate cake, crowned by whiskey-laced coffee cream, and you’re in food heaven. 

Pappardelle with cavolo nero (2)
Pappardelle with cavil nero

Next on the menu: dishes I’m planning to make

Henry’s food inspires joy, both in the cooking and the eating, and there are many untried recipes that make me excited for the future moments I will spend in the kitchen. I am particularly looking forward to the arrival of spring produce, when the rhubarb and raspberry crumble cake is first on my list, closely followed by the asparagus with goat’s cheese and the griddled courgette with burrata and fregola.  

For a devotee of breakfast foods, I’ve surprisingly not yet made in-roads to the chapters on eggs and toast. On weekend mornings from here-on in, I hope to be found with a slice (or two) of sourdough piled high with Persian-inspired eggs, dates and chilli or with boozy mushrooms sautéed in cream and vermouth. Both dishes speak to me of something simple, yet utterly sumptuous. 

These are clever recipes. With no-fuss cooking methods, interesting flavour combinations and real respect for each ingredient, Diana Henry empowers us to create food at its finest.  

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Cookbook review: Honey & Co, The Baking Book

Honey & Co Baking Book

Growing up, our adolescent strops, first sips of wine, tears, teasing, debates and celebrations all took place in the kitchen or around the family dinner table. The best food writers understand the power of these small, ordinary stories to bring recipes to life. In Honey & Co: The Baking Book, Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich use evocative anecdotes of daily life in their restaurant to entice readers. Perhaps you will be tempted to try the peach, vanilla and fennel seed loaves inspired by their publisher, the pistachio cookies flown across the Atlantic by a Canadian customer, or Fitzrovia’s take on the Chelsea bun.  Whichever recipe you choose, Sarit’s reassuring, practical advice is there to guide you in the art of making golden, flavourful baked goods.

Find my full review of Honey & Co: The Baking Book over on Food at Heart.

Honey & Co Baking Book (3)
Honey & Co Baking Book (2)

Cookbook review: Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Jerusalem was my first Ottolenghi cookbook and remains one of the most-thumbed on my kitchen shelf. I became acquainted with Ottolenghi through his Guardian column, but the limitations of Dorset’s supermarkets made our encounters brief. When owning Jerusalem coincided with a move to London and its more readily available ingredients, I opened the door a new realm of flavours from the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean. A love affair began.

Much has been said about food’s ability to transcend the geopolitical and religious divisions of the city to which this book pays homage. Jerusalem’s power lies not in portraying dishes that ‘belong’ to certain groups, but in exploring ingredients and techniques that create affinities between them. Thus, the yogurt of an Armenian soup reappears in a conchiglie dish that hints at Ottolenghi’s Italian paternity.

Yet what makes the recipes appealing is something more visceral than their subtle interweaving of Jerusalem’s ‘immense tapestry of cuisines’. It is nostalgia. Jerusalem is suffused with a child’s appreciation of food not for its complex origins or ingredients, but for the comfort it brings. This is food the authors ate at home or bought from street food stalls. Recipes feature the classics – including iconic chicken sofrito or a chapter on hummus – and their families’ variations on the classics, from Yotam’s mother’s stuffed peppers to Sami’s mother’s fattoush.

The duo’s focus on their preferred flavours instead of an (impossible) attempt to give a full overview of Jerusalem’s cuisine, gives them licence to be playful. For instance, the ‘open kibbeh’ appears unrecognisable from the classic deep-fried croquette, yet retains all the essential components – bulgar, minced meat, spices and pine nuts. Other recipes, as a sweet potato and fig salad illustrates, are even less traditional and are only loosely inspired by Jerusalem’s flavours.

This unconstrained attitude to recipe writing ensures that Jerusalem offers something for everyone. Time-consuming showpieces for the adventurous cook, from maqluba to chicken with caramelised onion and cardamom rice. Side dishes made decadent by saffron or pomegranate molasses. Heavenly vegetarian numbers like chermoula aubergine with bulgar and yogurt, a well-balanced cauliflower and hazelnut salad or brunch favourite shakshuka.

My most cherished recipes, however, are the simplest. Sabih: plump fried aubergine, hard-boiled eggs, chopped salad, spicy zhoug and mango pickle, all served on thick, fresh pitta. An unassuming parsley and barley salad whose sharp, fresh flavours are so impressive that my sister requested it at her wedding feast. And, best of all, mejadra, in which four inexpensive ingredients – onions, lentils, rice and spice – combine to make a truly comforting meal.

Mejadra, like many other dishes in Jerusalem, remind us that the best food arises from a humble need to feed your family that surpasses religious or political entanglements.

 

Mejadra recipe

*I use brown rice, which requires extra cooking time. Simply cook it with, and add to the mixture at the same time as, the lentils.

“This ancient dish, popular throughout the Arab world, is also one of our most loved. The fried onion, with its sweet oiliness and slight crunch, is the secret…. The two of us can spend many pointless hours discussing what makes the best comfort food and why, but never seem to reach any kind of serious conclusion. Mejadra, however, is where the dispute ends. When served alongside yogurt with cucumber, or just plain Greek yogurt, the sweetly spiced rice and lentils strewn with soft fried onion is as comforting as it gets in Jerusalem”

 

Ingredients 

serves 6

Mejadra
  • 250 grams green or brown lentils
  • 4 medium onions (700g before peeling)
  • 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • approx. 250ml sunflower oil
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 200g basmati rice, or brown rice
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 350ml cups water
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Method

  1. Place the lentils (and brown rice, if using) in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain and set aside.
  2. Peel the onions and slice thinly. Place on a large, flat plate, sprinkle with the flour and one teaspoon salt, and mix well with your hands. Heat the sunflower oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan placed over high heat. Make sure the oil is hot by throwing in a small piece of onion; it should sizzle vigorously. Reduce the heat to medium-high and fry the onion in batches for at least five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until it takes on a golden brown color and turns crispy. Use the spoon to transfer the onion to a colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt.
  3. Wipe the saucepan in which you fried the onion clean and put in the cumin and coriander seeds. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, half teaspoon salt, and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the oil and then add the cooked lentils and the water. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes.
  4. Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, and quickly cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes. Finally, add half the fried onion to the rice and lentils and stir gently with a fork. Pile the mixture in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion.
  5. Serve with a fresh salad or seasonal greens.