The coronavirus lock-down has turned us all into home cooks, whether we want to be or not. We’ve seen large numbers of people embracing the joys of sourdough and posting social media pictures of cakes and cordials, pastries and pies. Long may it last, I say, though I suspect many new cooks will find they revert to old habits as the lock-down eases and the different rigours of ‘normal’ life ratchet up.
If you want to carry on cooking but make it fit around work and/or home schooling, here are some cookbooks I’ve found useful for easy but delicious meals, and a few more to provide inspiration for when you have the luxury of time.
If you’re in a hurry, one pan cooking is a lifesaver. Chuck everything in a tin, bung it in the oven and let it take care of itself. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The trick to successful one pot cooking is not just understanding the cooking times of various ingredients, but balancing flavours and textures.
Diana Henry is brilliant at this and as Marina O’Loughlin pointed out in a recent Sunday Times interview (paywall, sorry), it’s the “small bursts of genius … that make her recipes so remarkable.” She hasn’t written a book I don’t like but Cook Simple and From The Oven To The Table have been permanent fixtures on my kitchen table for the past few months. I’m also a fan of Rukmini Iyer’s Roasting Tin series.
Rachel Roddy‘s Guardian column and her books Five Quarters and Two Kitchens (which I missed out of my photo because I have lock-down brain) are a constant inspiration. Like Diana she writes so well it’s sometimes a while before her books make it to the kitchen from my bedside table. As the mother of a young son and partner of a vegetarian, her recipes hit the spot for so many people and she is such a friendly voice. It’s like having your favourite sister in the kitchen. Rachel has a new book out soon, The A-Z of Pasta.
Her recipe for vignarola, a Roman dish of spring vegetables braised with olive oil, white wine and water, is an absolute cracker. We ate it as a side but it was the star of the show and you could easily make it the main event, along with some crusty bread.
I’ve been revisiting books by Simon Hopkinson (for a version of his mum’s Lancashire cheese and potato pie), Elisabeth Luard and Hattie Ellis. Elisabeth’s new book, Preserving, Potting and Pickling, is quite simply brilliant. So many books in this category just trot out the same old recipes (honourable exceptions being Kylee Newton’s The Modern Preserver and Preserving by Oded Schwartz).
Elisabeth is a breath of fresh air. She roves through history and all over Europe to bring us pickles and jams, sauces and relishes, mustards, vinegars and flavoured salts and oils, syrups, cordials and infusions … and a whole raft of recipes based on store cupboard ingredients.
The book will be invaluable when I’m trying to find new ways to use up garden gluts later in the summer but I’m delving into it already. I quite fancy making my own Worcestershire Sauce and hello! artichokes pickled with fennel? I’m all over that.
Hattie’s Spoonfuls of Honey was the inspiration for my recent lemon, ginger and honey loaf cake which I know quite a few of you made and enjoyed, and contains a wealth of recipes and information about different sorts of honey, bees and their environmental importance. If that makes it sound stuffy, it isn’t. It’s a lovely book.
I came late to MiMi Aye‘s Mandalay because I was trying to have a moratorium on buying cookbooks (you can see how well that worked). It’s too easy to keep buying the next new thing without thoroughly exploring the books you already have. I’m glad I cracked though. This is a wonderful book, an evocative, loving but clear-eyed celebration of MiMi’s Burmese heritage.
I still have reservations about visiting Myanmar but as a consequence of this book I’ve taken its people and its cuisines, if not its government, to my heart. How can you not love a culture that has so many fried snacks? Obviously it’s not all about oil, but as MiMi says: “we are really keen on it.” This is such a new acquisition I haven’t yet cooked from it, but the red prawn curry, golden sticky rice, cinnamon chicken and virtually all of the noodle and pickle chapters are on my to-do list.
I’ve mentioned Roopa Gulati‘s India: The World Vegetarian previously. If you’ve watched any of her recent Instagram videos, you’ll know that she’s the most down-to-earth and likeable person and her recipes are both delicious and achievable at home. I’ve made her paneer (so easy and so good), which I cooked up with peas and tomatoes for a Punjabi staple, mattar paneer. I’m hoping her aubergines in a garlicky tomato masala, on the menu chez Portly soon, will convert my aubergine-sceptic husband but if they don’t there’ll be all the more for me.
Lara Lee‘s Coconut and Sambal covers a different Asian cuisine, or rather the vast numbers of different ones that get lumped together as Indonesian (although you could say the same about Indian food with all its regional variations). I hardly know where to start with this book, there are so many recipes I want to cook.
I’d already made Lara’s mie goreng udang, or prawn and chicken fried noodles, after seeing it featured in The Guardian ahead of publication. It was spectacularly good and I had to whip the bowl of sambal away before my husband scoffed the lot. I had plans for it, which mostly involved cooking the whole thing again very soon. And I did.
There are a lot of tofu and vegetable recipes for those who don’t eat meat and Lara gives vegan substitutes for many of the dishes. Personally, I’m dying to tuck into classics like chicken satay and nasi goreng and I’ve bookmarked several curries and the coconut beef and peanut stir-fry.
I love Gill Meller‘s books. Always written from the heart, with achingly beautiful photography from long-time collaborator Andrew Montgomery, every time I open one I want to pack up and move to the West Country and live in Gill’s garden in perpetual sunshine, while taking frequent trips to the beach where he will make delicious things to eat on a driftwood fire. However, as a grown-up (allegedly), I realise the closest I will get is to cook from the books.
His latest, Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower, although obviously written before the coronavirus pandemic struck, seems very apposite for our times. Though it’s all about fruit and veg it’s not, he says, a vegetarian cookbook per se, it’s for anyone who enjoys cooking and eating good food and is looking to broaden their repertoire of plant-based recipes.
“Beyond that,” Gill says in his introduction, “it’s a book for people who are interested in connecting with the environment, who understand the global challenges we face and who want to do their own little bit to help.” That’s probably all of us, or we hope it is. But it’s not what I’d call an “aspirational” book in the accepted sense of the word. These aren’t cheffy recipes. You don’t need to spend a fortune on ingredients you’ve never heard of, shout “oui, chef!” or master arcane techniques while wearing a preposterously tall toque.
All you need is a willingness to eat seasonally, to try new flavour combinations and textures and stuff your face with the most delicious food, some of it, hopefully, growing wild on your doorstep. His new potatoes with elderflower and lemon thyme, for example, a clever and imaginative but oh-so-simple recipe, is one I’m eager to try before the elderflowers turn into berries.
Or his green strawberry, fennel and gooseberry salad with tarragon and mint – genius. Or courgette and bean soup with marjoram, garlic and hazelnuts. What a fabulous way of using up a courgette glut. And skipping to the autumn section, a quince fumble. It’s a cross between a crumble and a fool but it’s going on my menu come October for the name alone. A lovely book and a lovely man. (I know you don’t have to like a chef to appreciate his recipes, but it helps.)
Some of these books are new, some older. If you’re buying second-hand, I recommend AbeBooks, which is often cheaper and has a wider choice than that online retail giant everyone loves to hate but most people have been known to buy from (except you, Tina B.) The Amazon links are here to make it easy for you to identify the books, but please use your local independent book shop if you can. Like a lot of small businesses, they need our help to survive this crisis and many offer mail order. Thanks!
Stop press: I’m now informed that Amazon owns Abe. How depressing. It does, however, provide a platform for used book dealers. But since I first wrote this, Bookshop has launched in the UK, allowing you to buy online from local independents. Buyer’s choice.