Looking for a Christmas present for someone? Look no further. . . Food writer Nicola Miller gives us a taste of some must-have cookery books
2017 has been a vintage year for cookbooks and food writing and this year’s crop is so exceptional, it’s made writing this guide rather hard. But Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a few cookbooks under the tree so decisions have had to be made.
As always I have chosen a mix of recently published books and some from earlier this year because I strongly believe that a good book should be celebrated for all of its life, not just during publication month.
The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate, £26)
“Winter food is about both celebration and survival. It is about feasting and frugality. It is the food of hope,” writes Slater in his deeply atmospheric paean to winter in all its pale, frosted glory. Recipes and helpful advice on seasonal cooking are interspersed with meditations on Christmas markets, a useful guide to tree buying and decoration, and the origins of Advent calendars. This chunky little book is an essential winter read to be brought out year after year.
Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar by Michael Harlan Turkell (Abrams Books)
Travelling through the USA, France, Austria, and Japan, Turkell takes his readers on an absorbing journey through the world of vinegar, an ingredient that many people take for granted but one which has as its ‘mother’, a complex interweaving of history, terroir, craft, and science. For those of you whose tastebuds are piqued, Turkell has thoughtfully included recipes from many leading chefs, including a delightful honey za’atar vinaigrette and an autumnal brown butter balsamic mushroom dish with hazelnut and sage.
Mushrooms by Jenny Linford (Ryland Peters, £14.99)
The latest book in Linford’s excellent series of single-ingredient cookbooks (she has previously written about tomatoes, garlic and home-made yogurt and cheeses), this is so much more than just a cookbook. As well as useful guides to wild and cultivated mushrooms, Jenny tells us how to preserve them, introduces us to growers and foragers and relates fascinating tales of fungi folklore. The recipes are delicious too. Try the mushroom and chorizo picnic pasties, a tofu and mushroom hotpot and a glorious crab, mushroom, and fennel salad.
At My Table by Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus £26)
Hailed as a return to home cooking, which has, at its core, a reflexiveness borne out of whatever is in the fridge or larder, the structure of Nigella’s latest book reflects this. Recipes flow from Nigella’s own kitchen where ingredients are repeated, techniques exist to be played with, and food, above all, should be nourishing, delicious and fun. Some highlights? The genius toasted brie, fig and parma ham sandwich, a comforting chicken barley (Nigella does chicken so well), a bowl filled with golden Moroccan vegetables and a delicate ginger wine syllabub are all written in her trademark warm and informed prose. This is a book you’ll definitely want to cook from.
Food in Vogue by Vogue Editors (Abrams, £55)
This is a real treat of a book with a price to match, filled with the best in food writing from American Vogue, and lavishly illustrated with iconic photographs by some of the world’s best photographers to celebrate the magazine’s 125th anniversary. Irving Penn, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Eric Boman and Elliot Erwin’s fantastic images of Julia Child are all featured as are food essays by Jeffrey Steingarten (of The Man Who Ate Everything fame), Tamar Adler and Rob Haskell along others. Sophie Kerr’s essay about the rise of the self-professed gourmet, written in 1948, is as pertinent today as it was back then. Utterly absorbing.
Roasting Tray Magic by Sue Quinn (Quadrille £14)
No matter how much we love cooking, there are times when getting dinner on the table in an easy, swift manner trumps deep-dive culinary explorations. The wonderful thing about this book is that it teaches you how to do just that without sacrificing flavour and a sense of achievement. It’s perfect for less experienced cooks too. Using just a roasting tin, you’ll be turning out berry and banana breakfast traybake, pork belly with smoky beans, and maple and lime roasted squash in no time.
Two Kitchens: Family Recipes From Sicily and Rome by Rachel Roddy (Saltyard Books, £25)
Rachel Roddy is a born storyteller, someone whose keen interest in people shines through in prose which has, at its heart, the folks she encounters in her exploration of the food cultures of Rome and Gela, a city on the south coast of Sicily. As she says ‘ask someone to show you how to cook something and there’s a good chance you will get more than a recipe’ and in this, her second book, Rachel elegantly draws together tales of the people, places and foods that are familiar to her. An essay on chopping onions is as fine a piece of food writing as I can remember reading and her delicious recipes are seasonal and designed to suit our busy family lives.
A Taste of Paris: a History of the Paris Love Affair with Food by David Downie (St Martins Press)
What is it about the history of Paris that has made it a food lovers paradise asks Downie, and in this gastronomic and literary walking tour, he proceeds to tell us. He asks if the legendary Parisian love of food and drink is genetic or a myth constructed along the lines of the French Paradox; tells tales of the Romans who ate live oysters brought in from the Atlantic, 32-course medieval banquets and where the first restaurant was opened; explores how restaurant reviewing originated in the city and addresses how food, wine and entertaining became highbrow activities. If you’re planning a trip to Paris, this is the book to take with you.
The Chefs Library: Favourite Cookbooks From the World’s Great Kitchens by Jenny Linford (Abrams, £25)
Published last October, this book is a treasure trove for lovers of cookbooks, a perennially useful and engrossing guide to some of the most useful and inspiring books, all of them selected by 70 highly respected chefs all over the world. Think of this as a voyage through their bookshelves. The book is cleverly divided into three, easily cross-referenced sections: the favourite cookbooks of acclaimed chefs such as Sally Clarke, Ken Hom and Stevie Parle; a chapter on influential, classic texts from chefs and restaurants, and lastly, a cookbook directory which draws together the genre in all its diversity taking us on a journey through regional cuisines, books which hone in on a particular aspect of cooking and the historical voices that continue to shape how chefs, and we, cook. It’s an astonishing piece of work.
Peppers of the Americas: Exploring the Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavour by Maricel E. Presilla (Ten Speed Press)
A single foodstuff can serve as a kind of culinary lens and this sumptuous book on peppers showcases 250 varieties, placing them in their anthropological context. Forty creative recipes accompanied by tasting notes will help you cook with them, but after reading this book, you will also have a better grasp of the history, geopolitics, and botany of peppers in the context of their original birthplace, the Americas, and the fruits subsequent migration around the world. Presilla’s authorly voice is conversational and accessible yet underpinned by a scholars knowledge and her recipes are superb.
Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Beyond by Olia Hercules (Mitchell Beazley £25)
Filled with both flavour combinations and ingredients I have never heard of before, Kaukasis is the second book by Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules. How does one unite the idea of a childhood journey, memories and feelings of nostalgia with a new-found knowledge of the Caucasus and its people, Hercules asks in her introduction and proceeds to do this with page after page of recipes and stories. Kaukasis is imbued with her passionate interest in the people she spent time with as she travelled through the region and she has an inimitable ability to translate this into well-tested recipes you will want to cook.
Market Cooking by David Tanis (Artisan £32)
This seasonal journey around a French market arranged around ingredients, the art of seasoning well, and lastly, a clear exposition on kitchen essentials
(pasta, noodles, eggs, home culturing and the art of broth) is a welcome return by Tanis who not only writes beautifully, but knows how to craft an easily-followed recipe too. These can be detailed and precise in form or, as he writes, presented in a more suggestive fashion, to allow cooks to add or subtract as they see fit, but underpinning it all is an insistence on teaching readers the importance of technique and how to buy and use good ingredients. He’s really good about reminding us to look afresh at the often-unsung workhorses of the larder (such as alliums), allowing them to shine in recipes which roam beyond the confines of the French canon.