Tag Archives: books

My top 5 cookbooks

Today I’m taking inspiration from Ruth, whose post on this topic made me curious as to which cookery books I’d select from my largish collection as being my favourites. In the end the choice was quite simple – there really is only a handful of recipe books that I keep going back to again and again. So here are my five, with a brief bit of information about what makes each one  a firm favourite…

1. Good Housekeeping Cookery Book

50th Anniversary edition – published by Random House, 1998

If I had to pick just one cookery book to keep from here to eternity, I think this would be it. Unless I’m looking for something from a particular cuisine (e.g. Indian), this is invariably the place I look first for inspiration. It strikes – for me – exactly the right balance between traditional and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, manageable and challenging, healthy and tasty, text and pictures. It is mercifully free of both pretentiousness and over-simplification while including really helpful selections on buying, storing and preparing everyday foodstuffs as well as more unusual ingredients.

For me, the test of a good cookery book is whether most of the recipes are such that, if they were to appear in a magazine, you would cut them out and keep them. I can open this book at any page and immediately find something delicious.

As a result, it’s extremely difficult to pick out a favourite recipe or two, but the rabbit casserole with red wine and sherry and the filo pastries with feta and herb filling are certainly a couple that I’ve made quite often.

2. The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook

(German edition: Vegetarische Küche)

Originally published by Konemann UK, 1997

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat a lot of food that is, plus I have several friends who don’t eat meat. Given that it’s not healthy to eat meat every day in any case, I get exasperated at people who either think it’s not a proper meal if it doesn’t contain meat, or whose world order disintegrates if it turns out that one of their dinner guests is vegetarian.

The back story to this recipe book is that M and I originally bought it as a gift for a friend who was finding it hard to find inspiring things to cook for his vegetarian partner and had developed an “awkward” tendency to diss vegetarian food. Sensing that a gentle nudge in the right direction was needed, we chose carefully, wanting to avoid anything that was too reminiscent of his “rabbit food and lentils” stereotype of vegetarian food and looking instead for something that fitted in with his own tastes.

This book ticked all the right boxes – modern, fresh ideas with plenty of Mediterranean influences as well as forays into Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines: exactly the kinds of things our friend loves to cook (and so do we, which is why we ended up buying a second copy of the book). There is also an excellent section on nutrition at the front of the book, which is well worth a read in itself and is certainly not restricted to vegetarians in its scope.

This being a very recent addition to the cookbook shelves, I haven’t actually made any of the recipes yet but have already pored over it for hours working up quite an appetite. I love the look (and the imagined flavour) of the hummus with beetroot, there’s a great-sounding carrot lasagne (yes, really!), and I can’t wait to try some of the savoury scones, muffins and polenta recipes.

3. 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi

(German edition: Indische Currys)

originally published by Kyle Cathie, 2004

Funnily enough, this book was a gift from the friend mentioned above, and although I already possessed several Indian cookery books (including The Curry Cookbook, a throwback to my student days…), this one quickly became my favourite.

It’s an almost ritualistic book – each recipe is prefaced by an interesting explanation of any unusual features and about the part of India and/or cultural milieu the dish comes from, and Panjabi cuts no corners in the preparation of each: no ready-made spice mixes, purees or pastes are used, and whole spices form the starting point for almost all the recipes.

The detailed introduction is a real culinary eye-opener and adds considerably to this ritualistic feel, explaining – among other things – the philosophy of Indian cuisine, the impact that the method and order of preparing / adding your spices has on the flavour of the dish (dry-roasting, frying in oil, when to add liquid etc.), the importance of balancing ingredients such as ginger and garlic (the former raises blood pressure, while the latter lowers is), and different ways of using and combining ingredients.

My favourite recipes from this book are the lamb madras, chicken dopiaza, and aubergine curry. The most surprisingly delicious one has to be the watermelon curry, which I thought would be awful but actually works really well.

4. Backen! (= Baking!)

(only available in German, as far as I know)

published by Gräfe & Unzer, 2005

I don’t bake much as I find it quite scary, and the reason I find it scary is probably that I don’t bake much. Nevertheless, I thought it was important to have a good staple cookery book for baked goods so that I couldn’t use the lack of a suitable book as a further reason not to wield the hand-mixer. And this is the one I settled on.

Its 450-odd pages are jam-packed with recipes, usefully subdivided into common or garden cakes, cakes with fresh fruit, gateaux (Torten), muffins and pastries, biscuits and cookies, bread, pizza and savouries, with the odd but welcome addition of a final – and very detailed – section on coffee and tea. Most sections are further divided according to what kind of pastry, dough or cake mixture  (the word Teig covers all of these) forms the basis for the recipe – Rührteig, Mürbteig, Hefeteig, Blätterteig, Brandteig, Plunderteig, Sauerteig, Quark-Öl-Teig or whatever.

I have a friend who is a very proficient baker, and she dislikes this book as it doesn’t have any pictures. “I want to see how it’ll look when it’s finished!” she protests. Given that the stuff I bake only rarely comes out looking as it’s supposed to, I hardly feel that I need see this as a disadvantage. While pretty pictures can be appetizing and nice to look at, there’s nothing I dislike more than cookery books where more than 50% of the entire book consists of pictures. This book contains 888 recipes, and that’s the reason why I bought it.

My occasional forays into baking have seen me make several of the savouries in this book – they’re fantastic for parties, picnics or feeding a crowd in other situations – and there’s a rather fabulous baked cherry ricotta cheesecake with an amarettini base and almond topping. Yum!

5. Farmhouse Kitchen

published by Yorkshire Television, 1975

This is a 1970s cookery book based on the Yorkshire TV series of the same name. It has a glorious naffness to it as a result, but also some hidden jewels that are priceless – please bear with me while I explain.

As the name suggests, the emphasis is on traditional cooking, and as I’m someone who’s interested in the history of food and its part in culture, that’s something I’m all for preserving. Many of the recipes are submitted by viewers from all over the country, so there is a lot in terms of regional variety. There are some pretty odd sounding concoctions in part (there is one recipe called “Love in disguise” which seems to be stuffed sheep’s hearts, and a “Thatched house pie” that requires “1 dressed pigeon”(??) as its main ingredient), including some of those inimitable 1970s attempts at crossover cuisine: sausages in sweet and sour sauce, anyone?

Many of the recipes still bear the signs of postwar thrift – using cheaper cuts of meat, making the most of leftovers, preserving food – and reveal skills and a standard of nutritional value many people struggle to keep up with today. It’s good to have a book like this in the house, to remind you of what home economics really is about.

Despite the oddness of some of the recipes, there are some really reliable ones for traditional favourites such as Yorkshire parkin, old-fashioned puddings (pineapple upside-down pudding – yay!) and a whole range of good, wholesome comfort food. I’m also determined to try some of the pickles and chutneys, maybe even the wine recipes.

The best thing about this book, though, is the fact that it belonged to my grandmother, and I kept it mainly because here and there in between the pages there are scraps of paper she’d scribbled her own recipe memos on (some of these pre-date the book, including one for home made “pietsa” (her spelling was actually very good, but pizza was simply not so common in Britain back then)), or newspaper cuttings, leaflets and so on. The value of the book itself only became apparent to me later.

Snippets from Grandma's cookery book

If you are interested in seeing what other people picked as their top 5 cookbooks, you can find out here.

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On not judging a book by its cover

Earlier this week, Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) posted the following story on Twitter. I found it so striking that I asked if I could reproduce it here (he kindly said yes).

Talked to a woman tonight who grew up in tough town in north east of England and in her teens it all went horribly wrong … [O]ne day her teacher told her to stay after class and instead of the bollocking she was expecting he said ‘you think you’re nothing but you’re not’, and gave her a copy of ‘1984’. And then another book a week later and then another. Her friends’ lives stalled, one dying of a heroin overdose that could have killed her; but she went on to Cambridge and a PhD and is now a priest – because someone disagreed with her self-assessment as worthless and gave her a book.

This tale really speaks for itself, so I’m not going to distract from its value with a long commentary. What is clear, though, is not just the enduring power of books and reading as food for the soul, spirit or whatever you want to call it, but – more pointedly – how important it is to recognize and believe in people’s (often hidden) potential, and to act on your instincts in this area. I have no idea how many other pupils this teacher may have provided with books nor with what degree of  “success”, but somehow that pales into insignificance against the life-changing (or even life-saving) effect it clearly had on this one individual.

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Books

I was an avid reader as a child and teenager, but my eight years spent as a student and having to read stuff constantly for university largely – and sadly – put paid to the idea of reading for pleasure. However, a couple of years ago I was invited to join an English-language reading group here in Freiburg, set up by a friend together with a colleague of hers, and I’ve grown to love it.

We meet monthly to discuss a book, and the suggestions for books to read come from within the group. We’re fairly international, with three Americans, two Brits (one Scottish, one Welsh), a South African and three Germans (all with absolutely excellent English), and I think all of us come from a background where we have studied, taught and/or been engaged professionally in some other way with English literature.

Here are some brief comments on my six favourites out of the books we have read. NO spoilers here:

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt

A wonderful tale about two families in New York. The head of one is an art historian, while the other father is an artist whose work has become a source of fascination for the former. The reader explores the interaction between these families over a period of 25 years, which covers triumphs and losses, struggles and success, and it is a wonderful intermingling of personal fate and ways of looking at and living with art.

The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd

This book explores the complex relationship between the famous literary siblings Charles and Mary Lamb and the well-known forger (of Shakespeare, among other things) William Henry Ireland. It is wonderfully evocative of 19th-century London and contains elements of a love story, deceit, social pressures derived from a factual background.

Headlong – Michael Frayn

Art history and criticism form the main basis for this book, too. A philosopher married to an art historian discovers some paintings in an old house and becomes convinced that he has discovered lost work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s a wonderful detective story about determination, red herrings and someone who is willing to risk everything to prove the discovery of the century. A cast of amusing characters completes the picture.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

I read Smith’s White Teeth a few years ago and remain convinced that it is the best portrayal of multicultural life in late 20th century Britain that I have read. On Beauty didn’t quite measure up in this sense, but it is a wonderful variant on the campus novel, focusing on a British academic and his American rival. Art history, literary and cultural theory provide the academic strand here (again!), but the interactions and (mis)understandings between the two families are the main source of interest. Since then I have read David Lodge’s Small World, which I found similar in some ways (academic milieu / rivalry, trans-Atlantic differences), though Smith’s take is more serious and intricate, while Lodge’s is more flippant.

Possession – A. S. Byatt

This has to be one of the best books I have ever read. It has an awful lot in common with the other books already mentioned, in that it is a literary mystery, this time spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, intertwining the story of Victorian poets and their 20th century scholars and biographers.  Social mores, academic rivalry and the notion of “possession” in the sense of relationships and academic criticism are explored in an extremely intricate work that I found utterly convincing.

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

I have always loved Victorian novels, and this is a modern novel set in the Victorian age. The fate of a poor girl who has grown up among thieves and diverse other “dishonest” types becomes indelibly linked with that of a “poor little rich girl” who has ostensibly been shielded from all of the above. Needless to say, many things are not as they seem initially, and the narrative takes the form of an unusual love story that spans social gulfs, cruelty, fetishism and madness, and which takes numerous unexpected turns in the process. It really makes you wonder about the saying “be cruel to be kind” and its opposite.

In January we will be discussing Kazuo Ishiguru’s When We Were Orphans, which was my suggestion for our next book. We’ll have to wait and see how that goes down…

In the meantime, if any of you have read any of the books discussed here, or books by the same authors, I’d love to receive some feedback on whether you liked them.

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