Best cookbooks of 2012

Cookbooks are flooding the book market as we speak and it’s hard to work out what is good and what is a flash in the pan. I buy too many cookbooks every year but I try to buy books that have what I believe to be delicious recipes. I like a cookbook to be quite clean in design, nothing too flash or savvy but most importantly the recipes have to inspire me to cook or try new and interesting flavour combinations or ingredients. I like looking back on the year and reviewing what cookbooks I’ve bought and which ones I think will stand the test of time and continue to be splattered and spilt on in my kitchen. The year 2012 brought an array of amazingly good ones. These are my favourites from 2012, ones I think I’ll continue to cook and find new wonder from.

cookbooks

1. Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury)

Fuchsia Dunlop does it again. Another awe-inspiring collection of recipes that demystifies Chinese cuisine. She has that certain something that is required to break things down and provide the reader with incredibly tasty recipes that are authentic yet still accessible. Although Chinese food is generally quite meat-based, there are a number of scrumptious vegetarian dishes that can compete with those meat dishes. Fish-fragrant aubergines is a gingery and fragrant aubergine dish that has layers of taste. I love the recipes in this book, especially the Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Tofu (vegetarian version)—it’s truly addictive.

2. The Kitchen Diaries II, Nigel Slater (4th Estate)

Now this is one hefty cookbook. It’s full of so many recipes, all interspersed with anecdotes and tips for cooks like how important a good cook’s knife is and other musings. Nigel Slater’s first Kitchen Diaries book was excellent, full of the kind of food you really want to eat. The photos are gorgeous, they make you drool with delight and the recipes are more delicious than you ever thought possible. I made the Roast Goose Stuffed with Chickpeas, Sausage Lemon and Mint for Christmas, and it was hands down the best goose I have ever eaten. Thanks Nigel, you are king!

3. You’re All Invited, Margot Henderson (Fig Tree)

I’m not sure if it is the New Zealander inside me that loves Margot’s homely, paired back cooking so much or if it’s simply because she has such good taste and knows what people want to eat on a lazy Sunday afternoon—it’s probably a combination of these. I haven’t managed to go to Rochelle Canteen out in East London yet, but it’s one of those places on my ‘must-eat list’. The cookbook’s been written a bit like a food diary: generous, classic and yummy recipes like Rich Dark Ginger Cake, Turkish Coffee Cake and Chorizo, Kale and Potato Soup. The Arnold Circus Biscuits are genius because they hark back to those good old Anzac biscuits that are so part of the New Zealand psyche. The book isn’t trying to be trendy or break preconceived notions of food, it’s just simple and honest. It’s definitely going to be one that I will pass on to my children.

4. Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi (Ebury Press)

When I first got my hands on a copy of this cookbook I was so excited to get cooking from it. I think it was something about the tactile nature of the cover, it’s covered in printed cloth and it’s  just so nice to feel. The recipes are another thing. I can’t rave anymore about Yotam and his team. Their incredibly mouth-watering and eye-popping salads that use exotic grains like freekeh along with dried fruit have really put ‘the salad’ on the foodie radar. Recipes from Spicy Freekeh Soup with Meatballs to Chicken with Caramelised Onion and Cardamom Rice leave me salivating on the pages. I made the Mejadra the other week, a kind of rice pilaf with lentils through it, sweetly spiced with turmeric, allspice, coriander then topped with crisp-fried onion that was one of the most perfectly comforting meals I’ve ever had.

5. The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden (Penguin Michael Joseph)

What can I really say about this ‘bible’ of Spanish cooking. Claudia Roden has long been one of my all-time food heroes. Ever since I bought that copy of Arabesque back in 2005, I have been a convert of her food and her writing. Claudia doesn’t do things in halves. Her books are always full of facinating insights on culture and history, all aspects that influence and cause a cuisine to develop or grow. The Food of Spain is I think, her best title yet. It’s beautifully designed, photographed and the recipes are introduced with such precision on taste, origin and cooking practicalities. Pepa’s Fish Soup, a tomato-based fish soup with prawns, potatoes, saffron and a picada (a paste of garlic, almonds and parsley), is a brilliantly simple recipe that was became more and more delicious after my first spoonful. Other recipes such as the Medley of Spring Vegetables and Aubergine Fritters with Honey bring authentic Spanish food into the spotlight, and it’s all so easy.

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Roasted butternut squash with burnt aubergine and pomegranate molasses

The best thing about autumn is the emergence of the squash and pumpkin. I really love butternut squash’s sweet but firm flesh but I have also discovered the delights of experimenting with other squashes. My favourite is onion squash and I think it could work beautifully in this dish as well. Onion squash is kind of similar to butternut squash except it’s darker in colour, slightly sweeter and has an earthiness to it. Ottolenghi’s recipes will use pomegranate and aubergines quite frequently. I adore this combination and it is relatively easy to find pomegranate molasses, they stock it almost everywhere. I think the best tasting ones can be found in middle eastern stores such as the ones you find along Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush.

Roasted butternut squash with burnt aubergine and pomegranate molasses

1 large butternut squash (or two onion squashes)

4 Tablespoons olive oil

1 Tablespoon pumpkin seeds

1 Tablespoon sunflower seeds

1 Tablespoon black sesame seeds

1 teaspoon nigella seeds

10 sliced almonds

coase sea salt and black pepper

Sauce

1 medium aubergine

150g Greek yoghurt, at room temperature

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses

3 Tablespoons lemon juice

1 Tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 garlic clove, crushed

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C. Trim and cut the butternut squash (leave the skin on) into long wedges about 2–3cm thick. Arrange on a roasting tray so that they are not too close together with the skin underneath. Brush half the olive oil on the squash, and season generously with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes until the squash appears to be tender and slightly browned. Set aside.

2. Turn the oven down to 180°C. Place the seeds and almonds on a roasting tray and spread out evenly. Toast in the oven till lightly browned. Leave to cool.

3. Now to make the sauce: put the aubergine directly on a moderate flame on a gas hob. Burn the skin of the aubergine for 12–15 minutes till the skin cracks and is good and smoky. Remove from heat and cool. The other option which works quite well too is to grill the aubergine under a very hot grill for an hour, turning till it is well shrivelled round the outside.

4. Cut the aubergine in half and scoop out the soft flesh. Discard the brunt skin and drain the flesh in a colander. Once drained, chop roughly.

5. Put the aubergine flesh into a bowl and add yoghurt, oil, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, parsley and garlic. Taste and season with salt and pepper. It should taste sweet, tart and full of depth.

6. Serve the wedges of butternut squash sprinkled with seeds, drizzled with the remaining olive oil. Serve the sauce on the side.

(Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, Ebury)

Smoky frittata

Scamorza affumicata (or smoked mozzarella) is the very delectable relative of mozzarella. It takes just one bite of a melt-in-your-mouth scamorza grilled sandwich or anything with this beautiful cheese in it to make you commit yourself to never being without it. I was introduced to scamorza by one of my best foodie friends when I was visiting her in Berlin. I was hooked instantly, but there was a bit of a long wait until I came across it again as it was a rarity when I was living in Oxford. Luckily, London has some great delis and specialist cheese shops so it wasn’t very hard to find! Scamorza doesn’t look very flattering—its large rounds of brown rind look rather like a deformed warted cheddar. Cut open it is silky, firm and creamy in texture. On the cheeseboard scamorza is delectable, but it is even more scrumcious melted on top of grilled courgettes or smoky peppers or just grilled on its own. When I came across this recipe in Plenty I instantly put a post-it note on the page, there rarely are any recipes including scamorza let alone my favourite cauliflower.

Smoky frittata

1 small cauliflower, cut into small florets

6 organic free-range eggs

5 Tablespoons crème fraîche

2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika

3 Tablespoons finely chopped chives

150g scamorza, grated (including the skin)

50g mature cheddar, grated

2 Tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

Simmer the cauliflower in a large pan of boiling salted water for about 4–5 minutes, or until it is firm and just about cooked. Drain and leave to dry. Preheat the oven to 190°C. Whisk eggs in a large bowl, adding the crème fraîche, mustard and paprika making sure all is well combined. Add the chives and three-quarters of the cheeses. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat olive in a large cast-iron pan and fry the cauliflower for about 5 minutes. Make sure it is evenly golden brown all over. Pour over the egg mixture. Cook for 5 minutes.

Scatter the remaining cheeses on top and move the pan to the oven. Cook for 12–15 minutes or until the frittata looks like it is well set and golden on top. Remove from the oven and let settle for about 2-3 minutes before cutting into wedges.

(From Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, Ebury)

Chargrilled asparagus, courgettes and haloumi salad

Haloumi has to be one of my all time favourite cheeses. Saying that, I also am prone to drooling over and consuming any mozzarella (smoked, unsmoked) in sight, comte and any blue cheese that is made by Neal’s yard. This recipe actually calls for manouri but it works really well with haloumi. As the weather turns into full-on summertime, this is perfect for alfresco dining and gets the most out of the seasonal asparagus. The one issue with this salad is that it is probably best to use the ridged griddle pan mentioned, however as I don’t have one of these just yet I just used my trusty cast-iron pan. This salad is a sensation, even if in the picture it looks more like a tofu stir-fry—probably due to the choice of plate! Of all the Ottolenghi salads I have tried as yet, it is my favourite and could possibly be the best salad mankind has ever invented … well, that might be going a bit far … but do try it, it is delicious alongside a rack of lamb or grilled fish.

Chargrilled asparagus, courgettes and haloumi salad

350g cherry tomatoes, halved

140ml olive oil

24 asparagus spears

2 courgettes

200g haloumi cheese, sliced 2cm thick

25g rocket leaves

sea salt and pepper

Basil oil

75ml olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

25g fresh basil

pinch of salt

black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 170C. Mix the tomatoes with salt , pepper and 3 tablespoons olive oil.

2. Spread out on a baking sheet lined with parchment skin side down and roast for an hour or until it looks partially dried. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

3. Break off the tough end of the asparagus and blanch in lots of boiling hot water for 4 minutes. Rinse with cold water to stop the spears from cooking any further, drain well. Put the asparagus into a bowl and add 2 tablespoons olive oil along with some salt and pepper to taste.

4. Slice courgettes very thinly lengthwise (a vegetable peeler will do the trick). Mix them with a tablespoon of olive oil along with salt and pepper.

5. Heat your griddle pan on high until it is extremely hot. Grill the courgettes and asparagus, turning to grill evenly. Remove and leave to cool. Fry the cheese on the griddle pan in the remaining olive oil till golden.

6. For the basil oil, food process all the ingredients till smooth. Assemble the salad in layers and drizzle with plenty of basil oil.

Serves 4–6

(Recipe from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi, Ebury Press)

Three of the best cookbooks published in 2010

After reading the OFM’s 50 best cookbooks of all time, I was inspired to list three of my favourite. It is a shame to have so few as there have been a lot of great cookbooks published in 2010.

Every year, more and more cookbooks are being published—everyone speaks of how British food has in the past few years encountered a ‘rebirth’ or new lust for flavour. Since moving to the UK I have purchased countless numbers of cookbooks, they are just so varied and relatively well priced. Quadrille, a publisher I worship because they are the forefront of cookbook publishing, churning out amazingly laid out and beautifully produced cookbooks monthly, have come up with a really inspiring and genius series of new voices in food. I think this is a great idea and one that probably other publishers will get on the bandwagon of—promoting new and young foodies and giving any home cook a fresh take or perspective on food.

1. How I Cook by Skye Gyngell (Quadrille)

Skye Gyngell’s style of writing about food comes across so natural and genuine. She clearly knows her stuff in terms of taste and elegance. How I Cook is filled with straightforward recipes dependent on letting quality ingredients speak for themselves. My favourites are banana bread, slow-cooked lamb with artichokes, peas and mint, old-fashioned pancakes, and apple and green tomato pie. Chapter titles are related to meal times or meal occasions such as ‘special occasions’, ‘late night supper’ which gives the book an overall everyday cooking appeal.Whereas Skye’s other books could be seen as recipes for fancy special occasions, this book is more the paired-down little sister. A fantastic addition to the cookbook shelves, and I have to add that all of the baking recipes are to die for!

2. Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury)

This choice is pretty much a clear winner. Yotam Ottolenghi is like the king of big and bold flavours. I think Yotam’s recipes are a bit like durian, you either love it or hate it. He must have a brilliant palate to come up with the ‘non-traditionalist’ flavour combinations. Who would have thought aubergine, mango and soba noodles would be so delicious? What’s more is that the whole book contains vegetarian recipes all inspired by a mix of diverse culinary cultures—all sides of the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian. These cover a whole array of vegetables: the countless tasty treats that can come from the aubergine, salads that will make you think twice about calling salads ‘bland’, lentils and squashes. My favourite recipe hands-down has to be the green pancakes with lime butter.

3. Mexican Food: Made Simple by Thomasina Miers (Hodder & Stoughton)

Since winning MasterChef, Thomasina has made a huge success from her Wahaca restaurants. This cookbook is a gem for widening your repetoire of Mexican cooking. The introductory section is fully informative, detailing lots of facinating stuff about the many different kinds of chillies, beans and herbs used in Mexican cooking. I like the salsa recipes, they are so easy but are packed full of smoky or spicy flavours. The best discovery was the coconut ceviche, which was a highlight in terms of flavour sensations for the year of 2010! Dishes not only cover salsas, tacos, burritos and soups but they also include many slow-cooking main courses that are just plain mouth-watering—such as ‘meatballs de mehico’ and chicken and chorizo in an almond mole.

Orange polenta cake

I think I have been feasting on a few too many cakes recently. Once autumn hits it makes me feel like making more desserts, more cakes and pies. I first came across orange polenta cake years ago when I was living in Wellington on one of our regular visits to Nikau gallery cafe. Nikau is an excellent place to enjoy a good Sunday morning brunch—I am a huge fan of the kedgeree and am thinking that the £900 ticket back to visit New Zealand will be worth every cent for the taste of that kedgeree once again. They always had such beautiful displays of cakes and all sorts of delights. I remember thinking that it seemed odd to put polenta in a cake having only come across it in a savoury context, but it also makes appearances in all sorts of delicious desserts. Polenta can be used for so many things in the kitchen and to list a few: cornbread (yum!), in crumble on top of fruit, in shortbread making it all the more crisp and golden in colour, and also as a great friend of mine taught me that if sprinkled on your tray before baking a pizza the polenta granules prevents the pizza from sticking also giving the base a moreish and crispy feel.

This is yet another recipe from Ottolenghi. I fear this blog will become a Ottolenghi ‘shrine’ but I have just got my hands on an exciting new cookbook filled with absolutely amazing recipes I am excited to read about and try soon. The recipe calls for making caramel, this is never as hard but just requires attention in order to prevent any burning—burnt caramel can ruin any good dessert!

Orange polenta cake

50g plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

200g unsalted butter

200g caster sugar

3 organic free-range eggs, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons orange blossom water

240g ground almonds

120g quick-cook polenta (like polenta valsugana)

Caramel topping

90g caster sugar

2 tablespoons water

20g unsalted butter, diced

2 oranges, plus an extra one

Glaze

4 tablespoons orange marmalade

1 tablespoons water

1. Grease a 20cm round cake tin and line the bottom and sides with baking paper. The cake may leak, so make sure that if using a loose-based tin you cut the paper large enough so that it goes up the side of the tin.

2. Make the caramel: add the sugar for the caramel into a saucepan with the water. Heat on a low-medium heat and slowly bring the sugar to the boil. As it bubbles away, keep an eye out for any crystals that form on the side of the saucepan. Occasionally brush the side of the pan with water to avoid these crystals from forming. After a few minutes the caramel should darken, once golden in colour, add the butter carefully. Stir and pour the caramel into the lined tin and tilt the tin in order to spread the caramel.

3. Grate the zest of the oranges, but don’t grate the white part of the skin as this is quite bitter. Set the zest aside and peel, core and slice the orange. Cut each orange horizontally into roughly six slices (slices should be about 1cm thick). Lay the orange slices on top of the caramel in the tin.

4. Preheat the oven to 170C.

5. To make the cake batter, sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Set this aside.

6. Cream the butter and sugar together lightly, gradually add the eggs whilst beating on a low speed. Add the orange zest and orange blossom water, ground almonds, polenta and sifted dry ingredients. As soon as it is all mixed in, stop to prevent overmixing.

7. Pour the mix into the tin and place in the oven to bake for 40-45 mins. When a skewer comes out clean (or close to) it is done.

8. As the cake cools, make the glaze. Boil marmalade and water together and put through a sieve, brush whilst hot on to the top of the cake.

Recipe from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook (Ebury Press).

Aubergine-wrapped gnocchi with sage butter

Aubergines are a gift to all vegetarians. I eat mainly vegetarian and have no qualms or prejudices, but seriously, nothing beats a good sea bass or roast beef fillet. Normally it is quite hard to find great and I mean GREAT vegetarian dishes but now that Ottolenghi has emerged it seems that we are spoilt for choice. I have noticed that Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi love using aubergines in their recipes. This is a fabulous thing as everyone loves a good aubergine. Aubergines are great. They are especially tasty when drenched in butter or soaked up with oil. Mmm oil. Ottolenghi: The Cookbook really should have been included in the Observer Food Monthly’s 50 best cookbooks of all time issue (Aug 2010). The list, although it included many great cookbooks, didn’t seem as comprehensive as it could have been. Madhur Jaffrey has so many interesting and flavourful cookbooks, and the one and only included was her An Invitation to Indian Cookery, when I think the Ultimate Curry Bible is her best one yet—her cooking isn’t solely Indian cookery. Everyone I am sure will have their two cents to add about what was left out, but it was a really interesting read and OFM did pull out some obscure cookbooks and opened my eyes to ones I hadn’t thought to look at.

Since recently moving to the ‘big smoke’ of London, I thought it was a necessity that we visit the flagship Ottolenghi based in Islington. As to be expected, the place was stunning: huge colourful meringues and beautifully tasty apple maple cakes on display. I was drooling as soon as I stepped in the door. I had to order the famous beef fillet—and was an instant convert, especially so because I love my red meat on the rare side. I also had an amazing samphire and baby new potatoes salad that was coated in extra virgin olive oil and some sumac. Of course I had to get the roasted aubergine salad which was mixed with tahini … mmm it was a mighty good day that day.

Aubergine-wrapped gnocchi takes a bit of planning in advance. I (at times regretfully) never seem to read the recipes through before starting them. I always find something to make, post-it note it then compile my market list of what I need to buy for it. The reading of the recipe is done when I am already in the kitchen, an hour before I hope to eat dinner. For this dish that was a bit of a shame as we didn’t get dinner till really really late. The recipe should be started ideally the night before but 4 hours in advance will do. The thing I found about the dish is that if you don’t slice the aubergine slices uniformly and neatly the end result won’t look so appetising! But it will always taste absolutely fabulous.

Aubergine-wrapped gnocchi with sage butter

1 small to medium aubergine

4 Tablespoons olive oil

20g unsalted butter melted

15g Parmesan cheese, grated

Ricotta gnocchi

30g pine nuts

250g ricotta cheese

2 free-range egg yolks

35g plain flour

40g Parmesan cheese, grated

1 Tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 Tablespoon chopped basil

1/4 teaspoons grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

Sage butter

90g unsalted butter

20 sage leaves

pinch of salt

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Dry roast the pine nuts till golden in colour. Transfer to a bowl and add ricotta, egg yolks, flour, parmesan, herbs, nutmeg and salt and pepper. Stir well and cover, refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Cut the aubergine lengthways into 5mm-thick slices. Lay on to a baking tray and brush with oil. Roast in the oven for 15-20 mins or until the aubergine is tender and golden. You could always chargrill them instead.

3. Shape gnocchi and roll into 8 or 12 long balls. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and drop a few dumplings in at a time. When they rise to the surface this means they are done, take them out and drain on kitchen paper, then brush them with the melted butter.

4. When the gnocchi has cooled down, wrap the aubergine piece around one and do the same with all other gnocchis. Place them into a greased oven dish and sprinkle with Parmesan. Place them into the oven 10 mins before serving time giving them about 10 minutes in the oven to heat through.

5. To make the sage butter, put the butter into a pan over a moderate heat. Simmer for a few minutes until the butter turns a light golden brown, remove from heat and immediately add the sage, salt, lemon juice. Return the pan to the heat, giving it a few seconds to cook lightly.

Serve gnocchi with the sage butter drizzled on top.

Recipe from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook (Ebury Press).