Cooking – the books.

Well honestly, I’m quite deflated. It’s like my souffle’s sunk, my meringue’s gone flat and my custard’s curdled. It seems I only have five of the Observer’s top 50 cookbooks ever!

This either indicates that I am hopelessly untrendy or that I am a lousy, seriously uninformed cook. Whichever is true, I’m not sure I can live with the shame. Well, ok, I lied about that. I just made shame my new best friend.

I’ve always been the type to buy cookbooks I’ll lilke and use rather than buy “yah” cookbooks to decorate the kitchen bookshelf and impress friends. It’s surprising how people always check what you’ve got, though, which in my case is several handfuls of Jamie Oliver, a generous serving of Nigel Slater, a good pinch of Nigella and only a quarter of a teaspoon of Delia.

While it’s good to try new recipes, the oldtried and tested cliches are still the absolute favourites. Things like boeuf bourgignon, coq au vin, ham in coke, queen of puddings, raspberry pavlova… are always requested no matter how many new recipes I’d like to try.

It also occurred to me that while I have around 370 books logged as read on one of those bookish websites, I completely omitted to include my favourite cookery books.

The favourites are dead easy to tell. The earliest ones have spattered, hard-to-separate pages. Back then, I didn’t even have the confidence to move them more than 12 inches from the hob back! Later books are bookmarked with other related recipes on pieces of paper from various eras “to try one day” or they are paperbacks which are now so dilapidated that each time I use one, I have to put the pages back in order.

The exception is an old paperback; Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cooking, which I have always treated with the same respect one might accord to the family Bible. No spatters on that and many times I’ve just read it rather than cooking from it. I still find it absolutely extraordinary that she was living and writing a stunning culinary life surrounded by the fragrance of garlic, fresh herbs and lemons while down in Wales, we thought Fray Bentos steak and kidney pudding out of a tin was a big treat with home-made chips. My Dad smothered his in HP sauce. Mind you, when I saw Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert last year he spun a whole routine out of the fact that sun-dried tomatoes were still considered completely alien in Pontypridd.

So does your choice of cookery books matter? Not really. It’s more important that, whichever recipe you follow – or maybe you just make it up, freefall and hope to land successfully – you enjoy creating something which will please family and friends.

I started with a Marguerite Patten hardback book, just to get to grips with the basics and moved on to the fabulous Good Housekeeping Cookbook, which is still a staple. It has suggested menus for everything from a casual supper for six to birthday buffets and wedding breakfasts. It tells you – with diagrams – how to bone things and goes on about the importance of good pans and sharp knives.

But Katie Stewart’s little paperback The Times Cookbook has been a day-to-day treasure with everything from perfectly roasted beef and Yorkshires to the queen of puds.

The Sainsbury’s Book of Cakes, provided inspiration for birthday cakes – from the leaning pale blue spaceship with outsize rivets (silver dragees) and the chocolate castle full of medieval lego figures, the ever-popular chocolate hedgehog cake and the disastrous blanketweed- green typewriter cake I made for a friend. I could tell she was a real friend because she didn’t laugh and she did actually serve it. It looked ok covered in candles in a dimly lit room. I think she cut it and made everyone have a piece in the dark.

The one I’m most fond of is the Superwoman Diary by Shirley Conran. It has the raspberry pavlova recipe that’s dead easy to make but which everyone thinks is my signature dish and Shirl won me over instantly with that famous “life is too short to stuff a tomato” line.

The one failure was Madhur Jaffrey’s curry book – included on the Observer best cookbook list! When I bought it, it was exciting and exotic to read but I couldn’t source half of the Indian herbs and spices and I had no idea what a cardamom pod was. I ended up buying some black cardamons, which, in the curry, tasted reflexively, spit-outably nasty.

I’m sure Madhur meant me to buy the fragrant little green ones – because when it came to curries, the mere memory of black cardamoms made us opt for take-aways for many years afterwards.

Author: janh1

Part-time hedonist.

31 thoughts on “Cooking – the books.”

  1. Jan – A great post, the heart of which is,

    “So does your choice of cookery books matter? Not really. It’s more important that, whichever recipe you follow – or maybe you just make it up, freefall and hope to land successfully – you enjoy creating something which will please family and friends.”

    However I have an early morning assignation with the NSW and must get my beauty sleep. I’ll reply, if I may, more fully tomorrow.

    Nighty night.


  2. Jan – you make for compulsive reading; as ever, an excellent post. But no books in this house, its all in my wife’s head, a compendium of knowledge from living in a compound house in Ghana, watching and helping countless grannies cooking over fires.

  3. Janh1, having all the cookbooks would be like having all the Labourlout memoirs: overkill.

  4. Fairly early in our marriage, as the packers were in, moving us from one of my country (as in global, not rural) postings to another, I asked what a pile of books going into a large carton were.
    “They are my cookery books.”
    “So how come we have such run-of-the-mill meals?” (Actually I used a far more objectionable adjective), to which her spirited response was,
    ” Buddy if you think they tasted like **** up till now, wiat until we get to the other end!”
    Given the choice between her cooking, and seeing what Jesus, our cook in Mombasa, considered to be an acceptable level of hygiene, I am glad she is still around – she hates cooking, but has improved out of all recognition over forty years!

  5. Good Housekeeping is an excellent book, I agree. All the old staples in there, with writing on recipes where I have altered them (It took me years to get over the fact one should never mark a book, but I certainly do now, to remember what worked and what didn’t)
    And Delia is good and reliable, but I only use a few of her recipes regularly. Another fave that won’t be on the list is a ‘Special Occasion Casserole’ recipes book…. I think a Marks and Spencer publication which has served me very well over the years – since about mid 80s. And then there’s the old Cranks Cookbook. Just what I need when certain friends come to stay.

  6. Oh JanH,

    You should not eat either black or green cardamom. It has a very sharp pungency even when cooked. Indians use them as breath fresheners, but eating one will overpower your taste buds and ruin the rest of the curry.

    I prefer to seed them and grind the buggers to dust before adding sparingly. If a recipe does insist on them whole, make sure you count them all in and count them out again before serving. If you can’t recover them all, warn your diners. Its like the shilling in the pudding.

    As for cook books I have far too many. The only ‘trendy’ ones are those bought as gifts. My treasured two are Farmhouse Kitchen 1 & 2. I also have a pokey little paperback, with no pictures called Curry Secrets which is very well used.

  7. The book I use most frequently is a heavy American volume bought about thirty-five years ago.

  8. I have a very old copy of Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cooking; it’s my favourite.
    Constance Spry is much used for basics.

    I think I must own at least one by almost everyone you mentioned but I rarely use them. I look at them for ideas but rarely follow the actual recipes. I have my own very tatty file of recipes people have give to me and my variations.

  9. I have a similar tatty file, Araminta. I guess I’m a coarse cook – don’t use cookbooks much at all. For special occasions I google recipes, otherwise, I’ve learned a bit in the last, erm, number of years and it’s generally a case of bung in a little bit of this and a little bit of that and see what happens 🙂

  10. I’ve never bothered much with cookery books, its all down to what is to hand, what is in season, what is cheap, as long as you understand process and method you don’t need recipes, too restricting.
    Mooch round the garden,pick what is ripe, get it back to the kitchen, same in the supermarket, I never bother with lists, what looks good, fresh and reasonably priced and off we go.
    Rarely bother to measure anything, just fling it in!

    EG Saw some good plums, the big purple California ones in the shops last week, dirt cheap.
    Made spousal unit a plum cake the E European way, start with bread dough, press in plums dress with cinnamon and brown sugar, part bake and add a custard on the top, finish baking, no recipe, just followed his description of his mothers recipe. He’s happy!
    My sister weighs and measures everything like a chemistry experiment, it all ends up so uninspiring! Food is eclectic and should be a novelty experience not a bloody chore!

  11. I agree its an experiment, but when trying something new I need a starting point.

    Yesterday’s supper recipe came out of ‘The Sunday Times’ supplement two weeks ago… lovely… but the recipe has pencil marks all over it ready for next time’s changes! (Fish on a bed of veg and chick peas with chorizo)

  12. Pseu :

    By the way, anyone have a suggestions for a good book on Indian Vegetarian cookery?

    Take a gander at Floyd’s ‘India’ – full of mouth-watering inspiration.

  13. Hi Jan!

    We have a book called “Seven Hundred Years of English Cooking” by Maxime McKendry; fascinating! Some recipes sound absolutely mouth-watering and others are … odd.

    Here’s a sample:


    Take Piggis mawys, & skalde hem wel; take groundyn Porke, & knede it with Spicerye, with pouder Gyngere, and Salt & Sugre; do it on the mawe, but fille it nowt to full; then sewe hem with a fayre threded, and putte hem in a Spete as men don piggys; take blaunchid Almaundys …”

    I expect you get the drift. 😉

    We haven’t tried any yet! 🙂

  14. Hiya again, Jan. I have a similar book to Bilby, Dorothy Hartley’s “Food in England”, a wonderful mixture of history, literature and cuisine. Otherwise the backbone of my culinary library includes a signed copy of Gary Rhodes’ “New British Classics”, “Feasts for all Seasons” by Roy Andries de Groot (which is, I understand, essential bedtime reading for trainee chefs), a translation of the recipes of the Roman gourmet, Apicius, “The Soup Bible”, which is exactly what it says and (my favourite) a Portuguese language edition of Maria de Lourdes Modesto’s “Traditional Portuguese Cooking” with its wonderful regional farmhouse recipes which start, “Take one hare. Reserve the blood…”, or “Beat forty egg yolks…”

    All that’s missing is the classic “101 Things to do with a Goat” by O Zangado. I’ve looked everywhere for a copy, but I suspect some higgernorant booksellers might have put it on the wrong shelf. 🙂


  15. Ok then Oz. More post NSW, whatever that means! 🙂

    Thanks PG. With that experience your wife could *write* a brilliant cookbook!

    Janus there is no point in having cookbooks you don’t use.
    Having a load of cookbooks which you never read is a mean trick on guests. Raises

    Had to laugh at that CWJ. An excellent retort! All those cookbooks at least showed a
    willingness to improve.

  16. Jan – You’ve not been paying attention. 😉

    NSW = the New She-Wolf and, I’ve just realised, New South Wales – yet another spooky Aussie connection.


  17. Hi Pseu. My foodie friends swear by Delia but I’ve always thought she’s a bit too precise. I do have her Christmas book though, which is a bit of a classic.
    I have the Cranks book too, which I used a lot at one time but not so much these days.
    I have a Sainsbury’s book of casseroles which has one brilliant recipe for lamb in rose wine. Totally delish!

    Yes Furry One, the black cardamoms were vile – and I have to admit I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to eat the green ones! Damn. Why did no-one mention that? 🙂 So one of the Curry Secrets is “Don’t chew the cardamons?”

    Hi again Janus. I liked Floyd a lot. Got Far Flung Floyd and the recipes have all turned out fine.

    Tom, I have one American cookbook but somehow I find the different ingredient names are off-putting.

  18. Hi Araminta – I have similar tatty file plus small pile of cuttings which at the time I thought “Yum. Must make that.”
    Good for going through if we’re having anyone to supper.

    I like your style, Christina – cook what’s fresh and in season. I very often start out with a list and change horses midstream. I very rarely follow a recipe to the letter either. But I doubt anyone really does.
    But for me, recipes come in handy for new ideas.

    Bilby, I *want* your book!!! Do Sains do “piggis mawys”? I wonder? How about Apicius? Ever tried any of those? Some excellent recipes although I’d pass on the milk-fed dormice in batter. (I lied about the batter – they were kebabs)


  19. OZ I was going to ask about NSW. I thought it might be the Portuguese Inland Revenue or summat!!

    You see, I love those archaic recipes. I guess I should look for them around the Hay bookshops. I think there’s one that specialises in old cookbooks.

    Aha, so you do know Apicius!! Excellent. I ran a Roman caff once – just for the day – and all the dishes were from that book. I was quite a mature vestal virgin but I did a nice pork and apricot casserole.

    Gary Rhodes is someone whose recipes I’ve never tried. I don’t know which didn’t appeal first, his food or him or neither.

    So you know how to do a really good piri piri chicken? Care to share? I haven’t been able to get it right yet. Oh and those heavenly little custard tarts.

    There’s bound to be a nice goat cookbook in Hay. Next time I’m there, I’ll look for you 🙂

  20. Jan, we bought it on-line. The company is enthusiastic, polite and helpful and will endeavour to track down anything you wish to acquire which is food related. So, no, you can’t have ours! 🙂

    Haven’t been into a Sainsburys for ages (there’s a small one in Henley), but do I look for spined or de-spined in the piggis department?

    Dormice on a stick? Oh, no!!! (sob).

  21. Jan – A mature vestal virgin? My imagination is running riot! 🙂

    And the problem with milk-fed dormice is….? Any new goat cookbook ISBNs gratefully received.

    Chicken piri-piri is easy.

    1) Light oil-drum barbie and wait for one hour.
    2) Take chicken (no need to reserve the blood for this recipe), pluck and draw.
    3) Cut through backbone and spatchcock with two diagonal skewers (available from any half-decent Alentejan bar and some not-so-decent ones when Zé Lopes is in the village) through the thigh and opposing wing.
    4) Grill chicken starting rib side down until cooked through on both sides.
    5) Add dashes of home-made piri-piri and serve with a tomato and red onion salad sprinkled with olive oil, vinegar and fresh herbs.

    I have toned this one down a bit. In a Portuguese Sunday market, they would baste the chicken with piri-piri during the cooking.

    Delia, like Gary, is indeed a bit precise, but these are all fail-safe recipes if you follow them properly. Delia’s chocolate bread and butter pudding is particularly excellent as is Gary’s slow roasted belly pork.

    Most Portuguese will trample over their Granny for a pastel de nata from the Café de Belém in Lisbon.



  22. Jan,

    Cooking isn’t my department (don’t you hate when people say that?), I leave that in the capable hands (she might read this) of MrsW. My responsibilites are more gruelling, I take sole charge of the leisure department. 🙂

  23. What about a variation? Milk fed dormice in the pigs maw? Preferably dead!
    Love it.
    dormice were a great delicacy to Romans, so that is what you need to keep your Empire going!

  24. Hi Bilby, it’s ok. I expect the dormice looked just like they were asleep 😉

    Hi OZ and thanks for the reciple – sounds great, but the home-made piri piri sauce is the key – the ingredients of which you give no hint whatsoever! 😦

    I’d have few reservations meself about the granny-trampling. Those little tarts are heaven.

    Hi Tina – yes that’s probably what this coalition thing lacks (well one of the many things…) – proper sustenance from milk-fed dormice. Now there’s a business opportunity for someone! 😀

  25. Morning JW. You wouldn’t even be able to whip up a decent shortbread or a clootie dumpling? Well let’s hope your leisure provisions are exciting… caber tossing anyone?


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