Books: Cookery - A course in rocket science

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The Independent Culture
IF, LIKE me, you tear Simon Hopkinson's literate, earthy temptations out of the Indy magazine and later tear your hair because you've forgotten where you've put them, then Gammon & Spinach (Macmillan, pounds 25), a collection of his columns over the past three years, will come as a blessing. His Pheasant Stewed with Cider and Calvados, so rich and unctuous that it requires a determined effort to polish off a plateful, was a star item in my repertoire until I lost the recipe. I'm certainly going to essay a "quite brilliant" version of Oysters Rockefeller, appropriated from the Sydney Opera House. Hopkinson's superior edition of mushrooms on toast, using dried morels, Madeira and double cream, will surely be on the breakfast menu in heaven.

Hopkinson rails against the "unadulterated crap" dished up by certain TV chefs. Somehow I doubt if he means the solid, interesting grub delivered by the Two Fat Ladies, whose Full Throttle (Ebury Press, pounds 17.99) is, by some miracle, even better than their previous two offerings. The Portuguese speciality Pork with Clams suggested by Clarissa is one of the world's great gastronomic marriages and I like the sound of the Scottish equivalent, Chicken with Cockle Sauce. Robust spirits may be tempted by Jennifer's Penis Stew (ram's or bull's, either will do), while Clarissa gleefully points outs out that, since rabbits did not exist in pre-Columbian Mexico, her intriguing recipe for Rabbit with Chocolate was "originally designed for guinea pig or even chihuahua".

Nigel Slater is another no-nonsense TV chef. Despite his slightly intimidatory persona, he is a nonpareil at inducing a Pavlovian response in this viewer. Many of the items in his Real Food (Fourth Estate, pounds 18.99) might have come from an upmarket parish magazine. You may wonder about laying out 19 quid to learn how to do the Perfect Baked Potato or Toasted Smoked Mackerel Sandwich, but for cosy-supper-at-home recipes, such as Baked Plaice with Parmesan Crumbs, Nigel's your man.

If I were restricted to just one new cookbook to eat from for the whole of next year, it would be Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian (Ebury Press, pounds 25). Treating the concept of vegetarianism fairly loosely (there is a 50-page section on eggs and dairy foods), she scours the globe for recipes. India's Chickpea Flour Pancakes segues into Italy's Chickpea Flour Pizza. Potatoes are mashed north-Indian style with cumin, cayenne and lime-juice or shredded and stir-fried in a Chinese-American recipe with spring-onions and ginger. Though "almost raw," the result is "unusually delicious". The only problem would be locating some of the more recondite ingredients such as Persian dried limes ("you will wonder how you lived without them"). Presumably not the fault of Jaffrey (who lives in New York), the list of UK suppliers is hopeless.

Aimed at the more practised cook, Leith's Seasonal Bible (Bloomsbury, pounds 30) capitalises on the admirable move back to eating foods in their proper season. This approach has the drawback of scattering soups, entrees and puds at four different places. For example, Chestnut Soup is seen as a winter dish, while Pheasant Consomme is autumnal. Nevertheless, with such heroic combinations as Smoked Eel and Warm Beetroot Salad (summer), Roast Ham with Nori Seedweed and Puy Lentils (autumn), and Roast Tuna Loin with Chilli and Lime (spring), this book will be a lifelong resource for the serious cook. The how-to section at the front is particularly thorough.

The Fifth Floor Cookbook (Fourth Estate, pounds 25) refers to Harvey Nichols, where Henry Harris is the presiding genius. It is hard to imagine many of that establishment's pencil-thin customers tucking into his Potatoes Roasted in Duck Fat with Fried Onions or Deep Fried Belly of Pork with Oysters. Though this luxurious volume contains many good ideas, in particular the Saffron-Cured Salmon (marinade a two-kilo side for 24 hours in a saffron, Pernod and harissa mix), I suffered a dyspeptic fit when faced with Harris's version of oysters with sausages. He uses ferociously spicy Merguez (with Tabasco "for extra chilli heat") and native oysters, whose subtle favour will be overwhelmed by the phosphoric bangers: a mad waste of pricey bivalves, and a classic case of restaurateur's extravagance.

One welcome reprint is

The Cook's Encyclopaedia by Tom Stobart (Grub Street, pounds 20). Though occasionally showing signs of its 1980 vintage ("Rocket is a salad plant that is sometimes neglected") it is fascinating. Cheap mortadella may contain donkey meat, according to Elizabeth David.

Cooked to Perfection by Anne Willan (Quadrille, pounds 25), doyenne of La Varenne cookery school, contains only 150 recipes, but each one is explained in step-by-step detail with a host of photos and an explanatory mini-essay devoted to the main ingredient. The meat section is OK, but the two pages on potatoes are hopelessly inadequate. It's unfashionable to admit it but, for idiot-proof instruction, How to Cook (BBC, pounds 16.99) by Britain's favourite dominatrix has the edge.