Food & Cookery: Ruined by a cake, rescued by an oyster

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The Independent Culture

In a genre prone to the impossibly ambitious, gargantuan works from the world's top three chefs – they have swapped the No 1 slot in Restaurant magazine's Top 50 poll for five years – attain new pinnacles of unfeasibility. A cross between memoir, scientific colloquy and graphic novel, Heston Blumenthal's The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (Bloomsbury, £100) is perhaps the oddest cookbook ever published. Its grandiosity is a terrible warning about the consequences of giving a designer free rein, while the 46 recipes are liable to induce breakdown in anyone rash enough to attempt them. I speak from experience, having once concocted Blumenthal's Black Forest gateau for this paper. It took 14 hours and cost £250.

At least we know that the 30 recipes, including "preserved tuna oil air" and "freeze-dried cold white miso foam", in Ferran Adria's A Day at elBulli (Phaidon, £29.95) are not intended to be attempted: "The technical level requires specialist equipment... and professional experience." Most of the book is a minute-by-minute pictorial account of the restaurant's daily round.

At first glance, the recipes in Under Pressure (Artisan, £50) by Thomas Keller, chef-patron of The French Laundry in California and New York, appear within the scope of the ambitious amateur cook. However, the title does not refer to the bustle of a professional kitchen, but the culinary technique known as sous vide (under vacuum). In order to essay Keller's dishes, you need a vacuum-pack machine and a gadget known as an immersion circulator. An outlay of £1,000 or so may prove a stumbling block, however much you yearn for corned beef tongue pain perdu.

Fortunately, there is a reaction away from these culinary brainiacs. "The older I get, the more puritan I become about food, the more I want to leave it alone," is the admirable declaration of restaurateur Richard Corrigan on the cover of The Clatter of Forks and Spoons (Fourth Estate, £25). In this outstandingly beautiful book, Corrigan's salivary musings ("A fresh, dressed crab... is so deeply satisfying and humbling") introduce ungussied recipes in which the ingredients speak for themselves: braised octopus, lambs' kidneys on a rosemary skewer. The Art of Simple Food (Michael Joseph, £25), the first UK book from Alice Waters, doyenne of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, is comprehensive, inspiring and lives up to its name. Her recipe for grilled oysters topped with a mixture of "chopped shallot, butter, black pepper, parsley and grated lemon zest and juice" was transporting.

The Complete Robuchon (Grub Street, £25) by Joel Robuchon does the same for French cuisine with over 800 recipes (seven pages on pot-au-feu). The regional chapter, including tariflette de Savoie and buckwheat porridge with bacon, is particularly tempting. Recipes are stated with exemplary clarity, though the maestro's advice that poached eggs should first be boiled in their shells for 30 seconds to "firm up the white" may be a step too far.

As stylish as it is inspiring, Ottolenghi (Ebury, £25) by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi is a predominantly vegetarian collection from two Israeli cooks, one Jewish, one Palestinian, who now run a restaurant in London. This background is reflected in their dishes, which utilise the potent flavours of the Middle East with cosmopolitan flair. Buttered prawns with tomato, olives and arak (substitute Pernod), a memorable but simple recipe, is rightly described as "a masterpiece". Since acquiring this book, I have cooked it four times.

Another outstanding work from a restaurant is The Bibendum Cookbook (Conran Octopus, £25). Celebrating this swish eatery's 21st birthday, it combines hardy perennials from Simon Hopkinson with seasonal dishes by Matthew Harris. His mussels in Gewürztraminer with chives and cream was easy, cheap, deeply enjoyable.

The domestic cookbook of the season is The New English Table (Fourth Estate, £25) by Rose Prince, a food writer peerless for her knowledge, passion and practicality. The inventiveness of this bulging culinary treasury is balanced by reassurance. Her trout with rice in shellfish stock proved to be foolproof in construction (you simmer the rice under greaseproof paper) and sensational on the palate.

Fans of this paper's food writer will need no persuasion to snap up Mark Hix's British Seasonal Food (Quadrille, £25). From his legendary rabbit and crayfish stargazy pie to mutton and turnip hotpot, his passion for the food of these islands radiates from every page. Skye Gingell, food writer on The Independent on Sunday, has produced a similarly tempting volume; My Favourite Ingredients (Quadrille, £25) contains 16 chapters on topics ranging from asparagus to chocolate.

A collection of articles by Gingell's predecessor on the IoS, the late Michael Bateman, is highly welcome. A Delicious Way To Earn a Living (Grub Street, £18.99) reminds us of his vitality. His topics in these pieces from the 1970s and 1980s include English mustard, hollandaise sauce and cat food. Among many highlights is a 12-page chat with Elizabeth David, who notes that "wrapping a bottle of wine in several sheets of dampened newspaper" keeps it "cool as a cucumber". A collection of Bateman's later pieces will follow.

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