COOKING THE BOOKS

RICHARD EHRLICH'S DIGEST OF THE YEAR
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The Independent Culture
ANNIE BELL'S VEGETABLE BOOK Photographs by Lisa Linder Michael Joseph, pounds 15

IT HASN'T been a bumper year for Cooking the Books: not enough articles (for which I admit liability), and not enough stellar quality in the books that came under the scrutiny of our Cooking Guinea Pigs (CGPs). The coming year will be better, Deo volente, in both respects.

Of those books that did make it into print, the undisputed star was Annie Bell's Vegetable Book, by Annie Bell (Michael Joseph, pounds 15). CGP Camilla Hawkes awarded this attractive volume nine marks out of 10, and said: "Everything worked just as she said it would and was delicious. I shall not rest until I have cooked the entire book. Non- worthy vegetable cookbooks are rare, and this one is imaginatively and technically wonderful."

Andrew Nutter's Utter Nutter (Bantam, pounds 15) received seven marks from Joan Stephens. She thought some of the book is designed more for show than for substance, but she was impressed nonetheless: "The recipes are clear, concise but precise - and they really do work. You get a good mix of basics and more exotic dishes, for when you are entertaining to impress." But despite these virtues, Joan called Utter Nutter "a gifty book rather than a practical book. It's not cheap, and you don't get that many recipes for your money."

Anna Evans sat down to A Feast for the Eyes, by Gillian Riley (Yale University Press, pounds 14.95), a book of recipes inspired by pictures in the National Gallery. The pictures, predictably, were lovely. And despite some vagueness in the recipes, Anna produced some enjoyable food. "It's a good read, very informative on various periods of history," she said, "and not overpriced." But she still regarded it as "more of a pictorial record" than "a book which would be used in modern kitchens". Six out of 10.

Gill and Ken Fletcher gave the same mark to Learning to Cook Vegetarian by veggie-veteran Rose Elliot (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 18.99). The book is designed for use by beginners, and the Fletchers liked many things about it, especially Elliot's "friendly style" and clear writing. But they thought "the food, while edible and doubtless nutritious, is rather bland. There are other books that, while perhaps not so stylishly presented, offer recipes with a bit more pizazz. Once you've mastered the basics, we don't think you'd reach for this book again."

Finally, another chef's book that got six out of 10: The Livebait Cookbook by Theodore Kyriakou and Charles Campion (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 20), arising from the successful Livebait restaurants. CGP Peter Brunning questioned the way it was organised, and thought the complex preparation (more appropriate to restaurant cooking) far too time-consuming. "I think that a more experienced fish cook would prefer something where the emphasis was more on fish as an ingredient and with a larger number of recipes." A book only for the skilled, experienced and leisured.

My own nomination for Book of the Year is Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything (Headline, pounds 14.99). This isn't a cookbook, though it does contain a few recipes. It's a collection of essays by the food columnist for American Vogue, a man of huge erudition and fantastic wit. You will laugh aloud and think seriously about a whole range of issues. And the gastronomic travel-writing is wonderful. Similarly welcome: the reissue of Tom Stobart's Cook's Encyclopaedia: Ingredients and Processes (Grub Street, pounds 20), slightly out-of-date but still an invaluable sourcebook.

On the practical cookery front we've had the usual onslaught of good, bad and unnecessary. I will jump the gun on our CGPs by noting just two of my own favourites. Both come from restaurant kitchens - a genre of cookbook I don't usually care for - and both are published by Fourth Estate. The Fifth Floor, by Henry Harris with Hugo Arnold (pounds 20), is good on basic instruction and has translated the talented chef's cooking successfully into the language of the home kitchen. Rhubarb and Black Pudding (pounds 20), by Paul Heathcote and Matthew Fort, celebrates the Lancashire territory that feeds Heathcote's kitchen, in addition to giving a generous selection of recipes. The recipes - be warned - require time aplenty. Nonetheless, a lovely and substantial book. Personal declaration: Matthew Fort is my friend. But I'd like the book even if I didn't like its co-author.

THE MAN WHO ATE EVERYTHING by Jeffrey Steingarten Headline, pounds 14.99

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