COOKING THE BOOKS

PUTTING RECIPES TO THE TEST WITH RICHARD EHRLICH
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The Independent Culture
Paul and Jeanne Rankin run Roscoff, a Michelin-starred Belfast restaurant which many regard as the best in Northern Ireland. Hot Food, their third book, takes its inspiration from cuisines making, "exuberant use of chillies and other interesting spices." The Rankins believe that spice "adds zest and zing, verve and vigour; with it, food becomes alive and jumps off the plate."

The plates off which Hot Food jumped belong to Cooking Guinea Pig, Rosalie Byrne of Barford, near Norwich. Rosalie had testified to a love of spicy food and access to the exotica required for the recipes in the book, so a copy sped off to her; her report sped back.

Rosalie came away feeling distinctly cool towards Hot Food. "This book presents itself as exciting but doesn't live up to its promise." Not that the food lacked verve and vigour - on the contrary, she and her family (including three children) liked most of what she cooked. It's just that she found too many problems.

PHYSICAL EASE AND DESIGN: Poor. Only a plastic cookbook-holder enabled Rosalie to use the book. Margins are narrow on all four sides of the page, "so weighing it down would have been difficult." The ultra-cool design she describes as "over-produced", with slickness taking precedence over usability. Where recipes are printed on photographs, legibility is poor; ingredients lists are clear, but the other fonts are "difficult to see at times. The instructions were too faint for moments when you need to check in mid-cook."

RECIPE QUALITY: Of the six dishes Rosalie made, only one - Salmon Carpaccio with Lime Juice and Ginger - was truly disappointing. The fish was "overwhelmed" by citrus, colours and textures were "unappetising". Everything else worked well, but she hedges her praise with critical comments. Bang Bang Chicken Salad tasted good but "the preparation was fiddly. Frying and grinding the peanuts was an experience I wouldn't want to repeat." Lentil soup with roast cumin also made a hit but the lentils took "much longer" than the recipe said. Rosalie served the Salad with Focaccia with Chillies, Sweet Peppers and Coriander, which she kneaded by hand. Had she not known how to do this, the recipe would have been useless: like all the bread recipes, it assumes that everyone has a dough hook.

A Chopped Moroccan Lamb Steak with Mint Butter tasted fine, but, "I am left with a mountain of mint butter, even though we used what seemed to be liberal helpings - the recipe called for eight ounces of it." Rosalie was scathing about the cooking times in this recipe: "Three minutes a side for pink, six minutes for well-done, but there's no indication of how thick the burgers should be."

This lack of clarity pervades the book, according to Rosalie, and my perusal suggests that she's right. She may explain the deficiency when she says: "Each recipe is designed to fit on a page, so there is little room for explanation and this makes everything sound easy." In fact, she feels, it is easy only for those with a lot of experience.

PRACTICALITY: "The flap copy says that 'Hot food is spontaneous food', but I suspect that lots of people will have to spontaneously rush off to buy the majority of ingredients before starting." Then they'll have to put in a lot of hard graft. The book "makes things sound quick, but getting together long lists of ingredients, and making marinades, with all the chopping and blending, is labour intensive." Bang Bang Chicken, for instance, took over an hour of preparation, and "the effort was out of proportion to what I got in the end. They should tell you how long things take."

PICTURE QUALITY: "Very pretty with lots of colour, but too 'busy' for me. Somehow they have tried too hard. Pictures have a very 'styled' feel to them."

VALUE FOR MONEY: "Even at pounds 9.99 people will expect more content. Hot Food is nice to look at, and the recipes worked for me, but I wouldn't buy it. Somehow, Hot Food is sort of dull."

OVERALL RATING: 3 (out of 10).

HOT FOOD

by Paul and Jeanne Rankin Photographs by James Merrell

Mitchell Beazley, pounds 9.99

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