Cooking the books: Putting Recipes to the test with Richard Ehrlich

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The Independent Culture
ANNIE BELL'S VEGETABLE BOOK by Annie Bell

Michael Joseph pounds 15

Photographs by Lisa Linder

Annie Bell's ears must have been burning while Camilla Hawkes put her new book to the test. Camilla had written that she was a fan of Annie Bell, and when her report came in I saw she wasn't exaggerating: she tested a whopping 19 recipes, "although six of these were from before because I had made them from the column she writes for the Saturday Independent."

Annie Bell is often regarded as the best vegetarian cookery writer in the UK. Her earlier books, A Feast of Flavours and Evergreen, were universally well received. Part of her appeal is that she wants vegetarian food to be good rather than worthy. Camilla appreciated this emphasis, exemplified in the statement that meatlessness is "more a by-product of the book than one of the over-riding aims". Ms Bell even notes that certain dishes would go well with smoked fish, for instance. You wouldn't see Linda McCartney doing that.

PHYSICAL EASE AND DESIGN

"Hardback, 20cm square format. Lies flat well. Paper is shiny enough to be wipeable." The design is "simple and stylish", with plenty of white space "making it easy to read and make one's own notes. Ingredients lists are adjacent to the method and broken down into the constituent parts of the dish."

PRACTICALITY

Really distinguished cookery books guide readers to all the possibilities implicit in the recipes, and Annie Bell's book does just that. Each chapter is devoted to a single vegetable. There is also ample cross-referencing, sign-posting of dishes illustrated in pictures, and notes about other recipes using a featured ingredient. Chapter introductions are singled out for praise: "bumph on the history of the vegetable, tips on selecting and basic cooking methods, and advice." So are the "Other Ideas" with which each main chapter concludes: "great for giving your imagination a kick."

In the recipes themselves, there is "no skimping on detail, and lots of advice", with "plenty of description of how things should look and feel at any particular stage, as well as timings. I learned a lot about cooking methods." Ingredients are kept to a minimum, are reasonable in price and easy to find. No special equipment is called for.

Camilla had just a few negative comments on the practical side of things. Numbers served by the recipes are indicated, but it's not always clear what type of serving this means. "Methods are not exactly fiddly or difficult, but there are generally quite a few stages involved." She recognises, of course, that this problem is inherent in vegetable cookery since "you can't just stick it in the oven" as you can with meat. Camilla also found that some "fast" recipes (under 30 minutes) took longer. There were shortcomings in the index, but Camilla says she may be aware of them because she creates indices as part of her work.

RECIPE QUALITY

The praise flew fast and thick. Camilla invited loads of friends over to eat, and sometimes cooked dishes "that I wasn't sure we would like. Suffice it to say that I now have one happy group of friends. There was lots of 'I don't normally like beetroot/fennel/celeriac, BUT ...'"

Among the "highlights" Camilla singled out were Grilled Aubergine Slices in Ginger Marinade, which avoided the common aubergine problem of sogginess and had a superb marinade. Turnip and Rocket Risotto was "a most unlikely and yummy combination." Warm Salad of Roasted Aubergines, Tomatoes and Cannelini Beans: "one of the most delicious things I have ever made." She cooked Roasted Root Vegetables with Rocket Pesto because it made her think, "roasted vegetables - so what? But it wasn't boring in the slightest."

PHOTOGRAPHS

"Lovely close-up colour photos did help me figure out if my attempt was right."

VALUE FOR MONEY

"Non-worthy vegetable cookbooks are rare, and this one is imaginatively and technically wonderful. The book costs pounds 15, which might be more than most people would pay for a cookbook. I'd say: buy it anyway. There aren't too many books around as good as this."

MARKS: NINE OUT OF TEN

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