Food & Drink: Cooking the books - a guide

Books linked to television chefs have hogged the headlines this year, but push past them and you will find a few pleasant surprises
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THE LIFE of a cook book reviewer is a happy one. Aside from exchanging early morning pleasantries with the postman, you are paid to browse through piles of interesting, amusing and, occasionally, bad books. As the year unfolds, it becomes obvious which trends the publishers have decided to back. Chefs' books have dominated 1999: many are too similar in style to be reviewed. Italian and fusion food have both remained fashionable, while books themed around vegetables are becoming increasingly popular.

Undoubtedly, books linked to television series are considered to be the biggest money spinners and consequently are given the most exposure in the shops. Yet, push past them and you will find a surprising range of food-related books this year.

Everything from anthologies such as Food by Clarrisa Dickson Wright (Ebury Press) to intriguing reference books such as Alan Davidson's The Oxford Companion to Food (OUP) and Traditional Foods of Britain, an Inventory by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown (Prospect Books).

Space limitations have forced me to ruthlessly ignore them here, along with all the new paperbacks. Hence no mention of Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater, Annie Bell or Simon Hopkinson. All are excellent. Here then, is my round-up of the best of 1999.


If a child learns to cook with Easy Peasy: real cooking for kids who want to eat by Mary Contini and Pru Irvine (Ebury, pounds 12.99) you won't need to worry about them looking after themselves once they've grown up. However, for all those too old to enjoy such pleasures as spicy bites and black bananas, you should perhaps consider investing in Delia's How to Cook, Book Two by Delia Smith, (BBC Books) which should be on sale from 9 December. You will, of course, also need Book One.

Alternatively, if you feel relatively confident in the kitchen, you might want to consider two other books. Just Food by Phil Vickery (Viking, pounds 18.99) provides plenty of easy-to- follow, modish supper recipes - ideal for flat-share TV suppers and dinner parties. Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef (Michael Joseph, pounds 18.99) is the perfect cult book for girlies (or boys) who want to feel hip and cool. Despite its hype, the book contains much sound advice and appetising recipes.


Most food writers have a secret desire to be remembered by posterity, although the reality is that it is only a matter of time before they fade in the light of another rising culinary star. One solution is to write a weighty recipe-led reference book, which will sit on every kitchen shelf as a definitive work. Perhaps Gary Rhodes's New British Classics (BBC, pounds 20) is going to be just such a volume. It has been well-researched and includes recipes for everything from picnics to Sunday lunch.


If ever you wished to teach yourself how to cook "professionally," now's the time. More chefs are publishing books than ever before and consequently, dinner-party food should be reaching new heights. My favourite book this year is Spice by Christine Manfield (Viking, pounds 20). Beautiful, yet challenging. You can use it for its delicious recipes or as a source for new ideas on how to develop flavouring. But I also love Baker & Spice Baking with Passion by Dan Lepard and Richard Whittington (Quadrille, pounds 18.99). It is a book for the committed cook who wishes to extend their knowledge in baking, covering every aspect of baking and with loads of scrumptious, fattening recipes.

Among the other notable chef books this year is The Richard Corrigan Cookbook with Norma Macmillan (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25). Filled with evocative photographs, it is arranged seasonally ,and includes dozens of delectable recipes like fresh pea and scallop soup or vanilla cream pots with blackcurrant compote. Soho Cooking by Alastair Little (Ebury Press, pounds 25), also has lots of good recipes, mixed with a dash of cheffiness and a pinch of London history. But committed carnivores who love messing about in the kitchen will gain endless delight from the like-minded Nose to Tail Eating: a kind of British cooking by Fergus Henderson (Macmillan, pounds 20).


Given the proliferation of chef's books this year, it is pleasing to find a few books that cater for the ordinary home cook. The best is Tamarind & Saffron by Claudia Roden (Viking, pounds 18,99). It is full of simple, appealing recipes, such as spinach and yoghurt salad or quails with grapes. However, those seeking something new should also look at Cook at Home with Peter Gordon (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25). He is a master at introducing new ingredients; you never know where it will lead you.


Vegetables are obviously "in" this year given the plethora of vegetarian and semi-vegetarian cookbooks published. The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook by Denis Cotter (Atrium, pounds 20) is superb. Every page is filled with useful information, interesting ideas and good recipes. The Big Red Book of Tomatoes by Lindsey Bareham (Michael Joseph, pounds 17.99) is essential for anyone who cooks. It's chock-a-block with everyday recipes from soups and stews to hangover cures.


No bookshelf is complete without one or two books that allow you to toy with thoughts of another life. The African Kitchen by Josie Stow and Jan Baldwin (Conran Octopus, pounds 18.99) is filled with beautiful photographs of the South African bush and intriguingly delicious (and practical) African- inspired recipes. Fork to Fork by Monty and Sarah Don (Conran Octopus, pounds 20) links garden to kitchen. The recipes are homely and the pictures lovely: wet dogs and cabbages.


I had to include two whimsical volumes which are perfect for creating a knobbly Christmas stocking. The Dinner Question, or How to Dine Well & Economically (1860) by Tabitha Tickletooth (Prospect Books, pounds 12.99) is an amusing 19th-century satirical cookbook, perfect for a rainy afternoon. Esquire Handbook for Hosts, edited by Peter Howarth (Thorsons, pounds 12.99) was written in the Fifties and will appeal to those with a wry sense of humour. It includes advice on how to make Welsh rarebit and how to make yourself attractive to women - obviously a must.

Sybil Kapoor is the author of the award-winning `Simply British' (Penguin, pounds 7.99)