PUTTING RECIPES TO THE TEST WITH RICHARD EHRLICH: COOKING THE BOOKS

THE CLAIRE MACDONALD COOKBOOK by Claire Macdonald of Macdonald Photographs by Tim Hill Bantam Press, pounds 25
I've always been a fan of Claire Macdonald's books, paragons of sensible, un-fussy cooking, and the source of my favourite method for cooking salmon. Lady Macdonald runs the Kinloch Lodge Hotel on the Isle of Skye, but her food is closer to home cooking than the fiddly grub usually found in chefs' books. This new one is a real door-stopper: 400 pages and several hundred recipes, some new and some collected from her 12 earlier books.

With salmon in mind, I turned the book over to journalist David Nissan, who spends every spare moment trying to catch the fish in the River Usk. David, a truly passionate cook, does most of the cooking for his wife and two teenage children. His lengthy comments, brutally trimmed, are left to speak for themselves.

But before I turn the stage over to David, a few comments of my own. I do not doubt the accuracy of his reports on his experience of cooking with the book, or the legitimacy of his reservations, but some of his comments strike me as disagreements with a personal style of recipe-writing. Others might feel more comfortable with the style that he criticises. For instance, he dislikes the specification of "large onions" rather than a precise weight. That is his prerogative, and I respect it because he is a smart dude and a very good cook.

But there is another school of thought which holds that the presentation of measurements is always a personal matter. Some cookery writers (myself included) feel that precise measurement is an overrated quality, and that most experienced cooks would rather be told to use a few large onions rather than 450g (1lb) of onions. Specifying a precise weight means that the user has to get out scales, when they'd rather grab X number of bulbs from the onion bag and get on with it - with their own judgement guiding them as to whether one onion more or less would give the best results.

On the other hand, measuring ginger in inches gives, in a sense, the worst of both worlds. David is quite right to point out that knobs of ginger vary in thickness. If the author wanted to be casual about measuring the fragrant rhizome, she could use a form of words along the lines of "a small/medium/large chunk of ginger". If she wanted to be precise, she could say: "a half-inch cube of ginger" or even "X tablespoons of minced ginger." Specifying a length is an example of misleading precision: it's unhelpful to the beginner, and confusing to the experienced cook.

But there are so many variables, and pressures, in cookery writing that no one could get it right every time. My own experience gives me more than a twinge of sympathy with Claire Macdonald. But David is right to take her to task for not giving her readers a little more help on measurements.

Two final points. One: I agree with David's comments about the photogra- phy. Two: he wasn't sure about the value for money here, but I think that when pounds 10 sometimes buys 50 recipes, pounds 25 for hundreds seems reasonable value.

And that's enough from me. Here's what David said.

PHYSICAL EASE AND DESIGN

"A practical book with a straight- forward, no-nonsense design. There are lots of chapters, none very long, and most kick off with a listing of dishes so it is easy to see the range on offer. I particularly liked the presentation of the desserts, with a chapter each for frozen, light and substantial puddings."

RECIPE QUALITY

"This is a diverse book. I found plenty to tempt me for a range of occasions. Many of the dishes are very simple; you are not often presented with a long list of ingredients.

"The best dishes I tried were Baked Salmon with Sesame Vegetables, only five minutes in the oven and full of contrasts, and Upside-Down Pear and Walnut Gingerbread Pudding, one of her substantial puddings that just avoided being too rich. It emerged from the oven moist and lightly spiced, and was wolfed down by my guests even though two substantial courses had preceded it. I'd suggest either dish to a novice cook. Also good was a vegetarian main course, Goats Cheese Stuffed Crepes with Leek Puree, though it was more elaborate to prepare.

"But three dishes were disappointing. Red Onion Soup with Balsamic Vinegar and Goats' Cheese Croutons had far too much onion, and though sweet was bland. The two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar got rather lost in a dish for six people. Dark Chocolate Souffle came out dry, and far too bitter for a meal with children. Worst of all was a one-pot meal, Baked Chicken Breasts with Garlic, Onions and New Potatoes in Olive Oil. This produced wonderfully moist chicken but undercooked potatoes and juices drowned by the specified quarter-pint of oil. It was too bland and greasy for any of my family, though Macdonald says it is her children's favourite.

"Part of the problem may lie in some ambiguous instructions. Put the souffle mix into six ramekins, but what size ramekins? Mine weren't big enough, as there was plenty left over. Or, for the soup, use six 'fairly large' red-skinned onions - how many pounds? How big? Macdonald is a ginger lover, but sticks with the convention (which drives me mad) of measuring ginger in inches. The ginger I buy comes fat or thin, so the advice is next to useless."

PRACTICALITY

"There's nothing esoteric about the book, but Macdonald spreads her wisdom thinly. The advice, which plugged a gap in my knowledge, that one can leave a souffle mix for hours under clingfilm before baking at the last minute, is given with the recipe for Goats' Cheese and Hazelnut Souffle. But there are 10 other souffles in the book. If you turn straight to them, you may never know."

PICTURE QUALITY

"The pictures are few in number and add nothing to the text. Being in the close-up genre of modern London cookbooks means they don't help to convey the more traditional attractions of this book."

VALUE FOR MONEY

"I think pounds 25 may be a touch steep, but there is a wealth of experience here and the good dishes were exceptionally good. I will keep using this one for ideas, adapting its recipes as I go."

TOQUES (out of 10): 7

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