Janet Street-Porter cooks Jamie Oliver
Some people find Jamie Oliver hot stuff .... I think that growing vegetables is nearly as good as having sex. I get more of a thrill out of cutting my own cabbages and lettuces than watching Jamie on the telly – I find all that rough-and-ready boyishness a bit hard to stomach. Nevertheless, he's on my wavelength at the moment, as his new cookery book focuses on the benefits of growing your own veg, with lots of advice about where to buy seeds and plants. It's true you have to wade through many pictures of Jamie getting down and dirty with his brassicas, and there are plenty of soft-focus pics of the chirpy chappie and his mates eating al fresco. I could have done with twice as many recipes and half as much blank paper. I have had quite a few veg gluts this autumn and I was hoping that Jamie might magically solve them. I don't think that the basic standard of cookery in this book is very high – he tends to talk to the reader as if they are very simple. The other thing is that home-grown vegetables need very little tarting up – complicated recipes simply aren't appropriate when the produce is really fresh. Nothing tastes better than a plate of potatoes you've just dug up, simply boiled, with salt and a dollop of butter – orgasmic!
This summer was my first in a farmhouse in a remote valley in north Yorkshire. The garden was only laid out in June and three raised vegetable beds were planted (with a lot of disagreement) by me and my gardener Mr Binks at the end of that month; all very late in the season. But the rain proved a huge blessing and I had a massive success with loads of different salads – peppery Japanese mizuna grew like weeds (no recipes for it in Jamie's book, which is a shame), cos lettuce, rocket, two varieties of chard, radishes, runner beans and beetroots. I was disappointed that Jamie told me where to buy seeds for Italian cavallo nero cabbage (black cabbage to us Brits) but provided no recipes. I have stir-fried the damp shredded leaves in a little olive oil with some chopped-up chilli, and it's been fantastic.
I cooked Jamie's recipe for grilled butterflied monkfish with a sweet runner bean stew (pictured). My beans were far too good for this recipe; they were young, snapped at a touch, and stringless. Jamie's recipe – although he doesn't say so – is best for supermarket-bought beans of uncertain quality, because the overpowering taste of tomato drowns everything. In Italy, this recipe would be used for old beans, late in the season, and they'd probably use fresh, sun-ripened beef tomatoes, or the plum tomatoes which have no tough cores. Tinned tomatoes, which he specifies, are watery and tasteless.
In some hot olive oil I softened four chopped-up garlic cloves, adding the oil from a jar of anchovies, and mashed up the anchovies in it, adding a couple of handfuls of shredded runner beans, a couple of sprigs of rosemary and a chopped chilli. I added a jar of passata (or Jamie says a tin of tomatoes) and let the whole lot stew for 15 mins with a lid on. I made gremolata by combining a chopped clove of garlic, lemon zest, chopped parsley and salt, and set it on one side. I heated up the griddle and placed the fish (seasoned and rubbed with olive oil) on it and cooked it for just a couple of minutes on each side. I added a bit of water to the beans (they'd got a bit dry), put them on a serving plate, piled the fish on top and garnished it with the gremolata and a few torn-up basil leaves.
The overpowering taste of this dish is of tomatoes. The beans don't stand a chance. It's nice enough, but would have been far better made with fresh tomatoes, briefly plunged in boiled water, skinned and chopped. The book doesn't tell you how to cook all the greens you are left with when you grow your own vegetables – turnip tops, radish tops, cauliflower leaves and sprout tops. I have been stir-frying shredded beetroot leaves – they'd look fabulous with monkfish instead of runner beans, if you ask me!
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown cooks Rick Stein
Rick Stein's cookery programmes turn me on. I warm to his natural confidence and lack of guile. He remains outside the fake world of TV while being in it, never performs or licks his lips obscenely and doesn't seem to make promises he cannot keep. Then there is the glorious sea, his kingdom, from which he scoops up protesting creatures and stills them with such affection, you feel they must thank him as their eyes glaze over. Watching him at work is as satisfying as eating an excellent meal.
Much less so his books which are, I feel, ruthlessly cashing in on the brand. Collaborating with Debbie Major, the result is at best a dry instruction book and at worst, stodgy writing that puts you right off trying a bite. In this, their ninth book, yet another enthusiastic cook's journey is undertaken around the Mediterranean. The tone which would be delightful on telly is irritating in print.
So when The Independent asked if I would like to road-test a new recipe, I felt a heavy dread. The man is a folksy hero. How would I be able to say that in this latest publication not one of the seafood or fish recipes seemed worth the time and effort? They felt recycled and really not very interesting – not to this keen cook.
The meat recipes, however, were enticing and surprising, though again written heavily. I chose to cook Kefta Mkaouara, from Morocco, a spicy egg, meatball and tomato tagine.
I never follow any recipe exactly – the fun is in daring not to do what is asked, to play with ingredients, follow your nose and imagination. And this recipe is simple enough to allow such adventuring. For the meatballs, he suggests chopped parsley, ground cumin and hot paprika. I used red chilli flakes, too, and also chopped mint and minced spring onions. The sauce is the same old Mediterranean gloop made with onions, garlic, chopped tomatoes and olive oil – Stein adds cumin powder and some more hot paprika. I say fry some sliced red peppers with the onions. He suggested frying the balls separately and adding them to the bubbling sauce. Stuff that – much healthier to drop the uncooked balls into the sauce and let them braise contentedly. Then you break eggs over the top and cook them in the oven with the lid on until they are nicely poached.
It was just me and my daughter for supper that night, and she gave the dish 10 stars. It had everything kids love – meatballs, eggs, the red pasta sauce. She hated the coriander leaves scattered over the top at the end, as recommended by the master chef: "Don't like these," she said. "Why do you have to do exactly what he says? Why can't you do what you want?" I did, baby, I did, but we all have to follow directions in life; even the most rebellious of us have to do that sometimes.
Jamie Buckley cooks Fergus Henderson
I have never eaten at Fergus Henderson's London restaurant of St John, that much fêted temple of off-cut cuisine, but by all the evidence in his second recipe book – Beyond Nose to Tail – I would not be disappointed. The book covers a lot of ground, and it is not entirely devoted to wobbly bits, with decent sections on sturdy puddings and desserts, breads and doughnuts, all with the help of his trusty co-writer and pastry chef, Justin Piers Gellatly.
However, it seems silly not to test out one of his meatier recipes, as that is his forte. In truth, some of the recipes within the book would be quite tricky to carry out at home – half a pig's head, pressed ear and chitterlings would seem more fitting fodder for my permanently peckish Jack Russell, who oversees my every move with great interest while I am cooking. But from this point of view, the book acts as an enticing calling card for St John, knowing that you will never get round to pressing your own ears. And with that in mind I turned my attention towards preparing guinea fowl with red cabbage, trotters and prunes (pictured), which is a twist on coq au vin, but with the introduction of Fergus's Trotter Gear, a delicious, gelatinous jelly with chunks of flaky pig's trotter suspended within it (a vailable from www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk).
Henderson and Gellatly's style is engaging and homely, peppered with a whole new vocabulary that adds to the comfort factor of the recipes – you are urged to "nustle" this, "stuff" that and add "a splendid dollop" of the other. When ready you must "lay the bundle of joy" in the pan, then check that you have "a giving bird" (no sniggering at the back, please).
But the result of this cosier approach to recipes can lead to a laxity with the instructions. Once you have browned a 1.2kg guinea fowl in duck fat in a large pan or casserole, you then leave it to rest while you use the fat to sweat a red onion with some garlic, lardons, a bit of thyme and some shredded red cabbage. Then you sit the bird on top of this, add two packs of Trotter Gear (there's 250g in each pack), then cover the cabbage in chicken stock and let it simmer for two hours, lid on. After this time, the result was indeed a giving bird; so giving, in fact, that it almost fell apart when heaved from the pan, making it easy to carve, pluck and tease every last morsel of meat. I think I overdid the stock, since the recipe gave no measurement, but made up for this by mixing a little flour in a cup with some water and adding it to the pot. But this is quibbling ...
Indeed, so resourceful is Henderson's use of animals that I now look at my dog in a different light. If we encounter the tough winter some are predicting, there is just the right recipe which can be adapted for a braised saddle of Jack Russell. Now where did that hound get to?
John Walsh cooks Nigella Lawson
I loved the flamboyance and silliness of Nigella Express on BBC2: the way it abandoned all pretence that cooking is a matter of scientific rigour, of health-conscious restraint, of subtle flavours, and encouraged its audience to favour gluttony and hedonistic excess.
In search of authenticity, I threw myself into the Nigella lifestyle, swanning around my kitchen, pertly, deliciously, offering flirty little smiles to an unseen camera, as though planning to perform an act of erotic violence upon it within the hour. The children and Barry-next-door's ginger cat looked on with interest ...
Think Nigella and one naturally thinks of puddings; she seems to embody words like creamy, sweet, fruity and, frankly, hot sauce. And what could better epitomise her commitment to richness than her chocolate brownies?
It seemed simple. You buy two (150g) bars of serious Belgian chocolate, plus vanilla essence, ground almonds and chopped walnuts. Back home, you pre-heat the oven, then break the chocolate into rectangles. Melt them with lots of butter – a shade less than a whole 250g slab of Kerrygold – in a saucepan over a low heat. When the chocolate and butter have swirled together, remove from the heat and sling in some vanilla essence and 200g caster sugar. At this point, it's easy to feel a) decadent, b) queasy and c) enormously fat, but you must persevere.
Beat three eggs in a bowl and stir them into the mixture with the chopped nuts (the walnuts should be chopped into even smaller bits). This is where you need to knock off the flirting with the camera and concentrate: everything depends on the texture of this mix. You must employ a wooden spoon or spatula (as wide as possible) and stir the mixture in slow, creamy sweeps, back and forth. Then you decant the lot into a 24cm-square baking tin and stick it in the pre-heated oven for half an hour.
After 30 minutes, the middle of the square is soggy and wobbling, and its weight has caused a crack to appear in the surface crust. You return it to the oven for another five minutes, then another, but it still comes out soggy. Waiting for it to cool, you re-read what Nigella promised in her book: "This is a different kind of a brownie... melting, fudgy and damply rich." It is indeed all these things; you just wish it could hold its shape a little better.
But by the time you've made the chocolate sauce – which involves melting the rest of the Belgian rectangles with double cream, golden syrup and some Camp coffee essence– and poured it over vanilla ice cream alongside the brownie, you really don't care much about the shape of the thing. This is no time for geometric precision. You're on Nigella Time now. And this is simply the richest and most chocolatey treat you've ever tasted.
Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escapes, BBC Books, £20; Beyond Nose to Tail by Fergus Henderson & Justin Piers Gellatly, Bloomsbury, £17.99; Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson, Chatto & Windus, £25Reuse content