Two of this season's big-name cookbooks are put to the test

Deborah Ross and her family try out the 'River Cottage Family Cookbook', while Brian Viner and his clan survive a week on 'Gordon Ramsay Makes It Easy'
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The River Cottage Family Cookbook is a work of such bucolic loveliness (tousled, white-blonde children harvesting the organic marrows; growing their own tomatoes; kneading their own bread; dressing their own crabs) that I don't know whether to sleep with it under my pillow, in the hope of soaking up all that fresh air and child-friendly goodness, or to stamp on it in a terrible fury while simultaneously planning to fire-bomb River Cottage. How much more can people expect of mothers? Don't we feel guilty enough about most things already? Have we, even, moved from not caring enough about the food our children eat to caring too much? Nice food that's been nicely reared or whatever is nice, but surely there can be times when it is only food? The other night, at supper, my own son asked: "Is this chicken organic?" "Yes," I wanted to say, "and so is this punch on the nose. As for this kick to the shin, it's neither free-range nor nutritious, but by heavens it's doing me good." I am thinking of turning up at River Cottage with a truck full of Game Boys and Sunny Delight and then we'll see how interested those white-blonde, tousle-haired moppets are in harvesting organic marrows, ha, ha (this is cold, hard laugh of woman who is not so much bad mother as full-blown evil witch).

However, this is not to say that the book isn't seductive - no one buys cookbooks to reflect their own shaming lifestyle, anyway - or that I'm not a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fan. I am. I have all the other River Cottage books, which are as much essays with recipes attached as f cookbooks, and I have learnt a great deal from them. I also love Hugh, mostly because he looks as if he either doesn't own a hairbrush or can never find it, which always cuts it with me. Anyway, this book is, according to the introduction "for the whole family to use". Anyone 12 and up "should be able to tackle recipes on their own", while adults with younger children will "enjoy cooking from it too, with your kids alongside and fully engaged in the mixing, sifting, stirring and rolling". I do love to see a kid fully engaged in mixing, sifting, stirring and rolling. I just don't want to have to clean up after it. This is the wrong attitude, I know. I feel guilty about it already.

The recipes will not, I imagine, particularly excite the average adult cook - spaghetti bolognaise; roast chicken; Victoria sponge; how to boil an egg. In a sense, it's not a book that offers anything you don't already have to hand. It will never replace your Delia or Nigella or Jamie, but it is beautifully put together, with photographs laid-out comic-book style and mini-essays on, for example, how cheese is made, the history of the spud and how important it is, generally, for children to know where their food comes from. "The toddler that walks past a field of sheep and asks what they are doing there should not be fobbed off with stories of woolly jumpers. Far better to pick up some lamb chops on the way home and show your child how to cook them." The evil witch in me wonders how this sort of advice might transfer to the inner city. "The toddler who walks past a witness appeal board and asks about the sexual assault at 3am should be ... pretty much fobbed off with anything?" I would say so.

My son kicks off our week of living with the book. My son, being 13, is much more interested in looking at naked girls on the internet while pretending to do his homework than cooking, but he thinks he might make the pizza. He can already cook some things - scrambled eggs; pasta; bacon sandwiches - but this is his most ambitious kitchen project to date. I leave him to it. This is astonishingly easy to do as the recipe instructions are blissfully clear. Actually, they are more than blissfully clear, providing vast explanations at every step of the way, and leaving nothing to chance, which I am all for. The recipe for mayonnaise, for example, appears to go on forever because it explains why you add the oil a drop at a time, and why you can add it more quickly once you have stirred in some lemon juice. I do feel slightly less afraid of it now. The pizza recipe includes a great deal of information on how to knead dough and why we need to knead dough but nothing, alas, on how to clear up after yourself once you have kneaded the dough. There is even a floury handprint on the cat. For reasons that are mostly to do with hygiene, I decide not to think about this. He makes the tomato sauce, spreads it on the dough, puts on the toppings (mozzarella, ham, olives) and the result is bloody good: really tasty pizza, even though the sachet of yeast we used expired in 2002. (What can I tell you? I just don't buy yeast that often.)

He is proud of his pizza, so much so he agrees to make roast chicken the following night but by then, alas, he appears to have lost interest altogether. "Oh God, do I have to?" Not really. "Good. I've got homework to do. Can I go on the computer?" Still we do, later in the week, make the salmon fishcakes together. They are perfectly acceptable - I don't feel I have a lot to say about fishcakes, but things only really perk up again when my 11-year-old niece, who has no interest in anything naked on the internet, turns up for the day and she and I have a bloody good time making double chocolate brownies. They are very gooey, very chocolately, very delicious and even my son - lured downstairs by the amazing smell - offers to help on any front he can, so long as it only involves licking the bowl. This is a nice cookbook to have around. Not essential, but nice. I might not turn up at River Cottage with Game Boys and Sunny Delight after all. But then again, I might, ha, ha.

Double chocolate brownies

250g good dark chocolate
200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
3 free-range eggs
125g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
100g broken walnuts

Pre-heat oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Put 3-4cm water into a saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Break chocolate up, cut up the butter, and place both in a mixing bowl. Put it over the pan of simmering water and turn the heat off. Stir until melted together and smooth.

In another bowl whisk the sugar with the eggs, using the balloon whisk, until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add chocolate mixture to the eggs; mix thoroughly with wooden spoon.

Sift flour and cocoa powder and mix thoroughly. Stir in walnuts if you have decided to use them. Line the baking tin with a piece of foil and pour in the mixture. Oven gloves on. Place the tin on a shelf in the middle of the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. Oven gloves back on. Take the tin out of the oven and stand on wire rack. Leave until cool enough to cut into squares.

'The River Cottage Family Cookbook' by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20

The Viner things in life

A friend of mine, a foreign correspondent, was recently despatched by a television company to Baghdad. Coincidentally, he phoned from Iraq shortly after The Independent's Food and Drink editor had handed me the demanding assignment of existing for a week of the school holidays on Gordon Ramsay's latest cookbook, Gordon Ramsay Makes it Easy. "Don't tell me about the fearless world of journalism," I said. "I've spent the past 20 minutes studding a pineapple with cloves."

The clove-studding was part of Gordon's salt-baked pineapple recipe, the finishing flourish to a romantic dinner for two. I know it was romantic because in the introduction to the Dinner for Two section of the book, Gordon had said it would be. "We should all make time in our lives for romance. Tana [his wife] and I try to keep to this philosophy [by having] dinner after the children are tucked up in bed."

In our house, during school holidays, dinner after the children are tucked up in bed would begin at around the same time as Newsnight. That's the trouble with cookbooks that give you lifestyle tips; they make you frustratingly aware of your own inadequacies. And the oysters Rockefeller that preceded the chateaubriand-for-two did not, as Gordon all but promised, inspire my wife to ravish me even before we got to the salt-baked pineapple. Still, they were absolutely delicious. Almost better than being ravished.

Ramsay's book is divided into nine sections and we cooked from eight of them, skipping only the barbecue food. When Jane took our three children away for a couple of days, I turned to the Great Fast Food section. An unequivocal success this was not. His broccoli soup, which in the book looks like dark-green velvet, in my hands turned to pale-green mush. I am happy to blame this on myself, not Gordon, although there is one recipe in the book that I decided was plain wrong, and phoned Gordon to tell him so. Nothing my friend has undertaken in Iraq can be more intrepid than that.

This was his recipe for lime pannacotta infused with mint and tequila. It was supposed to be the crowning glory of our Saturday-night dinner party, which was itself the crowning glory of our Ramsay week, and had begun in magnificent fashion with fishy canapés from the book's Bellinis and Blinis section. We then had saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach: superb. But the pannacotta recipe called for 4-5 leaves of gelatine and that sent Jane into a flurry of anxiety, looking up her favourite (Antonio Carluccio) pannacotta recipe which, though also for six people, stipulates just two leaves. Sure enough, the finished product, while of glorious flavour, was way too gelatinous. The exact texture, said our guest Steven with what seemed like authority, of a silicone breast implant.

So, fuelled by exasperation, and more pertinently several bottles of Côtes du Rhône, I phoned Ramsay HQ at Royal Hospital Road. I asked him what the **** he was ******* doing putting up to five sheets of ******* gelatine in his panna*******cotta, before admitting to my companions that there was nobody at the other end of the line. The restaurant shuts at weekends. Not that I knew it when I dialled.

Still, it is mean-spirited to dwell on the failures of what was an overwhelmingly successful week at the Viner Diner. We allowed each child to choose a dinner, and (typically) choosing from the Posh section, 10-year-old Joe asked for oven-roast duck breast with swede caramelised in ginger and honey. It was wonderful. The kids didn't go a bundle on the swede, but that was fine; there was more for us.

Oven-roast duck with caramelised swede

Serves 6

6 Gressingham duck breasts, about 175g each
1 or 2 knobs of butter
Handful of thyme sprigs
Good splash of red wine
2 large ladlefuls brown chicken stock
Sea salt and pepper
1 large or 2 small swede, peeled
40g butter
2cm knob of fresh root ringer, peeled and grated
1-2tsp thin honey

Heat the oven to 200C/gas mark6. With a sharp knife, score the duck breast skin in a criss-cross pattern, taking care to avoid cutting through to the meat.

Cut the swede into cubes, roughly 2.5cm, and simmer in salted water to cover for 10mins or until barely tender, then drain thoroughly.

Heat a heavy-based frying pan over a high heat. Add the duck breasts, skin-side down, and sear for a few minutes, pressing down on the flesh to ensure an even colour. Turn the duck breasts over, add a knob of butter with the thyme sprigs, and cook for 30 seconds only. Transfer to a roasting pan, adding the thyme too. You may need to do this in batches.

Roast the duck breasts in the oven for 8-10 minutes, then transfer to a warm plate and rest in a warm place for 10 minutes. Put the roasting pan over a medium heat and add the wine, stirring to deglaze. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil and skim. Let bubble until reduced by half. Check the seasoning.

Caramelise the swede, meanwhile. Heat the butter in a pan, add the swede with the ginger and honey, and sauté for 3-4 minutes until lightly caramelised.

Pile the swede into the centre of warm plates. Thickly slice the duck breasts and arrange on top of the swede. Spoon over the jus and serve with fondant potatoes.

'Gordon Ramsay Makes it Easy' is published by Quadrille, £19.99

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