Are you an anarchist or an acolyte in the way you use cookbooks? Two food experts who face each other across the Atlantic have radically differing recommendations. In One Good Dish (Artisan, £17.99), David Tanis, formerly head chef of the legendary California eatery Chez Panisse and now food columnist on The New York Times, selects his everyday favourites such as Spanish garbanzo bean stew, warm potato salad with peppers and onions or mussels on the half-shell with breadcrumbs and parsley (highly recommended). "I hope you don't follow these recipes slavishly," he concludes. "Improvisation and ad-libbing make life in the kitchen much more interesting."
It's the way that this reviewer tends to cook – a glance at the recipe to get the bare bones, then ditch the book for the pan – but this approach is not supported by Rory O'Connell, teacher at the acclaimed Ballymaloe Cookery School near Cork. At the start of Master It (Fourth Estate, £25), he declares, "This is not a 'chuck it in and see how it goes' book… Use the best ingredients you can find, get organised and follow the recipe." Though it may irk culinary anarchists, if you pursue O'Connell's four chatty pages on grilled sea bass or three on casserole-roast chicken with watercress, the result should be a small masterpiece.
The most handsome cookbook of the year (cover by Michael Craig-Martin) comes from this paper's food writer, but the dishes in The Collection (Quadrlle, £25), Mark Hix's selection of his favourite British recipes, have more to do with robust flavours than aesthetics. Haute cuisine has its place but for my taste there's nothing to beat cow heel and black peas (also known as carlins), scrambled eggs with sea urchin or spiced baked spider crab. The ingredients for these particular dishes may take some finding but if this country were as food-obsessed as the TV schedules suggest, they should be available on every high street.
The reason for the dramatic surge of interest in baking is surely as much social or familial as culinary. This is borne out by Rose Prince's The Pocket Bakery (Weidenfeld, £18.99), which stems from a Battersea-based enterprise intended to provide pocket money for her children and, subsequently, a career for her bright but restless son. The visceral appeal of her sourdough variations (which run to 40 pages), duck and pork pie or sweet olive oil bread with grapes is enough to turn any kitchen into a Pocket Bakery. Compared to the steamy world of celebrity confectionary, The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook by Lynn Hill (Quercus, £20) is a breath of fresh air. The recipes come from "amateur bakers… without a hint of competition" and there are no cupcakes ("a small cake's no good for sharing"). Hurrah! Instead, the sliceable delights of rhubarb-and-custard cake, St Paddy's Day Guinness Loaf, Polish apple cake…
High-flying chefs are prone to giantism in books (if not always in their portions), none more so than Heston Blumenthal, whose modestly-entitled Historic Heston Blumenthal (Bloomsbury, £125) is the size of a pulpit Bible. All but lost among the giant typography, photo-spreads, oversized illustrations and acres of gold pages is a lively vindication of British cookery through 27 dishes between 1390 and 1892. Those who wish to essay the dishes in this edible history should be warned that Blumenthal's recipes require the deeply anachronistic resources of his much-publicised research kitchen. Pretty much every recipe uses sous-vide. A medieval dish called compost requires a Thermomix. Somewhat inappropriately for a sect dedicated to the simple life, Quaker Pudding (1660) demands a steam-injected oven.
For his second book, René Redzepi, maestro of Noma in Copenhagen, until recently No 1 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, has avoided the lure of the monster tome. Instead, A Work in Progress (Phaidon, £39.95) consists of three volumes. In ascending size, they are: Snapshots (highlights include "Test kitchen knife drawer" and "Delicious dead animals"); A Journal ("Brains just fall apart in an unpleasant way"); and Noma Recipes, which includes such treats as fatty fish liver cooked in butter, dried carrots with grass and hay flavours and, of course, bouquet of greens with black ant dressing (Redzepi concedes that you can use "any other ant with a distinct citrus flavour").
With food books increasingly devoted to recipes that are, for reasons of technology, ingredients or complexity, all but impossible, it seems logical to drop them entirely. This is the course pursued by Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft boss-turned-scientific cooking guru, in The Photography of Modernist Cuisine (The Cooking Lab, £80). Huge double-page spreads of miraculously precise close-ups transform a tomato into a bulging red cushion, a sliced carrot into a glowing sun. The dish that apparently involves firing a bullet through several eggs is new to me. Though there are too many gadgets sawn in half, a strategy anticipated by Yoko Ono in the Sixties, flipping through the vast, glowing images is a striking experience. But where's the oyster?
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