Friday, July 11, 2008

The Kitchen Shelf

I can't believe I've been writing solidly about food for over a week now, and only given the most passing of mentions to my beloved cookbook collection. Much of my cooking is done ad-hoc without reference to a specific recipe, but books do play an important part in my culinary life. Before I learned to cook properly, I used to rely heavily on a few simple recipe books, which became well-thumbed during my university years. The Student Vegetarian Cookbook (now out of print, but there are plenty of alternatives on offer) still gets used occasionally for late night munchy attacks, and The Penniless Vegetarian was recently donated to a friend who decided to give up meat, but served me well it in its day.

These days I tend to pore over the more luxurious illustrated volumes, finding inspiration and comfort from the mouth-watering pictures and florid descriptions from foodie-evangelists like Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson. Nigella is a particular heroine of mine and her How to Be a Domestic Goddess is my absolute bible for baking. Her cupcakes (p. 39) are virtually foolproof, quick as you like to make, and always a crowd-pleaser at parties. Being, as I am, an aficionado of trifle making, I can also particularly recommend her unconventional but wondrously indulgent 'Passion fruit, Mascarpone and Meringue Trifle' (p. 151), which was the original inspiration for my own banana, rum and chocolate variation. Speaking of unusual variations, I couldn't mention Nigella without thinking of her 'Nonconformist Christmas Pudding', as featured in Feast (p.69). Don't tell people it's got chocolate (and a LOT of booze) in it beforehand, just enjoy watching their faces as the blissful realisation arrives.

You can always tell my favourite recipes from where the pages have stuck together from having ingredients spilled on them, and the 'Lime and Chocolate Cheesecake' (p.145 - great dinner party dessert) from Nigella Bites is probably the most amusing example of this. Nigella's mentor (and mine) Nigel Slater, reads more like philosophy than cookery - you can dive into his Kitchen Diaries or Appetite and salivate over the passionate descriptions of every day dining for hours, without any intention of making something. Even his (excellent) autobiography, Toast, tells of a fairly traumatic childhood in which a love of food provided constant consolation. As well as converting me to the ways of frittata-making (p.54), Nigel's Real Fast Food can be credited as the originator of my now legendary (in Ant's eyes anyway) Welsh Rarebit (or 'Rabbit' as he calls it, p.272).

Being a near-lifelong vegetarian (25 years and counting), many of the books in my collection are unsurprisingly meat-free. A fairly recent addition, and quickly becoming the most frequently used, is Leiths Vegetarian Bible. Unlike many of my favourites, this isn't heavily illustrated, but is a brilliant reference when you need to know what do do with an unusual vegetable, or have to conjure something at short notice from what you have to hand. The original veggie guru, Rose Elliot, has numerous volumes available, of which the quaintly retro Rose Elliot's Vegetarian Kitchen is the most comprehensive. Helpfully organised by season, it also includes an entire section on how to 'do' a complete vegetarian Christmas, from nut roasts to party finger food. I have used the Christmas cake recipe (p.280) for the last few years, and found it most satisfactory.

Even Dame Delia (she isn't, but it sounds good) has published a collection of all her meat-free recipes, which includes some excellent soups (try the 'Tuscan Bean & Pasta with Rosemary' on p.37) and a 'Food for Friends' section which is ideal for dinner parties. The 'Warm Lentil Salad with Walnuts and Goats' Cheese' (p.46) is especially good for that ever-growing contingent of wheat/gluten intolerant guests. For something a little more exotic, I tend to reach for the World Food Café Cookbook (mentioned in my previous post) - a sort of travel diary-come-recipe book, with beautiful photography from all corners of the globe, and a wealth of colourful veggie food to match. Madhur Jaffrey's Eastern Vegetarian Cooking covers everything you could ever need to know about curries and the like, and for a more homely approach to global cuisine, Linda McCartney on Tour has some interesting and easy to follow recipes, such as the Vegetable Kichdi on page 101.

Long out of print, but still available secondhand is Alan Hooker's Vegetarian Gourmet Cookery, a 70s classic passed down to me by my biggest culinary influence, and maker of the best cakes ever - my mum. I love to picture her conjuring up perfect soufflés, dressed in some billowing floral batwing ensemble (á la Margot from The Good Life), and serving them up on one of those kitsch hostess trolleys. I'm sure nothing of the sort ever occured, but the idea amuses me. After several deflating attempts, I gave up on soufflé-making years ago, but have occasionally made use of the many nut roast recipes in this vintage tome.

I love receiving cookbooks as gifts, especially from those fellow-foodies with whom I regularly exchange cooking tips and recipes. The lovely Jo (who could give Nigella a run for her money in both glamour and baking stakes) recently added the delectable Green & Black's Chocolate Recipes to my shelf, from which I have already had some success with the 'Cape Ginger Tipsy Tart' (p.105).
Michel Roux's extremely useful Eggs was a Christmas present from my brother, who also incidentally taught me that the best way to make a decent chilli is to pour a whole bottle of beer into it. At the other end of the kitchen shelf is a selection of food magazine back issues - mostly Waitrose Food Illustrated, with the odd delicious and all 12 issues of my gift subscription (thanks Ant!) to New Zealand magazine Cuisine, which we discovered when travelling there several years ago. It's a brilliant mag, and I would have kept the subscription going, but found it frustrating reading about recipes for the wrong season and restaurant reviews for places I could never visit.

The kitchen is overflowing with cookbooks, but there are still so many more I desire. I guess it's time to put up another shelf...

My kitchen shelf, as a handy Amazon widget:
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