It’s time for my annual pick of favourite cookbooks from this year. If you know me a bit, you’ll know that I read, and cook from, a lot of cookbooks. A lot. So while what I recommend will skew towards my particular taste, I like to think that I’m a pretty good judge when it comes to choosing books that will stand the test of time. My judging criteria: I’m drawn to titles that offer something unusual, a different angle or a less explored conceit – I want to learn something new. I like books which are beautifully styled and designed, so that you’ll want to have them out in your kitchen and turn the pages often. My personal focus also leans towards the healthy and, increasingly, simple (I want food that I’ll be happy to make on a regular basis; I’m less interested in highly styled, multi-process restaurant food or more recipes for cake). Above all the recipes have to work and taste good enough for me to want to repeat them.
Without further ado, here’s my top five:
1.The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (Norton)
I surprised myself with how much I loved this book. I’m not really of the science geek school of cooking, being a sterotypical arts graduate, but I found it impossible not to be fascinated by this thorough exploration of why food behaves as it does and how to get it to do what you want it to do. This is very squarely in the ‘useful’ rather than ‘beautiful’ camp but I can’t think of another cookbook I’ve learned this much from. It covers the whole gamut from how to buy a decent knife to how to cook the perfect boiled egg to how to make your own sausages, all backed up with hard science and exhaustive experimentation. My only caveats: it is decidedly American, so the core recipes covered are not all things us Brits would make on a regular basis, and some of the terminology around, for example, steak cuts gets a little confusing. Also, some of the ‘perfect’ methods of achieving something are just too fussy for regular use.
Favourite recipes: I’ve barely scraped the surface of this 958 pager, but the light and fluffy buttermilk pancakes are the best I’ve tried and I now know how to get my sweet potatoes extra crispy (the trick is to soak them first)..
Bookmarked to try: making my own sausages
2. River Cottage: Gluten-Free, Naomi Devlin (Bloomsbury)
I wrote a little about this book in my post featuring its delicious teff pitta breads. Since then I’ve called on it for several gluten- and dairy-free baking recipes and let me tell you, I was sceptical, but they were so good I would happily put them on the cafe counter. This is now my go-to when cooking for people with dietary requirements and it would be an excellent Christmas gift for someone beginning to negotiate the waters of gluten-free eating without resorting to some of the dodgier offerings of the supermarket ‘free from’ aisles. Crucially, the recipes are so good that you can serve them to gluten enthusiasts and avoiders alike with pride.
Favourite recipes: teff pitta breads; English sourdough muffins; carrot and walnut parkin; teff muscovado brownies
Bookmarked to try: buckwheat pasta
3. Eat Right, Nick Barnard (Kyle Books)
I also wrote a little about this book in a post featuring gingerbread. I recommend this not so much for the recipes (not that there is anything wrong with those) but as a primer for an approach to eating that is very close to my heart. I feel that there is a something of a dichotomy in the food world currently between what has come to be known as ‘clean eating’ and its scoffing detractors. I can see both sides, but I also believe that there is a middle way – looking to the traditions of generations for a way of eating that is sensible, healthy, economical and respectful of the land and animals behind it. I can only suggest you read this book for further explanation!
Favourite recipes: kombucha; water kefir; sprouted sourdough pizza
Bookmarked to try: maple butter
4. The New Vegetarian, Alice Hart (Square Peg)
Inevitably a vegetarian book will sneak into my year-end best-of and this one comes with a front-cover quote from Diana Henry boldly claiming it as “the best vegetarian book I’ve ever read or cooked from” – if it’s good enough for Diana Henry, it’s certainly got something going from it. This is a dreamy, soft-focus book that will transport you to a future where you live in a cottage and invite your friends round to eat baked purple goat’s cheese gnocchi from an antique wooden table (rather than a cheap pine number in a rental off the Bradford Road). Honestly, it would be hard to find something I didn’t want to eat from this book, and it is very large. Occasionally I found the slightly austere tone a bit grating (“diet food this most certainly isn’t!” she exclaims about a cauliflower and barley cheese – really?!) but every single thing I’ve made I would make again, and often have, which is actually quite rare for me.
Favourite recipes: teff, banana and maple loaf; griddled halloumi salad with date dressing; chocolate-beetroot spelt loaf; cauliflower and barley cheese
Bookmarked to try: everything else
5. Everything I Want To Eat: Squirl and the New California Cooking, Jessica Koslow (Abrams)
I had a real debate about whether to include this one (my other choice would have been the ever-excellent Diana Henry with her new book, Simple) seeing as, um, I haven’t actually cooked anything from it. But, this was the most intriguing read of the year for me. Again, the Californian approach to food is something I gravitate towards, and some of the recipes here are pretty Mill Kitchen (if Mill Kitchen was in LA and had rich and famous customers) – their version of avocado toast features pickled carrots and garlic cream and their skillet pancake is topped with cacao nib pudding. I always find it interesting to read about the journey other food businesses have been on; Squirl started out as a jam business, so there are recipes here for strawberry rose geranium jam and raspberry cardamom jam at the more achievable end of the spectrum. There are also recipes for things like their ‘tomato party’ which features tomato paste, tomato powder, tomato stem oil, whipped feta and garlic chips. A little daunting. However, while Koslow’s approach seems meticulous, her writing voice is friendly and approachable. The pictures mostly seem to be of customers of the restaurant and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Ultimately this is a book that I want to spend some quality time with, that I have a sense may inform future menus.
Favourite recipes: none yet
Bookmarked to try: crispy rice salad; salmon with sorrel pesto; cardamom doughnut-ish tea cakes; ginger molasses shrub