Friday, February 26, 2010

How to buy a cookbook

One of my New Year's resolutions/promises to myself  - along with spending more time with my friends and less time with my children - was to stop buying cook books and recipe magazines. Partly because of my belief that there really are no new recipes as such, just slightly different combinations of ingredients, and partly because I have no room for anything new - something already treasured would have to go to make some space on the shelves.
Faced with shelves of recipe books in almost any bookshop how do you choose which one to buy anyway?
Herewith my golden rule  -NEVER buy a recipe book which doesn’t have a good index  regardless of the other attributes it may possess.
Recipes are usually arranged into ‘chapters’ perhaps grouped around seasonal produce (spring, summer, autumn, winter or perhaps even Easter and Christmas), around specific ingredients (chapters on figs, eggplant, potatoes etc) or around types of dishes (soups, main meals, desserts, salads). The problem arises when you want to find say spinach salad – is it in ‘summer’ or with ‘salad’ or in the chapter on ‘spinach’?  Always check  the standard of the index. Is the ‘Cauliflower soup with Gorgonzola and pickled pear relish listed in the index under ‘soups’, ‘cauliflower’, ‘pears’ and ‘Gorgonzola’? (In fact in Skye Gyngell’s A year in my kitchen this recipe is listed under all of these headings – well not ‘Gorgonzola’ but ‘cheese’ which is fair enough). My pet hate is knowing that a recipe is in the book somewhere but not being able to crack the code in the index. I have more than one book on the shelves which indexes the recipes by the title of the dish – so ‘Warm chicken salad’ is indexed under ‘w’ and ‘Fresh tuna salad’ is indexed under ‘f’. (Is anyone at the Women's Weekly listening?) This might rate as quirky but really it is just infuriating.
Even when they get the index right one of my gripes with many recipe books is that the method is always very concerned with what to do but not often with why. How will the end result be affected if the directions aren’t followed to the letter? What are the really critical stages in the process? This is especially useful information if you are making something for the first time. Not every writer can devote their time to testing recipes  a la Julia Child  nor indeed does every recipe book need to include the detail of Mastering the Art of French Cooking but a little more description like "heat the butter until its foam begins to subside" and "beat the hot sauce into the egg yolks by driblets" and less reliance on convention and 'recipe speak' not only gives the book a bit of personality but also helps to make the recipes more accessible.
My own preference is for recipes which are not too prescriptive, which offer ideas for combinations of ingredients or a number of variations on a theme. And I prefer books with character, where the personality of the author comes through either in the way the recipes themselves are written or through head notes or introductions or simply in the way the recipes are presented. Books that have that certain something - perhaps it’s the illustrations, or the way the recipes are set out, the personal information included – jokes, stories, historical details – whatever it is that tells me something I didn’t already know or takes me off in another direction, inspires me to cook or simply to read more.
Some books which fit the bill (and already have a space on the shelf) are Nigel Slater's Appetite, Maggie Beer's Maggie's Harvest, Claudia Roden's A Book of Middle Eastern Food and for looks and originality Jake Tilson's A Tale of Twelve Kitchens which is absolutley essential reading for any one who may have the desire to prepare Mexican food in a motel room.

No comments:

Post a Comment