Cookery Books: Recipes for those who know their onions – and their limits
Christmas books of the year
Why do we buy cookbooks?
It's an oft-reported fact that while we feast our eyes on more and more television shows about cookery, and devour the books, we're doing far less actual cooking. So perhaps they should be renamed? Not so much cookbooks as lookbooks.
These days most of the bestselling food books are by celebrity chefs or TV tie-ins – not always the best place to start for the amateur foodie. Then again, even the most keen of cooks might baulk at Heston Blumenthal at Home (Bloomsbury, £30). I think it's fair to say that Heston's home isn't like yours and mine. I don't have a sous-vide machine, for instance. And I generally haven't got seven hours to cook my onions for onion soup. This is a stunningly beautiful, ingenious and knowledgeable book, but I wouldn't turn to it on a Thursday night for supper ideas. One for the coffee table rather than the kitchen counter.
Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli fame, is another titan of the food world, but his The Family Meal (Phaidon, £19.95) is a very different kettle of fish. Step by step pictures and timescale organisers make it very user friendly, and listing the ingredients for two, six, 20 and 75 (75?!) is helpful. (Scaling up is the downfall of many a cook.) The bolognese sauce is excellent. Not a mouth- watering book visually, like Heston's, but one to get your teeth into.
Next, two names that are not as famous but just as noteworthy among real foodies. Anna Hansen's London restaurant, The Modern Pantry, is a hit for its elegant, deceptively simple dishes, and her cookbook of the same name (Random House, £25) stays true to that ethos. The myriad influences and soft-touch approach to good produce sing out: from 100-plus recipes, it's hard to choose just one, but my usually lacklustre vegetarian offerings were improved greatly with her roast butternut squash stuffed with mejool date, cashew and coriander couscous. Maria Elia's Full of Flavour (Kyle, £19.99) is thrilling – the chef at Joe's, in London's South Kensington, has a keen eye for experimental ideas and teaches us, through the pages, how to think like a chef. There are even blank pages at the back for your own experiments.
Two chefs who operate outside the usual system are Kerstin Rodgers and Allegra McEvedy. Rodgers runs a supper club in London famed for its zingy ideas and raucous fun. The recipes in Supper Club (Collins, £25) are not unknown dishes, but this pretty book is packed with tips for holding the best ever dinners and parties. Meanwhile McEvedy has cooked everywhere and for everyone; her Bought, Stolen & Borrowed (Octopus, £25) tells of her adventures. It's organised by country – from Burma to Malawi, the Arctic Circle to Manhattan – and is as entertaining as it is delicious.
Best of Bill (£25 Murdoch) celebrates the greatest hits of The Independent on Sunday's own Bill Granger. It will quickly become a standby on many kitchen shelves, as it ranges from sumptuous savoury dishes referencing his Aussie and Pacific-rim influences, to fluffy hotcakes that will have everyone begging for more.
Back to two men who have been big screen presences this year, in different ways. It feels as though Jamie Oliver has exhausted every theme and cuisine in the world, but no – our own nation gets the treatment with Jamie's Great Britain, a TV series and tie-in book (Penguin, £30). Despite some clever twists on familiar dishes – empire roast chicken, Earl Grey tea bread – am I the only one who feels a bit jaded with the whole chopping board on the knees, gulp and splosh approach?
Far safer hands are those of Simon Hopkinson. The quietly masterful writer was finally lured to our screens for The Good Cook series, and the spin-off book (BBC Books, £25) is as calm and inviting as you'd expect. Simple, often cheap ingredients are made sublime with his failsafe techniques. Buy this, then seek out his other titles, if you haven't already.
And finally, one that I don't have – but it's at the top of my Christmas list – is Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Sicily (Fourth Estate, £30), an enthusiastic tour of the island's rich cuisine by one of our greatest (adopted) chefs. From caponata to cassata, it's a mouthwatering book. Happy Feastmas!