Anybody who reads the papers, or is friends with people who read the papers. will know one thing. Britain is in the grips of a food revolution. Food is the new sex, the new black, the new everything, all rolled into one.
Yet as with so much in the media, this is a gross simplification. Whilst sales of cookbooks may be on the rise (note the meteoric sales of Jamie Oliver’s last tome), this has been accompanied by a huge increase in takeaways and ready meals. After all, reading all these cookbooks doesn’t half make you hungry.
Restaurants have cottoned onto this and a steady stream of cookbooks is now emerging, turning what was once a trickle into a torrent. Recent efforts include Hawksmoor at Home, Bocca, the literary product of Jacob Kennedy’s Bocca di Lupo or the more complex Heston at Home. Least you think I am knocking these books, they are all admirable and worthy additions to any shelf. The trouble is, that even with the best will in the world, they aren’t going to get more people cooking.
People enjoy eating out because they often find cooking intimidating. Witness Jamie Oliver weeping into his spuds as yet another child fails to identify a carrot. Recipes are helpful in combating this, but can lead to a tendency to follow orders blindly unable to distinguish between necessity and mere garnish.
Anybody who has spent hours driving round trying to find the latest obscure herb or spice for one of Ottolenghi’s recipes will know the feeling. The confidence to ignore a recipe is profoundly liberating, similar to tearing your clothes off and diving into a stream. The question is how do you gain such confidence?
Cooking without Recipes, by Phillip Dundas, is one book that may help in removing those culinary training wheels. As the name suggests, it contains no recipes. Instead, it provides a manual for confidence in the kitchen, with information on techniques,food shopping, and cooking various ingredients. Beautifully illustrated, the writing possesses a lightness of touch that never feels patronising.
Advice such as ”the aspiring cook should never be afraid to ask questions, or ‘don’t use a chef’s knife after you have opened a bottle” seems somehow more accurate coming from a book. It is always nice to read a book that recognises the increased appeal of shiny knives after a big glass of red.
The book runs through the full range of basic techniques, from chopping to braising and does a nice line in ingredients, from scallop and root vegetables to risking a risotto and that doyenne of French cuisine, béchamel sauce. In many ways this is the sort of book we need right now.
By demystifying the cooking process, it allows people to grown and gain confidence, holding your hand without smothering you. For anybody who has ever felt a tremor of fear grazing at the fishmongers or been baffled by brussel sprouts, this book is a worthy purchase.