The 50 best cookbooks
Part two, the top ten of Observer Food Monthly’s countdown
Our panel of judges: Raymond Blanc, Bill Buford, Rachel Cooke, Monty Don, Fuchsia Dunlop, Fergus Henderson, Mark Hix, Simon Hopkinson, Atul Kochar, Prue Leith, Thomasina Miers, Tom Parker-Bowles, Jay Rayner, David Thompson and the OFM team
10 GREAT DISHES OF THE WORLD Robert Carrier
(Marshall Cavendish, 1963)
Good cookery books capture the culinary zeitgeist; truly great cookery books shape it. Few are as important or, frankly, as indispensable as Carrier’sGreat Dishes of the World, which gently explained to a Britain for whom the memories of rationing were still fresh, that there really was a world of food beyond their shores. Carrier delivered fabulously detailed and uncompromising recipes for the likes of beef stroganoff and bouillabaisse. The writer’s attention to detail , and commitment to getting it right, is obvious on every page and explains why the books has endured. Carrier, who died in 2006, continued to update Great Dishes, and it remained in print for years. Though the colour plates now have a certain kitsch quality there is no doubting its reach or ambition. As well as roaming far and wide across Europe there were also recipes from China, India, the Middle East and Caribbean. Even so there’s no doubting that its heart really belongs to France. Jay Rayner
9 SICHUAN COOKERY Fuchsia Dunlop
Before I had finished even half of Fuchsia Dunlop’s introduction to her first cookbook, I was kicking myself for knowing so little about such a diverse and clearly delicious food region that’s as big as France and more populous than Britain. Her entertaining descriptions of her time spent cooking in Chendung’s famous cooking school combined with her simple, concise translations of what she learned made me yearn to start cooking immediately. I was in Chinatown a few days later, loading up on ingredients, though many are readily available in good supermarkets.
The recipes veer from the incredibly simple, such as stir-fried potato slithers with chillies to the more elaborate, such as dry-braised fish with pork in spicy sauce. Clear chapters cover cold food, poultry, fish dishes and street food. The vegetable chapter includes a recipe for fish-fragrant aubergine that is so simple and yet so good that it would convert anyone to Sichuan food. Concise sections detail most common ingredients and different cooking methods. You’re left aching to visit the region, just to learn more. Thomasina Miers
8 THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK Marcella Hazan
Marcella Hazan often gets the blame for the craze for balsamic vinegar, and she has been known to complain people use it far too much. But in other matters, her influence has only ever been benign. Hazan, knowing that some pastas are most definitely not best made at home, has made cooks everywhere feel truly proud of their jars of dried spaghetti. She has also, down the years, encouraged them to chuck out their garlic presses, and use instead the blade of a knife to crush our cloves. Best of all, she has taught us to elevate what we used to call spaghetti sauce to the status of ragu, an altogether more sophisticated beast. We know now to add milk to it, and nutmeg and, if we are feeling really chi-chi, we can throw in some chicken livers, too, and call it ‘ragu di fegatini’.
The Classic Italian Cookbook was published in 1973 in America, where Hazan taught cookery in her New York apartment. Then, in 1980, it was adapted for a British audience by Anna del Conte, at which point she won herself a whole lot of new fans, plus an Andre Simon Award. It is a very good book indeed: comprehensive, straightforward, with recipes that really work. If you want to know how to make proper risotto, minestrone, or lasagne, this is where to look. But it includes other delicious things, too: pot-roasted squab, stewed rabbit, braised oxtail. As Hazan notes, the Italians like to describe such dishes as “un bocone da cardinale”, or a “morsel for a cardinal”. We don’t know too many cardinals, but we know what she means: this is gloriously tasty food, to be cooked for those you really love. Rachel Cooke
7 THAI FOOD David Thompson
(Pavillion Books, 2002)
Australian chef David Thompson first went to Thailand almost accidentally when some holiday plans fell through, and was smitten by the country and its food. He moved to Bangkok, where he studied in the kitchens of people skilled in the noble arts of traditional cookery, pored over the memorial books that documented palace recipes, and explored the food sold on the streets. He originally promised his publisher a small book on Thai snacks, disappeared for years of intensive and obsessive research, and finally came up with this remarkable and comprehensive study of Thailand’s culinary traditions. (With characteristic irony, he mentions in his acknowledgments that writing it was ‘an interesting, prolonged experience’.) Within its gorgeous pink covers, you will find information cultural, geographical, historical, spiritual and culinary, not to mention a vast collection of recipes that range from street food through palace cooking, to exquisite desserts. It’s a book of rare depth and complexity, demanding and exotic, and one that opened the door to a new appreciation of Thai cookery among readers of the English language.Fuchsia Dunlop
6 ENGLISH FOOD Jane Grigson
(Ebury Press, 1974)
The great Jane Grigson, the Observer’s food writer from 1968 until her death in 1990, was also the author of many wonderful cookbooks. It’s perhaps debatable which is the best of these, but the one for which she will always be most celebrated is English Food. As the critic Fay Maschler put it: “She restored pride to the subject of English food and gave evidence that there is a valid regional quality still extant in this somewhat beleaguered cuisine.”
English Food (it contains recipes from Wales, too) is undoubtedly a work of scholarship: carefully researched, wide-ranging and extremely particular. But it is also contains hundreds of excellent recipes, the vast majority of them short, precise and foolproof. Who could resist poached turbot with shrimp sauce, or a properly made Cornish pasty? As for the puddings, Grigson delivers recipes for some of our favourite ever: Yorkshire curd tart, brown bread ice cream, queen of puddings, and Sussex pond pudding. There is also an excellent – and blissfully long – section on teatime: every possible cake and bun is here in all their sugary, buttery glory. Rachel Cooke
5 ROAST CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES Simon Hopkinson with Lindsey Bareham
(Ebury Press, 1994)
is not a great cook because of his mastery of technique, though he has that by the bucketful. Nor is it his flair for innovation that makes him; even he would say his food cleaves tightly to the great European traditions. What defines him is his exquisite good taste. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in this cleanly written, utterly reliable, delicious book. It is organised by ingredient – A is for anchovy, B is for Brains, P is for pork pieces and bacon bits – with a short essay on each. Then come the recipes, be it the roast chicken of the title – the trick is to rub it with butter and then squeeze over the juice of a lemon – one of his beloved tripe stews, or his saffron mash, pretty much the only dish he claims as his own invention. Pleasingly there is a direct link in this book back to the great Elizabeth David with recipes that she first introduced to these shores, such as the saffron soup with mussels or the heart stopping St Émilion au chocolat, refined for a modern palate. Jay Rayner
4 KITCHEN DIARIES Nigel Slater
(4th Estate, 2005)
Nigel Slater is the Philip Roth of food. The towering writer of his generation by whom all others are judged. Or simply “a bloody genius”, according to Jamie Oliver. Real Fast Food is Slater’s Portnoy’s Complaint, the bold and brilliant arrival, packed with precocious appetites and ideas, that changed for ever the thought of what to do with food in the cupboard or fridge. But Kitchen Diaries is the full flowering of a mature talent, with a clear knowledge of who he is, where he comes from and what he wants to say.
Moving on from Richard Olney’s defining understanding of seasonality,Diaries places food back in the heart of the British home, the garden, the market, the farm. “Roast rhubarb on a January morning; pick-your-own strawberries in June; a piece of chicken on a grill on an August evening; a pot-roast pigeon on a damp October afternoon.” The concept was simple but game-changing. British food from now on would celebrate the right food at the right time. Open it on any page (but start, say, with 1 January on page 4) and savour the simple beauty of the recipes and the writing. Allan Jenkins
3 THE BOOK OF JEWISH FOOD Claudia Roden
Cairo-born Roden has published many great recipe books, and there are few who can touch her knowledge of the Mediterranean and Middle East. But it is The Book Of Jewish Food which will stand as her masterpiece. In truth it is less a cookbook than a cultural over view of the entire Jewish diaspora, with appropriate recipes attached. It is a mark of just how reliable a piece of scholarship it is that, on publication, it was greeted with almost universal acclaim; a rare achievement for any work wading into the notoriously rancorous Jewish community. Every page and, more important, every recipe bursts with the vigour of a people that spent 2,000 years on the move. The dishes of the Sephardic Jews of North Africa and Spain are as rich and varied as you would expect of a writer who made her name with the food of the Middle East. Here are instructions for Iraqi date-filled pies, Tunisian couscous cakes and quinces in wine. More compelling still is her codifying of the eastern European Ashkenazi tradition: her irrefutable instructions for perfect chopped liver, latkes, gefilte fish and the rest. Any edition of this book is a joy, but the beautifully illustrated American version, published by Knopf, is particularly special. Jay Rayner
2 FRENCH PROVINCIAL COOKING Elizabeth David
Elizabeth David came to me somewhat late, in cookery calendar terms. My mother, a very good cook indeed, had not, to my knowledge, a book of hers anywhere in the house when I was fettling away at the Aga in my early to late teens. Cordon Bleu, yes. Dad’s dog-eared EP Veerasawmy paperback for his curries, indeed. But no Elizabeth David. It was not until I was 21 years old when friends in West Wales gave me a set of her Penguin paperbacks for my birthday, hoping that they may further inspire me in the kitchen of my little restaurant by the sea. Although I had already worked in a French restaurant and eaten in France with my parents, nothing compared to that which I was to learn and devour fromFrench Provincial Cooking. Nothing had previously evoked such a sense of place and time with the richest prose. It was and remains, intoxicating. The recipe for poitrine d’agneau Sainte Ménéhould is a case in point, where this meagre, though supremely flavoursome joint, is quietly poached with aromatics, cooled, carefully divested of its flacid, corset-like bones and excess fat, it is then pressed between weighted plates, or some such. Once firm, this now flat cut is sliced into thick strips, smeared with mustard, beaten egg and coated with breadcrumbs. Gently grilled, or fried till crisp – not ‘crispy’, a description Elizabeth David abhorred. This is a remarkably good plate of food. Simon Hopkinson
1 THE FRENCH MENU COOKBOOK Richard Olney
(Ten Speed Press, 1970)
On a summer afternoon at his home in Provence in 1999, the American food writer Richard Olney went to lie down after a light lunch, and never woke up. He was 72, and had led an interesting and fulfilling life (his friends included the writer James Baldwin, the poet John Ashbery, and the painter John Craxton). He had also, unlike many people, been able to cook his own last meal. The story goes that when his brothers arrived to arrange the funeral, they found a plate and a glass by the sink. The plate contained traces of a tomato pilaff; the glass, red wine. The remaining pilaff was in the fridge. The brothers took it out, heated it up, and toasted him before tucking in.
This pilaff tells you everything you need to know about Olney. People favour risottos now, but before there was risotto, there was pilaff: buttery rice mixed with onions, garlic and tomatoes that have first been fried in olive oil. If the tomatoes are good and fresh, the oil sufficiently grassy, and the onions just so, this is the food of the gods. Olney was a hugely accomplished and knowledgeable cook, but his mantra was simplicity and, in this sense, he was ahead of the times. When The French Menuwas first published in 1970, its determinedly seasonal approach was considered revolutionary. Four years later, he published Simple French Food, and his reputation was sealed.
Some read Olney for his uncompromising style alone. His sentences are longer than a prize pike; his salads are “composed”, not tossed. Others like the way he pairs every dish with a wine. But it’s his menus that really slay you. Olney lived alone, but he was a generous host, and his friends must have considered themselves truly lucky. Imagine a friend who cooked you sorrel soup, followed by frito misto, pheasant salmis with ceps, and an orange jelly. Or crayfish mousse, ravioli of chicken breast, roast leg of venison and moulded coffee custard. Or, perhaps best of all, cucumber salad, baked lobster, braised and roasted partridge, and fresh figs with raspberry cream. With this raspberry cream, we quietly rest our case. Rachel Cooke