Category Archives: Books

Books I love and Other Things.

I always say that Facebook can be a curse and a blessing at the same time. I admit that it’s a love-hate relationship on my part. Many times it’s all about love though! I wouldn’t be in contact with anyone if it were not for it, especially since I’ve moved to the UK a few years ago. I only wish that I had something like this available when I lived even more far away than that eleven years ago. I love the interaction with long lost friends though I rarely accept friend requests from people I don’t know at all. One thing I enjoy are photo albums (or individual photos for that matter) about food. It’s a feast for my eyes and I love when people forgo everyday takeaways and cook something from scratch. One of these albums belongs to Andrew – a good friend of mine who loves to cook and so loves to eat! I don’t know if he is aware of this, but he lately gave me some ideas for a few Maltese-inspired dishes. I promised that I’ll cook something for him whenever he’s around for a visit.

Andrew was also kind enough to send me his copy of The Nigella Lawson Edition of Stylist Magazine. When this arrived through the post I was positively thrilled. Not only was it full of gorgeous photos and articles, but it also came with some book recommendations at the back. I decided to buy them, not necessarily all at once! I really love books, sometimes too much even for my own liking, and most of the time I regret it. The concept of time just doesn’t exist for me in bookshops, but I regret it more often than not because I rarely purchase books from the stores any more. I buy second hand books these days. They are cheaper, most of the time they are in good condition and hey, it’s also good for the environment. And some books are just not found in the high street anyway. But I digress…

The book I started with is Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic by food writer and editor Ruth Reichl. I knew who Ms. Reichl was but I never read her. Mistake. What I didn’t know was that Garlic and Sapphires was the third part of her memoirs, although to her credit, one can read this without necessarily reading the other two parts. She is an amazing writer – I really cannot stress this enough. I was immediately taken into her world and her work from the first page. She is not just a foodie. She is a journalist with a capital J, with a true knowledge of food and of life: an expert. I was hooked.

A year or so ago I would never have thought that I would be reading something from a food critic. Never. I thought they were all high-strung stuck-up snobs, moving from one restaurant to the other, pointing fingers at the hard-working chef or sous chef slaving in the kitchen since the wee hours of the morning to get everything set up for lunch in time. I mean, come on, you get paid to eat! Some definitely fit this description, but Ruth Reichl isn’t one of them. I’m no food critic, and to be honest I’m not sure I ever want to be one. It’s a tough job, especially when you work for a high profile newspaper. The politics behind close doors can be unbearable. You really have to love your job, not merely to eat fabulous food, but to go to a restaurant several times in different disguises. When you’re a famous critic with The New York Times you are easily recognised; that’s just the way it is. Reichl says that she wasn’t even in New York yet, when someone pointed her out on the plane. Early on she knew that to give the most objective reviews she had to find a way to taste the food without being who she really was. The staff, judging the book by it’s cover, treated her differently, offering the best when she went to a restaurant as herself while almost doing the opposite when in disguise. If only they knew who they were being obnoxious to! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Ruth went out for a meal as Betty, a character inspired by an “invisible” but adorable old lady she met on a bus. It could be a stand alone topic for another book! Seriously, respect for the older generation has gone down the drain.

I should have read Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table first- Ruth’s culinary adventures as a child, but no harm done. I think that this is the most entertaining book out of the three. There’s no question – writing a serious autobiography, memoir or whatever you want to call it, takes guts. It’s personal in nature and therefore it can be revealing. And it’s not only about you, but also about your family, which can make it a bit complicated. No family story is straightforward and you would be in La La Land if you happen to think otherwise. Reichl’s way of doing things is very endearing. She admits to merging two characters into one or changing some happenings here and there, which I think she does mostly for discretion’s sake. I still think it’s ok though. The essence of the story is still present. I laughed so much as she protected both the guests and her own friends at her mother’s dinner parties or at informal gatherings before they tasted the “mouldy” food. I was moved by the way she writes about both her parents and the rest of her family. About their mother, her brother says: “I don’t know how I survived her cooking. She’s a menace to society!” Then she grew up, worked in restaurants, did a fair share of travelling, married and lived in a commune, and together with her friends she opened The Swallow, where she was both cook and co-owner. Everything was not straightforward. She worked hard at overcoming personal difficulties.

In the final pages of Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table Reichl says: “I took the title of this book from the Song of Solomon, which has a lot to say about both food and love.” (This is also known as the Song of Songs.) I am definitely *not* going to go into the theology of it. We will leave that to any Biblical expert out there who might want to give it a go! What we can say for sure is that someone’s background, culture, faith or environment (or lack of, if that’s even possible) does have an influence on the food we grow up with. You can definitely see this in Reichl’s recipes, and in everyone else’s for that matter. In this second part we can see the transition between cook and food critic. As she advances in her work, she builds contacts, meets famous chefs, becomes more known herself, but her personal life goes the other way. Her marriage breaks down, her mother gives her a hard time; life becomes tougher but she faces her problems and admits when she’s wrong. Her trip to Barcelona unravelled an unsuccessful meal and most importantly her feelings. “When I got on the plane, I didn’t really know why I was coming. But I do now. I needed to find out that sometimes even your best is not good enough. And that in those times you have to give it everything you’ve got. And then move on.” A lesson for life. In the meantime I’m searching for Reichl’s other books. I know they will be a treat.

Rob x

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Books

A good friend of mine sent me his copy of Stylist (The Nigella Lawson Edition) over the Christmas holidays. I read about it in the papers but I was away and when I came back to Surrey it was unfortunately too late for me to get hold of it. I was so excited when it arrived. After the chaos that was Christmas, I finally managed to sit down and read it from cover to cover. What a treat! I loved it. There’s loads of good stuff in there, among which are some useful book reviews. With not much persuasion I ordered one of the titles: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. It’s been published for quite a while now so it’s not a new book, but apparently it’s one of the best food memoires out there so it’s a must-read. It should be a fun read too. I also have some more books lined up but I’ll start with this one. I ordered it yesterday and it should arrive soon…Or so I hope.

Rob x

Book review: Small Adventures in Cooking.

Persian-Stew-with-Jeweled-Rice-(4702)

So some three weeks ago or so, I came across a very interesting concept by the people back at Quadrille Publishing. Interesting as in good, by the way, just in case you were about to ask. It’s called New Voices in Food and their objective is to showcase exciting and talented new chefs. I contacted Quadrille about this project and I was sent James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking, published on the 6th June.

When it arrived in the post I was so relieved, for two things mainly: size and simplicity. It’s full of original ideas but it’s small enough to carry in a small bag. Big encyclopaedic-sized table top books are very nice mind you, but if you’re like me and you like to read through recipe books from cover to cover before you actually decide on what recipes to try, then the big ones don’t work for you initially. And since this is a simple book then there’s no glossy pages to deal with, which is, as you might know already, what I like best. Simplicity and unpretentiousness is what you get throughout the book; the real stars of the show are the recipes themselves. Even though James is the author, he is confident enough not to have loads of photos of himself splashed about. There are some photos on the flaps but that is it. Another good thing. So I marked most of the pages with orange sticky notes, as usual, and away I read.

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What I wanted to do before writing this review (which is by no means exhaustive) was to try some of James’ recipes. I have tried three, taking them from different sections of the book: the first was the 5-minute Sponge, second the Macerated Strawberries and third his Persian Aubergine Stew with Jewelled Rice. To be honest, my choice was more influenced by the current contents of my pantry rather than my present non-existing adventurous spirit. Don’t get me wrong. I was really inspired by the recipes, but I am moving house very soon so lately I’ve been trying to cook with whatever I have. That being said, I only needed one trip to the market and another to the butcher to get what I needed. I was impressed – usually I get lost among ingredients, wanting to buy every fresh vegetable and every fresh piece of meat I see. But James is teaching me to economise without compromising flavour.

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I started with the Persian Stew. I like stews to begin with because they remind me of home. This is stew with a twist and it’s so simple to make. Looking back I should have made it without the extra Tweaks (the little hints for each recipe) just because I would have given a more solid opinion. But for once I had some limes in the fridge (and this is very rare) so all I had to do was get myself an aubergine and some lamb. Both the stew and the accompanying rice are delicious. My only add-on was to throw a few tablespoons of sugar the second time round, to make up for the sharpness of the tomatoes and the bitterness of the limes and cranberries. This stew has become one of my favourites and if you’re feeding a family or having friends over for a meal, this will be a hit.

I tried the sponge and the strawberry recipes today. I only needed some quiet time this morning, after some coffee of course, to make everything. The Macerated Strawberries is an assemblage really – you need strawberries, lemon zest, mint and sugar, and pepper to serve, and that’s it. Perfect. (Let’s face it, few are those who don’t have strawberries in the fridge at the moment. Being a tennis enthusiast, I did.) And they are yummy with the 5-minute sponge, a five-minute easy whisking job and 15-20 minutes in the oven. Definitely another winner. There’s a selection of other things I plan to try later on…I bought a tub of cream not only for the next Two-week Strawberry-Fest which is Wimbledon, but also for the Kedgeree (pg.86). Plus I have enough chocolate for the Chocolate and Fennel Brownies (pg. 137) and beyond so I’m good to go! On my Facebook page I said that at first glance this book was a beauty. Now I can say that it really is. You can find James’ blog here.

Rob x

Random thoughts, books…and a recipe.

So, yesterday I made a huge mistake. J and I went to the University of Surrey for an event with Professors Jim al-Khalili and Brian Cox. No, that is *not* it…the mistake I mean. The interview was fantastic and we really enjoyed watching these two great minds discussing physics, music, broadcasting and the likes. What has all this to do with food? I didn’t have anything to eat before heading out and I was hungry. While waiting in line, J was tweeting away and I was deciding whether to leave the long queue to get myself a sandwich or starve for a couple of hours. A small sacrifice for the opportunity to watch your two heroes on stage, no? Yes. Then it was question time. After an hour of cheerful banter between the gentlemen, someone handed over to them a pile of questions for Prof. Cox to answer. The cards were in a sort of fruit bowl. Was it or was it not? I still have my doubts but that did it for me. So even though it was surreal to see the Professors on stage, I was not totally there. Pathetic of me, I know. Then someone asked Prof. Cox whether he liked Marmite. That’s what I would like (I thought): a big bowl of Spaghetti with Marmite (see Nigella’s Kitchen page 49). Here it is with some changes. The lesson is now learnt.

For 2-3 people you will need:

  • 250g dried spaghetti
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 1-2 tablespoons Marmite (depending on how strong you want the sauce to be)
  • freshly grated cheese, to taste
  1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.
  2. Before you drain the pasta and when it is almost completely done, melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the Marmite and around 1 tablespoon of water from the pasta. Mix well.
  3. Reserve another ½ cup of boiling water, drain the pasta and pour the Marmite concoction over it. You could add some or all the water to combine this mixture if needed. Serve the pasta with some grated cheese.

Just a note: It goes without saying that this recipe is very salty. So don’t cook it too often if like me you tend to avoid salt.

(For whoever wants to watch the Brian Cox interview you can watch it now on the University of Surrey’s You Tube channel.)

I’m reading a number of books at the moment. It’s not always about cooking with me, but it so happens that right now I’m flipping through some recipe books and some biographies, one of which is A Taste of My Life. Raymond Blanc needs no introduction. He is a brilliant chef and a humble man with a great smile. He’s also a genius in the kitchen, which helps! In his BBC programme Kitchen Secrets I was completely amazed at the way he constructed an espresso cup filled with a coffee cream. Watch it here – it’s truly remarkable.

I’m about half way through Blanc’s book, so this is by no means a proper review. (And I won’t say anything bad. If a book is on this blog it’s only because I like it.) I love how he peppers the chapters with different recipes, some of which are derived from his childhood experiences with food. Some descriptions of are a bit too squeamish for me (eg. the pheasant incident on pg. 25) but I can live with them, and part of his mission is to raise awareness anyhow. So really, no harm done. J and I also liked the American guest and the lobster story. Now I would have loved to be there when that happened.

Another book which I recently got from the library is Cook by Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers. Now you’ve got to love Thomasina – she’s so cool! I cannot get hold of the book, unfortunately but I really wish they would reprint it once more. I would be the first to get it. I would have liked to see more food pictures (by now my readers know that I like to see the food before I try any recipes). However it’s a lovely book and it’s colourful – I can’t help but think of M&Ms every time I open it – and that’s a good thing!

Some recipes that I will definitely try include her Roast Chicken with Saffron Cannellini Beans (pg. 100), the Sicilian Oxtail Stew with Garlic, Chilli & Chocolate..yes, chocolate (pg. 91) and the Chocolate Ganache Tart (pg. 214), to mention only a few. There is a good selection of exotic flavours scattered here and there in her recipes but the food remains familiar. It’s a great book for all, especially those who love to feed big crowds without the extra stress. You can find Thomasina here.

Rob x