‘I may, one day, stop making notes and writing down recipes,’ Nigel Slater says in A Cook’s Book (Fourth Estate, £30). Please don’t. This is his 16th book and his writing feels as fresh as it ever did. I remember cutting out his recipes from Elle Magazine three decades ago, and I do not believe he has ever put pen to paper without wanting his ideas to work for others. Mountains of good food must have been set on tables and shared by people as a result, because Slater is a master of his trade. ‘A recipe must work. Otherwise, what’s the point?’ he says.
Quite; though a cynic would add that the genre is full of recipes that either don’t work or never quite resemble the glories of a book’s images. A Cook’s Book is a gift to a novice, as well as a reminder to a seasoned, even tired, cook of what it is all about. The practice of cookery is like that of any pursuit: the more you do it, the better you will become, and the more able to adapt and problem-solve — as long as you do not give up.
Yet every enthusiastic, dedicated home cook reaches a point when they feel it would be so nice to hang up the apron. You have cooked for fussy partners, picky children, the person who rings up mid-afternoon on the day of the dinner to tell you they’re vegan-ish… You have had enough. What you need is a booster jab of inspiration: a reminder of why you love cooking. This is where Slater comes in, with green Thai bubble-and- squeak fritters; griddled asparagus with buttery lemon mash — a brilliant dish in which the potato reflects the flavour of the asparagus like a disco ball; or a plum and blackcurrant ‘free-form’ pie — an amoeba-cum-tart that an amateur cannot fail at.
It is impossible not to read this season’s books without a sense of how they were created in a pandemic. Slater, in his basement kitchen, missing not a single detail of his surroundings, tools and craft — like a lifer in his cell. Then, there is the actor Stanley Tucci, normally an in-demand travelling player for whom an enforced period at home with his wife and family must have been the greatest of extravagances. He celebrates by writing a memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food (Fig Tree, £20). I read it through the night. Food memoirs are tough to pull off, but Tucci’s has the essentials: honesty, humour, humility and real acquired knowledge.
He admits to an all-American beginning of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, but also his busy parents’ relaxed Friday night meatball feasts. Food met his work when he directed and starred in the film Big Night, a drama about two Italian chef-patrons. Later, he played the part of the (literally) towering American food writer Julia Child’s shorter husband Paul in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep played Julia, and I will leave for you his gruellingly funny story of the two of them not enjoying France’s smelliest sausage, andouillette, on the ensuing press tour.
Gripping, however, is the section on how grim location catering can be. Fuel for actors apparently tends to be just that: sausage sandwiches about sums it up. For all Tucci’s success, he has endured a great deal: bereavement and a dangerous, cruel cancer — of the tongue; but then joy with his second wife, Felicity. He’s only 60, for heaven’s sake. I want the sequel.
The catering and restaurant business suffered greatly in the pandemic, and perhaps have not been lauded enough for all they did while their customers were locked out. The industry supplied hundreds of thousands of meals to NHS staff, but for many it was a case of sitting tight, hoping their businesses would survive. Shona Pollock, famous for catering weddings, took the time to publish a delightful collection of recipes, Muddy Spuds: Rustic Recipes From My Kitchen (shonapollock.co.uk, £25). A long way from the canapés she would normally offer brides and grooms, this is the kind of home cooking most of us need. Recipes range from retro favourites such as a workable beef stroganoff and a chocolate roulade to pretty, global salads, tarts, curries and roasts.
Yotam Ottolenghi became an often-heard spokesman for beleaguered restaurateurs during lockdown while developing a series of notebooks in his workshop under a railway arch in north London. The first of the ‘Test Kitchen’ series, Shelf Love (Ebury Press, £25), has a bright, cleanable soft cover and comes filled with some of the most appetising dishes ever put together using a base of larder foods. I’ll definitely make his (and his fellow writer Noor Marad’s) greens and chermoula potato pie and the zatar parathas, greatly helped by step-by-step photography — something I wish more cookbooks would feature. While good food writing speaks volumes, novice cooks desperately need useful images. I look forward to the next book in the series.
Mandy Yin abandoned a career in the law to open Sambal Shiok in the Holloway Road, devoted to her roots in Malaysia and its hotchpotch of cooking styles. The restaurant is famous for its true versions of laksa. There is the type many of us know, with curry-scented coconut milk poured over noodles, tofu buns and crunchy vegetables; but I’d buy her Sambal Shiok (Quadrille, £25) alone for the Penang Assam Laksa, a fruity, sour soup perfumed with lemon grass, tamarind, galangal and fresh mackerel. The broth is ladled over rice noodles, fresh cucumber and pineapple. Prepare to line up an alarming number of ingredients for this one, but it will make your senses sparkle. Other recipes include curries, stir-fries and street food snacks. But the book is also a good read: Yin’s personal, lawyer-to-laksa story is intriguing.
The progress of the Michelin-starred chef Ollie Dabbous could not be more different. He trained in some of the world’s best restaurants and now heads his own kitchen at the acclaimed Hide in Mayfair. Normally I greet such a chef’s book on home cooking with a sceptical sniff. But Essential (Bloomsbury, £30) is another lockdown creation and, becalmed at home, Dabbous has put himself in our shoes. He offers pretty versions of simple dishes. For an easy supper there’s a gram flour pancake with garlic shrimps, fennel and parsley; the filling for his own version of sausage rolls has the brilliant addition of Worcester sauce, apple and mustard, and he does a wonderfully light version of treacle tart using white miso paste. It’s the good ideas that count: the decoration is, as this thoughtful chef suggests, optional.
Finally, seeing that Christmas is unlikely to be cancelled this year, there is At Christmas We Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages by Annie Gray (Profile Books, £12.99). Recounting the origins of pigs in blankets (American) beats fighting with members of the family. Christmas unlocked? I can’t wait.