Timing is everything, and few cookbooks come at an apter moment than Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley, £25) by the excellently named Ukrainian-born Olia Hercules. It is too easy to pun on her strengths, but in these flamboyant recipes and stories, Hercules lifts up not just the cooking of her country but that of others in the former Eastern Bloc out of grey culinary oblivion.
‘Mamushka’ is an invented word, used by Hercules to describe the strong women in her life; her mother, aunts and cousins, not all Ukrainian but with roots in Bessarabia, Siberia, Armenia and Uzbekistan. All were great cooks, and Hercules says she includes very few of her own recipes. This food is as special as Hercules promises — and she writes beautifully about it, too.
This cooking fits as snugly into a British kitchen as Mediterranean or the current trend for Nordic (about which more later), if not more so. With rich and meaty soups for winter, cut through with a ping of acidity from gherkin, sorrel or olive, then herby, multi-coloured salads for summer, fun-to-make noodle dishes and a superb chapter on never seen before breads, this is 2015’s most exciting cookbook.
It is a great year for discoveries, however. Andrew Wong cooks Chinese food in the restaurant once run by his parents in Pimlico, for a following that is easily described as cultish. Being one such cultist I can say that his is a mixture of hugely improved interpretations — his baked roasted pork buns is the giveaway secret recipe of the decade — and his own creativity.
Wong was not meant to be a chef. Finishing his immaculate education with a degree from the LSE, he did the opposite of what his parents dreamed. ‘I am supposed to be a doctor, lawyer or banker as these are professions that my parents can openly tell their friends about when the weekly round of “whose-kids-are-the-most-successful” begins at the dinner table,’ he writes.
Thank heavens he dropped out. His dim sum include astonishing Shanghai dumplings, part filled with pork, part with meat jelly that liquefies to soup when steamed, making these a very interesting and sometimes nicely messy eating experience. The puffs and pot-stickers then give way to fascinating street food snacks, finally mains and then sharing dishes. There is food in A Wong: The Cookbook (Mitchell Beazley, £25) for home cooks, but it is also a chef’s book. May every aspiring one buy it. If they did, Chinese food in Britain would go through a true revolution.
Daniel de la Falaise’s first book Nature’s Larder: Cooking with the Senses (Rizzoli, £25) is all about the detail in great cooking and respect for ingredients. I have been looking for some time for a book that takes the classics and gives you the perfect result — and this is it. The essentials: vinaigrette, mayonnaise, risotto, tartare, poached fish and crustaceans, perfectly grilled and roasted beef, pot-au-feu and crème brulée are all there, illustrated as old masters. De la Falaise took his training from some great chefs and can be totally trusted — a vital book if you seriously want to get it right.
The Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson’s introduction to The Nordic Cookbook (Phaidon, £29.95) grumbles that recent English-language Nordic cookbooks give the impression that throwing a few lingonberries into a dish is midnight sun all over. Nilsson, patron of the greatly acclaimed Faviken restaurant close to the Arctic Circle, spent a long time on his huge book, probably a dark winter or three, and he has given the whole story. Foraged fungi and berries, mosses, reindeer, a great many fish, breads gloriously fat and thin are here in very appetising form. Yet some galling and bloody images of whale slaughter, a recipe for braised Pilot Whale, and others for puffin and seal soup, tell the whole truth about food from this region. A brave, beautiful and necessarily honest book for the collection.
Talking of real, Nigel Slater is back with another journal of recipes. A Year of Good Eating: The Kitchen Diaries III (Fourth Estate, £30) is as original as ever, showing how to adapt ingredients to the mood of the day. There are hints of travel — to Japan, notably; with gyoza dumplings stuffed with pork and lemon grass, braised steak and sake, and a ‘spring soup of young leeks and miso’ (one for the January detox). With his European ingredients Slater is on great form and I have earmarked a game pie with parsnip crisps to make one weekend soon. Jonathan Lovekin’s photography makes me drool, as usual.
More comfort food comes in a second, just as stylishly packaged, book from Russell Norman, originator of the Polpo chain of restaurants. Spuntino: Comfort Food (New York Style) (Bloomsbury, £25) connects to Norman’s love affair with the Big Apple and its curious mix of food, from bastardised Italian dishes like macaroni and pizza, to great piles of dill-infused salads and eggy brunch plates. As with Polpo, Norman serves up his ideas scaled down in size, with a lighter and healthier touch. You will get to know ‘sliders’, which are sort of small hamburgers with stuffings of meat or fried fish, leaves, sauce and pickle; and you might make his peanut-butter-icecream-and-jelly ‘sandwich’, too, for a laugh. Here’s the ultimate brunch and lunch Bible.
I’ve been debating healthy-eating books with cookery-writing colleagues a lot over the last year. Is there is such a thing as ‘clean food’? Should coconut oil stay an ingredient in suntan lotion (affirmative)? And who wants to glow, anyway? I am one for an ever-handy powder compact, frankly. Nutrition is being rewritten right now, and it will take some time, but I bet we get back to eating a balance of everything — and that includes bread but also butter and red meat (ye vegan bigots). Recently we celebrated the news that eating eggs does not contribute to cardiovascular disease after all.
To end with something that is all about the beginning of life, this may account for Egg: The Very Best Recipes Inspired by the Simple Egg (Weidenfeld, £22) by another emerging star, Blanche Vaughan. It is nicely obsessive and puts the egg back on high, with sauces and omelettes, îles flottantes, soufflés and Toad-in-the-hole. I’m glowing already, in anticipation.