OUT WITH THE OLD COOKERY BOOKS, in with the new, is TRISH DESEINE‘s motto this month …
Most of my cooking I have learned by watching other cooks in action, by shopping, rolling up my sleeves with them and eating the results together. I learned from my mother and grandmother, of course, then during my years in France, from a flock of older French women with a few chefs’ fancy techniques scattered here and there. But cookbooks had another use altogether. When I moved in with my French boyfriend in Paris, his mother gave me, l’Irlandaise, Francoise Bernard’s thick, terse Les Recettes Faciles for the basics on béchamel and blanquette de veau. The other few cookbooks I bought were for inspiration, not instruction, and it was only when I was approached to write my own that I really began to consider them at all. I consulted them for their recipes, for the way new combinations or cooking techniques would trigger something and make me cook something new with the ingredients I had available to me. Apart from baking, rarely would I follow a recipe to the letter. The arrival of Nigella Lawson’s witty, compassionate, emotional prose in How To Eat was another story, of course, and her writing (and life) has had the biggest influence on my attitude to food and its enjoyment. But with a few exceptions, (I’m thinking very hard about Chocolate Guinness Cake here) up to now I can’t say I have adopted many of her recipes day to day.
Food writing as we know it in the English or American tradition, did not and does not really exist in France. Taking absolutely nothing away from my respect for their achievements and dedication, I may be one of the few UK/Irish food writers out there today who did not worship at the altar of Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson at the start of my career. In fact, (are you sitting down?) I found their tone and the complexity of many of the recipes rather tedious, and the English upper-middle class/Oxbridge grip – fed by Grigson and David – on much of today’s mainstream food writing is still very much in evidence.
2017 was a year for reflection and the beginning of change in many aspects of my life, and food and cooking did not escape the gentle overhaul. My fridge and shelves started filling up with all sorts of more closely considered, mainly green ingredients and a lot of extremely weird new condiments. I made labneh, I embraced kale, I supped cider vinegar from a spoon, I baked with spelt flour. Who on earth was this alien inhabiting my body? And what had it done with my triple chocolate brownie with chocolate fudge sauce recipe?
Outside, in Irish food media land, the nutri-babble and then the nutri-babble backlash was deafening. The chefs-turned-social warriors, all earnest, were too delighted to get out of their claustrophobic kitchens to give us all lectures on using up our potato peelings. Even my beloved Nigella lost her luscious embonpoint and her no-holds-barred decadence and was cooking vegan curry – evil, sickly sweet potato AND squash! Together!
It seemed that all the joy and simplicity and downright earthy sexiness of sharing food for the hell of it was swiftly disappearing. But at the same time, an emerging crop of female American cooks and writers, namely Jessica Koslow, Alison Roman and Julia Turshen were barging their way into my ancient ideas and jaded notions, turning them upside down and making me want to write another cookbook of my own. A far cry from the deathly pale, lollipop-headed, tattooed eyebrow clean-eaters who (tragically) consider food as fuel and/or medicine, these young women have integrated the need for a change in habits for both nutritious and ethical reasons, yet their food remains all-embracing, balanced in taste, delicious and most importantly, properly exciting. They are young, opinionated, confident cooks whose voices never preach and whose recipes leap off the page straight onto your tastebuds. Post modern, yet with timelessly warm and encouraging styles, they are my new heroines, BFFs and gurus.
Turshen’s recipes in Small Victories are the tiny building blocks of cookery which take away your fear. In her smoky eggplant dip with yoghurt and za’atar, Turshen’s small victory is “learning how to go past the point where you think you should stop” – referring to burning the skin of the aubergine to have it impart an irresistible smokiness. Her peach and bourbon milkshakes, she explains, came about simply because when she first tried making ice cream, she added too much Bourbon to the milk for it ever to freeze. Here, the small victory is “failure is sometimes just an invitation for a new name”.
Jessica Koslow is chef and creator of breakfast and brunch star spot, Sqirl in Los Angeles, and her book is simply titled Everything I Want To Eat. As you turn the pages, it soon becomes everything you want to eat too. Especially items such as ganache and nut butter toast for the “grown-up kid” or beef ravioli with carrot sauce and celery leaf pesto with a dough based on pierogi dough “with cream cheese for extra silkiness”.
But of these three rising stars, it is Alison Roman whom I fangirl (yes, it’s a verb now) the most. I had followed her recipes for many years in the wonderful US mag Bon Appetit and through her blog, Dining In. The blog is now a “vegetable forward” book where Roman writes things like, “I promise that I will never require you to take all the leaves off the parsley stem”. And that like an It girl, “While I do love the occasional healthy-ish grain bowl or herby grain salad, I really enjoy doubling down on their heartiness, bolstering them with thick-cut bacon, spicy sausage or garlicky lamb”. This is a woman who always keeps a bowl of boiled potatoes in her fridge. An ex-professional pastry chef, she is not a fussy baker. She doesn’t sift her flour, or “go out of her way” to bring her eggs to room temperature.
Dining In, like its author, is bold and beautiful and is fast becoming as stained and dog-eared as the old Françoise Bernard cookbook my dear old mother-in-law gave me in Paris. Thirty years later, the time has come for some new cookery bibles – so yes, this year it’s out with the old and in with the new! Happy 2018.
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