Cooking the Books

Phoebe, the heroine of my current work in progress, A Wife Worth Investing In, is a ground-breaking Regency chef. If you follow me on other social media, you’ll know that not only do I love to cook, I also love to eat and like Phoebe, to experiment with different recipes and styles of cooking. As a result, I have to work out regularly with Jillian Michaels to compensate, and over the years I’ve acquired a library of recipe books even larger than my collection of workout DVDs. Though as far as I’m concerned, recipe books are like shoes and bags, you can never have too many. Here are a few of my favourite go-to cookbooks.

Research

My most recent purchase was bought specifically for Phoebe’s story. The Art of French Cookery is an English translation originally published in 1824 of the French classic L’Art du Cuisinier, published in 1814, and I found out about it thanks to a Facebook friend. This is the book which Phoebe’s sister Eloise buys her as a gift, and which inspires Phoebe to break every taboo and join the kitchen brigade in the Parisian restaurant, La Grande Tavern de Londres. Antoine Beauvilliers, who wrote this book, was the head chef here for many years, and the recipes apparently became household classics. In real life, Phoebe would never have been permitted to join such a prestigious kitchen let alone become one of the chefs, but I do like writing heroines who break the mould.

The Art of French Cookery is a sort of French Mrs Beaton, intended to teach the mistress of the house how to serve tasty, elegant food while keeping an eye on the purse strings:

“Look to the following pages, and observe, that the claw of a chicken or the bone of a fish is not allowed to be lost…”

What goes around comes around. This is what we now call nose to tail cooking, and what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall espouses in his book, Love Your Leftovers. What Hugh would make of Pectoral Chicken Broth, or Soup of Calf’s Lights, however, I’m not sure – no actually, I think he’d approve, this is the man who has a recipe for re-using fish bones!

Another research book that I’ve used time and again for Regency dinners is a facsimile of the legendary Escoffier’s recipes. Escoffier also has a big hit for offal of all sorts, as well as any number of ideas for cooking larks, snipe, fig peckers (don’t ask!), lapwings and plovers. He’d have a field day in my garden, especially in the early morning when the rabbits, deer and the resident pheasant come to snack on the wildlife smorgasbord that is my veggie patch.

Foodie Writing and Food Porn

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is one of the first ‘insider’ food books I read – and I still slice garlic, just as he decrees, with respect, never crushing it in a press but cutting it into paper thin slices just as they do in the film Goodfellas. Richard Olney’s French Menu Cookbook is reckoned to be a classic, but I rarely use it in anger. His cassoulet recipe, for example, runs to three pages, so I stick to my tried and tested (and no doubt still authentic) version from Raymond Blanc.

Olney is what I’d call food porn – he sets the scene for each dish, he describes the ingredients lovingly so you feel like you’re shopping for them yourself, and he recommends accompanying wines too. I have a little glossy book called A Taste of Provence which serves the same purpose – lots of pictures of markets and finished dishes that make you drool. And very peckish.

And then there is Elizabeth David. I really don’t need to say any more about her, but if you don’t have any of her books and only want one, then I’d recommend South Wind Through the Kitchen.

Kitchen Library Essentials

Richard Olney’s Simple French Food is my go-to book for meat prep. His step-by-step guide to deboning chicken or butchering a whole rabbit is fool proof (and yes, he includes the head and innards, essential if you buy your Thumper in any country but the UK). Rick Stein’s Seafood serves the same purpose for all things piscine, including invaluable instructions on preparing crab or squid, and de-veining prawns while keeping the head (the prawns, not me).

I read Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking for inspiration, her recipes as guides rather than definitive dishes – and she’s great for flicking through when you are looking to use up leftovers. (Talking of which, I think it was she who recommended putting the rind of parmesan in minestrone – what a difference that makes!) Jane Grigson is Sophie Grigson’s aunt, I think, and for all the basics, just fab.

Dinner Party Cooking

I’m pretty anti-social (or should that be shy and retiring?) and don’t actually go in for dinner parties that much, but I like to cook posh when I finish writing a book, when a book is published, when I have a great idea for a book, or when I am totally stuck writing a book. You know, just the odd occasion.

Michel Roux’s recipes are pretty fool proof if a bit of a faff. Too much of a faff, when it comes to things like terrines and mousses actually – I destroyed my sieve in an attempt to make my trout mousse superfine. When it comes to bread and puddings though, Michel is king in my kitchen. Tom Kerridge similarly, is quite technical, but definitely worth it. And Moro – if you like small plates, then you cannot do better.

Favourites 

The easy bit. Nigel Slater for cosy food. River Cottage for healthy food or creations from fridge leftovers. Jamie Oliver for food with rosemary and parmesan and gallons of extra virgin olive oil. And curries, curries, curries of every sort.

Neglected Classics

Mary Berry is someone I buy but rarely use – I think because her recipes are so simple, I feel like I have to embellish them. Gary Rhodes was one of my first ever cookbook purchases. The pages are sticky and covered in unidentified stains so I must have used him a lot at some point, but I can’t remember the last time. And Patricia Wells – while I was looking through my books I picked her out and thought, why have I abandoned her? She’s great.

Presents, Impulse Buys and One-Offs

Now these are a real mixed bag. Some of them I’ve used once. Some of them I’ve flicked through and shelved. Some of them I’ve simply shelved. Ori Hellerstein was one present that I’ve used loads – I’d never heard of him but he’s a genius baker.

My favourite chef of all is Rick Stein. I’m a complete and total fan girl, and my birthday dinner at his original Padstow restaurant (including the surprise cake from his bakery that my mum arranged for me) was a stand out meal. I have pretty much every one of his books, and they are all well-used.

What strikes me, writing this, is that the vast majority of my recent purchases have been linked to a TV series which follows a celebrity chef travelling through a country, tasting and cooking. They’re all the rage. I’m personally looking forward to Ramsay Does Siberia.

Television has radically changed what we eat and cook, I think mostly in a good way (unless you watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, or even worse, Man v Food). The working title for my current book is Regency Master Chef, though Phoebe, my chef heroine would be far too shy ever to appear on that programme. For Phoebe, it’s all about the food, not her personality, so I think The Great British Menu would be much more her kind of thing. She’d be determined to get her dish to the banquet.

Me, I’d be too camera shy even for that. I’d love to write a cookery book, but go on TV to promote it – that would be my worst nightmare. I’ll stick to reading them. So if you have any suggestions for some additions to my cooking library, I’d love to hear them.

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