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List | Coveted cookbooks in 2021

29 November 2021

My head spins at the number of cookbooks that come out every season, and for a while my reaction was to hide in the sand and stop purchasing any. I was missing out, of course. And as I started to feel my cooking running in circles, last year, I also found real pleasure and solace in delving into cookbooks again. I’ve bought quite a pile over the past months, and there are a few more that I covet.

I began perusing lists. There are many lists of cookbooks to buy in 2021. Each one has one or two or a few that whisper out to me, but no compendium was entirely satisfactory. I am creating my own.

More than individual recipes, I look for books with a distinct wholeness, which might permeate from the story, the voice, to the photographs, the design, — the paper! One of my top favourites in that respect is Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem. In all those senses it is practically perfect. It transports immediately, before the beautiful cloth cover has even been opened, and from there the journey continues.

Once I have looked at, felt, and opened a book, the next test is to leaf through the recipes. If the rest holds true, a couple, or even one great recipe can be enough to convince me that the book is worth having.

Leaning on these criteria here is a subjective, very personal (wish)list of cookbooks published in the past two years. As Thomas pointedly remarked ‘Oh, so this is basically your Christmas list.’ Well, in fact, yes! In alphabetical order.

Advent / by Anja Dunk

I am cheating already as I actually bought this book as soon as it came out. I love Anja’s previous books, her charcoal drawings and linocuts, her food. I met Anja a few years ago at the most memorable Christmas cookie baking adventure, at (the now closed) FEEST in Stoke Newington, during a biblical downpour which infiltrated the café in every corner. We spent a large part of the afternoon lugging huge pans of water to contain to flood! The true reason is, the book is perfect. The organisation in 24 chapters for the 24 days of Advent, the linocut illustrations by Anja, and the sheer abundance of recipes, which is sure to complicate my Christmas preparations… So many (more) things I would like to bake! Were there to be just one book this year it would have to be Advent. It already is.

Baking with Fortitude / by Dee Rettali

I haven’t yet been to Fortitude bakehouse but a good friend knows it well and I trust her judgment completely. Having learned more about the Fortitude story, and held and leafed through the book, I know I will love it and bake from it. All made with sourdough!

Black Food / edited by Bryant Terry

Described as ‘genre defying,’ this book is a collection of essays, stories, art, and recipes. It is one of a kind and not to be missed.

The Flavour Equation / by Nik Sharma (also Season, 2018)

I am not sure how either of Nik Sharma’s books have eluded me so far, perhaps the fact that I have a pernicious habit of buying cookbooks in their original edition, and I haven’t been in the US for a few years…

Getaway / by Renee Erickson with Sara Dickerman

An exception here as I haven’t seen this book but I love the premise of food as a means of travelling, not to just one place, as is often the case, but as many mini escapades through the palate. And I’ve have heard such good things!

In Bibi’s Kitchen / Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen

Here is another book I haven’t held, but again the idea is excellent. As described in the subtitle, it captures: ‘The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean.’

Taste / by Stanley Tucci

Because of Big Night, one of the best food films of all time. And also, I admit, everyone seems to be reading and talking about it!

Towpath / by Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson

I was a bit late to the party, but the renowned canal-side café has become my favourite coffee/breakfast/brunch/walk/or/cycle pit-stop. It really is unique, and the book captures this singularity, in all the best ways.

And here are a few other recent books I do own that I would recommend —

A to Z of pasta / by Rachel Roddy

A delicious book for all lovers of pasta. Rachel Roddy’s stories and recipes are always delectable.

Falastin / by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley

The essential complement to Jerusalem (see above!)

Red Sands / by Caroline Eden

Transporting vicarious travel, in a time when we couldn’t really.

Double celery soup with lentils and gremolata

11 November 2021

It has been a beautiful autumn in London. Apart from the occasional dreary day, it is often sunny and remarkably mild. Still, autumn is here and soup beckons.

And so the latest instalment of my ‘things I discovered while going through the fridge’ soups. I could not have planned it better had I intended to make exactly this. But once again, it was created from the happenstance entrails of the fridge, which today yielded celery stalks and root (celeriac), and not much else. Also a couple of rather sad looking bunches of cilantro and parsley. Serendipity.

The persistent memory of a lunch years ago at ABC Kitchen in New York under the masterful hands of Dan Kluger — of all the things I had there, lentil soup with celeriac and gremolata is the dish I remember! — nudged the idea.

This one is very simple. I didn’t have any broth on hand but water was enough with an assertive dose of onions and garlic, which should be plentiful, always.

Double celery soup with lentils recipe

3 to 4 medium onions
Olive oil
1 celeriac root (approximately 500g)
1 whole celery (stalks)
3 to 4 cloves of garlic
Water (or 1 litre chicken stock if available, plus more water to cover if needed)
250g Puy (or small brown) lentils
Bunch of parsley and/or cilantro
Zest and juice from 1 lemon

Peel and cut the onions into small dice.

Pour a little olive oil into a saucepan, wait a few seconds for it to warm up, and slide in the chopped onions. Cook (‘let sweat’) over medium to low heat, remembering to stir occasionally, while preparing the other vegetables.

Meanwhile, trim the celery stalks at both ends, wash with cold water, and slice fairly thinly.

Peel the celeriac and wash it if the flesh has become grubby from leftover soil. Cut the celeriac in two, then each half, cut size down on a cutting board, into strips about 1 1/2 cm (1/2 inch) wide. Thinly slice the strips into pieces approximately similar thickness to the celery stalks.

The onions should have become translucent by now. Add the celery and celeriac to the pot, stir, cover, and cook, still over fairly low heat.

Peel, squash with the blunt of a knife, and slice the garlic cloves. Add it to the pot.

Salt generously (about a tablespoon), stir, then cover the vegetable with water (or broth) until just submerged.

Cook over medium to low heat (there should be a constant but languid simmer) for 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, wash the lentils.

For the gremolata: wash and pluck the leaves of the parsley/cilantro, zest the lemon, and peel and very finely chop a clove of garlic. In a smallish bowl, mix a handful of the leaves with the lemon zest and garlic, and pour in a little olive oil. Stir and set aside.

Add the lentils to the soup and cook at a slow simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes.

Before serving, remove the soup from the heat and let it sit for a few minutes to cool down.

Serve the soup with a generous spoonful of the gremolata (and a little chili too!).

Latest Letter from N&Q | October

26 October 2021

The latest Letter from Nettle & Quince — eating in October — is now out!

It’s a lot about quinces. But pears and medlars, too. About the pause of October and the start of the festive season, a nod to Hallowe’en and a link to my favourite spooky edible creation — sausage mummies!

You can find it HERE.

You can also sign up for future newsletters here.

Happy reading!

A nice way with chard — sweet and sour

18 October 2021

A caponata-inspired, quick chard dish to tackle the enormous amount of vegetables that have, again, accumulated in my fridge.

On Wednesday I had a brief moment of panic when I opened the refrigerator. Vegetables crammed in each drawer, wedged on every shelf, and a few days coming up ahead with no time to cook.

Thomas and I put on some music and proceeded to wash, peel, cut through most of it: onions, kilos of leeks and courgettes, a whole bunch of celery, mizuna, spring onions, chard. The simplest battle plan, in such cases, is usually soup, and that is where I was headed. But there was barely enough room in my big pot, I needed to find another idea for the chard.

My thoughts wandered towards caponata, sweet and sour, pared down to the minimalist treatment: raisins and vinegar. I had a bunch of spring onions too… I’ve become a bit fixated on sautéed vegetables with spring onions.

The soup was good — speckled green on green, herby and blended smooth (always a great cause of debate in this house, as there are those in favour of blending, and those vociferously against!).

While the chard, practically an afterthought, turned out really great!

A nice way with chard recipe

One large bunch of chard, about 400g
Two bunches (about 12) spring onions
Olive oil
A handfull of sultanas (I’m quite partial to sultanas but raisins would be fine)
2 Tbsps red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp sweeter white wine vinegar, such as moscatel (or use cider vinegar)
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Trim the stalks of chard off the leaves, then cut off and discard the dried very end bits. Wash the stalks, cut them into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces.

Cut the chard leaves into strips, roughly 5 cm (2 inches) wide. Wash them well — this might require two passes in cold water, as chard can be gritty.

Trim off the roots and any damaged leaves from the spring onions. With the flat of a large knife, squash the onions along their length. Cut the flattened onions into 5cm (2 inch) pieces.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet/frying pan. When hot, add the spring onions. Leave them on medium heat, without stirring, until they begin to turn brown — just when they start sticking to the pan. Now stir, add the chard stalks, lower the heat and cover the skillet with a lid (my skillet doesn’t have its own lid so I use one from another big pot, even if it doesn’t cover the pan completely). Cook gently for 7 to 10 minutes, until the stalks become slightly translucent.

Toss in the sultanas and the vinegars and cook for 2 to 3 minutes uncovered.

Now add the chard leaves, salt, and pepper, cover once more with a lid, and cook, still over low heat, mixing through occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes. The chard (both stalks and leaves) should have softened completely.

Cool, then refrigerate, and ideally let come to room temperature before serving. This keeps in the fridge for a few days.

Prunelle = sloe liqueur = sloe gin

10 October 2021

It took me some time to realise that ‘sloe gin’ is in fact ‘prunelle.’ For a long while, I imagined a dry gin gently infused with sloes, not the sweet liqueur digestif that the French simply call ‘prunelle,’ leaving out the ‘liqueur de’.

In France, this is the common way to name most fruit alcohols — brandy or liqueur. Toward the end of a protracted meal, spirits are retrieved from hidden cabinets. ‘De la poire, de la framboise’ (pear, raspberry) … the definite article denotes not a fruit but a bottle of. Indefinite ‘une‘ poire is a fruit. De ‘la‘ poire is the eau de vie, the brandy. The same is true of prunelle (sloe). De la prunelle is the sweet liqueur made from alcohol steeped with sugar and sloes. In France, the spirit used is a generic clear fruit alcohol destined for preserving, sold in supermarkets. In England, as I now understand, it is usually gin. The process is the same.

Sloes are the fruit of blackthorn (prunus spinosa), a tree that is ubiquitous in most of the UK, and last spring, in riotous frothy clouds of white petals, blackthorn was blooming everywhere. It was impossible not to notice. This boded well for the sloe harvest. Unfortunately this year I haven’t manage to pick any (yet) so I bought a bag. It’s less fun, but guarantees that we will have at least one bottle of prunelle for the winter.

I started making sloe liqueur fairly recently. Previously, I had relied on my friend. She never arrived anywhere without a bottle (or two or three) of her mother’s production. It was time to take up the mantle. So, a few years ago, flush from a generous harvest foraged around parks and hedgerows, I tested a number of recipes. Not so surprisingly, I’ve settled for one that is much less sweet. I think it’s perfect.

Prunelle = sloe liqueur recipe
Some recipes suggest waiting for the first frost before picking sloes, or freezing the fruit for 24 hours in order to mimic this. I have tried it and found no difference in taste.

300g sloes
100g sugar (can be increased to 150g sugar for something much sweeter)
450ml clear fruit alcohol, gin, or vodka

Remove any leaves and twigs attached and rinse the sloes in cold water.

Place the sloes in a well washed (or preferably sterilised) bottle or jar that can hold at least 75ml. Add the sugar and the alcohol. Mix thoroughly.

Invert the bottle occasionally in the first week or so to make sure the sugar hasn’t settled at the bottom. Wait a couple of months before serving.

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