Book reviews | My top 20 books to give your friends for Christmas 2017

Book reviews

My top 20 books to give your friends for Christmas 2017

You might think the last thing you need is another list of this year’s cookery books. but indulge me in this slightly different take - who would you give them to and why would you find them useful.

I've linked through to the Guardian bookshop where I can as it would be nice if you supported them - or a local bookshop - rather than the dreaded Amazon though we all succumb from time to time.

I’m overlooking some big names not because they’re not worth buying (in fact I think they’re on particularly good form) but because I’m sure you’re aware of them. Jamie Oliver's 5 ingredients is a good book to give to inexperienced cooks, Nigella’s At My Table is a great read and the best book she’s done since How to Eat and Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s Sweet is quite brilliant if you’re into desserts. I plan to come back to them in the New Year. But there’s one biggie I can’t leave out.

The Christmas Chronicles - Nigel Slater

I’m sure I recollect Nigel was anti everything to do with Christmas at one stage (indeed he described himself at one stage as a 'devout refusenik') but he’s certainly come round to it now. This is just the loveliest Christmas cookery book you’ll ever own - with day by day suggestions of what to do and what to eat (heavenly things such as fig and orange shortbreads and cranberry and butterscotch pudding) in the run-up to and days after Christmas. A book you’ll pull out year after year, you’d have to be an absolute scrooge not to be captivated by it.

For everyday and weekend cooking

Probably the kind of cooking for which we most need inspiration if it’s not to become drearily monotonous but here are four books that should inject pzazz into your - or your worn out friends’ - weekly routine.

The Art of the Larder - Claire Thomson

A trained chef Claire made her name as 5 o’clock apron through the simple, delicious meals she cooked for her three small children. This follow up - her third book - focuses on ingredients you should have in your freezer and store cupboard. The recipes such as a preserved lemon and chilli sauce and banana pain perdu with cardamom and buttermilk are actually quite sophisticated (I’m always massively impressed at what her kids will eat) but not overly complicated. A great one for young mums who want their kids to be adventurous eaters.

Elly Pear’s Let’s Eat

Elly Curshen (another Bristolian and a good friend) takes a similarly practical approach to the task, creating master recipes you can batch cook then adapt to different uses. Ideal for someone who has a frantic work schedule without much time to cook (in other words most of us) It includes the only recipe I’ve ever enjoyed for tofu (Five spice smoked tofu nuggets with a satay dressing). It’s only when you think about it you realise the book doesn’t have any meat in it. So, perfect for veggies (and pescatarians)

The Sunday Night Book - Rosie Sykes

Rosie focusses not on weekdays but Sunday evenings. This is a joyous comforting little book you need to be careful about leaving around or your friends may nick it. The recipes are straightforward and you think at first glance unillustrated but there are a couple of sections of enticing colour photos when you look more carefully. There’s a whole section of things on toast - Caerphilly with leeks and mustard sounds promising - and I love the sound of toasted spaghetti with red onions, almonds and raisins and the Jerusalem artichoke, hazelnut and goats cheese tart. Never mind Sunday I’d happily make that on a Saturday - or any other day of the week come to that.

Downtime - Nadine Levy Redzepi

It takes quite a lot for me to get over my aversion to cookbooks written by celebrity chefs wives so I wasn’t prepared to like this book by top Copenhagen chef Rene Redzepi’s wife Nadine, especially with its subtitle Deliciousness at home but it is in fact absolutely charming and full of interesting recipes. Each step has a comment along the way to make sure you get it right and a short congratulatory paragraph on mastering the trickier techniques. I’m not sure I’d make everything in it (home made crisps seem a bit too much of a faff but the dips that go with them sound terrific.) Not for total beginners maybe but for less experienced cooks who would like to make more exciting food. She holds your hand every step of the way

Cooking for friends

Feasts - Sabrina Ghayour

I was late to the party with Sabrina’s books - I confess I initially dismissed her as a poor man’s Ottolenghi and It was only when a friend of mine cooked her harissa and preserved lemon poussin (from her first book Persiana) with consummate ease that I fully appreciated her knack of producing delicious, do-able food with very few ingredients. Feasts is more of the same - I’ve already made her addictive saffron roast potatoes twice and there’s more temptation to come in the way of freekeh, tomato and chickpea pilau, garlic fenugreek and cumin flatbreads. and pomegranate bulgur wheat salad (perfect for Christmas parties). A big-hearted generous cookbook, like Sabrina herself.

On the Side - Ed Smith

You can usually think of a main course but what to go with it? Ed Smith of Rocket and Squash provides the answers in the form of this collection of imaginative, clever recipes. The two I’ve made - tomato tonnato - a tomato salad with the classic vitello tonnato sauce and baby aubergine, oregano and chilli bake have been absolute winners. There’s a brilliant glossary at the back listing possible sides for almost every dish you can think of. Even someone who has loads of cookbooks will appreciate this one.

Dinner - Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark is a New York Times columnist and a new discovery for me this year and this book which I haven't yet had time to get fully acquainted with is full - and I mean full, it's a big book - of irresistible sounding recipes. Like the sound of Sticky tamarind chicken, pizza chicken with pancetta, mozzarella and spicy tomatoes and herbed parmesan Dutch baby? Mmmmmmm, so do I. NB American measurements so maybe one for more experienced cooks rather than first-timers but they're not by any means difficult.

Hero ingredients

Butter by Dorie Greenspan

Who doesn’t like butter? Well, vegans obviously but for the rest of us it’s irresistible and who better to help us indulge than fellow devotee Dorie Greenspan who has written this charming small book as part of a series by Short Stack editions. I can’t wait to get stuck into miso butter double salmon rillettes, butter-browned onion galette and pear-cranberry crisp. Another book with American measurements, but hey, it's easy enough to look up a conversion chart. A fabulous addition to a keen cook’s Christmas stocking.

Citrus - Catherine Phipps

Books published earlier in the year tend to get forgotten at Christmas but I probably put more post-it notes in Catherine Phipps gorgeous bright, yellow book than practically any other this year. I'm ashamed to say I haven’t got round to making anything from it so far but top of my list are preserved lemon hummus, lemon pizzette (with fennel sausages) coconut, lime and lemongrass chicken salad, blood orange and rhubarb meringue pie. If you love citrus - and who doesn’t? this will give you about 100 new ways to enjoy it. Something to cheer you up during January.

Prime - Richard Turner

When we offered a giveaway of Prime to our subscribers we had the biggest response of any cookbook this year - not entirely surprisingly as it’s full of brilliant beefy recipes from chef Richard Turner of Hawksmoor, Pitt Cue and Meatopia fame. It’ll tell you how to cook the best steak you’ve ever eaten but also how to make some more exotic dishes like beef rendang (Rich’s favourite) and an ox cheek and IPA curry. There are also some great sides such as potato, parmesan and anchovy gratin. Lots of interesting stuff on beef breeds and beef welfare too.

Good causes

Hawksmoor - Restaurants and recipes

Rich also obviously had a hand in Hawksmoor. the second book from the restaurant which (declaration of interest) is co-owned by my son Will. It’s more than a recipe book - it’s the story of the restaurant and the people behind it and stunningly produced with glorious photography by Paul Winch-Furness. You may or may not want to cook from it - or just leave it to Hawksmoor if you’re a regular - but if you’re a reasonably ambitious cook I’d recommend having a go at the Brill and Roast Chicken Butter which is one of the best dishes I’ve eaten all year. And all the proceeds go to Action Against Hunger which makes it worth anyone’s money.

Syria: recipes from home - Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi

A really lovely collection of simple homely recipes from Syrian women, mainly refugees who cook to recapture the flavours of home. Full of comforting dishes such as Syrian omelette, lentil and chard soup and turmeric pancakes - but also heartbreaking stories from some of the women who cooked them including Fedwa who has lost two of her five children. Part of the advance went to the Hands Up Foundation which the authors still support through pop-up suppers.

Bread is Gold - Massimo Bottura and Friends

A beautifully produced book that has come out of top chef Massimo Bottura’s soup kitchen project Refettorio Ambrosiano though not exactly, as the author - or publisher - states ‘easy and inspiring recipes for home cooks’ A lot of the recipes - which use leftover or discarded ingredients that would otherwise go to waste - are quite long and complicated (chefs’ idea of easy clearly differs from the rest of us) but there are elements of them like banana ice cream or burnt bread dip that you can take out and try on their own. And others like baked pasta alls parmigiana and rice pudding with cinnamon and chocolate are as simple and delicious-sounding as stated. Great inspiration for anyone working on a community project or who is trying to eat a bit more frugally.

Cooks who like to travel through food

Kaukasis - Olia Hercules

I was a huge fan of Olia’s first book Mamushka and this second book focussing on the food of Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond doesn’t disappoint although slightly careless editing mars some of the recipes (khingal a pasta-like dish with spiced lamb really needs to be made with double zero flour and the lavash chicken and herb pie - a dish that could easily be adapted to leftover turkey is so good it would never serve six). Still, exciting flavours, ingredients and stunning photography make you want to jump on the next plane to this fascinating part of the world. And Olia writes quite beautifully - see also this marvellous article on borscht

Chai, Chaat and Chutney - Chetna Makan

I’m not sure I’d have picked this book up from the title or cover but was lucky enough to have been sent it and once I started leafing through I was hooked. It’s full of the incredibly moreish street food you come across in different parts of India (and modern Indian restaurants here) including some fantastic breads and chutneys (I can’t wait to try the coriander and spinach chutney to which she’s obviously addicted). One for friends who’ve mastered curries and want to go on to the next level.

A friend in the kitchen (and beside the bed)

Two Kitchens - Rachel Roddy

It says a lot about Roddy’s writing that I’ve dipped into her books* extensively without cooking anything from them. Not because the recipes aren’t tempting but because I intuitively know that buying my ingredients in Bristol I’m not going to get the same results as she does in Rome and Sicily. To me she’s a true successor to Elizabeth David. Lyrical. Passionate, a great story teller. I’d give this to a friend who loves Italy. It’s a book to keep beside the bed and to take with you if you're planning a self-catering holiday there.

* the other is the equally good Five Quarters

For culinary geeks

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat - Samin Nosrat

Having only just acquired this book on the recommendation of other critics I don’t really feel qualified to introduce you to it. but I can already tell from a quick flick through that it’s a real original - if an odd mixture of the cheffy (how to build flavours), the basic (how to cut an onion) and the poetic “season generously with salt until it tastes like the summer sea” It’s peppered with absolutely charming illustrations and diagrams from Nosrat's collaborator Wendy MacNaughton (there’s a wonderful ‘World of Fat’ flavour map which tells you which fat to use with different cuisines” but no pictures of the recipes which might daunt less experienced cooks. Take the claim that it "might be the last cookbook you’ll ever need" with a pinch of salt though. (Who ever has enough cookbooks?)

For wine lovers

Wine Dine Dictionary - Victoria Moore

Any regular visitor to this site is going to love this brilliant book which explores in Victoria's trademark elegant prose what to drink with what you eat - and the best food pairings for the world’s best known wines. Apart from being a really useful resource it’s also a terrific read - (of wines to go with five spice she writes “Overly clean wines don’t feel right with five spice; red or white, you want a bit of texture, a bit of rough (I don’t mean that in a derogatory way), a bit of jostle.” It’s also refreshingly unsnobby - there are wine suggestions for fish finger sandwiches with ketchup (a hearty red, Victoria suggests, though I would personally skip the ketchup, substitute mayo and drink Cava). Super-useful and fun.

My publisher would also of course consider it remiss if I didn't at least mention in passing my latest book Wine Lover's Kitchen which is all about cooking with wine. Make the sticky pork mac'n'cheese in which the pork is deglazed with tawny port, I beg you ...

For foragers, stargazers and gardeners

The Almanac - a seasonal guide to 2018 - Lia Leendertz

It’s always nice when a book you’ve helped to fund* arrives through the letterbox - still more so when it turns out to be even better than its original description. A really lovely little book which will take you through 2018 month by month telling you when the sun rises and sets, when to plant, what to cook, and what to look for in the sky. I’m looking forward to making the date, apricot and pecan sticky toffee pudding next month ....

* through Unbound.

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