Winter domesticity – 7 of my favourite cookbooks

Our tans from Italy have now faded into nostalgic sallowness and we’re back in the heart of Victoria’s cold wet winter. This is not my favourite season but it does bring out the domestic goddess in me – after all I endured three years in Edinburgh only by attaching myself to the kitchen stove prosthetically and learning how to cook.

My very first cookbook was Nigella Lawson’s “How to Eat” which came out in 1999, years before her TV show and subsequent superstardom. In those days, Nigella was better known as the wife of the (now deceased) famous Guardian columnist John Diamond who occasionally wrote cooking columns for British Vogue.

Although “How to Eat” was almost devoid of pictures (absolutely unthinkable today!), I adored her prose for her wit, originality and the luscious writing – poached peaches described as “perfect, pale mounds, splodged pink, like the cheeks of a painted mummer. You feel you should be drinking mead out of a jewel-studded goblet and wearing a wimple with a fetching organza veil.” Certain paragraphs still stick persistently in my memory verbatim, to my embarrassment, while I’d be hard-pressed to quote anything from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream” to be honest.

Another good one, on quick low-fat lunches – “In the days when I was the hostage of a sandwich bar at lunchtime, I’d have a low-fat cottage cheese sandwich – no butter – but with anchovies – the saltiness, the aggressive and indelicate invasiveness of those cheap and unsoaked tin-corroded fish made me feel, after it was finished, that something had actually been eaten. Whereas a plain cottage cheese sandwich, even on brown, hardly has the force of personality to make itself felt. You’re not eating, you’re giving the mime performance of a woman lunching on a sandwich.”

Over the years, my copy of How to Eat has been butterflied so often, thwacked down on the kitchen country and compressed under heaving bags of flour, chickens and baking tins that its spine has completely disintegrated and is now held together by silver electrical tape. In the meantime, I’ve amassed quite a collection of cookbooks, some of which I bring into bed to peruse, and others to be pored over wistfully while devouring a midnight snack of vegemite sandwiches and proletarian tinned soup.

So in the spirit of winter sharing, here are some of my favourite cookbooks in no particular order. These are the ones I actually use, not the showoff sitting-pretty ones like Gastronomique Larousse and the like. And here are the nominees…..

1) Simply Ming by Ming Tsai

My mom loves Ming Tsai too, and it’s hard for us to agree on ANYTHING really, so you know the chap must be good! His east meets west style recipes are simple but not patronizing and brilliantly pair classic ingredients from both cultures in wholly original but yet logical ways.

You can find everything easily in supermarkets (I hate reading South-East Asian recipes which call for “rice paddy herb”, “galangal” and such when I know the exact blankfaced look I’m going to get in the local Woolsworth). I particularly love his strategy of making ahead certain “master sauces” which can then be kept in the fridge and used as a base for different permutations. Standout recipes are the Smoked Tea rubbed Salmon Steaks, the Roasted Miso-Citrus Chicken and the Kimchee Choucroute with Seared Dijon Halibut.

2) The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater

A diary meets cookbook – the esteemed British food writer Nigel Slater ( I just love British writers) records and photographs what he eats for a year ranging from the downright prosaic and laughably meagre, leftovers or a bowl of rice for example, to the splendid and seasonal (“A Chicken Roasted with New Gardlic and a Fresh Pea Pilau to go with it”) , and the unpretentious (“A Chunky, Inelegant Dish of Lamb”). I just love the variety and the randomness of what he cooks, and of course the descriptions of the unpredictable British weather never fail to cheer me up.

3) The Zuni Cafe Cookbook – Judy Rodgers

Voted as one of the best restaurants in America, the Zuni Cafe is a San Francisco institution. Mark and I dined there twice during our honeymoon in 2004 – it was that good. I don’t think we’ve ever dined at the same place during a holiday unless out of dire necessity (like the Maldives) or physical incapacitation. The Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad is to die for and even skinny macrobiotic princess Gwyneth Paltrow gave it a shout out on her blog recently. Most importantly, this cookbook taught me the great secret of brining meats. An aromatic brine for at least a day imbues the meat with flavours using osmosis to draw in the flavoured brine within the cells of the protein, and the end result is not salty at all but deeply entrenched complexity.

4) How to Cook the Perfect… – Marcus Wareing

This is a really fantastic concept cookbook – Marcus Wareing shows you step by step in pictures every single detail of how to pull off a few perfect dishes – the perfect pork belly with crackling, the perfect griddled salmon etc. along with tips and chefs secrets. So simple and so good when you need to impress the dinner guests….

5) A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes – David Tanis

David Tanis is a chef’s chef in this day of celebrity poseurs. Michael Pollan says it best – “there are many chefs in America more famous than David Tanis, but there are few, if any, who are more gifted”.

In this beautifully edited book, David Tanis gives seasonal menu suggestions and recipes along with personal anecdotes and advice on random things like oyster shucking, washing greens and how to cook a rabbit. I cannot wait for spring to come so I can make his Crabmeat and Parsley salad, Five-spice Duck with Buttered Turnips and Fried Ginger and Rhubarb Kumquat Compote….

6) The French Laundry Cookbook – Thomas Keller

Of course the legendary French Laundry cookbook gets a look-in. When I was starting off in Investment Wanking, the vacation pilgrimage of choice  was to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley where one needed to book three months in advance for a reservation or have a solid-gold rolodex to get in.

Although the dishes now look a tad dated, it bears mentioning that Thomas Keller is probably the single most ripped-off celebrity chef of the past 2 decades. Every restaurant with a “8 course degustation menu” has to some extent been influenced by his cuisine. All those tiny hors d oeuvres served in white china spoons that you’ve ever eaten are all his fault.

I love the photography and his witty concoctions like Mac and Cheese consisting of butter-poached lobster and mascarpone orzo, the most chi-chi bacon and eggs you’ll ever see and desserts like coffee and doughnuts (which Anthony Bourdain was served) which comprised of doughnut flavoured coffee and coffee flavoured doughnuts. My staple summer dinner party starter is his deconstructed nicoise salad with quail eggs.

7) Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin – Kenny Shopsin

After all those posh cookbooks, it’s time for a really trashy, greasy, foul-mouthed one by Kenny Shopsin – the world’s crankiest cook. The Seinfeld character of the Soup Nazi was based on this guy whose motto is “The Customer is Always Wrong” and he has served everyone from John Lennon to Calvin Trillin in his tiny cafe. Kenny says “the only explanation I can give for how I came to this method of cooking is that its a product of a lot of psychotherapy, drugs and making chicken potpies”.

This is a hilarious cookbook chockablock with profane stories, trivia, cooking strategies and plenty of tips. The recipes are irrepressibly creative- some are brilliant, like his Tahini Dressing (thinned with WATER, not oil!), Chicken Avocado Tortilla soup, Brazillian Chicken Garlic Rice etc., and others are just plain crazy like slutty pancakes, Blisters on my Sisters and salads from made-up countries. Fascinating and hilarious.

That’s all for now, I’d love to know what cookbooks you read too – drop me an email, you know the gig.



2 thoughts on “Winter domesticity – 7 of my favourite cookbooks

  1. Ooh cookbooks! I read your post twice in a row — I haven’t heard of several of these cookbooks before, and now I’m going to look for them. (esp. Marcus Wareing)

    My favorite recipes are those by the America’s Test Kitchen crew. They have two TV shows called America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, magazines called Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, a website, and tons of books that repackage recipes from their various shows/magazines. I mainly consume the recipes through my Cook’s Illustrated magazine subscription. The premise of the publishers is to create foolproof recipes for common heartland American dishes that one would assume to be easy, but are often rather tricky to make at home, like macaroni and cheese, and roast chicken with a crisp skin. The recipes really are foolproof — and by that, I mean, you can substitute or change 1-2 things, and the dish still comes out perfect. The list of ingredients and equipment is usually limited and predictable, so the recipes are all easy to make. You will not get saddled with the remainder of some random ingredient you had to track all over town for. The recipes also do a good job of explaining the science behind techniques like brining, so you don’t feel like you’re just blindly following an instruction. (And when you choose to not follow it, you know why your food isn’t as tasty.) The writing is very straightforward — sounds like the anti-Nigella, really. The recipes emphasize ease over authenticity, so sometimes ethnic foods turn out a little bit off. (But at least they’re savvy enough to say it’s an “American take on Thai basil chicken stir-fry.”) The downsides are, most of their cooked vegetable recipes are not great, and they don’t do spicy food.

    I get most of my other recipes from When I feel nostalgic for Singapore food, I turn to

    One of my co-workers who makes wonderful, light and low-fuss Mediterranean-style dishes recommended three cookbooks to me, none of which I have checked out yet: “The Silver Palate” by Julee Russo and Sheila Lukins, “Zov: Recipes and Memories from the Heart” by Zov Karamardian, and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce” by Cathy Thomas. I’ll let you know what I think of these after I’ve tried them!

  2. Entertaining and beautifully written blog, Crystal. Thank you.If there were a competition, Nigel Slater would have to win. His economy in style, ingredients, method are to be lauded by all who like life to be simple. Is there any other way? I really mean that. Is there any other way? Think about it. LOL Pauline xox

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