If I wanted to teach someone to cook, or how to have the confidence to trust their judgement I would buy them two books: Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater and Don’t Sweat the Aubergine by Nicholas Clee.
I bought the Slater when it first came out (in 1993 or so) and it taught me, as most Slater books do, how to improvise. One of my friends laughed at me for buying a book that had a recipe for chip butties; a couple of years later he ate his words when he told me he was a complete convert. The risotto recipe (p. 204) is the one I always turn to when I can’t remember the proportions, his ‘even faster’ pasta ideas (for example sesame oil and chilli or spinach leaves, anchovy and yogurt; see pp. 127-29) are just what you need at the end of a long day and I love his mushrooms on toast (p. 158). All deceptively simple but there’s just enough inspiration to push you to the kitchen to try stuff. Also, unlike most recipes, recipe books and food websites, this book recognises that not all of us have large families and big kitchens; you need minimal kit and space and a lot of the recipes are for two.
Twenty years later Nicholas Clee, who heavily references Slater’s other very useful (but not as useful as RFF in my opinion) book produced what I can only describe as a ‘how to and why’ book. It is a recipe book but it’s also a primer: why do you brown meat, why you shouldn’t wash chickens (I always did, until I read this), why it’s better to add vegetables after the bones when making stock. He says, and I agree, that many people lack confidence about cooking because ‘food experts, and our own insecurities, have led us to think about cookery as the fulfilment of recipes. The recipe sets the standard to which we aspire’. If we get it wrong, it can’t be the recipe’s fault; it must be our own. But, of course, as he goes on to emphasise, anyone following a recipe in a book is using a completely different set of tools to that of the chef/food writer: your oven won’t work in the same way, nor will your hob; your dishes and pans will be different; the humidity in your kitchen will vary; you won’t, and can’t, chop or slice your vegetables or meat to the same exact proportions.
The point is that a recipe is a template (bar baking ones) not an order. Interestingly the word recipe comes from the Latin to ‘take’; I like to think that our modern version means ‘take some advice from this’ rather than ‘this is the only way’. And, as Clee writes, what we need from a recipe, from our cookery books and writers, is ‘a set of techniques that we know will work’ and he sets out to provide them. I did get a little peeved, ironically, with the extent of the equivocation and alternatives by the end (then again I did read it from cover to cover and most people won’t do that) but if you want to know the basic methods for cooking soups, stews, risottos, meat, potatoes, rice, pasta and eggs, this is the book. I’m going to buy it for my nephew before he goes to university, so that he doesn’t have to suffer three or four years of tuna surprise.
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