I wasn’t going to review this book. My first impression was of a truly beautiful and inspiring newcomer that I needed to get my hands on. However, my second, once hands were on, was that this was a book that wasn’t meant for anyone but professionals. The recipes are complicated, some of them require that you make two other recipes in the book, in order to complete a dish, the ingredients are unknown (I’m not averse to a chilli flake or two, I have heard of verjus, but how about salted yuzu juice? Kalamansi lime? Amchur powder? You any wiser than me? No, thought not) and the number of ingredients is often very long (e.g. 35 for a roast leg of lamb and its accompaniments).
But then I kept thinking about the chef behind the text. Anna Hansen has worked with Peter Gordon and Fergus Henderson, both of whom are trailblazers and, before The Modern Pantry, she set up The Providores which puts most places that serve ‘small plates’ to shame. I couldn’t believe that such a garlanded chef could write the sort of book that gathers dust not splashes. So I did something I rarely do with a cookery book and I read it from beginning to (almost) end. And my third impression was that though I may not know how to cook, or where to source, half of the ingredients, this is a book that is really worth owning and using.
Why? Because there are tons of cookery books that churn out variations on hackneyed themes (and plenty of blogs, including my own at times I grant you, that do the same). I mean do we really need another book by a TV face that teaches you how to make spaghetti carbonara? No, what we need, or what you might find more interesting, is a book that tells you how to make Persian-spiced pork skewers with sweet tomato yoghurt, or how to braise cherry tomatoes with lemongrass or that plain mash could be something else entirely if it was black bean, star anise and cocoa purée. Only the bread and breakfast recipes are reminiscent of others (though, even then, you’ll find lavosh as well as soda bread and a sugar-cured prawn omelette with the granola).
That is not, as I first thought, the book’s weakness but its strength. I may never make a Singapore-style worked crab (the recipe is two pages long, has six ‘how to’ pictures and starts with an explanation of how to put the poor creatures into a coma) but I think I can manage chorizo mash, coconut and pandan duck leg curry and feta date and sweetcorn fritters. And though these aren’t the sort of recipes that most people are going to knock together after work (the shopping list would be too long…) if you dig a little there are ideas that are easy to appropriate and try whilst you get up your courage (and fill your cupboards) with the necessary for a chicken mole rojo with tomatillo salsa. Why have I never put chilli jam in yoghurt before, baked ricotta with honey, lemon and chilli or made an avocado and lime pickle purée?
Yes, the ideas are different and a little daunting but only because I haven’t tried them yet. After all, if we didn’t embrace new ingredients and tastes I’d still think La vache qui rit was a good French cheese…