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Christmas Cookery Book Recommendations 2006

Clifford Mould has been browsing the latest cookbooks

My new cookery book Christmas choices are James Martin's Great British Winter Cookbook, Classic Conran and Veggie Chic. And in case you missed them, my three Autumn choices Slow, Pie and Feasts can be found below.

James Martin is a well known British TV chef whose roots are in the Yorkshire countryside. His hunky good looks must surely appeal to his female fans, but men probably find his man-about-the-kitchen style encouraging - nothing poncy about these dishes. There has recently been a welcome return to honest down to earth cooking both in restaurants and the cookery press and this book catches the mood admirably.

I had to smile at some of the photos - you can imagine the stylist dressing him up in a variety of hacking jackets to demonstrate his country cred, with blue jeans to show that he's no snob, and a pair of rather muddy Dubarry boots (tasty must haves for the Highgrove weekend set - a pity a fox ate one of mine left out carelessly in the porch).

The Great British Winter Cookbook not only gives some intelligent recipes for meat and game birds (there's a pic of James, gun in hand), but there are sections on festive food for the Great British winter festivals too. The recipes are robust and easy to follow and there's a welcome underlining of his countryman's respect for seasonality. 

Halloween and Bonfire Night have recently been and gone, but I shall take note of some of James's ideas for Christmas and New Year. His "countdown to Christmas" is especially helpful to those of us who invariably leave out some important ingredient from the last minute shopping list. 

James spent a formative part of his earlier career as a pastry chef, so his chapter on tarts is full of great ideas and useful cheffie tricks and hints. He blows away some of the cobwebs that put many people off cake making - try his Madeira cake or rich Yule Log, both are scrumptious. To me the most fascinating is his recipe for mince meat that really does contain steak mince, just as it did in Henry VIII's day! Even without the meat the final result will knock spots of the stuff you buy in the shops.

James Martin's Great British Winter Cookbook is published in hardback by Mitchell Beazley at £17.99 ISBN 1-84533-040-4

Terence and Vicky Conran's Classic Conran is another really useful cookery book, this time with all the year round appeal. It's a book that should find a place on every keen cook's bookshelf, for however trendy you like to be, there's a good reason why certain dishes are regarded as classics - they've stood the test of time, they're darned good, and sooner or later you'll want to return to them. It's also very useful for reference, like when you come home after a meal out arguing over whether a Daube de Boeuf should contain anchovies, or whether a classic kedgeree should have a hint of curry in it.

Classic Conran is now available in paperback, and at £16.99 represents excellent value, packed as it is with fine photographs to get you inspired. The recipes originate from all over the place, but mainly from the British Isles and France. Many of the main course dishes are classic comfort foods like Osso Buco, Toulouse sausages with lentils, or gammon with parsley sauce. Their more specialised dishes like the famous Cassoulet do not attempt to substitute other ingredients for important constituents like preserved goose. Veal has not been shirked either, but make sure it's not from the continent where they still confine poor little calves in crates. Grilled veal kidneys and the big plump veal chops are dealt with in time honoured fashion by the Conrans, who also cover many traditional vegetable dishes. All too often, otherwise excellent cooks miss out the important details, resulting in soggy roast potatoes or drowned greens at one extreme and raw ones at the other. No excuses now! 

Puddings are there in abundance, but I hear some critics complaining - do we really need yet another recipe for Tart Tatin? But what I like about this book is that all the great classics are under one roof so to speak. Instead of wondering where to look amongst their other cookbooks which are categorised most probably by region; if it's a well known dish you're pretty certain to find a definitive recipe for it here.  Other useful little touches include a brief chapter on wine and food pairing, a handy chapter on afternoon tea (yes there are right and wrong ways to make sandwiches) and lists of staple ingredients and kitchen equipment. It's a concise modern day kitchen bible, a Mrs Beeton for today, but don't expect much help with respect to hiring domestic servants.

Classic Conran by Terence and Vicki Conran is published in paperback by Conran Octopus at £16.99 ISBN 1-84091-472-6

Everyone knows that I am about as keen on the adjective vegetarian as applied to cookery as Jeremy Clarkson is about electric as applied to cars. So allow me a wee rant before awarding this book a Dine Online Accolade for being a superb cookery book about doing clever things with vegetables. 

I think being both a vegetarian and  a true foodie is an impossibility. I mean, imagine going on a foodie trip to Italy and having to forgo Osso Buco, or Bolito Misto? Imagine touring the South of France and trying to find a vegetarian substitute for Cassoulet or Daube de Provence? And don't say "ratatouille" as I'd like some of that with my gigot d'agneau please. I've come across only a very few actual vegans in my time, and they were in  baroque ensemble I used to tour with. They were not remotely interested in food except for basic survival, and they lived mainly on supplements and pills. At least, unlike nearly all vegetarians I know, they drew the line at leather shoes. But what really irritates me about so-called vegetarian cookery is the name. It implies a kind of quite unacceptable ownership of a whole category of food  - as if meat eaters wouldn't be interested. What's wrong with vegetable cookery for heavens' sake? Glorious vegetable creations of the kind created by Rose Elliot are for all to enjoy, not just leather shod vegetarians.

Even Rose allows a few silly substitutions for meat which I thought had been rooted out of serious vegetable cooking, like her "Baby Yorkshire pudding with nut roast". Nut roast indeed! I thought that had been consigned to the poubelle of culinary history. I turned to the recipe, prepared to scoff, and discovered, to my delight, that the neat little individual puds are stuffed with a very nice nutty and fungal stuffing. So why not call it that? I then scoured the index: only one mention of lentils, very few of beans, and no entries at all for pulses, per se. Having cleared the air so to speak, I became more and more intrigued by ever more interesting and delicious sounding ways with vegetables. The only scoffing I'd be doing henceforth would be of these delectable dishes.

I noticed that the main course recipes never had any suggestions about what vegetables to serve as side veg. Then it occurred to me that this was a typical meat eater's reaction. To me, however keen I am on most of Rose's main course dishes, they seemed at first glance like rather grand starters. I need to come at this from a different angle, I thought. So when I'm cooking for veggie friends that do enjoy their food, I'll prepare a succession of dishes like a grand mezze, and using this book as my vade mecum and guide, they won't be disappointed. Better still, my carnivorous friends will love it too!

Veggie Chic by Rose Elliot is published in hardback by Hamlyn at £16.99 ISBN 0-600-61399-2

Dine Online Book Award 2006

The following three titles were featured in my Autumn book roundup, but they'd make excellent Christmas gifts and many of the recipes are ideal for winter days and winter produce. I caught up with Angela Boggiano's new book Pie when she was on Woman's Hour last month, extolling the virtues of that extraordinary dish, Stargazy Pie, which features (in its unreconstructed politically incorrect version) the heads and tails of herrings or pilchards entering and exiting the piecrust. This whetted my appetite no end and I have been waiting with bated breath for the book's arrival in the shops. More of this later. I was also greatly attracted to Valentina Harris's new book Slow, which is inspired by the Italian slow food movement. My final author of this trio is another expatriate, this time from Bulgaria. Silvena Rowe has written a most interesting book called Feasts, about Central and Eastern European cookery

I've watched several cookery demonstrations by Valentina and was struck by her honest down to earth approach. On reading her book I discovered that I have been labouring under a misapprehension about much of the slow food idea. I thought it was essentially about slow cooking, like pork belly seething gently in the oven for six hours or so. But it's much more than that. Particularly, it's the absolute antithesis of modern fast food - grazing, munching on the hoof, standing about in bars drinking bottles by the neck, raiding the fridge, never sitting down as a family. It's all about good company and sitting around a table with home made bread - loaves and fishes, wine and oil - yes it's beginning to sound almost biblical in its intensity. And also, it's about spending time cooking because you enjoy this true labour of love. Perhaps it resonates with me because I've noticed that my cooking is also slowing up!

Slow is laid out in sections reflecting time of day, beginning with breakfast, then moving on to slow snacks for sharing, through lazy lunches and relaxing dinners to pleasurable puddings. As you would expect from someone with Valentina's Italian roots, the book is mainly about Italian food, but there are a few exceptions like her "very cold weather porridge" which includes a shot of malt whisky! Come to think about it, her kedgeree would go down well at a hunt breakfast.

I was especially attracted to her recipes for tarts - there's a wonderful leek and black olive tart, and another that melds Taleggio cheese and pears in an irresistible combination. But my favourite in this category is the savoury cheesecake which has a base made by whizzing together toast crumb, melted butter and egg, topped with a rich cheesy custard finished with a layer of wilted radicchio. Francesca York's photograph of this dish fair made me go weak at the knees.

There are a few really slow recipes where the ingredient list extends to the next page, such as the real minestrone soup and another recipe that calls for 40 globe artichokes. But such a book wouldn't really be complete without some of these classics, especially Bolito Misto. "Mixed boiled meats" sounds so unprepossessing, yet it is arguably one of the greatest of all Italian meat dishes. (There's a wonderful and historic description of it quoted in Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook). On the subject of meat, Valentina's slow roast joint of veal with a whole bottle of Vin Santo sounds orgiastically sublime, so I shall undoubtedly try it.

Slow ends with some lavish but not impossibly difficult puddings. I particularly admired the marbled chocolate pudding, made with a chocolate mixture in one bowl and a white vanilla mixture in the other. Wouldn't kids just love to pour these together to create the marble effect. Well, this big kid would, but very slowly!

Slow - by Valentina Harris, published by Cassell Illustrated at £16.99 (hardback) ISBN 1-84403-440-2

Who ate all the pies?

And so on to Pie, by Angela Boggiano, another cookery writer with an Italian heritage, though less noticeably applied in this book which features many of the best traditions of British food, traditions of which we can, for once, be justifiably proud.

I'll make no bones about it, this is simply the best, most interesting cookery book to have come my way for some time. It's beautifully produced, and the photography is blindingly good. The research was clearly exhaustive, the testing thorough and every so often there's interspersed photo-reportage on a variety of pie shops, traditional pork pie makers and even an article on the great British footie pie, whose makers have a premier league of their own.

There is something very special about pies: the anticipation as a golden crusted pie comes to the table, the excitement as the knife pierces the crust, the rapture as the heady aromas waft about the dining room. But there's also a darker side that engenders a frisson that sharpens the pleasure even further. What might lurk hidden under that innocent crust? Oh Sweeny Todd, was your pastry short, or did you go for the hand raised hot water crust?

As you might expect, the book begins with clear instructions on the making of various kinds of pastry. Angela of course argues that the pastry is at least an equal partner with the filling, and that neglecting the crust is a short cut that's not worth it in the end. I used to be rather scared of pastry, but now I'm quite a dab hand with the rolling pin, but I'm always open to new ideas, hints and tips. I've flirted with puff pastry, but I have to say that if "life's too short to stuff a mushroom" [Shirley Conran] then it certainly leaves little room for puff pastry. Instead, I use Delia's recipe for quick flaky, which is pretty much the same as Angela's. She forgivingly countenances the use of ready made puff in her recipes for Beef Wellie and some other pies. Of course you don't have to settle for the usual dull supermarket stuff, instead try the award winning home made organic butter puff pastry from Wales, you can even buy it on the net at

Most of the recipes are eminently doable, though some of the so-called noble pies need a little practice before going public on your dinner guests. This book is more than just a cookery book; it's a work of record, a chronicle of culinary skills that just might be lost if we all buy our pies ready made from the supermarket. Buy this book and make your own pies instead!

Pie by Angela Boggiano, is published by Cassell Illustrated at £20.00 (hardback) ISBN 1-84403-448-8 

Dine Online Book Award 2006

Feasts - Food for Sharing from Central and Eastern Europe

Here's a very interesting and unusual cookery book. Although from Bulgaria herself, dishes from Poland, Hungary and Russia also feature prominently. I suppose some might carp that it's like expecting a Spaniard to be an expert on French and Italian food, but Silvena has travelled widely in the region and has a flair for both the contrasts and the similarities within the various countries. Eastern Europe is a true melting pot, with cross currents from the East and the great trade routes contrasting with French influences where chefs from that country staffed the great mansions and palaces, especially in Russia. 

The book is nicely illustrated with vivid photos of raw ingredients, market stalls and so on, but I would have preferred more practical pictures or strips of pictures to illustrate techniques. Most of the recipes look fairly easy, but there are quite a few where I'd quite like a bit more help. For instance there's a marvellous recipe for a courgette and feta pie in a great spiral of filo pastry. Wonderfully photogenic, but exactly how you do it went over my dunce's head!

There's a whole section on dumplings which come in an amazing variety of shapes and textures. I'm definitely going to try these - Polish dim sum will on the menu soon. Intriguing combinations of flavours leap out unexpectedly from almost every page, so don't think of this food as stodgy and bland. The climax of the book is a chapter on the Boyar Table, cooking designed for the great aristocratic and royal houses of Russia and Georgia. One should not forget that it was dining a la Russe with its succession of dishes that gave us the modern menu system that replaced the old Table Française, where everything was brought out at once. There are great classics here such as the definitive Stroganoff, the more delicate and sophisticated Veal Skobelev, and the Chicken satsivi with its special sauce featuring nuts, which are used in many eastern European recipes.

This book is a veritable treasure trove of culinary ideas and techniques. I am about to inflict my interpretations on my cousin and his wife who is Polish! But I shall choose Hungarian and Bulgarian dishes!

Feasts - by Silvena Rowe is published by Mitchell Beazley at £20.00
ISBN 1-84533-156-7

Feasts has been selected by Richard and Judy for their Christmas Book Party airing on Channel 4 on Saturday 9th December in the evening. 

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