I’d intended to add at least twelve new cookbooks to the Rocket & Squash virtual Cookshelf in 2017. Events have conspired against me, and there have been only four (plus a nod to my own). Which is absolutely no reflection of how much heavier my actual shelves have become, nor what has, in fact, been yet another strong year. Below are many of my favourites, and a suggestion as to whom they might be suited, if not simply as a gift to yourself.
For those who are hungry for paths less trodden
My favourite book of the year sits in this, the ‘discovery cuisine’ genre. Like Mamushka before it, Olia Hercules’ Kaukasis: a culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond stands out from the crowd as a book that’s been put together by someone who’s hungry to eat, to learn, to discover and share. There’s just the right mix of new and perhaps alien, yet also the accessible; of both wanderlust and home comforts. It’s a book that takes you on a journey into a cuisine you never knew you needed, and makes you crave some travel of your own. Ossetian pies (filled breads, really), khinkali dumplings, khingal pasta with spiced lamb and sweet onions, herby broths, and fermented bits and bobs … there’s so much in here that I want to cook not just once, but to add to my repertoire of things to return to. The mark of a great recipe book. A heads-up for Elena Heatherwick’s stunning photography too.
See also Weligama: recipes from Sri Lanka by Emily Dobbs, which is late to 2017’s cookbook party, but not to be overlooked. We’re still pretty light on recipes from this particular dot on the world map, and Weligama seems to me to do a great job of introducing its fresh, colourful and vibrant flavours. I’m particularly drawn the fish and the vegetable sections of the curry chapter, and salads like gotu kola, a kind of grated coconut tabbouleh.
For readers and thoughtful cooks
Two Kitchens: family recipes from Sicily and Rome by Rachel Roddy vied with Kaukasis for top spot (though I’m not sure there need only be one?). Many of you will be familiar with Rachel’s weekly columns in the Guardian’s ‘Cook’ supplement; and those who aren’t should get on board. She’s a wonderfully personal and evocative writer; you’ll enjoy this book if you like to sink into an author’s company as if they were one of your most trusted friends. I particularly admire her ability to bring colour and passion to beige food. Chickpeas and pasta, braised lentils, baked fresh anchovies with breadcrumbs — these are not new or particularly surprising recipes, nor much beyond the ‘everyday’. Yet her voice makes you want to cook it all.
On a more cheffy vibe, but still a reflective one, keep an eye out for Nuno Mendes’ Lisboeta; stories from Portugal’s city of light. A beauty of a book where bold food is interspersed with mini essays about the culture and traditions of Nuno’s home town.
For modern eaters
I’m in awe of Anna Jones’ third recipe book, The Modern Cook’s Year. It’s a total bible, full to the brim of seasonal vegetarian cooking (so calming to peruse and read too). As with her previous work, that ‘vegetarian’ tag is in many ways irrelevant; any omnivore will be invigorated and sated by the ideas and recipes.
For cooks who need help with their menu planning
Elly Pear’s Let’s Eat is, like her, bubbly but straightforward, fun yet practical. It might even be the most useful book here, with extensive sections that help readers to cook in bulk, make multiple meals from the same starting point, and plan menus that’ll please the pickiest of pals.
See also Feasts by Sabrina Ghayour — easy, flavourful food with a hint of Persia, which’ll be perfect for when you’ve got friends over. And of course Nigella’s At My Table: a celebration of home cooking, which is exactly what it says it is, and possibly her best cookbook since the seminal How to Eat. Real food that you want and will cook.
For people who wish it could be Christmas, everyday-ee-yay
Head straight to The Christmas Chronicles, by Nigel Slater. This is similar to his Kitchen Diaries series of books, just with a microscopic focus on the winter months. There’s a lot of prose, recollections of Christmas’s gone by, festive habits and travel, but also appropriately gorgeous and comforting recipes. Peak Nigel, really: like being in a cuddle, held close in a hug, cocooned by an embrace and wrapped up in a cashmere blanket.
For sugar addicts
Hard, nay impossible to look beyond Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and his collaborator in all things pastry, sponge, meringue and cream, Helen Goh. It’s more technical than some might expect, but that will satisfy others. Plus sweet things are an exact science, and you can be sure that this one’s been well tested.
For restaurant fans
Brief aside: so many foodie tomes published these days directly relate to a restaurant (with the same title). The attraction is obvious — had a good meal here, fancy creating it at home? — and they get the lion’s share of press attention. But let’s be honest, these must be the least cooked from recipe books about, and given so many of the recipes have obviously been scaled down from “serves forty” to “serves four”, you have to question their worth to the home cook.
Still, there are usually a couple of outliers you should look at. Trullo is covetable and genuinely useful for fans of Italian cooking, though arguably it has to play second fiddle to River Café 30, an eye catching record of an iconic and hugely influential restaurant. The best of them is The Sportsman by Stephen Harris — a book I’ve turned to repeatedly, in part for the lowdown on his brilliantly clear and assured seasonal British food, but also for the context in which it sits (thanks to his diary-style intros and essays).
For fact collectors
I need only point you in one direction here: The Gannet’s Gastronomic Miscellany, which is packed with lists of pleasingly named puddings, stories of forged wines and tables of weird ice cream flavours. Irreverent. Strong stocking filler option.
And if you do ask for or buy a cookbook or two this Christmas…
Please do consider On the Side: a sourcebook of inspiring side dishes too. Because it goes with everything. 140 sides that could spark a whole meal, plus a directory at the back pairing those recipes with countless centrepieces … G’wan.