Another year slips by without me following through on my stated intention to publish regular and thorough reviews of new(ish) releases. And so it’s straight into the annual, quite long, end of year food and cookbook gifting round-up that really isn’t meant to be a ‘best of’ list, but also I suppose ultimately is.
If any take your fancy, please do go out and buy them — whether as a gift, or for yourself. You may have read that 2020 has been a bumper year for books, what with all that self-improvement downtime we’ve been enjoying(?). Beyond one or two big hitters, however, that hasn’t really translated into strong (or even normal) sales for cookbooks. Christmas is an opportunity to redress that a little.
Next to each book mentioned are affiliate links to bookshop.org and amazon.co.uk; I get a 10% kicker from both, which helps a tiny bit towards the costs related to running rocketandsquash.com. bookshop.org also sends 10% to its network of independent shops. Your call. Of course if you’re up for physical shopping, please make your local independent bookshop or Waterstones a priority visit.
Top of the pile
I rate all the books I’ve mentioned here (plus more beyond), and each will be ‘best’ for someone. However, three particularly appeal to me, so I cover these at the outset.
“If you buy only one cookbook this year…” Community Comfort; recipes from the diaspora is probably the one. Curated by Riaz Phillips, this is an eye-opening, thought-provoking and ultimately mouth-watering collection of recipes. It’s really quite amazing: both as a project and in its scope, with well over one hundred dishes from chefs and writers representing a multitude of nations whose migrants contribute to the make-up of Britain in 2020. Some dishes and cuisines won’t seem so ‘forrin’ anymore (Chinese wontons, Indonesian nasi goreng, northern Indian lentil tadka). But a high percentage (of equal appeal) show how far we’ve got to go in appreciating, representing and championing so many other migrant cuisines, not least African and Caribbean. There’s a huge amount to read, cook and be inspired by here. Some recipes are classic dishes, others are twists and evolutions unique to the authors. All clearly provide comfort. It’s very much worth a download.
Even if Covid hadn’t prevented Towpath from opening for most of the year, I would still have cherished the publication of their eponymous cookbook. I am biased in that I love this canal-side restaurant that I’m fortunate to live relatively near to. But I am not alone in my affection for it: the destination that Lori di Mori has created is near magical, and the unpretentious yet stimulating seasonal food that Laura Jackson cooks never fails to hit the spot. Towpath is a rare restaurant, and, fittingly, Towpath; recipes and stories is a rare restaurant cookbook in that is entirely relevant to the home kitchen. Lori’s words sets the scene so well; Laura’s recipes are a gift to any cook. Inspiration for the food comes from Italy, Spain, France, London restaurants like Rochelle canteen and Morito, and ultimately good produce when it’s at its peak. Think crispy lamb with caramelised onions on hummus, multiple white bean and or tomato based-stews, chicken braises, cheese tarts, seasonal salads. The book captures the collection of kiosks and al fresco tables perfectly, and just like the place, it’s magnetic.
Falastin by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley is a very, very good cookbook. A sibling to Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, this tells the story of Palestinian cuisine through essays on the nation’s produce and farming, and profiles of people living and cooking there — in restaurants and refugee camps. Alongside this sometimes sobering backdrop, there are masses of appealing recipes: some classic, some contemporary, and some simply by the authors, inspired by a Palestinian pantry. You could really get lost in this, I think, and will cook from it often. Head straight to the kofta with tahini, potato and onion and then the chicken musakhan with a side of winter tabbouleh.
- Community Comfort is an e-book. Proceeds raise funds for the bereaved healthcare colleagues and families of Black, Asian & Ethnic minority victims of Covid-19 — data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has suggested that due to risk of exposure exacerbated by demographic, geographical and socioeconomic factors, people of black and south Asian ethnic background have far higher risk of death from Covid than white people. Donations are £10 (or more if you wish).
- Towpath on Bookshop / Amazon
- Falastin on Bookshop / Amazon
For those missing holidays
I suspect this category applies to most of us. But if you or any of your friends have really, really been pining for a slow, carefree fortnight with gentle lunches followed by afternoon naps, water lapping at your feet, succulent, fleshy tomatoes bursting with sunshine, grilled squid and at least three iced treats every day, in somewhere like, hmmmm, Sardinia or the Aegean, then you should consider Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark and Aegean by Marianna Leivaditaki.
The former is a calming and inviting tour of Sardinian food — which is to say Italian cooking with a hint of Spain and North Africa. This is the debut book from a British chef and food stylist who’s made the island her home, and it succeeds in providing plenty of recipes that appeal, while also putting the island at the top of your now no doubt long list of post pandemic places to go.
Leivaditaki is the head chef at Morito in Hackney. For most people who’ve eaten there, memories of their meal would be enough reason to buy her book. Technically this is a Mediterranean cookbook closer to her roots in Crete than the mostly Spanish-north African theme of that restaurant. There is crossover, though, albeit primarily in that you’ll want to eat everything on show. Begin with the cuttlefish (or squid) stuffed with dried tomatoes, anchovies, goat’s curd and sage. Also the oxtail with peppers and olive oil chips.
For those missing travel
Beach smeach? If you prefer to immerse yourself a little deeper in a culture, and also a little further afield, look to Caroline Eden’s Red Sands and Olia Hercules’ Summer Kitchens.
Eden’s is a fascinating and evocative portrait of central Asia. It is in large part a travel memoir; a sociological and geographical record. However she intersperses the story of a six-month-long journey through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with dishes that are emblematic of the places she experiences and the people she meets. In her words, food is “an agent, device and theme.” It’s engrossing. And very pleasing to read on the back cover, that this and her previous book Black Sea are merely two thirds of a ‘colour trilogy’.
Hercules’ third book is more recipe-led, though is also a really interesting documentation of something most of us know very little, if anything, about: Ukranian summer kitchens — “little buildings in the vegetable garden where Ukrainians do all their cooking, pickling and eating in the warmer months”. I really love this book. The recipes in here feel so new (to me) and yet also familiar and homely, as Olia mixes project cooking (dumplings, stuffed breads and long braises) and fermentation (peppers, apples, whole watermelons!), with quick dishes that could become part of your everyday repertoire (see the revelatory cucumber, yoghurt and nutmeg salad). Not just for summer.
For those who like a big name
Two of this year’s bigger publications need no pushing from these pages: Nigella’s Cook, eat, repeat and Ottolenghi’s Flavour. Both names are rightly popular, though I’ll just add here that these are not simply populist cookbooks. Despite the TV-link, Nigella’s is really a return to the style of her first, lyrical paean to cooking (and eating) How to Cook, drawing us in again to those acts, but also stressing and invoking pleasure. Head straight to her crab mac n cheese. Yotam’s latest is driven, in particular, by his madly creative co-author Ixta Belfrage. Flavour combinations and ideas bounce and zing, and cuisines are fused, often in unexpected fashion. It’s not for a shove-every-thing-in-one-tray-and-forget-about-it cook, and the sheer choice of delectable things to cook is sometimes overwhelming. But there are dishes and tips for life here (braised greens with yoghurt; asparagus with tamarind and lime; cucumber, za’atar and chopped lemon salad; tangerine and ancho chilli flan). Stunning photography. Oh, and it’s basically vegetarian.
For upping the vegetable intake
On which note, Gill Meller’s Root, Stem, Leaf and Flower is a mindful celebration of the ebb and flow of the grower’s year. It’s big and beautiful, divided by the four seasons, then sub-divided by ingredient: in summer, a clutch of tomato recipes (do the tomatoes in the hole) follow cucumbers and before that aubergine; later beans, redcurrants, sweetcorn; and then onto the squashes, carrots and beetroot of autumn. He’s a very fine cook, with a talent for a twist while still keeping things homely.
Melissa Hemsley’s Eat Green is packed with very cookable vegetable-focused recipes; it’s not wholly vegetarian, but all of the recipes are plant-focused and many are without meat and fish (and do not miss them). All the recipes are either ready in 30 minutes, suitable for batch cooking, easy with minimal ingredients or all 3. Like Melissa, there’s much joy and a positive feel to it. Really good for upping your mid-week meal game, and cutting back on meat and fish without depriving yourself of tasty things.
The quiet message running through Melissa’s book (‘planet-friendly eating) is shouted loudly in eco-chef Tom Hunts Eating for Pleasure, People and Planet. Tom’s wholesome and earnest approach is based around a “root to fruit manifesto” which means “eating for pleasure, eating whole foods from the whole farm, while eating the best food we can”. It promotes biodiversity, restorative agriculture, and acting like we can make a difference, with vegetables at the centre of our table. This is quite a serious attempt to educate and influence, and some of the recipes feel quite cheffy. But there’s much for the home cook simply after a recipe too. I really like his winter Caesar salad, roasted turnips and apples with yogurt and cayenne, and the swede pretending to be a ham.
- Root, Stem, Leaf and Flower on Bookshop / Amazon
- Eat Green on Bookshop / Amazon
- Eating for Pleasure, People and Planet on Bookshop / Amazon
For someone after something ‘new’
If you want to branch out from a Mediterranean / modern British / middle England diet, then I’d point you towards The Rangoon Sisters; recipes from our Burmese family kitchen. I was rather taken with MiMi Aye’s Mandalay, published last year, which essentially introduced and still schools me on this cuisine. And yet there’s much in the Rangoon Sisters’ book to supplement it or indeed act as an alternative starting point; this cookbook could fill many weeks worth of sour, salty, spiced and enlivening eating. The curries are low effort and high reward – pork and mango pickle, mutton curry and chicken potato in particular. I love the various crunchy, tart and spiced salads, and I’ve not made either the simple or long version yet, but many swear by their mohinga.
One of my favourite instagram accounts is Pippa Middlehurst’s @PippyEats; her creativity and entrepreneurial drive are inspiring, though it’s the time-lapse videos of noodle making and dumpling wrapping that drew me in. If you or a friend wants to pick up these skills too, then Dumplings and Noodles is a good place to come. What she misses in ‘authenticity’ is made up in by an inquisitive, scientific background, a hunger for knowledge, and clarity of explanation. I was half-expecting an even geekier deep dive, solely into regional Chinese techniques and dishes — but this is a great start, very accessible, and this December I intend pull, slap and biang biang some noodles.
If you’ve read this far then either you or someone you’re buying for likes words. Four options for you here:
Borough Market’s Edible Histories, which is written by Mark Riddaway the editor of their Market Life magazine, is an extremely enjoyable and often fascinating romp through the backstory of 15 ingredients. The idea being we should know were our food comes from. It’s a great read and will keep you in dinner table facts for years to come (assuming we get to have dinner with others again).
In the Kitchen is a thoughtful collection of essays on the subject of cooking and eating and how those things and indeed the kitchen are interwoven in our lives. All the authors are brilliant — not least Ella Risbridger, Rachel Roddy and Ruby Tandoh. If you know those names you’re probably already clicking ‘add to basket’. If not then get to know them.
Another strong collection of writers can be found in Miranda York’s The Food Almanac: 12 months worth of recipes, essays, poems and meal plans. Lovely read. Including something good on the subject Christmas sides…
I also really enjoyed reading Thom Eagle’s ponderings on cooking without cooking in Summer’s Lease, frequently finding myself nodding and exclaiming ‘ah yes’ as he meanders his way (pleasingly) through breaking, salting, souring and ageing, with a handful of long form recipes chucked in for good measure.
- Edible Histories on Bookshop / Amazon
- In the Kitchen on Bookshop / Amazon
- Food Almanac on Bookshop / Amazon
- Summer’s Lease on Bookshop / Amazon
Yes, yes, sounds nice but what about something for someone who just wants a useful recipe book
Queen of the useful, succinct and practical (and this is genuine praise crossed with a little jealousy, not a back-handed compliment) is Claire Thomson, who’s latest book (tome) is Home Cookery Year: more than 200 recipes in 4 seasonal sections, each of which are sub-divided into rapid mid-week dishes; on a budget; salads, light lunches and sides; treats; weekend cooking; and celebration feasts. Claire is a chef and a Mum of 3 (she is real, busy and knackered), and knows how to put food on the table without faff. Got to try the whole squash baked with beer, cheese, cream and pretzels before autumn-winter disappears.
Buying for people who claim they are too busy (or impatient) to stand by a stove? Try MOB Kitchen’s Speedy MOB; 12 minute meals for 4 people. Not everything can truly be done in 12 and you can use it very easily if just 1 or 2 people. But this contemporary (occasionally trendy), savvy, and fun. It’ll get good food on the table, and I suspect turn some reluctant cooks into horrendous foodies.
For sweet teeth
I’ve probably overlooked someone and am going to regret deeply offending them, but this year there are only two cookbooks you should consider for people with sweet teeth.
The first is Edd Kimber’s One Tin Bakes. Edd is the original and still one of the very best winners of The Great British Bake Off. All recipes in this book are designed to cook in one 9×13 inch baking tin. It’s not limited to brownies and tray bakes (though would that be a bad thing?), so think cookie bars, grapefruit meringue pie, multiple slices, swirly buns and an excellent grape focaccia too. Probably need to be baking for a dozen people. But that time will come again…
Ravneet Gill is unusual: someone who seems to have flourished in 2020. A pastry chef who’s worked across at a number of great London restaurants, her cookbook The Pastry Chef’s Guide was published at the start of Lockdown. Which briefly looked terribly timed, yet her infectious PMA plys insta-friendly cookies and other sweet treats rode that storm. She’s now a Telegraph columnist and presenter on the next series of Junior Bake Off. Bigger things to come too, I suspect. Anyway, the book’s an comprehensive manual, covering pretty much everything you’ll want that involves sugar and butter. Also consider gifting (or using) her and Nicola Young’s PUFF the Bakery online pastry school courses, which come highly recommended.
Just getting into wine and how to pair it with food? Which Wine When is clear, clever, contemporary and probably something else beginning with C but I’m 5 glasses of achingly hip orange wine down at this point in the writing process.
Already an aficionado but likely appreciative of a snazzy coffee table book that will quietly remind everyone of that: Noble Rot’s Wine From Another Galaxy.
Honourable (but unseen) mentions
Two books from the US have caught my eye: Xi’an Famous Foods and Nik Sharma’s The Flavour Equation. But I haven’t seen them yet so can’t comment, beyond saying if there’s really not enough inspo above, Google these. I also haven’t yet seen Carl Clarke’s The Whole Chicken, but tbh the design is enough to make me say buy it, and as the food at CHICK’N’SOURS is generally banging, I suspect the recipes in here are too.
Wow. You made it to the end! Hopefully that means you’ve found the annual Cookshelf Long Read moderately helpful. While you’re here, mind if I check you’ve already got a copy of my first cookbook On the Side? It’d fit in the really useful category. Maybe the vegetable focused one too. Some people have told me they read it in bed, so perhaps the wordy category. Not so good if travel or escapism is what you’re after.