I’m pretty confident that all of us have far more cookbooks in our homes than recipes we serve in them. At one point in my life, I possessed shelves filled with more recipes than I could hope to work my way through in a lifetime, thanks to a wealth of job-related freebie cookbooks and my own obsession. So a couple of years ago, after we moved into our flat, welcomed Oscar, and had to maximise our space, I performed a brutal cull on my lovely but out-of-control collection and managed to narrow it down from about 40 to about 10 by regifting or selling off the ‘No’ pile. I also decided to implement a much tougher door policy on new cookbook acquisitions, and to actually cook from my existing library.
I thought I would share the recipes I go to time and again for everything from weeknight dinners to special occasions. But first a couple of caveats – the most important one being that I like cooking, so I don’t mind spending time preparing a meal from scratch most evenings. Also, I like pictures of food, so I will instantly reject a perfectly good but picture-free tome. Lastly, none of the below books are what you would call undiscovered gems – they’re all pretty mainstream, but they’re popular for a reason.
Anyway, here are the books I turn to for different cooking occasions. I hope you manage to try out some of the recipes and enjoy them as much as I do.
BEST FOR… SOPHISTICATED COMFORT FOOD
Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi
This is the book I have worked my way through most systematically – mainly because I discovered that all the recipes work to the letter and every single one is delicious (except for the ones with bulghur wheat in them, natch). The recipes I return to time and again are the caramelised garlic tart (easy to make ahead when you’re having friends over to dinner on a school night), the green pancakes with lime butter (perfect for any time of day, including with sausages for brunch), and the shakshuka (another brunch classic). However, my hands-down favourite recipe from this book is the cardamom rice with yoghurt. This is a really simple turmeric-soaked rice that you steam with a load of other spices for about 20 minutes before stirring in Greek yoghurt and topping with a couple of poached eggs. It’s a real store-cupboard saviour and it tastes delicious (particularly because I love cardamom so much that I will happily chew on the pods).
BEST FOR… RICH DISHES AND NO-FUSS DINNER PARTIES
Feast, Nigella Lawson
Nigella’s approaches food in exactly the same was as I do: as something to be enjoyed, regardless of your level of expertise. For that reason, Feast is my most thumbed cookbook. I love how she adds ingredients based on their flavour or her personal preferences, and to hell with authenticity. I also love her fearlessness of butter. When I first got this book, I just made the snow-flecked brownies over and over. However, the more I dipped into it, the more gems I found, and I still reach for it whenever I have friends coming over and don’t know what to make. My favourite dish in the book is probably the lamb maharaja curry I made for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary feast the other week, paired with her fluffy pilau rice. And when it comes to dessert, Nigella’s orange-scented brioche bread-and-butter pudding is one of the simplest and most decadent options out there.
BEST FOR… SOMETHING DIFFERENT
OK, this book commits the cardinal sin of concealing tricksy micro-recipes within recipes, like culinary Russian dolls, so you get halfway through, read the killer phrase ‘Add the bla bla spice rub’, then realise there’s a key part of the recipe whose ingredients you don’t have (yes I know the first rule of cookery is to read the whole recipe through, but come on…) Anyway, I can forgive Rick Stein for that, because this book has so much else to give. I’ve been delving into this collection for years now – I went through a stage of making the coconut dal with tomatoes and curry leaves every week (it’s so easy and another great store-cupboard back-up option); then, when I discovered the hot-and-sour squid salad, I would find any excuse to fill the house with a fish sauce whiff (just don’t take it to work… it will leak in your bag). Currently, I’m really feeling his Bangladeshi aubergine curry, which is delicious with rice and a dollop of Greek yoghurt. For a special occasion, the Thai mussaman curry is well worth sweating over; I also love fiddling around with the Vietnamese summer rolls. Honestly, I could go on and on.
BEST FOR… THE CLASSICS
The Kitchen Diaries, Nigel Slater
I have a complicated reader relationship with Nigel Slater – his writing is a bit touchy-feely for my tastes, and some of his Observer and Guardian recipes are so simple that I feel like anyone could have come up with them (you know the ones; I’m talking ‘an open sandwich of cheese and tomatoes’ territory). However, there’s no denying he’s a talented and intuitive cook, and his classic cakes and meat dishes are my undoing. For me, The Kitchen Diaries is Nigel Slater at his best – his writing style works really well in the diary format, the pictures are really evocative, and it’s just jam-packed with inspiration, from his slow-roast lamb with chickpea mash and classic roast chicken, to the delectable mushroom lasagne with basil and cream. As for his cakes, the blueberry and pear cake (this one uses peaches but you get the idea) is wonderful and endlessly adaptable to the fruits you need to use up, while his lemon-frosted pistachio cake is a masterpiece that has become my go-to recipe for birthday baking.
BEST FOR… FLAVOUR-PACKED DISH INSPIRATION
Jamie’s Great Britain, Jamie Oliver
Now, I like Jamie’s old-school cookbooks – especially The Return of the Naked Chef (mainly for its fantastic fish pie). However, this newer cookbook is such a wonderfully lavish publication that I can’t help but love it – plus, it’s packed with tasty versions of loads of traditional British dishes, so it’s a great compendium to have on your shelf if space is tight. As with Nigella, no dish is sacred in Jamie’s hands – everything can be Olivered – however, most recipes taste all the better for it. This book contains recipes for most of the dishes from my death-row shortlist – prawn cocktail, lamb shanks (by the way, this lamb shanks recipe from Cook With Jamie, is also incredible), creamed spinach, Arctic roll, even crumpets – and the way it’s been photographed is so celebratory that it can only inspire people who leaf through it to get cooking.
Which recipes do you cook regularly? What would be your dessert-island cookbook? (Not that it would be much use there…)