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The Single Gourmet Traveller’s Top 10 Cookery Books

August 18, 2011

My Top 10 Cookery Books

How to choose? I love listening to Desert Island Discs and because food and cooking is always so much on my mind, I often find myself – when listening to it – wondering which of my cookery books I’d choose to take (making the big assumption of course that there would be an unlimited supply of ingredients!).  As I said in my Peppers Piedmontese post, I have over 200 cookery books but since talking to Tim Healy at A Cena it’s seemed quite modest; his collection apparently hits the thousands mark – and hopefully he’ll sometime let me know his favourites. However, when I first looked at the shelves housing my own collection it still seemed like a big task to decide which ones I’d put into my Top 10 List.

A list like this is necessarily highly personal, reflecting my own tastes and, in this case, the books I actually own. There’s also an element of nostalgia because many of the books contain recipes that are family favourites. It’s not in any way meant to be a definitive list of the greatest cookery books of all time. I did struggle mentally for a while when deciding against including an Elizabeth David (how could one ignore her!) but in the end it seemed best to go for the books I use a lot now – not favourites from ten or twenty or even thirty years ago that lie dormant on my top shelf. Then the choice became quite easy (in fact my son guessed all but one of them on the phone last night!).

I don’t use cookery books a lot in the sense that I choose a recipe and follow it to the letter. I tend to browse through them; I have in mind something I want to cook and then I get out books where I think I’ll find a suitable recipe. What I end up with is usually some kind of amalgamation of, say, Jamie, Skye and Claudia. The only exception to this is cakes and desserts where you have to follow exact measurements and instructions or you may find yourself with a disaster on your hands – or your plate!

So … on with the choice. I’m not going to try to put them in order of preference (though I may borrow Desert Island Discs‘ idea of choosing the one you’d choose above all others) by the time I get to the end. Instead, I’m going to give them in order of oldest first (i.e. when first published):

1.  Claudia Roden: A Book of Middle Eastern Food (1968)My old Penguin copy is pretty battered. I must have bought this book over thirty years ago but still use it – and always use her Moussaka recipe. I love Claudia’s books and this one is a true classic that bridges time and despite now being over forty years old is as relevant in the cook’s kitchen now as when it was first published. Especially as food from the Middle East is so popular today.

2.  Marcella Hazan: The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973) – Well, it definitely is a ‘classic’. This really is the best of Italian cooking with an emphasis on using the finest ingredients and cooking them in simple ways that enhance their natural flavour. Sometimes the recipes are so deceptively simple you think they may be boring; but they never are. Her Ragu (Bolognese) recipe is the best I know and she always explains why you must do certain things.

3.  Michel & Albert Roux: The Roux Brothers on Patisserie (1986) – I was given this as a birthday present by my brothers when it was first published and it is one of the most used books in my collection. I don’t, to be honest, use it nearly as much today as I once did. But I still turn to it for a classic Tarte au Citron or their wonderful Sable aux Fraises (Strawberry Shortbreads). This is the only dessert book on my list so truly the only one I wouldn’t want to live without.

4.  Simon Hopkinson: Roast chicken and other stories (1994) – I’ve already mentioned this in my first Chicken Delights post and so you’ll understand it just had to be here. It’s a book to read as well as cook by with its wonderful layout, giving various ingredients alphabetically and writing about them before giving recipes. I always use Simon’s Hummus recipe but there are lots of other brilliant ones here.

5.  Sophie Grigson & William Black: Organic (2001) – Now, if any book is here for purely nostalgic reasons – this is it! I do love the Roast Squash and Tomato Soup which I make often (as does my daughter Nicola who found it in the book and first made it for me), and there are other good recipes, but the real highlight is Sophie’s Torta Caprese. This has become the family’s Celebration Cake and there can’t be many of our friends who haven’t been given some.

6.  Sam & Sam Clark: Moro – The Cookbook (2001) – I have a lovely signed copy from spending my birthday evening at Moro – one of my favourite restaurants – a couple of years ago. I already had a later book of theirs but not this first one. You can tell it’s well used by the number of blue sticky markers peeping out of the top and it’s fantastic for meat marinades; their Grilled Chicken Wings with Tahini (not always with chicken wings but some part chicken) has become a firm barbecue favourite. There’s also a wonderful Tabbouleh here: the dressing includes cinnamon and allspice which gives it a glorious spicy lift.

7.  Antonio Carluccio: My Favourite Italian Recipes (2002) – This is quite a slim BBC/Marks & Spencer book that was a spur of the moment buy when they were publishing a whole series of favourite recipes by various well-known chefs. This is the only one I still have and I can’t remember if I had others. It is, however, a firm family favourite (both son and daughter have copies and my son was even discussing one of the recipes with me yesterday evening for a dinner next Saturday). Carluccio gives his favourite Tiramisu recipe here and it’s a benchmark: all others I eat are judged by it. There’s a great Focaccia recipe; Chicken Scaloppine with herbs is a dish I often do for friends in the summer, and delicious Frittelle di Zucchini (Courgette Fritters).

8. Sam & Sam Clark: Moro East (2007) – Now when I discussed this list with my son last night he thought two books by the same author(s) was cheating; they should go as one choice. But this had to have it’s own, separate number. Like my other Moro book, it has a profusion of coloured sticky labels sticking out of the top – because it is full of fabulous recipes and they are ones I use a lot: various Tahini Dips, a Beetroot Salad with Pistachio Sauce, Green Beans with Tomato and Fenugreek Sauce, wonderful marinades  … I could go on and on.

9.  Skye Gyngell: A Year in My Kitchen (2007) – I love this book. I mentioned in my Real Chicken Stock Cubes post that one of my favourite dishes is the Lamb with Prunes, Chilli, Coriander and Spice Mix from here. Skye looks at what’s available and fresh in each season so it’s great to look through if you buy vegetables at a farmers’ market or grown your own, but more than that, it contains sophisticated yet simple dishes that are about purity of taste and delightful combinations.

10. Jamie Oliver: Jamie Does (2010) – Like so many others, I’m a great Jamie fan and love what he’s done for making cooking cool for kids and men. While he likes to give traditional recipes his own extra-strong flavour lift, he is also quite faithful to the original. When I was searching out a Gazpacho recipe recently to try to replicate a brilliant one I’d had in Madrid, it was Jamie’s I went for. The Greek salads I enjoyed in Beautiful Kardamyli looked just like his, with their large slabs of feta over the top. This book is a great collection of recipes from his travels through Spain, Italy, Sweden, Morcocco, Greece and France. There just has to be something in here that tickles your palate!

Now, as I started writing this post, I wasn’t sure which book I’d choose above the others – nor even if I could do it. But to not do it is to chicken out really … so, here goes. And this is completely a gut instinct and based on a huge dose of nostalgia and motherly love: it’s that Carluccio book (No.7). It has so many favourite recipes and because my daughter and son also love and use it, and we love Italy and all things Italian, it’s a true family favourite too.

Why don’t you leave a comment and let me know what your favourite cookery books are?

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