Ten must-have food books of the year

Kirsten Lawson
A History of Food in 100 recipes.
A History of Food in 100 recipes. 

A History of Food in 100 recipes
by William Sitwell
(Harper Collins, $40)

This is Brit-centric food history the way you want it, in a series of brief, entertaining and informative tales about everything from the early days of vegetarianism (with a recipe for cauliflower cheese from 1860), to the first cupcake, and the phenomenal success that is the bagged salad.

Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Kitchen, covers great food figures (finishing his book on Heston Blumenthal), famous recipes and key inventions. Like the pressure cooker in the 17th century, from a man ‘‘steaming with ideas’’ who built a cast iron sealed cooker dubbed ‘‘the digester’’ that, sadly for its inventor, never made it past demo phase.

Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tammimi.
Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tammimi. 

Cupcakes, we discover, made their print debut in 1828 at the hands of American Eliza Leslie, ‘‘forbidding opinionated, haughty, straitlaced and very correct’’. And as today, it wasn’t just how you baked your cupcake, it was how you served it, ate it and what you wore at the time.

As for bagged salads, Sitwell traces their blossoming to an American book, and despite worries about the chlorine they were washed in, the food poisoning they caused, the pesticides they were grown with, the loss of food culture they represented, most peole apparently cared little. Introduced in Britain, in 1992, the industry was worth £1.2 billion within a decade, bigger than sliced bread and cereals.

Sitwell is nothing if not succinct. His essays, selective by necessity, are mostly no more than three pages long, potted histories, but he’s an elegant, funny, pacey writer and in that space delivers as much as you probably want to know about, say, the invention, the wonders and the horrors of the microwave.

Simon Bryant's Vegies.
Simon Bryant's Vegies. 

by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
(Ebury, distributed in Australia by Random House, $49.95)

The strength of the Ottolenghi name and the buzz it creates is enormous. The guy’s followers are crazy for him, partly because he turns vegetarian food into such a major delight. His new book this year, Jerusalem, is a departure from the vegetarian recipes into the food of Jerusalem, where he he grew up before making his way to London. It’s written with business partner Sami Tamimi, also from Jerusalem, but from the Muslim east, with Ottolenghi from the Jewish west. The pair met in London, and Ottolenghi says the food of Jerusalem is their ‘‘mother tongue’’.

A dish we’ve earmarked for fig season is roast sweet potatoes with figs, balsamic reduction and chilli and spring onion. You’ll find a Sephari-inspired dish of wild and basmati rice with chickpeas, currants and herbs. A Lebanese humus with spiced lamb on flatbreads with lemon and chilli sauce. An Armenian-inspired yoghurt and barley soup. The classic Jewish chicken soup.


Many of the dishes are from friends and family in Jerusalem, many are adapted. The book is full of the brightness and appeal that characterises Ottolenghi’s cooking.

Simon Bryant’s Vegies
by Simon Bryant
(Lantern, an imprint of Penguin, $40)

Simon Bryant’s first solo recipe book is full of original and fantastic recipes, with Bryant’s trademark Asian influence and his love of vegetables. Bryant worked for a decade at the Adelaide Hilton with Cheong Liew, but is better known as Maggie Beer’s offsider on the long-running ABC television show, The Cook and the Chef.

Hugh's Three Good Things by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Hugh's Three Good Things by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. 

Bryant is vegetarian in his home life and ambassador for the Animal Welfare League and the Animals Asia Foundation, but as a chef cooks meat, if only ethically raised animals. He gravitated to Asian restaurants partly for the focus on vegetables. His book, he says, is made up of vegetarian dishes from his menus and ‘‘the stuff I would cook at home that I wasn’t brave enough to put on menus’’.

We’ve turned his brussels sprouts into something of a staple – steamed brussels, topped with an egg-yolk-enriched cheese sauce, then with an onion jam and finally with breadcrumbs and cheese. Delicious. The Asian influence is there in a hot and sour lemongrass and tomato soup; a carrot and fried tofu salad with chilli peanut sauce; and pea rice pancakes. There’s a wholefoods bent also, in the likes of muffins made of goji berries, pearl barley and pinenuts; and a ‘‘risotto’’ of mushrooms and freekah.

An eclectic, appealing collection, refreshingly eschewing the path of simplicity and boredom that pervades so many ‘‘healthy’’ cookbooks, from a vegetarian who freely admits that a diet choice like his is one of the privileges of a wealthy society. ‘‘If I’m marooned on a desert island, jeez I’d rip the head off a pig and suck the eyeballs out. But that’s survival,’’ he told us.

Mr Wilkinson's Favourite Vegetables.
Mr Wilkinson's Favourite Vegetables. 

Three Good Things
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
(Bloomsbury, $50)

This book, as we observed recently, threatens to shoehorn recipes into a holy trinity of three ingredients, which Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests is a magic number in cooking. It’s something of a contrivance, but as soon as you start cooking from this book you start to see the magic.

This is simplicity in the extreme, but it is not bland and it’s not food that relies on pre-prepared ingredients, jars or cans. It’s like the essence of cucina povera, which is, of course, very much the rage right now, apart from being a plain excellent way to eat.

Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop.
Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop. 

Two dishes have already joined our regular repertoire, both involving polenta. For “polenta, mushrooms, cheese” you cook the polenta in milk that has been steeped in onion, pepper and bay leaf. The cooked polenta is cooled, and sliced, then fried and served with mushrooms fried in thyme, garlic and butter, and with hard goat’s cheese. The other dish, ‘‘polenta, beans, kale’’ is simply sweated onion and garlic, with white beans, kale and instant polenta cooked briefly in chicken stock. Salt and pepper and top olive oil and you’re done.

We love this kind of cooking, for its freshness, focus on produce and sheer honesty. It’s healthy, delicious and there’s nowhere to hide. With this approach, it’s no surprise the emphasis is on Italian cooking (it gets as simple as ‘‘spaghetti, garlic, olive oil’’, which is pretty much just that, with the addition of salt and pepper and optional cheese to serve), but it’s not all Italian. Fearnley-Whittingstall offers a dish of spouted lentils (you sprout them yourself over four or five days), stirfried quickly with cashews, garlic, soy sauce and lime juice, and served with coriander.

He has a bunch of simple seafood dishes, including smoked fish cooked briefly in milk with bay leaf and onion, then the milk used to make bechamel to which you add spinach and the flaked fish. Eat with a poached egg, or baked as a gratin.

Mugaritz, by Luis Adoni Aduriz.
Mugaritz, by Luis Adoni Aduriz. 

You could do a lot worse than make this your go-to book for most of the week’s meals.

Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables
by Matt Wilkinson
(Murdoch Books, $50)

Matt Wilkinson elevates vegetables to a thing of beauty, treating them like they’re as special as food gets. Since making his pumpkin and heirloom carrot salad, we’ve become converts to his book, which actually feels a little bit chef-like in its complexity and precision, if not in presentation.

Desserts, by Belinda Jeffery.
Desserts, by Belinda Jeffery. 

Pumpkin and carrots are roasted (the carrots blanched first), then brushed with honey. They’re tossed with macadamias, mint, parsley and feta and dressed with an involved dressing of capers, anchovies, raisins, chilli, garlic, basil, balsamic, lemon and extra virgin olive oil. The result is inspiring, with complexity and a beautiful marrying of flavours.

Yorkshire-born Wilkinson, chef and owner of Pope Joan in Melbourne, offers what he calls ‘‘shepherd’s pie croquettes’’, made from slowcooked lamb shoulder with carrot, turnip and onion, then shredded and mixed with the vegetables, mashed potato, mustard, parsley, sherry vinegar and duck fat, then crumbed and deepfried. You get the picture from this kind of recipe. Some of it is pretty time-consuming and complex with a bit of technique, but it’s gorgeous.

And it’s not all so complex. Wilkinson’s roast spuds are boiled then baked in pork fat and served with herb salt. His fresh tomato stew is as simple as garlic, shallots, vinegar, sugar, salt, heirloom tomatoes, basil, parsley and olive oil (such is his precision that he specifies ‘‘14 turns of black pepper from a mill’’).

The Gourmet Farmer Deli Book.
The Gourmet Farmer Deli Book. 

He has a recipe for radishes served simply raw, cut in half, with unsalted butter and herb salt. The key, of course, is the quality of the radishes – they should be straight from the garden, if you can, so they have ‘‘that hard radish texture that bursts with heat and earthy flavour’’.

His parsnip skordalia has become a firm favourite for us, the parsnips simmered in milk with roast hazelnuts and lots of blanched garlic (blanched twice), then pureed and mixed with lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. Really good.

Every Grain of Rice
by Fuchsia Dunlop
(Bloomsbury, $55)

Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life.
Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life. 

The modern explosion of cooking books has exposed us to endless variations of Italian or Mediterranean food, and other cuisines besides, but Chinese food  in all its idiosyncratic at times impenetrable regional variation feels distinctly underrepresented in the English food library.

Fuchsia Dunlop is a rare thing, a British food writer who has made the day-to-day food of Sichuan her specialty. Dunlop was apparently the first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in China, and in Every Grain of Rice, she brings that ordinary home cooking to a the West.

“Chinese cookery has a reputation for being complicated and intimidating,” she writes. “But home cooking is straightforward.

The recipes in this book are a tribute to China’s rich tradition of frugal, healthy and delicious home cooking.” Dishes like “fish-flavoured aubergines”, a vegetable dish but one that uses similar condiments to fish recipes, so it reminds the eater of fish. 

An excellent book for someone who wants to explore Sichuan cooking.

Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking
by Andoni Luis Aduriz
(Phaidon, distributed through Penguin, $69.95)

In the world of super high-tech food, you’ll find food that’s clever and interesting that in the end becomes ho-hum. But also in this world, you’ll find food that moves you closer to awe or wonder. You can shake your head at the sheer indulgence of a society that finds reverence in food, but when you read Mugaritz you will at the very least begin to understand what this is all about.

“You’re eating concepts, symbols, gestures, metaphors, doubts, fetishes, jokes, taboos, provocation, questions, food,” chef and owner of this famous Spanish restaurant Andoni Luis Aduriz writes in his book. He describes his food as “cooking in whispers, barely audible”, by which he means paring it back to focus on single ingredients, allowing something as ordinary as an onion, for example, or as scrappy as the tendon of a tuna, to star.

In a very beautiful dish, “Shhhh ... Cat got your tongue”, a roast clove of garlic is hidden in bristles of tangled strands of crispy onion and beef tongue, which are studded with tiny bear’s garlic flowers.

Aduriz describes his search around his country restaurant for wild greens and vegies. And he describes his determination to not only make these humble ingredients the stars of the show, but to make the diner part of the theatre as well. You’re there to experience, more than eat.

“This is not a feeding trough,” he writes. “It may not even be a restaurant.”

A London critic likens it to endurance theatre, from which you emerge with a numb bum after hours watching plates of food “presented with reverence usually reserved for the Dead Sea Scrolls”.

I love this book. I won’t ever cook from it, but the recipes are there if you’re up for it.

by Belinda Jeffery
(Lantern, an imprint of Penguin, $50)

This book was, for me, a surprise hit, but an absolute hit. Many of the desserts are refreshingly original, or at least far from run of the mill.

An excellent, dense pistachio and lime cake, made with loads of pistachios (laboriously shelled then ground), ground almonds and lime zest, with a lime syrup with piles of chopped pistachios and pomegranate seeds piled on top. An orange, pumpkin and dried apricot cake decorated with nasturtium petals, served with yoghurt, orange, honey and vanilla.

Jeffery has a thing for semifreddo and for this alone, she earns a place on the shelf. Semifreddo of maple syrup; amaretti; lime; blueberry and lemon cassata. And ice creams too – pear, mandarin, peach orange and cardamom, burnt caramel, dulce de leche, chai, and on it goes.

To find recipes as enticing and interesting as these that, so far as we have experimented, are an inevitable success is a wonderful thing.

The Gourmet Farmer Deli Book
by Matthew Evans, Nick Haddow and Ross O’Meara
(Murdoch Books, 50)

It’s hard not to love Evans’ approach to food, his decision to pack up in Sydney and become a farmer in Tasmania, his insistence once there on throwing himself utterly into producing food from scratch, to the extent that he sells his produce at a shop in Hobart, and now also online at acommonground.com.au. T

he Gourmet Farmer Deli Book is all about preserving, with instructions for making everything from your own butter and creme fraiche, yoghurt and ricotta, to your own sausages, and doing your own curing with hot or cold smoking or salt.

There’s not much Evans doesn’t cover, including green bacon, wet-cured, dry-cured and cold-smoked bacon. Every kind of sausage, from fresh sausages to chorizo and salami, to the ‘‘pinnacle’’ of sausage making, boudin blanc, although not boudin noir. Recipes also for pickled and preserved fish and preserved vegetables.

This has a niche appeal at one level, but even for the least adventurous of us in this world, the fresh cheeses like ricotta are at the simple end of the spectrum and gloriously worthwhile.

Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life
by Antonio Carluccio
(Hardie Grant, $39.95)

Antonio Carluccio’s memoir is an intimate account of a difficult life in which Carluccio details his early life in Italy and his move as a young man to Austria and Germany, before he wound up in London in 1975 in his late 30s, where his food career finally began.

You get a sense here of his impatience and constant search for change and excitement, which saw him falling in and out of love many times before his 28-year-marriage to Priscilla Conran, and you also feel loudly the despair that was his constant companion. Carluccio recounts at least four suicide attempts, the most recent four years ago.

The death of his close, younger brother from a drowning accident at 13 had a profound effect on Carluccio, who left Italy soon after. In London, he eventually took over the restaurant of his brother-in-law, Terence Conran, beginning his career in food and television, which sees him now, at 75, still making appealing TV shows and producing cookbooks.

Carluccio is a great personality, a charismatic ambassador for simple Italian cuisine, and in this book shows himself a fine and sympathetic raconteur.