Category Archives: Recipe books

Rouille-ing the day

Sorry. Not sorry…

The first of my ‘recipes I’ve never used before’ (see previous post) has come from a book I have had for years. Had for years and used remorselessly – though not for some time. It was published in 1987 to accompany a TV series, and it’s by one of my all-time favourite writers: Claudia Roden. It’s the illustrated edition of her wonderful Mediterranean Food.

Boxing Day, and I was invited to a friend’s house for lunch. But… he was cooking a bouillabaisse, and would I do the accompaniments? After all, my name is about as Provençal as you can get: I’m actually a small nativity figure, traditional at this time of year, so helping with a typically Provençal dish should be no problem. ‘What did he need?’ I asked: oh, you know, the aïoli, the rouille, some homemade bread would be good. Aïoli, no problem. Homebaked sourdough, no problem (well, there was, because I managed to kill my starter, but that’s another story). Rouille? Eaten it, or rather slurped it into a fish soup. Not made it.

I had my first task!

I thought I knew what I was getting into: a bread-based purée, flavoured with garlic and cayenne or chillis, ideal for thickening a soup or a rather liquid stew as well as adding flavour. But that’s when the problems started. Digging around, I found a split, a schism, an existential crisis. What is, or what is not, a rouille? Is it a flavoured mayo, according to Wikipedia and even Anthony Bourdain? My battered old Cuisine du Terroir is unequivocal:

‘The accompaniment to certain Provençal soups, including the legendary bouillabaisse. The recipe given […] is a reminder that the modern tendency to make a sort of aïoli with chillis is historically incorrect.’

Well, I’m not going to go against that. Why would you want another mayo-based accompaniment, anyway? And I’m not missing out on the aïoli, which I can eat by the bucketfull. I turned to Claudia, and then I discovered schism number two, amongst the traditional bread-based rouille makers. Essentially, it’s about technology. Do you use a blender, or do you make it a bit like a mayo, pounding the bread in a mortar and adding the oil gradually?

Er, for me there’s no debate. Especially on Boxing Day morning. Blender it is. Please. My comment in Cuisine (mortar and pestle, natch) reads ‘seriously, guys’.

So I settled down with Claudia, and inevitably had to adapt the recipe. And this is what I got:

It was absolutely, four star, zappo, amazing, DELICIOUS.

Now. I had to do some adapting. First, you’re supposed to cut the crusts off the bread. Owing to the starter crisis, all I had was bread with crusts. If I’d cut the crusts off I’d have had about a teaspoon of bread. So I reduced the crusts to the finest possible breadcrumbs before starting. How much, though? The recipe says ‘four slices’. Well, in the late 80s a slice of bread was about 25g, so I went with 100g.

I put my breadcrumbs in a bowl with crushed garlic, a teaspoon of paprika and a pinch of cayenne, five tablespoons of olive oil and a squeezette of tomato purée (controversial, that, but hey, I was going to be wielding a blender, I laugh in the face of controversy). I had some veg stock ready to let it down – should have been fish stock from the bouillabaisse, but that was five miles away – and mixed it all together in the bowl first. My stick blender did a brilliant job, much better than my stand blender – yes, I did try.

The taste? As noted above – fabulous. Yes, I’m sure it would have been smoother if I’d not used crusted bread, but at the same time I’m also sure that my home-made crusted bread was more tasty than the boiled baby’s blanket which passed for bread in the 1980s, and still does in many supermarkets today.

Here’s a link to Claudia’s original recipe, published with her bouillabaisse as one of the Guardian’s ‘20 best French recipes‘. Entirely justified.

 

Reading, testing, eating…

It’s the books. I’ve got, er, quite a few. There are cookery and food books everywhere. (Though I have managed to keep them out of the bedside pile. For the moment.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some have been barely used, some are stained and mangled and barely legible, some – 1970s edition of the Hamlyn All-colour Cookbook, I’m looking at you despite Mary Berry having contributed a section – are best described as having largely historical interest and are shelved in the basement. So, decision time.

Do I throw? Oh, please. Books? Never. Do I recycle? Yes, some can definitely head towards charity shops, though possibly not the ones with the graffiti and the soup stains. If they’ve been used to that extent, they are ones I may well need. Either now, or at some indefinable point in the future. But what about the ones I’ve not really used?

So, I’m setting myself a task, the cooking equivalent of a Goodreads ‘how many books can you read in a year’ challenge (though I did quit Goodreads; it just got silly, and so might this). Every week, things like holidays permitting, I will use a new recipe from one of my little-used books. They will often, doubtless, be veggie, given that I have an abundance of things like this to use in the season:

And they will doubtless be adapted, often to allow for my lactose intolerance but sometimes just because I’m missing an ingredient or in a hurry – after all, that’s how recipes have to work in the real world. They need to be adaptable, like my fave roast tom passata from the River Cottage Preserves handbook:

And here the graffiti inform me that it’s ‘sensational with Cuor di Bue, 2010’, ‘done for freezing, mostly with Harbinger, tough skins, 2009’, ‘add a slug of wine, too, yum’, and ‘large roasting dish covered in toms makes about 1 litre’. It also adds, in biro, ‘don’t burn!!!!’ and ‘omit the sugar unless the tomatoes are crap’. No point repeating that recipe for this experiment…

I’m not going to do a random pick, because that wouldn’t work: suddenly dashing out to find kohlrabi or fennel pollen is impractical round here, and anyway I don’t like kohlrabi and am ‘meh’ about fennel pollen. I will also avoid any books I’ve edited, since I know those recipes and – hopefully, no, certainly, given the testing undertaken – they’ll work.

But it will always be a recipe I haven’t used before, and maybe from a book I haven’t used at all, just drooled over. And I will do my best to be good and follow the recipe as I should, and I will certainly note any silly errors – editorial, mostly: missing ingredients, missing steps in the method, assumptions that probably shouldn’t be assumptions but spelled-out certainties.

So, first week of January = first recipe. What will it be, I wonder? What cuisine will it come from? Will it be from one of my older books (except, possibly, the Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook), or from something brand spanking new? Who knows? I don’t…

Hm, tapas…

Oh, and I will not be republishing the actual recipe – no way. I seem to spend far too much time saying things like ‘no, you cannot just copy a Jamie Oliver recipe in your book’, ‘yes, it is one of his, it’s from XXX, easy to track down’, ‘yes, copyright applies to recipes’ and ‘yes, he will notice, or his people will, after all, I did, even though you didn’t mention him’ to some authors. I will add a link, if I can find a legitimate source, and I will summarise. But I will not be copying Jamie Oliver recipes on Twelve Miles. Promise. Tools, at the ready!

Raving about ribollita

I’m still dealing with the great Snowdonia kale mountain, which looks dangerously as though it’s about to run to seed. So much for my ‘hungry gap’ filler. Better pick it and eat it, then. And I know just what to do with it.

ribollita in progressOne of my all-time favourite ways to use the cavolo nero which grows so well in my garden is in the Italian soup ribollita: ribollita because it’s ‘reboiled’ – cooked one day, reheated and eaten the next. And the day after that.

What am I saying? It’s not Italian, it’s Tuscan. I’ve been doing a bit of research and have come to the conclusion that there are as many versions as there are Tuscan grandmothers.

There are four constants: kale or dark cabbage, some sort of dried or canned bean, olive oil and bread. One person’s nonna used potatoes; another thought that putting them in was a crime. Someone else refused to believe that you could have a ribollita without the addition of sausage. The identity of the beans caused a debate too: borlottis, or cannellini beans? What about tomatoes? Obligatory, or an offence?

So I turned to my collection of recipe books, and found an equal variety. One has a version which includes both potatoes and sausages, and suggests using any white beans, including butter beans. River Cafe have a fabulous recipe which goes for cannellini beans, no potatoes or sausage – only it serves 10. Anna del Conte’s recipe from Classic Food of Northern Italy has chillies in it (cannellini beans; no to sausage, yes to potato, yes to tomatoes). I’ve found another which adds chard and bread to a basic minestrone, and the minestrone has bacon in it as well as pasta and wine (surely not). I’ve found a recipe from another well-known food writer which oddly has no greens. That’s definitely not ribollita, but it may be an editing error.

I give up. But not on ribollita, because if I do give up on that the kale plants will uproot themselves and come marching into the house like triffids. So I’m doing my ordinary ribollita: no sausages, no potatoes, no pasta, no chillies, no wine (well, maybe a splash), no bacon; borlotti beans because I’ve got some in, and tomatoes just because.

Ribollita
serves 4

1 small head of celery
1 tbsp olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into roughly 1-cm pieces
2 small red onions, peeled and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
a good bunch of flat-leaved parsley
250ml passata, or 1 x 400g tin tomatoes, drained and chopped (set the juice aside)
a huge armful of cavolo nero – about 750g untrimmed, 500g trimmed
1 x 400g tin of borlotti beans

To serve: good bread – it can be a day old – and more olive oil

Trim the celery well and remove the strings with a knife, then chop the sticks finely. If the leaves look good, finely chop a few of those too and put them to one side. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or pan (with a lid) over a low to medium heat, and add the chopped celery, carrots and onions. Put the lid on and allow the vegetables to cook until soft, but don’t let them colour up. Add the garlic when the vegetables are almost ready; it – especially – must not burn, and then add the parsley and celery leaves (if using), stir them in, and cook everything together for a couple more minutes. Add the passata and continue cooking for another half hour or so – check to make sure the soup isn’t catching during this time; add a little water if necessary.

While the ribollita base is cooking, trim the cavolo nero. Discard any thick stems and, above all, any caterpillars (eek – surely it’s too early!), and then chop it into fine strips – it looks like a vast amount but it cooks down. Drain the borlotti beans and rinse them; put half the tin in a small bowl. Add the cavolo nero and the rest of the borlottis to the ribollita, and then top up with water, but be careful – this is a very thick soup (this is where you can add a splash of wine). Bring the heat up and simmer the ribolitta for 20 minutes or so.

Mash the remaining borlotti beans up with a fork and add them to the pan; cook for a further 10 minutes. If you want to be authentic – and it’s worth it for the depth of flavour – take the soup off the heat and leave it overnight, in the fridge if your house is warm (if you can’t wait, cook it down until the soup is very thick). Check for seasoning before reheating, then cook it until there is very little liquid left. Break up some stale-ish bread and stir it into the ribollita just before serving. Ladle the soup into bowls – it should be too thick to pour easily – then add a good drizzle of olive oil and serve.

ribollita ready

And it’s yummy. Especially on a day like today when the mist is down, the drizzle is persistent and yesterday’s promise of spring was a cruel joke from the weather gods.

Cooking the books

I admit it, I have an addiction problem. Cookery books.

booksI like to excuse my terrible tendency to amass great heaps of recipe books (let’s not get onto the ones about the history of food, health aspects of food, ethnography of food, politics of food, even archaeology of food) as being work, so it’s OK. Honest.

As a writer and editor I’ve often worked on food books, whether as the writer, the editor, the copyed, the recipe writer or even the recipe sense-maker. The latter is a special category, incorporating all those who work with Big Cheese Chefs, attempting to make their recipes both affordable (‘Do you have to use a cut of meat that costs £150 and fifteen truffles?’) and workable in a domestic kitchen (‘Most ordinary kitchens do not have blast chillers and three ovens,’ or ‘Can we reduce the serving size from fifty?’). It also comes in useful when dietitians are involved – ‘I think most people might have difficulty measuring 73.8g of flour…’

Living where I do in deepest Snowdonia, there are some things I cannot get exactly when I want them, and one of them is a good Chinese meal. There are some good restaurants, but there isn’t anything really worthwhile under an hour’s drive away and in the present weather – hurricane, anyone? – that’s not really an option. Anyway it hardly qualifies as an impulse if you have to make sure the car’s filled up and then drive halfway over the mountains to get there. My collection of books on Chinese cooking are a little tired, so I ordered everything recent which the library had in stock and settled down for a little experimentation. They’re a mixed bag, and I’m not going to name names because I honestly cannot recommend any of the ones I tried.

What I can do, however, is have a chunter in more general terms. Because so much of my work as a freelance involves working with food books, I am an exceptionally fussy customer. Or am I?

garlicFor example, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect that a photograph which supposedly illustrates a recipe should actually illustrate  the recipe and not include things which aren’t in the ingredients – such as the chillies and carrots in one I tried, for instance. I know why the stylist put them in, though.

I’ve worked with stylists but it’s not that which gives me the understanding, it’s the fact that the dish, when prepared as given, was beige. Beige with a hintette of green, but essentially beige. Lumpy and beige. Very beige. What a strange word that is when you type it repeatedly, and what a bland and boring dish it would have been to photograph. Quick, sling some chillies on top; nope, that’s not enough – shove some carrots in…

I do tend to feel that if you want to use a photo but can’t illustrate the recipe for whatever reason – seasonality perhaps – then you should use a generic pic. Like the garlic above which has nothing to do, directly, with the text around it. Or you could leave it unillustrated, but that’s not always an option.

My next grumble, one which almost everyone will have experienced at some time but which seems to be becoming more and more common and was certainly present in my Chinese books, is the editing. Not even the editing, really – more the proofreading: ingredients in the method which aren’t in the ingredients list; ingredients in the list which aren’t in the method. Many’s the time I’ve been left standing in the middle of the kitchen shouting at a book (like it could answer) ‘All right, what the **** do I do with all this spinach?’ or ‘What tomatoes?’

I know why this happens. In simple terms, it’s the money.

Editors are not particularly well paid, and proofreaders are paid even less (contrary to the small ads for proofreading courses in the back pages of the Guardian), but even so it’s seen by some publishers – not all, I stress – as an area where economies can be made. And food editors / proofreaders do have certain skills which more general ones do not. Some are a bit specialist (will the recipe, as written, actually work – ‘Yes, I know it’s allegedly tested, but if I add X and then do Y it will curdle, so I doubt it’), and some are not. I once had a chat, for example, with a starting-out proofreader who had been asked to proof a recipe book – very cheaply – and who didn’t realise that the order of the ingredients in the list should always match the order in which they appear in the method.

Then there’s the fact that editing and proofing plain text is much more straightforward – hah, generally, ironic laugh – than working on recipes. Publishers often ask for a ‘normal’ book to be copy-edited at, say, ten pages an hour. With recipes, that comes right down – three recipes, depending on length and complexity, is an average per hour. (Particularly when you have to keep going back to the author with truffle-elimination and serving-size-reduction queries.)

Sometimes – and I’ve worked on both sides of the counter, as it were, so I know what goes on – a stage is eliminated: a copy-editor will be used as a proofreader or vice versa, or someone in-house will do both. The former is just about acceptable, though it depends on the extent of the copy-editing: you can’t spot mistakes or logical leaps in your own work as easily as someone who is new to it, so a proofreader is vital if a copy-editor has had to do a lot of rewriting. But a proofreader is not automatically a substitute for a copy-editor, who is generally expected to take a more wide-ranging view and occasionally rewrite huge chunks. Copy editors turn sow’s ears into silk purses; proofreaders make sure the stitching on the purse is right. They’re different skills. Or they are sometimes.

But it does have to be said that some books (and some publishers) are much more reliable than others, and that it’s always been an issue to some extent. One of my favourite titles, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery from 1987, is covered in graffiti – things like ‘half qty fine’ and ‘WHERE DOES THE AUBERGINE GO??????’. When M&S published books under their own name, they were meticulous – everything not only got checked and double-checked by the publisher producing the book for them, but was checked again by their own proofreaders, and then went out for testing by their staff (don’t get me going on recipe testing; I’ll save that rant for later). So an old M&S recipe book might be boring – though that’s by no means a given; their French Country Cooking, for instance, is fab – but boy would those recipes work.

And the photos matched.

Now I must go and see if adding chillies to by beige mountain will help at all. I suspect not, but maybe that stylist was onto something…