The route of the London Overground, from Hoxton through Kentish Town and Shepherd’s Bush, down to Clapham and Peckham, roughly describes what might be termed the Ottolenghi Corridor, a stretch along which live the men and women of my generation: youngish, educated, working in professions – publishing, the civil service, teaching, search-engine optimisation – in which relative incomes are in rapid decline. The canny ones own flats bought with their parents’ help before the housing market barrelled out of control, the rest rent precariously to see out as many days as possible in Zone 2 before being compelled, by brute economic facts, to migrate into the beyond. Find yourself invited to a dinner party in this edgeland and the chances are that you will be served Yotam Ottolenghi’s Middle Eastern-inspired fare. Ottolenghi’s popularity has some obvious causes: two of his four cookbooks, Plenty and the recent Plenty More bring vegetables centre stage, appealing to calorie-counting, saturated-fat-monitoring, bike-to-work obsessives. He has a brilliant eye for colours, which are often enhanced by a certain raggedness of presentation, meaning recipes can literally be thrown together and exotic ingredients – sumac, pul biber, kadaifi pastry – are combined in a few simple steps. But there is, I think, a more interesting psychological explanation for his success. Ottolenghi is an Israeli of Italian origin, his business partner, Sami Tamimi, is Palestinian and they opened their first deli in 2002, the year after post-Cold War complacency had exploded with the Twin Towers. Ever since then, conflagrations in the Middle East have sent our geopolitics wildly reeling; it’s not hard to see how the harmonisation of flavours by two men from either side of the civilisational clash might offer, in the political imaginary, a fantasy of global peace.
My own attempts to heal the world had mixed results. A cauliflower cake is a neat idea, saving the faff of making a béchamel when tired on a Sunday night, though the punch of the Parmesan only really emerged when I ate it cold the following day. The tomato and roasted lemon salad was an act of terrorism: the pomegranate molasses – not so much an Ottolenghi signature these days as a cliche – were cloyingly sweet and the lemons, despite being blanched and roasted for the requisite length of time, inedibly acrid.
You could say that editors are a) lazy or b) always alert for new talent, but if you plot the locations of restaurants that have spawned cookbooks on a map and overlay the locations of their publishers, coincidences emerge. Honey & Co, set up by Ottolenghi escapees in Warren Street, now has its own cookbook, Honey & Co, its publisher lying an olive-pit throw away on the other side of Euston Road. Fancy that? In this case, the neighbours’ interest is entirely justified. The high points are the sticky, slow-cooked cuts of meat sweetened with surprisingly robust Levantine ingredients: rose petals, say, or quince. The saffron and lemon syrup cake I baked was moist but not heavy, the thrice-boiled lemon slices that bronzed the top devoid of any bitterness. My only complaint is about cooking times. I don’t know what fire-breathing chimeras stoke Honey & Co’s ovens but there was no way half an hour on 160°C was ever going to set my cake mix.
Another restaurant offering comes from Morito by Sam and Sam Clark. Both this and Honey & Co show how far we’ve travelled from the era when alpha-male, obscenity-spewing kitchen tyrants like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay ruled the stove. These days, chefs bend over backwards to present themselves as the genial parents of an extended family encompassing sous chefs, bus boys, maitre d’s and customers, all of whom are encouraged to offer recipe suggestions and refinements and are acknowledged in matey first-name terms (‘Noelia helped us with our food stall’, etc). Morito is bulked up by an enormous number of photos that show people, who seem interchangeably to be patrons and employees, snapping open empanadas, sticking out tongues stained black with cuttlefish, posing with crayfish on their shoulders, laughing, smoking and playing the guitar, as well as sporting an attractive selection of stripy T-shirts. Running a restaurant, the book screams, oughtn’t to be harder than having your friends round for lunch. I wanted to make the fried chickpeas rubbed in cinnamon, coriander and cumin that I had enjoyed at the restaurant, though the results were disastrous. As the chickpeas hit the hot oil, they spat themselves out of the pan like mortar rounds, splashing all surfaces with burning fat. So, in the interests of the continuing integrity of my girlfriend’s flat, I shut the operation down (the chopped salad that went with it was decent). Morito has lots of bolshy dishes comprising, invariably, three strong ingredients (‘Cuttlefish, Chickpeas and Chilli Oil’ or ‘Harissa Chicken, Olives and Preserved Lemons’). The Clarks evidently wish buyers to re-create every single dish on their menu, though I question the necessity of including ‘Quail’s Eggs, Cumin and Salt’ (ingredients: quail’s eggs, cumin and salt) or ‘Green Plums’ (ingredients: er, green plums).
Jamie Oliver and comfort food ought to go together like bangers and mash or shepherds and pies. Jamie’s Comfort Food is a mouth-watering prospect, the photographs, all succulent, oozing, crisp and dense, making this the most enticing of the books under review. Oliver avoids the easy trap of reheating British classics with the relentlessly international scope of the collection: Brazilian feijoada (a pork and bean stew) rubs up against Katsu curry from Japan and gado-gado (a crunchy salad) from Indonesia. Comfort food generally needs slow cooking and these recipes require patience between conception and consumption (his bouillabaisse takes two days). Perhaps the comfort comes from the anticipation or the mounting aromas as dishes enrich and reduce, but Oliver’s admirable insistence on making everything from scratch – including, in the case of kielbasa, smoking your own sausages in a repurposed metal dustbin – left me wondering whether these meals weren’t so much to provide solace for your troubles as to distract you from them entirely.
The Recipe Wheel by Rosie Ramsden is a nifty conceit that seems inspired by the bestselling Flavour Thesaurus. Ramsden takes one core recipe – vegetable soup, potato gratin or roast chicken, for example – and provides twists depending on whether you’re looking to impress, feed friends or knock up something quickly on a night in. While some of the categorisation is unclear – why exactly is chicken, ham and leek pie filed under ‘Get Creative’? – this book is full of good suggestions for weekday suppers. It is evidently aimed at ingénue home cooks, but in her desire to cram in alternative options to some of her recipes, Ramsden skimps on explanation. Anyone who needs to be told, as we’re informed in the foreword, that ‘salt greatly enhances flavour’ is going to be flummoxed by the bald instruction ‘make a roux’.
Historic Heston by Heston Blumenthal charts the chef’s search for inspiration in the deep history of British cooking. The recipe for Ryse of Flessh in The Forme of Cury, the oldest English cookbook, is refreshingly terse: ‘Take ryse and waisshe hem clene, and do hem in an erthen pot with gode broth and lat hem seeth wel. Aftirward take almaund mylke and do thereto, and colour it with safroun & salt, & messe forth.’ Blumenthal’s version requires two densely typed pages of instructions to produce an admittedly magnificent-looking risotto alla Milanese, upon which sit towers of calf tails poached at 82°C for eight hours in a sous-vide. There is a steam-punk splendour to his creations, but reading the book I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t something sacrilegious about employing the water bath on dishes that were supposed to be cooked by rougher and readier means.
Readers in search of authentic antique dishes need look no further than Cooking People: The Writers Who Taught the English How to Eat by Sophia Waugh, which anthologises the work of five female food writers, from Hannah Woolley in the 17th century to Elizabeth David in the 20th. It may have been published last year but the recipes are evergreen.