Cookbook bibles to dine for

With its superior production values, Phaidon ­continues to deliver what must be the best cookbooks in the world. Five months into the year, two books stand out: Ferran Adria’s r­evolutionary attempt to get us to think about how we cook, The Family Meal, and a new edition of the “bible” of Italian ­cooking, The Silver Spoon.

Less spectacular but probably more practical for those harried cooks serving up a family meal is the collection of Bill Granger recipes.

BEST OF BILL by Bill Granger (Murdoch Books, R349)

This is the “ultimate” collection of recipes by Sydney, Australia, chef Bill Granger and epitomises his simple, fresh and uncomplicated approach to food.

He seems strongest in the breakfast, afternoon tea and dessert sections, whereas many recipes in the lunch and dinner departments appear self-evident.

He says breakfast is his favourite meal of the day and it is one reason why his restaurants have been so popular. There is mushrooms on toast — but not just any old mushrooms: he adds parsley, tarragon, balsamic vinegar and lemon zest to the pan and serves them on sourdough bread with ricotta. His oat, pear and raspberry loaf means you will have to get up pretty early because it takes an hour in the oven, but it is moist and rich with a layer of the fruit in the middle. It is served hot with butter.

His lunches typically use the ­Italian and Asian ingredients that Australians have exploited so successfully, such as fried salmon, a cold noodle salad with a soy dressing, a warm tomato, ricotta and pasta salad, or a lemony risotto with prawns and chilli.

Granger is forthcoming in the often neglected opportunities offered up by afternoon tea and there are lots of scones, cakes and slices. He says they are meant to feel luxurious, and as leftovers they could probably be had the next morning. I liked the plum and vanilla cake and the easy-to-make peach and raspberry slice.

For supper there is baked butterflied lamb with a granular romesco sauce — a purée ofroasted red peppers, blanched almonds, vinegar and oil — served with what he unpleasantly terms a “virgin paella” with ­saffron.

I tried the Moroccan fish stew — chunks of snapper in a mild curry sauce — and in hindsight believe it could be improved with the addition of paprika.

These are some of the recipes that were served to staff, or family, at the famous El Bulli restaurant in Spain before it closed in July last year. There is none, or not much, of the foams and spherification to which paying customers were subjected. Staff got a square, three-course meal, which was probably a good thing because they were not being paid.

The menus also reflect the multicultural make-up of the staff: there is duck with chimichurri sauce, ­vichyssoise, glazed teriyaki pork belly and farfalle with pesto, but the dominant cuisine remains Spanish.

If you buy only one cookbook this year, this has to be it. It is set out in a unique style — an ingredient and “ahead-of-time” schedule — and an illustrated, step-by-step guide that demystifies complicated preparations. There is also a handy table that scales the dishes for two, six, 20 and 75 diners.

The kitchen at El Bulli was run like a military operation. With dozens of courses — and several hours of eating — even the smallest delay could snowball and delay diners. The preparation for the staff meal was no different. The kitchen surfaces were cleaned and cleared, tablecloths were laid, chairs set out and everyone — Adria included — sat down to eat. Every staff member was served a coffee and then everything was packed away and it was back to work ahead of the evening service.

I found two preparations very helpful: picada, a purée of toasted hazelnuts, parsley and garlic, which is added to a sofrito, a long-simmered purée of onions, garlic, thyme, rosemary and tomato. To this base add fish stock, tinned lentils and chunks of salmon.

The first course of this meal is roasted vegetables — aubergines, red peppers and onions — with a vinaigrette made from the juices released during cooking. ­Dessert is a white chocolate cream with toasted pistachios.

As Adria says in the foreword, this is more a book about a way of thinking, of organising your kitchen and processes, than it is about a way of cooking.
“We truly believe ,” he writes, “that if you don’t eat well, it’s because you haven’t tried.”
THE SILVER SPOON (Phaidon, R494)

This is the second edition Phaidon has published of the long-running bestseller from Italy.

It is an almost overwhelmingly giant tome of 2 000 recipes and is certainly a book to sit alongside anything by famous Italian cook ­Marcella Hazan, as well as those from the River Café.

Aside from the recipes — many from its predecessor of 1959, Il nuovo cucchiaio d’argento (The New Silver Spoon)  — this edition includes new photographs and an updated selection of menus from some of the world’s best Italian chefs, such as Benjamin Hirst.

If you ever happen to find yourself at his restaurant in Rome, Necci dal 1924, you have to ask for the tonnarelli with red mullet, lentils and potatoes, or you could try to make the complicated recipe at home. It is well worth it.

He boils the prized Casteluccio lentils in vegetable stock and, while they are cooking, finely dices potatoes into pieces slightly bigger than the lentils and then covers them with water. Salt is added to a non-stick pan and when it is very hot the fish fillets are seared skin-side down. Add sliced garlic and olive oil to the pan, then sieve out the garlic and add the potatoes. Cook them on high heat for two minutes and then add some red chilli and half a glass of white wine. After the liquid has boiled off, add three tablespoons of lentils and half a glass of fish stock. Boil the pasta in another pot and then drain and add to the potatoes. Add two peeled and deseeded tomatoes, the fish, more olive oil and chopped parsley.

To eat your way through a proper Italian meal — an antipasto, a hot or cold appetiser, followed by a primo (first course) then a secondo of meat or fish, or both, and then dolce, or dessert — is a wonderful (and belt-­loosening) experience and usually takes the whole afternoon or most of the evening. Then there is still coffee and grappa.

This edition has a new introduction by food historian Alberto ­Capatti, who says a further consideration when planning a menu is the contomi, or other dishes, that complement the main courses.

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