And a shower of basil leaves
And a shower of basil leaves
I ENJOY COOKING. Although I like to improvise on a recipe, I enjoy looking at cookbooks. In addition to learning about food and eating traditions, they are a good place to look when embarking on food preparation. Today, one needs only access the Internet to discover an ocean of recipes, often describing numerous slightly differing ways of making the same dish. These recipes are posted by everyone from totally inexperienced cooks to highly acclaimed professional chefs. Although these on-line recipes might possibly eventually replace printed cookbooks, I will continue to value the printed volumes, cookbooks filled with recipes written by experienced and knowledgeable cooks. Here are ten such books that appeal to me.
AN INVITATION TO INDIAN COOKING by the actress Madhur Jaffrey (first publ. 1973), which I bought in 1982, guided me through my first forays into cooking dishes that originated in the Indian subcontinent. My copy falls open at the recipe for ‘lamb do pyaza’ The recipes are easy to follow and the results have an authentic flavour that impresses people for whom this kind of food is not exotic. Now, I have less need for this book because I am married to a good cook, who was born and brought up in India. She guides me through my curry creations and prepares the vegetarian dishes characteristic of her western Indian (Kutchi and Gujarati) heritage. However, if you are not as fortunate as me in this respect, I can heartily recommend this book.
MIDDLE EASTERN EASTERN COOKERY by the Armenian Arto der Haroutunian (first publ. 1982) was recommended to me by my friend, the author, art historian and first-class cook, the late Michael Jacobs. From this book, I learned a good way to cook fluffy steamed rice. A bookmark on page 252 takes me to an Iranian recipe, ‘Morgh Shekumpour’, chicken stuffed with dried fruit, which I used to prepare for guests in my bachelor days. Nowadays, my wife reaches for Arto when she cooks ‘Imam Bayildi’ and ‘Moussaka’. For some years, this book was hard to obtain, but there is now a new imprint that was produced in 2008 and is available on Amazon.
KEN HOM’S CHINESE COOKERY (first publ. 1984) was presented to me as a birthday present by Don and Eunice McMillan when I was a dentist in the Medway Towns in Kent. They knew I enjoyed cooking. Their gift could not have been better chosen because this cookbook is one of the best I have ever used. In my copy, there is a bookmark on the page that has a recipe for stir-fried minced pork, and the page with the recipe for beef in oyster sauce is stained with liquids splashed whilst preparing this dish. If you follow Ken Hom’s clear instructions closely, you cannot fail to produce Chinese dishes that almost (but not quite) rival those obtainable in many Chinese restaurants. So, if you are stuck at home as we have been during the pandemic lockdown, this book will help satisfy your cravings for Chinese food in its rich variety.
REAL GOOD FOOD by Nigel Slater (first publ. 1993) was recommended by our close friends Brian and Catherine Wilson, two enthusiastic cooks, both now no longer living. Beautifully illustrated with photographs of etchings and engravings of food ingredients, Slater provides easy to follow recipes with interesting commentaries. We reach for this book whenever we want to cook ‘Coq au Vin’. Covering many tastes, Slater includes two practical recipes for making curries.
THE FOOD OF ITALY by Claudia Roden (first publ. 1989) was presented to us by my sister when she was the chef at a successful Italian restaurant, which she and her husband owned in a village in the Emilia-Romagna province of Italy. Ms Roden is the author of many cookbooks, all of which are well-written and filled with practical easy to follow recipes. Her Italian cookbook is no exception. Our copy falls open at one page with pasta recipes from Campania, such as ‘Spaghetti alla ‘putanesca’’ and, also, at another page with a recipe for ‘finocchi gratinate’ from Emilia-Romagna.
Our copy of FRENCH PROVINCIAL COOKING by Elizabeth David (first publ. 1960) has yellowing pages and is well-thumbed. No serious cookery bookshelf should be without this evergreen classic of food writing. This is the key to the doorway of French cooking. In addition to the moderately easy to follow recipes, Ms David provides a wealth of interesting background information about the cuisine of France. Our copy has a bookmark for the recipe of ‘noisettes de ‘porc aux pruneaux’ and another for ‘champignons à la Greque’. If you wish to prepare one of my favourite French delights, onion soup, you need to look up ‘tourin bordelais’ in the index, and please observe that this ‘guru’ of French cookery states that the soup “…requires no stock.”: restauranteurs, please take note!
THE CUISINE OF HUNGARY by George Lang (first published 1971) was also recommended to me by Michael Jacobs (see above). It is a treasure amongst our huge collection of cookbooks from all over the world. I love Hungarian food and my copy of this book is now falling to pieces. The book contains not only ‘user-friendly’ recipes but also an interesting scholarly history of Hungarian food and cooking. The chapter on “Traditional Stews” is well-used in my copy. Some of its pages are becoming detached from the book. If you study this chapter you will be able to prepare superb stews and, more importantly, to distinguish a gulyás from a pörkölt, a paprikás, and a tokány. You will never again make the mistake of adding soured cream to your pörkölt or flour to your gulyás. Each recipe is well explained and easy to execute and is often followed by suitable variations.
We have only visited the much-vaunted River Café once and were disappointed enough not to want to give it a second try. However, the RIVER CAFÉ COOK BOOK by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (first publ. 1995) is superb. It contains delicious recipes with clear instructions and mouth-watering photographs. The recipes for ‘spaghetti al Limone’ and ‘radicchio alla griglia’ are two of many good reasons to possess a copy of this book.
THE ART OF ASIAN COOKING (RECIPES FROM THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON) compiled by Janet Sears (first publ. 1990) contains practical recipes supplied by a long list of contributors. Our favourites from this book include ‘Bang-Bang Chicken’ and ‘Roast Leg of Lamb’. The latter is a good recipe for a dish known in India as ‘raan’ of lamb.
All the cookbooks described so far enable most people to cook exciting dishes without too much trouble or difficulty. My tenth book is not for the faint-hearted or even a reasonably experienced cook. Some of the recipes in the misleadingly named SIMPLE FRENCH FOOD, an erudite book by Richard Olney (first publ. 1974) are occasionally challenging. His recipe for hard-boiling eggs is half a page in length, for onion soup it is two pages, and ‘poule au pot’ four pages of fine print. But, this is nothing compared to Olney’s recipe for ‘bouillabaisse’ in his “A Provencal Table” (first publ. in 1995) that covers just over nine pages of print and has over thirty-three ingredients. But before you set out for the fishmonger, remember:
“Part of the bouillabaisse mystique resides in the persistent claim that no bouillabaisse is possible away from the Mediterranean coast …”
These ten books are but a mere drop in what is a vast sea of published cookbooks. They are vastly outnumbered by other cookbooks on our shelves: those that we have acquired over the years, but hardly ever look at. The ten books I have chosen are not necessarily to everybody’s taste, but they have satisfied us over the years. I would love to learn of other books that readers have found to be useful in their kitchens.
Before ending this piece, I must mention the excellent recipe books by Josceline Dimbleby, published and sold by the Sainsbury food retailing company in the 1980s. Sadly, I have lost the few volumes of this series that I once owned. Lastly, here are a few other books of recipes that we consult when cooking:
“Traditional Cooking” by Caroline Conran
“Il Talismano dela felicita” by Ada Boni
“The Silver Palate Cookbook” by Rosso & Luckins
“Italian Cookery” by Elizabeth David
“The Classic Italian Cookbook” by Marcella Hazan
“A Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden
“Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer
IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.
My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.
In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.
We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.
After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.
Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago.
Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.
Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho. Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.
One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.
My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!
Hyderabad is justifiably renowned for tasty biryani although the very best version of this rice based dish that I have ever eaten was at Paragon in Calicut. There, they serve Moplah biryanis, which are both Arabic and Indian in taste.
The biryani we ate at the Café Bahar in Hyderabad was delicious. It was delicately flavoured and cooked with a light touch. To enter Bahar at lunchtime it is necessary to join a long queue that extends from the top of tje stairs at the doorway to the first floor dining room down on to the busy street outside. It is worth the wait.
The restaurant itself is very noisy and as busy as London’s Oxford Circus at rush hour. We shared a table with a charming couple, who let us try their ‘double masala’ chicken biryani which is richly laden with extra spices. I preferred the less spicy ‘special lamb biryani’. It is made special by adding hard boiled egg and meatballs made with minced chicken.
One should not visit Hyderabad without eating at least one biryani, but avoid the much advertised Paradise restaurant chain, which is ok but nothing like as good as Bahar or Shadab (near the Charminar)
My late mother (see picture above, taken in the 1960s) was averse to weighing machines.
When she visited the doctor and had to be weighed, she did not want to be told or in any other way infrormed of her weight.
Her dislike of weighing machines extended into the kitchen. There were no kitchen scales in our home. A good cook, she managed without them. However, she did use a conical measuring device made by the Tala company. This contains printed markings that allow the user to dispence known amounts of powdered ingredients such as, for example, flour, rice, and sugar.
Years after my mother died, I married a lady from India. She told me that in the olden days, professional cooks of Indian origin often measured out cooking ingredients by feel rather than using a weighing device. For example if a cake required an equal weight of egg and flour, the cook would hold the egg in one hand and estimate its weight by feel and then measure the required amount of flour, also assessing its weight be feel alone. I do not know whether my mother possessed this skill, but regardless of that she was widely recognised to have been a competent cook.
I had always wanted to visit Gulbarga (now ‘Kalaburgi’) in northern Karnataka (India), not far from Hyderabad, because of the richness of its medieval Islamic architectural heritage.
When my friend in Bangalore, Mansour, a great gastronome and connoisseur of fine foods, knew we were in Gulbarga, he said:
“If you’re there, you must try tahari“
Well, we had no idea what this dish comprised, but if Mansour reccomended it, it must be worth trying. A search on Google revealed that the Limra Tahari was highly rated. We rang to make a reservation and were told that was unnecessary. Also, we learnt that the place only took cash payments.
One evening, we hired an autorickshaw to take us to Limra. However, the driver had no idea how to find it, and eventually dropped us near a different restaurant, saying;
“This is a restaurant. You can eat here. “
It was a totally unsatisfactory eatery.
Next evening, we were fortunate. A rickshaw driver knew where to find the Limra. When we arrived, he told us that he would wait for us as we would not be long and, also, it was difficult to find autorickshaws in the area in the evening. We wondered why, but soon found out.
The front of the restaurant was unprepossessing, to put it mildly. The place was separated from the street by a pair of ageing red curtains, rather like that found at a theatre stage. The steps leading up to it from the street were littered with old newspaper and other rubbish. I looked at my wife questioningly. She seemed happy to enter, so we parted the curtains and stepped inside. The interior was spotlessly clean.
To the left of the entrance, an old man sat behind a small cash desk. To the right, there were a couple of men preparing food in huge metal post heated by smouldering charcoals. Limra’s dining area was simple. There were several long narrow rectangular metal tables, which were probably screwed to the floor. All of the diners were men, except my wife.
Before we had time to ask for a menu or what was on offer, a boy slid two metal plates across our table towards us. Each plate was laden with tahari. He added a third plate that contained an unappetising looking greasy sauce. We ordered a couple of bottles of mineral water and began our exploration of tahari.
The tahari consisted of spicy yellow rice which contained a few lumps of well-cooked tender meat. The sauce turned out to be delicious and not at all greasy. The tahari was very tasty and delicately spiced – a real treat. Tahari is, I later discovered, an Awadhi dish from the region of India where Lucknow is located. It is typical of a certain style of Mughal cooking. It is, as we saw when we entered Limra, slow-cooked.
When we finished our tahari, we noticed the menu on the wall behind us. It consisted of two items: tahari: full plate, and tahari: half plate. No wonder, we were served our food immediately. There was nothing to choose from here! Our bill for two full plates and two bottles of water came to only 80 Indian Rupees (about £0.90 sterling). It took us no more than 10 minutes to finish our scrumptious meal. We understood why our driver decided to wait for us, and we understood why the restaurant did not accept anything but cash as payment. So, if you are ever in Gulbarga, you must try tahari!
Enjoyable and healthy,
Grill’d veg, of course
Everyone, who eats them, can reccommend a place that serves the very best beef burgers. Naturally, most people have their own favourites. So, it would seem that there are many places that serve the ‘very best burgers’. I havetried a few of these highly reccommended places and have with one exception (Gourmet Burger Kitchen – a chain that originated in New Zealand) been disappointed. Most ‘very best burgers’ turn out to be ok (usually) but an anti-climax (mostly).
Now, I am going to seem very conceited. That is because I believe that I make the ‘very best burgers’ myself in our home, and so should you. My recipe is dead simple. I take minced beef with a lowish fat content (10% or less), add a pinch of salt and a small spoon of oil (sunflower or olive) and, after washing my hands, mush the three ingredients together before hand shaping patties of the sizes preferred by those who will eat them. Then, I cook them on a griddle. That’s all. No egg or breadcrumbs are added. Try this for yourself and you will no longer be wasting your money on overpriced, mediochre burgers.
A patty of minced beef
Mould-ed by hand
Enjoy burger perfection
Just in case you have not got one in your kitchen, here is an implement that is extensively used in Indian kitchens and tea stalls.
The sandasi (pronounced roughly like ‘sun-er-see’ said fast), which is is also known as a pakad (from the verb ‘to hold’ in Hindustani) or a chimta (from the verb ‘to pinch’ in Hindustani), is essentially a pair of sturdy hinged metal (stainless steel) tongs. The handles of the implement are several times as long as the gripping elements. This means that quite heavy things may be lifted with the beaks of the tongs without any risk of them slipping out of their grip.
The sandasi’s long handles also mean that the user’s hands can be kept at a safe distance from the hot cooking vessels that are lifted with this pair of tongs. For example, the tea maker can lift and manipulate with ease the huge pots containing several litres of a bubbling, boiling mixture of milk, tea, and spices.
I find the sandasi very useful for gripping the edges of large casseroles when I am stirring hot food like stews or curries.
Cooking tongs are, of course, available in countries other than India, but the sturdy construction and long handles of the sandasis have much to reccommend them.
When I was a child, I spent a great deal of time with my aunt and her children. They lived a few minute’s walk from our family home and I enjoyed spending time with them. Often, my sister and I used to spend a whole day at my aunt’s house, sometimes over night especially when my parents were away on a trip.
My aunt fed us. Sometimes she made us fried eggs. Then, I was a very fussy eater. In those far-off days, I only liked the white part of the fried egg, not the central yellow bit. One of my cousins only liked the central yellow part, but disliked the white surrounding it. My aunt was an extremely down-to-earth individual, laden with more than a fair share of common sense. Her solution to the fried egg situation was that after making the fried egg, she used to carefully dissect the yoke portion of the finished product and serve it to my cousin. I was given the white portion of the egg with a neat hole in it where the yellow had been.
Today, many decades later, I am not keen on any part of a fried egg and do not eat eggs prepared in this way. I much prefer omelettes and hard-boiled eggs. However, I do enjoy making them for other people, The challenge is to avoid breaking the yoke.