How do you cook? I am an instinctive cook, rather than a precise one. I’m all about opening the fridge, grabbing some leftovers, throwing it together and seeing how it turns out. This creative, slapdash approach makes me a dreadful baker, but an overall good cook. I love food, I love flavour, I love colour and I love variety. I cook what I love, and once I’ve learnt to cook something I cook it again and again, often making adjustments here and there.
Truth to be told, I think I was probably born in the wrong country – I’m much happier tramping around the culinary traditions of Europe and North Africa, from the Med to Morocco, than I am cooking English food, which I mostly find pretty boring. The things I like to cook are one-pot dishes, warm flavours, dips, pastas, rices, tomato in everything, salty, meaty, heavy on the herbs, generous with the spices, eat it with your hands, share it with everyone – this is my food heaven.
Cooking for people, for me, is a great act of love and community. I do it a lot and it always makes me happy. I cook to relax, to think, to soothe, to keep busy, to provide, to feel creative, to be happy, to distract me, to focus me. Cooking has saved me from so many lonely weekends, frustrated days, sad mornings. When I’m working and I hit a creative wall I often stop, cook something, and then go back to my work, the blockage cleared. Cooking allows me to improvise, work quickly, to change direction, to be creative, and to offer up something of my very own as a gesture of provision and love.
So, I love cooking, but I don’t usually love following a recipe. Recipes make me feel constrained and stressed, under pressure, limited. Recipes require me to do things in the right order, not to rush ahead, not to improvise. As my mother will tell you, that is just So. Not. Me. So, the recipe books that I do have and that I do use, have to be pretty special.
Below is a list of the recipe books I think everyone should own, even people who aren’t sure about cooking, or who love to follow recipes, people who are great cooks or who are terrible cooks, people who know nothing about food, and people who know lots. These books have fed my love of cooking with ideas and creativity, with patience and ease. They work, their recipes work, their food is delicious, they are brilliant for leftovers, they keep it simple, but they keep it interesting too.
Five Cookbooks Everyone Should Own
1. Cooking on a Bootstrap, Jack Monroe – Jack Monroe is probably my favourite person on Instagram – check her out. She’s also a bloody brilliant cook and has done an inordinate amount for bringing affordable food to some of the poorest people. Her approach to low cost, easy to prepare meals has been quite revolutionary for many, and definitely so for me. I love that she’s not pretentious about ingredients – it’s just ‘mushrooms’, she doesn’t care which ones you have; if a recipe calls for beans, but don’t you have them, she just suggests you wash the sauce off baked beans and they’ll do nicely. Her recipes work, they really work, they’re easy to follow, they don’t have many ingredients and I always have every single thing I need for her recipes in my cupboard or fridge. She writes beautifully, and the personal reasons behind many of her dishes will just make you love them – and her – more.
2. Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi – This man is quite simply the god of herbs and spices. He uses them with a light touch and creative twist and he shows you how the addition of certain details can really elevate a dish. This is a beautiful and inspirational book, and while it might seem daunting, I actually find a lot of his recipes really approachable and easy to cook – but they taste like they’re really difficult and inventive, ergo perfect for dinner parties. He knows fresh, seasonal flavour so well, and the warmth, rich, freshness of his dishes manages to feel both healthy and decadent. His dishes err on the vegetarian, but he eats meat and cooks it really well. I’m never disappointed when I cook something of his.
3. Three Good Things, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall – I love HFW. He is a champion for seasonal produce and reducing our wastage, and his approach to paring back our dishes and using up what’s in our fridges is really clever. Three Good Things is such a brilliant concept, dishes that only have three main ingredients, but are three things that really work together – making them quick and easy to cook, simple and delicious. I can always find something to cook in here, and it never, ever costs much money. Hugh’s ham hock, squash and marmalade dish is one of our family favourites and his chocolate shards are simple but impressive.
4. Love Your Leftovers, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall – Yes, yes, I know he’s on the list twice. But, both of these books I use all the time. Love Your Leftovers is almost more of a reference book than anything else, and the index is what really makes this book. Anything I have, literally anything, Hugh has a solution for using it up. He has recipes for using up mackerel, mangoes, mascarpone and even milk, he sets aside several pages for Christmas leftovers, and also has a chart for FOL (Frequently Occurring Leftovers) and what he calls Launchpads for Leftovers – curries, frittatas, trifles and tarts, pasta and patties, hashes and noodles, as well as a great kickstarter list of essentials to help you out when it’s 5pm on Sunday and you’re staring at the tired end of a bit of lamb, and some limp broccoli.
5. The Complete Cookery Guide, Delia Smith – I know I said I didn’t really love English food, and mostly I don’t. But if you are gonna cook a cottage pie then Delia has the recipe you need. She also has the recipe for everything you might ever want to know about cooking – from a white sauce to a chicken liver pate, a Victoria sponge to a blackberry crumble, a casserole to a creme brulee. She is simple, practical and just a little bit bossy – her tone reminds me a bit of my mother, in a reassuring way, and also many of my school teachers – but she just knows her stuff. My copy of her book is well-thumbed, spine-cracked, pages falling out, but I wouldn’t be without it.
Honourable Mention: The Plant-Based Cookbook, Deliciously Ella – I have vacillated about including this, because, it’s all a bit zeitgeisty, but I met her recently and despite my massive initial reservations, she totally won me over and convinced me that we all need to be thinking differently about the way we eat. I don’t mean vegan, I just mean not starting with a central meat ingredient and working outwards from there, but simply, basing our dishes on vegetables or pulses, and working from there instead. And I’ve surprised myself by how many things I’ve already cooked from her book – her dips are especially good. I think it’s her most approachable cookery book yet.