Cooking the books for Christmas
From quick meals to fancy dinners, John Spain samples the market
The biggest selling category of books in the run-up to Christmas this year (like every year) will not be Booker-winning novels or chicklit romances or hair-raising thrillers; instead, once again, it will be cookbooks that will dominate the sales charts. And yet again this year, it's Jamie Oliver who has the winning recipe.
Two weeks ago sales of his latest book, Jamie's 30-Minute Meals (Michael Joseph, £26), pushed his total sales to date beyond the £100m mark. He became only the second author (in any category) to pass £100m in sales in the combined British and Irish markets since the Nielsen BookScan records for book sales began in 1998. The only one to sell more books in Britain and Ireland is (no prizes for guessing!) Harry Potter author JK Rowling.
Cookbooks sell in staggering quantities and most of them are sold at this time of year for Christmas presents. Jamie is way out in front of the other TV cooks (next is still Delia Smith with total sales of £63m) and by Christmas his latest will have added a few more millions to his total.
So how good is it? Well for a stay-at-home dad for whom The Ministry of Food, Jamie's cookbook for eejits, has been the bible up to now, it's very good indeed. Simple, practical, and bursting with good ideas, it's guaranteed to win surprised plaudits, even from picky teenagers.
The 30-Minute Meals title is a bit of a misnomer unless you're a whizz around the kitchen. But that's not the point, unless you want to be pedantic. Yes, most of the hot dinners take a bit longer than that if you add in getting-ready time and preparation. And there are some which probably take longer than that to cook, unless your multi-tasking is perfect.
For example, the main course in one 30-minute meal in the book is roast beef with baby yorkshire puddings, carrots, crispy potatoes and gravy. Trying to do anything as complicated as that (including Yorkshire puds from scratch!) in such a short space of time sounds like a recipe for a nervous breakdown rather than the perfect meal. And how do you cook the beef so fast?
Well, you cheat, because it's really pan-fried beef rather than roast beef (using a fillet of beef cut down the middle so you can do the halves separately). The way you do it makes it taste like a roast, even if it's not. You do use the oven, but that's just for the "Yorkies".
So the book doesn't quite live up to the title, but it certainly speeds everything up. What's important is the cheeky chappie's infectious enthusiasm and the inspiring way he cuts through what he calls "faffing about".
The message is all about being organised, working fast and using the shortcuts and insider tricks Jamie has picked up over the past decade. The aim is to enable you to put a complete meal on the table in 30 minutes, start to finish, with a starter and dessert if you want.
Even if it will take most ordinary humans a bit longer than he promises, the wholesome results make it worthwhile. There are 60 brand-new meal ideas in this book, although inevitably a lot of them are new versions of hearty old favourites. And Jamie usually adds that touch of extra flair that will impress sceptical family members no end. The perfect Christmas present for culinary-challenged dads, time-pressured mums and singletons trying to escape the ready meals syndrome.
Up to this week, Jamie's new book had sold over 10,000 copies in Ireland. The next two most popular cookbooks this Christmas are well behind that, on sales so far of just over 4,000 copies each. In second place is Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home by Nigella Lawson (Chatto, £26), her first book since Nigella's Christmas, which was published in 2008 and is now the reference at this time of year in millions of houses.
As the title implies, this is a back-to-basics guide which evokes the warm kitchen atmosphere we all remember from childhood. She says herself it's "a comfort chronicle, the opposite of a misery memoir".
The recipes are as seductive as she is and occasionally as over the top. But they are also genuinely mouth- watering, especially the slow-cook weekend dinners. She is brilliant with left-overs, particularly useful at this time of the year. And she even has a recipe for Guinness gingerbread.
In third place, just behind Nigella, is Entertaining at Home by Rachel Allen (Collins, £25). Usually best girl in the class Rachel would be vying for top spot at Christmas but her publishers seem to have misjudged the public mood with this one since we're all thinking economy meals rather than glitzy entertaining these days.
To be fair, it's about casual lunches and barbecues as well as dinner parties and she is as stylish as ever.
Recipes include Middle Eastern chilled cucumber soup, southeast Asian grilled fish, honey ginger pork, and beef and wild mushroom lasagne, with afters like blueberry and custard tart and Tiramisu.
Also lovely books for presents this Christmas would be:
Homemade by Clodagh McKenna (Cathie, e25), which uses produce from farmers' markets and small producers to offer some great ideas for meals from lunchboxes to Sunday roasts and healthy fast food. Recipes include fresh mint mojitos and homemade focaccia.
Good Mood Food by Donal Skeehan (Mercier, £17.50) in which Ireland's answer to Jamie Oliver comes up with a great selection of recipes for food that will improve your energy levels, make you healthier and help you sleep better.
Curry Easy by Madhur Jaffrey (Ebury, £20), which offers wonderful recipes for dishes like Bangladeshi white chicken korma -- she has done it all before but this time her approach is simpler, aimed at anyone who loves Indian food and wants to get more adventurous than the takeaway. It's not nearly as difficult as it seems -- if you're unsure, you can always start with the Indian scrambled eggs.