In Godless times, our cookbooks will save us
Our obsession with food is verging on religious fervour and cookbooks are the bibles that tell us how to live
In the Insta-Age, the meaning of 'you are what you eat' has expanded beyond mere health. Food choices are now an accessory, a statement of our characters. Everything from our morality (dirty versus clean), political leanings (the latte socialists), environmental concerns (no meat/fish/dairy/soy for me, thanks), even our sense of humour - the much-ridiculed vegans have it tough - can be judged from our plate.
Cynics could argue the genre has become flabby and self-indulgent. For prolific authors, how much more can be said on baking? Meanwhile, food bloggers get flack for not being 'proper' chefs or for trading on their Instagram-enhanced looks and conning mere mortals desperate to spiralise their way to 'wellness' (optional ingredients include fillers and Botox).
I should disclose that I've also contributed to this overpopulated milieu. My book Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown was shortlisted last year for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards but beaten by some twins from somewhere south of Dublin. I haven't touched their pesto since.
Cookbooks are like autobiographies, the dishes an assemblage of the author's life and tastes. I tend to absorb the overall mood of the thing, rather than faithfully reproducing the recipes, so being served these books to mull over and eat from was revisiting a pleasure I'd nearly forgotten.
This year's shortlist for EUROSPAR Cookbook of the Year has every flavour covered from the techniques-based, elementary principals of Rachel Allen's Home Baking and Niall Murphy's The Cookery School to Rory O'Connell's holistic verging on spiritual, Cook Well, Eat Well, with adventure, wellness and celebration catered for respectively by Lynda Booth, Roz Purcell and Neven Maguire.
Home Baking by Rachel Allen - Allen's 15th book works as a good baking primer. Chapters cover cakes, biscuits, breads, while a chapter on 'sweet bites' cleverly expands her remit: the salted caramel peanut bars, as Allen says, are "not strictly a bake" but my god it would have been a crime to leave them out.
There are excellent explanations of the most important techniques in baking; a reminder that Allen, a familiar face on our screens, is also one of the best teachers in the country's pre-eminent cookery school, Ballymaloe. While Home Baking is an excellent course in the essentials, pleasingly Allen's influences are not wedded to tradition; recipes for cornbread and donuts sit alongside Persian almond bites with rosewater syrup. She favours delicate, almost floral flavours, such as lavender lemon cake, while mercifully not neglecting greedy chocoholics like me.
Fearless Food by Lynda Booth - the second book by the Dublin Cookery School founder, is a very apt reflection of the fearless and nomadic life of the author. Booth has travelled and worked everywhere. She is a good writer, one of my favourite chapters 'Brunch' is dedicated to what she sees as "a lingering meal, unraveling slowly". It includes an intriguing recipe, bringing something new, at last, to the tired brunch menu - a charred Korean vegetable pancake with soy and chilli dip.
The explanations are exhaustive which is good when dealing with the unfamiliar as Fearless often does and the chapter on fish is a must for anyone lacking in confidence with these slippery fellows. Her line on stock relates both to her pragmatism and her passion: "my fervent hope is that... some reader who has never made stock might give it a try. If you feel that it's not worth the effort, I'll leave you well alone."
Perfect Irish Christmas by Neven Maguire - from showstoppers to keeping the show on the road with an hourly breakdown of the big day itself, Neven is heaven-sent. This TV chef has cookbooks, a cookery school, a restaurant, and a guest house to manage, so clearly is an authority on juggling, a trait essential for nailing Christmas dinner.
Perfect Irish Christmas is fun and celebratory, there's a nice laid-back vibe in the beautifully illustrated pages, a kind of "Neven's got you" comfort that should quell the angst of any nervy cooks. The chapter, 'St Stephen's Day And Leftovers', could well have been called 'Everything You Never Thought Of Doing with Turkey' and the book is jammed with festive inspiration.
The Cookery School, Donnybrook Fair by Niall Murphy - produced by the highly-regarded Irish chain - has the most heart of any of the books. Author and head chef of the Donnybrook Fair Cookery School, Murphy came to cooking relatively late. In his introduction, he describes his 'Damascus moment' when, at the height of the recession, he realised that his career of 27 years in the motor business was not what he wanted to do.
After some years training and chefing, Murphy found himself invited to helm the stove at the Donnybrook Fair cooking school and six years on, he has written a brilliantly accessible and comprehensive course in cooking. Murphy's steps are clear and concise and usually confined to one page which makes for a very user-friendly book. I made his Thai red prawn curry - a takeaway favourite made to feel effortless.
Half Hour Hero by Roz Purcell - the difficult second album has proved no problem for model-turned-best-selling author, Purcell, who scored a hit with her debut, Natural Born Feeder. Purcell was an early adopter of the clean-eating movement and astutely rode what was then quite a niche wave all the way into the mainstream.
I'm going to make quite a bold statement here and pronounce Half Hour Hero the most practical of the offerings shortlisted and I feel this is a particular achievement in a genre not famed for its accessibility or sympathy to budgets. There's the occasional bit of whey protein powder, but on the whole, it is largely populated by good quality ingredients widely available . I made a lot of her quick, tasty dishes and true to its titular claim, I was at the table scoffing in 30 minutes. Purcell's style is chatty and the book is peppered with witty wordplays 'Phuk It', 'Drink Up' is a smoothie inspired by Phuket.
The food is #healthy but there is a clear passion in her dishes. For those suspicious that the clean-eating culture is hiding nefarious disordered eating, let me assure you that Purcell's chicken thighs are skin on and bone in.
Cook Well, Eat Well by Rory O'Connell - this book is slightly more free form, which O'Connell, the undisputed Dumbledore of Irish cooking (he has twice been awarded Irish Chef of the Year) executes beautifully.
His first book, Master It, is arguably the Irish culinary bible, so O'Connell has earned the right to a concept album. Cook Well takes the form of 20 three-course meals, arranged by season with a final instalment paying some heed to larder essentials. O'Connell, like his sister, Darina and niece-in-law (that's a thing in Shanagarry!), Rachel, is also a teacher at Ballymaloe however, his tone is not overly instructive, instead it feels like the most holistic of the shortlist. The mood is languorous, the emphasis is on simple flavours combined to create unexpected, choice dishes, the enjoyment of which starts in the preparation, think celeriac fritters with pears, walnuts, radicchio and caper mayo. O'Connell's book is evocative and artful. I know the Dumbledore reference gave it away, but yes, I do have something of a culinary crush.