Acts of Kitchen: Hilary McNevin

AoK_logo_v2In which I talk to Hilary McNevin about writing about food and making food and promoting food, and I also talk about two books I got to review.

Hilary’s website

(and 1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die)

Cookbooks: Luke Mangan’s Sharing Plates and Caroline Khoo’s I’m Just Here For DessertUnknown9781743368824.jpg

Luke Mangan’s Sharing Plates: the food

Unknown.jpegWhen you have friends coming over for dinner, it makes sense to experiment on them with recipes from a book called Sharing Plates (sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost; discussion of the book itself).

Rosemary popovers: these are in the Bread section of the book. You make a batter of flour, eggs, milk and rosemary, and then pour it into a muffin pan to bake. These were ok; they popped right out of the muffin holes (maybe mine were deeper than the 60mL specified in the recipe), which was amusing. I found them a bit too eggy to really enjoy like a bread roll, which is what I was assuming they would be like. The recipe calls for it to be served with seaweed butter (adding dried seaweed); I neither have easy access to an Asian grocery nor the inclination to try seaweed this way at home. I put thyme into some butter instead, which is still in keeping with the book as it does say you’re allowed to experiment with other herbs. I made 8, so they certainly count as ‘sharing’ food.

Salad of roasted pumpkin, chorizo, chickpeas, quinoa and blue cheese: from the Snacks and Salads section. I’ll be upfront and say I am made a few alterations to this. I don’t like blue cheese so I used a very good Persian feta instead; I left out the roast capsicum because I couldn’t be bothered; and I didn’t make/use the cabernet sauvignon dressing because I thought the chorizo left enough oil to dress the quinoa, and the chorizo and seasoned pumpkin and feta together all seemed to add enough zing. I did like the combination here of using quinoa and a few chickpeas with the chorizo and roasted pumpkin; the walnuts on top added a good crunch, and the preserved lemon a piquant tang. In the past I have made similar salads with couscous; I think quinoa is a bit lighter, and I’ll tend towards it from now on (remembering to not let it burn in the pot…). I guess salad counts as a sharing food?

Chermoula lamb: I wanted to use the salad, above, so I mixed n matched with the Chermoula lamb with pumpkin couscous, from the Meat section. Perhaps you can buy chermoula somewhere in Australia as a marinade, but I’ve not noticed it. I assume this because the ingredients list says “30g chermoula; 6x80g lamb loins…”. I’ve used chermoula before so I was happy to go make it, but I was really surprised to see if referenced here as something you would just buy. The chermoula/lamb combo was fine. To be honest I don’t really see how this counts as a ‘sharing plate’ since there’s nothing more ‘sharing’ about this than with any other recipe that serves 4-6 people.

Bounty bars: from the Sweets section. I was pretty excited about making these – the ingredients are straightforward (butter, sugar, condensed milk (!!), coconut, chocolate) and I love a Bounty. And yes, they were very tasty, and of course licking the bowls was lovely. However the instruction that “Using two forks, dip a bar into the melted chocolate and roll to coat all sides. Use one fork to remove the bar from the chocolate and the other to wipe off the excess chocolate” (p213) is deceptive. That process was far more difficult than implied: the bars had been in the freezer, to solidify, so the chocolate just stuck to them really quickly – removing excess was hard. And just getting them into and out of the chocolate was a process. Perhaps I need to use a wider-mouthed bowl, but that’s not specified in the instructions. In the end, because of how annoying the process was and because of just how much chocolate was ending up on each bar, I gave up on covering the whole thing and went with fairly serious drizzling instead. This was far easier and still, I think, deposited a good amount of chocolate on the bar. Having learnt this trick I would be happy to make these again. I did indeed make the 15 suggested by the recipe… they do count as a ‘sharing’ plate in that respect, although given that they are meant to last for a week in an airtight container, you could just as easily not share them…

At other times

Sumac-spiced pork and vela meatballs with fontina mash: the meatballs were great, although I couldn’t pick up the sumac, which was sad and perhaps not surprising since you put in the same amount of ground coriander, and then some allspice, paprika, and pepper as well. The recipe calls for you to have bacon in the mix, which I think is intriguing, as well as pork back fat… which I couldn’t find, so I just left it out. Not sure what difference it would have made, of course; perhaps smoother texture? I thought they were fine, anyway. The tomato sauce had anchovy in it, which I like for the salt and umami flavour. The potato mash was intriguing – milk, cream, butter, parmesan, and fontina. I did not add cream, because I don’t tend to have it just sitting around, but I did go out and buy some fontina specifically. Fontina is not a cheese I would willingly eat, being much stinkier than I enjoy… but I was intrigued by its addition to the mash, and I quite liked it. Having said that, I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to source fontina for future mash: it’s not that easy to find, and it’s not particularly cheap, either. I’d be happy with either more buttery mash, or adding parmesan. The meatballs and the tomato sauce were very nice. Once again, unconvinced that this really deserves the moniker ‘sharing plate’; yes you can share it, yes it would be a nice cosy dinner party meal, but… it’s not something other than that.

Lamb empanadas: certainly count as sharing plates, and these were delightful. However, the info bar at the top said it made 10 empanadas; the ingredients list specifies 4 sheets of puff pastry; and the instructions say to use a coffee mug or glass to cut “10 rounds from each sheet”…

Things I haven’t cooked but give a sense of what the book is like: the first recipe is Quail eggs benedict with chilli kale on mini muffins; the final recipe is Soft Swiss meringue with berries and almond anglaise (actually the very last recipe, in the Basics section, is Wasabi Dressing).

Luke Mangan’s Sharing Plates

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $39.99. (See here for my discussion of some recipes.)

Overall, this book is well presented and the format of the recipes is basically approachable. The binding of my copy seems like it will cope well with wear and tear; the pages are not going to be destroyed by some cooking splatter. I do, however, have some reservations.

I was really excited about the idea of ‘sharing plates’ because I like the tapas/mezze concept a lot. While some of the recipes here do allow for a tapas or mezze style presentation, many of them don’t, really: they’re just recipes that scale well for more than two people, and that would make nice dinner party meals. They do not all lend themselves to being presented on a central plate, for instance, any more than any other meal does – I mean, you can put spaghetti bolognese in the middle of the table and let people serve themselves; I love that idea and I would totally do that but it doesn’t automatically make it a ‘sharing plate’.

In the advertising copy, the book is suggested as showing “how to keep menu planning easy, it’s often simplest to stick to a general style of cuisine” (that’s [sic]), and that the book “shows us how to think about balancing flavours and textures, how much time you have for preparation and what elements of the menu can be made well in advance.” In the introduction, Mangan does say that balancing flavours and textures is important and that you should think about what sort of time you have, and that “to avoid a confusion of flavours, and to keep menu planning easy, it’s often simplest to stick to a general style of cuisine… but don’t be afraid to be a bit adventurous too” (7). All of this is sensible advice.

However. Firstly, while some recipes are identified by their provenance – parathas as Indian, braesola as hailing from Italy, ‘po boys’ as a traditional sandwich in Louisiana (um, and Thai beef koftas…) – this is not the case with every recipe. So in order to “avoid a confusion of flavours” you either need to know the cuisine of the recipe you’re looking at (or look it up), or spend time comparing ingredients to figure out if they’ll be complimentary. And there’s no “this goes well with that” throughout the book – and no suggested menus – to help someone unfamiliar with any of the recipes. So… not so much with helping in that respect. Secondly, while some of the recipes do tell you what can be made ahead of time, none of the recipe pages tell you how long each step will take. There is no Prep Time/Cooking Time to give you an immediate indication for how time-consuming a recipe is. This is a serious deficit and to my mind negates any notion that this book wants to help you in how you plan your time.

The book is divided into several sections: Breakfast and Brunch; Bread; Snacks and Salads; Oysters and Sashimi; Fish and Shellfish; Meat; Poultry; Sweets. There’s a Basics section, too, with salad dressings and such. I have never seen a cookbook with an entire section on oysters and sashimi! They are very much not my bag but I understand that if you do like them, and have access to a good fishmonger, then such a chapter would be brilliant – they can definitely work as sharing plates. Each section starts with a little introduction from Mangan… to be honest I didn’t feel like they added much to an understanding of what each section is about; they mostly have a few platitudes (“I’ve never really been one for food trends; I believe in good, honest food that’s approachable for everyone”, p131) and some suggestions of which recipes might be particularly good in the coming chapter. As with Julie Goodwin’s book, each section is a different colour so it’s straightforward to flick to the section you want (grey for meat, though? not so appealing).

The recipes themselves are presented one per page, with many having nicely-styled photos accompanying them. The ingredients are listed in bold on one side, the instructions on the other side of the page. If there are multiple parts to the recipe (lamb filling/empanadas/mayonnaise, for instance), then they are clearly separated on the page with bold headings. How many of each thing, or how many people are served, is made clear at the top of the recipe. However, as already noted, there is no indication of how long each step will take. Each page has nice big margins for writing in if that’s your thing.