Thai Food Made Easy: the food

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This book was sent to me by the publisher at no cost.

In the last post I discussed the appearance of the book (overall, very easy to use). This post is about the food. I’ve only cooked a few dishes so far, but each one has worked as advertised. The short version is that everything has had an interesting balance of flavours, and most of them I would happily cook again.

Sesame chicken salad: blanched celery, poached chicken, a dressing of chilli and garlic and ginger and spring onion and fish sauce and vinegar. So easy, so fresh, so lovely.

Pork and pickled cucumber salad: well, the cucumber doesn’t pickle that much, but look: I’m trying pork! This was delicious, with peanuts and coriander and mint and chilli and lime.

Prawn noodle salad (it hasn’t even been that warm here but I’m on salads anyway): more ginger! and coriander and peanuts. Again, so tasty. Would make a good starter at a fancy-pants dinner party.

Barbecued pork and herb salad: more pork! This marinade was ace: coriander seed, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, turmeric, five-spice, chilli, pepper… nom.

Massaman curry: look, I cheated and bought massaman paste. Whatever. This was fantastic. Slow cook the beef and THEN turn it into a curry with coconut cream and potato… definitely making this again.

Braised chicken with rice, turmeric and spices: like the label says. Easy and tasty.

… these are just a small example of what the book has to offer. I am dead keen to try the variation of chicken satay with lemongrass, turmeric and ginger, and the Thai fish cakes; pork belly may be in my future, and I may yet make a curry paste from scratch (again, I did do it a million years ago).

The one sad thing is that, as with Indian Made Easy, there have been a couple of instances where instructions did not entirely make sense: not making it clear how long to cook something (fortunately, that was common sense) or instructions to add a dressing at step 3… and then again at step 6. None of these are make or break, but they do surprise me in a book that should be more closely edited.

Thai Food Made Easy

51zOv8lLFgLThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost. It’s available now: RRP $39.99.

As with my other book reviews, this will be in two parts. This post is about the book itself; the other will be about the cooking.

This book is in the same series as Indian Made Easy. The cover isn’t quite as pretty but as you can see it’s still very attractive. This is a fairly hefty book, at roughly A4 and about 250 pages. It’s presented with a recipe per page spread, with a colourful picture opposite. Most of these pictures aren’t too intimidating. Sometimes they are suggestions for how to present the food; other times they’re just of ingredients, or steps along the way of preparation. The recipes themselves are easy to follow, although as with Indian it still throws me to have the ingredients put into fresh/pantry/spices categories. It makes it easier when planning a shopping list, but not when I’m trying to find the quantity of something while cooking.

The book opens with an introduction claiming Thai food is “electrifying and invigorating” which can be true of course but I get eye-roll-y when these sorts of claims are made for a cuisine, as if to the exclusion of others. What I do like is the emphasis on the “rot chart” – proper/unified/balanced taste: hot and sweet, sour and salt. Thinking back on the recipes I’ve cooked from the book so far, that sounds right.

Next up is a “Top 12 star Experiences in Thailand”. I am not a huge fan, to be honest; it’s all a bit too tourist-y squirmy. No, I don’t know what the alternatives are for UK and Australian readers either.

What I do like is the section outlining what the different ingredients are that are essential to Thai cuisine, from lemongrass to tamarind pulp. This is a very useful little section to get your head around the different flavours. I also like the “15 must-have herbs and spices”, mostly because it lists some of the prime recipes that use each one, so if you buy a good knob of ginger you know there’s at least five recipes you could use it in (there’s way more).

The recipe sections themselves are divided into snacks and finger food (several spring rolls); salads; slow roast, smoking grill and hot wok; fish and seafood; curries and soups; rice, noodles and sides; desserts and drinks. I like the way that this suggests the range of recipes and types of food that Thai offers, and makes it easier to pick what sort of food you’re wanting to make. And then I really, really like the ‘menu planner’ section at the end. It has seven suggestions for what sort of meal components to put together, and although I m dubious of their ‘midweek dinners’ with five courses (some courses not a lot of effort, but still!) I deeply appreciate examples of how to balance different flavours and components across a whole meal and will probably get terribly ambitious some time and actually follow one of the suggestions.

Overall this book is pleasant to look at and easy to use. I anticipate using it a lot in the future.

London: The Cookbook

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $39.99.

This is a book of two parts. Partly, it’s a celebration of food joints in London – the traditional, the fancy, the new, the hip, and so on. Secondly, and less substantially, this is a cookbook. For me, therefore, this isn’t quite the book I had hoped for.

So, the first bit. It’s split into six sections: London Classics (e.g. The Ritz), New Classics (e.g. Ottolenghi), The School of St John (those influenced by “maverick restaurateurs Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver), Down the Markets (like Borough, the oldest fruit and veg market in London), In the Neighbourhood (“exotic” ingredients) and Meet the Producers (like England Preserves). Each food place gets a few nice, artsy photos, and a write-up about the food, the influence of the restaurant itself or its chef, and some other relevant comments. If you’re a foodie in London, or visiting London frequently, or have a real thing about dreaming of where you’re going to ear when you visit a city, then this book will really work for you. It’s not really my thing, not least because me getting to London is an exceptionally rare experience.

The recipe side of the book comes from many of the restaurants featured offering up one of their classics. This means there’s not a whole lot of consistency across the recipes, which isn’t necessarily a problem but does mean the book feels a bit disjointed for someone like me who’s mainly there for the food. Interestingly, very few of the London Classics offer recipes. Anyway, I’ve tried a few of the recipes…

Paneer and potato curry (c/ Southall): tasty, but not exactly a remarkable or unusual recipe.

Mushroom fajitas (c/Brick Lane): also tasty, and also not a particularly unusual or remarkable recipe.

Braised shoulder of lamb, shallots and flageolet beans (c/ Rochelle Canteen): I like beans with my roast lamb; this is similar to a Jamie Oliver recipe. I liked the inclusion of fennel a lot. Sadly, I didn’t cook this for as long as necessary; I followed the recipe but it needed a lot longer. I had a lot of lamb and ‘stock’ left over (it includes quite a lot of stock and wine), which I later turned into a stew/soup sort of thing with added beans or lentils.

There’s only a few other recipes that vaguely grab my attention.

It’s a nicely presented book: I really like the cover, and the photos are lovely, and the recipes are easy to follow. If you’re super into London, or into the food culture of cities, this may well suit you better than it did me. It does deserve to be appreciated.

I’m Just Here for Dessert: the food

9781743368824Yesterday, the book. Today, the food.

(This book was provided at no cost by the publisher. It’s RRP $39.99; out now.)

While I quite liked the recipes I’ve tried from this book so far, I have to say that I am not the target audience for this book. I am not one for making particularly pretty objects. I have neither the patience nor the vision to experiment with different piping techniques. I am more interested in flavour than appearance, so I found this book a little frustrating. For example: I made the basic cupcakes, and they are a fine cupcake. I liked them a lot. But the only flavour variations suggested are to add zest; or cocoa and a bit of chocolate; or put a berry into the middle. And those are fine suggestions… but I’d rather be playing with nuts and rose water and so on. This isn’t a problem with the book itself – it’s a mismatch between what I want and what Khoo’s intentions are. If I had the patience and skill, I love some of her styling suggestions: topping a cupcake with a meringue rosette, a macaron, and a mini Oreo, all on top of dark blue buttercream? Spectacular! I just can’t see me doing it.

Anyway, what I have cooked: the cupcakes, as mentioned. Very nice. Also made her buttercream, and used it to top 16 cupcakes rather than the six she suggests!

IMG_1446.JPGDonuts. Oh yes. Courtesy of Alisa, I have a six-hole pan, and I made them and they are great. The first time I actually had no milk so I used double the yoghurt, and I think they might have been a bit better than the next lot with half yoghurt, half milk. At any rate, they are delicious and easy, too. The second time I made them I even followed the suggestions for icing: I made the basic ombre icing and used one drip of colouring, and iced a few… then added another drip of icing and iced a few more… and so on. And yes, having that progression of colour was indeed delightful to look at. So that sort of easy styling, even I can manage.

Ice cream: I have an ice cream machine and have followed the recipe that came with it. Khoo’s recipe is very similar, and didn’t have a different texture that I could perceive. I did follow her suggestion of making lemon ice cream, and I also followed her suggestion of mixing and matching two flavours. So as well as lemon, I made lime ice cream, using a couple of leave from my makrut lime. I think I should have used a bit more because it wasn’t quite as lime-y as I had hoped, in the end. I even amused myself by adding a drop of yellow to the lemon and a drop of green to the lime while churning. Together, they were indeed excellent.

Waffles. Yeh, I made waffles. I now own a waffle iron. I’ve tried a few recipes, which I’ll blog at a later date. In terms of the recipe here: firstly, we discovered that the waffle iron Khoo is using must be a lot smaller than ours, because while her recipe says it will make six, we made four that weren’t full size. In terms of taste, I really liked them; the texture was smooth and they rose nicely. I haven’t made any of the suggested waffle toppings because we’ve mostly had them as a savoury thing so far!

I don’t tend to make cocktails, but I happened to have strawberries in the house when I noticed this suggestion: put halved strawberries into some gin; allow to steep; drink. So I did. And it was delightful.

The most significant chapters of the book are the ones on styling cakes. I admit I skipped past those, because the idea of building three layer cakes and then decorating them with cascading meringue makes me freeze in fear.

At some point I will make macarons. For sure. Definitely. No doubt about it.

If you’re into styling, or want to be into styling, then this is a book you want. If styling isn’t your thing, you may want to skip it.

I’m Just Here for Dessert

9781743368824I received this from Murdoch Books at no cost. RRP $39.99; out now. Today, I’ll discuss the book itself; tomorrow, the recipes.

I love dessert. I called my 30th birthday party “my just desserts” and served only dessert.

This is probably the most beautiful cookbook I have ever held in my hands. I mean, look at that cover. The edges of the pages are all gold. Inside, there are exquisite pictures of food and baking utensils and some of the inspiration for Khoo’s own creations – buildings, flowers, and so on. This is a delightful book to browse through.

Khoo opens the book with a discussion of why she started Nectar and Stone, some of the places she finds inspiration for her designs – florists and bookstores! – and a recommendation that you play with colour. I think this section is meant to be more inspiration than anything else, and that later chapters give a little more detail. She also discusses key ingredients – including, intriguingly, that she prefers to use Nuttelex rather than butter because of dairy intolerance. She also includes suggestions for how to dress a table, and some ideas about how to photograph your creations if you want to take instagram by storm.

The cooking chapters are the eleven ‘layers’ to the book – yes, like an epic cake that you’d be terrified of trying to cut. It covers meringues, cupcakes, (baked) donuts, macarons, ice cream, tarts, small and large cakes, waffles, cocktails, and popsicles. Each chapter has a basic recipe, a few suggestions for flavour variations, and then ideas about how to style them. Also a whole pile of pictures to either inspire you, or make you feel like you’ll never achieve their perfection!

One thing I like about the way she presents the recipes is that there’s a list of ingredients… and then a list of equipment. This, I appreciate a lot. The recipes themselves are presented clearly and the method is explained in a straightforward manner. She includes tips on things like what to do with buttercream if you’re making it in advance, while the entire section on macarons (which is only layer four!) has a whole pile of advice and reassurance. I haven’t tried them yet…

Although this is a hefty cookbook, there’s not that much recipe-substance to it; a lot of it is the pictures, both of food and Khoo’s inspiration – pots of paint, buildings, trees, and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth knowing that this is not intended as an ‘everything you need to know about making dessert’ book. If you really want suggestions for how to experiment with flavours in ice cream, cupcakes, or cake, this is not the book for you. But if you want a gorgeous book to browse through, as a springboard for your own work – well, that’s what Khoo has written this book to be: she says she wants to “provide… the skills and tools you’ll need to shape your personal style of dessert design” (14). So it’s light on specific direction and heavy on general advice to ‘let your creative juices flow’.

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.