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Book Review: Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets – Joanna Blythman

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This is a disturbing and scary book. In it Joanna Blythman lifts the lid (or should that be pulls back the inner wrapper?) on how the modern food industry produces our processed and chilled food. From a food fair with no food on view, to postings on industry-only forums, Blythman tells us about the secretive world of additives and processing ingredients that food manufacturers don’t talk about because they don’t have to.

In Part One of the book, Blythman tells us how the processed food system works. How a handful of companies make most of the ready-meals you can buy. How truly industrialised it all is. How the bad old E-numbers have disappeared from food labels to be replaced by more natural sounding additives – Clean Labelling. And a visit to a food industry exhibition where little to no food was on display – only stalls selling processing agents and the latest additives and coating gels.

Part Two investigates these additives and processing agents in more detail with chapters looking at the defining characteristics of processed food – Oily, Flavoured, Coloured, Watery, Starchy, Tricky, Old and Packed.

Part of me really wants to dislike this book. Half of that is the bit that says ‘Just because it’s got chemicals in it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Everything has got chemicals in it. Water is dihydrogen monoxide, for freak’s sake!’ And the author shoots herself in the foot occasionally. Ms Blythman, she tells us, was put off processed food for life after eating a Vesta curry at aged six. (She should have had a Findus Crispy Pancake, they were way better.) “Margarine spreads…” she sneers, “… leave a greasy coating on the roof of the mouth and taste of nothing pleasant.” Really, Ms Blythman? NOTHING pleasant?

She is on safer ground when she lets the food industry speak for itself. “Whether you are looking to replace oil, cream, milk solids, vegetables or egg, we can ensure premium quality and guilt-free indulgences at a competitive price.” This is from a starch company.

And it’s these kind of quotes that make this a book that everyone who cares about what they eat needs to read. There are ‘natural’ flavourings and colours that are a whole factory and chemistry set away from the original plants they came from. There are processing agents and enzymes that the food factory workers have to be protected from in the manufacture of the food that never appear on the labels because they don’t have to.

This, for me, is the book’s real importance. Clean Labelling. Not clean food, but how the food industry has removed the nasty E-number additives from our food and replaced with equally artificial additives that are opaque or non-existent on the food labels. This is information that is hidden from us and I hope this book can start a conversation about how we can be told more about what goes in our food.

As a vegetarian I watched the horse meat scandal unfold with a huge serving of schadenfreude. Now I’m looking into my own fridge at the soy milk, the soy ‘yoghurts’, the tofu sausages and wondering what’s really in them. How are they made? What am I not being told? Like, I said, this is a scary book.

Title: Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets
Author: Joanna Blythman
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Year: 2015
Pages: 320
Price: £10.49 paperback
ISBN: 9780007548330

Book Review: Made in India Cooked In Britain

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An Indian kitchen can be anywhere in the world. Mine just happens to be in London.

I had decided that I wasn’t going to buy any more recipe books that included meat recipes. I was sick of having to skip over so many pages that I couldn’t use. I was going to stick to buying only vegetarian recipe books. And then I was listening to the Woman’s Hour Cook the Perfect podcast on the way to work one morning. I listened to Meera Sodha cook her Daily Dal recipe and talk about cooking Indian family food in Britain.

Meera’s family (originally from Gujarat in India) had been expelled from Uganda in 1972 and had ended up Lincolnshire. Meera’s mother had continued to cook Gujarati food but with British ingredients. This cookbook is based around those recipes.

It’s a lovely warm hug of a book. It’s full of fresh flavours and recipes that encourage rather than intimidate. There are some specialist ingredients, but most of these recipes only need a trip to the average supermarket, not an hour spent online tracking down obscure spices.

The book is divided into:
Starters and snacks
Vegetables
Meat
Fish
Eggs
Pulses and grains
Sides
Breads
Chutneys and pickles
Puddings
Drinks
Housekeeping: Make your own and Leftovers

There’s a Menu Ideas section with menus for 2, 4, 6 and 8 vegetarians. There’s an Alternative Contents section with ideas for 1st Timer Recipes, Midweek Meals, Get the Kids Involved, Gluten Free and other options.

The recipes are clear, one to a page with plenty of full page colour photographs. While there are meat recipes there, they are restricted to two chapters and make up less than a quarter of the book. The tone of the book is chatty and cheerful, mixed in with a few family stories, like a good conversation between foodie friends.

I have tried the Daily Dal and it is excellent. There is also a recipe for 100 Garlic-Clove Curry. I might have to give that one a try sometime soon!

Title: Made in India Cooked in Britain: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen
Author: Meera Sodha
Publisher: Penguin Fig Tree
Year: 2014
Pages: 319
Recipes: 133 (including 47 vegetarian and 49 vegan)
Price: £20 hardback
ISBN: 9780241146330

Runner Beans with Mustard Seeds and Ginger

Beans with ginger and mustard seed photo DSCN1690_zpsf24d0372.jpg

The recipe in the book calls for French beans, but with runner beans being in season I decided to use them.

This is a lovely, gently spiced dish. It’s not hot, but warming from the ginger. It can be served as a side dish safe in the knowledge that it won’t overpower whatever it’s served with.

Ingredients
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
2 tsp sesame seeds
250g runner beans, topped, tailed and sliced into cm lengths
2 cm ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp tomato puree
1/4 tsp turmeric

Add a little oil to a large frying pan on a medium heat.
Add the mustard seeds and sesame seeds.
When they start to pop add the beans and stir fry for a couple of minutes.
Add the ginger and stir for another two minutes.
Add the tomato puree, turmeric and a splash of water.
Cover with a lid, turn the heat down and simmer for a couple of minutes.
When the beans are tender, season with salt and pepper and serve.

Serves 2 as a side dish

Book Review: Prashad Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Kaushy Patel

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Prashad is a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Bradford that got to the finals of the 2010 TV show (Gordon) Ramsay’s Best Restaurant. This is their recipe book, including some dishes from the restaurant and some from their home.

The recipes are divided into: Starters; Street Snacks and Nasto; Main Dishes; Rice and Breads; Soups, Pickles, Side Dishes, Chutneys and Dips; Drinks, Desserts and Sweets.
There are also sections to explain the spices and ingredients that may be unfamiliar to the average reader.

The book is well laid out, with clear instructions and many full page, colour pictures of the finished dishes. The recipes are about evenly split between the sections, which means the rice and breads section is a bit overbalanced for me. I can’t see me making many of breads, so I would have preferred more recipes in the soups side. There are only three soups listed, which is a bit disappointing, but I suppose soups don’t sell that well in restaurants.

And this is my main comment about the book. It is clearly written by someone who runs a restaurant. I always find there is a different feel to recipe books written by chefs to those written by cooks. The chef books always seem to have more complicated recipes with more ingredients, more steps and more utensils needed (someone else does the washing up!) This book definitely falls into that category. There’s also an unwillingness to compromise over ingredients. There are many specialist ingredients in this book some of which you will be able to find in the world food shelves of a big supermarket and some you’re going to have to track down an Indian grocer for. Having said that, the book does explain what you need, what it looks like and how to prepare it.

Grumbles aside, there are some great recipes in this book. There are dhals and vegetable curries a plenty, with rice dishes and pickles to serve with them. The recipe I made below, corn on the cob curry, is delicious hot and spicy with the sweetness of the corn coming through. I will certainly be making it again.

Title: Prashad Indian Vegetarian Cooking
Author: Kaushy Patel
Publisher: Saltyard Bookes
Year: 2012
Pages: 263
Recipes: 110 all vegetarian (including 66 vegan)
Price: £25 hardback
ISBN: 9781444734713

Corn on the Cob Curry

Corn on the cob curry photo DSCN1698_zps200fd885.jpg

Ingredients
4 corn on the cobs, cut into four pieces each
2 medium onions, 1 blended to a fine paste, the other chopped
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 tsp salt
1 tsp medium red chilli powder
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
2-4 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
2 handfuls of fresh coriander, chopped
1 tsp garam masala

For the masala
2-4 green chillies, seeds left in
8cm root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
Pinch of salt

Make the masala paste by blending the chillies, ginger and salt in a blender.
Heat some oil in a large pan and add the onion paste.
Cover and leave to fry gently for 3 minutes until the paste is starting to brown.
Stir in the chopped onion.
Cover the pan and fry for two minutes and then stir.
Repeat until the onions have turned a rich dark brown.
Add the masala paste, tomatoes, salt, chilli powder, turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin and half the fresh coriander.
Stir thoroughly and then cover and leave to simmer for 2 minutes.
Add 175ml of boiling water and the corn on the cob pieces.
Make sure the corn pieces are covered in the sauce, cover and let simmer for 20 minutes.
When the corn is tender, remove from the heat.
Stir in the garam masala and the rest of the fresh coriander.
Cover and let sit for 20 minutes to let the flavours develop (and for the corn to cool down to be held by fingers!)
Serve with flat bread to hold the corn and mop up the juices.

Serves 4

Book Review: Curry Easy Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey

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For a long time in the UK, if you wanted a book to show you how to cook Indian food, Madhur Jaffrey was the only choice. So it’s just as well that she knows what she’s talking about and can communicate successfully to a wide range of people.

This year I have bought three Indian cookery books, all of a high quality. Curry Easy Vegetarian is the third one of the three and I’m reviewing it first, because it is the best.

As a home cook, I tend to like books written by cooks rather than chefs. It may be the tone is friendlier, it may be the knowledge of what is achievable in a home kitchen, it may be because it’s written by someone who has to do their own washing up. I don’t what it is, but give me a book written by someone who doesn’t have a test kitchen. There are some unfamiliar recipes and techniques here, but Madhur Jaffrey has the tone of someone who is encouraging you to have a go, rather than someone setting a test.

The recipes are divided into eight chapters:
Soups, Appetizers and Snacks
Vegetables
Dals: Dried Beans and Legumes
Grains: Rice, Semolina and Quinoa
Grains: Breads, Pancakes, Savouries and Noodles
Eggs and Dairy
Chutneys, Relishes and Salads
Drinks, Sweets and Desserts

The recipes are well laid out, attractively photographed and carefully explained. When I was first going through it, I found so many recipes I wanted to try that I ran out of bookmarks. The vegetable section has one recipe more enticing than another. There are poriyals – stir-fries with indian flavours that I can’t wait to try and dals that make me glad cold weather is coming so I can curl up on a wet day with them. And there are unexpected flavours too – rice with dill and peas, fresh peach salad, cucumber salad.

In terms of ingredients most of them should be familiar and available in most supermarkets (for which Madhur Jaffrey should take a good deal of the credit). She explains the more unfamiliar ones. My only warning is that several of the recipes require fresh curry leaves which may not be that easy to get hold of.

I really like this book and I’ve been recommending it to friends. It has a recipe for turnip – what’s not to like?

Title: Curry Easy Vegetarian
Author: Madhur Jaffrey
Publisher: Ebury Press
Year: 2014
Pages: 352
Recipes: 194 all vegetarian (including 132 vegan)
Price: £26 (hardback)
ISBN 9780091949471

In the introduction Madhur talks about how a lot of the recipes are from homes throughout India and won’t have appeared on restaurant menus. One of those she mentions is Kodava Mushroom Curry. I decided to give it a try. I stuck to the recipe, apart from using low-fat coconut milk, so I omitted the stage of letting it settle as it would have had no effect. I don’t know if that made a huge difference, this was hot, creamy and delicious anyway.

Kodava Mushroom Curry with Coconut

kodava mushroom curry photo DSCN1728_zps0b5995b4.jpg

Ingredients
1 400ml tin coconut milk left undisturbed for 24 hours to allow the cream to rise to the top
450g button mushrooms, halved
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
4tbsp vegetable oil
6 tbsp shallots, finely chopped
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp chilli powder
2-3 fresh chillies, chopped
1 tbsp lime juice

Open the tin of coconut milk and spoon the thick cream at the top into a bowl. Leave the thinner milk in the tin.
Put the mushrooms in another bowl, sprinkle over the salt and turmeric and stir until all the mushrooms are coated.
Set aside for 10 minutes.
Put the oil in a medium hot frying pan or wok.
Add the shallots and fry until they are just starting to turn brown.
Remove from the heat and stir in the coriander and chilli powder.
Return to the heat and add the chillies, and then the mushrooms and their accumulated liquid.
Stir and cook for about 2 minutes.
Add the thin coconut milk and simmer, uncovered for about 10 minutes.
Add the coconut cream and simmer on a very low heat for a minute.
Add the lime juice and serve

Serves 4

Book Review: Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi

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This is the second ‘vegetables first’ cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi. For those of us who have his first book, Plenty, this is more of the same. It is a lushly photographed celebration of vegetables, fruits, funghi, grains and pulses. You cannot read this book without realising that this is a man who loves vegetables and knows how to put them together to make a multi-flavoured, multi-textured dish. Ottolenghi gets accused of using a lot of ingredients, most of them difficult to get hold of. The last one isn’t that true – you can get most of the ingredients in one of the big, main supermarkets. As for a lot of ingredients, well, you can’t get layers of flavour and texture without them. This is not a book to reach for when you want to throw something together after a long day at work, but if you have the time to spare this book will give you something special to eat at the end of the process.

It does have its eccentricities, though. It is divided into sections by cooking method, so you get Tossed, Steamed, Blanched, Simmered, Braised, Grilled, Roasted, Fried, Mashed, Cracked, Baked and Sweetened as chapters. Now, it might just be me, but I don’t normally wander into the kitchen when I’m hungry and think ‘Hmm, I fancy something blanched today!’ There is an index, but no glossary of ingredients. Sometimes Ottolenghi explains the more unusual ingredients at the start of the recipe or in the ingredients list, but sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he suggests alternatives, but sometimes not. If you don’t know what za’atar, shiso and freekeh are, this book isn’t going to tell you.

I think the Tossed chapter is the most successful. Yes, there are lots of ingredients, but they mostly just need putting in the salad bowl or mixing in the dressing. And there are really interesting dressings that would go well on several different dishes.

My least favourite sections are the Cracked and Baked ones. Mr Ottolenghi says in the introduction that he is not a vegetarian and does not want to be pigeon-holed as a vegetarian writer (the horror!). It really shows in this section, not just because there’s a lot of cheese in these recipes, but because there appears to be no attempt to choose vegetarian cheeses. Parmesan is used a lot, gorgonzola appears, so does roquefort. There’s no help for it, you cannot use any named cheese in this book unless you first check that it’s vegetarian. I spotted 22 recipes using non-vegetarian cheese, there may be others.

This is a bit of mixed bag of a book. It is in turns inspirational, aspirational and infuriating for this vegetarian home cook. Having said that, if more chefs took recipes from this book and put them on menus as the veggie option, I would be a much happier woman.

Title: Plenty More
Author: Yotam Ottolenghi
Publisher: Ebury Press
Year: 2014
Pages: 351
Recipes: 154 (including 49 vegan and 22 non-vegetarian)
Price: £27 (hardback)
ISBN 9780092957155

I was thinking of doing one of the Tossed salads for my recipe tryout, but then I found Ottolenghi had done a recipe for Fava, the greek version of pease pudding. That decided it for this Durham lass! Besides, as in a lot of the traditional recipes in the book, they haven’t been complicated.

fava photo DSCN1711_zps62422255.jpg

Ingredients
3 large onions
300g yellow split peas
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp turmeric
100ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp lemon juice
35g capers, roughly chopped
10g chives, finely chopped
salt and white pepper

Chop one of the onions into rough chunks. Add to the split peas, bay leaves and turmeric in a large saucepan.
Add enough water to cover twice the amount of peas.
Bring to the simmer, skim off any scum, cover and let simmer for 60 minutes or until the peas are soft.
Keep an eye on them and add more water if necessary, they should be loose and sloppy like thick porridge at the end.
While the peas are cooking, slice the remaining onions finely and fry in a tablespoon of the oil until they are golden brown. Set aside.
When the peas are cooked, remove the bay leaves, blend the peas with the olive oil, garlic cloves and lemon juice until you have a smooth paste. Add water if the mixture is too stiff.
Season generously with salt and pepper.
Stir in half the fried onion.
Serve in a bowl with the rest of the fried onion, capers, chives and add a drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 4 to 6

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child

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Early in the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 1948, the newest member of the American Embassy in Paris stepped off the SS America with his wife. They drove through the French countryside, stopping at Rouen for a lunch of oysters, sole meuniere, salade verte and baguette with fromage blanc for dessert. For Paul Childs, it was a return to a country he loved, to Julia Childs it was a meal that would change her life.

This was the start of Julia Child’s career as a food writer and TV cook. I’ve heard her compared to Fanny Cradock and, while they were contemporaries, I think Julia’s reputation rests more on her ‘Mastering The Art of French Cooking’ which places her firmly in Elizabeth David territory. Like David, Child introduced authentic French cooking to an unknowing public.

This book tells the tale of how that work came to be. Child arrives in a France starting to recover from the war, where shortages and power-cuts abound. She describes finding a place to live and dealing with the vagaries and eccentricities of French telephones and French maids. But it is clear from the first hours of her arrival that Child loves France. She loves the country, the people, the lifestyle and above all the food.

Child makes it clear that she was no natural gourmet. She appreciated the food she was eating in Paris and wanted to learn to cook it herself. She trained at L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu and worked hard at becoming the cook she wanted to be. She clearly had a knack for making friends and allies and it was two friends, Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle, who were writing a French cookbook for Americans and who invited her to help. If the original idea wasn’t Child’s no one can doubt the amount of effort she put in to making it a reality. As an aspiring food writer, I was slightly stunned at the sheer amount of work Child and her friends put in to testing recipes and making sure that they were reproducible. The book took over a decade to write and a couple of years to find a publisher willing to take on such a comprehensive cooking manual.

But this is far more than a description of how to write a cookery book. Child describes France and the people she met in wonderful, warm detail. It also veers into history as her diplomat and artist husband is interviewed as part of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts. If you’ve never read one of her recipes or seen a video of her demonstrating cooking this is still a great book to read for its description of a post-war France that is fast disappearing.

Title: My Life In France
Author: Julia Child
Paperback: 364 pages
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd; 2 edition
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0715643673
Date: July 2012

Book Review: Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

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I hadn’t heard of Laurie Colvin until I wandered across a review of her republished collection of her food writings in The Guardian. I hadn’t heard of her, but I had read her chapter on English Food in an anthology of travel writing. It was a chapter I re-read a couple of times because I enjoyed it so much.

She wrote about more than English Food, however. Principally, she was a novelist, but she loved cooking and entertaining and she wrote about it. This book was originally published after her death in 1992 and has been republished now by Fig Tree.

In her forward Laurie writes: In foreign countries I am drawn into grocery shops, supermarkets and kitchen supply houses. and I was immediately struck by a sense of fellow-feeling because I, too, love supermarkets and grocery shops in foreign countries. She then follows this up by a quick anecdote about going to a black-tie book launch and being worried that they would be served tiny portions of delicate food and were instead, to her delight, served a more substantial beef stew with noodles. That would have been my reaction too.

Not that I get invited to book launches, black-tie or otherwise, but Laurie did. And that kind of bohemian, arty, loft-living lifestyle permeates through the book in her anecdotes of meals she has cooked and meals she has eaten. If that makes her sound flighty and arty-farty, that’s not what comes across in the book. Her voice is one of calm, good sense and an unflappable attitude to cooking. You feel that if you were cooking a meal for her she would know exactly what to do if it went wrong and would cheerfully make the best of it if things went irretrievably wrong.
If all else fails, eat out, she says in her chapter Starting Out in the Kitchen.

Most of the chapters are based around a recipe of plain, good, home cooking. The chapter on Potato Salad is mostly anecdotes about why people don’t make it themselves anymore, but she then gives a couple of recipes to try. Most of what she writes is timeless, but the 80s do make themselves felt in certain places – she is clearly battling against Nouvelle Cuisine and dire warnings against saturated fats pepper the book.

She also gives advice about what equipment you will need, how to feed fussy eaters (she included vegetarians in that list), baking bread, giving dinner parties and how to make shepherd’s pie for 150 people.

And she writes well. She never deviates from a chatty, immediate style, but still vividly describes people, situations and food. This art reaches its height in the “Repulsive Dinners” chapter. The description of the ‘Scottish genius’s’ dinner has you leaning forward with anticipation to see what will be revealed by the lifting of the casserole dish lid and then giggling with horror and relief that you don’t, as Laurie did, have to eat it.

This isn’t a recipe book. It’s a book to read near the kitchen and vicariously revel in good (and bad) food and good company of which Laurie is the best kind of hostess.

Title: Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen
Author: Laurie Colwin
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Fig Tree
Date: Oct 2012
Language: English
ISBN: 0241145716
Price: £12.99