The ultimate cookbook gift guide for Christmas

Joe McNamee rounds up the best cookbooks for under the tree this festive season.    

With the perception abroad that recession is receding, the trend for comfort food is now giving way to a surge of interest in ‘healthy’ eating, whatever that means, one person’s ‘healthy’ being another’s exercise in tortuous deprivation. Either way, the publishers have all bases covered.

Irish author Susan Jane White scored a hit with The Extra Virgin Kitchen and looks set to replicate that success with The Virtuous Tart (Gill & Macmillan) while Neven Maguire’s common sense and very user-friendly take on the trend, The Nation’s Favourite Healthy Food (Gill & Macmillan) will not overly alarm traditionalists. 

The trend is global: queen of indulgence Nigella Lawson offers Simply Nigella: Food to Nourish Body and Soul (Flatiron Books) and Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Everyday Super Food Recipes (Michael Joseph) should be a massive seller.

This new healthy asceticism is firmly counterbalanced by the ongoing obsession with TV bake-offs. The ubiquitous Mary Berry and her Absolute Favourites (BBC Books) provides yet another set of rock-solid recipes while Claire Ptak’s The Violet Bakery Cookbook (Square Peg) offers a more rarified selection.

Darina Allen’s re-published Simply Delicious Christmas (Gill & Macmillan) and The ICA Book of Christmas: Recipes, Reflection and Advice for the Perfect Christmas (Gill & Macmillan) would make ideal early yuletide presents.

The enjoyable Festa (Gill & Macmillan) by Eileen Dunne Crescenzi has the advantage of not just offering recipes for an Italian Christmas but also for all other celebratory occasions throughout the calendar year.

All In The Cooking (Edco/O’Brien Press) by Josephine B Marnell, Nora M Breathnach, Ann A Martin and Mor Murnaghan, a home economics textbook first published in 1946, is sure to replicate the success of the recently re-issued English textbook, Soundings.

Our Korean Kitchen (Orion) by young Irish writer Jordan Bourke and his Korean wife Rejina Pyo is a good primer on the current Korean food trend and Fiona Uyema is another Irish native to have discovered a foreign cuisine through marriage. Her Japanese Food Made Easy (Mercier Press) is ideally suited to the Irish marine ‘larder’.

Nigel Slater’s A Year of Good Eating (Harper Collins) hits his own high standards but Yotam Ottolenghi’s domestic home-cooking fans will find Nopi: The Cookbook (Ebury Press) his most technically challenging tome to date.

Cheesemongers Kevin and Seamus Sheridan are an integral part of the modern Irish food movement and Counter Culture: The Sheridan’s Guide to Cheese (Transworld), beautifully written with Catherine Cleary, begins with their story, before moving on to the history of cheese, Irish and otherwise, since the stone age. 

It covers production, storage and consumption and examines in detail a delicious selection of great Irish and world cheeses in a manner that will greatly educate the novice yet still fascinate the serious gorgonzola-guzzling gourmand. It even manages to squeeze in a few recipes. All in all, a seminal tome, well-set to inspire a whole new wave of future cheesemakers.

It is only with the publication of Sea Gastronomy: Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic (Artisan House) that a blindingly obvious gap in the market for such an educational tome is first revealed and then definitively filled.

Hardly surprising as author Michael O’Meara is both chef (and proprietor of Galway restaurant Oscar’s) and culinary lecturer (at GMIT) and, having initially established the vital importance of sustainable fishing as a core ethos, he sets out to comprehensively cover the huge range of fish and shellfish available in these waters, from the obvious to the obscure (sweaty betty, goose barnacle, anyone?) illustrating that almost every single fish landed can find edible purpose on the plate.

Furthermore, with a little knowledge, there is nothing to fear in the cooking of this fish, even for the most amateur of home cooks, and Sea Gastronomy is a trove of knowledge.

In fact, the educational element covers purchasing, storing, preparation and cooking of 120 species of fish and shellfish with an authority and lucidity that demands it instantly become the standard seafood textbook for any culinary education institute in the land. 

The accompanying original recipes for each species are thoughtful and inventive yet never lose sight of the pure simplicity that is the essence of any successful fish dish. All in all, a towering achievement and if an Irish cook was compelled to choose a single seafood cookbook, any mulling over the choice has now been rendered utterly redundant.

Trish Deseine’s first challenge with Home: Recipes from Ireland (Hachette Cuisine) is meeting the widely differing demands of the French, Irish, and American markets at which the book is pitched, further compounded by the decision to blend her interpretations of our traditional produce-driven, farmhouse-style cuisine with contemporary offerings from representatives of the emerging modern Irish cuisine. 

She does so with aplomb, ably abetted by the singular and acute eye of the gifted London-Irish photographer Deirdre Rooney, but it is Deseine’s long introductory essay that truly completes this work, a sublimely crafted piece that establishes the groundwork with an authoritative potted history of the culinary heritage of the entire island of Ireland, a heritage that began long before the drawing of present day borders.

Bravest of all, Deseine weaves her own personal story through this general history, beginning with her childhood in a conservative unionist family in rural Ulster. At university in Edinburgh, she met and then married a Frenchman, eventually living in France for several decades, raising four children, and immersing herself in the birthplace of the restaurant and the French culinary tradition. 

This led to a subsequent stellar career as a million-selling cookbook writer and food author, before her eventual return to Ireland, initially, tentatively, as a ‘visitor’ and then ultimately as a returned immigrant.

This farmer’s daughter returned not only with a greatly expanded palette and culinary repertoire but an even more expanded view of her place in the world. 

Eschewing the parochial tribalism we do so well on this little green rock on the western fringes of Europe, she no longer solely defined herself by townland and tribe but instead simply classed herself as ‘Irish’, of the entire island of Ireland, and it was food as much as anything that enabled this transition. 

If she clings to anything of her conservative rural roots, it is the deeply understated delivery of a profoundly emotional journey, and her writing is the more powerful for so doing. Like the proverbial puppy, this book is not just for Christmas, but for life.


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