Cookbooks: The gifts with taste that will keep on giving

In many ways, it’s the perfect Christmas gift, says Roz Crowley. Buy someone a cookbook
Cookbooks: The gifts with taste that will keep on giving

Giving a cookbook can reap exciting and satisfying rewards. If friends or family appreciate the gift, they will cook a recipe from it for you. This year chefs are trending towards easy, light and healthy, with many of them using combinations of nuts and seeds, fresh vegetables and some fashionable spicing with za’atar and cinnamon.

Dishes won’t take all day to prepare, and there is plenty of advice to use the best possible local ingredients. None of the books here will break the bank when cooking the recipes. There is less lobster, more lentils, less red wine, more drizzles of apple syrup.

As well as those reviewed below I enjoyed wine writer Raymond Blake’s Breakfast in Burgundy (Skyhorse €20)

which takes us on the author’s journey of settling into his renovated house in the region. Instructive is the chapter on buying in local food markets. Oz Clarke’s Wine A–Z (Pavillion £11.99)

will put you right if you don’t know your Merlot from your Muscadet, with vintage charts for those who do, and pages of suggestions for food and wine matching. There is plenty to entertain.

The Virtuous Tart by Susan Jane White (Gill & Macmillan hardback €24.99)

Following the success of The Extra Virgin Kitchen, Susan Jane White shares sweet treat recipes which are compositions of seeds, nuts, raw chocolate and many sugar substitutes — agave, coconut, brown rice syrup, rapadura, birch — which are becoming mainstream and available in supermarkets. Wheat flour substitutes for cakes and tarts include flours made from almonds, chestnut, coconut, chickpeas and various seeds. Once you stock up on her ingredients, you open up the possibilities of different tastes, with healthier energy and a potentially improved digestive system. I gave her last book as a gift and I am regularly thanked for the chocolate, seed and nut treats, the result of, as the author says, ‘taking the hell out of healthy’. Good for students who must feed themselves foods that will provide sustainable energy, and for making healthy gifts for them. Armed with a food processor, you don’t need a lot of skill or cooking experience.

Home — Recipes from Ireland by Trish Deseine (Hachette Cuisine hardback €39.95)

Hot from her BBC NI TV series, Trish Deseine is an award- winning cookery writer. While most of her books have been published in France where she has lived, her return to Ireland through this book is like a warm group hug embracing north (where she comes from) and south (where she now lives, with some time in France). We find delicious recipes for breads, bracks and soda farls. Try them with her delicious apple and kale soup with sweet apple relish. Traditional mutton pot roast and two versions of Irish stew contrast with a stylish duck dish from Robbie Krawczyk, one of several chefs in Irish big houses and small restaurants featured in the book. Some are just cheffy enough for the occasional challenge. Most of them are assemblages of top-quality local, seasonal ingredients in which the author glories with an easy, literary style. A coffee-table book, perhaps, as it’s large and beautifully photographed by Deirdre Rooney, but it will spend more time on my countertop being used to make delicious food.

The Sheridans Guide to Cheese by Kevin and Seamus Sheridan with Catherine Cleary. (Transworld hardback £19.95)

Sheridan’s cheese stall in Galway was a revelation to me 20 years ago, and how encouraging it is to see the brothers thrive and prosper to expand to Dublin, Waterford and Meath where the smells in the shops are as heady as any wine cellar. Their story is well told in the book and we get to understand the role of the ‘affineur’ who buys and looks after cheese so it matures, developing flavours and changing texture to be sold at its best.

There are helpful descriptions of Irish and continental cheeses with suggestions of what to eat and drink with them.

It’s good to see so many great cheesemakers given the authors’ seal of approval. There are recipes — Parmesan ice-cream, soufflé, gnocchi, salads, savoury biscuits and quiches — which are not challenging. Try making Labneh, a strained yoghurt enjoyed in the Middle East, or your own cottage cheese. A book for learning about our ever-expanding cheese culture.

Cooking at the Ballymore Inn by Georgina O’Sullivan (Estragon €20)

The only paperback in this selection, it is less about luxury in its presentation and more about Georgina O’Sullivan’s vast experience working with food. I met her during my radio days when she worked with Bord Bia and CBF, the Irish Livestock and Meat Board, and her practical approach sustained her career. Twenty years ago she and her husband Barry opened Ballymore Inn in Kildare as a pub and restaurant where they bake a range of breads, including baps for their burgers, flatbreads for their sliced steak with baba ganoush, sourdough granary to go with soups. There are fish and meat stews, turkey with stuffing, and a delicious plum and almond tart which uses amaretto biscuits for added texture. Some of the recipes are simplified from more complicated versions I have tried, with interesting Middle Eastern influences, so it is ideal for those who wish to cook tasty food that is unlikely to fail.

Fresh by Donal Skehan (Hodder & Stoughton hardback €30)

A TV presenter in Ireland, UK and Sweden, Donal Skehan is now in demand in the US too. Likeable, telegenic and with plenty of savvy and ability to perform (from his boy band days, no doubt), this book goes further to prove he has his finger on our pulses — and I’m not talking about the seven lentil or 15 chickpea inclusions in recipes. The author reworks easy recipes (which he photographs well himself) and makes them even more appetising. Baked sweet potatoes have four toppings, a tart has a crust made with cauliflower, avocados combine imaginatively with chocolate for an easy pudding. The feel is light and health-giving. His Swedish wife has influenced a recipe for caraway crispbread, which must be delicious with his Post Workout Omelette (with added rainbow chard, garlic, feta, tomato). The young, fit and energetic will see themselves in this book. An ideal gift for them.

Simply Nigella by Nigella Lawson (Penguin Random House hardback €30)

Subtitled Feel Good Food, to echo her BBC TV series, Nigella takes us away from her usual creamy indulgences and reins us in with less fat and plenty of flavour. A chilli, ginger and garlic sauce would make a lovely Christmas gift if poured into a decorative jar; braised peas with mustard and vermouth will go well with turkey; a sweet potato and chickpea dip will take us through the festive season, along with ‘brocamole’ a typical Nigella play on guacamole with added broccoli. I look forward to trying her roast radishes in the summer.

There are gluten-free breakfast bars, a breakfast banana bread with cardamom and cocoa nibs, a honey pie and a salted chocolate tart, so while lighter than many of her older recipes, not all that low-calorie. Nigella’s recipes are not usually difficult and this book is no exception. Once you add to your store cupboard some Eastern-influenced ingredients you will have a good chance of making an easy, wholesome feast.

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