books · food · recipes

Cookbooks of 2016

At the start of the year I was fortunate enough to join a newly formed cookbook group. The small group meets up once a month at a different member’s home and we all share a dish made from a single cookbook chosen by the host. It has been an absolutely wonderful experience and I feel that I have already grown from it, not only developing my cooking skills but also becoming more adventurous. I can’t wait until 2017!

I’d like to share my take on the books that we have explored this year.

complete-food-safariComplete Food Safari

We started our cookbook adventure with a book containing recipes from the TV show Food Safari. In the series, Maeve O’Meara travels around Australia and explores food from chefs and home cooks of different cultures.

I chose to make Jambalaya, for the simple reason that I love chorizo 😉 There were some lovely dishes on the day, including a stunning Sindhi Biryani (goat curry). I had eaten goat once before but never did I think that I would want to cook goat! But this dish was the main thing that spurred me to buy the book. Over the weekend I finally made my own Sindhi Biryani and it still tasted great (though perhaps not as good as the one made for our group).


I find the design of this book stunning but it’s large size is also off-putting. It isn’t normally a book that I grab when I’m browsing for something to make. Which is a pity as the things that I have made from the book were very nice.


Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour was an instant hit. All of our dishes on the day were amazing and worked so well together. I made the Baklava, which was full of citrus and much better than the more sweet Greek version.


Soon after our event I ordered my own copy of the book and have been working my way through the book. So many amazing recipes! The only downside is that there are a lot of ingredients that I can’t get from the supermarket and have to hunt for them (thankfully I’ve discovered a specialty store near work that has a lot of the ingredients).

I love this book so much, it has become my favourite. All cooks should try this book!

how-to-eatHow to Eat

How to Eat by Nigella Lawson would have to be my lowpoint in my cookbook adventures. I’ve never tried Nigella’s recipes before so I don’t know if I’m not a fan of her or just this book (which is fairly old. Maybe it hasn’t aged well?). The majority of the dishes on the day were bland and uninspiring. I can’t even remember what I made (just looked it up: I made Mushroom Risotto). The only dish that I was a fan of was shortbread dipped in lemon cream and quite frankly, I have better variations of shortbread and lemon cream/curd in other cookbooks.

I should point out that I didn’t read Nigella’s writing, only the recipes. Apparently the writing is really good and feels like a conversation or something like that. Can’t say that I’m interested in that.

moosewoodMoosewood Cookbook

I might have been left with the impression that How to Eat is dated but Moosewood Cookbook is even older and I certainly don’t feel that the recipes are dated! Moosewood was originally written in 1974 by Mollie Katzen and is based on vegetarian dishes served at a restaurant co-op in Ithaca, NY. I made Mushroom and Barley Soup.

What I really liked about the book was the flexibility of the recipes. It would clearly state if you would use low fat milk instead of full fat, or perhaps you could use cream instead…etc. That kind of information would have been very useful when I was first learning how to cook.

I enjoy the book but I haven’t felt any drive to revisit it since.

lukenguyenLuke Nguyen’s France

Luke Nguyen’s France is a delightful French-Vietnamese fusion. I am really ignorant of history and had no idea that the French had occupied Vietnam and influenced its cuisine. I don’t actually watch much cooking shows but I have enjoyed the bits and pieces I have seen of Luke Nguyen. He has this lovely enthusiasm and cheerful welcomeness about him. But I’ve never been interested to try his actual recipes as a lot of ingredients I’ve seen him use seem to be endemic to the region he’s cooking in and not easily accessible. In fact, a few of our members did have trouble finding the right ingredients for our cooking gathering.

I made Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass Creme Brulee, which I thought was delicious but gave me a lot of grief! I tried Luke’s steaming method and scrambled it. Twice. That’s when I switched to a bain marie in the oven and it worked a charm. But the highlight of the day was snails. I was very hesitant when I discovered that someone had decided to make a snail dish. But I tried it and wow, snails smothered in garlic and butter are surprisingly nice. I have a tin of snails in the pantry, waiting for me to get around to cooking them.


I really didn’t have a chance to look at the cookbook in detail. I just flicked through someone’s copy and snapped a photo of the creme brulee recipe. I want to borrow the book and try a few more things to decide if I want to buy it or not but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I keep getting distracted by the cookbooks I already own.

plentymorePlenty More

Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi is a well-celebrated vegetarian cookbook that I actually haven’t used before now. Which is silly, since I want to reduce my meat consumption. I was very excited to try this books, it was hard to choose what to make. The book is certainly on my wishlist now.

I made the Aubergine Cheesecake, which I have resolved to bring to family christmas. The downside to our dinner was that most of us chose cheesey dishes. They were all delicious but I lost my appetite for a few days and couldn’t eat cheese for a week after that! Lesson learned…


01kitchengardencompanionKitchen Garden Companion

Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion was my book choice when I hosted. It was initially a birthday present from my sister. The book groups recipes by ingredient in alphabetical order (and also explains how to grow the food) and I have spent years working my way from A-Z (I’m up to T). There are a lot of recipes that are average but there are also a lot of dishes that taste great. I made Eve’s Pudding, which is a nice little simple pud to share.

I was very confused when one member of the group brought a (delicious) banana ice cream. I have no banana section in my book! It looks like there is a difference in the recipes listed between the copies of the book published in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. My sister gave me the Northern copy as it is much cheaper than the Southern one. My local library has a copy of the book so I fully plan to borrow it and compare the copies (including saving that banana ice cream recipe. Yum!). Just as soon as I reach Z in my book…

hestonHeston Blumenthal at Home

Our final book for the year was Heston Blumenthal at Home. I’ve seen his shows, I was very worried when the host announced her book. The book is actually more accessible than I thought it would be and the food was amazing. Heston is an impressive person. He really knows what he’s doing and shares that knowledge in his book. I love the science in this book, with it’s explanations about the correct temperatures for determining when a meat is cooked or a caramel is ready.

The food that came out was pretty amazing. Green tea smoked salmon was my favourite but I also couldn’t stop eating basil and mascapone pesto. I made Eton Mess. I wasn’t sold on the banana puree but OMG, those were the best meringues I have ever eaten. I think I’ll stick with Heston’s meringue recipe from now on. I’m definitely going to add this book to my collection.

A lot of the recipes aren’t what I would call easily accessible. Such as sodium citrate as an ingredient, which before now I only knew as an coagulant in blood collection tubes. And some of the ice creams require dry ice. I suppose I could pinch some left-over dry ice from work but how will other people acquire it? But even if you aren’t interested in the recipes, the book is still worth a read as there is a lot to learn from it.


The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik

My sister got me onto the Temeraire series. I believe she first got onto it because of the pretty covers. While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I must say that I am more inclined to pick up a new book if the cover is attractive. And I will be looking out for the pretty covers when I go to buy the books.

Anyway, this series is about the Napolionic Wars. Except that there are dragons. Massive dragons that host entire crews of aviators (which sadly, I can’t quite visualise). Intelligent dragons who aren’t treated as well as they should be.

There will eventually be nine books in the series. Currently, there are six – Temeraire (also known as His Majesty’s Dragons), Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles, and Tongues of Serpents. I haven’t read the latest one yet but I’m very keen to, especially since it’s based in Australia.

The story begins with a naval officer (Laurence), who captures a dragon egg from a French vessel and finds himself the aviator captian of said dragon (Temeraire). Bit of a life-style change.

Amongst the dragons and the fighting are the themes of gender roles and social classes, as well as the issue of slavery (both human and dragon). There’s also the bonus of Laurance and Temeraire travelling to foreign countries, and we get to see how dragons are treated in the different places.

Victory of Eagles is slightly different from the previous novels in that part of the story is told through Temeraire, the dragon. It really helps the reader to better understand the way that the dragons think, and how they try to conform to human society, which they don’t even understand. The sweet innocence and personalities of the dragons provide a nice contrast to Laurence’s story, which at this point isn’t all too happy.

These books are just fantastic. I can’t believe Temeraire/His Majesty’s Dragon is Novik’s first novel.

EDIT: Wasn’t thrilled by Tongues of Serpents but I loved Crucible of Gold.


The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

My friend raved about how awesome this book is so I picked up a copy for myself.

It is an awesome book. Go read it.

The general opinion was once that the brain was hardwired and that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. If part of the brain malfunctions or is injured then too bad, that’s what you’re stuck with.
But that is a lie. Our brains are capable of remarkable changes. This book examines neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change. It isn’t self-help book, though I am sure you can use it that way. What this book does is present to us the people beyond the research and the people who have been helped by it. In the first chapter is a story of a woman with a severely damaged vestibular system, who constantly felt like she was falling (even while lying down). Through retraining the brain (using the tongue) she was able to retrain her brain and get her life back. In chapter 5 is the story of a researcher who experimented on monkeys and as a result, had his life destroyed by PETA. But he picked up the pieces and developed therapy that helps stroke victims regain speech and movement in paralyzed limbs and for amputees to lose ongoing pain in phantom limbs. There is even a person born with only half a brain!

One interesting mention at the end was a technique to improve drawing skills. Apparently the “analytical” left hemisphere of the brain can inhibit the right hemisphere and one way to lesson this is to sketch upside-down reference pictures. The study group drew better looking at an image that way compared with the right way up. Sounds pretty nifty. I’m going to give a go when I next feel motivated to draw (which sadly, isn’t that often so my drawing ability has plummeted).

Probably not the best written book out there but the important thing is that it is written at the right level and so is accessible to people without a background in the area. I read a book by Richard Dawkins and it was just oozing with eloquence and intelligence. But it was above my level and I really struggled to follow and retain the content, despite my biology background.

I recommend the people of the internets to read this book. You don’t need a mental problem or know someone who has a problem to get something out of this book and be inspired by the awesome work of the researchers and by the amazing stories of recovery and triumph.
See, science is good.


Life on the Air – David Attenborough Memoirs

I only read biographical books (or memoirs) on recommendation (usually if they are funny and/or involve animals). I have read some good ones but on a whole, the thought of reading about someone’s life just doesn’t appeal. Is their life really that exciting? And is it actually true? Some people are writing about things that happened 20+ years ago, I have enough trouble remembering last year (though perhaps people with interesting lives have good memories?). I’ve looked back on blog entries with no memory about what I was writing about, let alone details.
It seems to me like everyone and their dog is releasing a biography or memoir. Politician quits parliament, out comes a book. Athlete retires, here comes their life story. Even Robert Patterson has a book out there and he’s only 23 (though to be fair, it is apparently unauthorized).
I feel like biographies should be reserved for special people. Politicians that made a difference, not some silly voice of the moment who will be forgotten in a year. People who have struggled through war or other horrors. People who have labradors (I am biased by the awesomeness of labbies) or have enough writing ability to write something elegant and funny. At least people who are older than 25 and have done more in their life than a bit of acting (save that crap for a blog). And definitely don’t let stupid people with little writing ability, such as Suzanne Somers who is too stupid to recognize a steroid when she takes one (again, stick with a blog like the rest of us). I think I’ll vomit if anti-vaccination loony and bad actor Jim Carey releases his story.

Enough random crap, I’m here to write about Sir David Attenborough’s biography, which my friend was kind enough to recommend me.
It. Is. Awesome.
From the very beginning, the story drew me in in a way that few fiction books have. This man knows how to write (or knows how to find the perfect ghost writer?). It helps that he has such a distinct wonderful voice – I can hear him narrating the book in my head.
His life is so fascinating. Not just because he has made a shitload of great animal documentaries and I’m really into animals but also because he is so much older than me (I mean that in a nice way). He grew up in a time that is so completely foreign to me and my modern mind. It is fascinating to learn how different TV was back then and how it changed over the years.

The evening would then be rounded off some time before eleven o’clock with an epilogue, and a view of Big Ben to give a check on the time (which, it has to be confessed, was in fact a model in a box, suitably lit and adjusted to the correct time according to the studio manager’s wrist watch).

This book makes me appreciate Attenborough’s work all the more. I have never Googled him before so I had no idea that he started out as a producer, or that he played a large role in script writing (instead of being just a voice, like some presenters are). He really knows his stuff and goes out there to experience it.
It’s also good to read about his failures, as well as people’s criticism. He is certainly capable of looking back and laughing.

To understand my point, I panted a little as though struggling for breath. Perhaps I overdid it slightly…one of the newspaper critics attacked the BBC on my behalf. It was unkind, they said, to send a presenter of my advanced age on such arduous trips.

Despite the wonder within the book, there is also an element of sorrow. He is aware of the fact that by showing us the wonders of the world, he changes it by way of tourism.

I could hardly absolve myself from having contributed in some measure to this sorry transformation. I told myself that if animals did not earn their keep, spinning money from tourists, they might not, in the long run, survive at all. And that in the farther recesses of the island there must surely be dragons just as wild and romantic – and disregarded – as the ones I had seen not so long ago.


Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I saw the musical and adored it. So when I saw that my friend had the book, I just had to borrow it from her.

A story about the Wicked Witch of the West from the classic Wizard of Oz. Actually, I’ve never read the original story, only seen the movie. The story never really interested me before but now I’d like to read it to contrast it to this book.
Anyway, this story looks beyond the happenings of the Wizard of Oz and explores the world that Dorothy stumbled upon. It is rich with the themes of equality and what is evil. The book is good in that it gets you to look beyond a story and see that the “villain” has a story too and isn’t just a 2d baddie.

I expected the book to differ from the musical but I didn’t expect just how different it really was. This story is much darker and coarser.

The world is filled with such richness and depth. Maguire has really fleshed out the land of Oz. The different regions within Oz, with their different cultures and struggles (such as drought in Munchkinland) as well as the differing religions intermingled and the discrimination against Animals.
The intricacy of this world drew me in badly and I could not put the book down (despite the writing style. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is lovely. It’s just not the sort of thing that I normally enjoy reading). Though there were some things in the book that seemed pointless and/or unexplained.
Once the story left Shiz University, I began to lose interest. From that point on the story focused more on Elphaba and was more…isolated? Disconnected? It kind of got dull for me after that, and Elphaba kept annoying me. And after all the detail and setting up the story, the ending was disappointing. It wasn’t like running into a brick wall but it seemed pretty abrupt. Probably didn’t help that Maguire had to work in events from a preexisting book that he didn’t write.

It was a breathe a fresh to not be confronted by Mary Sues but I could not bring myself to like Elphaba. I wanted to like her, I really did. During her years at University, I could not get a grasp of her character and personality (perhaps my own failing?). I think I got a good enough grasp of her character afterwards, but I didn’t like it. She certainly didn’t handle Dorothy well so it was no wonder she got killed (it’s not a spoiler, we already know that it happens in Wizard of Oz). Still, she wasn’t evil. Not what I would call good but not evil either.

Overall, I think I liked the musical better. It was something aimed more towards me (ie. sugarcoated and romantic). But I don’t regret reading the book. 


Replay by Ken Grimwood

A book about a guy who has a heart attack (right when he has the dreaded “we need to talk” phone call from his wife) and wakes up to find that he’s 18 years old, living in the early 60s. No longer married, no longer stuck in a going-nowhere job. Free to do whatever he wants…sort of.

It’s a “what if” type of book. If you could go back and do it all again, what would you do? The obvious are the ones like trying to remember what horse/sports team/etc. to bet all your money on but then there are the deeper things as well. Would you try again with a bad relationship? Can you save a person’s life? Then again, what happens if you had to repeat your life again and again (that’s not a spoiler. It’s kind of obvious when he’s reaching the end of his second life and the book is no where near the end).
The book does touch upon the classic time travel type themes such as changing history. Is it possible to stop Kennedy from being assassinated or was it inevitable; a fixed point in time? And if you can change a key point in history, will the alternative be better?

But really, this book isn’t so much about those sort of questions, it’s an exploration of people. How each person has the potential of doing and being so many things and yet can trap themselves into a particular life, unable to pull themselves out of it.
I find the book so fascinating. It is really interesting to see how the minor characters change from one cycle to another, depending on the paths that the main characters take. And it is very thought-provoking book too. I can’t help but think about reliving my own life, what choices that I would make and how they would affect those around me. I probably wouldn’t be rich though, I can’t remember who wins the Melbourne Cup in what year 😛

EDIT:I should probably mention that the book does have some sex in it so probably not good for the younger reader who doesn’t yet feel comfortable reading about sex, erections and all that jazz. There’s a little bit of drug taking as well.


Bellwether by Connie Willis

I have read this book a few times before and I loved it. Connie Willis just has this lovely, refreshing writing style. My favourite book is actually written by her – To Say Nothing of the Dog. Though I’m not so keen on her short stories. and some of her other novels, like Doomsday Book and Lincoln’s Dreams.

This is a humorous book about fads and chaos theory. There is just this nice flow to this story with all this great interconnectedness. And it makes you feel better about your life when you see other people having to endure incompetents, even if it is fictional.
It is a proper sci-fi book. Not the type that involves hover cars or aliens but the type that actually involves science. That’s one thing I love about Connie Willis – she does the research and understands what it is that she’s writing about. In that way, she can convince you that the fiction is true. None of this gobbled half-researched crap that you commonly get on TV shows like Heros, Dr Who and even my beloved Stargate. Some of the ‘science’ in these shows are seriously cringeworthy.

The fad aspect of the book is pretty interesting. It makes you look at the real world and the fads you follow. Like the global warming fad. Not that I think it’s a bad fad (neither is the anti-smoking fad, but Bellwether certainly makes you think about it). Saving energy is certainly good for the bills. Then there are the stupid fads like 99.9% anti-bacterial crap. Even my washing machine claims to be anti-bacterial. People need to realise that exposure to bacteria is generally a good thing. Besides, do we really want to create more superbugs?
One fad I’d like to see is people cooking meals instead of resorting to take-away or packet crap (including many premade sauces). I don’t care if it says “healthy choice” or whatever (that’s another fad…). Maybe I’m just too distrustful. But there is the financial advantage to consider. I find it so much cheaper to get fresh ingredients and make up something yummy than having packet crap. It really helps if you have a fresh food market place nearby. I save so much money going to Vic market. But cooking has a high ability threshold so it’s unlikely to become a trend. That makes me feel sorry for future generations of kids.

But anyway, if you don’t want to read the book for the science then read it for the story itself. The way the book flows, from chaos to order, is delightful and, in my opinion, well worth the read.

Science is big on following trends. One person makes an interesting discovery and suddenly there’s people all over the world jumping on the bandwagon, trying to one-up the previous research. For population genetics, you are probably more likely to get a grant if you include something about studying the effects of climate change in the application form, regardless of the truth (and if you don’t include then bye bye grant). Methods of analysis seem to be very trendy. No one does NJ trees anymore, they’re soooo useless. You simply must include Bayesian analysis, which is far superior to ML (trying to place emphasis on words like Flick does…failing…).
In terms of genetic research, I don’t think what I do is very trendy. As my friend said last year –”it’s not real genetics”. Real genetics is causing mutations and transforming them into organisms and I certainly don’t do that.
In terms of population genetics itself, I think what I’m doing is pretty trendy. Since I’m looking at Swordfish, my research has great potential in applications to the fishing industry. So there is human benefit in identifying genetic structure and deciding conservation status. Whereas for bats…who really cares about bats? Damn trends…

I think I can see why Connie Willis wanted to write a book on trends/fads.