A recipe and a book - why I'm a cowardly cook

“In cooking, as in writing, you must please yourself to please others,” Nigella Lawson


For relaxation in the last couple of days I have been leafing through one of my Christmas gift cookbooks - the latest from Ottolenghi - Shelf Love. It's the first in a series from the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen team, apparently, so not necessarily pure Ottolenghi. But then to give him credit he has always stressed the teamwork involved in producing his books, and often credits at least one other of his team as co-writer. In this case the credit is given to Noor Murad - indeed she is featured as the main writer - her name appears first. She seems to be the team leader in the kitchen. So it's difficult to tell whether the man himself has much input, or whether the rest of the team actually do the work of devising the recipes and he just gives approval. Whatever. It matters not - as I say he is generous with his acknowledgment of the work of others.

I didn't like his last book all that much - too much chilli and too many expensive or unobtainable ingredients. But I love this one. Almost every recipe I come to tempts me. Almost every one seems pretty simple, and sort of obvious, but not, if you know what I mean. You almost say, "now why didn't I think of that?" So let me give you an example, because I think this is probably the best way to introduce you to his food.


The dish is Sweet and sour plums and sausages and it features in the chapter called Who does the dishes?, which is all about one dish cooking. I notice that Donna Hay has a book out this year called One Pan Perfect, and there is often a one dish section in those supermarket magazines. In fact when I started my Zoom cooking classes with the grandchildren one of the first things we did was just a general tray bake - asking them to just collect some food and put it all together in a tray.


Well this is one really interesting tray bake. The main two ingredients around which the rest circle, are sausages and plums, which is interesting in itself and not that obvious. But then you look at the list of other ingredients and you are immediately in Ottolenghi land - red onions (not ordinary ones); 2 garlic bulbs - yes 2; potatoes, olive oil, rosemary - all pretty ordinary; apple cider vinegar - there's the sour; pomegranate molasses - there we are - Ottolenghi; soft light brown sugar; sumac - Ottolenghi again; parsley, salt and pepper.


When I turned the page and saw it I instantly thought I would make it - the first of my new recipe a fortnight vow for the year. Well I still haven't quite decided whether it should be one a week or one a fortnight. I suspect one a week might be a bit ambitious. Maybe I'll start out with the one a week aim and see how I go. Alternate with a choice from me and a choice from David perhaps. Anyway later this week I'm going to give it a go - the turkey is all gone, except for the stock and the ham will keep. There is a bit of cabbage, and that's going to be the basis of tonight's dinner with ham and potatoes and sour cream perhaps.


However, I then started thinking about whether David would like it or not. I always do because after all I love him and I aim to please. Big mistake, because then I start imagining him saying he doesn't really like sweet and sour even though I don't think that's actually quite true. Pomegranate molasses? Sumac? Would he know? or would he just accept that there was a different indefinable taste. He's not a huge fan of potatoes either, but he will reluctantly eat them. Sausages neither come to that. But at least there is no chilli.


And this is what happens to me all the time. I'm a bit of a coward when cooking for others, not just David. When the children were younger I gave in to their likes and dislikes and cooked the same very limited repertoire of dishes over and over again. So many of us do this do we not? So it is interesting to see my younger son - who was very fussy when young - on holiday in Spain, taking his children to lunch at Michelin star restaurants where the rule is that they must at least try everything. And apparently the girls - aged 14 and 12 like most of it, and love the experience, whilst the son - aged 6 is not quite as enamoured with the food but also loves the experience. When my children were young I wasn't even game to take them to anywhere more adventurous than the Pizza Hut. So it's pretty amazing that today they are both quite eclectic in their tastes.


When having the family to eat, I also descend into my past behaviour and tend to cook only what I know they like - the dreaded meatballs for example. I know they love them. It gives them pleasure. So why not goes the reasoning. But really I should try something new and try not to imagine the look of suspicion or disappointment on their faces as they hear that they are about to eat something they do not know.


As to visitors - well that's an increasingly rare occurrence, but also nerve wracking although I probably do try harder to impress on such occasions. Even so I don't want a complete disaster so I don't really go way out left of field.


Why do we do this?


"when you cook for other people, suddenly you’re in view of the judging eye, however you guard against it." Nigella Lawson


True - but whose judging eye? An imagined other or your own. Take that david's chilli phobia for example. I like chilli - not too hot - but enough to be spicy. David doesn't like it at all so I either reduce heavily, use the fresh long chillies which are not hot at all, or just leave them out. They say that ancho chillies are mild too. If I see any of them I might try, although I suspect they may not be an Australian thing, like those Aleppo chillies Ottolenghi and other Brits are always going on about.


However, this is the good thing about the Shelf Love book. Every recipe has a little section at the end called Make it your own - inviting you to scribble in how you changed the recipe, and also offering suggestions for how you could change it - here the suggestions are any kind of sausage, and sweet potatoes instead of potatoes. Which is not actually that adventurous, but I guess it gives a clue as to how you could proceed. You wouldn't ditch the pomegranate molasses or the sumac though would you? And that's another reason for making this dish. I have a bottle of pomegranate molasses that I bought for one of Ottolenghi's recipes once. It's one of those things languishing in the pantry and waiting to be used up. They don't say - well they wouldn't - but you could also write in here whether it's a rubbish recipe or a fantastic one. Plus problems encountered along the way, although, helpfully, the more complicated recipes have a double page of pictures that show you the process.


Here's another one I might try - Curried cauliflower cheese filo pie - maybe for my next vegetarian meal. No maybe not next as it's not really the season for cauliflower at the moment - but a definite for the future. Subtly different from cauliflower cheese which we do both like.


I realise that not only have I not told you much about the book itself but I also should have made the sausage dish and then written this. That's what most food bloggers do - then we can find out if it really is everything it looks as if it should be. So maybe I'll do that as well in a few days time. Or maybe it will just be a postscript.


As to the book itself. Well it's crammed full of delicious looking things. Big and small, vegetarian, vegan and not. There almost always seems to be a nod to the vegans of the world with a way of modifying the recipe to suit. The chapter headings are: That one shelf at the back of your pantry; Your veg box; Who does the dishes; Fridge raid and The freezer is your friend. For at heart it's a COVID book doing all the things that both we and cookbook writers have been doing in the last year or so - making do with what's available.


At the front of the book common ingredients are arranged in categories with a list of the pages of the recipes in which they are used. I thought the longest list of pages would be agains chick peas, and tahini, but no. Actually the most used are onions, tomatoes, chillies - yes they do love their chillies, butter and cheese. Which isn't to say that beans and pulses don't figure a great deal - they do. As does the tahini and yoghurt. At the book they categorise the recipes under such headings as Kid-friendly, Easily Veganised and Veggie Mains.


There's room for more notes at the back, because:


"We want you to take these recipes and make them your own, turning this cookbook into a handbook - one to write and scribble on, to stain with turmeric and fold down pages. We want this book to be that book, the most haggard looking book on your shelves, indicating that it serves its purpose and then some." Ottolenghi Test Kitchen

I'll let you know whether I succumb to cowardice yet again or am brave and make Sweet and sour sausages and plums - and whether it becomes a new favourite or a failed experiment in bravery.


There is also a rather tantalising suggestion that with your purchase of the book you also get access to an app or some other interactive thing, and tell you to go to the Ottolenghi website - but I could find nothing there. A mild black mark.

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