After reading a rave write up about this book in a newspaper I snapped it up immediately without too much extra research. In fairness, the title alone already had me sold.
Look and feel
The cover, with its matt finish and colourful illustrations (by Elisa Cunningham), is a happy thing. However, by page seven, I realised that the tagline recipes worth living for was meant literally. Ella has come through some deep dark times and this is the story of the food, and some of the people, that helped her keep her feet on this side of the River Styx.
On the reading/cooking range it is at the reading end – there are pages of family stories, personal reflections and philosophical nuggets (spoiler alert – you might shed a tear). The author herself describes the book as ‘an annotated list of things worth living for; a manifesto of moments worth living for.’ That feels about right.
On a practical level the book is broken into ‘events’ rather than, for example, seasons or courses. The titles include things like ‘Picnics & Pack Ups’ and ‘Storecupboard Suppers and Midnight Feasts’. There are no further clues about what might feature in each section, but the journey of discovery is part of the fun.
What sort of food is it?
It doesn’t really have a category – Marmite Spaghetti, Fishfingers, Crunchie Ice Cream, Charred broccoli – there might be a bit of hipster with a side of boarding school in places? It feels more like comforting food (not comfort food as generally understood) than a culinary challenge. All the same, the recipes work well and the food is exactly as promised in the, often gushing, descriptions.*
Obscure equipment needed?
No. For sure. If anything, it errs too much at times toward the MacGyver school of kitchen equipment (for those born since 1985 – MacGyver saved the world on TV every weekend using just a rusty nail and an empty paint tin, more or less). It feels like the recipes are consciously constructed to be assembled in a student bedsit – and not a very well equipped one at that. They might have benefited in places with the addition of a couple of relatively common pieces of kitchen kit, but then that would have meant losing some of the charm.
Ingredients easily available?
Yes, absolutely. The odd aberration apart (pigeon breast, freekah) you could gather everything you need in a reasonably well-stocked small local supermarket, and there are loads of options suggested for substitution.
Who is it for?
The directions in the recipes are narrative style rather than a strict list of instructions. It’s as if someone was in the kitchen with you swilling wine and telling you what you needed to do next.
There is definitely something in here for the new cook, whether cooking is a new hobby or it’s a first-time-living-away-from-home scenario. The more seasoned kitchenista will find quite a few recipes worth a flirtation, but I don’t see this becoming the go-to book for a serious dinner party giver.
Warning: There may be a bit too much flexibility in here for some people. ‘As much parmesan as you can be bothered to grate’ (pg 155) or a ‘simply astonishing amount of black pepper’ (pg 152)will be absolute balm to the ears of people who see recipes as broad suggestions, but could irritate someone who wants the comfort blanket of step-by-step instructions. The instructions often follow a ‘do this bit’ and, while that is bubbling away ‘prepare this other bit’. As someone who has learned the hard way to do the full mise en place bit (fancy French term that means prepping everything before starting to assemble the recipe) I tended to ignore the suggested order of activity.
Despite starting somewhat in the shadows, this is a bright and fun book with lots of really interesting ideas. Ella freely admits that some of her concoctions are definitely amateur night in the kitchen – but in a funny way this gives you confidence.
Individual dishes are all given a context. When you might want to eat it, or why, or with who; what or who inspired it. Many of the stories are uplifting and entertaining – some have a side swipe of darkness that might make the book a less than ideal gift for someone who struggles with their own demons.
For this review I cooked:
Midnight Chicken (well you’d have to, wouldn’t you) it was lovely, but I love roast chicken at any time of the day.
Parkin – mine wasn’t as firm as described but I’m not sure my porridge oats were exactly the ones intended
Carbonara – I’ll have to try this again, my eggs may have been the tiniest bit scrambled, but the flavour was amazing
Find it on Amazon
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC