So what to do with all those Christmas Book Tokens….

So what to do with all those Christmas book tokens, there may even be some since last year tucked behind the candlesticks on your mantelpiece. Of course there are hundreds of tempting volumes like
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben but this is a food column so here’s a list of my pick of the 2016 cookbooks.

This year there’s been a whole slew of books from the Middle East with wonderfully evocative titles like Samarkand. This volume by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford is a love letter to Central Asia and the Caucasus, an intriguing book. Not just recipes, there are travel essays, beautiful photography, stories and dishes that are little known in the West that have been expertly adapted for the home cook. For hundreds of years, various ethnic groups have passed through Samarkand sharing and influencing each others cuisine and leaving behind their culinary legacy. A melange of Uzbek, Tajik, Russian, Turkish, Jewish, Afghan – how evocative is that.

The Saffron Tales, Recipes from Persia by Yasmin Khan was also chosen by BBC Radio 4 Food Programme as one of their books of the year. Once again this is much more that a compilation of recipes, Yasmin is a British Iranian cook. She crisscrossed Iran with little more than a fistful of childhood memories and a notebook. Her adventure took her from the snowy mountains of Tabriz to the cosmopolitan cafes of Teheran and the pomegranate orchards of Isfahan. She was warmly welcomed into the homes and kitchens of ordinary Iranians, farmers, teachers, artists, electricians….who shares their family recipes from fesenjoon to kofte berenji (lamb meat balls with prunes and barberries) and delicious dessert with evocative names like rose and almond cake.

Naomi Duguid whose book on Burma also entranced me in 2016 has written a Taste of Persia – a cooks travels through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan. Naomi’s book has been named as best cookbook of the year by Food and Wine, The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal.

Mesmerizing tales and exceptional recipes for beguiling dishes from the rich soupy stews called ash to intriguingly spiced grilled kebabs, barbari breads and alluring sweets like rosewater pudding and date halva.

If you don’t already have the Honey and Co cookbook, Food from the Middle East, check it out . This was one of the best loved and again multi awarded winning book of 2015, our copy is already dog eared. Itamar and Sarit generously share the favourite recipes from their jam packed café, keeping nothing back, leaving nothing out. There’s also Honey and Co The Baking Book, check that out too.

Well I mustn’t get stuck in the Middle East and the Caucasus’s enchanting as it is.

I’ve long been a fan of José Pizzaro, whose restaurants José and Pizzaro are two of my favourite haunts in London. José comes from Extremadura and like many Spanish natives is fiercely proud of his heritage, language and of course the food and drink. He has a particular love and admiration for the food of the Basque country, in particular its major city, San Sebastian, known for its rich food traditions and its obsession with the perfect tapa (pintxos) and for more Michelin starred restaurants per head than anywhere in the world. You’ll love José’s latest book Basque, Spanish recipes from San Sebastian and beyond – beautiful simple tapas recipes for the home cook to enjoy with friends and a glass of fino.

Salt is Essential (and other things I learned from 50 years on the stove) is the arresting title of Shaun Hill’s new book. Shaun is a hugely respected ‘elder statesman’ in the world of food. I have long been an admirer of his pragmatic approach and his food at The Walnut Tree in South Wales “all chefs, however proficient, need to remember that food must taste good, not just look good. The level of seasoning with salt and spice is crucial to the eventual success of the dish”.

This book is packed with well judged, carefully tested recipe that I love to cook.

Another book simply entitled Knife by Tim Hayward has also caused quite a stir, brilliantly researched and not just for knife nerds.
I’m running out of space but for lovers of Chinese food there are two treasures, Land of Fish and Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop, a gifted scholar and researcher and a beautiful cook and writer. You may also want to seek out, China – the cookbook by Kei Lum Chan another awesome work, a huge hard back with gold edge pages. I’m just started to try recipes and love it so far.

For cooks who love to grow some of your own food, two books in particular caught my eye this Christmas. The Complete Book of Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit by Bob Flowerdew, Jekka McVicar and Matthew Biggs is pretty much the standard work on the subject, I usually avoid ‘complete books’ of anything but this hardback which by the way you’ll need a wheelbarrow to carry into the garden is mightily impressive, possibly the only book on the subject you’ll ever need – huge praise from me.

Another gem, but this time a light paperback from the king of ‘No Dig’. Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Garden diary could change lives – a perfect present for the cook/gardener in your life.
Finally the Scandi cook Trina Hahnemann is one to watch I have several of her books but am particularly looking forward to getting the latest, Scandinavian Comfort Food, another dose of Hygge to launch me into 2017. There are others like Palomar cookbook that I love but these are just a few titles to tempt you to rush to your local bookshop to exchange those book tokens for a good read and lots of fun in the kitchen.

Blue Cheese and Sesame Biscuits

Makes 20 small biscuits

These simple biscuits have been my favourite snack with drinks for years, so apologies if I have mentioned them before. I have made them slightly larger on occasion and squirted beetroot and horseradish purée on top so they look a little more posh and interesting. I’ve also served them alongside gravadlax and prosciutto for grand canapé situations. I’m sure you’re not silly enough to cater for this sort of event but will enjoy them as they are. I try to use Roquefort or Stilton, but any blue cheese that isn’t too soft – a mountain Gorgonzola or Bresse Bleu perhaps – will be just fine. A perfect use of leftover blue cheese in fact, better than the overpowering dressings you may have tried to use it for previously. The biscuits are crumbly, so vacuuming of carpet will be a factor next day. Serve them bite sized and warm.

100g unsalted butter – cut into cubes
100g self-raising flour
100g blue cheese – crumbled
50g sesame seeds

Use a food processor to blend the butter and flour to the texture of breadcrumbs. Add the cheese and process for a further few seconds, on the pulse setting. You don’t want a blue purée.

Turn out and knead the mixture a couple of times to evenly distribute all the ingredients, then refrigerate until needed. Chill briefly before cooking if you have time.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4.

Scoop or pinch out small pieces of the dough and roll these into balls about 2.5cm across. Toss these in the sesame seeds.

Space the balls out on a baking tray and then bake for about 10 minutes or until firm and golden.

Taken from Salt Is Essential by Shaun Hill. Published by Kyle Books. Photography: Tamin Jones

Maakouda

A traditional dish for Tunisian Jews, this is usually made by cooking the potatoes and onions in a pot of oil, then pouring the eggs in and placing the whole dish in the oven with a tray underneath to catch the oil overflow. We offer this lighter (but no less gorgeous) version.

Enough for breakfast for 4 hungry or 6 modest guests

Fills an 18-20 cm (7-8 inch) frying pan

2 potatoes, peeled and cut into 2 cm dice (about 300 g)
½ teaspoon salt + ½ teaspoon table salt
50 g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, peeled and sliced (about 200 g)
8 eggs
100 ml double cream
2 teaspoons ras el hanut spice mix
2 tablespoons capers
1 small bunch of parsley, leaves picked and chopped
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Place the potatoes in a pan containing 500 ml of water seasoned with the first half teaspoon of salt. Boil for 5 minutes, then drain.

Melt the butter and oil together in a good non stick frying pan. Add the onions and fry on a medium heat until they soften entirely (this will take about 8-10 minutes) now add the cooked diced potatoes and continue frying for a further 6-8 minutes. In the meantime, whisk all the remaining ingredients together in a bowl.

Increase the heat to high and pour in the egg mixture. Allow 1 minute for the eggs to start cooking around the rim, then use a heatproof spatula or wooden spoon to push the mixture from the sides into the centre, all around the pan. Leave to cook for another minute, then repeat.

Now smooth the top and reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 2 minutes, then use the lid and pan combined to flip the maakouda. Carefully slide it back into the pan to finish cooking on a low heat for 5 minutes before transferring to a plate to serve.

You can eat this hot but it also keeps well for a packed lunch or picnic and is just as delicious cold as it is hot.

Taken from Honey and Co, The Baking Book by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich

Chicken with Cashew Nuts

Serves 4

5 boneless chicken legs cut into ¾ inch (2cm) cubes
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
1½ teaspoons cornflour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus extra for deep frying
¾ cup (3½ oz/100 g) cashew nuts
6 shallots, quartered
1 red bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
2 spring onions, stems only, cut into 2 inch (5 cm) lengths
½ teaspoon sesame oil
Coriander leaves for garnish, roughly chopped
Steamed rice, to serve

Combine the chicken, garlic, salt, wine and 1 teaspoon of cornflour in a large bowl, then add the oil and marinate for 10 minutes.

Put the cashew nuts into a wok or large frying pan and add enough oil to cover them completely. Heat the oil to 285°F/140°C or until a cube of bread turns golden in 2 minutes. Deep fry the nuts for 2-3 minutes or until crunchy. Use a slotted spoon to carefully remove the nuts from the oil and drain on paper towels.

Pour out most of the oil leaving 1 tablespoon in the wok and heat over a medium heat. Add the shallots and stir fry for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Put in the chicken, increase the heat to high and toss rapidly for 2 minutes until browned.

Add the bell pepper and soy sauce and stir fry for another minute or until the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the spring onions.

Mix the remaining ½ teaspoon cornflour with 1 teaspoon water in a small bowl and stir this mixture into the wok. Bring to a boil stirring for about 30 seconds to thicken the sauce. Add the sesame oil and garnish with coriander, if using. Serve with steamed rice.

Taken from CHINA THE COOKBOOK by Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan

Samarkand Plov

The quintessential dish of Uzbekistan, with as many variants as there are people who cook it. This Samarkand version is a little lighter than most traditional Uzbek plovs, where pools of lamb tail fat provide the dominant flavour. It can be made with lamb or beef and is distinctive for being cooked and served in layers. Plov should be eaten from one large dish placed on the table to share, each diner digging in their fork. It is said people form mutual love from a communal plate and the joy of eating plov.

You’ll need a good, heavy-bottomed pan with a close-fitting lid to make plov. In Uzbekistan, a cast-iron kazan is used; a large cast-iron casserole makes the perfect substitute.

Serves 6

450g basmati rice, rinsed
600g blade stewing steak, diced
150ml clarified butter or
sunflower oil
4 onions, cut into wedges
2 bay leaves
4 yellow and 2 orange carrots
(or use 6 orange), cut into
thick matchsticks
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
12 garlic cloves, unpeeled
12 hard-boiled quail’s eggs, peeled
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the rinsed rice into a large bowl of cold water to soak while you start the recipe. Season the beef with salt and pepper. Heat the clarified butter in the pan until hot and foaming. Brown the beef over a medium-high heat, in batches if necessary, then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon leaving the butter behind. Lower the heat to medium and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden. Return the beef to the pan with any collected juices, the bay leaves and a small
cupful of water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down very low, cover the pan and gently simmer for 1 hour until the meat is tender.
Spread over the carrot matchsticks, but don’t stir as you want to keep the layers separate. Scatter over the spices, and cover and cook for a further 10 minutes.
Drain the rice and layer it on top of the carrots. Poke the whole garlic cloves into the rice and flatten the top with the back of a spoon. Season very generously with salt and slowly pour over enough boiling water to just cover the top of the rice. Increase
the heat and leave the pan uncovered so that the water starts to boil away.
When the liquid has cooked off, make six holes in the rice using the handle of a wooden spoon to help the steam escape. Cover the pan and cook at a low simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat without removing the lid and leave the dish to steam undisturbed for a further 10 minutes. If the rice isn’t cooked, add a splash
more boiling water and cover again. Serve the layers in reverse, first spooning the rice onto the platter, then the carrots and finally the tender chunks of meat on
the top. Circle the hard-boiled quail’s eggs around the edge. A juicy tomato salad is the perfect accompaniment.

Taken from: Samarkand by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, published by Kyle Books, priced £25. Photography by Laura Edwards.