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We Brits love a good roast dinner – we’re famous for them the world over – but how often does your roast not quite live up to expectations?

Whether you’re looking to get crackling to die for, a more succulent roast chicken, rare roast beef, potatoes which are crunchy on the outside and fluffy in the middle or simply some new ideas of what to do with fish, vegetables or even fruit, Molly Stevens has the answers.

In All About Roasting you can jump straight in and cook the recipes (beware that measurements and temperatures are for a US audience but conversion tables are at the beginning of the book) or, if like us you’re serious about honing your skills, you can first read about the principles of roasting – from a definition and history to the science behind the perfect roasting techniques through to preparation, temperature, shelf positions, timing, checking if it’s cooked, resting and carving. You name it, she’s covered it!

There are handy tips throughout (ever thought of lining your baking tray with greaseproof/parchment paper to stop your potatoes from sticking or salting your meat for 24 hours before cooking to ensure it’s juicy and tasty? Both work!) and some tempting photography. Though there aren’t as many photos as we’d like of finished dishes there were plenty demonstrating key skills step-by-step, such as trimming joints, butterflying and rolling or carving.

You can tell from the writing that Molly is someone who has put a lot of time and dedication into this book – many a technique was thoroughly tested to ensure we were guaranteed success.

At our Cookery Book Supper Club we tried, with more than satisfying results, the basic roast chicken using the pre-salting method, both the simple roasted potatoes and the British roast potatoes, a more tricky pork tenderloin roulade, butter roasted plums with vanilla, ginger and rum as well as a surprising dish of roasted cherries with creamy polenta. Full bellies all round again!

Not instantly struck by the publication, we grew to appreciate it as a great reference for showing us how to turn a good roast into an exceptional roast. We’re all now well on the way to being masters in the art!

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This book by the revered chef, Simon Hopkinson, has been regarded, since its original publication in 1995, as one of the must have cookery books, even rated ‘most useful cookery book’ by the Waitrose Food Illustrated panel.

At this month’s Cookery Book Supper Club we decided to take a look at what all the fuss is about.

There’s something to be said for heaps of amazing photography in a cookery book but the inimitable style of prose used throughout more than made up for the lack of photographs in this book.

As the intriguing title of the book would suggest, Roast Chicken and Other Stories is unlike any other recipe book we’ve read. It’s a cross between a novel, reference book, historical journal, autobiography and cookery book.

The book is highly personal; a collection of 40 of Simon’s favourite ingredients, divided into chapters in alphabetical order. Asparagus, chicken, eggs, garlic, hake, smoked haddock and veal, to name a few.

Each chapter starts by setting the scene; there may be an interesting fact, an autobiographical anecdote, a story about the restaurants which shaped Britain or a short ‘fanfare’ about a favourite chef to whet your appetite. The handful of recipes which follow have been chosen because they allow the ingredient to be the protagonist in the story.

There’s an interesting selection of recipes; a combination of his own creations, interpretations of classic dishes as well as unabridged recipes from Elizabeth David, Margaret Costa, Alice Waters, Joyce Molyneux and others who influenced his career and love of food. On the whole the recipes are homely and simple, requiring just a few ingredients, and Simon’s love of food and cooking really shines through.

With just one exception (the lemon surprise pudding), the recipes worked well and were delicious. The baked new season garlic with creamed goats cheese would be fitting as a dinner party starter, the oriental salad was a treat for the taste buds and the  leftovers made a great packed lunch the next day, the onion tart with a green salad would be lovely for a light al fresco tea and the lamb breast was an excellent Sunday lunch alternative.

Whether Roast Chicken and Other Stories truly is ‘the most useful cookery book’ is debatable but we did, in general, enjoy the book and certainly ate well this month.

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Inspired by recent reads from the Quadrille Classic Voices in Food series and having spotted a few old recipes in Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories whilst doing my Cookery Book Supper Club ‘homework’, I decided to give a couple a go yesterday for our Easter Sunday lunch.

For our main course, breast of lamb Ste- Ménéhould,  the recipe for which appears in the book exactly as it was written in Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, including a reference to the cost of the meat in Harrods (8d a pound).

Breast of lamb is a cheap and often overlooked cut of meat which has seen something of a revival in recent times with many a chef extolling its virtues on cookery shows and in food mags. I’ve come to appreciate the meat again after eating it over the last few months at Flinty Red, the Mi Casa pop up and Abode Manchester, my experiences far removed from my memories of very fatty, stuffed and rolled roast breast of lamb as a child.

The two-part cooking process of this recipe appealed to me since it would surely result in a succulent and tasty piece of meat and ample opportunity to render most of the fat. The lamb is first braised in water with carrot, onion and herbs for a couple of hours (I chose parsley stalks, a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf as it’s what I had to hand and threw in some peppercorns for extra punch). The bones are removed and the meat is left to cool under a weight, after which it’s easy to trim off some of the remaining skin and fat if you wish. The lamb is then sliced, brushed with mustard before being egg and breadcrumbed and cooked for a second time.

Served with a sharp mustard vinaigrette with plenty of parsley, it was a lovely Easter treat. Breast of lamb Ste- Ménéhould is one of those fantastic dishes which shows that a little can go a long way and that, with a little time and imagination, it’s more than possible to eat like a king on a budget.

For dessert I chose to make lemon surprise pudding. This pudding, of which Simon says he never tires, comes from the Four Seasons Cookery Book by Margaret Costa, once owner of a restaurant called Lacy’s in London. This being a recipe for a self-saucing pudding, the surprise for my unsuspecting dinner guest would be found when digging the spoon into the pudding; under the sponge there’d be a delicious creamy lemon sauce.

As the cook, I received two surprises! Firstly, the raw mixture is nothing like anything I’ve come across before and as I was combining the ingredients I was incredulous that this ‘slop’ could turn into a delicious dessert. I would surely need a miracle to deliver the final surprise but I kept my faith in the recipe!

The zesty wafts coming from the oven were encouraging. I was hopeful that we’d have a refreshing dessert to finish the meal. 

SURPRISE!

The surprise was jaw-dropping! Underneath the lemon scented curdled mess was a pool of lemon flavoured water. The pudding was an unmitigated disaster and it was time to raid the fridge for chocolate!

Disappointed and annoyed at the results, I questioned myself and the recipe. I’m not a regular pudding maker so perhaps it was my inexperience showing through? Had I mis-read something? Had I mixed the ingredients in the wrong way? No, I had followed the short and simple recipe to the letter.

A quick Google this morning to see if there was perhaps a typo in the recipe (15g of flour couldn’t be right?) led to this amusing Simply Clare blog post on the subject of lemon surprise pudding. I’m not alone. Her experience and those of the numerous people posting comments reflected my own. If only I’d found this before attempting the recipe!

There’s a lesson to be learnt from my homework. Breathing a new lease of life into old recipes so that we can continue to enjoy our culinary past for generations to come should be encouraged but it’s vitally important to thoroughly test a recipe before it’s published.  

Never one to be defeated, I’m going to try to rectify the recipe and return it’s true element of surprise. Until that time, lemon surprise pudding is a heritage recipe I won’t be passing onto my children and grandchildren!

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Mexican food in restaurants in this country has so often left me disappointed and I’m yet to find a Mexican cookbook that meets my expectations. I’ve begun to wonder whether my idea of Mexican food is just wrong, but how can that be so when ingredients such as fresh and vibrant avocado and tomatoes, umpteen varieties of chillies, corn tortillas and limes are typical of the cuisine?

The idea behind this month’s Cookery Book Supper Club book is a great one: Mexican Made Simple. What better than a book that makes an exotic cuisine accessible to the home cook written by someone, Thomasina Miers, who has lived in the country for some time gathering invaluable knowledge?

I had high hopes, thinking that maybe this would at last be a Mexican cookbook with which to expand my repertoire beyond chilli con carne, fajitas and Tex-Mex style tacos.

With much gusto, I worked my way through the recipes, trying far too many to mention. We ended up with a mixed bag of results; some lovely dishes, many mediocre and one was just odd!

We were disappointed by several dishes and struggled to understand how tasty ingredients like chorizo, thyme and cheese could result in something quite lacklustre. There were a few highlights; the sweet chipotle paste, refried beans (well worth the effort) and rice pudding flavoured with vanilla, cinnamon and the zest of orange and lime. Best of all though was the cucumber agua fresca. Seeing past the vibrant green colour, this is a fantastically refreshing and summery drink, great to cool the heat of chillies. The odd dish, in case you’re wondering, was meatballs de Mehico, containing capers, boiled egg, rice and milk!

I think of myself as an accomplished home cook, not afraid to try something new, experiment with unusual ingredients and happy to tackle a complex dish, but at times I was stumped by some of the recipes. I felt a little misled by the title of the book since, for a great part, this wasn’t Mexican made simple. A fair few of the recipes involved hours of preparation and several intensive and time-consuming steps. Others had long, off-putting ingredients lists I wouldn’t expect to see in a book like this without some kind of words of encouragement to persevere. Insufficient photographs made it difficult to know how unfamiliar dishes should look and a lack of clear and accurate instructions led to some puzzling and frustrating time in the kitchen.

I also found some ingredients, especially the varieties of chillies, tricky to source and ended up shopping online. Whilst I appreciated the message from the author that it’s not important to use all the correct ingredients, I was hoping for at least some level of authenticity. Why make a Mexican dish if it isn’t going to resemble the genuine article?

I have mixed feelings about the book. I wanted to like it, I tried my hardest to embrace it and whilst it has grown on me a little throughout the month, it’s never going to be one of those books I go back to time and time again.

Mexican Made Simple has all the building blocks for a good book. The range of recipes is interesting and enticing. Mexican dishes you’d expect to see are combined with ones many would never have come across had they not visited Mexico. What I feel is lacking is some care and attention to detail which would make this an unmissable and very usable cookery book for any home cook and lover of Mexican food.

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This month’s Cookery Book Supper Club book is Moro: The Cookbook. To kick off proceedings I made charcoal-grilled quail with pomegranate molasses.

OK, so I improvised a little with chicken thighs instead of quail and a domestic grill instead of a barbecue (the book does say that quail is an alternative to chicken and being unable to get hold of any of the wee birds and it being almost winter I felt justified in my substitutions) but I think it still counts as a recipe test in preparation for book club!

It’s a Lebanese recipe in which the bird is marinated in sticky pomegranate molasses and fragrant spices then slowly grilled. It is tangy, succulent and absolutely delicious.

The recipe says to serve the meat with a watercress and pomegranate seed salad and a pomegranate molasses dressing. The salad and dressing were amazing but served with the marinated meat, we really did get a good old slap around the taste buds, even with my own delicate herby couscous to calm things down! I’ll definitely make them again but I think I might hold off on the double whammy next time!

In case you’re up for giving your taste buds a wake up call and are wondering where you can get your hands on pomegranate molasses, try Souk Kitchen on North Street, where they have a small shop area, recipe cards, as well as a wonderful restaurant. For those not local to Bristol or who’d rather buy online you can find it at Maroque. Be warned you may well spend a fortune on ingredients, cookware and bits and pieces for around the home!

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Tuesday night was fish night at Cookery Book Supper Club and with recipes this good why wait until Friday?

A slight breakdown in communication meant that we reviewed not one but two of Mitch Tonks’ fish cookery books this month – Fish: the complete fish and seafood companion and Fresh: great simple seafood. There are worse mistakes to make!

The two books are brimming with delicious fish and seafood recipes which are a joy to cook and eat. The simplicity of the recipes, quite rightly, allow the fish to be the star of the show: we are instructed to either simply grill, fry, bake or poach the fish and serve it with a tasty accompaniment or treat it delicately with herbs and spices.

On the menu at Supper Club from Fresh were:

The creamed leeks and runner beans are a staple in Angie’s kitchen where she pairs it with lamb, chicken as well as fish.

On the menu from Fish were:

  • grilled bream with cumin, lemon and sea salt
  • grilled salmon with watercress, capers and mint 
  • spiced new potato salad

The spiced new potato salad accompanies a plain grilled salmon fillet in the book but it is such a fabulous, easy recipe which is bursting with flavour that I had to share it with our book club members. It will definitely be a regular on our dinner table and will work well with meat as well as fish.

                  

Other highlights from the book are:

  • hake with green sauce and clams
  • bream cooked en papillote with garlic, chilli and rosemary

The recipes for both of these and others are on Mitch Tonks’ website.

Fish and Fresh offer the reader more than just recipes – they are also reference guides, containing information on fishing, sustainability, alternative names, notes on taste, texture, territory and seasonality. Handy tips, tricks and photographs feature alongside the recipes – what to ask the fishmonger, how to make life easy for yourself in the kitchen and what to look out for when buying fish.

These are books we’ll be dipping into regularly – both are more than worthy of pride of place on the cookery book shelves in our homes.

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We travelled to Dartmouth on a bright and crisp autumn day. The reason for our visit, a meal at The Seahorse – a birthday present for my mother-in-law to be. Lunchtime was upon us as we boarded the higher ferry to cross the Dart so we headed into town to the only other place we’d heard about – RockFish!

A warm welcome awaited us along with the promise of very fresh fish (as the strapline goes, so fresh tomorrow’s is still in the sea) and golden chips. We were spoilt for choice with a long list of seasonal fish and seafood, batter and breadcrumb options and the usual side orders of chips, mushy peas and curry sauce.

Our meals were brought to the table in cardboard trays: breadcrumbed red gurnard and good old-fashioned scampi with tartare sauce, calamari with aioli and a crab sandwich on brown, accompanied by piles of chips and bowls of mushy peas. The fish was divine, the chips cooked to perfection and the mushy peas the best I’ve tasted!

We received a nice surprise as we were leaving. Mitch was in the restaurant, on his break from The Seahorse kitchen further down the Embankment. He came over to say hello and ask if everything had been ok for us. He struck me as a cook and business owner who genuinely cares about and takes an interest in his customers and staff and is always looking for ways to make improvements (though we would have been hard pushed to find fault!). 

Parallels have been drawn between RockFish and Rick Stein’s fish and chip restaurant in Padstow but Mitch has got every detail of RockFish right and for me, there was no comparison. If lunch was this good, just how big a grin would we have at dinner?

A walk around town and the sea air stoked our appetites for the evening. We donned our best bib and tucker and headed back into town. As we stepped out of the taxi, the large, heavy wooden doors burst open, we entered the warmth of the intimate dining room of The Seahorse restaurant and were greeted with a beaming smile and a wave from the kitchen. Glasses of prosecco were sent our way with a message from Mitch: ‘congratulations on doing the double!’.

We were astounded by the service we received, great service so often a rarity – the staff were friendly, attentive, extremely knowledgeable and obviously passionate about the restaurant. They talked us through the menu, brought out the fish from the kitchen for us to see before we made our decisions and knew just when to leave us be.

The large window dividing the kitchen from the dining room means that Mitch can keep a constant eye on proceedings. Messages from the kitchen and dining room were constantly being relayed to all the staff, including news of my mother-in-law to be’s birthday.

Mitch’s approach to the food is simple – let the fish shine through. We chose starters of red Mediterranean prawns, grilled and dressed with olive oil, spaghetti with prawns and cardoon in a rich tomato sauce which had a deep shellfish back note, mussels from the nearby Elbury Cove which were packed with flavour and the zuppa di pesce – it came, was eaten and the dish refilled! 

Following the stunning starters, expectations were high for our main courses and were exceeded: sea bream cooked en papillote with roast garlic, chilli and rosemary – strong flavours but delicately applied to the fish; John Dory which had been given an Italian treatment with a tomato, anchovy and olive sauce; skate traditionally served with black butter and capers, and fritto misto (a selection of crisp fried monkfish, John Dory, red mullet, prawns, whitebait, squid and chiperones) which overflowed from the plate!

Towards the end of service Mitch came out from the kitchen to talk with his guests – not in a pretentious way and expecting praise but to actually talk – though, yes he did sign books and menus, say ‘Happy Birthday’ to the birthday girl and have his picture taken with me too!

As a coincidence, Mitch Tonks’ Fish cook book is being reviewed at this month’s Cookery Book Supper Club. I had spent the previous couple of weeks reading, testing recipes and tweeting about the delicious dishes I had created. RockFish, having picked up my tweets, told me that Mitch was really interested in what we were doing so, of course, there was one obvious topic of conversation when he reached our table.

Unfortunately Mitch is unable to make it to book club on Tuesday but I did offer him an open invitation for whenever he is in Bristol!

There’s no doubting that Mitch Tonks is at one with the fish he sources from Brixham fish market and knows how to make your day, evening, or even year!

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