With dozens of cookbooks, the River Cottage series should be nails-on-a-chalkboard tired by now. And yet Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has an uncanny knack for making his cookbooks something we actually want to keep opening night after night, hoping to find something new to toss in the sauté pan. In his recently released River Cottage Every Day cookbook, we do.
In part, we admit, we are drawn to his books for that fantastic British kitchen sensibility (sarcasm?) that reminds us cooking need not always be a one-sided American opinion.
And so rather than proclaim that the honey-baked rhubarb (p. 30) and baked breakfast "cheesecake" (p. 44, ricotta thickened with polenta) will please every picky brunch eater in your family, as so many American cookbooks claim on their glossy covers, Fearnley-Whittingstall reminds us that "of course, not everyone has the same appetite for breakfast, or indeed feels the same way about breakfast from one day to the next." Yeah, he has three kids.
The book is focused on what Fearnley-Whittingstall cooks up at home for his family -- breakfast, some pretty great lunchboxes (chicken-green bean-almond salad, nicoise frittata), quick dinners, leisurely weekend brunches and the occasional weekend entertaining spread. But this is not a "family" cookbook, or any other "type" of cookbook category, really (quick & easy, weeknight suppers, whole grain cooking, etc). It is simply the way Fearnley-Whittingstall cooks. The way so many of us cook, or perhaps aspire to cook.
And so the recipes his kids love to help make are here. Nothing fancy, but the usual suspects like whole wheat pancakes, of course. ("Oscar, ten, can now knock out pancakes from scratch for the whole family, in about half an hour flat -- well, they are pancakes.") Fearnley-Whittingstall admits he makes a point to involve the kids in his daily meal prep not just to teach them how to cook, but to reduce the working parent weeknight cooking crunch ("One of the best ways to make this [time shortage] work is to get the children involved in an early age"). Pretty clever.
He also makes a point to stock his pantry with staples -- homemade yogurt, nut butter, hummus (including a beet and walnut version), flatbreads,"refrigerator jams" (a quick, no need to jar it method) -- so family members can fish out whatever they want during the week.
There are "frugal" weeknight staples like ham and split pea soup and "thrifty fish soup with cheaty rouille" here, too. In fact, there is an entire chapter devoted to "Thrifty Meat." Think bones, tougher cuts of meat and offal (lamb neck with lemon and barley, slow roast pork shoulder with chestnut stuffing, overnight home-cured bacon chops), not coupon-clipping grocery store fare.
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Yes, there is a lot of meat here, but Fearnley-Whittingstall also includes a great seafood chapter, much of it also pennywise like the fried calamari with sweet chili dipping sauce and "thrifty fish soup with cheaty roille." The "Vegetables Galore" chapter is bursting with carrot-orange-chervil salads, wild mushroom tarts, and roasted root veggies with mustard, rosemary and honey ("The fact that there are way more recipes here than in any other chapter is no coincidence"), and we've already pulled out the ingredients for that sticky Jamaican-style ginger cake and black currant granita in the final two chapters on fruit and "treats."
But it is Fearnley-Whittingstall's prose that always has us coming back for second helpings (the pen-and-ink drawings included on top of the photographs in this book, like a sombrero drawn on top of a meatball, are pretty hilarious, too). And so we leave you with his thoughts on vegetables for a little farmers market inspiration the next time you find yourself in the grocery store picking up a "healthy" bag of baby carrots:
I'd go so far as to say that vegetables are, quite simply, the most imporant food there is... But let's not get too serious. The last thing I want to do is come over all half-shirted, virtuous, and ascetic about vegetables. Frankly, there's no need. Because not only should they give us great goodness, but they should -- must -- give us untold pleasure as well.