Grudging four stars for good but not great cookbook
Recensito nel Regno Unito il 18 luglio 2018
This is a nicely put together cookbook from photographer, designer, blogger, Nina Olsson, influenced by cuisine from many parts of the world not just her native Sweden. The theme of the book is vegetarian menus (with vegan substitutes) for dinner parties for friends and family, so it does attempt to be a rather sophisticated selection of courses, whilst, at the same time, trying to be homely and satisfying. It’s a combination that doesn’t always work. It’s not a new theme, as there have been several similar cookbooks from Nava Atlas, Rose Elliott and Isa Chandra Moskowitz, all of which surpass this book’s vision and inventiveness. The book, however, is good and the recipes rarely overreach themselves and become too esoteric.
There’s no helpful introduction with essential cupboard supplies, in depth discussions of common or uncommon ingredients or prep information apart from a brief section on selected ingredients and possible substitutions. However, we do get a rather silly section on how to host a gathering, which was laugh out loud ridiculous and belied the hints of superficiality that lurk in the Plated section near the end of the book. There’s also a sharing the goodness section, which is a blog like personal essay on sharing meals. These two sections could have been better used with helpful information.
The Small Bites section is nicely varied from Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) to hurricane popcorn (with nori and shoyu) to the inevitable kale crisps. These recipes can be a bit fussy but they are worthwhile. The exception for me was the summer rolls with satay dip: the dip is nice but the rice paper wrapped salad is a bit stressful to put together and the ingredients are just too varied. Well done (with patience) the rolls look good, but I’m not sure they are worth the work to show off at a dinner party. The section ends disappointingly with a bland hummus recipe (as if we needed yet another one) and a smoky sweet potato tahini pie (with Parmesan, more later), which is no small bite but a considerable side dish. I made this with vegan cheese and despite including some of my favourite ingredients it wasn’t particularly nice…and I don’t think the cheese substitute was to blame.
Now let me take a moment for a rant. Olsson uses parmesan in the courgette involution and continues to do so throughout the book. Parmesan is not vegetarian. Although Olsson provides vegan rawmesan substitute recipe (which is good), the use of parmesan and not vegetarian hard cheese is stunning…something I thought vegetarian cookbook writers had corrected over a decade ago.
The Midsummer Feast section does include recipes for a sophisticated feast, although the Smorgastarta is well and truly over the top. I’m not sure how many cooks would attempt to build this spectacle. If it went wrong, it would be sending a significant amount of ingredients to the waste bin. To be truthful, I found the recipes in this section, from the green pea and broccoli fritters to the midsummer dream cake, rather tried and true vegetarian fare and uninspiring.
The Midwinter Feast section is a bit more interesting, but beware Parmesan is littered through this section. Although the very dressed up lentil meatballs are a lot of work for a standard lentil meatball and vegetarian gravy, they were pretty good. Whether such basic recipe and the result was worth it is questionable. I liked the cauliflower roast and tahini sauce and the vegan version of the gratin dauphinois with roasted leeks, but, once again, these recipes are not the most inspired hearty midwinter food. Olsson’s suggestion that the puffed potatoes could be served with the lentil meatballs was a bit too heavy even for a comfort food loving cook like me.
The Celebration salads section is the highlight of the book. The sweet potato, kale and spicy chickpeas with lemon almond dressing was worth the fuss and the cleaning up afterwards (this is not a one pot recipe). There is some true experimentation here and interesting ingredients (although the watermelon and oncoggia beetroot combo is a step too far): the New Moon Salad is filing and fresh (beans, quinoa, avocado and spinach) and the simplicity and surprise textures and tastes of the pea shoots and courgettes with tamari tempeh made a neat side or main. The Nordic Nacho Salad, the vegan version using Swedish crispbreads, was a fine spin on the boring nachos plate.
I looked forward to exploring the Heart Meals section, but whilst I applaud the international spin and variety of ingredients, the recipes I tried were not imaginative, innovative or even that tasty. The Golden Kerala Curry was okay and some of the components of the Rainbow Curry table were good, but the recipes were no better than what could be found in any Indian or world vegetarian cookbook. It’s the same with the ribollita recipe: yes, it’s a hearty meal, but there’s nothing special about it…unless you count the boody parmesan!!! A drop of redemption was found in the ragu and pappardelle. The recipe is nothing surprising, but it works very well, and barring the parmesan, the quantity of ingredients and the balance of seasoning make a nice and filling meal.
The Sides and Sharing Dishes section crosses lots of international boundaries and there are some delicious tit bits here. I always have reservations about broccoli as a standalone starter or side, even one as nice as Olsson’s crispy sesame broccoli. The book says to serve hot of course, but broccoli cools quickly and like others of the brassica family, when cool it is not pleasant in odour or texture and can fail to impress guests. Tofu often suffers the same fate and for the unconverted it can repel rather than attract. I liked the tofu dengaku, but I would be wary about leaving this on the table too long. The wakame salad was quite nice, although an acquired taste. I quite liked the simple pak choi with ginger and garlic. It’s not original in any way and gai lan is even nicer, but it is fantastic combination that can suffer some cooling without the detriment to palate and nose.
The Al Fresco section with its pages of pizza recipes is a bit dull. The tahini, sweet potato (you will have noticed this combo is a recurring theme in this book) and avocado pizza includes all my favourite ingredients, but doesn’t quite come together taste wise. The spelt dough is an artisanal step too far, too cardboard like, but the accompanying sugo sauce is very good. The cauliflower crust pizza, which I made without the egg (and parmesan!) turned out well the first time I made it, but the crust wasn’t so successful the second time around. Unlike potato based crusts, I found cauliflower a little less reliable in holding together.
The Plated section is the least appealing in the book. It’s more about appearance than taste as the interior designer in Olsson comes to the fore. It seems a bit outdated and some of it was unappetising. I did make the faux fishcakes with almond sesame dip, which was nice enough, but certainly wouldn’t serve four people.
The Sweet Endings section passed me by as I don’t have a sweet tooth.
I can’t quite decide what this cookbook wants to be. A semi gourmet cookbook or a semi-everyday cookbook for families and guests? Barring the unrelenting addition of parmesan, most of the recipes are sound and taste good. I did find its reach a bit scatter-brained at times and would have appreciated some focus: cut the bits and go for big heart meals or make the whole book a series of menu plans. I will return to this book for a few recipes, but it did not inspire or impress me the way I want good cookbooks to do.
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