If I make it to the early yoga class, things line up so that I head in with unadulterated darkness behind me, but come back out to sun. It's a fleeting thing, but the contrast is especially bolstering. It adds to that ta-dah feeling of doing meaningful work to start your day. Crazy as it sounds, the making and eating of today's soup affords a similar feeling of goodwill. 

Nigella Lawson's Chinese-inspired Chicken Soup | Tara O'Brady + Seven Spoons

It's the Chinese-inspired Chicken Noodle Soup from Simply Nigella, a book which includes this cake — the most beautiful bundt imaginable, but also one so dulcet with the persuasive combo of five spice and apple cider that it's looks are rendered a second billing. Since the book came out late last year it's shouldered itself comfortably into a spot in my regular rotation. 

When it's me alone for lunch, brothy soups are my ideal. I make up some stock early in the week or late on the weekend, and then reheat it by the bowlful and cooking whatever add-ins I have around directly in my serving. Lawson's soup keys in on all that's appealing of that habit. The process is thoughtful and still the particulars are forgiving to fiddle to suit your likes.

Two days ago Sean brought home a plump but petite organic chicken, the perfect size to tuck snugly into a 4L cococtte. After a moment of bronzing, followed by a Shaoxing deglaze, the bird was joined by cilantro stalks, celery, and carrots, then water, garlic, ginger, soy, lime, and dried chiles. From there all is trusted to slowest blip and burble that can be maintained, under a lid clamped tight. But this, this is where it all shifts, goes sideways, and changes. What begins as intensely heady and clear, simmers into a with a wholly different character — one of redolent singularity rather than disparate components. 

The chicken came from its soak, pale and splendidly tender. The broth, deeply flavourful with supple weight on the spoon was a triumph, the ideal example of the alchemy of slow cooking. I ladled a clear, steaming cupful and drank it standing by the stove, in raspy slurps so that the air would cool it just enough to save my mouth. It made me feel lit up while soothed, like medicine and precious reward all in one.

When it came time for a proper serving, I laid a bed of noodles in my bowl then nudged some shredded chicken up beside. I brought the soup to another boil, and added leeks followed by Shanghai bok choy; first the stalks, then the leaves, so that the former was poached but the latter only wilted. At the table there came radishes, sesame oil, more soy sauce, the leaves from the cilantro now, and sesame seeds. The garnishes accentuated the broth — think of turning up the light rather than stealing the spotlight— and the slipping, tangled slide of noodles and vegetables went down with ease.

As an epilogue, the leftovers lasted three meals more, which made Monday's endeavour feel especially productive and satisfying. I hope you're having a great week. 

A quick endnote — Simply Nigella was photographed by my friend Keiko Oikawa and a public hooray for her felt apt. K, you've been such an inspiration for so many years, and you did an expectedly bang-up job with this. xx

One more — my cookbook was included in Food52's Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks this month, and while I was kicked out in the first round, to lose to Ruth Reichl hardly feels a loss at all. And, the nomination was truly the most unexpected honour. Cheers and thanks for that. 

 

CHINESE-INSPIRED CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP

"Actually, there are dual inspirations for this soup, for it really a version of My Mother's Praise Chicken from Kitchen infused with Chinese flavours. What you end up with is the sort of soup you want to eat in bowls held up inelegantly close to your mouth so that you are in easy slurping distance. I am embarrassed to say that I can't use chopsticks, unless they're the children's sort held together with a piece of card and an elastic band, but this soup really makes me want to learn.

I always recommend organic chicken (or organic meat generally) but I am mindful of the fact that not everyone can afford the luxury. Even so, if you use an intensively farmed chicken here (and the lack of taste is only one concern), you just won't get a flavoursome enough soup, in which case some bouillon cubes or concentrate in the water. 

I've given an exuberant list of ingredients for sprinkling on at the end, as I love that final fling of flavour. And though I haven't added them here, should you be making a fresh foray to an Asian food store to make this, and you see Chinese flowering chives about, they would be a real treat, and are so beautiful. Despite the Asian inspiration for the soup's flavour, I make a steep geographical about-turn and use golden nests (one per person) of an egg-enriched tagliolini for the noodle element, though I do also love this with those very thin mug bean or rice vermicelli. In fact, I just can't think of a bad way of eating this: even noodle-less, and thus rather not living up to its title, this is bliss in a bowl. "

— from Simply Nigella, by Nigella Lawson (Appetite by Random House, 2015)

Serves 6 to 8

INGREDIENTS FOR THE SOUP

  • 3 leeks, cleaned and trimmed
  • 3 carrots, peeled and trimmed
  • 3 stalks celery, trimmed
  • 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 small or medium chicken, preferably organic
  • 1 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup Chinese (Shaoxing) rice wine
  • tied stalks from a bunch of cilantro, plus leaves to serve (see below)
  • 2 1/2 quarts cold water
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt flakes or kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoons Szechuan pepper or crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more to serve
  • 2 fat cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated or minced
  • zest and juice of 1 lime, preferably unwaxed
  • 10 ounces baby bok choy, tatsoi, choi sum, or other greens of choice 
  • 4 ounces radishes
  • 2 ounces dried fine egg noodles or vermicelli per person
  • salt for noodle water to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil, plus more to serve (see below)

TO SERVE

  • Asian sesame oil
  • 2 (or more to taste) fresh red chiles, seeded and finely diced (optional)
  • leaves from a bunch of cilantro (see above)
  • finely chopped chives (optional)

METHOD

Slice each trimmed leek in half lengthways, and cut into 1/2-inch slices. Set aside. Cut the carrots into 1 1/2-inch lengths and quarter each log lengthways. Chop the celery into 1/2-inch slices, reserving any leaves to add to the soup at the end. Grate the ginger onto a plate for the time being. I use a microplane grater and get 4-5 teaspoons of fiery pulp out of this. Don't wash up the grater yet, as you'll need it for the garlic and lime later.

Now, with your vegetables prepped, untruss your chicken, cut off (but do not discard) the ankle part of the leg (I find kitchen scissors more than adequate to the task), and put the chicken, breast-side down, on a cutting board, then press down until you hear the breastbone crack — perhaps I shouldn't like this as much as I do — and the chicken is slightly flattened. Wash your hands, and then warm the tablespoon of vegetable oil in a pan that comes with a lid and that's big enough to take all the ingredients comfortably; I use a saucepan of 12 inches in diameter, 5 inches deep, which is a tight, but good, fit. 

When the oil hot, put the chicken in, breast-side down, and leave to brown for 3 minutes; the heat should not be too high for this or it'll start burning. Turn the chicken the other way up, then turn the heat to high and chuck in the rice wine. While it's bubbling, throw in the chicken ankle pieces along with the tied cilantro stalks, sliced carrots, and celery. 

Pour in the water, then add the sea salt flakes, Szechuan pepper (or crushed red pepper flakes), soy sauce, and finely grated ginger. Add the garlic, then grate in the zest of the lime, and squeeze in the juice of half of it. Let this come to a boil. 

Once it's bubbling, clamp on the lid, turn the heat to low, and let it simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Once the hour is up, take the lid off, then turn up the heat and bring it back to a boil again, and, once it is, add the leeks you sliced earlier. Cover partially with the lid and cook for 10 minutes, then let the broth simmer uncovered and confidently for another 10 minutes. This is to let the broth strengthen a bit. Then turn off the heat altogether, though keep the pan on the stove, clamp the lid back on, and leave for at least 20 minutes and up to 1 hour. While this is going on, I'd put a saucepan of water on to boil the noodles later, and salt it when it comes to a boil.

When you want to eat, remove the chicken to a board: it may be falling to pieces, but so much the better. Remove the chicken skin (I discard it, as for me there's no joy in chicken skin unless it's crisp), then take the meat off the bone and shred it. And by the way, should you not use up all the chicken for the soup, know that it is magnificent — flavoursome and tender — in a salad or sandwich the next day. 

Chop the stems of the greens you're using, and put the leaves into a separate pile. Quarter the radishes top to tail. Bring the pan of soup back to a boil, add the stalks of the greens and the quartered radishes, and let it come back to a boil once more. At the same time, add the noodles to the pan of boiling salted water, and cook them (if you're using the fine noodles or vermicelli they shouldn't take more than 2-3 minutes). 

Add the leafy parts of the greens to the bubbling soup and drain the noodles. Put the noodles and shredded chicken into your serving bowls. Taste the soup for seasoning, and add more salt (or soy) and the juice of the remaining half of lime, if you think it needs it. When satisfied, ladle the fragrant broth, with its vegetables, on top of the chicken and noodles, add a drop of sesame oil to each bowl, then sprinkle with chopped chiles, cilantro, or chives, as you wish. Bring the bottles of soy sauce and sesame oil, and some more of the chopped chiles and herbs to the table for people to add as they eat. Warning: don't burn your mouth; this soup smells so good, I'm afraid it's easy to be dangerously impatient and eat while the soup's still scaldingly hot. 

STORE NOTE:

  • Transfer leftover cooked chicken to a container, cover, and chill within 1 hour. It will keep in refrigerator for up to 3 days

FREEZE NOTE:

  • The cooked and cooled chicken can be frozen, in airtight containers or resealable bags, for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight in refrigerator before using.

NOTE FROM TARA:

  • Because I'm probably the only fan of radishes in my household (I'd be sad, but it means more for me), I left them out of the soup pot and added them instead to my serving alone.

 

Posted
Authortara
12 CommentsPost a comment
humid

Unless I'm forgetting a pivotal rhubarb-related incident from the wilds of my childhood, I do not hold any nostalgia-based predilection for it. Not an ounce, not an iota.

I can't recall my first taste of rhubarb. I can't even tell you, in a tone with longing evident, of the time I had a certain dish that changed my life forever because of its rhubarbed glory.

I learned to cook rhubarb because those I love the most like it very much. A boringly straightforward reason, I know.

It is not for lack of want, because I do believe that everyone should have a rhubarb story. And if I'm being my most upfront self, I should admit it was partly this shortcoming of my storytelling that had me quiet the last few days. You see, I wanted to talk about rhubarb, and the rhubarb syrup that is essential to my new favourite drink, but couldn't decide upon where to begin.

But now I do. The other day I was someone's backyard to celebrate a family birthday. There were ladies in broad sun hats and floral-print dresses. Children, including my own, ran barefoot in determined pursuit of butterflies. There were stories scored by that that specific laughter synonymous with family; familiar, teasing and affectionate.

We walked among flowers in bloom and those just beginning. I walked with Benjamin across soft grass, knelt down to pull back a parasol of leaves to reveal slender stalks of green turned blush. "It's Strawberry Rhubarb," I was told by his Great Grandfather. "That plant has been in our family forever."

You can't beat that.

I hardly would believe this peaceful place smack in middle of a city, at the height of the heat of a hot, hot June day, could exist so perfectly sweetly had I not been there myself. An afternoon when ticks of the clock matched the imagined click of a shutter, each moment a worthy capture and keeping.

That, right there, was my rhubarb moment. It's the story that I'll stick with.

drinking summer

This syrup made its way on the scene earlier than all of that. I made it over a week prior, and have been sipping it steadily in drinks. So steadily, that I've become mildly addicted to it. Muddled with mint, then lightened with sparkling water, it is suggestive of cream soda with a heady, rounded vanilla sweetness, but herbal and sour at the same time.

We're almost out, I'm sorry to say. In happy news, I've just had word that some more rhubarb, from that very garden I mentioned, has been picked and is on its waiting for us. My heart, feet and greedy appetite skipped at that.

If you try this, I think yours might too. Happy summer, friends.

RHUBARB SYRUP

A tweaked version of a Nigella Lawson method. I like my finished syrup to have the approximate consistency of maple syrup. Depending on the rhubarb used and your own tastes, it might be necessary to further reduce the liquid in a saucepan on the stove (after the fruit has been sieved out).

INGREDIENTS

  • A generous 2 pounds (1 kilogram) rhubarb, cleaned and trimmed
  • 3/4 to 1 cup caster sugar
  • 1 fresh vanilla bean, split
  • Juice from half a lime, optional

METHOD

Preheat an oven to 375°F (190 °C).

Cut the rhubarb into chunks, mine were about 2-inches in length. Skinny stalks can be a bit longer, fat ones can be more stout - you want everything to cook in reasonably similar time.

Pour the 3/4 cup of the sugar into a large roasting pan or ovenproof casserole. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean with the dull side of a knife and drop them into the sugar. Add the bean too. Using your hands, rub the vanilla seeds and pod into the sugar, breaking up clumps of seeds as you go. Once thoroughly mixed, add the rhubarb and toss to coat.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and roast for 35-45 minutes until the rhubarb is soft when pierced with the tip of a knife, but not falling to mush. Remove the foil and roast for another 5-10 minutes, to further reduce the collected liquid (keep in mind, the syrup will continue to thicken as it cools).

Using a fine-meshed sieve, strain the juices from the rhubarb. Stir the fruit to extract as much liquid as possible, but be careful not to push any solids through that might mar the clarity of the syrup. Remove the vanilla pod from the fruit in the sieve.

At this point the fruit can be reserved for another use.

While the syrup is warm but not hot, check for sweetness. Depending on your taste and the specific qualities of your rhubarb, you might want to add a bit more sugar or a squeeze of lime. Once to your liking, chill thoroughly.

The syrup can be used as you would a simple syrup in cocktails and lemonade, or simply over ice with sparkling water and mint. It's particularly nice over scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Keep both the fruit and syrup refrigerated until needed.

Makes around 2 cups, depending on the fruit and the thickness of the reduction.

Notes:

  • I like to fork the fruit into a chunky compote, then eat it with Greek yogurt, and an extra pour of syrup to finish.
Posted
Authortara
29 CommentsPost a comment

Most often an optimist, my moments of pessimism sometimes pay off. Last week, not even an hour after we talked about melting snow and bare earth, it snowed. I just knew that would happen.

That night, we shoveled the driveway.

Then, starting two days later, it snowed for three days straight. We cleared and shoveled often. We almost broke a shovel.

With the romantic fancy of my burgeoning hope for spring, I'd be blameless in muttering a sailor's curse or three as I tromped up and down and back and forth across our driveway and up the garden path. Maybe it is the madness of midwinter, but I have, shockingly, embraced the snow.

And shoveling. I really like the shoveling.

I volunteer to shovel. Trippingly pulling my boots on, and with the words only halfway out of my mouth, I'm out the door. I try to wait until after dinner, so everyone's fed and happy; when the darkness has settled in and all the streetlights are on.

In that quiet, the scene that greets me is especially beautiful. The languid wind of our street, the glow of porches lit in rows, a car rolling slowly past with its wheels crunching the snow the plows haven't cleared yet.

Tethered to our house with the task of shoveling, it's a snow globe existence; a world contained by how far I can see around the bend of the road.

There is a deep satisfaction in the feel of a blade cleaving through the weight of snowdrift, the metallic scratch of the shovel against the pavement. There is a thought of productivity and industry, a chest-puffing pride in getting a job done.

And yet, moving back and forth across the drive, the pattern of my footsteps is simultaneously meditative. The imagined dome of my small world condenses my thoughts and clears out the rubbish. I come back inside, cheeks flushed and arms tired, my mind full of a hundred new ideas.

I'm an odd duck, I know. But it makes me happy and I always sleep well after.

Yes, I really do like shoveling. Not something I'd ever thought I'd say.

And, while we're on the subject of likes, I really like cakes made with tangerines and almonds. It's a like I think you'll find easy to understand.

I made this cake as an interpretation of Nigella Lawson's Clementine Cake from her book How to Eat, which as it happens is an interpretation of Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake.

It's made without flour; at its most simple the recipe only requires fruit, nuts, eggs, sugar and baking powder. I've fussed up the cake because of the ingredients I had, and appreciated the effect of those additions. Neither version disappoints though, so either way you're set.

It reminds me of marmalade, with the pith and peel used to their fullest. It is modestly sweet with a sourness you feel on your teeth. That devastating bitterness humming underneath the waxy fat of the ground nuts.

The exterior bakes to a glossily sticky bronze, with a blond crumb underneath. The scent of almonds and citrus is remarkable, smelling as you'd imagine wintertime should.

To eat this is to swallow the March sun, a beam of brightness on a snowy day. Or, if you're like me, it's just what you want when you come in from an evening of shovelling.

TANGERINE ALMOND CAKE

Adapted from Nigella Lawson. I use skin-on, raw almonds for colour and texture. Blanched almonds or pre-ground meal can be used as well.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound tangerines, around 4 medium, washed well
  • 1-2 tablespoons orange flower water (optional)
  • Butter for greasing a pan
  • 9 ounces raw almonds, see note
  • 6 eggs
  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

METHOD

Place the tangerines in a medium pot. Pour over the orange flower water if using, then fill the pot with cold water until the fruit is covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the tangerines are quite tender, around 2 hours. Drain the fruit and set aside to cool.

Over a large bowl to catch the juice, split each tangerine in half horizontally, and pick out any seeds. Put the flesh, peel and pith to the bowl, and discard the seeds.

Preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly butter an 8-inch springform pan, then line with parchment paper on the bottom and sides (with a collar of paper extending a little past the rim of the pan).

In the bowl of a food processor with the blade attached, grind the almonds to a fairly even meal. Add the tangerines, and process to a thick purée. Bits of nut and tangerine skin will still be visible.

In the large bowl used for the juices earlier, beat the eggs until blended but not frothy. Stir in the sugar and vanilla bean seeds, then the baking powder and salt. Fold in the fruit mixture.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean and the cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan, around 1 hour. If the cake is browning too quickly towards the end of baking, tent with foil. Remove from the oven and cool, still in its tin, on a wire rack.

Makes one 8-inch cake that's even better after a day.

From soup to nuts, from turkey to trifles, we are done.

With family both near and only slightly-far, the Christmas holiday stretched over a number of days, our merry band of revelers moving from house to house, from city to city, in celebratory caravan. The journeys and visits rushed by in a blur of sparkle and shine, with spirited carols and a chorus of laughter our theme.

In that wonderful blur there were moments, those treasures in time when your breath catches and click, it's forever in your memory.

A tree groaningly, gloriously laden with ornaments, most especially at the precise height of a three-year-old who is thisclose to turning four. A pair of slender glasses that chimed when clinked, filled with berry-hued bubbly drinks to be sipped over the quiet hours of mid night. That bite of shortbread cookie, swirled with raspberry jam and finely chopped almonds, buttery and tender and tart and perfect.

Full, happy days they were.

After all of that joyous hubbub, the time that follows seem quiet. But is a lull that is not without its own particular charm, as anticipated as the holiday itself.

These plaid flannel pajama days are not meant for rushing about, but for settling in. The first day after our celebrations Mother Nature granted us the gift of the First Proper Snowfall we've had this winter, amounting to far more than all of the dustings we'd had up until that point. Out our windows all was white, white, white, with the spiky tips of evergreen poking through the backyard drifts here and there.

Once finished with the business of the obligatory snowball fight and tromp through the powder, we were content to retreat to the house, with excuse to spend time on the comfy couch by the fire, warming ourselves with a blanket pulled up to our laps and a snacks nearby.

Yesterday, the snack was popcorn to go along with movies. It's another tradition of our family - someone (usually that's plural) always gives someone else a movie (also often plural) in their stocking, watched after a lively debate as to the order in which they shall be screened. Ensconced upon the aforementioned couch, these movie marathons require a snack that can be eaten out of shared bowls with little messing about. This popcorn fit the bill nicely.

It was inspired by the famous spiced nuts served at the bar of Union Square Café in New York, and the result was highly-flavoured and equally-addicting. Spiky needles of rosemary, fitting for the season I thought, were chopped into the tiniest of evergreen specks and then combined with crunchy Demerara sugar. A sprinkling of cayenne and salt added heat and savoury depth to the mix. As the adornment for mounds of hot, buttery popcorn, the combination was met with murmured praise as everyone's mouths were stuffed full.

Just in case I don't see you before Friday, all my best wishes to each of you for the coming year. 2010 looks singularly grand on paper, don't you think? Let's make sure it lives up to that. Until then, if you need me, the end seat, closest to the fire, is where you'll find me.

By the way, did you know that theMenu for Hope campaign has been extended until December 31, 2009? You can still bid on raffle items, here, with full details on how everything works here. And oh! I have added more items to my personal contribution to the effort, raffle item CA03; I will be including some vintage copies of Gourmet magazine along with paper ephemera from lovely design in my collection of a few favourite things.

UNION POPCORN

Please consider these measurements a rough guide, and more of a suggested combination of flavours. I like the inclusion of a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes at the end; the capricious flecks of firecracker heat add an element of (mild) danger that makes this more than just a mindless munchable.

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 cups freshly-popped popcorn, still hot
  • 2 teaspoons Demerara sugar
  • 1 teaspoon finely-chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, depending on taste
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • A good pinch of dried red pepper flakes (optional)

METHOD

While your popcorn is popping, mix together the rosemary, Demerara sugar, salt and cayenne in a small bowl. Set aside.

With the popped popcorn in a large bowl, drizzle a some of the butter over the top and toss to coat. Repeat, drizzling and tossing, until all the popcorn is coated. Now continue this process with the spice mixture, scattering on some, then tossing the popcorn lightly, then adding more until it is evenly seasoned. Sprinkle over the red pepper flakes, if using, and serve.

Makes 8 cups.

Notes:

• Although I've not tried the method with this recipe, Lara's Chile Lime Tequila Popcorn (by way of Heidi) uses the method of drying the seasoned popcorn in a low oven for five minutes. I'll be trying that next time. (And by the way, that chili lime popcorn is super good.)

• If you do not have Demerara, turbinado or raw sugar would be best. Do not use brown sugar or Muscovado instead; Demerara lacks the sticky quality of those, and you need something granular here.

• The recipe for the original spiced mixed nuts can be found here, via Nigella Lawson.

Posted
Authortara
21 CommentsPost a comment

A fine balance; salty, sweet, savoury and all-around delicious, Ina Garten's Maple Roasted Butternut Squash from the book Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.

Martha. Ina. Nigella. Three first names that hardly need last names to be recognized. Three names that are now entities unto themselves; brand names, names that are used as verbs ("I Martha'd up something to decorate the mantle"), as adjectives ("That's such an Ina tablecloth"). Names that have been carefully-cultivated in their marketing to evoke a sense of familiarity and, almost, friendship.

Martha Stewart, Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson have turned cookbooks into cooking shows, cooking shows into housewares lines, specialty food products, magazines and much, much more. I am surely not alone in saying that these women are each a huge influence to me in the kitchen; in the way I cook and, in many ways, the way I look at food.

It seemed as though the holidays had arrived early last month, when all three of these prolific authors published cookbooks - all coming out within a two-week span. As you can imagine, an admitted fan like me was in food heaven.

True to their established brands, the ladies did not disappoint with their offerings. Martha Stewart is once again the teacher with Martha Stewart's Cooking School; Ina Garten is the ever-gracious host, who doesn't stray from her roots, with Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics and Nigella Lawson continues her role as the ebullient gal pal in the seasonal Nigella Christmas.

Here's a peek at each:

Martha Stewart's Cooking School (Clarkson Potter, 2008), lives up to its name; the hefty book not only feels, but also reads, like a textbook. Although publicity material would like you to consider Martha at your side, guiding you through the recipes, the book instead delivers a vaguely school-marmish incarnation of Stewart at the head of the classroom. After a fairly welcoming introduction, it is down to business and the book dives into its curriculum. First off, a summation of the rules of the kitchen, laying out gentle reminders of what one should keep in mind when approaching a recipe, stocking a kitchen, and while cooking. Following that is an in-depth, expansive list of suggested baking and cooking equipment for the well-prepared cook.

Chapters are structured as studies of specific ingredients; highlighting the particular techniques and recipes that best showcase the qualities of that ingredient. For instance, the Egg chapter has the master technique of scrambling, followed by a recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell cups. The "extra credit" for the lesson is a walkthrough on mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.

What makes these chapters wholly appealing to contemporary palates is the range of influences that are covered. So while the Soup chapter might focus its attention on the proper method for making Basic Brown Stock and Glace de Viande, there is also instruction on preparing Dashi. Further along in the book you'll find recipes for Sole à la Meunière alongside Fish Tacos, and Duck Confit a few pages before Lobster Rolls.

Since the book is aimed at both the novice and expert alike, I asked Sean (a capable but infrequent cook) to review Martha Stewart's Cooking School as well.

He felt the book more than a little intimidating. From its size to the textbook-like layout of the pages, it is an impressive tome. The photographs, save for intermittent chapter title page shots of Stewart smiling obligingly, are simply styled with little adornment to the food or setting. The pages are often crammed with details; step-by-step photos, notes on procedure and ingredients, and companion recipes all fight for space in recipe margins.

Despite the jam-packed information, there were a few lapses in accurate instruction. Sean astutely noted the frequent instruction of "season with salt and pepper" might be simple to the accomplished cook, but to the novice, the lack of measurement (even as an estimate) is troublesome. In another instance, a companion recipe omitted the instruction to preheat the oven at the start; this oversight, again something one used to cooking might assume, left Sean's prepared dish waiting for the oven to come to temperature.

Those slight issues aside, while this might not be the sort of cookbook one wants to cuddle up with on the couch for a good read, it is a well thought out, comprehensive course. The information is dense, but the scope and depth of topics covered, and attention to finicky elements of technique and nuances of ingredients, makes this a valuable resource guide for the home cook.

Chapter headings (or in as labelled here, lessons): Introduction • Basics • Stocks and Soups • Eggs • Meat, Fish and Poultry • Vegetables • Pasta • Dried Beans and Grains • Desserts

To summarize: Cooking basics, but not basic cooking.

Recipes: A selection of recipes from the book can be found here.

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics (Clarkson Potter, 2008) is Ina Garten at her generous, welcoming, best. Ina is, for me, the author I often turn to when looking for a dish that will be a resounding success. French-influenced and unapologetically old-fashioned, her cuisine is elegant yet straightforward; Garten believes in the best ingredients, often prepared simply, to their best effect.

This book continues upon her mantra of "turning the volume up" on dishes, seeking out and amplifying flavour to its maximum potential. Garten discusses the need to season and taste throughout the cooking process, often stressing the importance of a last hit of something - acids, herbs or something as simple as a smattering of coarse salt - as the finishing accent to a dish.

Those familiar with Garten's style will not be surprised to find that she makes good use of butter and cream for fortifying richness, lemon juice and zest for their puckery brightness, and thyme, rosemary, basil and parsley are her essential herbs. Particularly in this book, more often than not, Garten turns to roasting as the best way to bring out the full depth of flavour of an ingredient.

For example, the Roasted Tomatoes with Basil are promised to recreate summer's taste with winter's supermarket plum tomatoes. Soused with a healthy sprinkle of sugar and syrupy balsamic to mimic sun-ripened sweetness, then blitzed in a hot oven for a short 30 minutes to concentrate and caramelize, the tomatoes emerged slumped and slightly shriveled, but still brightly crimson. When eaten alone, I found the tomatoes were good, but lacking in the savoury-sweet complexity of their slower-roasted cousins. However when eaten alongside other dishes (meats as recommended by Garten and tossed through hot pasta with shavings of Pecorino as recommended by me), the tomatoes were surprisingly well balanced, contributing an acidic hit that paired nicely with richer counterparts. While not 100 per cent August splendor, these were a bright bit of sunshine on a December table.

Still on the roasting, the Mustard-Roasted Fish was rich but pleasingly piquant. The sauce, mustard and crème fraîche, is lifted by the salty burst of capers - accentuating the acidity of the Dijon mustard and bringing much-needed counterpoint to what otherwise could be a stodgy dish. Although Ms. Garten might clutch her pearls at the thought, I have also tried this recipe with sour cream in place of the higher fat crème fraîche, to equally-successful results.

Garten's Roasted Potato and Leek soup is a rustic, earthy take on the classic Vichyssoise, has already commanded repeat performances at our dinner table. The Maple Roasted Butternut Squash has a mellow sweetness perfectly complimented by salty pancetta and aromatic sage; I found this combination nothing short of addicting.

It is not all roasting in Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, though. Garten stays close to her standards with perfectly-textured Easy Sticky Buns, buttery Wild Mushroom Risotto stained golden with saffron, and (though she forgoes the title of crisp) a juicy Plum Crunch - a classic Barefoot Contessa dessert. With a chapter devoted to the Cocktail Hour, Garten is in her usual fine form.

The books' styling also follows Garten's preferred style; full-colour, full-page photographs accompany each recipe, helpful hints and tricks are organized at the start of each chapter, and recipe notes are filled with her personal anecdotes.

Ina Garten's recipes simply work; when using her books you are pretty much guaranteed delicious food that is almost-always as easy to make as it is to eat. Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics follows the high-standard of her previous books, and although some recipes may seem well-trodden, Garten serves them up with such aplomb that one would hardly notice - and if you do, you're far too busy eating to care.

Chapter headings: Cocktail Hour • Soup • Lunch • Dinner • Vegetables • Dessert • Breakfast • FAQs • Credits • Sources • Barn Sources and Resources • Menus

To summarize: Basic need not be boring; get ready to roast.

Recipes:

Roasted Tomatoes

Maple Roasted Butternut Squash

Bruschetta with Peppers and Gorgonzola

Parker's Beef Stew

Honey Vanilla Pound Cake

Nigella Christmas (Knopf Canada, 2008) is like having Ms. Lawson over for the holidays, as her latest publication is more a guidebook to eating, drinking and socializing your way through the season than a simple cookbook alone.

Lawson has written the book as such, eschewing traditional chapter subjects like Starters and Mains for sections that reflect event-based needs. From the days leading up to the holidays to the days that follow, Nigella Christmas has the recipe for the occasion. This choice in organization makes for an enjoyable read, as Lawson walks us through her own Christmas reminisces, but for future reference the Index is essential. It would be hard to remember (for example) if the Christmas Rocky Road appeared in the chapter about open houses and entertaining, or if as a suggested food gift (the answer is the former).

Like Martha and Ina in their respective books, Nigella travels through known-territory here; trifles, pavlovas, roasted hams and Christmas puddings, pomegranates and Proseco and Italianate influences - all of these are part of Lawson's established repertoire and have a presence here. And yet, whether it is that the reader is distracted by the fanciful wrapping or not, the book feels a fresh revisit to well-loved traditions. Some are classic (Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts, Roast Rib of Beef with Port and Stilton Gravy), some are gloriously-kitch (Bacon-wrapped Chipolatas, Fully Loaded Potato Skins), but all are Nigella doing as she does.

Generous in its size, the books' coffee-table-suitable proportions make it seem a gift in and of itself. As always, the book is pages full of her usual literary wit, mellifluous prose and engaging manner. And despite its dimensions, Nigella Christmas is just the sort of cookbook one reads as a work of fiction - it is that charming. The book is gorgeously-styled; each and every image of food sparkles with holiday cheer. A prevailing palette of cranberry reds, golden yellows and deep chocolate is set off by snowy whites and glistening lights. Cheeky photographs of the author, dressed in festive garb and perched in holiday surroundings, appear often. I particularly enjoy the photo of Lawson, resplendent and serene as she reclines on a couch with a set of novelty reindeer antlers upon her head. It is through this tongue-in-cheek fun with her own image that Nigella comes across as inviting rather than narcissistic.

Nigella Christmas is a gift best-suited to those already-fans of Nigella Lawson. It is so firmly entrenched in the Nigella lexicon that those unfamiliar with, or simply not fond of, her often visited pantry staples would most likely find this book far too specific in its scope. This is not an introductory course to Lawson, nor is it a portrayal of a generic holiday - it is an unabashed, celebratory romp in the world of Nigella, as bedecked and bodacious as we have come to expect.

Chapter headings: The More the Merrier • Seasonal Support • Come on Over • The Main Event • Joy to the World • All Wrapped Up • A Christmas Brunch for 6-8 • A Bevy of Hot Drinks • Dr. Lawson Prescribes • Stockists

To summarize:Nigella Christmas is as bright, bold, and bedazzled as the Christmas Tree in Rockafeller Center.

Recipes:

Ginger Glazed Ham

Pumpkin and Goat's Cheese Lasagne

Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake (as labelled in the book)

Gloriously Golden Fruit Cake

All cover images courtesy of their respective publishers.

While my husband does not share my love of cooking, I take great pleasure in the fact that he does share my love of food. With is combination of enthusiasm and appetite, he is a rewarding audience to cook for - appreciative and just a bit greedy.

While I was thrilled at recent gifts of cookbooks and foodie magazines, a part of me does think that my dear Sean was even more excited. After far too many days featuring the customary menus of the season, it was he that flipped through my new books, taking note of any particularly tempting ideas. Feeling a bit burnt out after the aforementioned feasts, I was all too happy to hand over the responsibility of culinary creativity (and the associated shopping trip) to my willing partner.

It is a strategy we have been known to employ, one that prevents me from falling into a routine of recipes and challenges me a bit to boot. I will admit to exercising executive privilege now and again, balancing Sean’s often-carnivorous tendencies with lighter fare or substituting ingredients I know are more suited to our tastes. The exercise keeps us both involved in the decision of what we eat, with Sean frequently, and pleasantly, surprising me with his choices.

Most recently, it was a recipe by Tyler Florence that piqued interest - fat noodles with buttered artichokes and crab. Looking at the requisite glossy photo presented alongside, the unctuous tangle of pasta and seafood immediately recalled Nigella Lawson's chili crab with linguine. Featured in the book Forever Summer and on the television series of the same name, hers is a recipe I have carried around in my mind for years. I vividly recall salivating over the sauce alone - luscious bits of pink crab meat specked fiery orange with chili. It was one that I have always intended to make, but have never found the occasion.

Not wanting to pass up the chance now, I combined the two recipes to best appease my (nagging) curiosity and to meet Sean’s request. The result was a triumph; rich enough to feel a bit special and celebratory, still fresh with bright lemon and peppery ribbons of green.

A harmonious beginning to a new year.

Linguine with crab and artichokes
My interpretation of recipes from Nigella Lawson and Tyler Florence. I had not intended to share this recipe, but after tasting it I decided it was worthy of a feature. My sincere apologies; some of the ingredient quantities are estimates as I did not weigh and measure as I cooked, as I usually do.

Ingredients
500 g linguine
1 large clove peeled garlic, or two if you are so inclined
2 teaspoons kosher salt
A good pinch, about a scant 1/4 teaspoon, dried chili flakes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
275 ml jar of artichokes, drained and rinsed well, halved if large
250 g crab meat, preferably lump
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
A couple of handfuls of baby arugula (rocket), or other greens
Pepper, to taste

Put a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Cook the pasta, according to package directions or to taste. As the pasta will continue to cook when you toss it with the warm sauce, I would advise cooking until just under al dente.

Meanwhile, in a small food processor or pestle and mortar, crush the garlic, salt and chili flakes into a smooth purée. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and olive oil. When just melted, add about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta cooking liquid, along with the garlic purée. Continue to cook, stirring, until reduced by about 1/3. When thickened, add the artichokes and gently toss to coat.

With the heat on low, add the crab meat, lemon zest and juice and stir to combine. Tip in the cooked, drained pasta, turning so that the noodles are well-slicked with the buttery juices. Add the parsley and arugula, continuing to turn until the greens are slightly wilted. Check for seasoning, garnish with additional chili and fresh greens if desired, serve.

Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a light lunch or entrée.