Review: The Free Range Cook by Annabel Langbein

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

The Free Range Cook by Annabel Langbein

published in hardback 6th June 2011 (Mitchell Beazley, £20.00)

New Zealander Annabel Langbein radiates health, energy and optimism. She’s the perfect personification of her food – clean, wholesome and beautifully presented. I admit that I winced when I opened her latest book and read that ‘when we started planning for the television series that accompanies this book, my husband Ted and I decided to plant a big garden on a terrace in the windswept paddock that overlooks the lake at our Wanaka hideaway’. I can’t think of anyone I know who vowed to grow vegetables to accessorise a TV tie-in. But once I started to read the book properly I was swiftly won round to some great, often delightfully simple and exceptionally delicious recipes.

Annabel Langbein is clearly a formidable force. She has already self-published 17 cookbooks and sold close to 1 million of them throughout Europe, Australia and North America. The Free Range Cook is a cleverly constructed book that’s ideal to get children interested in cooking. So many of the recipes like Sticky Buns, Apricot and Custard Tricorns, Vegetable Calzone, Busy People’s Bread and Prawn and Mint Rolls are perfect to make and eat together.

The book is divided into categories such as From the Garden, From Lake and Sea and From the Orchard and includes some inspiring and clever combinations of flavours. There are scores of pictures of idyllic lakeside barbecues, which look nothing like the smokey, slightly tense and rather tiring outdoor grilling I’ve ever tried. Even Annabel’s tea-smoked salmon looks both immaculate and delicious, a million miles from the version I attempted so disastrously last summer

The Free Range Cook is the perfect coercive weapon for the New Zealand Tourist Board, crammed as it is with pictures of perfect landscapes, wonderful produce and happily smiling people. Annabel describes glorious childhood days of fishing with her grandfather in the magnificent fiords of New Zealand’s southwestern coast, only reaching the remote waters via helicopter over the mountains. Her husband Ted apparently used to ride to school on a pony. Beat that for bucolic perfection.

I’m suffering serious envy over Annabel Langbein’s lakeside cabin in Wanaka, New Zealand and I can’t tell you how much I crave her wood-fired outdoor bread oven. I will of course have to make do with her book since both the cabin and the outdoor oven are out of my league. But as replacement therapy goes, this entertaining and highly enjoyable book is fine by me.

The Frugal Cook by Fiona Beckett

new edition published in paperback May 2011 (Absolute Press, £9.99)

There’s an innately reassuring quality about Fiona Beckett’s food. She always has something nourishing and sustaining to suggest for dinner, while calmly and politely nudging me away from my wilder and more extravagant tendencies. She’s the wonderfully comforting and persuasive Nanny McPhee to my dafter Willy Wonka-esque tendencies.

Absolute Press have been smart in publishing this new edition of The Frugal Cook with its striking, no-nonsense cover and glossy photographs. The book is full of practical advice on how to save money and spin food out so that it’s still delicious but goes further and costs less. Some of Fiona’s more draconian tips, like roping off an out-of-bounds leftovers section in the fridge, are a little too stern for me. But suggestions such as buying food loose, exercising portion control and grating food to make it look more substantial are both wise and practical. The recipes are often fun, like Beer-Can Chicken, or tasty like Newspaper-Wrapped Trout with Lemon Butter and I could eat her Summer Sausages with Peppers and Butterbean Mash right now.

Fiona Beckett is impressively prolific. She has written 22 books in all and there are enough recipes in this newly republished book to last you a year. But if you run out, try turning to Fiona’s hugely popular blog The Frugal Cook. The recipes there will last you a lifetime, keeping both you and your bank balance happy.

Review: The Ginger Pig Meat Book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

The Ginger Pig Meat Book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde

Published in hardback on 7th May 2011 (Mitchell Beazley, £25.00)

Photography Kristin Perers

If I was a pig I’d like to grow up on one of Tim Wilson’s farms. The pink-cheeked and chubby Yorkshire farmer describes his book The Ginger Pig as a ‘meat manual for the inquisitive domestic cook’. But it’s really an inspiring and often touching panegyric to the joys of rearing happy, healthy animals.

Co-authored by the food writer Fran Warde, The Ginger Pig answers every question I can think of about livestock, cuts of meat and how to cook them. It’s also a wonderfully entertaining book that reveals the passion, dedication and hard labour that goes into producing some of the country’s finest meat. Kristin Perers’ photographs of the farms, the animals, the staff and the recipes are magnificent.

The book explains why supermarkets prefer to sell meat with flavour-enhancing bones removed – sharp bones pierce shrink-wrapped plastic packaging – and why meat differs in flavour from season to season. It also includes endearing descriptions of the personalities and characteristics of different animal breeds. The ‘small, chubby rears’ of Plum Pudding pigs apparently make excellent roasts and they’re ‘blessed with a sweet temperament.’ The ‘skinny rears’ of the Large White breed don’t cut the mustard when it comes to ham but their long backs make for good bacon. The Bluefaced Leicester sheep hates bad weather, while the Blackface is the perfect mother.

So appealing do the authors make life on the farm sound, it’s easy to forget how gruelling life can be. Tim’s diary puts that straight. In summer his days start at 4.30 am and end after 10 pm. In the run up to Christmas Tim and his staff fulfill orders for 1,000 turkeys, 500 geese, 180 pigs, 80 lambs, 30 carcasses of beef and a mountain of pies, sausages, bacons and hams.

The Ginger Pig is peppered with over one hundred recipes, from spring roast lamb with oregano, to hogget stew with capers and olives, to an alarmingly hearty trencherman’s Toad-in-the-hole packed with whole chicken breasts stuffed with sausages and tied together with ribbons of bacon before being cooked in batter.

The business that started with three Tamworth pigs called Milli, Molly and Mandy and a boar called Dai Bando now has three farms in Yorkshire and four London butchers’ shops. The shops inspire such loyalty that one customer at the Hackney branch commissioned a three tier meat pie for her wedding, instead of a cake. The bottom layer was a classic pork pie, the middle section a chicken and bacon creation and the top tier was mixed game topped with cranberries glossed in farm-made gelatine.

Rather touchingly, the man who has nurtured literally thousands of pigs, cattle, sheep and chickens concludes his book by saying ruefully that he’s ‘spent so much of my life trying to produce the perfect animal that I may have forgotten to start my own family’. There’s a photograph in the book of him talking to a six-week old Tamworth piglet, the breed after which The Ginger Pig was named. I swear the piglet is saying ‘thanks Dad’.

Review: British Seasonal Food by Mark Hix

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

British Seasonal Food by Mark Hix

Published in paperback on March 4th 2011 (Quadrille, £14.99)

Photography © Jason Lowe


Razor Clams With Wild Boar Bacon and Hedgerow Garlic

Jason Lowe

Mark Hix grew up in a house so close to the sea in Dorset that he could spot mackerel from his bedroom window. At school he learned how to kill and pluck chickens and after lessons would sidle over to the pier to go prawning with his mates.

Brought up by his grandparents, Hix describes eating simple suppers of nothing more than his Grandad’s homegrown tomatoes served with dark brown Sarson’s malt vinegar, salt and buttered bread. Or a bowl of freshly boiled onions with melted butter. His Gran swore the home-grown onions would keep colds away, but he suspected they ate them because they were cheap. It was ‘a simple household’ where there was ‘nothing posh, just honest, earthy ingredients.’ His evocations of a frugal but happy childhood make British Seasonal Food a quirkily charming book. The recipes make it a great one.

While Mark Hix was eating tomatoes and Sarson’s by the sea, I was eating beetroot dipped in the same brand of vinegar a few miles along the coast. I recognise the childhood he describes. But what he has succeeded in doing is transforming those fleeting memories of sea air, shrimping, home-grown cucumbers and his Grandad’s prized chrysanthemums into a style of cooking that’s strikingly original.

The recipes he describes for razor clams with hedgerow garlic, skate cheeks, cod’s tongues, rabbit brawn, lovage leaf fritters and fried green tomatoes in beer batter are honest but supremely artful dishes that combine local, home-grown and foraged ingredients to magical effect. I imagine his Gran would have sniffed that the recipes are ‘too fancy’. My Great Aunt, provider of the beetroot of my childhood, certainly would have done.

Hix is notorious for his energy and has a ferocious appetite for work. True to his grandparents’ values he still forages for wild mushrooms and seashore plants because otherwise it would be ‘like ignoring free food.’ British Seasonal Food, in this new paperback edition, includes recipes for soused gurnard with sea purslane, fried duck’s egg with brown shrimps and sprue asparagus, as well as elderflower ice cream, apple mayonnaise and homemade celery salt. Most are relatively straightforward to make, if sometimes challenging to shop for.

Mark Hix now has three London restaurants as well as Hix Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, a few miles west of his old childhood home. He has the kind of crumpled, creased face that Gordon Ramsay used to have and arms like a no-nonsense hospital matron. But his food is delicate, exquisite and inspired.

This is the first Eggs on the Roof book review. There will be more reviews later in the year.