“Melt a small knob of butter in a small pan and add a scrap of garlic. Over a thread of heat, allow it to flavour the butter for a minute or two and then remove it.”
Some might want a more explicit expression of temperature. But a "thread of heat" is an evocative choice. Simon Hopkinson could have plunked in the practical term, low. But he didn't, and I admire that. This isn't a technical manual. It's about the sensual pleasure of cooking.
Every time I open it, I fall hard for things I've yet to cook—cold ham soufflé, roast duck with cider, cream and apples, and sea trout in champagne sauce.
And I rush back to make simple cream of vegetable soup—carrots, watercress, zucchini, button mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes—cooked to a vegetal concentrate. With a tangy cream finish—a nod to its Normandy roots. The essential chore of cranking it through a food mill. The country substance of it in warm shallow bowls. A restorative for the body and spirit.
Or pot-roast chicken with potatoes, bacon, garlic and thyme. The potatoes are near translucent from sopping up fat and meat juices—a nudge with a fork, and they're rubble.
And Tomato curry—creamed coconut, curry leaves, cardamom, chillies, ginger, garlic—a sublime late summer dinner that takes a little more than half an hour from start to finish.
Hopkinson got the idea for the cookbook over a long boozy Saturday lunch with friends. Camaraderie and the pleasures of the table are threads holding it together. In form, it's serene, not busy.
Many of the headnotes are long—what's not to like about a good cook who wants to talk. Pull up a chair. But a favourite of mine, for cold poached pork belly, is brief. "Please be in the mood and make the time to cook this recipe. It is absolutely delicious and needs love and care lavished upon it."
There are chapters for each week of the year—with an opening essay and several recipes on a theme. It's culled from his weekly column for the Independent.
In "I Know What I Like," Hopkinson writes about returning to familiar restaurants in Paris. "Too much of a dull creature of habit, that's me."
Jason Lowe's images rise to meet the words. Like the veal scallopine on the cover—pounded thin on the bone, heavily seasoned, and cooked in a cast-iron pan until golden. Frothy brown butter and a scattering of pungent sage leaves to finish. It's from the chapter "The One and Only" that begins with a meandering essay on the gastronomic charms of Milan.
It's also a signal that sometimes what's best is simple.
We're in the season of new cookbooks. Like tomatoes, green beans, and prune plums, there's a glut on the market in mid-September. The pace is frantic with media tours and holiday listicles. I sometimes wonder how a cook with a book keeps up. The whole thing feels a little like hawkers at a fall country fair.
I've also grown cynical about cooks producing books on an industrial scale. I'm sure they buoy the bottom line of many in the business, but there are a few who need to take a long sabbatical.
So here I am, when everything is new, recommending a book that's out of print. I, too, am a creature of habit.