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==Oh no, not another celebrity chef promising to revolutionise our cooking habits?==
The latest celebrity cookbook trend seems to be trying to sell the idea that great food can be achieved without spending hours in the kitchen, or wasting precious time and money sourcing exotic and rare ingredients. I bought into this idea with Jamie Oliver's "30 Minute Meals", and had visions of being a doting wife creating three course meals for my husband every evening. Although the ideas in Jamie's book are great in principle, in reality I think it's unlikely anyone has the time or energy to rustle up food like that every night, alongside all the other modern day commitments.
This is where Rachel Allen has hit the nail on the head in my opinion. I own all of Rachel's books, as she's my favourite celebrity chef and it's a safe bet for my husband when it comes to buying me Christmas presents. Rachel is well known for being a down-to-earth baker and chef, with unpretentious simple home cooking being her signature mark. This book delivers fuss-free food, which Rachel herself describes as "unapologetically simple and straightforward"
To fit in with today's busy lifestyle, the book is split into sections to make life easy when it comes to choosing recipes:
1 Store Cupboard
2 Fast and Fabulous
3 Five Ingredients or Less
4 One Pot
5 No Cook
6 Fuss-free Extras and Sides
As you'd expect, each chapter is designed to make it easy to choose a recipe depending on your criteria. For example, if you're trying to run down your store cupboard supplies to make the most out of your supplies before payday, the "Store Cupboard" and "Five Ingredients or Less Chapter" is ideal for you.
This book has been a huge success in our household, and has proved to be very useful for midweek cooking, fulfilling its promise to deliver genuinely quick and easy meals, unlike other cookbooks which have failed. I did wonder with the book being called "Easy Meals", whether the recipes would be quick to make or not, as in my opinion, "easy" means that anyone could make them, not necessarily that they will be quick to prepare. In actual fact, the majority of the recipes take half an hour or less, although there are a few which take a bit longer, with the longest one being the lamb and chickpea tagine which takes a couple of hours in the oven after preparing. This still falls under the "easy meals" promise, however, as it takes about 15 minutes to prepare and the rest is done in the oven. This means you can be getting on with other things whilst your meal is cooking. The preparation time and cooking time are given separately, so it's easy to see exactly how long you'll be chopping and preparing, which is useful because there's a difference between an hour's cooking, and 10 minutes preparation followed by 50 minutes in the oven.
The layout of the book is typical of Rachel's work, being simply laid out with numbered instructions, and some beautiful photography. The majority of the dishes have photos so you can see what you're aiming for, and for me this also makes it easier to choose which dish to make as it tantalises my tastebuds to see the final result. There is also a little blurb at the beginning of each recipe, giving us a little history or tips for variations on the recipe, which is a nice addition. Each recipe details how long it takes to prepare and cook, and also how many people it serves. This is a bit inconsistent throughout the book, as sometimes a recipe will serve 4, but other times it will serve 4-6 or 6-8, which means that unless you are entertaining, you will end up scaling down the recipes at some point. Personally, I tend to either follow the recipe and freeze the leftovers, or "wing it" and add a bit less of the main ingredient, for example the meat in a meat dish. Generally I find the serving guides in cookbooks to be notoriously inaccurate, as my husband and I can quite easily polish off a dish designed for 4 or even 6 people.....unless that's just us being greedy!
Although I make a habit of reading recipes all the way through before starting, there are no nasty surprises to be found in Rachel's recipes. You're not going to get halfway through and discover you're supposed to leave your meat to marinate overnight, or chill something in the fridge for an hour. A lot of the recipes are heavier on cooking time than preparation time, which I think is deliberate so that you can get on with things as the dish is cooking. This means that even if you don't choose the quickest recipe from the book, you won't be slaving over a hot stove all day, but instead can pop the dish in the oven and check on it every now and then.
Likewise, the ingredients for most of the recipes are easy to source, with a lot of them being things you are likely to have in the cupboard already. A lot of the recipes are new ways of cooking things, such as the spiced lamb pittas which are a new way of using mince instead of doing the usual chilli or spaghetti Bolognese, and as such can be incorporated into your regular list of meals without having to make lists of ingredients to take to the supermarket with you. My personal favourite from this book is actually a dessert, which is a raspberry coconut pudding. It's basically a sponge based pudding but is very easy to make, with the ingredients all being mixed together and put in the oven for 50 minutes. Preparation takes about 10 minutes, but it's so impressive it's one I often do when people are coming round, as it is so well received for such little effort. The sensible ingredients also makes most recipes very friendly on the pocket.
The thing I love most about this book is that it's so practical. The store cupboard foods are things that you'll actually have in your store cupboard, which can be turned into decent meals with the addition of a few well-chosen ingredients. Rachel isn't suggesting everyone will have artichoke hearts in their cupboard, for example, but what she's saying is if you buy some artichoke hearts, you'll be able to make a dish based on the rest of the ingredients coming from the store cupboard. I hate those books where the "store cupboard" foods are things I've never heard of.
Likewise, the "Five Ingredients or less" chapter does actually use five ingredients, with the only extras being things you'll have in your cupboard such as olive oil, salt and pepper. Again, this is refreshing, because I've fallen for this description in other books, where five ingredients or less basically means "Five ingredients but we're assuming you already have ten other ingredients in your cupboard", which is a bit misleading. The No-Cook section gives some useful ideas for things like desserts, which can be thrown together with no fuss, such as little banoffee pots or strawberries with amaretti. This is useful for dinner parties when you want to prepare something quick yet impressive, rather than being stuck in the kitchen.
Is there anything I don't like about this cookbook? No, not really. Although I'm not suggesting that every single recipe is to my liking, there are enough recipes in this 352 page book to give everyone a good chance of finding many dishes they will like. The recipes which are suitable for vegetarians are also marked with a (v), which isn't relevant to me personally, but is a nice addition as it's not something you see in many cookbooks. I think Rachel has surpassed herself with this book, and I give her the thumbs up for keeping food simple yet tasty in a time where so many celebrity chefs are trying to outdo each other. Bring on Christmas and my next addition to the Rachel Allen collection!
Spiced lamb pitas
Raspberry coconut pudding
Five-minute pea soup
Lamb and chickpea tagine *** (this is an absolutely stunning dish which is perfect for those cold winter nights!)
==Availability and Price==
Currently available on Amazon for £8.92 (price correct Nov 12)
(Review also on Ciao under the username Gingerkitty)
I have a confession to make: I don't enjoy cooking. I'd even go so far as to say that I loath spending time in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove creating meals which get shovelled down hungry throats in minutes flat leaving nothing but the washing up! I'm one of those who counts it a success when I can make it in and out of the kitchen in half an hour or so, so when I spotted Rachel Allen's Easy Meals in the library and after giving it a quick flick through, I decided to borrow it.
Rachel Allen, for those who don't know, is something of an Irish Delia Smith. She has a pleasant and easy going attitude to cookery and doesn't go in for any of the 'cheffy' tricks that the likes of Messrs Blumenthal, Ramsey or Oliver adopt. Jamie Oliver may have created 30 minute meals but they take most cooks (well me at any rate) far longer than that to prepare but Rachel is all about good, simple food which tastes delicious and are actually easy to prepare and make. Rachel learned to cook at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork run by her, now, mother in law, and apart from her TV work, Rachel also lectures at the school.
Price and availability:
Easy Meals was published in September 2011 and offers 352 pages and 180 recipes with something for everyone. The price for the hardback edition is currently £14 from Amazon although new copies are available from other suppliers beginning at about £9.50 and there is a text only Kindle edition for £4.99.
I find the library is a great way to try out a recipe book and if it proves to be contain enough recipes that I'm likely to use, I'll then buy my own copy. After road testing this book and deciding it would be one I'd use frequently, I opted for the Kindle edition even though it doesn't have any photographs. This review, however, is based on the hardback edition.
As a non meat eater, I find that many cookery books tend to be too meat heavy to be worth buying. Although, like most general cookery books, this is mainly aimed at meat and fish eaters, there is a goodly proportion of recipes suitable for vegetarians (indicated by a (V)) and a good mix of meat, fish, vegetarian and dessert recipes to make it worthwhile buy for vegetarians. I should add that many of the recipes which include meat and fish could easily be adapted to suit a vegetarian diet either by substituting Quorn or something similar or by just leaving out that ingredient altogether.
The book is very simply laid out with a brief introduction at the beginning which explains the reasons for why Rachel wrote the book. She maintains that the book is for when you want to cook a great meal but don't want to go through all the complex steps that so many recipes require. As she says 'Truly great food can often be made in minutes and only using four or five ingredients'. The book ends with a very comprehensive index at the back and sandwiched in between the introduction and the index are the six main sections of the book:
Fast and Fabulous
Five Ingredients or Less
Fuss-free Extras and Side
The recipes are all laid out in a very easy to follow style showing preparation time, cooking time and how many servings. Even for those recipes not in the Five Ingredients or Less section, the ingredients lists tend to be pretty short and don't call for much in the way of the exotic. You won't find Rachel expecting you to have truffels or caviar to hand and even when a recipe calls for something rather more out of the ordinary, such as artichoke hearts, she expects these to be from a jar or tin in your store cupboard.
Each of the sections has a good mix of recipes from quick brunches and suppers to full scale main course meals and with roughly a third of the recipes being desserts. Possibly the One Pot section is less vegetarian friendly than the others, unless they're soup loving vegetarians but this is counter-balanced in the other sections and the whole book is lavishly supplied with great colour photographs showing how the food is supposed to look.
Although I only had the book on loan for three weeks, since buying the Kindle edition several of the recipes have found their way into my not very extensive repertoire. For me, the most versatile section is the Store Cupboard section and I can especially recommend the 5 Minute Pea Soup which is as quick and easy as opening a can and twice as delicious. The Minestrone from the One Pot section is another great soup recipe and is substantial enough to be a meal in itself and as for the Conchiglie with Spinach, Blue Cheese and Pine Nuts, it tastes gorgeous even when I make it. If you're a fish eater, like me, there are plenty of delicious recipes in this book. I can highly recommend the Yoghurt Masala Fish.
So what don't I like about this book? Well, the No Cook section is pretty much salad in its many and varied forms with the odd gazpacho and sandwich thrown in for variation. There are a couple of tasty puds in this section, however, which goes some way to make up for it but personally, I'd have preferred more recipes in the other sections and left this one out of the book altogether. The One Pot section is very meat orientated which makes it not much good for non meat eaters, especially as the long cooking times make it difficult to substitute the meat for any other ingredient and for me, the fish recipes do tend to rely heavily on shell fish, including squid, scallops and mussels, none of which I eat. However, apart from those little gripes, I think this book is a good investment for busy people who don't want to spend too much of their free time in the kitchen.
I love Rachel Allens books, her cooking is nearly always fast and simple and uses "normal" ingredients that you either have already in your pantry or can get easily enough. I like that fact that she seems like a natural cook, wholesome and unfussy.
Whilst this probably isn't my favourite Rachel Allen book, it is definitely worth buying. I've tried several of the recipes from it and they were all lovely, the biryani, chowder and lentils with sausages are now all firm favourites in our house and definite "againers" as my husband calls them.
The layout of this book is great, clear and simple with lots of pictures (even if my cooking doesn't end up looking like the photos it's nice to know what it's meant to look like!).
I had already bought Jamie's 30 minute meals, but if I'd seen this one first I wouldn't have bothered. It's set out much more simply and doesn't confuse instructions for 3 or 4 different dishes at a time.
And the best bit about it is there never seems to be much washing up to do afterwards!
So, whilst Nigel Slater will always be my favourite, Rachel is fast creeping up behind him!