It is often said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. The women of yore relied on the culinary skills passed on to them by their mother's and granny's but sadly over the past decade or so this tradition has also been a victim to the hectic pace of modern life. Increasingly men and women depend on the recipes downloaded on the internet or the cookery show on telly or sometimes a chef's cookbook to cook at home taking a healthy break from the fatty, salty and deathly packaged meals. Heston Blumenthal at Home is an excellent cookbook for those folks in which I count myself as one.
WHO IS HESTON BLUMENTHAL?
For those wondering whether cookbooks could be written by a mouth freshener, Heston Blumenthal is one of the most innovative chefs of our times despite carrying an unusual surname that resemble a mouth-freshener. However, despite his fame as a 3 Michelin star chef for the Fat Duck and Dinner, two superb restaurants and numerous appearances at various television cook-shows his name is not easy to recall as say Gordon Ramsay's as Heston is not known to inspire home cooking with his obsession for elaborate and perfect cooking. He remained a hobby cook's nightmare with some of his dishes supposed to take three days to prepare. But with this cookbook he has attempted to alter that perception and image that Heston Blumenthal and not elaborate are contradictory.
For those who are still unsure of this guy, Heston Blumenthal is British and has an OBE. He calls himself self-taught with a scientific approach to cooking and his appetite for gastronomy took him occasionally to France (as all Michelin chefs do).
Heston Blumenthal introduces his cookbook by saying 'Welcome to a strand of my cooking that you may not be familiar with'. It is a conscious attempt on his part to get the perfect recipe of the Fat Duck onto the family kitchen.
The introduction discusses the nuances of what constitutes taste and what forms flavour, and what is the difference between taste and flavour. His discourse on the essence of flavour is a relish. He categorises taste to be sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Flavour comes from specific pairings of these five tastes or through careful encapsulation or subtle infusion.
There are 13 chapters: Stocks - Soups - Starters - Salads - Meat - Fish - Sous-vide - Pasta and grains - Cheese - Sides and condiments - Ices - Desserts and sweets - Biscuits, snacks and drinks.
Each chapter has an introduction of Heston Blumenthal's approach to cooking methods and understanding of ingredients. Each chapter has plenty of recipes. And not to completely be unlike him each chapter does come with a historical sermon and technical tutoring on that particular recipe or dish.
The first chapter naturally is on 'stocks' which are often the underpinning of many-a-dishes. What follows is an impressive repertoire of soup recipes. The chapter on 'starter' talks about techniques like curing, smoking and pickling. There is a simple scotch egg recipe but then there in a déjà vu mushroom jelly with mushroom cream. The 'salad' chapter have methods to prepare the vinaigrettes and the salad sauces. It also tells you what to look out for in the salad bag of the supermarket - why iceberg lettuce is as vital as the exotic rocket in making that perfect salad. My favourite here is a simple green bean and radish salad. I would definitely not attempt the intricate vanilla mayonnaise nor recommend it for home cooking.
I am a vegetarian and hence cannot comment much on the meat and fish chapters. But I did read it and it has methods to brine the meat overnight before roasting and special recipes for roast chicken, chilli con carne, tea-smoked salmon and hay-smoked mackerel and fish pie.
'Sous-vide' is certainly not a chapter on home cooking. It requires a special machine and the machine is expensive. Why I read it and enjoyed was the concept of placing vacuum-packed food in a water bath for an appropriate time at an appropriate temperature without boiling. The essential technique is that the food is slowly heated without the food ever boiling up retaining all the vital nutrients. This is akin to the concept of slow cooking but presently is nigh impossible to achieve without the appropriate machine. Last heard Heston Blumenthal was working with some kitchen appliance manufacturer to develop a cheap 'sous-vide' machine. I would need to wait for that cheap machine to be commercially available before I can lay my hands on trying out his recipes from this chapter.
'Pasta and grains' throw up some ridiculously named recipes (non-vegetarian and hence I am unqualified to comment but nevertheless with interesting nomenclature) - crab lasagne for example.
Speaking about the chapter on cheese, my vote for the star recipe would go to the ridiculously named but fabulously tasty and exquisitely flavoured Cheese Toastie -ridiculously named because it is hardly a toastie (as I seem to understand) with the use of an unusual ingredient called washing-up sponge.
The recipe for 'sides and condiments' are indeed mouth-watering and delightful. I would mention the ones that I tried and very simple - pickled cucumber, Red cabbage gazpacho and parsley butter. Ices have unheard of ice-cream recipe like bacon and egg ice cream and equally unusual ingredients like dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide).
There is also a broad collection of Dessert, sweet, biscuits, snacks and drinks recipes ranging from simple Golden syrup cookies to the sophisticated Chamomile panna cotta with Pineapple marshmallows and triple cooked chips in the middle.
Some of the recipes mentioned above are damn simple while some can darn you to your kitchen table for as long as eighteen hours like braised pork belly (his estimate, not mine) or the seven hour onion soup. Some recipes require pan, pots and a flame while others might require use of a refractometer or a blowtorch. Some recipes have ingredients that are easily available in a corner shop while others need unusual substances such as soy lecithin and dried konbu. Some recipes cover a small portion of the page while others need 2 pages to just cover the ingredients (may be a bit exaggerated). Some recipes have simple names like roast chicken while others are tongue-twisters like liquorice poached salmon with liquorice jelly or Marmite consommé. Some recipes are for the hobbyist while others are definitely for those who want to bring professional cooking into their homes.
It has got around 150 recipes and there is something for everyone. But then it is not the average cookbook for home cooking. Despite his attempts at changing his image this book is for the serious hobbyist cook and not for those occasional visitor to the kitchen. No doubt the use of specialist kitchen appliances, unusual ingredients and sophisticated techniques have been kept to a minimum but the obsession with getting the right flavour, texture and perfection remains.
I would leave the rest to the reader to get hold of the book and enjoy the read by immersing into the depths of culinary art even if you do not plan to cook anything of it yourself.
I would just leave you with a taster - my shorthand summary.
Broccolli with chilli
Heat 1tsp of olive oil in a pan. Put over medium heat and drop in the broccoli florets. Cover with a lid and cook for 5min approx. shaking pan from time to time for even cooking. Add chilli flakes as desired and toss the broccoli to cover them evenly with the flakes. Season it with salt and freshly ground pepper before serving.
Also in Ciao Uk under same name and title.