the guardian Sat 11 December 2010
No subject area excites designers and their cohorts to a higher state of ecstasy than cookery: full-page photographs on every spread, coloured type, textured paper, tricksy formats and rubbish legibility leaves them trembling at their desks, but hinders the involvement of the reader with the writer. Which bright spark at Conran Octopus determined that David Thompson's Thai Street Food (£40) would be so large that it would never fit a bookcase? That, when open, it would cover most of the kitchen table on which you are meant to be pounding, chopping and blending? The book itself is first-class. Few people will cook much of what Thompson describes: the materials are hard to come by, the techniques are often not domestic, but the value of his record of a subculture (which, counterintuitively, is of very recent origin) is great.
Meanwhile Phaidon have done their worst with René Redzepi's Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (£35). Undeniably handsome, it offers a stay-at-home glimpse of the intellectual underpinnings of this year's world's best restaurant. Chef Redzepi's exploration of the true meaning of local food and sympathetic, seasonal construction of dishes will send many readers off to their markets, hedgerows and gardens, but don't expect to get much culinary help from him. Once you're through the introductory matter (not to be missed), there are a hundred full-page photographs (without captions) of bits and bobs, mood-enhancers, and finished dishes that give gastro-porn a bad name. After that, the recipes. Some you might try (just), others might inspire, others will have you searching shelves for sea lettuce, Cladonia lichen, Grise Bonne pears, birch wood chips or wild chervil. Still more will leave you looking for the Thermomix, the Pacojet and sundry other gadgets. A present for the cook who likes a project.
These irritations are assuaged by the stand-out book of the season, for its virtues of no photographs, white paper and seemly typography. F Marian McNeill's The Scots Kitchen, Its Traditions and Recipes (Birlinn, £20) is a classic from 1929, introduced and edited by the Scottish writer Catherine Brown. A hundred ways with a neep may excite a few and depress many, but McNeill's use of quotation and description to portray a nation's food ways is artful and delightful. The recipes, as used to be the way, are generally laconic and require a cook to use the brain.
That organ is not in overdrive when following Jamie Oliver's instructions in Jamie's 30 Minute Meals (Penguin, £26). It promises a revolutionary approach, but seems merely to suggest trolling the supermarket shelves to buy as much as possible half-prepared, pre-washed and processed. This should have been a promotional booklet from one of the big four, whose tyranny over us is close to Orwellian.
Not many books this season concentrate on a particular subject beyond the personality of their author. Two exceptions are garden-centred. Nigel Slater's Tender: Volume II, A Cook's Guide to the Fruit Garden (Fourth Estate, £30) carries on where his first volume covered vegetables. His recipes are really very good, and as this covers fruit and nuts, there is welcome respite from the constant Mediterranean/Oriental tendency of most modern work. Then there is Stephanie Alexander from Australia's Kitchen Garden Companion (Quadrille, £30), which has growing instructions and comments in similar vein to Slater's (but not so artistic), followed up by a heap of recipes (which are not so simple). Alexander's previous Cook's Companion has a very high status in our house for its scope and imaginative take on a thousand ingredients (she will always have something useful to say), so I am sure this will be used with pleasure. For ease and directness, however, Slater has the edge.
Cookbooks often work to two paradigms. One is the dedicated enthusiast, willing to shop, search, source, chop, sniff, wait, work and dream until the masterwork emerges to boundless admiration. The other, the slightly put-upon soul whose task is to produce sustenance each day, every day, week in, week out. The two may mingle in many combinations, but this year the second has been well served by inventive collections of creative yet practical dishes from the likes of Sarah Raven, Rose Prince and Diana Henry. The curious cook was also lucky to have Yotam Ottolenghi's second book Plenty (Ebury, £25), which expresses to perfection our kitchen zeitgeist in this multi-cultural, demi-veg era, and to have his or her horizons broadened by Niki Segnit's Flavour Thesaurus (Bloomsbury £18.99), which miraculously broke out of the recipe straitjacket to range free over a thousand flavour combinations that could provoke a decade of furious cooking. Back to the daily round of meal production, the chef Skye Gyngell has written How I Cook (Quadrille, £25). The recipes are disarmingly simple but extremely appetising, and her practical advice is sound: a good book for the beginner with aspirations, dealing in clean and upfront flavours. Another general collection, this time of greater range and complexity, is Josceline Dimbleby's Orchards in the Oasis (Quadrille, £25). This is just great. She has welded a memoir to a cookery book, and it works. Her tone, thank the Lord, is unpresuming, but her life has been full of thrills, from an ambassadorial childhood in Syria and Peru, to motherhood in south Devon and travels hither and yon. She is an inveterate hoarder, so her scrapbooks have been raided for illustrations which, for once, are a delight. Long practice ensures that her recipes are sound.
I would like to rumble longer about soup books that have hopeless recipes for stock; pig books with no instructions for making bacon, sausages or hams; the decontexualisation of Elizabeth David into a "best of . . ." with full-page photography when you can buy the real thing unmediated from Grub Street; or the author who writes inanely: "I don't really feel a kitchen is mine until I've cooked a chicken there"; but I'll close with cheerful endorsement of Mark Hix's Hix Oyster and Chop House (Quadrille, £25), which has bold and muscular recipes that will feed the inner diner and, finally, Stephen Markwick and Fiona Beckett's A Well-Run Kitchen (Culinaria, £12). At this point, I should declare a professional interest, as we used to work together. Markwick has fed Bristol for more than 20 years, most recently at his restaurant Culinaria, from where you can buy this book (www.culinariabristol.co.uk). The recipes come out of Elizabeth David via George Perry-Smith and Joyce Molyneux. Everyone can cook them, and they result in much admiration and much happiness. You can't ask for more.
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