Saturday, August 28, 2010


Anne made pancakes for our brunch this morning. One of life’s pleasures, a simple dish yet tasty. In the days when I was doing half the cooking it was one of my favourites. I preferred treacle to maple syrup but better than both is plain sugar with lots of fresh lemon juice, the sweet and sour mixture contrasting with the rather bland background of flour, egg, milk and melted butter.

In last Wednesday’s blog I wrote about the pleasure of preparing and sharing food. . Here is a line from Ian Wedde’s ‘The Commonplace Odes’: ‘A good cookbook is as good as a book of poems’. Like any line wrenched from context it loses meaning as it takes on a life of its own. I like it, however, as a stand-alone comment.

During Anne’s recent Melbourne visit she went to a bookshop called Books for Cooks. She bought several books.  One was Donna Hay’s ‘Flavours (“Marie Clare” Style)’. I’ve been dipping in to it. I see Amazon rate it 4.75 on a five-point scale. It’s easier to rank cookbooks than schoolchildren. It certainly is a ‘beaut’ book. Recipes and photographs are thematically arranged in flavours, vanilla, chocolate, lemon and lime, garlic, chilli, basil, etc. Eye-catching and mouth-watering, the ideal combination for the arm-chair cook which is what I’ve become.

Details of the origins of the flavouring and suggestions for its use add further interest. I’ll take one example, the chapter on garlic and onions Native to Asia this plant family has been cultivated since pre-historic times. Anne’s already tried out a white bean with garlic dip as an entrée. Both roast garlic and onion soup and a pork roast garlic smeared look easy, while the balsamic chicken on garlic couscous looks an interesting combination. There is a fantastic Chinese dish, which begs experimentation.

I used to sometimes get the wok down to stir-fry. Garlic, spring onion and ginger in oil nearly always was my starting point. The trouble with occasional Chinese cooking is the various specialist sauces. They were not being used fast enough. So we did less than  we kept planning to. And now we another excuse, a good Chinese takeaway very near our apartment. .

When I was cooking I used garlic a whale of a lot. Whenever Mum visited she’d say “I don’t want any of that garlic muck’. The casserole finished she’d say ‘that was lovely. What did you put in it. I’d tell her ‘red wine and crab apple jelly’ and leave it at that. It had scuds of garlic. How could you people would say? My response, she’d told me about the tooth fairy.

Hay’s book has leeks as an entrée. I added red wine for this dish. I especially grew autumn leeks to have in early winter, fresh green stalks. In a small frying pan I’d combine with the wine, a dash of olive oil, salt and pepper and some chicken stock. The wine bubbles down to a nice jus. Delicious. I also used to pickle onions. I used to like them hot and fiery, eye-watering territory to the uninitiated.

Part of the book’s appeal is that it is basically a cook-book rather than a cake-baking guide though it has a very good lemon tart. I was a cook rather than a baker, though as well as pancakes I used to make pikelets.

Drooling through the book I bring my own background information. Anne bought a basil plant the other day. It’s in a trough on the kitchen windowsill. Usually she waits till the days are warmer. Basil originally came from India, so it’s not hardy and has to be grown fresh each year in temperate climates. Basil and tomato are a culinary delight, pairing together like wine and cheese. The French call it herb royale and it’s one of the ingredients of Chartreuse liqueur. I can imagine the brothers of the Carthusian order in their garden, picking and drying the basil, lemon balm and all the other ingredients as they have done for centuries. I am sure they enjoy the scent of the soil and warmth of the sun as much as I used to.

Even though I no longer cook I can read. It’s like travel. I cannot go down the Mississippi but I can accompany Jonathan Raban on his solo voyage. I can’t go to restaurants in Switzerland but M.F.K.Fisher can take me to them and share her pleasure. I regard Fisher’s ‘Art of Eating’ as one of the great books of the 20th century. Auden stated that she was the best  prose writer in America. .

Today’s cookbooks often combine travel and recipes – an irresistible combination. Coffee table books at their best. Though I have one gripe. The designers often take over. Recipes in red on grey may look nice but can be hell to read especially if one is trying to juggle book and ingredients in a small kitchen.

Of course TV brings cooking and travel together superbly well. I am appreciating Rick Stein’s Eastern Odyssey at present. I can’t savour the smells but I can see the landscape and the process of making the meal. I like Thai food. There’s a delicate fragrance there that other cuisine does not seem to have. Watching Stein’s visit charms the taste-buds.

I don’t like the cooking programme that put down other contestants or staff. Ramsay’s paucity of language is on a par with his respect for other people. Food is not an enemy and should not be treated as such. Whereas the enthusiasm of Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver is contagious. I know the programmes are commercial but they’re respectful to their audience and the components of the meal. .

On our coffee table at present is the latest copy of Cuisine magazine. Two friends of Anne gave her a subscription to it for her birthday – a very sensible gift. It gives her ideas and I can make suggestions about its recipes. The latest edition talks about our best restaurants. It’s a long way to Oamaru. Home cooking for me. I hope the whitebait start running soon. I can at least still experience gourmet meals at home.


  1. This is a marvelous post, Harvey... even though I ate dinner not so long ago, I'm hungry again! I'm with Ian Wedde (and you!) that 'a good cook book is as good as a book of poems.' I love 'I used to use garlic a whale of a lot' followed by your description of cooking casseroles for your mother. Hah 'she told me about the tooth fairy!' In South Africa, children were visited by a tooth mouse, not a fairy... my six year old nephew has just lost his first tooth and wrote a letter to the 'toosth mows' in which he said... 'swallowed the toosth my mistayk and was soree it wasn’t there for the mows’s castle. xoxox"

    You sound well, Harvey. 'Tis good to hear.

  2. You and Auden were right-- M. F. K. Fisher is a tremendous prose writer. Who can resist a book entitled, "How to Cook a Wolf?" Bon Appétit!