There are thousands of cookbooks available in book shops these days. Over the years I’ve had my fair share and generally I’ve resorted back to the same few. There is a reason why some books become classics after all. When all the food fashion and the personalities fade the classics are still there and still delivering great food.
I think Simon Hopkinson is one of those great food writers and his little Roast Chicken books are wonderful sources of inspiration. They grab you initially by their warmth. Like novels I find that you enjoy a cookbook more if you can relate to the voice telling you the food stories. Too often we skip over the blocks of text and rush into the recipes before getting to know the person. We can learn attitude as well as technique and dishes. Simon Hopkinson loves food. He is not “cheffy” in his approach and the title Roast Chicken And Other Stories is a fabulous one. It sets the expectation. The other thing of note on the cover of the edition I have is the statement “the most useful cookbook of all time” voted by Waitrose Food Illustrated. All of a sudden it has my attention regardless of how many voters there are because this is the point of a great ‘cookbook’ – it serves a purpose.
RCAOS (this acronym will save me some typing) is about inspiration from ingredients. He chooses 40 ingredients – from the straightforward eggs through to the more esoteric brains – and then offers some conversation and a handful of recipes for each. He makes no claims to offering a course; even a full dish. It is highly personal but insightful. He is a champion of cooking a small number of ingredients that are of good quality and that you understand rather than searching the world for the next big thing.
His approach is easiest to understand just by taking the one eponymous ingredient – chicken. Each section begins with a short commentary. Roast chicken is the author’s favourite food. Although he talks about the marvellous French chickens he isn’t snobbish about the ingredient. He is at pains to point out that chicken is very much at the mercy of the cook too. A poor bird can be turned into something good in the hands of knowledgeable cook.
He then offers five recipes: roast chicken, grilled breast of chicken with Provençal vegetables and aioli, pocket poche a la creme with crepes parmentier, and poulet saute au vinaigre. Don’t be put off. Roast chicken I am familiar with but the others are new to me too. None of them have many ingredients and all the ingredients should be readily available. The most exotic are fresh tarragon and fennel bulbs but they are now readily available in supermarkets. The roast chicken recipe is typical. We all cook roast chicken over and over. There are no revolutions in the way Simon Hopkinson suggests. The variables that people always discuss are where the butter goes (smear all over the outside), what to put inside the bird (some fresh thyme, tarragon and squeezed lemon halves), and the temperature (Simon suggests the hot oven blast followed by a medium oven). The lemon halves are squeezed over the bird with the seasoning before insertion in the only real differentiator. When it is cooked it is left to rest for at leat 15 minutes with the door ajar. This all seems straightforward but I like a writer who says the butter needs to be room temperature and smeared on by hand. The ritual of preparation is obvious. I really like the way he modestly suggests what he does in carving the bird in the roasting pan. He dismisses English gravy habits in favour of just whisking the juices in the bottom of the pan and it sounds delicious. I can imagine it and see the results. He adds some suggestions if this isn’t ‘fancy’ enough but ends with the terrific line “for me, the simple roast bird is the best, but it is useful to know how much further you can go when roasting a chicken”.
Throughout the language is full of personal touches, warmth and detail (two large courgettes sliced diagonally). I can read it without cooking any of it because of the language but somehow because I can visualise the result. In his forward Simon offers that tip: “think how a dish is going to taste before you start cooking”. The introduction is a nice read in its own right. It reaffirms the joy of cooking for itself.
Buy it, read it, use it, buy the sequel. It’s a gem.