Nici Wickes: Going by the books

By Nici Wickes

A good cookbook can open up a world of possibilities for a passionate foodie - and can document their culinary history.

A stack of cookbooks have inspired chef and food critic Nici Wickes throughout the years. Photo / Babiche Martens
A stack of cookbooks have inspired chef and food critic Nici Wickes throughout the years. Photo / Babiche Martens

Beautiful imagery, an enticing ingredient list and an urge to get into the kitchen - cookbooks can play a huge part in our culinary adventures.

Cookbooks. Just saying the word soothes my soul. The last line of my CV states "likes to read cookbooks" and I'm not sure how many job interviews that's won or lost for me but I don't care - it's the truth.

There's no better way for me to relax than to settle myself in the big blue armchair, which sits conveniently beside my shelves of food books, and start leafing through these tomes of culinary pleasure. Inside lies the promise of new ideas and old favourites, challenge and comfort, all rolled into a collection of recipes. Most of mine are splashed and stained from my careless cooking style, although a few are pristine from under use - I just like looking at the pictures. Some have been gifts and others I've bought myself but all hold tremendous meaning to me. As a collection, I can chart my life through these books.

A decent cookbook will beg to be cooked from. It will be written in such a way that you can imagine the author standing beside you in the kitchen, offering encouraging advice as you navigate through the various phases of preparation and cooking.

It might whisper a warning of a potential disaster, and how to fix it if it happens, or caution you in a more furious way as Anthony Bourdain does in his Les Halles Cookbook. Over three pages he takes us through the exacting process of roasting the perfect chicken, calling us, the reader, at various stages, "numbnuts" and "a sorry-ass bivalve in an apron" and yelling "Don't rip the freaking skin!". When cooking with Bourdain I'm always slightly on edge.

Not so with Mary Pat Fergus, author of the first cookbook I remember cooking regularly from. At 9 years old, Junior Cook became my kitchen bible. I wanted to be the cartoon girl on the cover - elfin-faced, with long, yellow hair, crowned with a puffy white chef's hat. Spiral-bound and filled with all the recipes any keen kitchen kid wants to cook - pizza, fudge, apricot slice - it was all there, cleverly set out in childlike handwriting and accompanied by crudely drawn sketches to demonstrate the method. Unlike today's food-styled, digitally enhanced masterpieces, an imagination was required to conjure up what the finished product would look like.

Another from my formative years will not come as any surprise to most readers - the Edmonds Cookery Book. To this day it's my first port of call should I want to bake any of the old favourites and I own two copies. One is inscribed in my mother's bold and lovingly familiar handwriting with "April 2004, Happy Cooking Nici, love Mum xx". The date is significant because April is nowhere near my birthday so I suspect I'd rung her for a recipe one day and it occurred to her that I needed my own copy. Little did she know that I already owned one, posted to me in 1985, while I was flatting in Dunedin, by her mother, my nana Jessie, who was dying of cancer at the time.

She was so weakened by then that her handwritten message to me, penned carefully on the inside front cover, isn't legible, but the faint ink markings carry a meaning far greater than any words.

Floating around in my collection are also various vegetarian cookbooks and anyone who knows me well will laugh at that - such an avid meat-eater am I. But these are the books that depict my years of student flatting and they all have one thing in common - they include a lot of wholemeal flour.

The sequel to the Moosewood Cookbook, the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, had just come out and I can still remember how exotic I felt knocking up Indian samosas using home-made wholemeal pastry when it was my turn to cook in the flat. I can also still recall the unpleasant feeling of having that gluggy pastry stick to the roof of my mouth.

Other books that accompanied me through these first years of independent living were by the marvellous Margaret Fulton and the compilations published by the Australian Women's Weekly. I still have these big, hard cover bricks. They don't excite me as much as they used to but I can't bring myself to get rid of them so now they prop up my computer monitor.

Once I entered the workforce and found myself with disposable income, I chose to dispose of it on my favourite hobbies - cooking, travel and eating. This coincided with the explosion of the cookbook market, when books were becoming irresistible with stunning photography of food that made you want to lick the pages. Not only that, some of my food heroes - cafe and restaurant owners, Michelin-starred chefs, TV cooks, food producers - were becoming readily available in print. Suddenly I had a window into their journeys through food. Marco Pierre White, Nigel Slater, Elizabeth David, Paul Bocuse, Alice Waters, Stephanie Alexander, Julie Le Clerc, Peter Gordon.

I began buying these books and it was around this time that I learned one of my most valuable lessons in cooking. By now I had become an accomplished cook but rarely did I follow a recipe word for word. I'd generally look to the books for inspiration and then proceed to cook off the top of my head. But a boyfriend delicately pointed out that in doing so, one's repertoire may narrow over time. To test his theory I decided to cook a curry, using a recipe. I chose one from Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries from India. Skimming the ingredients I couldn't see anything different from the spices that I'd usually throw in a curry but nonetheless I followed it diligently. And here is what happened. It was the best, most cleverly spiced, brilliantly flavoured and finely balanced curry that I'd ever produced. It was unlike any other of the clumsy curries I'd been churning out for years. Since then, when making a new dish from a recipe for the first time, I follow it almost to the letter to see what the original was intended to be and only after that will I take the liberty to make my own variations.

At the same time, I've learned not to abandon my common sense and become a slave to the printed word. I'll never forget the time that, charged with making the all-important birthday cake for a friend, I blindly followed the method for a dark chocolate cake that read "stir the eggs and sugar together". I knew that, without any raising agent in the ingredient list, I ought to be whipping the mixture until fluffy as it would be precious air that would, upon heating, expand and give my cake the lift it needed. Of course the cake was flat as a pancake. I cursed the author, made a note about the whipping in the margin and have used the recipe repeatedly since, with spectacular results.

Cookbooks have featured strongly in my friendships and romantic liaisons too. I've always maintained that you can tell a good friend or lover by the cookbooks they give you as gifts. It might be a birthday present of the latest, glossily compiled hardback from a high-profile chef of the moment or it could be an obscure, non-fiction paperback account of someone who found themselves sad at one point or another so took themselves off for a month in Paris and logged every meal they ate until they'd cheered up. Your true friends will know when the time is right for each.

Compare with this with a man I was dating who proudly declared that he'd bought me a second-hand cookbook at a local fair and "he knew I'd love it". How wrong he was. When he gave it to me, the only thing I was certain of was that our relationship was destined for the compost bin. The "cookbook" turned out to be one of those booklets that appliance companies (note: I'm not a gadget girl) put out when flogging the latest appliance, in this case a blender, and was full of things set with gelatine and shortcuts that merely bastardised every classic French sauce there ever was. Never mind.

Then there's the loving sacrifice made by my little sister. Ten years ago she spent more than three days' worth of her food and travel budget, while travelling in Britain, on a book that remains in my top five today - Dishy. It's edgy and cool and it introduced me to British food writer Kevin Gould and he is a genius. Recipes for the most sensational food are bound with a bright red linen spine, end papers that resemble a Frida Kahlo skirt and the pages are littered with off-the-wall photographs, cheeky notes and quirky little phrases that make me laugh out loud while I'm cooking. The recipe for risotto advises against leaving the dish to answer the door to the "Witnesses" as it will be tempting fate in producing the perfect creamy risotto. At the back of the book there are menu suggestions for different dinners - a hoping-to-get lucky dinner, a dinner for two couples who've known each other for ages and are talking about holidays and one for an intelligent documentary TV dinner. Dishy is boldly different from other cookbooks and I adore its irreverence.

My library of cookbooks continues to grow slowly but surely. These days I'm attracted by those that travel to far-off places, as well as the ones that are quintessentially from our own land. To Greg and Lucy Malouf, how could I not want to go and explore the Middle East after devouring Arabesque? And thank you Al Brown, I will indeed Go Fish.

The words and images of cookbooks may give you some idea of where you're heading but the real adventure begins as you chop, heat, stir, whip, fold, taste, season or whatever the next line reads, and the memories last a lifetime.

Note: I have not given full details of the books referenced here but I invite readers to email viva@nzherald.co.nz should you wish to source them.

- NZ Herald

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