The Food Lovers' Cookbook Collection
The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander
Many people write about food, but there are few true food writers. Only a handful combine a deep understanding of and appreciation for food and at the same time are able to convey a clear and concise message. Stephanie Alexander is one such writer.
After running a succession of highly acclaimed restaurants in Melbourne, Stephanie gradually moved into food communication, writing a classic cookbook and making personal and media appearances to spread her messages about the importance of food and wine in daily life.
The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander is very aptly named. If you find a good cook in Australia, chances are you will find a copy of this book prominently displayed in the kitchen.
First published in 1996, The Cook’s Companion has recently been revised, rewritten and re-released. Sub-titled The complete book of ingredients and recipes for the Australian kitchen, it now comprises a massive 1128 pages. Every page is packed with detailed, thoroughly researched information about products, techniques and detailed descriptions. Another feature is the photography by the talented Earl Carter.
Stephanie displays her background as a librarian. The book is a careful catalogue of data gleaned from around the world which has been carefully catalogued, sorted, sifted and then packaged in a way that makes it accessible to everyone.
We like the fact that she goes out of her way to acknowledge the sources of her recipes, generously mentioning hundreds of people from whom she has gained inspiration.
The book is arranged in encyclopaedia format - that is, by alphabetical order of products rather than the more traditional soup, main course, dessert format.
This allows the author to explore the characteristics and uses of each product in much more detail than by using the more traditional approach.
This does demand more of the reader to make the most of the book as it is necessary to cross-reference to a number of different sections of the book if exploring all possibilities for a particular product. So lamb is dealt with in detail in eighteen pages in the section devoted to that topic, however you can also find ancillary recipes for lamb in the sections for basil, chick peas, mint, pomegranates, yoghurt, coriander, nuts, plums, sage and zucchini. This is not a problem as the end of each section contains a carefully devised list of cross-references for you to follow.
The ‘tying together’ is also carried through to the index where each mention of every main ingredient is listed. Detailed recipes are distinguished from the so-called ‘margin recipes’ through the use of different typefaces.
In keeping with the absolute detail that is a hallmark of this production there is even a section on measurements (metric is used throughout) that runs to six pages so that cooks who use older forms of measurement will be able to easily convert.
All of the recipes have been meticulously researched and carefully tested to ensure that they work in the home kitchen. It is difficult to single out particular recipes because there are just so many of them and they all work so well - however we do have some favourites.
Consider the section on bread which appears early in the book. For many years, Stephanie’s restaurant would serve the delightful Sabrina’s breadsticks. The recipe, which is very simple, is included here so that you can enjoy them at home. One of the tricks that Stephanie emphasises is to spray the oven liberally with water to ensure that a really good crust forms. The bread section also includes her famous recipes for Queen of Puddings (a custard-style pudding topped with jam and meringue) and the ever-popular bread and butter pudding. Also included is a great recipe for the lovely Tuscan salad called Panzanella. A ‘margin recipe’ instructs readers on the art of making brown bread ice cream.
We have a fascination for parsnips. We think they are a highly under-rated vegetable. Stephanie has found enough information and recipes to fill up four pages. Starting with a description of the origin of the vegetable she goes on to provide advice on selection and storage (as she does with all the products in the book). A recipe for parsnip and curry soup is a winner as is a Colin Spencer recipe for parsnip croquettes. Margin notes inform us about good things to team with parsnip, how to roast parsnips, how to make parsnip chips and a recipe for sautéed parsnip with maple syrup.
So, that should give you enough of an idea of what to expect. The book covers a wide range of cuisines and is especially strong on French, Italian, Asian and Middle Eastern fare. Vegetables and fruit are treated with the same seriousness as meat and fish. Herbs are treated seriously as well - not just as a support act.
We can unreservedly recommend it.