by Nigel Slater
(Clarkson Potter) $35
Nigel Slater has written the cookbook that might make other cookbooks obsolete, or at least turn them into objects of reading pleasure rather than sticks with which cooks bludgeon themselves over the head. Slater's Appetite is the kind of cookbook that teaches--quite simply--the principles of cooking so that you know how to cook. I do not mean pressed duck and cheese soufflé, but home cooking, the kind where a reasonably stocked pantry and some common sense and instinct will carry you through.
Happily, Slater's idea of a stocked pantry does not seem to include things like bottarga or a selection of olive oils. Rather, he begs that you learn to trust yourself: Trust your own tastes, trust that when food looks, smells, and tastes good it's done, trust that others are there to feed, and not to relentlessly impress. ("No one will give you brownie points for making your own salt cod, sundried tomatoes, or Turkish delight. They will just think you are a little bit sad.")
It is hard not to be won over immediately by a book in which one of the first photographs is an image of a pile of hot toast, the butter just melted, like the toast that occupied the fantasies of the jailed Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. Slater's attitude is part Italian (or at least rural French), part Alice Waters: if your ingredients are good enough and you're hungry, there's not much else you need to know.
"Food and cooking have always attracted the worst sort of snobbery," Slater writes, and his own snobbery is selective. It does not include cutting corners or eating junk food, but it does mean knowing when to use real stock instead of bouillon (although the latter is not, as is habitual in high-end cookbooks, scorned) and at least trying once to make a loaf of bread.
And the recipes? They are very good, and include variations that suggest, but do not dictate, how you might alter them to suit your own taste. And occasionally, Slater's very funny prose slides over to the wicked, as in his lewd description of what makes a good mango (which gently lampoons so-called "sensuous" food writing): it includes the instruction to "hold a fruit you suspect of ripeness as tenderly as you might hold a breast," and ends with "eat the ripe fruit as if you were eating a... no, I had better not."