Jamie Oliver writes cookbooks I look forward to reading and this fifth volume from the Anglo wunderkind chef fully satisfies my expectations.
Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Paula Wolfert, James Beard, and Diana Kennedy write great cookbooks from which I always learn something. Thus, it is always rewarding to read works from these writers. But, Jamie Oliver's books belong to a very select few which are not only educational, they actively make you want to put down the book and go to the kitchen and start cooking. The select group of writers who can do that for me is lead by Jacques Pepin and has recently been joined by Tony Bourdain along with Peter Reinhart, Chris Schlesinger, and his nibs, Jamie Oliver. Even my culinary idols Mario Batali and Alton Brown can't evoke my passion for cooking as well as Messers Pepin and Oliver.
Appropriate to this grouping of writers, Oliver's latest effort, `Jamie's Dinners, The Essential Family Cookbook' is a perfect companion to Jacques Pepin's latest work, `Fast Cooking My Way'. Both books highlight the way the two chefs cook at home, with the focus being as much on simplicity and readily available ingredients as on speed. As I rarely cook with the intention of being done quickly, but I do appreciate a simple dish with high rewards on the palate, Oliver's book promises AND delivers on exactly the kind of book I like to go to on a regular basis, just like Jacques' work.
The theme of Jamie's last book was wrapped around his effort to train 15 deserving unemployed young people and staff a restaurant, `15' with his graduates. This book is based on a similar socially active theme of improving school lunch meals. Jamie states that he has been doing a documentary on school food programs and how they may be improved. The book gives little information about this film, but it does have a lot of material on food appropriate to school lunches.
The first third of the book is devoted to unconventional material and presentations of recipes. The first chapter gives us recipes for Jamie's `Top Ten' dishes: Sausage and Mashed Potatoes with Onion Gravy; Burger and Chips; Baked Lasagna; Jacket Potatoes (stuffed potatoes for us Yanks); Apple Pie; Roast Chicken and Roast Potatoes; Fish, Chips, and Mushy Peas; Chicken and Sweet Leek Pie; Tomato Soup; and Chicken Tikka Masala. Jamie often likes to offer some dishes as `the best'. And, I have never been disappointed with any of his `best' dishes. Many are now part of my standard repertoire. But, whether many are `the best' may be a matter of taste. His `ultimate' burger for example includes cumin, coriander, Parmesan cheese, mustard, and raw onion mixed into the burger patty. I am perfectly happy staying with my classic Julia Child recipes incorporating nothing more than sautéed shallots into the patty. But, I am sure that Jamie's version is `a tasty burger'. Even these simple dishes offer interesting techniques. The chips, for example are not fried, they are parboiled, then baked. The lasagna is bulked up butternut squash. The chicken potpie is topped with puff pastry instead of conventional pate brisee. One thing these dishes exemplify is that simple is not always easy. Jamie is not going for speed here, he is aiming at tasty, popular dishes. And, aside from the mashy peas, I suspect every dish will appeal to American tastes as much as it will appeal to our Brit cousins.
The next chapter develops an idea I have had for a book for close to a year now, and Sir Jamie got to it long before it was anything more than a notion in my head. This is a presentation of related recipes that begin with a basic preparation such as pesto, then builds on this to create four or five related dishes which use this basic preparation. Ming Tsai wrote a whole book, `Simply Ming' on this idea. Ming promoted the idea as a method for saving time. I thing Jamie is closer to the practical matter for home cooks when he pushes the ideas as a means for building a good repertoire of dishes from a few simple techniques such as a marinara sauce, roasted lamb, stewed fruit, and puff pastry.
Jamie's next chapter is on `5 minute wonders', that are very similar to the 26 recipe snippets at the beginning of Pepin's `Fast Cooking My Way'. For this chapter alone, I would have a copy of this book at my desk at work so I could pick up the ingredients for these dishes on my way home. True to Jamie's passion for fresh ingredients, most of the dishes need at least one fresh green or protein.
The chapter on sarnies (sandwiches for us Yanks) is meant to elevate this humble preparation to a level which will satisfy even the gourmet palate by being nutritious, fresh, and interesting. I am pleased to find the selection is not limited to Italian influenced Paninis.
These chapters alone are worth the price of admission, but we have 200 more pages of Oliver recipes to go. His salads are as interesting as usual with lots of original stuff and a few old standards. The chapters on soups, vegetables, pasta, meat, fish, and desserts are all up to his usual standard.
There is a rather unusual chapter at the end of the book entitled `Kitchens That Work'. It is an uncommon subject for the typical cookbook, but it fits the theme of this book, that being cooking at home. Jamie's primary premise is that his recipes can easily be done in a relatively small home kitchen, which is what he actually has in his home. There are a few simple ideas that I am sure I will include in my long-awaited kitchen renovation. Leading the pack is the notion of a cutting board tabletop for veggies, with separate plastic boards only for meats and poultry.
Very highly recommended.