"The most useful cookbook of all time." That's what Britain's Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine said in 2005 about "Roast Chicken and Other Stories" after surveying English food writers, restaurateurs and chefs.
Simon Hopkinson's triumph was something of a surprise. His book was thin: just 148 recipes. There wasn't a single photograph of food in the book. And when it was first published in England in 1993, it hadn't been a huge seller.
The award changed all that so dramatically that "Roast Chicken" started outselling "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" on Amazon.com's English site. Now, fourteen years after Brits started cooking from it, "Roast Chicken" has finally been published in the United States. Talk about delayed gratification!
Why is this book so esteemed?
Hopkinson thinks he has a clue: "Without blowing my trumpet, I always knew it was a good book because it had nice things in it which you couldn't help but want to eat. And as long as the recipes work, I knew it would be a useful book to have."
Your detective work need go no further than the clues in his response. "Nice things...you want to eat" --- that means simple, familiar food, food that smells as good as it tastes. And "the recipes work" is a bottom-line explanation that, yes, if you follow directions, you can actually make these dishes more or less as well as Hopkinson.
Still, "useful" needs a bit of explanation --- it means of use to the English. For that reason, there are many, many recipes in these pages that will have doubtful appeal to American cooks and eaters. Five recipes for...brains. Another five for...cod. Grouse. Hake. Kidneys. Rabbit. Haddock. Sweetbreads. Tripe.
What's left? Start with Hopkinson's amusing, contrarian and extremely helpful meditations on food that launch each section.
Like this: "Anchovies are best by far when accompanying meaty things."
Or this: "Tuna is redundant in a salade Nicoise...I don't think cooked tuna is anything to write home about."
Or this: "The more boiling water you can have around a green vegetable, the greener the vegetable will stay."
Or this: "When it comes to using tomatoes in sauces and stews, the canned Italian ones will do a much better job than most of the fresh varieties that are available to us."
And then there's the prose that, simply, sings. Here is Hopkinson's way of encouraging you to add potato cakes to your repertoire: "My mother makes really good potato cakes. They are sort of misshapen, soft, gooey, and floury. They are at their best eaten on a Sunday afternoon, melting in front of the fire in their pool of butter. It should be winter, about 5 PM, dark outside, and a Marx Brothers film has just finished on the television." Makes me want to gather that recipe's five ingredients --- okay, so one of them is about eight tablespoons of butter --- and get cooking.
Finally, there are the recipes that look, as the Brits say, brilliant: Asparagus soup, vichyssoise, roast chicken from Chez L'Ami Louis, chicken sauteed in vinegar, provencal scallops, steak au poivre (with "two good slugs" of Cognac), olive oil mashed potatoes, and lemon surprise pudding.
For once, literally following orders is nothing but smart.