“I once ran away to Madrid where I fell in love …”
A favourite cookbook around here is One by Florence Knight. I have a keeping on it that just seems to deepen with passing years. In One, Knight talks passionately about essential ingredients, what she calls the “building blocks; a kind of backbone to any dish.” In each section, vital components are given space to shine – flour, say, or chocolate, olive oil, salt …
Buying in to this overall structure isn’t necessary for enjoying Knight’s book, but in time you come to pick up on the stark simplicity of what she’s up to & the amazing depth of food that results – even when you’re a very average cook. It is, you realise, a very clever premise.
In Perfect Plates, there’s something similar afoot. John Whaite has challenged himself to design “delicious meals with only a limited number of ingredients.” They are different books – Whaite is cutting down the ingredients in total rather than isolating the impact of essentials – but there’s a celebration of straightforwardness that makes one book recall the other. Unlike the innate intensity of Knight’s work, though – which is totally driven, I think – Whaite is less keen on the minimalist approach early doors. “In fact,” he says comically in his introduction, “the very thought filled me with horror.”
It’s certainly an unusual way to start a cookbook, the writing of which by his own admission, Whaite dreaded. But all this initial misgiving is in the end a deliberate narrative; he’s aiming at a sense of shared journey. It becomes a genuine exploration of reduction, and even if it started as a ‘concept’, it’s no way gimmicky in practice. From more & yet more = more, to less is more, we go hand and hand with Whaite.
I started the journey with the Crashed Breakfast Eggs, because Whaite confesses there’s a Madrid love story in the genesis of this gorgeous Spanish breakfast. I zoom in straightaway on recipes that have some personal backstory – like Whaite’s love interest, or about family, maybe – because it nearly always means they might be the best or most interesting in the book.
Recipes in cookbooks sometimes seem to me like individual poems in collections – they may form part of a thematic whole, but must very often be rooted in specific experiences and sets of emotions or intentions. I don’t know if food writers suffer the same extent of agony over whether to include recipes in a collection as poets do poems, but I believe they probably do. “This is a recipe I wrote about my summer in Madrid,” the reading for this one might begin …
The Crashed Breakfast Eggs were red & delicious. Cooked minimally they benefited from the omission of potatoes, for example, which I would normally have chucked in as well – the result being a greasy, slushy mess. Apart from the fun of visualising the exact 30cm from which to crack the eggs, what really makes this recipe is the addition of the Manchego. There is a resulting creaminess that will make the dish a thing of craving, particularly when hungover. Not too much Manchego, not too little. I used chorizo instead of sausages and it all worked splendidly. I could eat now just thinking about it.
I used chorizo because I had also tried out the Chorizo and Chickpeas Braised in Cider, so did a bit of doubling up. I love chorizo, chickpeas and cider so this was a bit of a no-brainer for me, and it worked out grand. It would go particularly well as a side dish, or when you’re in a Tapas frame of mind and building lots & lots of plates. When Whaite says that you need a good jar of garbanzos, though, he means it. With your basic supermarket chickpeas from a tin, this will work okay, but it really won’t be quite the same, and won’t ever be, no matter how you cook it.
More on this sort of thing later …
Another really interesting recipe was the Tahini and Honey Chicken and Paprika Potatoes, and using tahini like this was completely new for me. I felt afterwards that I’d perhaps scale back slightly on the amount of it next time, but maybe it was the feeble chicken drumsticks I used annoying the balance of the recipe in some way. You need to be brave with this dish too, and get the coating almost burnt. Where the marinade wasn’t totally crispy there was a slight sludginess that needed an extra zap, but it was easy fixed. Whaite is clear on this in the recipe, so it was my fault. I loved the Saturday night combination of these tahini chicken bits and hot paprika tatties.
Equally fine was the Rustic Mediterranean Tomato Tart, made with tomatoes & goat’s cheese on a puff pastry sheet. This is of course really easy, because you don’t need to make your own pastry at all, and the rigid simplicity of the ingredients means it doesn’t end up the usual crowded mess. Whaite gets his measurements spot on in all the recipes I tried, and this tart was a notable success. It’s one of the real strengths of the book: by definition you have to resist chucking in extra bits and bobs, and in the process begin to see what you might be ruining in excess.
Best of all – absolutely best of all – is his Rye Soda Bread recipe. I had to to try this because I’m basically compelled by soda bread, completely compelled. Whaite writes that he should “crumble with guilt” at how easy this recipe is, how the patience & exactitude enshrined in baking is chucked out the window. But he mustn’t. He is absolved. For some of us, baking is always rocket science – we lack the precision, the care, the will power. The results. So when something like this simple recipe comes along, it’s just a bright marvel and a total encouragement. I’ve made his soda bread twice in the last week. Baking is a different world for me, but when a bread goes right like this, I’m less inclined to give up altogether and brood in despair.
As it turned out, working with the rye flour was also a hugely evocative experience – resulting in a kind of time-travel fugue state. Closing my eyes as I turned the gritty flour in my hands, I was suddenly about 7 years old, sifting through the sawdust-filled tombola barrel at the local carnival, wishing for the one newspaper-wrapped present that wasn’t a comb, or a compass that didn’t work. Then, I was even younger still, absent-mindedly turning my fingers in the tub of fresh white dust waiting for the butcher’s floor, my mother chatting with the old owner who knew me by name. He must be long gone.
Food, making food: sometimes its grip on the senses is like nothing other.
Florence Knight is unequivocal in One: the key ingredients must be of the highest quality you can manage. Whaite is saying the same thing in effect, that we’re free to make a choice between the local supersave, or a specialist market. But on this point comes my main recommendation for Perfect Plates: if you can, use the best possible ingredients. The best chickpeas, the best flour, the best cider. Or even, the very best of these. You don’t have to – all the recipes I tried would still work – but it’s true. I didn’t reach for the best every time – I can’t afford to – but every single dish here would leap in quality if I did.
The one weak point of the testing week, the Brisket in Mulled Wine, was the perfect example. Poor beef, poor mulled wine. Even as I was cooking I knew that it wouldn’t turn out so good. When I was buying the stuff in the supermarket, I knew, but I just wanted to give it a go. It’s of course a stupid way to go about things, but budgets are just like that. And by no means was the resulting dish poor – in fact, had I cooked it even a tiny fraction longer it would have improved still further – but overall, it just didn’t quite come together in taste. Cheap mulled wine will never come together in taste. The accompanying Roasted Cauliflower was totally fantastic, mind you, and the message was clear – up the ante next time and this brisket will fly.
This tension is absolutely no fault of this good book, or intended as a criticism – the idea that stripped down, minimal-ingredient dishes thrive on quality ingredients is hardly knowledge of the deep universe – but spending a week cooking from Perfect Plates, it’s definitely my advice for getting the best from the book. There’s no place to hide with so few ingredients.
As a nearly final thought on Perfect Plates, I want to praise the design. I really do love the page layout for the recipes, with the suitably minimalist fonts against a clear white background, and the ingredients set neatly to the side of the page in their own space. This is easier to achieve with so few ingredients, of course, but it is still very clear and fits well, and quite lovely to look at. The font for the dish titles, something like a Tw Cen Regular or such, is really very stylish & sort of retro, and I do admire the crisp readability of the pages. Recipes – like poems, to return there a second – need clarity and contrast on the page, without too much crap going on in the background. Here are the words, and they are everything.
If the concept for Perfect Plates recalled Florence Knight, making the food reminded me just slightly of cooking from Nigel Slater. There’s a similarity in the combinations and simplicity – in the relief of comforting sausages, paired with the fun of sauerkraut, or the depth of an ox cheek alongside the spiky warmth of a parsnip mash. Dishes like these make me think of Slater’s incredibly endearing food, particularly in Simple Suppers – which I’ve been watching again lately in a devout sort of way. It’s that fundamental mission of Slater’s at work: we’re just making stuff to eat. Nigel Slater might not set himself such restrictions as five ingredients only, but still – it’s not as if John Whaite would give you trouble for adding some radishes, either.
Whaite also carries on a kind of internal dialogue across the sections of the book, sometimes personal, sometimes comical – musing on upstaging dinner parties, for example, the fear of gelatine or dabbling in gnocchi, or the hopeless war against his partner’s mum’s corned beef hash. It’s rawer – Nigel Slater’s writing is in a complete class of its own – but there is just something about the voice of Perfect Plates in the whole that’s gently reminiscent.
I like Perfect Plates very much. Spend time cooking from it and you’ll be bundled over the line in the end by its big-hearted warmth and inventive recipes.