Simple Weeknight Recipes and Strategies for Every Schedule from Kathy Brennan & Caroline Campion
As a rule, North Sea Scullery struggles with the kind of release we think of as a concept cookbook.
Concept cookbooks normally support a programme of some kind – for eating healthier, maybe, or busy lives – and set out weeks or even months of coded menu plans, interactions between dishes and useful advice to memorise faithfully. We’ve tried with these, even some famous ones, and they just don’t work here because we’re too disorganised and too unpredictable. Concept cookbooks are also some of the worst for forgetting real world limits with finance, availability of fresh produce, pack sizes and moan, moan, moan …
Of course, we need to get over ourselves. It’s not that important. We also need to get past it because there are books which have a concept driving them, but a flexibility and joy to them as well. Plan up front, party out the back. Take or ditch the concept. Julia Turshen’s brilliant Small Victories is just such a book. Small Victories has a concept – the small victories of everyday cooking and how to unlock them – but the book isn’t tied to this in any way. Not only did it win over our fear of concept cookery and make us love it to bits, we gave Small Victories to people as a gift. Yes, there’s a concept, but no, you don’t have to stick to it. It’s not a test.
So it’s great fun to say that another book in the Small Victories ‘it’s a concept but stay cool everybody’ category is the new one from Keepers writers Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion: The Dinner Plan. Everything about its subtitle – Simple Weeknight Recipes and Strategies for Every Schedule – says concept, programme, stuff to take on board. But just wait.
Yes, there is strategy for the cooking week – with dishes broken into Make-Ahead, Staggered, One-Dish, Pantry and Extra-Fast. Yes, these categories appear as colour coded tabs on each of the pages across the main sections, on Fish & Shellfish, for example, Soups, Sandwiches & Dinner Salads – and even The Forgotten Meal (alternatives to snacking between end of work or school and actual dinner, or tea as we’d say here). Yes, it would, in theory, be possible to sit down with a shopping list on Saturday, and prepare an entire week with Outlook Calendar and The Dinner Plan. Or a month.
But for those of us who can barely get it together sometimes to do the shopping list in the first place, The Dinner Plan’s concept is just an infrastructure, a helping hand – a friendly one at that. Take out all section work, and the book wouldn’t collapse as many concept books would, it would still thrive. And the reason for this is simple: the recipes are great and so is the writing.
Normally we spend a week cooking from books. Some books never get to the review stage and some falter mid-way through the week. It just happens. After a week, we feel pretty comfortable in knowing whether we like a book or not. Average number of dishes tested – six, maybe. For The Dinner Plan it was at least double the normal count, maybe more. Again, the reason was simple: when a recipe is described as Extra-Fast, it is. When a recipe is one-pot, it is. When a recipe sounds good, it is. Regardless of the concept this is a book filled with great food.
Time for a list. We made Dark-Chocolate Banana Bread, Go-to Roast Chicken, StirFried Chicken and Broccoli and Turkey Larb. We made Stir Fried Pork with Ginger. Chile Lime Sauce. Fast Bolognese and Chicken Banh Mi. Green Bean and Cherry Tomato Salad. Roasted Sweet Potato Fries. And that’s just the ones that come to mind here. We often praise Monisha Bharadwaj’s The Indian Cookery Course here at the Scullery – for the love in the book, the detail but above all for the indestructability of its recipes. It’s the same with The Dinner Plan. In fact only one dish didn’t work – a baked penne dish. But even then, we had added too much milk.
Outside the section work and the recipes, The Dinner Plan has some great recommendations for Kitchen Gadgets – angled measuring cups are on our Santa list – clear panels of advice on ingredients or other hints and tips (‘Doctoring the Everyday’) and stuff to keep in the cupboard. It’s all done in a really informal supportive sort of way and not as a home economics lecture. The Dinner Plan is not an ‘up your game’ sort of cookbook in this sense. Nothing wrong with those, but sometimes you just need a break.
Finally, The Dinner Plan has the complete hallmark of a hit at North Sea Scullery: it includes a dish that ends up a thing of staple, transcends reviews and will stay in the mind for all those times when we’re figuring what to buy in the Supermarket or sitting at the kitchen table at 5am and thinking about food. Or when you suddenly say, I’m hungry, what would be great? It’s the Stir Fried Pork with Ginger – sticky in mirin, soy and sugar, flash-cooked and fabulous with four cold beers. Exactly the kind of dish we traditionally get wrong, but unlocked here as surefootedly as can be.
The Dinner Plan: Simple Weeknight Recipes and Strategies for Every Schedule by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Abrams, £21.99) PIC © 2017 Maura McEvoy.