Five members of the Wanderlust team have trawled through this season's offering of cookbooks and road-tested them too – so you know which ones will make the ideal Christmas gift
Note: Recipes at end of the article
The Food of Vietnam by Luke Nguyen (£30)
Ingredients: The Hmong Black Pig pork neck suggested proved a bit too tricky to source – not being available more than a couple of hundred k's from Sapa – but a pack of diced pork from the Waitrose Essential range proved a tasty and affordable alternative. Everything else on the menu was readily available at my local supermarket.
Prep and cooking times: Preparation was a cinch. I'd barley had time to listen to one track of traditional Vietnamese Dan Bau music – put on to create a suitably Indochina vibe in my distinctly English kitchen – before the skewers of pork were luxuriating in the marinade.
Instructions: So simple my nine-year-old daughter could do it. In fact, she did – while I enjoyed a bottle of 333 and tried to find a Dan Bau track that was listenable.
Final dish: Having never eaten Hmong Black Pig, I can't really say whether the dish suffered without it. I suspect that the key to this dish is the sweet and sour marinade and it's interplay with the sesame seed salt. It got a big thumbs up from everyone in our house. And, give or take a banana leaf or two, it looked just like the picture.
Delights from the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah (£45)
Ingredients: For the most part, the ingredients were easy to find. Pomegranate molasses might require a trip to a middle eastern deli although it's reasonably common in larger supermarkets. The recipe for the bulgur salad required #1 bulgur wheat. The supermarket didn't offer different grades so I just went with what they had and it worked well. You could use couscous as a substitute but reduce the cooking time accordingly.
Prep and cooking times: Timings were pretty accurate. After 30 minutes the chicken legs I used were very slightly over-done. I would recommend testing them after 25 minutes.
Instructions: Both recipes were straight forward and easy to follow. The chicken wasn't hugely involved so I was able to prepare the bulgur salad while it was cooking. The book is filled with fascinating stories and historical references too, so there's plenty to keep you entertained while you wait. Nasrallah specifies 25ml of lemon juice in the salad recipe without giving you an idea of how many lemons that requires, which I found a little irritating (it's about two large ones incidentally), but I'm being picky.
Final dish: It was delicious. The sauce was rich and earthy with aromatic notes of coriander and a wonderful fruity sourness from the pomegranate molasses. It was gently hot, the chilli made your lips tingle just a little, and the freshness of the salad complimented it nicely. I confess to licking my plate clean when no-one was watching.
Sicily (Silver Spoon Kitchen) by Pamela Sheldon Johns (£24.95)
Ingredients: The ingredients for this dish were not only easy to source, but there also weren’t many of them to buy. The only thing I cheated on slightly were the breadcrumbs – rather than going for fresh, I bought a packet of croutons and crushed them down, which worked fine.
Prep and cooking timings: The estimated cooking time for this was 40 minutes, which was a lot longer than I needed. Once you’ve prepped your ingredients, the actual cooking time was no more than 20 minutes, particularly if you cook your ‘conza’ in a separate pan in tandem.
Instructions: The instructions were easy to follow – this is a relatively simple dish. However, the only thing I would question is the amount of time you cook the prawns for. You’re directed to stir-fry the prawns for five minutes, before adding the white wine, which you’re then instructed to cook until evaporated. I chose to stop cooking two or three minutes after adding the wine, because I didn’t want the prawns to overcook.
Final dish: The result was superb. Slightly more sauce in comparison to the picture in the book, which would have been due to not evaporating all the wine, but the ‘conza’ soaks it all up, which is lovely. It’s a simple dish, but like all Sicilian food – a few, good quality, fresh ingredients create a wonderfully tasty meal.
Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid (£25)
Ingredients: All the ingredients or their alternatives were easy to find. All the measurements were in American cups.
Prep and cooking timings: Prep was easy, cooking times were accurate.
Instructions: Really simple, make paste, boil water, add paste, boil, add fish, boil, add basil, stir and serve.
Final dish: Somewhere between a fish stew and a fish soup, the broth was light and fragrant with the Thai basil and coriander. The fish was perfectly cooked and made a really flavourful, light lunchtime meal. Like many recipes you can adapt the number of chillies to taste, I left the quantities as stated in the book and whilst warm certainly wasn't fiery. I would very happily make this again as from start to finish the process was around 30 minutes, the flavours were fantastic and whilst not cheap because of the fish, it can be adapted to the cheaper fish species easily.
Two Greedy Italians by Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo (£20)
Ingredients: For both recipes these were very easy to find – all available from the supermarket with the weekly shop.
Prep, cooking times and instructions: This is my favourite type of cooking – simple combinations of lovely fresh flavours that are easy to put together and produce a great-tasting result. The cod takes no more than a few minutes of preparation and the potatoes only take as long as it takes to peel and slice a few spuds and onions, de-seed some halved cherry tomatoes (best done with a teaspoon, I found) and layer it all together.
Final dish: The oregano and basil in the potatoes make this a wonderfully Mediterranean dish and, combined with the rich flavours of the sun-dried tomatoes in the crust on the cod, you can easily imagine yourself eating this on a warm Italian evening. I served this for dinner one evening and it was very well received. This whole book is filled with simple-to-prepare, yet delicious-looking recipes and I'll definitely be holding on to it and trying some out in the weeks to come.
Try the recipes cooked by our team at home.
300 g (10 ½ oz) pork neck, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 spring onions (scallions), sliced, then bashed to release the flavour
4 tablesppons finely diced lemongrass, white part only
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Combine the marinade ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix well. Add the pork and toss until well coated. Cover and marinade in the refrigerator overnight.
When you are nearly ready to cook, soak 12 bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes, to prevent scorching.
Thread the pork onto the skewers and chargrill each side for 3 minutes.
Mix the sesame seeds with a pinch of salt. Serve on the side, for dipping the skewers into.
Makes: 4 servings
A tomato-free dish popular in the southern region of Iraq, especially in Najaf and Karbala. Cooking with sour pomegranate juice and thickening sauces with walnuts is not new to the region. The medieval Arabic cookbooks abounded with stew and sauce recipes in which countless sour agents were balanced with sweet substances. Similar dishes soured by adding rumman (pomegranate) were simply called rummaniyyat, and sometimes narbajat, to give the dish an exotic Persian touch, fashionable at the time. The Persian name, fasanjoon, must have filtered into the region at a later date.
4 serving-size piece of chicken (about 2 ½ lb/1.25kg), skinned and trimmed
3 or 4 cardamom pods
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup (40z/115g) walnut halves, toasted, then pulverised in a blender or food processor until oily
¼ cup (60ml) pomegranate syrup (glossary)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon chili flakes, or to taste
½ teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
3 cups (715ml) chicken broth
¼ cup (½oz/15g) chopped parsley, 4 tablespoons fresh pomegranate seeds if available
In a medium pot, put chicken pieces and cardamom, and cover with cold water. Bring to a quick boil on high heat, skimming as needed. Reduce heat to low, and simmer gently, covered, until chicken is just cooked, about 30 minutes. Transfer chicken pieces to a plate. Strain broth and set aside.
In a heavy medium pot, sauté onion in oil until it starts to change colour, about 7 minutes. Add pulverized walnuts, pomegranate syrup, salt, pepper, chili flakes, coriander, and 3 cups (715ml) chicken broth. Bring to a quick boil on high heat, then reduce heat to medium low and let the pot boil gently, covered, stirring 2 or 3 times until sauce is nicely thickened, about 25 minutes. Add the cooked chicken pieces in the last 5 minutes of simmering.
Garnish chicken and sauce with chopped parsley, and pomegranate seeds if available. Serve with white or yellow rice along with salad.
Makes: 4 servings
This refreshing and nourishing salad is known almost everywhere. However, the proportion of vegetables to bulgur might vary from one country to another and even from one household to another. In Iraq, it is this kind of salad reserved for parties and big gatherings. The secret to good tabboula is fine chopping, and perhaps that is why it is called tabboula in the first place.
¾ cup (4oz/115g) bulgur #1*
2 cups (4oz/115g) parsley, finely chopped
1 cup (6oz/175g) tomatoes, finely diced (about 2 medium ones)
¾ cup (4 ½/125g) scallion/spring onion, finely chopped, including the tender green stalks
¼ cup (½oz/15g) mint, finely chopped, optional
½ cup (125ml) fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
A dash of chili pepper, optional
Olives, leaves from the heart of romaine/cos lettuce
Wash bulgur and soak in warm water with a dash of salt until it softens, about 30 minutes. Drain very well, and set aside.
Mix bulgur with the rest of the ingredients except for garnishes. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. This salad will stay good for about 2 days under refrigeration.
To serve, put salad in a bowl or pile up on a platter, and garnish with olives and lettuce leaves, which you can us scoops.
Bulgur (burgbul) is a wheat product, like cracked wheat, but is processed differently. Cracked wheat is made by crushing raw whole berries, whereas bulgur is made from whole-wheat berries first steamed, then dried, and crushed. It is available in three grades: grind #1 is suitable for making kubba and tabboula, and the coarser grinds #2 and #3 are suitable for making pilafs and soups.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon chilli powder
500g/1 lb 2 oz uncooked peeled prawns (shrimp), deveined
100ml/3 ½ fl oz (scant ½ cup) dry white wine
For the conza:
2 tablespoons olive oil
100g/3½ oz (scant 1 cup) shelled almonds, chopped
100g/3½ oz (2 cups) fresh breadcrumbs
1 heaped tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
pinch of chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan, add the onion, garlic and parsley and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for a few minutes, then add the chilli powder and prawns (shrimp). Cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes. Drizzle in the wine and cook for 5 minutes, until completely evaporated. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt.
To make the conza, heat the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan or skillet. Add all the conza ingredients, season with salt and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent the mixture from burning. It will be ready when it is golden brown. Serve immediately with the prawns.
Serves: 6 to 8
This cross between a stew and a soup, called gaeng pla by the Shan, has a layered depth of flavour that makes it a real keeper. Starting with a paste of ginger, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots that perfumes the water the fish cooks in, the stew gets a balancing acid note from fresh tomato and a little heat from green chiles. Use whatever fish you prefer, from freshwater options such as trout, tilapia, or pickerel to barramundi, snapper, haddock, or even salmon. Serve the stew as a main course over rice or, non-traditionally, over couscous or new potatoes. Accompany with a simple vegetable stir-fry and a salad.
¼ cup (17g) thinly sliced lemongrass
2 tablespoons sliced turmeric root*, or substitute 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons salt
½ cup (80g) coarsely chopped shallots
¼ cup (34g) coarsely chopped garlic
¼ cup (25g) sliced ginger
2 tablespoons minced coriander roots**, or roots and stems
½ cup (70g) sliced green cayenne chiles
8 cups (1.8l) water
1 cup (200g) tomato wedges
2 tablespoons chopped or crumbled toasted Soybean Disk (Tua Nao)***, or substitute 2 teaspoons brown miso paste
3 to 3 ½ pounds (1.4kg – 1.6kg) cleaned whole fish (see the headnote), cut into steaks about ¾ inch (2cm) thick and rinsed
Scant 2 tablespoons minced scallions
2 cups loosely packed (30g) Thai Basil leaves, or a mix of basil and coriander leaves
Combine the lemongrass, turmeric, and a pinch of salt in a large mortar or food processor and pound or process to a coarse paste; set aside. Using the mortar or food processor, make a coarse paste of the shallots, garlic, ginger, coriander, chiles, and a pinch of salt. Combine the two pastes and mix well.
Bring the water to a boil in a wide pot. Add the spice paste, along with the tomatoes, crumbled soybean disk (do not add miso paste now), and the remaining salt, bring to a boil, and boil hard for 10 minutes.
If using miso paste, scoop out a little broth and use it to dissolve the paste, then add back to the pot. Add the fish, including heads if available, cover, and cook at a medium boil until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the scallions and stir, then add the basil (and coriander) leaves, stir, and remove from the heat.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
*Turmeric: Like ginger and galangal a rhizome, turmeric (Curcuma longa, also called Curcuma domestica) is usually sold in the west in its powdered form, a bright yellow or orange powder that stains everything it touches. The Burmese word for it is hsa nwin. Whole turmeric is sold in Southeast Asian and South Asian groceries. It is smaller than most ginger, about a baby finger size in thickness, with a dull orange skin and brilliant orange flesh that is crisp and firm. You can stir-fry it, treating it like a vegetable, or mince it like ginger. Turmeric has medicinal properties, being antibacterial (hence the powder is often rubbed on meat or fish before cooking), antiflatulent (hence usually added to dals and legumes of all kinds in South Asian cooking), and anti-inflammatory (hence currently prescribed in the West as an “anti-aging” food).
** Coriander Roots: The roots of coriander plants are used, pounded, in Tai Koen dishes as well as in Thai curry pastes. Look for bunches of coriander with the roots still on. Store them in water, in the refrigerator, with the tops loosely covered with a plastic bag. When finished with the leaves and stems, store the roots in the freezer, wrapped in plastic. Add to your stock of roots whenever you have a chance. You can substitute the stems of coriander plants for the roots if necessary.
*** Tua Nao: I call these Soybean Disks; tua nao is the Shan and Tai Koen name for them, and in Burmese they're peipok. They're an essential flavouring in Shan and Tai Koen cooking, and also used by the Kachin and other in Kachin and Shan States such as the Palaung. Miso paste or fermented soybeans can be substituted.
This is a wonderful accompaniment to meat or fish dishes, and, if you increase the quantities, makes a lovely main course in itself when served with a salad. Arraganate means 'with oregano', and this herb infuses wonderfully with the potatoes and tomatoes during roasting. Whenever I make this dish the whole house is filled with a wonderful aroma of oregano and basil, transporting me right back to the Mediterranean.
7 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
500g potatoes, thinly sliced
1 tsp dried oregano
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a large handful of basil leaves, toughly torn
300g red onions, sliced
400g cherry tomatoes, halved and deseeded
1 tbsp white wine
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.
Pour 3 tablespoons of the olive oil into an ovenproof dish or roasting tin. Arrange a layer of potatoes, sprinkle over a little of the oregano season with salt and pepper and scatter over some basil leaves. Follow with a layer of onions and tomatoes and a drizzle of the remaining olive oil. Continue with another layer of potatoes and repeat the process until all the vegetables have been added to the dish. Pour over the remaining olive oil and white wine.
Cover with foil and bake in the oven fro 45 minutes. Remove the foil and loosen the potatoes from the bottom of the dish with a fork, taking care not to break them. Continue to bake for a further 15 – 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through. Serve immediately.
This is quite a modern way of cooking fish in Italy. Instead of serving a plain white fish – cod or hake – in the usual way with olive oil and lemon, a topping is made by combining finely chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes and parsley. The ingredients of this simple to prepare crust are very southern Italian, and go extremely well with the fish.
60g sun-dried tomatoes
40g black olives
100g stale bread
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cod fillets, about 200g each
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp white wine
Preheat the oven to 150°C/Gas 2.
Place the sun-dried tomatoes, olives, bread and parsley in a food processor and whiz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. (Alternatively, you could finely chop everything with a good, sharp knife.) Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
Sprinkle a little salt over the cod fillets and place in a large ovenproof dish. Pour over the olive oil and white wine and bake in the oven for 5 minutes. Top the breadcrumb mixture, return to the oven and cook for a further 10 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are golden and the fish has cooked through.
Serve immediately with some steamed green beans.