Friday, 30 October 2009
review: Supper for a Song, by Tamasin Day-Lewis
Billed as a ‘book for a resourceful cook in the prudent kitchen’, this latest publication by Tamasin Day-Lewis seems to be another of the current crop tapping into a recession-hit market. The premise is sound, and initial impressions are promising –a cursory flick through the pages suggests that any notions that cooking to a limited budget necessarily means bland and dull meals should be promptly banished. The colourful pictures promise much – feasts of delicious, vibrant food leap out from almost every page.
And, indeed, the book gets off to an appropriate start with a core recipe for a roast chicken, and then a variety of ideas for what to do with any leftovers. Ditto a handful of recipes for using mince (without an initial roast lamb or beef recipe, though). How to get creative with leftover mash follows next (bread, potato apple ‘cake’, and parmesan potato cake, since you ask).
I’m not sure I understand the rationale behind the ordering of the sections (not helped by the lack of a Table of Contents), since next up is ‘The Saturday Bake’. Personally, I would have thought that a chapter on roasts and leftovers would follow more logically after Saturday, but maybe that’s just me. The sequence of the other chapters is equally mystifying. Still, whether you bake on Saturday or some other day, you’ll be spoilt for choice with recipes here, among them many old favourites: carrot cake, chocolate cake, fruit tea loaf, and brownies. But there are also novel versions of familiar cakes, too: wholemeal date scones, banana blondies, and bay, lemon, and honey cake, for example.
From baking, the book launches into one-pot cooking, with plenty of those hearty winter warmers that we’re all so fond of, like stew and dumplings, braised belly pork, sausage casserole, cobbler, and fish pie. Again, there are tasty twists: brisket comes with pickled walnuts, the belly pork with quince, the casserole with chestnuts, and the ‘pudding’ is lamb, rather than steak, and kidney.
If those aren’t enough to make you content, a chapter on ‘Happy food’ follows. As Day-Lewis puts it: ‘When we are broke we need to reward ourselves more than ever, with little luxuries in the absence of large’. Chocolate, unsurprisingly, features largely here – in truffles, a terrine, a truffle cake, little baked custards, and a sorbet. Other treats include a date and coffee sponge, crème caramel, and pannacotta, as well as a comfort-food Victorian nursery pudding, called General Satisfaction – something of a cross between trifle, Eton Mess, and Queen of Puddings.
Next is a fulsome section on bread, and how to use up old loaves. Many of the savoury recipes are Spanish or Italian in origin, while the puddings include old English classics such as Brown Betty and Summer Pudding.
Then it’s the chapter that takes its title from that of the book itself. The concept for Day-Lewis was born out of necessity at university, and even now ‘I still take the greatest pride in inventing suppers for a song’. Any reader following her lead will eat well: from pea, mint, and scallop custards, through stuffed squid, to little John Dory fillets with braised fennel and anchovy butter. A dessert of caramel and cardamom ice cream with Tarocco oranges would certainly have been much appreciated in my student days.
Autumnal gluts of fruit are swiftly despatched through baking, stewing, sun-drying (tomatoes), and jamming, before the book ends with ‘Something-out-of-nothing suppers’ – the kind of meals we might conjure up from our store cupboards. Again, the recipes derive largely from beyond UK shores, with Indian curries, gnocchi, tortilla, paella, pan bagna, Boston baked beans, baked penne, and pizza all appearing on the menu.
In all, it’s a cheery book for hard times. My query, though, is to what extent it will really fulfil readers’ expectations for frugality. The braised belly pork recipe suggests a 1.2kg piece of ‘ideally’ organic Middle White. And the quinces to accompany it aren’t exactly cheap. Other recipes don’t stint on top-notch ingredients, either. Organic Sierra Rica chestnuts? Pheasant? Scallops? Wild salmon? John Dory? Marsala wine? Or that caramel and cardamom ice cream recipe, anyone – requiring, amongst other things, a vanilla pod, 350ml Jersey milk, 284ml thick Jersey cream, 8 (yes, 8) large egg yolks, and 6 Tarocco or blood oranges? Crikey. If this is frugality, then we should all be getting rather more excited about it than we are.
This is not, then, a book that will square with everyone’s idea of managing on a limited budget. Neither is Day-Lewis someone to stint on quality, even in parsimonious times. She exhorts readers to buy the best they can afford, and organic wherever possible. I’ve already cited the Middle White example, and there are several similar instances. That sort of quality doesn’t exactly come cheap. She does, however, point out that those recipes using expensive main ingredients are frequently ‘balanced’ by cheaper minor ones, and there are also plenty of recipes which are genuinely cheap (and easy) to make – but the net effect is only to throw the extravagant items into sharper and more alarming relief.
In fairness, none of this – balancing expense, buying the best produce affordable – should be particularly controversial. We all deserve to eat well, and to eat good food. To a degree, Day-Lewis is right – it’s about learning to make prudent choices, and evening out expense with moderation in order to arrive at a happy status quo. Recycling a roast chicken, making the most of mince, learning how to make bread and use up stale ends imaginatively are all things that make a plenty of economic as well as culinary sense (not to mention environmental sense), and Jamie O and Huge F-W would surely approve.
It’s just that Ms Day-Lewis’ starting budget appears to be set at a rather higher level than that of the average punter. As does her expectation regarding access to good butchers, fishmongers, and supermarkets and delis. Sadly, the reality is that many of these recipes simply won’t deliver on taste and texture if lesser and cheaper substitutes are used in place of the ingredients she lists. Even the simple fried mozzarella sandwich won’t be half as good with mozzarella that is anything other than bufala campana, and anything other than ‘spanking fresh’ mackerel could render a pickled mackerel and potato salad near inedible. But then, I strongly suspect that Ms Day-Lewis’ regular audience have access to all these things and more, and can readily afford them. And so long as everyone is aware of that, then I’m sure this book will find its market.
(With thanks to Quadrille Publishing for the review copy.)
Supper for a Song, by Tamasin Day-Lewis
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Quadrille Publishing Ltd (2 Oct 2009)