The Country Cookbook by Belinda Jeffrey

Country cookbook coverReviewing a cookbook isn’t like reviewing fiction. To review a cookbook you need to be aware of how varied the desires of readers of cookbooks are, compared to, say, readers of fiction. Most people read fiction for amusement, and are attracted to genre tropes in conventional plots. Readers can, in comparison, want all kinds of things from cookbooks. Some early cookbooks can be read for poetical turns of phrase in the recipes which, lacking modern constructions, read like laboratory notes for alchemists. Many modern readers enjoy the gastropornographic titillation of detailed descriptions of dishes they can never hope to make, with full colour photographs. Some cookbooks are read to learn particular cooking techniques or the iterations of national flavour combinations. Some are dipped into as reference when a particular recipe is wanted, or a cook finds a new ingredient at a store and wants options.

No cookbook can serve every reader, so a reviewer can’t sweepingly say a cookbook is good or bad, which is to say, likely to appeal to most readers, or not. At best, I can note how this cookbook differs from other cookbooks, and allow you to compare that to your own needs.

The layout is clear and, as an Australian book, it does not flirt wither with Imperial measurements or odd American tablespoons. Distinctively native ingredients are mentioned a couple of times I’ve seen, but are not a significant focus of the book. The book rests on a kitchen bookstand, and its pages are heavy enough that they don’t turn on their own in a light breeze. The book has two registers, and I’ve discovered that, although I did not know it before, I want all of my future cookbooks to have at least a dozen.

The recipes are framed with journal entries about life on acreage, and photographs. Many of the photographs aren’t relevant to the food being discussed. The journal entries are, at least half the time, just an excuse for the author to rhapsodize the ingredients in the recipe which follows. I, personally, found the extra pieces of biography — and the large photos of landscapes, the author’s dog and fairy wrens — to be wasted space. That being said, if you want this as a coffee table book, they probably enhance it.

The book is arranged in months, and has a theme of seasonal cooking. It does not try to be comprehensive about this. It makes no stab toward kitchen gardening, for example. The Country Cookbook also uses a somewhat more temperate version of seasonality than suits me, which is significant when preserving fruit, but those are minor quibbles.

Its focus on seasonal produce steers The Country Cookbook away from flesh-based ingredients. It is not a vegetarian book, but as a vegetarian cook I noticed that meat dishes are relatively scarce. Those that do appear are often centred on chicken, the blandest and most easily replaced of all meats. For a book with a lot of vegetarian dishes, though, it has comparatively few which have strong umami flavours. There are some dishes which have enough umami to be a main, but the majority instead focus on sweet flavours, or are savouries suitable for side dishes accompanying meat.

The book has a lot of deserts or sweet snacks. Most are either baked goods of easy to middling difficulty, or methods of cooking fruit. The baked goods show interesting variations of texture, although texture does not seem to be a strong consideration in most of the other dishes.

I’ve seen no recipe that’s particularly difficult, or requires unusual equipment, beyond the basics of preserving. Some are a little finnicky, but there’s no point where I’ve had to look up a technique.

The recipes, baking excluded, have relatively short preparation and cooking times. There are exceptions (roasted lamb forequarter chops, for example, aren’t going to be done in less than three hours) but generally the preference for fruit and vegetable dishes keeps cooking times down.

The flavour combinations seem mostly Western European in origin, although there are many dishes which come from elsewhere. I have the impression that there are a lot of dishes which use fruit as a sweet component in a savoury dish, but that might be a reader bias. I’m trying to get a grip of Moroccan cooking, so it may be that I’m noticing recipes which have that feature.In terms of flavours, nothing has jumped out at me as being particularly revolutionary. The closest I’ve come is noticing that I share the author’s love of watercress, and am pleased to find new ways to tempt others to try it. Noting that a book doesn’t have surprising flavour combinations isn’t, to remind you of my initial statement, necessarily a bad thing. I, personally, like cookbooks in which I find new combinations, provided its not the same new ingredient used over and over. Other people find having their palate challenged annoying, and so its perfectly fair to look for cookbooks, like this one, where your dishes are dependably enjoyable.

It’s unfair to review a cook book without trying at least some of recipes. The Sicilian eggplant, pear and tomato dish, which is suggested as a side, also makes an excellent main. I didn’t salt and drain the eggplant: I don’t think you need to with modern varieties. I’ll eventually try it again, and when I do, rather than eating pears I’ll try a roasting variety, added earlier in the process, so that they retain their form a little better. Still, a very enjoyable dish, as is the double lentil soup.

I made it in a smaller quantity than suggested, and used a chicken-like vegetarian stock. I didn’t use true puy lentils: I used Australian French-style lentils which are the same species, I believe. I’m not sure what role the curry powder has in this recipe, given the mix of other spices added. There are a couple of notes I’d add to this recipe for people new to cooking lentils. It’s best not to drink the water in which lentils have been rehydrated, because it is full of long-chain sugars. You can’t digest these, but the bacteria in your gut can, which causes flatulence. It would be better to soak or preboil the lentils, and then put them in fresh, boiling water to make the soup. This also avoids a second problem with the recipe. If you add the salt (or spice mixes, or stock containing salt) to whole lentils, they take longer to rehydrate because the salt toughens their skins, making them less permeable to water.

Speaking personally, I enjoyed the book, and the recipes I tried, slightly altered as noted above, worked well for me. In discussing it with others I’d particularly recommend it to people wanting Australian seasonal cookbooks, fruit based sweets, or simple vegetarian dishes.