Cooking the books

Categories: Features

At Borough Market’s Cookbook Club, members prepare dishes from a single iconic cookbook and then gather together to share their experiences and their food. Market Life heads along with fish kebabs and some very burnt aubergine

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When I received the invitation to write about Borough Market’s Cookbook Club, with the book in question—Jerusalem—being the brainchild of none other than Yotam Ottolenghi, I had every intention of delivering a meal worthy of my borderline religious admiration of this culinary giant.

I dwelt on every page, salivating over pictures and poring over ingredients in lists legendary for their length and breadth. I didn’t know what half of them were. I didn’t own the rest. Yet I would not be defeated: after years of confining myself to only the easiest of Ottolenghi’s dishes (and even then, only rarely), I finally had a professional excuse to, gastronomically speaking, really go to town.

So, what happened, I hear you cry. Did you sweep the floor with your shakshuka? Confound them with your chicken sofrito? Has Ottolenghi called offering co-authorship on his next blockbuster book? Alas, no. Despite my best laid plans, as the clock struck 11pm on the eve of the Cookbook Club gathering, I was to be found not dreaming of my forthcoming success, but jumping around on a chair waving a tea towel at the smoke alarm while my housemate patiently rescued smouldering ashes of what was once aubergine from the grill.

“Burnt aubergine, the recipe said,” I raged to my housemate over the wail of the alarm, “BURNT aubergine. How am I supposed to know there are DEGREES of burning?!” Miserably, I salvaged what was left of the flesh—‘smoky’ was an understatement—blended it with Oliveology’s Greek yoghurt, and proceeded to make the fish and caper kebabs with shallots instead of spring onions (because I’d forgotten them), and frozen soda bread crumbs instead of fresh, normal ones (ditto). As I did so, my grandma’s voice—“read the recipe right through before you start it, Clare’—ran irritatingly around my head.

Respectful and supportive
Thank goodness it wasn’t a competition. On the contrary, upon arriving at Borough Market’s Cookhouse the next day, I find the Cookbook Club host, Angela Clutton, at pains to explain to me that while there will be different levels of proficiency on display, “there’s no pressure. Everyone’s very respectful and supportive of one another, and very frank about their experience”.

A food writer herself, Angela has been hosting the club for almost a year now. “I am into food history—that’s my thing—and it involves a lot of old cookery books,” she explains. “I am fascinated by the snapshots of culture and society they offer. All the books that came out this year, for example, will tell the people of the future a lot about how we live, how we want to live. Cookbooks have always done that, throughout history.” Her aim—and indeed the reason she’s running the club—is to encourage readers to “go beyond what is on the plate”.

The format is simple. Joining the club is free. About a month before a club meeting, entry is opened and Angela announces the book under discussion. Places are offered to all club members on a first come, first served basis for a fee of £6, with a limited number of spaces reserved solely for SE1 residents who are offered free entry. You need to be quick on the button: in total, there are only 15 spaces.

“It’s a good number,” Angela explains. “You get a real mix of people: some who really love the book, some who really don’t, some ambivalent.” It’s large enough to be diverse, but small enough to ensure everyone gets to share their views and experiences of the cookbook, and of course, their dish.

Cookbook Club dish

Wreathing exotic aromas
Mine could do without being shared, I think mournfully, as my fellow members file in bearing boxes brim-full of colourful concoctions, wreathing exotic aromas. One of Angela’s key roles in the run up to the meeting is ensuring there’s a balance of different dishes. “Fish and caper kebabs with burnt aubergine and lemon pickle? Clare?” she calls out, and I present my offering in an assortment of takeaway containers and olive jars. “Perfect! How long do they need cooking for?”

The logistical impossibility of monitoring 15 people’s use of the test kitchen means Angela does any necessary last minute cooking on site. Most people bring complete dishes, but some—my kebabs, Celia’s aubergines—require reheating or frying before being served to the assembled members, so Angela works in batches.

“I’ll get a few out, talk about them, then eat—but please, learn the lessons of your predecessors and pace yourselves,” she says, observing the growing tower of Tupperware and foil parcels. “There are 15 dishes to get through.”

“I overdid it last time,” fellow member Shuk confides. “I ate so much of the first rounds, I had no room for pudding. She was going to eat before we came,” she points at her friend Kathryn, a new recruit to the club, mock-accusingly. I realise I recognise them: both are regular faces behind Ted’s Veg, the very stall from which I got the lemon for my quick pickle. I ask them how they got involved.

A sucker for quince
Shuk’s first taste of the club involved Diana Henry’s book Food From Plenty, back in September. “I loved it. It was full of clever uses of spices and some good vegetarian dishes.” Today, however, she’s gone carnivorous, with lamb-stuffed quince, sprinkled with coriander and pomegranate. “I’m a sucker for quince, so when they were going out of season, I held back the last two and wrapped them in newspaper,” she grins impishly. “I knew the Cookbook Club was coming up and I’d wanted to make this for ages.”

Though Shuk and Kathryn both work in the food industry, it’s clear from the outset that this club is by no means confined to professionals. Here, there’s a technology consultant, a civil servant, a part-time carer and a tourist guide. There are food bloggers (one, John, puts us all to shame with his highly complex helbeh—a fenugreek cake) but for the most part I find Angela was right. People are honest about their experience, with pitfalls relayed with typical British self-deprecation and good humour—even when the resulting dish turns out to be superb.

Jacqueline’s mejadra is a case in point. Asked to describe it before serving, she confesses she was “not sure” about the recipe: “Ottolenghi says to use whole cardamom and coriander seeds—but I think I should really have ground them down. They taste a bit medicated,” she says, looking uncomfortable. “Then he says to salt the onions before frying and afterward—which I did, but it seems a bit excessive. Anyway, here it is.” She empties the container into a large oval bowl.

It is delicious. In fact, I conclude later, it’s the best dish of the evening. The onions—crisp, salty filigrees cresting aromatic waves of lentils and rice—add a sweet piquancy to the dish’s humble earthiness and comfortably spiced warmth. “I’ve always been put off Ottolenghi by his long list of ingredients, but this is basically just rice, onions and lentils,” Jacqueline muses—leading us neatly on to a discussion about the chef’s famous ingredients lists and how we coped with them—or didn’t in, my case.

The Cookbook Club

Unusual ingredients  
“It was the quantities that took me by surprise, to be honest,” says Ian, an aspiring restauranteur. “Just huge quantities of unusual ingredients. I had to buy a massive packet of barberries, a pot of saffron threads—and a big bunch of dill because I don’t have a herb garden.”

It’s with dishes like this, I realise, that Borough Market—a place where you can buy almost any ingredient at the exact quantity you want—comes into its own, and I crow quietly over my perfect portions of parsley and dill, courtesy of Ted’s Veg and Elsey and Bent.

Still, we address Ian’s problem. If you’ve bought a packet of herbs, what do you do with the 24g left over from the mere teaspoon required for the recipe? I tend to freeze any excess herbs, I tell Ian, which is useful if you’re making sauces or soups, but tends to litter the bottom drawer of my freezer with unidentifiable foliage. Allison has a better idea. Faced with a bunch of leftover parsley, she chucks it in the food processor with salt and oil and makes pesto. “Then when a recipe recommends coriander or parsley, I use the pesto rather than getting fresh herbs.”

Here, in action, is one of the biggest benefits conferred by the Cookbook Club: the sharing of knowledge. Kathryn—her initial doubts over the quantity of food that would be available this evening now firmly put to bed by our ‘first course’—has another interesting tip. “I use rapeseed oil for frying generally. It gets to a very high cooking temperature without smoking.”

A true gastronome
Her recipe—prawns, scallops and clams with tomato and feta—called for olive oil, “but I subbed it,” she shrugs. Rapeseed has such a mild and natural flavour, only a true gastronome would notice the difference—and Ted’s Veg sells it, which one suspects might have been a decisive factor.

Toward the end of our session the club members conclude that, more than any they have studied this year, Jerusalem is a cookbook that goes beyond the recipes. Yotam Ottolenghi is Jewish-Israeli; his business partner Sami Tamimi is Arab-Israeli. “The book is the story of their world—the world of Jerusalem, and how they have grown up in different ways in this city,” Angela points out. “It’s not just a recipe collection; it’s an insight into their respective heritages and how that contextualises everything they do.”

To cook from Jerusalem—even just to read the first few pages—is to glean a small, tantalising taste of what it means to be from this unique and highly charged city of diversity and conflict, creativity and destruction. “It’s there on a plate,” she says, as she ladles warm cardamom rice pudding on to a large saucer and sprinkles it with rose water and pistachios.

The proof’s in this pudding: a traditional dessert for Sephardic Jews, and yet equally prevalent among Arab homes, explains the recipe’s introduction. “Sami’s mother used to prepare it for the family on occasion, served with sugar syrup flavoured with flower blossom.”

Cookbook club attendee

A dry run
Our cook tonight is Irish, a softly spoken, elegantly clad woman named Caroline. Some confusion about dates means this is her second attempt at this symbolic dish: “I thought Cookbook Club was last week, so my family have been eating it all week—not that they’ve complained,” she smiles. Besides, it gave her a dry run: this version, she confesses, is distinctly better for her having learnt some lessons from the first.

“I made the mistake of boiling the milk first time—you need to bring it to the boil then straight off before adding the cardamom and vanilla,” she advises. “Be careful with the rose syrup too.” One of the universal truths of the kitchen is that a recipe invariably improves the more often you cook it. Attending a Cookbook Club, therefore, puts you at a significant advantage when it comes to approaching the recipes shared by your members. Having heard and even tasted the stumbling blocks and pitfalls of the others, you’re better equipped to identify and avoid them yourself.

My kebabs were—miraculously—not a disaster. A tad crumbly, perhaps, but I blame my defrosted soda bread. The capers from Oliveology added bitter depths of flavour (and left me enough to make tartar sauce) and the monkfish that Simon at Furness Fish recommended was easy to work with.

“For kebabs, you really need something thick—make sure you cut it into even sized pieces,” he advised, a tip I pass on readily to my colleagues. In turn they impart their own experiences of kebabs and, of course, burnt aubergines. To my relief, it turns out I’m not the only one who has set the fire alarm off and covered their grill with tar.

Glowing sense of contentment
“I think this was a success,” Angela remarks, as the sated club members start trailing from the kitchen. Some are laden with leftovers, but not all. “Oh my word, Jacqueline, that plate doesn’t even need washing!” she exclaims, as Jacqueline sheepishly presents her empty rice pudding bowl. I laugh along with them, my glowing sense of contentment induced partly by Ottolenghi’s trademark spices, but mainly by the conviviality that sharing his glorious, gargantuan platters of food with strangers has inspired.

The next book scheduled for discussion is Rowley Leigh’s celebration of home cooking, There’s No Place Like Home—an apt choice, I think, because far more than culinary brilliance or technical expertise, what Borough Market’s Cookbook Club celebrates is the way that good food, shared among people, can make anyone and everyone feel at home.