The Botanical Kitchen + Jane Grigson Trust Award

‘Writing a book is for me an act of faith and folly’, wrote the immortal Jane Grigson in the last year of her life. I would never presume to improve upon the observations of one of my food writing heroes, but if you’ll allow me to tweak them slightly, I might add that ‘writing a book is for me an act of faith and folly, and the reason I haven’t posted on this blog in many months’. That’s right: after many years of thinking it would never happen, I am finally writing my first cookbook. The Botanical Kitchen, an in-depth survey of our passion for all parts of the plant - from rose petals to raspberries, blackcurrants to bergamot, and lavender to lime leaves - will be published by Absolute Press next spring. It combines my love of literature, food culture and history with my passion for experimenting with herbs, spices, fruit and tea, and I hope it will have a place in the heart - and the kitchen - of many a keen cook. Furthermore, last night it was my honour to win (jointly with the fantastic Dan Saladino) the Jane Grigson Trust award for a first book in food/cookery, which has given me a renewed passion for bringing all things botanical to a wider readership. So, I hope you’ll excuse the lack of activity on this blog while I work away at something I’ve been desperate to bring to fruition (pun absolutely intended) for many years now. I’ll be sharing updates occasionally on instagram, if you want to keep track of my recipe testing!

Flash Cooking by Laura Santtini

Flash Cooking, the new cookbook by Laura Santtini (published by Quadrille) will rescue you from a recipe book rut, should you be stuck in one.

Its tagline, "Fit fast flavours for busy people" promises ingredients and recipes that are zesty, fresh, healthy, lively and quick, and its contents don't disappoint. Designed not so much as a recipe book but as a guide to a healthful way of life based around food, Flash Cooking shows you how to get the most out of basic ingredients and not-so-basic flavourings. Adopting a novel approach to cooking, using rubs, pastes and 'flavour bombs', Santtini offers "a passport to the flavours of all the continents, so you can confidently cross borders and create your own world of deliciousness". She is in a good position to help provide this passport: she won an award for her first recipe book (Easy Tasty Italian) in 2010, and has successfully marketed her intense flavour combinations as a range of food products ('Laura Santtini's Spellbinding Flavours').

The book begins with a guide to the 'Flash' way of life: using spices, herbs and other flavourings to transform healthy and basic ingredients into quick and easy meals that taste delicious: making the ordinary extraordinary in a flash. It's about crossing boundaries, "developing the confidence to add a splash of soy sauce to a Bolognese, or mango chutney and Worcestershire sauce to a traditional vinaigrette dressing". It's also about everything in moderation, cooking 'flash' for 80% of the time and enjoying whatever you like for the rest. 

Santtini's philosophy can be summed up in a quotation by Michael Pollan: "eat food, not too much, mostly plants". At the beginning of the book she provides a diagram of the 'flash plate': mostly plants (i.e. low-GI veg and plenty of broccoli - Santtini is oddly specific about this), with an iPhone-sized portion of protein. I quite like the use of 'iPhone sized' as a guide: most of us have absolutely no idea how much protein we should be eating, and Santtini suggests we actually consume far too much. Everyone knows what an iPhone looks like, ergo everyone should be able to measure out a healthy-sized protein intake. Already you get the impression that this book is about more than just food; it's about making lifestyle choices, many of them food-related, in order to sustain a healthy and balanced existence.

The book then moves onto the flash flavourings that are the backbone of Santtini's recipes: seasonings, glazes, rubinades (a cross between a rub and a marinade), pastes, finishing salts, finishing yoghurts, then finally 'props and dressings'. Each of these sections is divided into four groups, enabling one to 'eat the world': there are Western flavours, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Far Eastern. For example, the Western seasoning is herbes de provence; the Middle Eastern a baharat spice mix; Indian, the classic garam masala, and Far Eastern, five spice powder. Similarly, we have balsamic glaze for Western, pomegranate glaze for Middle Eastern, tamarind glaze for Indian, and soy glaze for Far Eastern. The same idea applies to the pastes, rubs, finishing salts, et cetera - mouthwatering suggestions include an artichoke and caper paste for Western dishes, a pink peppercorn and sumac salt for Middle Eastern, and a turmeric and chutney yoghurt to finish Indian dishes.

There's a helpful chart at the end summarising all the different versions of each; Santtini suggests playing "saucepan sudoku by mixing and matching flavours until you find your winning formulas". At the back of the book is a chart that takes some of Santtini's recipes and shows you how could tweak them to fit other cuisines: for example, the chicken pockets stuffed with ricotta and red pesto, a Western dish, can be made Indian by substituting the stuffing for tomato and tamarind paste and drizzling with a mango vinaigrette.

I really love this idea, I have to say. I'm fascinated by herbs, spices and exotic seasonings, and I think the idea of being able to take a basic piece of meat or fish and adorn it with a simple rub or paste to transform it into something exotic and delicious is brilliant and completely in keeping with the fast and healthy philosophy of the book. The notion of dividing the world's flavours into four may be a little limiting and controversial, but as a basic idea it's really interesting, and the wide array of pastes, rubs, salts, yoghurts and seasonings offered by Santtini should keep you more than satisfied in the kitchen for a long time. I'd never really thought about how every cuisine has its own version of the same adornments or accompaniments for food; it certainly opened my eyes and made me think about food and recipes in a whole new way.

The book then moves on to the recipes themselves (divided into Flash Fish, Flash Flesh, Flash Cheese, Eggs & Tofu, Flash Comfort, Flash Vegetables & Salads, Flash Soups, and Flash Starters & Desserts). Titles range from the mouthwatering to the amusing ('tortured sole'; 'the dog's bolognese'; 'all burger, no bum'; 'the thighs the limit with coriander and fennel seeds'). As you might expect from a book with this philosophy, every recipe title bursts with flavour: smoked paprika and orange tuna steaks; venison tagliata with juniper and rosemary; grilled paneer with chaat masala and pineapple; sweet miso aubergine. 

There are some fascinating and unusual flavour combinations, many of which I cannot wait to try and which also promise to be healthy - a winning formula. The photos are also excellent: very simply shot and styled, they highlight the simple, vibrant, healthy nature of the food and its ingredients. Most recipes have photos, too, which is always a plus for the less imaginative cook.

The recipes in each chapter progress from the basic to the more complex. For example, Flash Fish begins with a blueprint for a grilled fish recipe, suggesting you pick a flash seasoning, finishing salt, then a finishing yoghurt or dressing to adorn your fish. It then moves onto simple but tasty ideas such as maple-glazed salmon, before progressing to 'tea-steamed sea bass with vanilla star anise olive oil'. Flash Flesh, or the meat chapter, begins with a recipe for pork cutlets with sage and anchovy butter, and a simple tandoori-style chicken, but also features 'duck breasts with black magic elixir' - a mixture of balsamic vinegar, dark chocolate and olive oil. Each chapter begins with a word of advice from Santtini, for example, "in the Flash way, it is best to restrict the eating of red meat to 2-3 meals a week". I'm pleased to see she recommends game, for its healthy leanness.

The 'comfort' section of the book "deals mostly with carbohydrates and healthful ways to enjoy delicious wheat-free alternatives". Santtini suggests keeping portions of carbs to two iPhones-worth and serving with mostly plants. Recipes include quick butter bean stew with tomatoes and olives; hummus with crumbled feta and pomegranate; and baked seasoned sweet potatoes with matcha guacamole. Delicious, I'm sure, but I do have to say that none of these are what you'd expect from the phrase 'comfort eating'. I can't imagine that your average cook is going to seek out a bowl of brown rice, wheat-free spaghetti or a baked sweet potato when they're craving comfort food. It's a similar story for dessert: while grilled pineapple with vodka, pink peppercorns and chilli sounds divine, it is immediately apparent from reading the sparse dessert section of the book that this is, primarily, a healthy cookbook. Bakers will be disappointed - none of the recipes so much as mention flour.

There are some brilliant, inspired ideas in Santtini's book. The recipes, for the most part, are very simple and speedy, as promised, and there is no doubt they deliver on taste, flavour and healthfulness. Her idea for 'flavour bombs' - rubs, pastes, marinades and glazes - is refreshing and original, and consequently it's a must-have for anyone interested in herbs, spices and unusual flavourings, as well as cuisines from around the world. There's also a lovely index at the back of the book that gives the health benefits of some of Santtini's favourite ingredients: chilli, chocolate, red wine, turmeric, honey, ginger, and more, as well as a glossary to guide you through the more unusual foodstuffs.

However, there are a couple of aspects of the book I'm not so keen on.

Firstly, apart from the 'Flash Comfort' section, none of the meals include carbohydrates - which I suppose is to be expected, given the emphasis on healthy eating. They're largely a collection of ways to dress up your protein, be it fish, eggs, tofu or meat. Yes, there are some delicious salads and vegetable side dishes, but if you're looking for quick, filling, one-pot meals that include carbs, this isn't the book for you. Cooks with more time on their hands will enjoy matching the protein recipes with the tempting vegetable dishes, salads and starters, but that seems to undermine the 'flash' idea of the book. I can't really criticise the book for this, as it's just doing what it says on the tin - but beware if you like to throw a load of pasta, rice or beans in a pan along with your meat.

Secondly, I find the tone of some of the surrounding material a bit offputting. This isn't just a recipe book; it purports to be a guide as to how to live your life the 'flash' way. While I agree with a lot of Santtini's points about not eating too much red meat, avoiding refined carbohydrates and making 'treat' foods yourself when you do want them so that you enjoy them more - some of her suggestions border on the preachy and unrealistic. 

For example, the list of 'Flash Juices & Drinks', featuring a selection of 'Chakra Juices' and 'Sun and Moon Tea' to which you can add crystals "for extra magical powers". A nice idea, perhaps, but I think I could count on one hand the number of readers who will be sticking an extra rose quartz in their morning cuppa as a result of this book. Then there's the 'Flash You' chapter at the back of the book, "all about becoming leader of your universe". It doesn't advocate weight loss, but "setting realistic goals for yourself, and arriving healthfully at a place where you can shine with confidence, having cooked your way to your optimum weight, without compromising the flavour of your life". It's all a bit hippy and earth mother-y, even if it does have a solid and positive message. It's not to say the advice isn't sound, but I personally probably won't take diet advice from someone who puts rocks in their tea.

Another piece of advice is that "if you want to wake up with a flat tummy and go to bed feeling light and lean, say no to carbs after 4pm (although my cut off point is usually after lunch)". Santtini even suggests that this will "improve your libido in a FLASH!" Too much information. This is a cookbook, not Cosmopolitan magazine. Secondly, suggesting avoiding carbs after lunch is, in my opinion, completely unrealistic. 

Unless you have a will of steel and are really serious about losing a lot of weight, this advice is just not something most people will be able to follow. How often do people get home from work at 7pm, ravenous having eaten nothing since their supermarket sandwich at lunchtime and maybe a piece of fruit mid-afternoon? Is a lean chicken breast going to leave them sated and ready to tackle the evening's tasks? No matter how many finishing salts, yoghurts, rubs and pastes you apply to your lean protein, it's not going to fill the gap. I'm all for carbs in moderation, but I just think this advice is a tad absurd. No one wants to be starving half an hour after dinner; it will just lead to an unenjoyable evening and probably a lot of snacking, which totally defeats the object. If Santtini can be happy without carbs after lunchtime, then she's a lucky woman, but I don't think she can expect us all to join her. She suggests the Flash Comfort chapter, which contains the most virtuous forms of carbohydrate imaginable (brown rice, wheat-free pasta, pulses and quinoa) should only be cooked from on your days 'off' more healthy eating. If we're not allowed a butter bean stew in the evening, life is a sad prospect.

I also cannot stand the obsessive use of 'flash' as a prefix in the book. Everything is the 'flash' way; there are 'flash fats', 'flash weight loss', 'flash exercise', a 'flash future', 'flash shopping'. Every other sentence talks about flash this and flash that. While I understand that the creation of a brand and a concept is especially important these days in the world of recipe writing, when cookery books of varying quality proliferate wildly on our shelves, after reading Santtini's book I never want to hear the word 'flash' again. Ever.

Also, another interesting point that struck me - Santtini talks about her decision to exclude wheat and sugar from her diet 90% of the time, and how much better it is for you. Yet her recipe for 'maple glazed salmon' uses an inordinate amount of maple syrup, and I found it far, far too sweet for my liking. I consider myself someone with a bit of a sweet tooth (albeit I tend to get my sugar from fruit rather than cake), and even I would have liked less sweetness in the dish. An odd juxtaposition.

All this said, there is some good advice in there. I particularly like Santtini's reference to her favourite dessert: Other People's Pudding (OPP). Have a couple of spoonfuls of a shared dessert and you are done: "a fix without the fat". It does make sense - we rarely need dessert to fill us up; it's just that sugar hit we're after, which can be made surprisingly small and yet still satisfying. Similarly, some of her advice about how to integrate a flash diet into a normal lifestyle is helpful, especially as it reassures you there will be no "I'm sorry, I'm only eating cereal bars" moments. It's basically just good, healthy common sense, the kind we're used to hearing from food and wellbeing magazines, but with more of a focus on how to revolve this lifestyle around food.

Following the '80/20 rule' is an example of such sound advice. Santtini likens this to buying an expensive jacket on a Sunday: you're not going to go out and spend that kind of money again on the Monday, because you can't afford it. "It is exactly the same with food: enjoy the big spend because you are most definitely worth it, but do not career irresponsibly into debt". Eat 'flash' 80% of the time, and eat what you like for the remaining 20%.

Whether you're interested in weight loss or just a slightly more healthy diet, there's no doubt that following Santtini's advice will help you on your way - I just have a few quibbles about the tone of it. Santtini admits she is a "self-confessed control freak" who weighs herself regularly, and this is fairly evident from some of the advice (suggesting a snack of two medjool dates as the only thing one should consume between lunch and dinner is a tad unrealistic, especially as she then tells us that they "taste like sticky toffee". Good luck at sticking to just two!) 

However, I would suggest that it shouldn't put you off. You don't have to read all the stuff at the back of the book - just stick to the mouthwatering, tempting, inspired recipe suggestions. Enjoy eating the four corners of the world, mixing up your rubinades and spreading on your pastes, sprinkling with your finishing salts and dipping in your finishing yoghurts. It's rare to find something truly original in cookery writing, but I think this might be a good contender.

This is me, cooking one of Santtini's recipes. Could I legitimately caption this 'Flash Elly'?

The recipe for five-spice pork stir-fried with broccoli caught my eye as I flicked through the book for the first time - I'd never thought of using mince in a stir fry before. I had a go, and was rewarded with an incredibly fresh, zesty, flavoursome dinner. In the spirit of flash cooking, I only had a few noodles with it and tried to keep it fairly carb-free. To my surprise, I didn't really need anything to accompany my protein (then again, I had had a lot of pasta for lunch). Perhaps Santtini is right - when your cooking is this full of flavour and vibrance, you don't need to accompany it with much more (though I am still sceptical about the banning of carbs after 4pm).

I picked this dish to share with you because it seems to epitomise the philosophy of the book: it contains broccoli, doesn't really need carbohydrate, uses lean meat, and contains ingredients that pack a huge flavour punch. It also leaves you feeling healthy yet satisfied. Flash cooking at its best.

Five-spice minced pork and tenderstem broccoli (serves 2-3):

1 tbsp sesame oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (I crushed mine)
1 tsp grated fresh ginger (I used about 1 tbsp, but I absolutely love fresh ginger)
1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
500g pork mince 
250 tenderstem broccoli (I used one head of normal broccoli, cut into thin florets)
4 spring onions, chopped
1 red chilli, sliced and deseeded
2 tbsp nam pla fish sauce
1/2 tbsp runny honey
Juice of 1 lime

For the garnish:
Handful of chopped coriander leaves
2 tbsp roughly chopped natural roasted peanuts
2 lime wedges

Heat the sesame oil in a wok and add the garlic, ginger and five-spice powder. When sizzling, add the pork and stir-fry until it begins to brown. Add the broccoli and continue to stir-fry until that begins to become tender (I boiled mine first to avoid it remaining tough and added it towards the end). 

Add the spring onions, chilli, fish sauce, honey and lime juice, and stir-fry until bubbling and the pork is nicely browned. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for a minute or so until the broccoli is just tender. 

Serve topped with fresh coriander, a sprinkling of peanuts and a wedge of lime on the side.

Two new additions to my collection

I've had the briefest of perusals and already I want to lock myself away in a kitchen and cook the entire Ottolenghi book from front to back. It's an entirely vegetarian cookbook featuring his recipes from the Guardian New Vegetarian column. I love his use of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours with every vegetable under the sun, and the way he makes even the most dull vegetables into incredibly delicious-sounding salads, gratins, omelettes, tarts, that I have my massive tubs of Za'atar and sumac I will definitely be trying a sumptuous-looking butterbean, feta and sumac salad. Along with everything else. Yum. I love vegetarian food like this, especially because I don't really eat that much meat anyway and these recipes are so scrumptuous that I don't know why you'd want to.

Masterchef also looks excellent - I really like the format of the book and the pictures are lovely. Naturally I flicked straight to the dessert section which has some enticing things like a rhubarb millefeuille, and the pear and roquefort souffle that I admired on last season's Masterchef: The Professionals and am now very glad I can emulate. Fantastic.

Of course, my finals are in three weeks, so all this may have to wait. But I should probably warn all my friends now that it is my mission to make them fat on Ottolenghi and Masterchef recipes by the end of term.