27 November 2009

Review: Supper for a Song by Tamasin Day-Lewis

When Quadrille Publishing announced they had cookbooks available for review I jumped at the chance to test out Supper for a Song by Tamasin Day-Lewis (let's get it out of the way: she's Daniel's sister). Not only did the book look intriguing but it seemed an especially appropriate choice given the current state of the economy. After all, it bills itself as being "For the clever cook in the cost-conscious kitchen." You can't go wrong, right? Well...

Let's start with the good points. The book is nicely designed with numerous pretty photos and one of the most creative Tables of Contents I've ever seen. The writing is casual and friendly, which always makes for more enjoyable reading. Measurements are in metric and imperial (although even in imperial, measurements are given in weight, not volume--and temperatures are only given in Celsius). There's a chapter called "Happy Food," which besides offering some decadent looking recipes, just makes me smile. And best of all, the book provides tons of inspiration; reading it made me want to get busy in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the negatives really outweigh the positives with this book. To start, the writing is frequently a little too casual, with vague descriptions and instructions given. What exactly is a "blodge"? How does one "blitz" food? How much is a handful or a knob of an ingredient? Along the same lines, the lack of a glossary might result in confusion for North Americans trying to decipher British ingredients like plain flour and caster sugar.

Although foodies will appreciate the emphasis on quality ingredients, I didn't find that it was a particularly practical manual for economy cooking. Yes, quality is more important than quantity, but I think even small amounts of the expensive ingredients used throughout the book--such as pine nuts, organic meats, and expensive chocolate--would be a stretch for anyone really trying to budget. And telling people to just eat less (but better!) is unrealistic, to say the least. On top of that, this is no book for beginners--anyone hoping to try out the recipes in Supper for a Song will need to start out with a reasonable knowledge of food and cooking.

After trying a few of her recipes, Day-Lewis's claim that this style of cooking will save time and effort is nice in theory if not reality. Not only do many of the recipes involve planning ahead and multiple steps, but some of the instructions are downright unnecessary. The Tahini Cream Sauce on page 33 required no fewer than seven steps (plus the final sprinkle with parsley) when simply mixing all the ingredients together at once (and then adjusting for flavour) would have easily sufficed. And that's on top of the labour-intensive from-scratch falafel it's meant to be served with. What's with all the extra work? It's certainly not warranted by the results.

I ended up trying four recipes. I'd planned on trying five but after three disappointments, I decided I'd had enough.

White Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles started things off brilliantly. Easy to make and delicious (in large part due to the super fresh raspberries we were lucky enough to find), these are sweet nuggets of crack-like addictiveness. Day-Lewis's awkward instructions (e.g., skewering the berries and swirling them in the chocolate to coat) left something to be desired but the idea is pure win.

[Simplified] White Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles

200g/7 oz container of large raspberries
200g/7 oz good white chocolate
up to 10g/o.3 oz unsalted butter

Put the raspberries on a plate in a single later in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, but not touching the water.

Remove the pan from the heat, keeping the melted chocolate over the warm water. Drop a couple of "tiny knobs" [I'd go with about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp each] into the chocolate to stop it seizing.

Drop the raspberries in the chocolate one at a time, rolling gently with a spoon until evenly coated with chocolate. Using a wooden skewer, pierce and lift the raspberries and allow excess chocolate to drip off. Place chocolate-covered raspberries on a foil-lined baking sheet.

When all the raspberries have been coated, place baking sheet in the fridge until the chocolate has completely set (about 20 minutes). Enjoy.

The next recipe I tested was Earl Grey Fruit Tea Loaf. I'm one of those rare individuals who actually likes fruit cake (or at least who will admit they like it) and I love Earl Grey, so there was no way I could resist this recipe. The tea loaf is simple enough to make, which is a plus, although it has to be started the night before. I'm also not convinced that upscale dried fruit (such as the suggested Muscat raisins, unsulphured apricots, strawberries, and cherries), muscovado sugar, and "the best" loose tea leaves are either practical for the average person to find or particularly economical.

The results were okay bordering on nice. Because there is no added fat other than one egg, the loaf really tastes like it's missing something. The SO suggested it could use some icing. I thought it needed butter, as Day-Lewis recommends (buttering really did make a difference, as I'm sure icing would). The texture is also a little rubbery. Would I make it again? Maybe.

I thought the colours of the fruit (which were not the same ones as suggested in the book, partly because I couldn't find any of those) were particularly pretty:

Ready for eating:

I next attempted the Middle Eastern Stuffed Peppers on page 132. First of all, let me just say that if you want people to make more rice than needed for your recipe so that they can save time by using the extra in another recipe, it would be nice if you warned them that was your plan somewhere other than the middle of the recipe! And if you want them to make extra for other uses, maybe you could have them make enough so that there's actually a substantial amount of extra rice, not just a tiny useless portion. Beyond this quibble, the peppers required a lot of work and ultimately were bland. As someone who's had (and made) some damn fine Middle Eastern cuisine, this recipe was just a waste of time.

The last experiment I embarked on was the aforementioned overly complicated Tahini Cream Sauce, which I served alongside falafel from a mix (way less work and nearly as tasty). The sauce was mediocre. That was pretty much when I lost my remaining inspiration to keep cooking these recipes.

I think part of the problem with Supper for a Song is that it frequently seems to lose focus. Is it about creative cooking? Economical cooking? Slow food? Organic fare? There's no reason it couldn't integrate all of those things, but I don't think Day-Lewis quite gets that. Ultimately this is a book to check out from the library. Read it, get inspired, try out a couple of recipes. But don't buy it. Hey, at least you'll save money that way.

Quote: Pleasure comes first, but not at any cost to the environment, the animal, the farmer or the pocket. (p 55)

Supper for a Song by Tamasin Day-Lewis. Published by Quadrille; 192 pp, $27.00 CAD.


Nicole said...

you can make me those raspberry truffles any day

bella said...

I saw those truffles on your Twitter pics and thought they looked scrumptious. I'm sorry to hear the book didn't live up to its promotion, but this sounds like a keeper.

Aspasia said...

Definitely a keeper--will be making them again often.