After the Christmas cooking nightmare has passed it's time to stand back from the cooker and take a leisurely look at some cookery books as opposed to diving frantically at them, looking for that elusive but never-fail recipe for bread sauce! With a major emphasis on light, tasty, fresh food after the stodge of Christmas and the welter of leftover meals that followed now is the perfect time to get your hands on some new cookbooks. Try out some new recipes to fortify yourself against the January blues or just curl up and enjoy looking at gorgeous pictures of what you intend to make in the future.
Sally Clarke's eponymously titled "recipes from a restaurant, shop and bakery" is a seasonal treasury from an interesting source. Clarke is an unashamed foodie who has had a fascination with cooking from a young age. A classically trained cook, she worked her way up from assisting a local caterer, aged 13, through a Condon Bleu course in Paris to teaching at Prue Leith's famed cookery school. In 1984 she fulfilled a long-term ambition and opened Clarke's Restaurant. London's first 'no-choice' restaurant, Clarke was determined: 'to offer a set menu…planned solely around the best, the freshest and the most seasonal of products presented in a wholesome and healthy way.' Her recently published book, with seasonal menus for lunch, supper and dinner, follows this principle, offering simple and balanced dishes thoughtfully prepared. Although she intends that the recipes should be simply presented, they are more intricate than many a normal kitchen could cope with. 'Sally Clarke's Book' is food pornography of a very high standard but its weakness lies with its inability to drive you into the kitchen.
Moving away from menu-based meals, especially as you've probably had plenty of them over Christmas, there is a trend towards more relaxed Mediterranean-type eating with everyone sharing a selection of dishes. This is exemplified in Elizabeth Luard's 'Saffron & Sunshine'. Subtitled 'tapas, mezze and antipasta', it covers food from Mediterranean Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. From Petits Pots au Chocolat to the Turkish cheese dip known as Görme, Luard's book is crammed with enough savoury and sweet 'little bites' to feed any post-Christmas hordes. A fascinating book, 'Saffron & Sunshine' is somewhat let down by the lack of photos for many of the unfamiliar, but delicious sounding dishes. Well worth investigating if you want to try out some radically different recipes on your family and friends.
Two books that cannot be faulted on their illustrations are the new publications by Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater. The food in Slater's 'Appetite' is lovingly photographed by Jonathan Lovekin, a man who understands that the preparation of a dish and its imperfections can be far more interesting than a perfectly cooked and posed joint of meat. The drips of oil on a cooker, potato skins left carelessly where they fall are a comforting reminder that no matter how famous the cook, his - or her - kitchen is as prone to mess and clutter as your own at home. And, when you're finished drooling over the photos, there are some gorgeous recipes to savour. Slater has a gift for communicating his passion for food, try the perfect lemon and butter roast chicken; a solid, warming winter soup, studded with ham and cannelloni beans; or the simplest, thinnest, crispiest fruit tart. 'Appetite' is a pleasure to look at, read, and cook from.
Despite going for the kitsch appeal - be-aproned 50s housewives adorn the inside cover of her book 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' - Nigella Lawson still manages to make your mouth water with delectable cakes (especially the Molten Chocolate Babycakes), biscuits (Rosebud Madelines) and puddings (Plum and Pecan Crumble). Lawson encourages an abandonment of efficiency and speed for a while, her advice? Immerse yourself in the kitchen and glory in the kind of cooking which is not strictly necessary for daily living. Her descriptions are both suggestive and seductive - how can you not empathise with someone who tells you to leave a decent amount of uncooked cake mixture in the bowl for 'scraping out purposes'? Although Lawson still has an occasional tendency to hold herself aloof and talk down to the reader, she has put together such an evocative collection of recipes that she can (almost) be forgiven - we're not that far from the season of goodwill after all!
Of course, if you're not really all that sick of Christmas cookery after all then maybe you should steal a march on everyone else and immerse yourself in Rose Elliot's 'Vegetarian Christmas' (Thorsons), a practical and useful guide to feeding those who view eating turkey as a murderous occupation. Just think - you could spend the entire year planning next year's Christmas dinner...
Sally Clarke 'Sally Clarke's Book', Pan. £14.99 st
Elizabeth Luard 'Saffron & Sunshine' Bantam Press. £16 st
Nigel Slater 'Appetite' Fourth Estate. £25 st
Nigella Lawson 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' Chatto & Windus. £25 st
Rose Elliot 'Vegetarian Christmas' Thorsons £8.99 st