Stop snickering at British cuisine and tuck in

Jamie Oliver has grown from his “Naked Chef” days as a BBC wunderkind to an internationally recognized chef, restauranteur, and food advocate. It is now sometimes hard to remember a time when the concept of British cuisine was greeted with snickers rather than excitement, and brought to mind boiled veg and unseasoned meat rather than culinary delights. Oliver has been a big part of this transformation, and his latest cookbook continues his promotion of unpretentious, homey, and delicious food. I have cooked from a range of Oliver’s books over the years, and dishes consistently turn out, no mean feat for a “celebrity” cookbook. His newest offering, Jamie’s Comfort Food, offers 100 recipes, and many full-page photographs of preparation and final plates. These are indulgent, often time-consuming but generally not-too-technically-challenging dishes, perfect for casual entertaining or a special family meal.

While some of Oliver’s other cookbooks recently have been directed at novices, this one is more for competent home cooks who might want to embark on an ambitious cooking project in order to bring something showstopping to the table. He revisits and adds a twist to some classic British dishes: the pub favourite toad in the hole is accompanied with a separate pan of Yorkshire pudding and rich onion gravy. Oliver promised that this dish for eight could be produced in an hour, and we managed to get this on the table on a weeknight, no problem. North American cooks may be less familiar with dishes like “Mum’s Smoked Haddock,” but Oliver’s gigantic shepherd’s pie or winter’s night chili with chickpeas are sure to be a crowd pleasers.

He offers clear and detailed instructions so it is not too intimidating to tackle brining and then southern-frying chicken, or fiddling with choux pastry to make chocolate profiteroles. Multi-stage recipes like beef Wellington are accompanied by a two-page photo spread that does not include written instructions but nicely provides a sense of how things should look at crucial moments (sadly, my own beef Wellington was a little less pretty but still very tasty).

Even so, projects like the chicken shawarma might require getting a group of friends together to cook – and I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. Oliver describes building a firepit, threading sixteen marinated chicken thighs on skewers, and turning them over the heat constantly for over an hour. Meanwhile, another part of the firepit is devoted to cooking homemade flatbreads. The final dish, with hummus, tabbouleh, and pickled vegetables, looks delicious but I imagine that this would be a dish I made once a summer, and only when I had some other willing cooks on hand.  And Oliver kind of lost me in describing making kielbasa using a smoker fashioned out of a garbage can. I tried to imagine drilling holes in the can, finding oak logs that I would then burn into cinders, regulating the heat and smoke and finding a dowel to hang the sausages…not to mention stuffing 10 feet of sausage casings with a pork shoulder that I ground myself. Oliver says that this would take 4 hours to complete, but I could see this stretching into a weekend of smoky haze (and admittedly, probably very delicious sausage).

Beyond traditional English fare, Oliver includes a range of dishes reflecting the ethnic and immigrant communities that are vibrant contributors to the food scene in Britain. Pho, chicken satay, ramen, Egyptian kushari, Indonesian nasi goreng, and black lentil daal are all large, comforting and homey dishes designed to leave a group of diners (including both adults and children) full and happy. At the back of the book, a nutritional breakdown for each dish including calories, fat, carbs, and sugar reveals the only drawback of these indulgent dinners. Note to self: go for a run the day we make the overnight roasted pork shoulder (966 calories). But while some of the dishes are clearly intended to be occasional treats, Oliver also includes recipes for simple, pleasing dishes like bacon sarnies or heuevos rancheros, so that you can whip up a comforting dish in a hurry if necessary. I wouldn’t say that presentation is Oliver’s strong suit – anyone who has watched his television programs knows he is a fan of smearing food on a large board and plonking into the middle of the table for people to “tuck in” – yet many of the photos in this book inspire you to take on a project like making homemade gnudi (a ricotta ravioli with no pasta coating) or the chocolate, orange and sponge Jaffa layer cake. Oliver includes some recipes for drinks and treats like salted caramel ice cream. This is an attractive, wide-ranging cookbook that will offer inspiration for entertaining and shows just why Jamie Oliver remains such a force in the food world.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare time.

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