Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
Whilst writing this I’m still officially in full lockdown in Leicester. I don’t know what it’s like on the outside, but the pattern of my days is still revolving around what I cook and eat. It’s a lot like working in a kitchen again, not just because preparing food is such an integral part of my day, but for the way it’s made me think about availability and wastage. There’s a lot I’ve minded about lockdown, but these are things I’m grateful for, not least because I consider it very likely that the reduced availability of food choices is something that we’re going to have to get used to.
Fortunately, there have been some really great cookbooks released this summer which are taking me far beyond sourdough (delicious, but it’s an effort to eat enough of it when you live alone) and banana loaf (not a fan). Gill Meller’s latest book, Root Stem Leaf Flower has the extra advantage of feeling particularly well suited for current times.
It’s plant and vegetable based with a good bit of cheese; meat is mentioned as a potential accompaniment to a couple of dishes, but it feels superfluous. Maybe this is why in the few weeks I’ve had it I’ve used it far more than any of the vegetarian cookbooks I’ve had on my shelves for years – for once I don’t feel like I’m making the effort to be virtuous. More likely it’s that Root Stem Leaf Flower is full of things I really want to eat as soon as I read about them.
If ever a cookbook passed the flick test (if none of the first three recipes I randomly flick past appeal I’m unlikely to buy the book) it’s this one. It had me at ‘Roast Peppers and Shallots with Basil, Parsley and Feta Cheese’, reeled me in even further with ‘Whole Roast Broccoli with Honey and Seeds’, and really sealed the deal with ‘Aubergines and Roast Tomatoes for Everything’. They proved to be only the beginning of my love affair with this book.
If you have a garden or allotment where you can grow some of the salad leaves and plenty of herbs it’s going to be a really useful book to have to hand. I don’t even have a suitable window for growing herbs, it gets to hot for the useful everyday things, but I do have access to a decent market where if I’m lucky I can get things startlingly cheap.
Which brings me to the thing that’s made me evangelical about this book. The recipes are all fairly easy, most of them use ingredients which are really simple to source even if you can’t grow them, and they all make something special. Those aubergines and tomatoes that can go with more or less everything are transformed by some lightly crushed fennel seeds from standard roast veg into something much more memorable.
The combinations of flavours and textures are thoughtful – another winner was a simple spring combination of new potatoes with elderflower and lemon thyme with a little lemon zest thrown in as well. It’s hardly a recipe at all but everything comes together in a dish that tasted like May and became the star of the dinner it went with. If I’ve made that sound unbearably pretentious, it really wasn’t.
The recipes themselves are organised seasonally, but a lot of the vegetables are available all year round. Whilst foraged elderflowers might be quite specific to late spring, blackberries to late summer, there’s much of it that speaks more about the weather than the season – portobello mushrooms stuffed with puy lentils and celeriac sound as good for a cool and rainy start to July as they do Autumn.
Enough of the recipes are designed to serve two to make the single cook feel welcome, leftovers enough for one more meal being rather less daunting than for five, and still this book keeps giving. The photography is particularly beautiful, so much so that I’ve really enjoyed just looking at the pictures, and the philosophy behind it is comforting too. It’s gentle, engaging, and always thoughtful. This is food to take pleasure in preparing and cooking as well as sharing, that feels very in tune with a time that has made a lot of us slow down a bit and given us no option but to take pleasure in the little things.
This is the third book Meller has written, they’ve all been good; the first one, Gather, felt like a classic in the making and a really profound addition to the idea of what contemporary British cooking should be. Root Stem Leaf Flower is even better; it’s less specifically rooted in Meller’s home landscape, there’s an increased ease and confidence in his writing, but more than anything it’s the sheer quantity of recipes in it that I want to cook – almost everything. The last time I felt just like this about a cookbook was Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess. I think we’re probably past the days of a food book having that sort of impact again, but this one deserves to.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Gill Meller, Root Stem Leaf Flower (Quadrille, 2020). 978-1787134331, 319pp., hardback.
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