Book Reviews

Celebrating the brilliance of simple, honest-to-goodness cooking

Raul Dias | Updated on October 27, 2021

Bringing a restrained brand of minimalism to the kitchen is Essential, a cookbook by Ollie Dabbous, one of UK's most exciting young chefs

About the Book

Essential 

Ollie Dabbous

Bloomsbury

Rs 1,299; 320 pages (hardback)

Check the book out on Amazon

Even though one might get an unmistakable sense of luxury leafing through this elegant, grey, hardbound cookbook that revels in its superbly produced pages with evocative photographs, Essential by Ollie Dabbous is clearly a simple labour of love straight from the heart. And more so, one that’s without any superfluous fuss or verbose pretense. It has 100 well-rounded recipes neatly divided into 10 sections.

Despite being the co-founder and executive chef of Hide restaurant in London’s swanky Piccadilly neighbourhood, and one which was awarded a Michelin star within six months of opening, Dabbous keeps it almost ‘bare-bones' here.“Eating should bring joy above all else” is a truism he keeps referencing throughout this cookbook, making his credo the book’s de facto leitmotif.

Brilliance on a Platter

It should come as no great surprise then that this book was written during the Covid-19 lockdown period of 2020-21. A time when one felt confident and empowered to do more with a few ingredients. Days when even the simplest of food like Dabbous' easy, yet sophisticated riff on scrambled eggs on toast (pg42) would have assuaged our flailing spirits.

Speaking of which, Dabbous makes sure to have at hand several comfort food classic recipes such as a soul-satisfying warm cornbread with melted butter (pg30). Or perhaps his decadent, yet easy-to-whip-up lobster thermidor macaroni cheese (pg130) to soothe away the blues with its muted elegance.

This subtlety is further reflected in the cookbook’s  stunning visuals. The photography by Joakim Blockstrom and the food styling by Dabbous himself seem to make each dish come alive with vibrancy. One is almost able to touch, feel and yes... taste them off the book’s pages. Take for instance the floral allure of the garden cupcakes’ in a tempting double spread (pgs 252-253) or that unbridled cheerfulness exuded by the wild mushrooms and fried duck egg on toast (pg 81).

A Serving of Minimalism

An interesting take away from this book is that the best food is always the simplest. Restaurant dishes by the very virtue of their stature have to be exciting, theatrical and sexy. Whereas the delight of home-cooking often lies in gentle, nuanced and subtle melding of flavours. Dabbous provides examples with recipes for dishes whose main ingredients have a definite affinity and sameness.

Take for example, his recipe for grilled shellfish with samphire (pg115) where briny shellfish like mussels and cockles are cooked with the equally salty samphire seaweed. All this, served alongside thyme-perfumed new potatoes and jazzed up with a shower of lemon zest and a drizzle of lemon juice. All ingredients are legendary for their affinity with each other.

While on the subject of herbs like thyme, the book has plenty of tips. One of which suggests that we must never chop up our herbs, but gently tear them apart with our fingers before adding them to the dish, so as to keep their flavours at their optimal best (pg 86). Or that meat must always be cooked at room temperature (pg180) and that the often-discarded prawn head is an invaluable flavour bomb for sauces and stocks (pg 112) when roasted.

Eats, Leaves and Shoots!

An important lesson that we could all learn from this book is that simple needn’t necessarily be boring. And in this context...well, all vanilla! We are introduced to radical cooking techniques like the steaming of onions to coax out their inherent sweetness. While at the same time, ancient grains like freekeh (pg 153) and einkorn wheat from Turkey (pg35) are brought to the fore. Giving it currency is an entire section dedicated to the hipster-chic appeal of leafy greens like kale, rocket and lettuce among others.

What I do feel, however, is that the book needed a few more international recipes to bolster its universal appeal. A bit of an adventure with food outside its primarily British sensibilities would have sealed the deal. Sure, there are nods to vaguely Indian-inspired condiments and spices like the Anglo-Indian piccalilli (pg 295) and the Indo-French vadouvan (pg 61). But not enough to tickle the spice-loving Indian palate wholeheartedly.

The cookbook does give us a generous insight into Dabbous' food philosophy from a non-chef point of view. And more so his take as a father on the impactful role food plays in the family unit. We get glimpses of his simmering disapproval with the direction our current obsession with social media is veering towards. More so its effects on the family dynamic around the all-important dining table, which he believes is both a sign and symptom of civilisation.

“When people cook and eat well, they tend to have better relationships and are less likely to hide behind screens, mindlessly absorbing the inane while real life passes them by,” he writes in conclusion. And we couldn’t agree more!

 

 (A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food-travel writer, a restaurant reviewer, and a food consultant)

Published on October 27, 2021

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