Recipes To Know By Heart by Xanthe Clay

The cookbook that changed my life

In Blog, Food, Lifestyle by jennisheppard11 Comments

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In 2008, I heard food writer Xanthe Clay talking about her cookbook Recipes To Know By Heart on the BBC’s Radio 4 Woman’s Hour podcast. This is the story of how it changed my life.

Growing up I was never really taught how to cook. At home, my family was too hard pressed for time and money to experiment much with food and the advent of microwaves put cooking from scratch on the backburner. My mother did enjoy making cakes but for some reason, this never stuck with me.

At school, I thought taking Home Economics might help but all this consisted of was choosing a recipe, spending vast amounts of money on expensive ingredients and then following the recipe in the classroom. I learned two things. 1) My father would never eat anything I cooked at school and 2) the fat soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K.

As an adult, I became a bit of a feminist (or as I see it, an equalist) and didn’t think women should necessarily know how to cook anyway. I even got myself a foodie boyfriend, Conrad, who as an impoverished student wooed me with an expensive lasagne I would never have known how to make myself.

Con himself grew up in a house full of cooks and enjoys experimenting with food, so once we moved in together, he naturally adopted the role of head cook and I became the dutiful sous chef. He had the vision and I chopped onions.

That is, until I heard about Recipes To Know By Heart.

You see, Xanthe seemed to realise that most of us have lost – or never had – any basic knowledge of cooking passed on to us from family members. She realised most of us have no confidence at all in the kitchen.

“It’s like knowing the grammar of a language, once you know the grammar, you can then go on and write your own masterpiece.”

Xanthe Clay

As a result, we are a captive audience for celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, enslaved by their expensive cookbooks, which offer rigid recipes of exacting ingredients.

Recipes To Know By Heart does completely the opposite.

For each dish, Xanthe provides only the simplest recipe. This is followed by a discussion of the basic ingredients and cooking methods and the qualities they bring to the dish, along with suggestions for seasonal variants.

For example, the risotto recipe consists of only butter, onion, risotto rice, white wine, stock, Parmesan cheese and seasoning.

Xanthe then goes on to discuss – amongst other things – what kind of risotto rice to use, whether to add vegetable or meat stock and how to recognise when the risotto is cooked.

Risotto being such a versatile dish, the seasonal suggestions given are endless, but my favourite is one I came up with myself – salmon and broccolini risotto.

And that’s how Recipes To Know By Heart has changed my life. Over the last four years, I have got to know many of the basic recipes off by heart and as a result, I now have the confidence to experiment with dishes and create my own recipes.

As well as mastering my much-loved risotto, I can also now make soup from pretty much any vegetable in my fridge without referring to any recipes. I can make chilli without worrying to measure out herbs and spices. I can even make a white sauce from scratch without weighing anything out.

Salmon and Broccolini Risotto

Cooking salmon and broccolini risotto

This has changed the way our household works. With my new-found skills and sense of empowerment, I find I enjoy cooking and love coming up with dishes Con and I can try together. And when one person works late and the other is free, it’s useful for both of us to be able to play head cook.

It’s also changed the way we shop. We’re no longer tied to specific ingredients or simply the same thing we bought last week. We can buy whatever is on special or looks good, in the knowledge that we can make whatever we want from it later on.

Of course, Recipes To Know By Heart can only offer so many recipes (notably 42 – Douglas Adams would be pleased) and it does not cover speciality dishes like curry.

But a little knowledge goes a long way and many of the basic principles are the same. I may have to get my Indian recipes from Madhur Jaffrey, but I have the confidence to adjust them as I please.

Over the last four years, I’ve wished many times that I could thank Xanthe personally for the difference Recipes To Know By Heart has made in my life. Hopefully this blogpost goes some way towards doing that and will spread the word to other home sous chefs struggling with onion tears.

You can listen to the original podcast that inspired me – and get Xanthe’s cake recipe – here: BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour – Xanthe Clay – Recipes To Know By Heart

And if you feel inspired, you can find Recipes To Know By Heart used and new from resellers on Amazon UK, US and Canada.

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10 comments
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What a great, well written article. Will inspire many to buy a copy of the book and cook!