A review of Ainsley Harriott’s Friends and Family Cookbook

That isn’t to say that the recipes in this book produce unattractive and cranky meals–the food generally looks as good as it tastes, but simply that this is the kind of food you can serve and eat everyday, without running the risk of exhaustion, serious weight gain, or major disruption to your other activities. In other words, it’s a cookbook you’re meant to make use of, even as you laugh, gossip, sing and dance in the kitchen, which is Ainsley’s style.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Ainsley’s Friends & Family Cookbook:
Over 200 Reasons to Eat In
Random House
November 2004, hardcover, ISBN 0563487569, RRP$A49.95

The king of culinary camp is back with another of his fun to read, easy to use cookbooks. The latest one is attractively presented in hardcover which makes it a good gift, and as the title suggests, contains over 200 recipes designed specifically for relaxed family eating and casual entertaining. There is nothing too fussy or fancy in this book. Recipes focus on speed, on taste rather than aesthetics, and on nutrition over indulgence. That isn’t to say that the recipes in this book produce unattractive and cranky meals–the food generally looks as good as it tastes, but simply that this is the kind of food you can serve and eat everyday, without running the risk of exhaustion, serious weight gain, or major disruption to your other activities. In other words, it’s a cookbook you’re meant to make use of, even as you laugh, gossip, sing and dance in the kitchen, which is Ainsley’s style.

As with all of Ainsley’s cookbooks, there is a good amount of information, with nothing taken for granted. The book begins with tips on how to use the book and recipes, a list of equipment, descriptions of usual ingredients, tips for making the shopping and cooking process easier, for adapting ready-made ingredients, on freezing, and suggestions on how to make your cooking and eating healthier. The recipes are set out in chapters on breakfasts and brushes, lunches, easy dinners for one or two, super fast post-work suppers, easy dishes to entertain with, spicy international dishes, family favourites, indulgent “after-eight” dinners, outdoor entertaining, and basics including potato recipes, vegetable and salad dishes, dressings, stocks, rice recipes, sauces and dips, and pastry. Most of the recipes are prefaced with Ainsley’s distinctive and informative sound bites which, if you’ve ever watched one of his television shows or videos, you can almost hear him say.

The recipes have an international feel, and are heavily focused on flavour, using things like herbs, species, and lots of fresh fruit or vegetables. The breakfasts and brunches are particular nice and are as practical for entertaining friends as they are for family meals. Smoothies, muesli, porridge, lots of ways with eggs, pancakes, fry-ups, a tortilla weekend brunch, mushroom dishes, kedgeree and ackee are all presented, along with a full Caribbean brunch which includes a time plan. Lunches are suitable for packing on a picnic or in school or work lunchboxes, and include things like soups, fancy sandwiches, salads, bagels and baguettes, tortillas, filled ciabattas, pittas and wraps. There are also some really easy bars and cakes for snacks. The one or two person dishes and quick after work suppers are similar to one another. These quick, easy meals could be used for lunch or dinner, and include things like omelettes, stir fries, pasta dishes, stuffed baked potatoes, pizzas, fish dishes and a few easy desserts. The after work suppers has some really easy desserts like butterscotch whip in a whirl, or griddled bananas with toffee sauce, and are also excellent if you have a unplanned guest.

Throughout the book are large, full colour photographs, some featuring Ainsley himself, Full meal plans like a “girls ‘night in,” a “home-made Indian take-away,” a “family Sunday roast,” a “Valentine’s Day Supper,” or a “fourth of July barbecue,“ are all carefully laid out, with time plans, and tips on setting the right atmosphere. I’m not a huge dessert fan myself but for some reason I love reading about them (no calories in reading), and this book really excels on its desserts. Things like Amaretti baked peaches with mascarpone cream, chocolate pear unside down pud, or mango kulfi (I never know what desserts to do with Indian) are almost as lovely to read about as they are to eat, and none are difficult to make. Most of the recipes are relatively traditional ones, but Ainsley always adds his own signature–some twist or spice to make the dish his own, and the additional notes, tips, and suggestions make this a very user friendly cookbook. Everything I tried worked perfectly (and I’m terrible for messing up recipes with ridiculous substitutions and mismeasurements). This book is fun to read (a must for me), and full of lovely, realistic, and very tasty meals. This is the kind of cookbook which will most certainly get used, and toes that difficult line between evocative, fun, and easy enough for busy, harried, parents/people who work long hours.

Hallelujah! You too can dance and sing while you cook.

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