Cookbooks Tried and Tested: Cook Well, Eat Well by Rory O’Connell
Rory O’Connell’s first book, Master It, won the prestigious André Simon Food Book Award in 2013. It is, in essence, a concise cookery course with sections devoted to various techniques: stocks and soups, pan-frying, casserole-roasting, hot puddings, a few cakes, and so on. In his second book, Cook Well, Eat Well, O'Connell continues in the role of teacher but this time presents his recipes in a series of separate menus.
Each menu contains three courses, a starter, a complementary main course and something sweet to close. The meals are arranged according to the seasons and for each season there is one vegetarian meal. O’Connell takes seasonal cooking as his starting point maintaining this is the key to finding ingredients of the highest possible quality, at their least expensive while also supporting local producers. It’s a simple message but a vital one.
This is not gimmicky food – these meals aren’t limited to a certain number of ingredients or a handy length of cooking time. They don’t pander to any fads or fashions. Beyond the guidelines of seasonality, the recipes vary widely in style and flavour. The common thread is balance.
For the amateur home cook, balance is often the most difficult quality to master. It goes beyond the obvious guidelines of not serving a cheese tart followed by a cheesecake and a cheese plate.
O’Connell provides a master class in balancing flavours and textures, sweet and salty, sour and spicy, fresh and fatty, within each individual dish and across each three course meal.
"The object of the exercise is to compose a menu that will nourish and delight and that will leave diners feeling satisfied rather than overfed and exhausted."
All I found wanting was a wine recommendation to accompany each menu.
What you will not find in this book are quick cheats or short cuts. This is a book for people who want to learn something, acquire new skills and gain a sense of accomplishment. A recipe for gooseberry meringue includes making, not just the meringue but your own gooseberry compote, a butterscotch sauce and an almond praline. You don’t have to make them all, but you will want to.
Rory O’Connell founded Ireland’s renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in 1982 with his sister Darina Allen. When I interviewed Darina earlier this year she told me that, while neither of them had any teaching experience whatsoever, they were both possessed of a genuine passion for good food and a desire to share their skills.“If you really want the person to be able to do it,” she said, “ then you’ll be a good teacher.”
It is this drive to convince people that they can cook, combined with his encyclopaedic knowledge, that makes Rory O’Connell an outstanding teacher and his books a godsend for those of us who can’t sign up for the famed twelve week course at Ballymaloe.
So, what did I cook? Well, more than I've ever cooked before while testing a cookbook...I may have got carried away.
The first dish I tried is hardly a recipe at all but the perfect example of balanced flavours; a slice of St. Tola goat's cheese served with PX raisins. I've had this exact dish as a starter at Ballymaloe House-- what an indulgence to have it for lunch in my own kitchen on an otherwise dull Monday morning. This lip-smackingly tasty plate of food requires only a handful of excellent ingredients, a smidgeon of forethought and almost no work at all.
Fennel and mint added a degree of freshness to creamy ricotta atop honey-roasted aubergine.
I didn't stick rigidly to the menu plans but Rory follows the aubergine with Chocolate Souffle Cake and I saw no reason to do otherwise. Even the making of this cake is a feast for the senses. Don't even dream of forgoing the chocolate sauce on the side.
I'm an average home cook and I make mistakes. I put too much stock into my pumpkin soup. It was far too thin to support the suggested garnishes but tasted delicious nonetheless. Again, the balance of spicy oil with sweet soup is very satisfying.
All was forgiven when I followed it up with this salad of chorizo and eggs topped with homemade mayonnaise and harissa...
...and a silky smooth caramel whip.
I'm constantly on the lookout for variations on family favourites. The Chermoula Meatballs went down a storm.
Even more popular were the lamb koftas with buttermilk dressing...
...served alongside a dish of almond hummus. The recipe called for baby beets and carrots but I happened to have baby turnips in the garden which were, in their earthy sweetness, good enough.
We have truly feasted this past week but the meal I most enjoyed was a spiced, char-grilled quail with a pomegranate and walnut salad.
In our gluttony, we accompanied this with a dish of roasted cauliflower and Muhammara.
I had to google how to pronounce muhammara and have been using every excuse to talk about it ever since. What a wonderful word, muhammara.
Dessert on that occasion, a sponge filled with ricotta and topped with pistachio and almond paste, was beyond comparison. I foresee Rory O'Connell's Sicilian Cassata Cake, featuring at our family celebrations for years to come. In his introductory spiel, O'Connell comments:
"I say with a degree of modesty that I think this interpretation is really good and I am delighted with it."
I can only agree.
Cook Well, Eat Well is certainly the book to buy if you are hoping to win friends and impress relations. I wouldn't describe these meals as fuss-free family fare but there are myriad skills to be learned here that can be applied across the board. Every recipe is rich with tips, from how to perfectly hard boil an egg to how to prevent your roast spuds from sticking to the tray.
O'Connell's instructions are clear and precise. This isn't about doing things the quick way or the easy way, but the right way. O'Connell will convince you to toast and grind your own spices, make your own chilli sauce whisk up your own mayonnaise. He will gift you, if you are willing, the tremendous satisfaction of cooking from scratch.
In person, Rory O'Connell is affable and charming. He speaks with the same refined accent as his sister Darina. He shares the same generosity with his knowledge and supplies equally reliable recipes. He writes, just as he speaks, thoughtfully and with inclusive warmth. He's not just trying to sell a book; he really wants to teach you to cook.
Even though Rory O'Connell might not see your Sicilian Cassata Cake (unless you brazenly post it to Instagram, as I did), I get the feeling that he will quietly take pride in knowing that he taught one person, or many, how to make it.