Cook books: a reading and eating list

I am not a natural cook. While my husband can throw back-of-the-fridge ingredients together and create something delicious and knows instinctively what flavours go well together, I need the guidance of recipes. Which is perhaps why I love cook books so much.

I love the inspiration cook books bring, showing me dishes I’d never have thought of myself. I love flicking through their pages and feeling my mouth start to water at all the possibilities, and I love the calming reassurance of being told what to do, step by step. When life feels overwhelming and things seem out of my control it’s nice to spend an hour or so following someone else’s directions in the knowledge that if I add the right ingredients and cook for the right amount of time, things will turn out OK.

Like many people, during lockdown I’ve turned to cooking as a way to unwind and find comfort. I didn’t quite tackle sourdough (I can barely keep plants alive so don’t fancy my chances with a starter) but in the spring I baked hot cross buns and banana bread and on low days whipped up cupcakes and scones to be slathered in cream and jam. Now with the days getting shorter I’m finding myself wanting to spend more time in our little sunshine-yellow kitchen making stews, roasts and hot chocolate from scratch (this is my go-to recipe).

I start each week with something of a ritual: taking down a pile of cook books from the shelf and picking recipes for the week. I then head to the supermarket to stock up on what we’ll need. I used to find supermarket shopping pretty anxiety-enducing – the endless aisles, the endless choices and too many people in an enclosed space. But with the help of cook books my food shop has become so much easier. And when I’ve chosen a recipe I’m excited to try cooking becomes something to look forward to, not just another chore. Here are the cook books I find myself reaching for again and again…

My favourite cook books

The Roasting Tin, by Rukmini Iyer

If you flicked through my copy of The Roasting Tin you’d come across endless pages splattered with sauce or smudged with mucky thumbprints, which is testament to how much I use and love this book. All the recipes require just one tin and are real bung-in-the-oven dishes that still somehow taste totally delicious. I often use these recipes when hosting friends (pre-lockdown of course!) because they’re so tasty but so easy that you don’t have to spend your time in the kitchen while your guests are chatting. I also have two of Rukmini’s other books, The Green Roasting Tin (veggie and vegan recipes) and The Quick Roasting Tin and they are equally as loved (and splattered). I’d describe these books as books for people who enjoy eating more than they enjoy cooking (that’s me!).

Favourite recipe: crispy baked gnocchi with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and pine nuts (the easiest but cosiest, tastiest dish)

Honey and Co, Food from the Middle East, by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich

My friends and I have become super fans of Sarit and Itamar. Our favourite place to meet is their restaurant Honey and Co, where the Middle Eastern food served is so delicious we all bought copies of their cook book after our first visit. We used to have an informal cook book club where we’d cook food together from the same cook book at each other’s houses. The idea was to use a different book each time but we ended up going back to this book about three or four times we loved it so much. We also all went to a signing of theirs together so we could meet them and get our books signed and it was difficult to reign in our groupie-like excitement. The recipes are a little higher up the ‘faff’ scale, but always worth it for the wonderful flavours.

Favourite recipe: peaches and goats’ cheese salad with roasted almonds

Bazaar, Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes, by Sabrina Gayhour

Another favourite from our cook book club is Sabrina Gayhour. We’ve made things from several of her books but this is my favourite. The veggie recipes are so tasty and include a mix of smaller dishes designed for feast-style eating as well as heartier mains.

Favourite recipe: lemon, black pepper, pecorino and cabbage rice

Fireside feasts and snow day treats

I discovered this book when house sitting for a friend last month. Yes, I am that house guest who can’t help but go through your bookshelves… It was pouring with rain while I was there and this book jumped out at me like a big cosy hug. I’ve since searched out my own secondhand copy and I can tell it’s going to be a book I return to regularly in autumn and winter.

Favourite recipe: spicy pork stew with sweet potatoes and beans

The Happy Kitchen, Good Mood Food, by Rachel Kelly

I love the concept of this book. Rachel worked with a nutritionist to develop recipes designed to aid good mental health. They’re based on research surrounding the link between what we eat and our mood and the recipes are split into chapters based on a different aspect of mental health such as good sleep and beating the blues.

Favourite recipe: kale and butternut squash salad

Midnight Chicken, by Ella Rusbridger

This is a beautiful cook book, a book to read just as much as a book to cook from. The recipes are designed to bring comfort and joy and are written with such gentleness. I particularly enjoy the odd instruction to pour yourself a glass of wine at crucial stages of the preparation, just because.

Favourite recipe: midnight chicken (this has become my go-to roast chicken recipe)

Bosh!, Simple Recipes Amazing Food All Plants, by Henry Firth and Ian Theasby

I recently asked for cook book recommendations on social media and this was the book that came up the most – so I bought it! The all plant-based recipes are hearty, tasty and easy to make.

Favourite recipe: satay sweet potato Bosh! bowl

Leon, Happy One-Pot Cooking, by Rebecca Seal and John Vincent

Like The Roasting Tin, this book is full of tasty but simple recipes that are low on the washing up. I particularly love their ‘cosy and warm’ section – perfect for this time of year.

Favourite recipe: sausage, brussels and tagliatelle

Cook book reading list

These books are on my list to buy and try. Lots came to me via recommendations on social media so thank you if you shared one of these!

  • Simply, by Sabrina Gayhour
  • One Pan Pescatarian, by Rachel Phipps
  • River Cottage Veg, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
  • East, by Meera Sodha
  • Dishoom cookbook, by Shamil Thakrar
  • Mowgli Street Food, by Nisha Katona
  • Mediterranean Every Day, by Sheela Prakash
  • Deliciously Ella, Quick and Easy
  • The Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen
  • The Little Library Cookbook, by Kate Young
  • Hemsley and Hemsley, The Art of Eating Well, by Jasmine Hemsley and Melissa Hemsley
  • Together, The Hubb Community Cookbook

Do you use cookbooks? What’s the book you reach for most frequently? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

P.S I’m going to do another post soon on my favourite baking books – there are too many to fit in here!

Honeymoon reading – October 2020

A photo of Libby holding a stack of books: Daddy Goes A-Hunting, The Island of Sea Women, The Songs of Us, Before the Coffee Gets Cold and The Girl with the Louding Voice

I’m writing this from my little writing room in London, but in my heart I’m back in the cabin in the woods where I spent the past week. I was on my honeymoon with my new husband; we hired a little hideaway in the heart of Dorset with its own private lake and surrounding woodland. It was the perfect trip: a week of walks, wild swims and curling up next to the woodburner reading. One of my favourite things about going on holiday has always been having the time and excuse to read as much as I like. It’s such a treat to read for hours on end, not worrying about the time passing. Here’s my honeymoon reading list…

Libby sits on a deck by a lake reading Before the Coffee Gets Cold, wearing a jumper and scarf.

Before the Coffee Gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi is one of those books that I’ve so nearly bought many times, my attention always drawn to it in bookshops, my hand pausing on the cover before for whatever reason moving on to something else. On a recent trip to one of my favourite indie bookshops I saw it again, the cover winking at me, and decided to go for it this time. I’m so glad I did. It’s such a cosy and dreamlike story, set in a café in Tokyo with a twist: if a customer sits in one of the seats in the café, it is possible to travel in time. The time travel is constrained by certain rules though, one of them being that the traveller can only stay in the past (or future) for as long as it takes for their coffee to get cold. For a book about time travel, it is a surprisingly gentle and quiet sort book, but that’s what I loved so much about it. It’s moving too, making you think about the moments in life you wish you could go back and relive or change in some way. Reading it on my honeymoon had a particular resonance, reminding me to cherish every moment, moments that one day in the future I might choose to go back and experience again if I happened to find myself in a time-traveller’s café…

I raced through this book in a day, so headed back to the same shop the next day to buy the sequel, Tales from the Café, which was published this year. It’s just as enjoyable as the first, picking up on the stories of some of the characters you grow to love in the original book as well as introducing new stories.

Libby lies on a bed in the sun reading The Girl with the Louding Voice.

I get a lot of my book recommendations from a WhatsApp group I’m part of where myself and a group of female book-lovers share what we’re reading. The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré is one that’s been incredibly popular in our group this year. Set in Nigeria, it tells the story of Adunni and her long fight to get an education after being removed from school and sold into marriage as a young teenager. She’s a narrator whose unique voice really stays with you. It’s a book about the power of finding your voice, something which particularly as writer and a woman, struck a real chord with me.

A kitchen table featuring a bowl of porridge, a cup of tea, a pair of binoculars and a book, titled The Island of Sea Women.

Like The Girl with the Louding Voice, my next read, The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See was one that really moved me and will stay with me for a long time. It tells the story of two friends who grow up as part of a collective of all-female divers on the island of Jeju off South Korea. The book follows their friendship and how it is tested by the harrowing events that take place on the island over the years. I particularly loved this book for how well it depicts the weight and significance of female friendships – something I think I’ll always want to cover in my own writing because it’s something I so believe in. This particular paragraph in the book had me underlining like mad and saying ‘yes!’ out loud:

‘No one picks a friend for us; we come together by choice. We are not tied together through ceremony or the responsibility to create a son; we tie ourselves together through moments. The spark when we first meet. Laughter and tears shared. Secrets packed away to be treasured, hoarded, and protected. The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.’

The book does a brilliant job of capturing what is so special about friendship as well as exploring the pain of a friendship tested to breaking point. There are some really dark parts in this story, but it is brightened too by moments of love and the warmth of a community of women.  

Libby sat on a sofa under a blanket and wearing an orange jumper, reading The Songs of Us.

Next up on my reading pile was The Songs of Us by Emma Cooper. I was lucky enough to meet Emma at an event we did together last year and have been meaning to buy her books ever since after hearing her read aloud and talk about her work. She is also truly lovely, so it was no surprise that her debut was too. It’s a quirky, poignant book about love and family which I found myself racing through. I’ll be adding her next books, The First Time I Saw You and If I Could Say Goodbye to my to-read pile too.

I’m now half-way through Daddy’s Gone A Hunting, a Persephone book by Penelope Mortimer about a 1950s housewife struggling with the loneliness of her life and a troubled marriage. If you’ve read The Lido you’ll know that loneliness is a subject close to my heart, so I’m enjoying reading this interpretation of the theme.

Somehow without meaning to I ended up reading a lot of quite sad books on my honeymoon, so I think I might seek out some cheerier reads next. I like balancing my reading as much as possible moving between different locations, time periods and up and down varied emotional landscapes. I love that no matter what mood you’re in, there’s a book out there to suit you. Right now, with an autumn chill knocking at my window, I’m craving some comforting books to snuggle up with. Are there any you’d recommend? Add your suggestions in the comments below!

  • Photos with thanks to my husband, Bruno.
  • Where we stayed: we found this wonderful place via Canopy and Stars. It was the perfect place for a cosy honeymoon.

What I’m reading – September 2020

A table featuring a jug of sunflowers and a stack of books: The Amateur Marriage, The Dud Avocado, Miss Benson's Beetle, The Compassion Project, The Heart's Invisible Furies and The Offing

This month I have visited New York, Ireland, Antigua, Paris, New Caledonia and Robin Hood Bay, all without leaving my sofa. Because that’s the brilliant thing about reading, isn’t it? It can take you anywhere.

Although this year our lives may have shrunk in many ways and in reality, I have travelled no further than Dorset (to visit family), I have been reading more than ever. It comes in ebbs and flows and at the start of the Covid-19 crisis I must admit I struggled to read. The news and my feelings of anxiety were so all-consuming that it was hard to focus on a book. Every time I settled down to read the words scrambled as though each page was made of Scrabble letters and someone was shaking them about. But there have been other spells where I have read voraciously, grateful for the comfort and escape of books. I’m thankful to be in one of those spells right now.

Two books on a coffee table with coffee cup and sunflowers in the background. The books are The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne and The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

It’s hard to pick favourites from the books I’ve read recently because there have been so many that have moved or affected me in different ways. I think I have to start with The Offing by Benjamin Myers – a dreamily gentle tale of a sixteen-year-old boy living in the North of England post Second World War, who turns his back on the coal mines to set off on a walking adventure the summer he finishes school. It reminded me a bit of Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. Young Robert’s journey is side-tracked when he meets Dulcie, an eccentric older woman living in a tumbling down cottage facing the sea. She feeds him with lobster, nettle tea and stories, and an unlikely friendship begins. If books were medicine this would be Calpol – comforting, soothing and sweet.

If The Offing was something of a gentle stroll, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne was more of a mountain hike, epic and full of highs and lows. Oh, I loved this book. It tells the story of Cyril, a gay man growing up in 1950s Ireland and charts his story from birth, when he was put up for adoption and taken in by rather unusual adoptive parents, to his teen years and on through his entire life. Including spells in Ireland, Amsterdam and New York, this book covers not just a great span of place and time, but a broad emotional spectrum too. At parts heart-wrenchingly tragic, at others laugh-out-loud funny, this is a book I will remember for a long time.

Two books on a green sofa. The books are Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo and The Mothers by Brit Bennett.

Last year I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s Man-Booker winning Girl, Woman, Other and have been wanting to read more of her books ever since, so picked up Mr Loverman in a local bookshop. Barrington Jedidiah Walker is such a memorable protagonist: a seventy-four-year old Antiguan man living in North London, a dapper dresser and a witty narrator. He lives with his wife Carmel in Stoke Newington (incidentally this is where I live too so it was nice to read mentions of so many places that are familiar to me) but has been having a secret affair with his childhood friend Morris since both men were teenagers. I raced through this – I particularly enjoyed the complexities of the characters and how your sympathies are tugged in different directions throughout the book.

One of the places I get my book recommendations is a WhatsApp group I’m part of; most of the women I’ve never actually met in person but when my friend invited me to join I was delighted. We all share books we’ve been loving and it’s a brilliant resource, plus nice to feel part of a community of book-lovers even if we don’t all know each other. One of the books that’s come up many times this year in that group is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s on my list but I decided I wanted to start with Brit’s first book, The Mothers. It had me hooked from the first page – the writing is just so beautiful. The narration style is unusual but totally gripping. It tells the story of a group of teenagers, an unplanned pregnancy and the fallout from the choices that are made as result. It deals with friendship, loss and the power secrets can hold over us, even years later. I can’t wait to read The Vanishing Half next.

My most recent read was The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, a glittering, gripping book set in 1930s New York and with a fantastic female protagonist who reminded me a bit of the main character in The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy which I also enjoyed (set in 1950s Paris). Both women have what I’d describe as ‘moxie’ and both books were great escapist reads.

Next on my list is Summerwater by Sarah Moss – I’m only at the start but have already fallen in love with the lyrical descriptions of a rainy Scottish summer and the varied characters brought together by the chalet park where they’re all staying. The writing is rich and wonderful like a hot chocolate made with proper chocolate – to be sipped and savoured.

Other books I’ve enjoyed recently

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – I love all of Rachel Joyce’s books and her latest was no exception. A great adventure story with two loveable female leads.

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler – Dare I admit this was my first Anne Tyler? I loved it. And the great thing about coming to an author late is having a whole back catalogue of books to go back and discover – what a treat.

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls – This book about first love really brought back memories of being a teenager. I was particularly moved by the descriptions of depression and a young person dealing with a troubled homelife – there were some real catch-you-off-guard weepy moments in this one.

Next up

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré – I have heard wonderful things.

How I choose what to read

Often when I get into slumps with reading it’s because I can’t decide what to read next. One of life’s greatest joys, in my view, is that you will never run out of books to read, but it can make it overwhelming at times too. Now, I have a word doc on my computer where I save book recommendations so that I can print it out whenever I visit a bookshop. I love being pulled organically towards books that aren’t on the list too, but it helps guide me when I’m feeling stuck. Here’s where the books on that list come from:

  • Personal recommendations: like so many people, most of the books I read come from recommendations from friends and family. I love being part of the WhatsApp group I mentioned already, and I have a couple of friends who share similar taste in books to me and whose recommendations I always act on. I also try to reciprocate this by sharing books I love with friends – often posting my copy to them when I’m finished if I can bare to part with it.
  • Social media recommendations: I follow a lot of bookish Twitter and instagram accounts and love seeing what everyone’s reading. I love how passionate the book community is on social media and am so thankful to the work that bloggers do, both as a writer but perhaps more importantly as a reader too!
  • Independent bookshops: Indie bookshops are brilliant for book recommendations – it’s part of the service that makes them so special. At the start of lockdown back in March my local bookshop were brilliant at recommending a stack of books that saw me through those difficult weeks. Next time you pop into your local bookshop, why not ask a member of staff for some advice?

What are you reading this month? And how do you choose the books you read? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!