Book Review: Supper for a Song

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

Take a quick skim through Supper for a Song, by Tamasin Day-Lewis (Rizzoli, March 2010), and your first thought may be, “Wow, songs sure must cost more in Britain.” This book will pull readers in with its attractive layout and photos, then push them away as a closer read reveals a book that borders on precious.

Following its subtitle promise of “creative comfort food for the resourceful cook,” the book offers some useful recipes. Its soup of chickpeas and smoked paprika provides a solid example of making something substantial and tasty from inexpensive pantry staples.  Likewise, a dessert called “General satisfaction” has 15 ladyfingers as its most exotic ingredient, and it offers nursery comfort food at its finest.

But I doubt many American readers will find much usefulness (or cost savings) in such recipes as “Pheasant braised with endive, white wine, and crème fraîche” or a cake of bay, honey and lemon that calls for Marcona almonds, unrefined superfine vanilla sugar, organic eggs, organic lemons, chestnut honey and lemon curd.

Even in the less-pricey recipes, readers will have to get past some of the ingredient requirements uncommon in the United States (such as that vanilla sugar), and they may choose to ignore all the requirements for organic and specialty items to stay on a budget.

They’ll also want to mark pages that interest them, as the book’s organization doesn’t ease the way to finding recipes quickly, with such chapters as “Happy Food,” “The Saturday Bake,” “Supper for a Song,” and “How to Cook a Chicken . . . Again and Again,” which indeed covers chicken but then moves on to meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and chickpeas.

That said, for experienced cooks looking for inspiration, Day-Lewis (yes, Daniel’s sister) does offer some ideas. Turning leftover mashed potatoes into a potato apple cake for dessert comes as a surprise, as does the combination of lamb with orange, turmeric, rice, Greek yogurt, and chickpeas—a new way to put together familiar elements. I especially liked the recipe for salmon with smoked eggplant polenta and hot cucumbers, easily made and unusual (more people should learn the joys of briefly sautéed or braised cucumbers).

And the book’s British sensibility may pull readers in new directions. The simple recipe for potato bread (or farls, in Ireland, a combination of just mashed potatoes and flour) made a tasty side to the chickpea soup. Cooks in a rut who can find and afford such ingredients as chestnuts, quince, oxtail, and guinea hens will be in for new adventures.

By the end, readers will appreciate the book’s emphasis on planning ahead with ingredients to avoid waste and returning to the basics of cooking. They may also, however, get the sense that this book is best suited for cooks who do want to economize—just not too much.

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

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