One Sunday each month, I set aside an hour or so to devour the Observer Food Monthly (OFM). The only other cookery title I’ve ever felt so similarly passionate about is Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat, which remains the only cookbook I’ve ever read in the bath.
That’s not to say I don’t like other cookbooks – I’ve got several dozen on a bookshelf to prove the contrary – but there is something about certain writers and publications that really instils a foodie passion, so close you can almost taste it.
My favourite foods and recipes are those that tell a story, that conjure up a memory and takes me to my happy place. Making my mother’s spaghetti bolognese for example, or attempting to replicate the chicken and peanuts I had with my dear friend Jenny on my first day in Beijing. My partner and I came back from New Orleans with the rather fabulous Cooking Up A Storm book, and I’ve got a small library’s worth of books on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking to remind me of visits to Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
But of all the cookbooks on my shelf, the one I have referred to most is perhaps the least likely. It is Silvana Franco’s The Really Useful Student Cookbook. I got it in the mid-1990s, when I was not yet a student but working towards it. There was a vegetarian version too, and over the years I’ve ended up with the combined tome The Really Useful Ultimate Student Cookbook.
A decade and a half or so later, my copy is the most dog-eared book in my kitchen. Unlike many other student cookbooks, which seem to rely on providing a variety of ways to heat up a tin of beans, this opened my teenage eyes to a range of ingredients I wasn’t familiar with. Pesto aubergines with bulgar wheat is one recipe that springs to mind, and I got hooked on making tzatsiki until well into my twenties. I still have a fondness for a baked potato with tuna and red onion mayonnaise, and Mediterranean chicken and potato stew remains a store cupboard dinner staple.
Most importantly, the book became a culinary adventure I shared with my mother, during a period when our relationship was at its most strained. I lost her not long after and our times in the kitchen were definitely among some of our best.
The book came with me to Glasgow for university, where I was delighted to easily find a lot of ingredients that hadn’t been readily available to me and my mother in our small Austrian kitchen. Then its latest incarnation came down to Yorkshire, where it holds its own amid an array of glossy hard-backed competitors.
It may not be fronted by a glamorous TV chef but at a time when economy gastronomy tends to be the order of things, The Really Useful Student Cookbook is proving as useful as it ever has been. Most importantly, it has the one of the best, not to mention straightforward, recipes for Yorkshire puddings I’ve ever come across. And trust me, as someone who has lived in God’s Own County for more than eight years – that’s not something I say lightly.