Review: The Naked Vegan

The Naked VeganIf the cover for Maz Valcorza’s The Naked Vegan doesn’t make you pluck the book from the shelf and cook something, nothing will. That and the knowledge that the author grew from being a child who ate Spam out of the can to someone who eats vegan wholefoods. Even with a detour of being a nursing-qualified pharmaceutical rep who lived a hard-drinking, hard-smoking party lifestyle.

Valcorza’s shift toward veganism and generally healthy living kicked off after a chance encounter with yoga based on the idea it might improve her co-ordination and tone her butt. She so fell in love with yoga that she studied to become a yoga teacher, during which she was particularly struck by the yogic principle of ahimsa, which advocates non-violence or non-harm. Obvs that philosophy extended to animals.

Having gone vegan but being starved of choice by the then limited vegan offerings available, Valcorza was buying up the vegan junk food versions of the foods she knew. She figuring there must be better ways to live vegan. And that she might be the one to help find some of them.

She heard about raw food and started experimenting, posting recipes on her blog. Her foray into the area was so successful she went on to found Sadhana Kitchen, Sydney’s first organic, raw-food café. Pronounced sah-da-nah, the name translates ‘one’s conscious practice’, and it essentially relates to your daily ritual. The idea is that you do good in this daily ritual stuff by consciously making ethical decisions, which includes ethical eating decisions.

By extension for Valcorza, conscious practice also involved leaving behind a job with a pharmaceutical company advocating throwing drugs at health issues that could probably be first addressed through healthy food. The irony is that since going vegan, she’s been so healthy she hasn’t so far needed any kind of the kind of medicine she used to peddle.

The takeaway of The Naked Vegan specifically and Valcorza’s story as a whole is if she can completely change her life and manage this vegan stuff, anyone can. Especially when you consider her Filipino heritage is one that was based heavily on meat. (The veganised roast pig incident in her introduction is, though thoughtful and well-meaning, nonetheless quite confounding.) Still, the book’s cover makes a good start on the anyone-can approach because it’s decadent and aesthetically appealing enough to lure even the most cynical eater in.

The book (which handily also falls into the #ByAustralianBuyAustralian category—that is, it’s buy an Australian and you can buy it from your local Australian bookstore) contains a glossary to explain the terms and—surprising to me, at least—it’s up front. I’m not going to lie. Vegan cookbooks that require glossaries make me nervous and invariably go in the too-hard pile. I’m a terrible cook, I live on my own and so have no one to prompt me to prepare food, and I lead an insanely busy lifestyle. When I see ingredients that I have to google or scale some distant mountain to locate a herb grown only in the kind of conditions that support a hardy but benevolent goat, I’m out.

But then I flipped from the glossary to the sesame and nori crackers. And then the bagels. And the zucchini crackers and the felafel plate with beetroot dip and zucchini hummus. And later the spaghetti and beet balls, and the mushroom, spinach, and caramelised onion quiche. And then the strawberry donuts, the bananarama cupcakes, the orange and poppyseed cake, the apple and strawberry crumble pie with rhubarb and ginger coulis. Oh, and the choc-raspberry cheesecake featured on the cover. You get the point.

So while I’ll qualify this review with saying I’d probably be a little more likely to visit Sadhana Kitchen and purchase the kind of incredible treats this recipe book features (I will and I do), I will say the recipes and accompanying images appear delicious. It’s also high time I stopped relying I’m my limited range of vegan recipes and branched out to try something new. With 140 recipes, The Naked Vegan would definitely be an excellent resource for doing that.

Many thanks to Murdoch Books for sending me the review copy.

Peace & Parsnips

Peace & ParsnipsLee Watson’s Peace & Parsnips: Vegan Cooking for Everyone looked so good from the preview cover art and blurb that I went out of my way to see if I could obtain a review copy of it.

I mean, who wouldn’t be sold on the adorable cover with almost-stamped images of pears, broccoli, and what I think are figs?

Once the review copy arrived, I discovered there are pros and cons with the cover design—things I hadn’t noticed in my earlier excitement.

The issues aren’t with the artwork, which I still love, but the format: The book comes with a dust cover that is, for someone like me, something that appears quite finicky and easily damaged.

But what do I know? I’m a terrible cook who can’t be entrusted to have expensively produced books in the vicinity of liquids and solids being smashed together without badness happening. And there’s precedence for having dust covers on cookbooks.

Besides, the glass-half-full slash person-who-can-be-entrusted-with-this-stuff view could be that the thinking behind the dust cover is that it’s removable and therefore ideal to protect the book’s extremities from getting damaged with food splodges and splashes.

But I’m getting ahead of my nitpicking self.

Peace & Parsnips overarching theme is captured by the Dalai Lama quote ‘Approach loving and cooking with reckless abandon’. Which is what it does. For the foundation of vegan cooking, Watson writes in his introduction, is creativity.

Watson’s written this cookbook some five years after converting to veganism from being a hardcore, nose-to-tail carnivore. It means he’s bringing five years’ worth of experience to the fore—enough time for him to have developed expertise in the vegan cooking realm, but not so much that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a wide-eyed, overwhelmed newbie.

Watson’s argument is that if he can go vegan, anyone can, and here are some recipes to get them started. What we eat reflects who we are, he continues. Also, there’s much, much more to vegan cooking than tofu.

As my introduction intimated, what’s immediately apparent about Peace & Parsnips is its beautiful design and investment in quality. The paper stock, for example, is recycled but organic and expensive in feel rather than dowdy. The images too are gorgeous.

Above all, the book’s useful. For example, there’s a spread tackling food myths that include:

  • meat is the only way to get protein and cow’s milk is the best calcium source
  • we have incisors for a reason
  • it takes cream to make things creamy.

The book also breaks down some of the food groups, outlining, for instance, some of the different types of grains that are great for vegans and tips for how they can be cooked and served. The book also covers fruit, nuts, milks (vegan, of course), and more.

My cookbook wishlist always includes having one colour image for every recipe—I’m such a terrible cook I can’t make what I can’t see the finished product of (and in fact I have a theory that recipes that don’t have full-colour images to accompany them are made far less frequently than ones that do). That would be my one suggestion for improving Peace & Parsnips.

Regardless, the book contains some pretty appetising-sounding recipes that, picture or not, warrant a try:

  • Raw-sli with Grated Apple, Blueberries, & Macadamia Cream
  • Scrambled Tofu with Buckwheat Pancakes & Avocado Butter
  • Sesame & Sweetcorn Pancakes
  • Braised Fennel, Pear & Radish with Toasted Almonds
  • Homemade Vegetable Crisps
  • Open-Top Asparagus & Cashew Cream Pie, with Fig & Apple Compote.

So, dust cover or no, a picture per recipe or no, this cookbook gets my thumbs up.

Superlegumes

SuperlegumesYou need a solidly designed cover to sell legumes, and that’s exactly what Chrissy Freer’s Superlegumes part cookbook, part guide has. With vividly displayed and shot legumes, it’s the kind of cover worthy of more enticing ingredients that would not only inspire you to pluck the book from the shelves but even buy it.

For, frankly, legumes aren’t a particularly gastroporn-worthy topic. The perception (mine included) is that legumes are bland and take copious amounts of time to prepare. The whole ‘I forgot to soak the legumes overnight’ thing is what most often stops me from attempting to prepare them. Well, that and the fact that I hate cooking. It’s a relatively lethal combination.

I’m vegan, and I’d have thought I’d know more than the average person about legumes, yet this book still taught me plenty, such as the legume family includes green peas and beans, soy beans, and peanuts.

Also that legumes are whole foods (they’re as close to their natural state as possible) and one of nature’s super foods, high in protein, carbohydrates, and fibre, as well as iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. They’re gluten-free and low GI too and are much cheaper than other food sources that contain similarly important nutrients.

Crucially, legumes are also incredibly environmentally friendly and sustainable—they help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and also fix nitrogen in soils, improving their quality, preparing the soils for subsequent crops, and doing away with the need for environmentally damaging chemicals to achieve the same effect.

Refreshingly, Superlegumes is actually written by someone with some know how. I hadn’t realised cookbook authorship was such a hot-button issue for me until I read the author’s bio on page one. Freer is a nutritionist and writer—not, say, a celebrity chef who thought it a good idea to throw together an ill-informed paleo book for babies—and Superlegumes is her second book (note to self: seek our her first one, Supergrains: Eat Your Way to Great Health).

Freer’s also the nutrition editor for www.taste.com.au, and freelances for Australian Healthy Food Guide, Belle, Prevention, and Weight Watchers. So she, you know, writes for publications that fundamentally promote health and healthy, sustainable approaches to eating.

SupergrainsSuperlegumes showed me recipes for legumes far more interesting than my usual efforts (including two tables showing how to soak and/or cook each legume type and for how long).

For that’s perhaps the beauty of this book: it encourages a rethink of an invaluable protein and fibre source that’s also good for the environment while simultaneously making it appetising and unscary to attempt to cook with. I’m not sure I would have believed anyone if they said they could make legumes appealing, both aesthetically and tastily, but Freer’s managed it.

Some of the recipes that leapt out at me as must-trys were Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup, Oat pancakes with berries, Best baked beans, Quinoa bean burgers with fresh beetroot slaw, Cauliflower crust pizza with white beans, pumpkin and cherry tomatoes.

The book does include some meat-related recipes, and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed about that, especially as Freer herself acknowledges the crazypants amounts of leafy matter required to feed livestock that’s ethically and environmentally inefficient. But I also acknowledge that Freer’s goal is likely to introduce legumes to as wide an audience as possible and its primary target audience isn’t vegans, but omnivores.

Either way, Superlegumes is both a solid resource and a beautifully presented inspiration for a range of audiences—even almost-non-cooking vegan ones such as me. First up for roadtesting now I’m inspired and the weather’s turned wintery: Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup.

Thanks to Murdoch Books for the review opportunity.

Easy Vegan

Easy VeganWinner, winner chicken dinner is not perhaps the most appropriate response for a vegan to make to anything. And especially not in response to reviewing a vegan cookbook. But that’s the phrase that sprang to mind when I cracked open Sue Quinn’s Easy Vegan, which arrived as a review copy from Murdoch Books.

My other response was to get slightly teary, which I admit sounds slightly hyperbolic. But really, if the number of pages I post-it noted to come back to are any indication, Easy Vegan is onto something. (And yes, I’m sorry for the tree I wasted. If I’d known I was going to post-it note practically the entire book, I’d have held off.)

I’ve been vegetarian/vegan for over 25 years—far, far longer than I wasn’t. (Contrary to what this statement implies, being vegan isn’t the first thing I pronounce upon meeting people, but it’s invariably and necessarily revealed any time food enters the picture. Which is a lot given we all eat between three and five meals a day.)

But for people like me who lived this way before it was cool, which it increasingly seems to be, we largely found our ways in the dark. And still are. For in truth, a vegan lifestyle is always one of learning.

With increasing numbers of people adopting vegan lifestyles for health, animal welfare, or environmental reasons (or for the trifecta, as it is for me), I often get asked for recommendations about recipe books, blogs, and more to follow, and where to find general information. I end up sending them to an assortment of places, but none quite perfectly cover it all.

Could I have created the book I’m after? Probably not, for I am a notoriously awful cook. But Easy Vegan is the kind of book I would love to have produced if I’d had the talent and the know-how. It’s also the kind book I’d happily give to me, or to new and aspiring vegans (or ‘pre-vegans’ as I’ve heard the term used with much bemusement).

There are some important reasons why this book is good.

First, Quinn is a journalist and food writer with plenty of experience. She’s good at putting this kind of information together, striking the right balance between informative and appetising. Second, she doesn’t appear to be wholly vegan herself (or at least doesn’t declare it, which may be by design).

This means she’s coming at the lifestyle with fresh eyes, questions about what foundation information does she need to know to start out, and is skilled at conveying complex information in accessible terms. Importantly, she’s not too emotionally invested in the lifestyle to come at it with a preachy earnestness.

The introduction sets the tone, straight up saying that while veganism requires some planning, ‘it isn’t the quantum leap into alien eating territory’ many people think it to be. Veganism isn’t, Quinn writes, about deprivation.

‘How to be vegan’ and ‘How to begin’ follow the introduction. It’s a simple explanation of what veganism is and how to take your first steps into it. Then there are some fantastic illustrations meet infographics that outline the protein content of food and vegan celebrities. I knew many of them, but Brad Pitt? No idea he was vegan.

A shopping list follows that, with some simple definitions of common vegan ingredients. Even better? A flowchart that outlines how to veganise a recipe. That is, how to switch out eggs and dairy. Right about this point of reading the book, I may have gotten a little teary.

This book is brilliantly considered and beautifully designed. Props must go to the designer and editor who truly grasp the importance of communication design. From simple tips to how to make your own vegan milks, cheeses and ice cream (yes, there are such things as these and they are delicious) to pasta to vegetable stock to pastry to smoothies, Easy Vegan outlines how vegans do get to eat and enjoy the ‘usual’ things.

Then it gets into the meal recipes. First up is bircher muesli, something I used to adore and have never quite mastered vegan-style. Suffice to say, this is one of the initial recipes I’ll be roadtesting. Filled sweet potato skins will follow soon after, along with roast vegetable salads and stuffed artichokes and sweet potato ravioli and gnocchi and shepherd’s pie and vegetable crumble…

And vanilla cupcakes. I actually almost texted a friend when I got to reading this page about 11:30pm. Anyone who even peripherally knows me knows I am able to ingest superhuman amounts of cupcakes. But given I’m not a good cook, I always need to rely on someone else to bake them for me. Until now. Quinn’s pistachio cake and crème brulee also look mighty fine.

The book’s size is practical too. Not so large it really doubles as a coffee-table-meets-food-porn book, it’s small enough to, say, carry with you or peruse recipes in bed just before drifting off for the night. Quite simply, it’s a practical cookbook that’s truly designed to be used.

Importantly, it does what I bemoan so few vegan cookbooks do: It pairs every recipe with a full-page, Donna Hay-worthy here’s-what-it-should-look-like image. Additionally, every recipe is relatively simple. By that I mean no recipe contains 50 billion ingredients, 49 billion of which you can’t find in your local supermarket and instead have to scale a Himalayan mountain to glean from some sheer cliff face only frequented by desperate vegans and mountain goats.

Nor do the recipes include and intimidating amount of steps or require enormous cooking prowess. Simply laid out on a page with plenty of white space, the list of ingredients and recipes make even non-cooks like me feel motivated rather than intimidated.

Worth noting is that they’re the kinds of recipes you could happily serve up to pre-vegans without either having to explain the complex list of ingredients (see previous passage about gathering food alongside Himalayan mountain goats) or worrying about someone turning their nose up.

My one criticism of the book is its title. Though making a clear statement of what the book is about, it’s not content-rich enough to easily find. I’ve spent a lot of time working in bookshops throughout my uni times. I can attest that trying to search databases on vague cookbook titles for impatient, passive-aggressive customers who consider you an idiot for not being able to immediately find the book they’re talking about would not be aided by these search terms.

I couldn’t even quickly find it on the Boomerang Books site, and I had the title correct and knew what the cover looked like (something said passive-aggressive customers rarely do). Rather than sort through pages of similarly titled books, I then searched on the author. So if you’re looking for this book, I recommend you search ‘Sue Quinn’.

Still, title aside, I realise I’m gushing about this book. And we all know me to not be a gusher. It is, quite simply, most excellent and the only vegan cookbook I’ve encountered to date that I’d be happy to both use myself and recommend as a day-to-day cookbook. I mean, you know a cookbook’s good if it can excite a non-cook such as me to start planning out the recipes—plural—they are going to prepare. Double thumbs up.

Easy Weekends

Easy WeekendsIt’s fitting to review a cookbook entitled Easy Weekends* while indulging in a rare, phone-less, relatively easy weekend myself. This recent-ish cookbook by award-winning and celebrity chef Neil Perry** arrived on my doorstep with perfect timing: it was late in the work week and I was yearning for a quiet couple of days in.

With his Rockpool restaurant a little out of my price range, and with my cooking skills (and subsequent cookbook-buying habits) poor, the closest encounters I’ve had with Perry’s food have been through Qantas in-flight meals. He’s been advising them on menus since an inconceivable 1997. (I’m feeling old, because I remember when the partnership was announced and I swear it was no more than a handful of years ago.)

Suffice to say, I cracked the spine of this book with relish.

Shot in Perry’s home (or a kitchen styled to look like his home) and featuring and dedicated to his daughters, Easy Weekends has a relaxed, family focused feel. Featuring both Eastern and Western influences, and broken into Friday, Saturday, and Sunday sections, it contains more than 100 recipes designed to be whipped up on a laidback weekend.

Perry advocates good, fresh food eaten in variety (he writes so in his introduction). He doesn’t deny himself anything, but eats certain foods in moderation. ‘Drink plenty of water, and wine in moderation,’ he writes. Then: ‘I should listen to my own advice…’

He also writes that ‘good shopping, good cooking, good living’ has always been his mantra. He hopes the book helps us buy quality ingredients and be inspired to cook for friends and family. The exquisite food styling and well-lit photos help with this inspiration, of course, with the book ticking the box of one of my dealbreaker cookbook requirements: every single recipe is accompanied by an image of what it should look like. Seriously, I’ve often thought how someone should do some research into the correlation between how likely recipes with images are to be cooked than ones without.

RockpoolI also like that the book is paperback—good quality, sturdily covered paperback, it should be noted. But a book that’s designed to be used rather than the hefty porn-like cookbooks we buy and admire, but with which due to their heft we do no more.

My one criticism is that the recipes contained within Easy Weekends are far, far, far too meat- and and eggs- and dairy-heavy. Important disclaimer: I’m vegan. But I’m not a finger-shaking one. I’m simply pragmatic about how meat, eggs, and dairy are fraught from ethical and environmental perspectives.

Meat production, for example, contributes up to 25% of the preventable greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming. The United Nations itself advocates switching to a vegan lifestyle to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Meat production also takes up vast amounts of water, something we should be especially conscious of given the drought-plagued nature of our continent. The water required to produce the meat for four hamburgers is equivalent to a year’s worth of showers. Put simply: You can save more water by not eating meat than you could by not showering for a year.

My gripe is that Perry’s book sends the wrong message. He is a chef with clout who could shift the conversation and eating habits of significant numbers of people should he set his mind to it. Instead, I found myself scouring the book in despair. Even the few listed salads had prawns or yoghurt or something unnecessary to ruin it. I eventually found a green lentil curry with spinach on page 175. Of 240.

Sure, some of the recipes (and I emphasise ‘some’ rather than ‘most’ and nowhere near ‘all’) could be adapted to be vegan. But this defeats the purpose of buying the book. Also, all the meals are pretty heavy. Weekends are arguably for indulging, but still, I think you’d find yourself in a food coma after ingesting even one or two of these. And Australian summers are so fierce (and only getting more so as a result of global warming), there are some long stretches of time when most of us just want to ingest something cold and light.

I’m obviously not the target audience for this book and therefore not its best reviewer, but I can appreciate it’s a well-put-together book and Perry’s culinary skills are immense. I’d just challenge him to release a more ethically and environmentally responsible cookbook. That one I’d wholeheartedly recommend.

* This appears to be a reissue of a 2012 book. The image featured is of the 2014 version as the 2014 wasn’t available on the Boomerang Books site as at the time of writing.

** He has some eight cookbooks under his belt, including Rockpool, Simply Asian, and Simply Good Food.

New Cookbook from Donna Hay

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135+ clever solutions and f lavour-packed recipes for weeknights and weekends

This book is all about new ways to make cooking easier and captures how most of us, including Donna Hay, like to cook.

It offers solutions to the age-old dilemma of cooks everywhere – what can I put on the table through the week for the family that’s fast and delicious, and what can I serve on the weekend that’s a little more special when I have more than 10 minutes up my sleeve?

It recognises the position most of us find ourselves in during the week, juggling work, kids, personal commitments and the like, when what we need is a fast and delicious dinner, and that on weekends, we have time to relax and spend more time in the kitchen.

It’s about making things faster, simpler and tastier.

Full of short, concise recipes that are big on f lavour, the new easy offers five chapters: weeknights, weekends, sides and salads, baking, and desserts.

Each chapter contains clever and versatile ideas to restyle particular recipes, so if you loved Tuesday night’s lemongrass chicken, learn how to transform it into a chic starter for Saturday’s dinner or a tasty sandwich for Sunday’s picnic. These twists are all about versatility for a whole new and easy repertoire. Happy cooking!

Buy the book here…

Supercharged Food: Eat Yourself Beautiful

Eat Yourself BeautifulNecessity is, as they say, the mother of all invention. Or rather, the reason we begin to investigate and address issues that have become too troubling to ignore.

Even though she’s been investigating many more issues and things than most of us for a long time, certified holistic health coach, yoga teacher, wholefoods chef, and author Lee Holmes is no exception to this rule.

Holmes started researching and experimenting with nutritious recipes—many of which were free from gluten, wheat, dairy, yeast, and sugar—to eat herself well after she was in 2006 diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

That’s an auto-immune disease Wikipedia tells me is characterised by chronic widespread pain and a heightened and excruciating response to pressure. Its other symptoms can include debilitating fatigue, sleep disturbance, joint stiffness, difficulty with swallowing, bowel and bladder abnormalities, numbness and tingling, and cognitive dysfunction. Suffice to say, it’s a serious-enough illness to make you rethink—and rejig—aspects of your life.

But instead of opting for the generally prescribed medicine to treat the illness, Holmes figured there had to be another way to treat (if not cure) fibromyalgia. Cue the creation of Supercharged Food: Eat Yourself Beautiful, a beautifully presented book containing over 100 nutritious recipes designed to counter auto-immune illnesses such as fibromyalgia by eating yourself well. It follows on from her Supercharged Food and Supercharged Food for Kids cookbooks.

The recipes—many of them refreshingly free from gluten, wheat, dairy, yeast, and sugar—focus on simple, nutrition-packed, anti-inflammatory ‘super foods’, and are designed to produce inner and outer health and beauty.

I’ll not deny I was—and am—dubious about the book’s title. Surely being healthy is more important than being beautiful? But I will concede that the word ‘beautiful’ is likely to aim to imply healthfulness-related and -radiated beauty than that of the narrowly defined notions of beauty we find in film, television, and glossy magazines. So, I’m approaching it more along the lines of the adages ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘beauty isn’t skin deep’—that is, what’s inside matters just as much and affects what’s outside.

Supercharged Food‘It’s not about wanting to be Peter Pan,’ Holmes says in the press release. Rather, it’s about continued good health and aging gracefully, changing your lifestyle instead of see-sawing between fad diets.

Title quibbles aside, the book is gorgeously presented (Murdoch Books can always be counted on to produce incredible cookbooks—all three of Holmes’ books are through them). The Supercharged Food: Eat Yourself Beautiful images are salivation-inducing scrumptious and the communication design is clear and useful. For example, colour-coded symbols and initialisms denote at a glance whether a recipe is wheat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, and so on.

The recipes too are delicious. Adhering to the food-as-medicine principle, the meals are full anti-oxidant, immune-boosting foods. I roadtested three at a recent dinner party: broccolini with garlic and chilli; carrot, lemon and fresh mint soup; and turmeric, cauliflower and almond.

I’ve haven’t images of the recipes both because my interpretations weren’t nearly as pretty as the book’s and because they were consumed so quickly and so heartily I didn’t have time to take a picture before they were gone. I recommend instead checking out the ones in the book—if they don’t inspire you to crack out your cooking utensils, nothing will.

It goes without saying then that Supercharged Food and its recipes warrant a thumbs-up review. So too does the complementary website, which boasts a host a supporting material, including meal plans, information, and resources—it’s easy to see why Holmes has been awarded as both a writer and a blogger.

Supercharged Food is relevant to those of us aiming to conquer some auto-immune illnesses, but it’s a healthful choice for those of us who aren’t. Maybe one day we’ll have no need of the necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention adage because we’ll have thwarted it by living the prevention-is-better-than-cure one instead.

Thanks to Murdoch Books for the opportunity to review Supercharged Food and apologies the review has taken so long to post—post-person confusion saw the book wrongly delivered to my neighbour’s place, but the book’s found its home now and I won’t be relinquishing it anytime soon.

Road Tested: Save With Jamie by Jamie Oliver

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Review – Save With Jamie by Jamie Oliver

Jamie’s last two cookbooks have both been about finding smarter ways to cook quickly. His new book is about finding smarter ways to cook and save money. I loved 30 Minute Meals and still cook from it regularly but felt that 15 Minute Meals did compromise on taste in places and it hasn’t kept it’s place in my regular recipe line up. For me Jamie’s Ministry of Food is still the pinnacle of his cookbooks and I still cook from it at least once, if not twice, a week.

The best thing about the new book is there is no time limit! I must confess to feeling the pressure of the clock with 30 Minute Meals and 15 Minute Meals and cooking much more of a pleasure without racing the clock or having 3 things going at once, all in a particular order.

Save With Jamie is split into Vegetarian, Chicken, Beef, Lamb, Pork and Seafood and contains lots of other money saving tips along the way. The meat sections all begin with a “Mothership” recipe, a large roast with an affordable cut of meat designed to give you leftovers. Half the chapter then has recipes using these leftovers (although it would have been good to include an alternative to the leftovers). Jamie has included a great range of different recipes from stir fries to curries to pasta, pizzas and burgers. I’ve road tested 3 recipes so far and will add more as I cook ‘em:

Sicilian squash & chickpea stew:

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easy prep, big flavour, 7/10

Singapore Noodles

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really easy prep, big flavour, better than the shops YUM 9/10 (I used a BBQ chicken instead of leftovers)

Penne Peperonata

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yummy pasta sauce, dead easy, no jar 7/10

We would love to hear how you gone with the cookbook and which recipes you have enjoyed. Let us know in the comments!

Buy the book here…

The Green Kitchen

The Green KitchenOne of my greatest gripes about being vegan (or vegetarian—the same rules apply) is also a rather politically incorrect one.

That is, that it’s assumed I thrive on the smell of incense, that I have musty-smelling dreadlocks, and that I wear tie-dyed clothes.

I’m not that kind of vegan, and the mis-lumping irks me no end. I’m an urban-dwelling one who’s conscious of her carbon footprint, but who is also rather conservative.

You wouldn’t at a glance be able to tell me apart from meat eaters, and even if it loses me my leftie badge, I’m actually fairly ok with that (I think it’s easier to change the system from the inside, you catch more flies with honey, or whatever’s the appropriate adage).

It means, though, that I want to be able to eat delicious food in well-designed restaurants; I want to be able to cook healthy, tasty food from aesthetically appealing cookbooks. Both are surprisingly, frustratingly difficult to achieve.

Discovering the Green Kitchen Stories blog (and its just-released cookbook, The Green Kitchen) was a godsend. I don’t wish to generalise all Swedes just as most people generalise all vegans and vegetarians, but hot damn they know and execute good design. The blog and book understand and deliver function and form and, frankly, make me extremely happy.

David Frenkiel (one half of the couple who put this wonderfulness together) is a magazine art director. It shows. The images are utterly, enviably exquisite. And as if the blog and cookbook aren’t enough, I just happily lost a couple of hours in their Instagram feeds. Bliss.

Vegie CurryEven better, Frenkiel’s vegetarian journey largely mirrors my own. We’ve both been unhealthy vegetarians, omitting meat but existing on carbs and sweets.

He fell in love with a health-conscious meat-eater, Luise Vindahl (I know, right, I really do think those two terms are mutually exclusive), and the two started experimenting with cooking healthy vegetarian food.

The organic, honest approach is palpable in the blog and the book. It’s part of what (apart from the incredible images, of course), makes them so enticing. There’s no judgement and certainly no efforts to bamboozle you with terms and ingredients you wouldn’t normally know. Crucially, the recipes are healthy and tasty.

I’ve recently flopped over into the world of veganism—it’s where I’ve always been heading, but have been stymied by my poor cooking skills and the aforementioned, politically incorrect frustration—so the vegetarian-ness of the recipes no longer entirely applies. But Frenkiel and Vindahl offer vegan tweaks, so with a bit of effort, I’m able to make the recipes work.

Early favourites include the pictured vegie curry, which contains yellow split peas and such goodies as the underutilised rhubarb. And I’m keen to road test the pictured pizzas. If those aren’t enough to make you want to go vego, I don’t know what will.

Vegie PizzasI’m still obsessed with the blog and the book, but it’s worth mentioning too that there’s an app.

Yes, these guys really have thought of everything (and when I say everything, I mean largely freely available online tools that cater to their audience’s needs).

Now, if I can just convince them to come into my kitchen and cook for me, I’ll be set.

Getting baked with good friends

Browsing my friends’ bookshelves is always interesting but the books I love to get into (in more ways than one) are their baking books. Not every house has some but when I do come across a home with a well-stocked dessert-bookshelf, I can spend hours browsing and lingering over the lush photography. Puddings and cheesecakes and fruit tarts – oh my.

My love of baking books strikes my friends as strange because I own so few myself and I am a really terrible baker. Last week I tried to get my Nigella on and make brownies. I succeeded in making brown, far too much brown, great tracts of it that crawled out of the pan and attempted to envelope the wire rack like an Alien facehugger with chocolate chips. What remained in the pan completely lacked in the delicious gooey interior that makes a brownie so enjoyable and instead had a texture reminiscent of foam mattress.

It did not, it must be said, look like the brownie in the book. Nothing I bake ever does, because I am terrible at following instructions. Some people would have measured the ingredients and not substituted on an ad-hoc basis. Others might have looked at the timing and directions. Nigella, they would have reasoned, is an excellent cook and if, like me, you generally make cakes suitable for use as ballast perhaps actually following her directions would be a better plan than ignoring the book completely.

Me, I figured it would be fine once we beaten the gloop into submission, cleaned up the worst of the over-flowing tentacles, and added a little cream and chocolate shavings. And it was.

I have plenty of regular cooking books, and can make a great meal. Savoury food is simple to improvise but I invariably ruin the more structured sugary sweet treats I attempt. Sponges, flans, pastry, pastries; you name it, I have mutilated it. I am a terrible baker and this is probably no bad thing. The main problem with baking is the fact that, after you have done it, you have lots of baked goods available to eat. Sitting there. Tempting you. Demanding to be eaten and situating themselves lasciviously right next to the salted caramel sauce and big bottle of Baileys with a “come hither” expression on their steaming sugary surface.

There’s a reason they call them tarts, people.

I like friends with baking books, and I treasure my friends that do bake. I can only hope that they also welcome my enthusiastic advances on their cooking and admire my ability to enthusiastically munch my way through every mouthful they offer me, and then some. Because one bite of a sweet thing is never enough for me.

Maybe you are one of those saintly people who glide slim, smug and ethereal through life turning down unnecessary deliciousness. Maybe you just have a little of what you fancy – a nibble of the cheese, a square of the dark chocolate, just one canapé and a small glass of wine. You can open a pack of Pringles without needing to finish the tube, and throw leftover birthday cake out when it gets dry, rather than concocting a deranged high-calorie plan to make it wonderful again. (Microwave it, and then add some fresh cream with a little Bailey’s mixed in. You’re welcome.)

You can have your cake and eat it, but you’d genuinely prefer a nice piece of fresh fruit and a game of tennis. I would salute your temperance but I am too busy being filled with hate. And food. All the wonderful tasty delicious food.

Many of my friends are brilliant bakers with a cook-book collection to match. Browsing their shelves I find treats galore to tempt me. Cheesecakes. Sponges and flans. Tiny wonderful fat-filled enlardenating pastries. Wonderful brownie books and books on decorating. Cake pops, because normal cake just wasn’t fattening enough – they had to come up with a way to make it even more delicious and bad for you.

For me to have those books and be capable of making the contents correctly would be an invitation to non-stop baking madness and an additional 20 kilos or so to settle on my waistline overnight.  I already have a deliciously-fattening craft beer habit, a penchant for Thai food and a slightly disturbing fixation on spectacularly smelly cheeses.

I don’t need to another monkey – or a sticky-sweet baked gorilla – on my back. I’ll leave the baking books on my friends’ kitchen shelves. And just try to be in the neighbourhood when they decide to give them a go.

 

Mid-month round-up – the health and long life edition

As winter draws in and the evenings get colder I find cooking more alluring. Slaving over a hot stove – so very unappealing in Sydney’s sticky-hot summers – becomes much more enticing as a way both to keep warm and to get a good meal in. And, having just discovered the farmer’s markets up the road, I’ve decided to try my hand at making the best of the autumn harvest produce. Unfortunately I’m not really sure what naturally peaks down under in the Autumn (Easter eggs?) so I’ve picked up a copy of Belinda Jeffery’s Country Cookbook to inform me and inspire me on how to whip up that seasonal fruit and veg.

Before you think I have gone all Nigella on you, I have to admit that I have being taking inspiration from the sumptuous pictures (if Belinda decides to stop cooking, she’ll easily be able to make a living as a photographer) and the suggested monthly highlighted produce more than whipping up a 3 course dinner to spec nightly. Much like fashion trends, cookery tends to work better for me as a concept than in actual practice, especially baking – I did once, accidentally, managed to make a pretty convincing replica of the Discworld’s dwarven battle muffins. But while some of the recipes will certainly suit those with sweet teeth, it’s also inspired me to whip up more than a few stews, soups and casseroles from scratch, which has to be a little healthier than my normal method if warming myself through the winter with hot ports and chocolate.

The Country Cookbook: Seasonal Jottings and Recipes

Keeping with the theme of eating plenty of good food and living well, Good Health in the 21st Century by Carole Hungerford has also been prodding me to overhaul a diet that had become a bit over-reliant on grabbing pre-prepared and fast food. Carole is a family doctor and in this book she applies her years of learning and practise to give readers her perspective on how we can stay healthier for longer. We’re always interested in their opinions as soon as we become ill but doctors don’t get to interact much with what is the ideal outcome of their profession – healthy people.

It pretty much boils down to one simple point – eat better food, and more variety of it. The book meld recent studies and research on diet and nutrition with a no-nonsense approach to getting your hands on it easily through eating well and heartily.  An organic apple a day is unlikely, by itself, to keep the doctor away but Dr Hungerford suggests that diet rich in the minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids that normally occur in a wide-ranging diet will do a lot of work needed to keep us out of the doctor’s waiting room and in good health.  She addresses subjects including asthma, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental health and neurological disorders, and – while I am not suggesting that every single thing in it is correct as I am, of course, not a doctor – it’s an engaging read that provides a good prod to those of us with good intentions regarding food often ruined by having the local takeaway on speed-dial.

Good Health in the 21st Century

Speaking of good health and a long life, I’ve also been enjoying Joanna Lumley’s photo-scrapbook and memoir, Absolutely. Much like Country Cookbook, Absolutely is a visual feast of photographs as well as words. Joanna describers herself as a hoarder of all things personal and memorabilia and thanks to this habit she has pictures of her family and herself in her every incarnation, from growing up in Kashmir and Kent, to her time as a model in the Swinging Sixties and her many memorable roles. She’s been a Bond girl, fought crime as Purdey in the New Avengers and, along with Jennifer Saunders, re-defined the phrase sweetie-darling as the unforgettable Patsy Stone, and looked absolutely fabulous throughout.

While it’s tempting to just flick through the pictures, it would be a shame to miss the linking text; Joanna’s writing is – much like her – stylish, welcoming, whimsical and possessed of a self-deprecatory sense of humour and perspective normally absent in celebrity memoirs. I’d quite like to be Joanna Lumley when I grow up, although I occasionally worry with my current diet and hobbies, I am more likely to end up resembling Patsy Stone. Well, whatever of the healthy eating and sylph-like figures at least we have the hoarding in common – I bet she can’t throw out books either.

Cooking up a storm – what books do you want read about?

Looking through the top non-fiction books of 2010, I can see that many of them are in areas that I never really get into – cookery, food, gardening, home-making and crafts.

Look, there is a reason for this. My skills don’t lie in these areas, even if I often enjoy their output. I love to eat but my cookery can best be described as spontaneous, where spontaneous is a euphemistic way of saying, “too lazy to follow recipes”. I don’t have all the necessary blenders, creamers and accoutrements that many books assume you have clogging up the kitchen. I live in a small flat, I have limited space, and most of that goes to books.

I also never remember to buy all the ingredients, so end up substituting and feeding my guests improvisations that ranges from the sublimes to the “screw this, let’s order some takeaway from the Thai place up the road”. Seeking to rectify this, a friend has just kindly sent me some Nigella’s as a gift. I’m picking up some new recipes, but also a far larger waistline. Nigella must have a metabolism that runs like a badly-serviced Hummer. Mine, sadly, is more economical, getting several gallons of flab from one cupcake.

Reading about food makes me want to eat it – I’m getting peckish just writing this. I’m going to avoid baking and dessert books on the general principle that prevention is far better than needing to spend an extra five hours a weeks on the treadmill. But the cookbooks that I avert my eyes from are incredibly popular with many of Boomerang readers – cooking, wine and food guides take up 60 places in the top 1,000, with most of those in the top 300.

As for my gardening? I’ve blogged already about my black thumbs (the Venus Fly-Trap ate about 10 flies and then sadly passed away over winter for those of you wondering). I do enjoy growing veggies and the odd flower, but I’m missing the bits of brains that makes a morning spent gardening anything but a chore.  (Also, I am very bad at identifying the difference between weeds and, say, strawberry plants. So I avoid areas where this might be an issue. Especially when they are someone else’s strawberries.)

Can’t cook, can’t garden, been known to injure myself with knitting needles and glue my own fingers together while crafting. It’s safe to say that, while I might be able to provide a reasonable beginner’s guides to home and craft things (especially for those of you who enjoy reading about disasters), I’m not the right person to claim to be an authority on these popular fields.

What do you think? Does Boomerang need a cookery or gardening or crafting blogger, or perhaps one crafty person who could combine all those things into one blog? What would you like to see non-fiction blogs about?

What would you write about?

One of 2010's biggest hits, books from the "4 Ingredients" appeared 4 times in our top 100.

Top 10 books on Food (Boomerang sales in 2010)

  1. Our Family Table
  2. MasterChef Australia: The Cookbook (Volume 2)
  3. 4 Ingredients: Fast, Fresh and Healthy
  4. Fast Fresh Simple
  5. MasterChef Australia: The Cookbook (Volume 1)
  6. Dukan Diet, The
  7. AWW Slow Cooking
  8. Jamie’s 30-minute Meals
  9. Crunch Time Cookbook: 100 Knockout Recipes for Rapid Weight Loss
  10. Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery

Spread-sheeting the joy of reading

Spreadsheet-loving bibliophiles, I have a treat for you. Nielsen Bookscan have released a huge chunk of data on their book-sales over the last ten years, allowing us to simultaneously indulge in two of our great loves; the socially acceptable love of non-fiction books and the secretive and strange adoration of spreadsheets.

Nielsen Bookscan is the world’s largest book tracking service, and they collect transaction data directly from the tills of major book retailers. This data covers over 90% of all retail book purchases in the UK from 6,500 retailers, monitoring more than 220,000 titles selling each week. They have given us the spreadsheets which shows book sales since the same time in 1998, their top 100 books for 2010 and a further breakdown into Top 20 by type, including fiction and non-fiction hardback and paperback.  Broken down into individual worksheets, and arranged neatly with publisher, imprint and ISBN information, just waiting to be sorted and analysed and interpreted and turned into graphs.

I’ve gone all tingly just thinking about it.

I’m not the only person out there who loves spreadsheets, surely? My first response when faced with a complex question is usually to open Excel and really get graphing. This is helpful when working out budgets and complicated itineraries, but not so much when trying to decide what pub to go to.

(That said, I have one friend who once answered the question of, “Do you think they fancy me?” by carefully analysing, typing and documenting comments on blog by type and tone, and then sending through a spreadsheet with the carefully tabulated results, so I suspect there may be more number crunchers than we think out there.)

The Top-selling 100 books of all time (well, for the UK and since Nielsen records began in 1998 but that sounds nowhere near as good) can be downloaded here, via the Guardian website.

It is – even for non-number-loving-nerds – an interesting read. The Top 100 contains the usual suspects, with Dan Brown, Harry Potter and sparkling vampires taking up most of the top 10. It’s not until #20 we see the first non-fiction entry, Jeremy Clarkson’s World According to Clarkson.  Bill Bryson’s excellent Short History of Nearly Everything comes just after at #23 with more and more non-fiction poking its way in from there, including lots of cookbooks and also, somewhat depressingly, a lot of diet books.

Perhaps we listened to Delia a little too much.

Broken down into paperback and non-paperback, the non-fiction lists are even more interesting. Paperback stars include Eat, Pray, Love (there’s food again) and lots of scientific explanations, whereas their glamorous hardback cousins include far more cookbooks and biographies, suggesting that we like big glossy pictures of both our food and our celebrities. That or biographies and cookbooks make better gifts than diet books, which appear exclusively and amusingly only on the less weighty paperback list.

Of course, the data here would differ from the Australian data (which I can only dream of receiving a spreadsheet of) but it’s still an interesting snapshot of what we have been reading. If you’d asked me for my guess at the top selling non-fiction book of the last decade, I wouldn’t have guessed Clarkson. Would you? I also wouldn’t have guessed that two diet books would outsell the first cookery book and that Gillian McKeith would be in the top 30.

There is a downside to all this data, I had planned to pick out a cookbook this week but I’m now inundated by information and different titles. If only there were some way to sort all this information – oh wait, there is. To Excel,  and let the graphing begin!

Or I could just ask you all. Any recommendations for a good cookbook for an enthusiastic but imprecise chef who likes to improvise and hates having to follow long tedious lists?

…I’m going to graph it anyway. Just a little. While I am waiting for a response. Honest.

The I Can’t Cook Cookbook

The Cook's CompanionI both agreed and disagreed with a friend recently when they marvelled at the sheer volume of cookbooks available and decreed that the market couldn’t possibly support such numbers. Agreed, because I too wonder how there could possibly be so many incarnations of said books, particularly given how expensive the production costs and subsequent shelf prices are. But disagreed—or perhaps despaired—because regardless of how many there are or how sustainable the market may or may not be, I still can’t find a cookbook for me.

My cooking problems are myriad, and I recognise that my needs are less niche than, well, tricky and a little odd. But I’m putting out my cookbook issues and wish list lest anyone know such a book exists.

I can’t cook.

And I really mean that I can’t cook. In fact, I think any cookbook I create could and should be—to paraphrase from the similarly titled one already around—The I Can’t Cook Cookbook.

Jamie OliverI haven’t the time for cooking.

By the time I’m ferreting around in the pantry, there’s only one thing I want to do: find food and get it in me. I’ve neither the patience nor the blood sugar levels to sustain a two-hour food prep time. In actuality, any food prep time is spent snacking on ingredients so: a) there’s not much left for the actual meal I’m attempting to prepare; and b) I’m no longer hungry by the time said food is ready and it goes to waste. And no, I can’t start earlier. I’m busy.

I lose patience with fiddly, time-consuming steps.

In spite of the fact that I can’t cook, I invariably get part of the way through cooking something and decide that some of the steps and/or ingredients are superfluous. So I skip them. Because clearly, in despite my complete lack of culinary training, I know better. If a recipe’s got more than about five steps, it’s all over.

I only like plain food or sweet food.

This one’s self-explanatory. I need a cookbook that skips anything that could be remotely considered a spice or a distant relative of a spice, and that instead hones in on anything plain or sugar-filled. Yes, this means that I lean towards cake cookbooks. Given my penchant for eating while I cook, cake mixture and I are old friends.

Moosewood CookbookI only eat one food at a time, so I need to be able to prepare it in bulk.

There are some things you don’t really want to be famous (read: infamous) for, but it’s well known among friends that I tend only to eat one food at a time, eat it until its death, and then never eat it again. There was the blueberry muffin phase. There was the sushi phase. There was the vegetable cannelloni phase. I can now neither eat nor even stomach the smell of all three. Regardless, when I was eating them, I needed them to be easy and quick to prep and able to be prepped and stored in bulk. I’m currently auditioning new foods to fill their places.

I can’t cook if I can’t see what I’m cooking.

No, I don’t need glasses—my eyesight’s fine. I need glossy, expensive-to-produce, food stylist-created pictures. For every single recipe. Because if I haven’t got something visual and salivation-inspiring to aspire to, I’m not interested.

MasterchefI’m a vegetarian.

Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, but I tend to forget that this isn’t how everyone operates. I’m reminded of that the hard way when I forget to order myself ‘special’ meals on long-haul flights. Either way, I don’t eat any animals—that includes chicken and fish (don’t get me started on those faux vegetarians); in short, anything with a face—and things like eggs or dairy only in the smallest amounts, and only then if they’re part of the bigger food picture. Think cheese on a pizza or eggs in a cake, but never on their own or as the primary part of the meal.

I’ve found that the problem with most vegetarian cookbooks is that they assume you live on a commune, grow your own vegies, run your own health food store, have limitless time for preparing things like lentils, which take days upon days to cook, and that you have a fully stocked pantry of specialised vegetarian ingredients. Where are the vego cookbooks for time-poor, inner city-dwelling writers, I ask?

I’m after low fat.

Isn’t everyone? After all, our diets are so saturated with artery-clogging, thigh-expanding fat that if we’re not after low fat, we’re probably in health trouble.

I hate capsicum, eggplant, and herbs.

Particularly herbs. Particularly rosemary, the all-powerful, all-tainting herb that recipe books always seem to contain and that restaurants not-so-conveniently forget to include on their list of potential meal selection ingredients. All three are deal breakers for me, at both cafes and in cookbooks. I realise that I could omit them from recipes, but it’s the principle that matters here. Vegetarian cookbooks are always loaded up with eggplant- and capsicum-featuring recipes with serious helpings of herbs to ‘add flavour’. Purchasing such a cookbook would be like giving the publisher a thumbs up for creating such a horror.

Skinny Bitch in the KitchI haven’t the interest or the inclination to chase all over town for quirky ingredients.

The moment you say ‘vegetarian’, recipe books say ‘expensive, almost-impossible-to-find ingredients’ that you’ll spend days trying to source, will only need a pinch of, and that will spend the rest of its shelf life attracting weevils to your cupboard. Case in point, the Skinny Bitch in the Kitch vegan cookbook. Add in the fact that the hard-to-find ingredients have American names and you have to use Google translation to decipher what they’d be called in Australia and where precisely on this continent you might find them, and you can understand why the book ended up gathering dust on my shelf and I ended up eating rice crackers for dinner.

Sigh.

I realise that this is an eclectic and entirely embarrassing list of needs and tastes and that the word ‘fussy’ springs to mind. Either way, it’s incredible how difficult it is for someone with my tastes to find a suitable cookbook.

I say vegetarian. They say impossible, specialist ingredients + herbs.

I say vegetarian. They say bland, cheaply produced cookbook without pictures.

I say low fat. They say spicy to get your metabolism going and bucket loads of protein, i.e. meat…

Nigella LawsonI mean, forget Masterchef cookbooks—they’re too over the top and too meat-filled. Forget The Cook’s Companion—alluring as it is with its new stripy cover, it’s much too large and overwhelmingly intimidating for a newbie to cooking like me. Forget anything Jamie Oliver-ish—he’s cute and his books are beautifully produced, but they include far too much meat replete with pictures about how to kill it [the cute farmyard animal pictured just a few pages before] and carve it. Forget anything Nigella Lawson-themed. We all know that’s just gastroporn. And forget Moosewood Vegetarian Cookbook—it lacks glossy pictures and is chock filled with tricky-to-find ingredients with American names.

The question is, is there a low fat, plain + sweet, herb-, capsicum-, and eggplant-free, quick-and-easy cookbook for people who can’t cook out there in the market? And if so, can you please tell me its name?

What Not to Gift – Part 1, the Kris Kringle

Christmas is coming, and your co-workers want their pressies. Much like your credit limit and your waistline, office relationships can be stretched to breaking point by Christmas’s excesses. Gifting books in the anonymous Kris Kringle may seem like a great way to solve who-to-buy-a-present issues, but you can still get it wrong.

Not a great idea, even if their name is Bruce Banner.Make sure, first off, that your gift doesn’t identify you, in addition to being selfish. Don’t gift your co-workers a voucher for your side-business or an obviously pre-read book midway through a series you have been raving about. Don’t gift them books that you ask to borrow before the wrapping has come off. Try not to draw attention to their short-comings; resist to urge buy them books like “Anger Management for Dummies” or books on job-hunting.

And well-meant presents can go wrong too. Don’t gift your co-workers – no matter how much they might appreciate them – with semi-pornographic fiction, non-fiction or How To Make Love Like a Porn Star, which might bring a little joy but also a lot of attention from HR and Legal.

It might seem tempting to buy a business book, given that it’s professional. But this can not only be disappointing for the receiver, it can lead to MORE work in the New Year if they are the easily impressed type.

I still haven’t forgiven someone for introducing a former manager of mine to Jim Collins’s business development classic book, Good To Great. When we re-opened in the New Year we discovered we were stuck with endless meetings on the Hedgehog Concept (which isn’t a reference to partying like Mad Monday at the NRL, for those worried) which required discussing what our company could do better than anyone else in the world in order to clarify our business plan.

Business books are meant to be inspiring, but for those of us who are occasionally visited by the Reality Fairy thinking like this can be little difficult. I mean, best in the world? Seems a little unrealistic to set the bar that high, kind of like aiming to get eleven out of ten  – impossible unless you are a Fortune 500 CEO or on Junior Masterchef. But the book is firm on the matter. So, in order to satisfy the frothingly insane enthusiasm of the Jim Collins fan, you end up doing ever more specialised “best” parameters. “We believe are the best in the world at being a SME accounting firm who all wear purple.”

No?

“How about who all wear purple and speak in a Monty Pythonesque Frenchman accent?”

(Good to Great also required that we talk about our BHAG, or Big Hairy Audacious Goal, which reminded me more as a phrase of parts of the anatomy usually covered by pants than work-related. Come on, if a stranger on a train asked if you wanted to see their Big Hairy Audacious Goal, you’d be switching carriages pretty fast, right?)

So, what should you get co-workers? Good ideas include books that suggest you know they have a life outside the office, such as a book on their hobbies, interests or destinations. Most foodies will enjoy a cookbook (and most cookbooks, such as Pho’s Kitchen, are also pretty as coffee table books) and many gardening books can be far more fun to peruse than actually getting out there and working on your yard. Or, if you’re not sure of any of their interests – or even what they look like – you could go for something interesting but unlikely to offend, such as the hilarious Is That Thing Diesel, or the Gruen Transfer‘s offering.

And if you don’t think you can get them a gift without insulting, offending, or ignoring their interests? Well, there’s always gift vouchers.