The Cookbook Club reviews Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries

KitchenDiaries-200.jpg First aired on In Town and Out (04/04/11)

Buying a new cookbook can be a tricky task. After all, a store is much less inclined to take a book back after you've spilled olive oil all over it. So how on earth are you supposed to know if what you've got in your hands is a gem or a dud?

That's where host Michael Bhardwaj and the In Town and Out Cookbook Club come in. Each month, they tackle a new cookery tome and let you know whether or not it's worth slaving over the stove for.

This month, Bhardwaj was joined by Tim Wynn-Jones and Amanda Lewis to pore over Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries. Slater is one of Britain's most-loved food writers, and he has a following that most authors and columnists would die for. The Kitchen Diaries, his seventh cookbook, chronicles a year in his life with food. These are the dishes Slater whips up at home out of random ingredients in his cupboard, but they're also the meals he carefully plans to impress and surprise friends and family. The resulting cookbook is a fantastic resource for people who are interested in meals that span the cooking spectrum in terms of season and skill.

But, as with most of Slater's food writing, The Kitchen Diaries is much more than a collection of recipes. As the title of the book indicates, each recipe is paired with a diary entry that explains the situation and events surrounding the meal.

"That is the great charm of the book. The writing itself is so gorgeous," Tim Wynn-Jones explained. "It's written offhandedly, but with a great love for cooking. It's really human."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the recipes end up being delicious, too. And as proof, here's one that you can try out this weekend:

Braised lamb shanks with leeks and haricot beans

This gets even better when left overnight in the fridge. You could make it a day or two in advance to good end. Serves 4.

4 small lamb shanks
300g dried haricot beans
4 bay leaves
olive oil
4 large leeks, trimmed, halved lengthways and rinsed
a thick slice of butter (about 60g)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 tbsp chopped thyme leaves
1 tbsp plain flour
650ml of light stock or water
juice and zest of a lemon
a handful of parsley, chopped
a handful of mint leaves

Soak the beans overnight in cold water. The next day, drain them, put them into a deep saucepan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil, skim off the froth, drop in two bay leaves and a drop or two of olive oil and simmer for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave them in the cooking water.

Warm a glug of olive oil in a deep casserole. Season the shanks all over with salt and black pepper then lower them into the pan. They should sizzle when they hit the oil. Turn the meat from time to time until it has coloured nicely on all sides (a pale honey rather than deep brown). Remove the meat from the casserole and set aside on a plate to catch any escaping juices.

Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 4. Cut the leeks into chunks roughly the length of a wine cork; wash them thoroughly, making sure no grit or sand is trapped in their many layers, and then put them, together with the butter, in the casserole, keeping the heat low. Cover with a piece of greaseproof or bakewell paper then cover with a lid. (The paper will encourage them to cook in their own steam rather than brown.) Leave them to cook until they have started to soften — a good 20 minutes or so. You will need to give them an occasional stir.

Remove and discard the paper. Peel and thinly slice the garlic, and add it to the pot with the thyme and two bay leaves. Sprinkle the flour over the top and continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, then pour in the water or stock and the drained cooked beans. Season with salt and pepper.

Return the shanks and any collected juices to the pan. Bring back to the boil. Cover the casserole with a lid and place in the oven for an hour and a half or until the lamb is completely tender — sometimes it takes two. You should be able to remove it from the bone with little effort. (Then again, it shouldn't actually be falling apart.) Remove from the oven, stir in most of the lemon juice and zest, parsley and mint, then scatter the rest over as you serve.

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