Some good stuff in 'Jamie's Comfort Food'

The Naked Chef says his latest book is his most scrumptious and gratifying yet in the comfort department. Our writer puts it to the test.

JAMIE'S COMFORT FOOD 

100 Ultimate Recipes - Treat The Ones You Love

Author: Jamie Oliver

Publisher: Penguin Books

Price: RM165 (S$64) from Kinokuniya

For a certain generation, the "celebrity chef" was a new thing. Having a cookbook with a TV show tie-in was a novel idea - it allowed the chef to feel more like a friend, someone who's super at cooking that you almost felt you had invited over to share their best recipes with you.

Jamie Oliver feels like that friend, partly because my brother has met and had dinner with him.

Well, when I say met - he had tickets to a live show Oliver was doing to promote one of his books, and he was an audience member selected to go on stage and order a pizza on the phone, while Oliver knocked one out from scratch in the time it took the delivery guy to get there.

So I was eager to crack into his latest book, having enjoyed (and still use) his earlier offerings. The book is beautifully bound with a woven cover, and sumptuous pictures of the dishes are packed into the pages, often given a sort of centrefold spread that brings "food porn" to new levels.

The attractive layout of the recipes makes them easy to read, and directions appear to be logically laid out (more on this later). And there are pictures - lots and lots of pictures. There's even Golden Globe-winning British actor Idris Elba grinning at me from one page, apparently enjoying a dish of groundnut stew inspired by his Ghanaian roots.

There's a lot of gloss and showmanship packed into every page. We even have the calorie breakdown of the dishes in the back, and extra tips are highlighted on each recipe page.

All this leads us to the crux - this isn't your everyday weekday cookbook. While it's called Jamie's Comfort Food, which made me think "quick and easy dishes", this isn't what it's about.

The tagline is "100 Ultimate Recipes - Treat The Ones You Love", and Oliver is clearly celebrating the comfort of good food with good friends, and the dishes can take from 15 minutes to days to prepare. This can double up as the cookbook you go to to plan your party or weekend celebrations.

The book is overflowing with recipes and stories that "celebrates nostalgic memories, traditions and childhood favourites". We're given directions for making dishes like the "perfect" bacon sarnie, porridge, toasted cheese sandwich, pot noodle, chips, and how long a pot of tea should brew.

Having done my initial read, it was time to select a few recipes to try - ones that didn't call for a fire pit (shawarma) or two days of brining and marinating (southern fried chicken).

So, baked beans it was. Yes, the humble, normally tinned variety. My first thought after a read-through and tallying up the grocery bill was, "RM30 for baked beans?" (A rough guess at the final total as some ingredients were already in the cupboards.)

This wasn't quick either - about two hours from start to finish. So, not the kind of express cooking you'd do to get a fast lunch on the table. But that's really the point. Taste-wise, it was lighter and less syrupy than the classic Heinz, though it could stand to kick up the heat a bit - Oliver calls for deseeded red chilli and Tabasco; next time I'll leave the seeds in.

Yes, spoiler alert - next time. Because it is good - tasty, flavourful, and rather moreish. I could see this as a side dish if you have friends over and a BBQ going.

Next was Oliver's pineapple upside-down cake. He includes desiccated coconut, coconut milk, and fresh pineapple caramelised in a pan prior to baking in the dessert. The flavour is nice, but not out of this world. I served a slice to a taste-tester and he described it as something akin to Aunt Bee's Nyonya pineapple tarts from Malacca, while cleaning his plate and licking crumbs.

It was on to Oliver's nasi goreng. I followed his recipe instructions to the T, and ended with a very reasonable dish. It's best described as the type of Asian fried rice you'd get at a posh hotel say in London. It's tasty, but very Westernised - again with the deseeded chilli - and not like what you'd eat at a local warung or Malaysian restaurant. My taste-tester thought it was all right, but he didn't finish his dinner.

Finally, Chicken Kiev is something I've often read about but have never made. The recipe yielded a breast that was moist and juicy as you cut into the crispy breaded outer coating with a really delicious flavour. At 878 calories per serving, this isn't something anyone should be eating on a regular basis. But for a festive meal, it certainly ticks all the boxes.

So, going back to the book design and directions - I really had to take back my initial impression with a more considered second opinion.

Having cooked with the book, I noticed the paragraphs in some cases contain two or three steps not always related to what you were working on at the start of the whole thing. It's not a big issue, but it can make you lose your place if you're not paying attention.

The layout is definitely better for reading than referencing while cooking. The other pet peeve that developed as I was using the book was Oliver's deliberately unclear instructions.

But in some instances we have pictures to assist us (with rolling out pie dough), while in others there are no pictures to help at all. What we have instead are three pages of grinning children enjoying the finished dish - it helps with the mood, I guess.

Still, the book has a lot of good stuff. In fact, it's laid out more like a nice book to browse while thinking about the delicious food you could make, before you finally go to the nearest satay shop - meaning, it's definitely beautiful though not entirely friendly for whipping up breezy, comforting foods.

However, if you do throw a lot of parties or are a Jamie completist, this is absolutely something to consider adding to your kitchen library. If you're more an occasional cook, then some of Oliver's early works are a better bet.

Jamie Oliver's Insanity Burger

Competition for the best burger in London has gone mad. Some burgers are gourmet and piled high with toppings, whereas others are thinner, simpler, wrapped in paper, steamy and sloppy.

All I can say is my insanity burger is going to be right up there - the method is almost ritualistic in what it requires you to do to get close to burger perfection. I've also used the brilliant technique of brushing the burgers with mustard and a dash of Tabasco Chipotle sauce as they cook to build up an incredible gnarly layer of seasoning.

Serves 4

35 minutes plus chilling; 694 calories

800g quality minced chuck steak

Olive oil

1 large red onion

1 splash of white wine vinegar

2 large gherkins

4 sesame-topped brioche burger buns

4-8 rashers of higher-welfare smoked streaky bacon

4 teaspoons American mustard

Tabasco Chipotle sauce

4 thin slices Red Leicester cheese

4 teaspoons tomato ketchup

Burger sauce 1/4 of an iceberg lettuce

2 heaped tablespoons free-range mayo

1 heaped tablespoon tomato ketchup

1 teaspoon Tabasco Chipotle sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Optional: 1 teaspoon brandy or bourbon

For the best burger, go to your butcher's and ask them to mince 800g of chuck steak for you. This cut has a really good balance of fat and flavoursome meat. Divide it into 4 and, with wet hands, roll each piece into a ball, then press into flat patties roughly 12cm wide and about 2cm wider than your buns. Place on an oiled plate and chill in the fridge.

Next, finely slice the red onion, then dress in a bowl with the vinegar and a pinch of sea salt. Slice the gherkins and halve the buns. Finely chop the lettuce and mix with the rest of the burger sauce ingredients in a bowl, then season to taste.

I like to only cook 2 burgers at a time to achieve perfection, so get two pans on the go - a large non-stick pan on a high heat for your burgers and another on a medium heat for the bacon.

Pat your burgers with oil and season them with salt and pepper. Put 2 burgers into the first pan, pressing down on them with a fish slice, then put half the bacon into the other pan.

After 1 minute, flip the burgers and brush each cooked side with 1/2 a teaspoon of mustard and a dash of Tabasco.

After another minute, flip onto the mustard side and brush again with another 1/2 teaspoon of mustard and a second dash of Tabasco on the other side.

Cook for one more minute, by which point you can place some crispy bacon on top of each burger with a slice of cheese. Add a tiny splash of water to the pan and place a heatproof bowl over the burgers to melt the cheese - 30 seconds should do it.

At the same time, toast 2 split buns in the bacon fat in the other pan until lightly golden. Repeat with the remaining two burgers.

To build each burger, add a quarter of the burger sauce to the bun base, then top with a cheesy bacon burger, a quarter of the onions and gherkins. Rub the bun top with a teaspoon of ketchup, then gently press together.

As the burger rests, juices will soak into the bun, so serve right away, which is great, or for an extra filthy experience, wrap each one in greaseproof paper, then give it a minute to go gorgeous and sloppy.

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