What's the most important part of a cook book? The pictures? The recipes? The author's puff piece on the back cover?
No. In fact, some of my most useful cook books have no pictures at all. I already know what food looks like. The most important part of any book about food is its index.
The indexes (-ices to be pedantic) of my cook books are my personal search engines. I could type 'cabbage' into google and get 60 billion results but I don't want 60 billion results about 'cabbage'. Fifteen or so would be enough. 60 billion dinner ideas is far too confusing. How could you make decision? There's far too much information these days, and most of it is useless.
I had rather a lot of cabbage for some reason. It has always been a favourite vegetable. I grew up with the stuff. My mother used to boil it up in a huge pot and it became a side dish to whatever was on the table, especially winter stews and the like. We would add sections of it to soups in the way that people add toasted bread, peasant-style.
But I didn't want boiled cabbage. The reality is never as good as the memory. So I looked up cabbage in two or three of the books I thought likely to have some interesting variations. I struck gold straight away, in Steven Raichlen's The Barbecue Bible (Workman, 1998), a book that resulted from the author's three-year, 25-country pilgrimage around grills of the world.
Lalapan or Javanese Long Bean Salad Plate with Cabbage Wedges.
Essentially a herb and vegetable platter, this is served with Indonesian fish that is brine-marinated (lime and salt), double-basted (garlic, shallots, turmeric, butter) and quickly grilled on banana leaves. It's the kind of thing the Asians do so well, contrasting textures and tastes to create surprisingly refreshing and appetising meals. We should eat like this all the time.
The recipe preface indicated that the genuine article requires daun mangi and daun rispong but since these are not sold at the author's corner store, he recommends epazote, a Mexican herb with a ‘clean, woodsy, pleasantly bitter’ flavour. He also allows Italian flat-leaf parsley in place of epazote. I led the recipe further astray by adding to the parsley two kinds of basil, Thai and Greek. By the time we get around to eating, this recipe could be something completely different.
Cook half a kilogram of long beans (from an Asian grocer; try High Street Preston) or green beans three minutes in salted boiling water. Drain, refresh, drain. Cut half a medium cabbage (I used a red cabbage) into half-inch wedges, a cucumber in quarter-inch slices and two tomatoes into wedges. Arrange on platter with lemon-balm basil and parsley.
I took it into a totally different direction, adding quartered boiled potatoes and processing the herbs with garlic and lemon juice for a kind of Asian gremolata. I poured this over the vegetables and showered the lot with chopped spring onions and served it with a hot peanut sauce. We're heading towards gado gado territory.