Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2022

River Cottage Good Comfort, best loved favourites, made better for you, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Last time we had friends over for dinner, I made a dessert of home-made avocado ice-cream, with brownies. I should have taken a photo because it was scrumptious, despite the recipe‘s claim that the brownies had only 91 kcal per serve because they were made with yoghurt instead of butter. I don’t care about calories, but I do try to offer desserts that are healthy-ish.  OTOH if I’m only going to make brownies once or twice a year, I want them to taste decadent.

So I am pleased to add River Cottage Good Comfort, to our recipe book collection.  (That’s the British River Cottage TV series with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (HFW), not the Australian adaptation with Paul West.)

With recipe books, which are usually expensive, it’s important to identify the target audience before you choose.  The obvious decider is whether the book is for experienced or inexperienced cooks; but also keen v unenthusiastic cooks who can’t cope with more than four or five ingredients; and cooks who take shortcuts with packets, jars and tins v those who would starve rather than buy carrot or cheese that’s already grated or use a packet to make a ‘home-made’ cake.  There are also cookbooks pitched at those for whom nutrition or ideological principles take priority i.e. vegan, vegetarian, organic, non-allergenic, heart-healthy etc etc. With River Cottage Good Comfort there’s another audience I’d never thought much about before: it’s pitched at people with a habit of eating unhealthy so-called ‘family favourites’, who need or want to take a healthier approach to food and cooking, with or without the support of the rest of the household.

You can see this pitch in parts of the blurb:

The perception that the food we love can’t also be good for us is swept away by this stunning collection of delicious, heart-warming recipes that also happen to be packed with good things that help keep us healthy.

And Good Comfort is in every way generous, as Hugh makes our favourite foods healthier, not by taking stuff out of them, but by putting more in: the best whole ingredients, celebrated in all their colourful and seasonal diversity.

The book begins with an Introduction.  It’s the usual cook’s philosophy section, which in this case is HFW’s mission to recreate comfort foods that are not heavy, cloying, too rich or too sweet.  His key principle is ‘Go Whole: The more whole, unrefined ingredients we can get on to our plates, the better.  But he doesn’t just mean the grains and pulses we typically associate with the term ‘wholefoods’.  He means foods that are whole, or very close to it, when we take them into our kitchens.  (I heard these described the other day as ‘foods your granny would recognise’.) Minimally processed is ok, so he includes dairy foods such as yoghurt and cheese, and some tinned vegetables (such as low-salt tomatoes canned with just water and a little salt.) He stresses that it’s important to get the balance right: overdo the pulses and you’re in the danger zone of ‘padding’. Likewise, full-on wholemeal flour can take you a little far from textures you know and love, so ‘half-wholemeal’ is a better choice.

I’m already onboard with reducing sugar: I find most modern recipes and storebought cakes have far too much sugar for my taste.  My cakes, biscuits and puddings mostly come from battered recipe books from decades ago.  HFW’s other mission is to encourage cooks to use a variety of good ingredients, which is my culinary mission too.

#Digression: Just out of idle curiosity, I just counted how many different vegetables we have on hand today.  Fourteen: potatoes, sweet potato, pumpkin, onions, lettuce, fennel, snow peas, beans, tomatoes, spinach, cucumber and spring onions, leeks and kale in the garden. Carrots are on the shopping list. (We’re only just starting to plant again after the fallow season, the celery went in two days ago).

So, on with the recipes!

There are ten chapters:

  • Breakfast and Brunch:
    • I like his Bruschetta ideas: beetroot and fennel; beany mash; mushrooms and greens; or sardines on tomato toast.
  • Soups:  I wish I’d had this book at the start of winter because I love homemade soup for lunch in cold weather.  (We had cream of asparagus yesterday which was scrumptious.)
    • Cream of roasted tomato soup looks divine, the roasting is obviously key to its deliciousness (and though HFW doesn’t mention air fryers, we now have one and can use it for jobs like this);
    • Cream of roasted mushroom soup, thickened with cashew nuts, again roasted and then zapped in the blender.
    • English Onion Soup! The method is the same as French Onion Soup, long slow cooking to caramelise the onions, but made not with beef stock but with red wine, strong black coffee, soy sauce and vegetable stock.
    • Smoky fish chowder looks very enticing, with potatoes, sweetcorn or peas, spinach, kale or spring greens, and of course you can make it with other seafood e.g. mussels if you like.
  • Pasta and Rice: this chapter is a bit ordinary for an experienced cook because the sauces look pretty much like the ones we make anyway. But that is, of course, what this cookbook is about, and it’s not pretending to be anything else.  It’s basically all the old familiars, supplemented with extra vegetables and/or pulses. What’s different (for us, that is) is the wholemeal pasta and brown rice. Or, hmm… homemade nettle pasta. I do make my own pasta sometimes, but adding nettles (or spinach) makes an easy task into a performance IMO.
  • Stews, Hotpots and curries: This chapter OTOH is about shifting the balance of protein and veg, and adding to the diversity in vegetarian favourites.
    • Chunky chilli con carne reduces the protein to 100g per serve of beef plus 25g pork belly per person, topped up with sweet potato, kidney beans and other veg;
    • Cauli curry with spuds and cashews, looks very appealing indeed.
    • Vegged-up dhal has extras like carrot, celery and tomatoes.
    • Fish stew looks a lot like a bouillabaisse, but our usual French recipe doesn’t have chick peas in it. (Or preserved lemon which I associate with Middle Eastern food, especially Moroccan.) The point about this chapter is that once you’ve mastered the idea, you can adapt your own recipes.

My version of Beef and Pepperberry Pie, serves a generous four

  • Pies and Tarts: My favourite pie of all time is Beef and Pepperberry Pie, which derives from Matthew Hopcraft’s season on Masterchef and Food to Feed the Family, the cookbook that he subsequently published see my review (here). You can see from my (not professionally styled) photo that it has a lovely golden pastry crust, but from the photos in HFW’s recipe book, it looks as if that can also be achieved with a half white/half fine wholemeal mix of flour. This variation to the usual pastry recipe is the focus of this chapter.
    • Prune, chestnut and apple sausage rolls (similar in taste to the chestnut and apple pie I make for vegetarian friends?);
    • Onion tart with greens is basically a spinach quiche, but with reduced dairy for the custard);
    • Chicken and leek pie is made with a rough puff pastry with step-by-step photos to show you how to make it.  (I have never even tried making puff pastry, but now I’m going to.)
    • Crispy Kale-topped pizza looks bright and colourful and enticing (and if you’re not in the mood to make his wholemeal pizza dough you can always use a wholemeal wrap a.k.a. flatbread for the base instead.)
  • Pan and Griddle: This is the chapter for people who like hamburgers, steaks, chops and sausages.  There’s a recipe for Cauliflower pakora with radish raita that I like the look of, but it involves shallow frying in oil which defeats the purpose IMO.
    • Mussels with leeks and fennel OTOH is cooked in cider and I like the sound of that!
  • Bakes and Roasts: like the previous chapter this one is pitched squarely at the cook who’s trying to dial down the unhealthy qualities of ‘family favourites’.  Most of them are things that are never on our menu anyway (macaroni cheese, toad-in-the-hole, moussaka, pork ribs) but there are some which appeal as substitutes for our favourites.
    • Kale and mushroom lasagne: this is nearly the same as my Mushroom Lasagne with Roasted Peppers from The 90s Vegetarian but I would make it with ricotta instead of Béchamel sauce so it’s less fatty.  (But if you were trying to train a recalcitrant to eat an adaptation of a family favourite, you’d use the Béchamel, of course.)
    • Creamy potato gratin. I confess I am a glutton for a real French potato gratin, made to the recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But HFW’s version, made with stock and cream instead of milk and cream, and no butter and no cheese, does look delicious too.
  • Leftovers: I skipped this chapter. Leftovers are not a problem in our house!
  • Puddings: these feature the half-plain and half-wholemeal pastry from the pies and tarts chapter, so apple pie, and a pear and almond tart, but there are also fibre-rich fruit crumbles, a lighter, less sweet custard, and a choc mousse which looks pretty decadent to me. I’m also keen to try the Basque-style cheesecake made with creme-fraiche and labneh and the Pannacotta made with yoghurt as well as cream.
  • Teatime Treats.
    • Wholemeal chocolate cake or Sesame banana bread with a tahini topping?  Maybe. Definitely the Carrot Cake with a labneh topping that halves the sugar content. Oaty dunking cookies are Anzac biscuits made with wholemeal flour and no golden syrup.  I’m going to try the Fruit scones sweetened with minimal sugar, dried fruit and a grated apple.

I’ve already tried one of his ideas, albeit in a slightly oblique way.  For this week’s batch of muffins, (using up the whey after I made some yoghurt), I replaced 1/5 of the flour with chickpea flour (which we had left over from some recipe that involved me grinding it myself from chickpeas.) I also reduced the sugar by 10%. They tasted just fine but the muffins didn’t rise quite as much as usual so maybe chickpea flour needs a bit more baking powder.

The layout of Ingredients and Method is clear, the font is big enough, and the instructions are easy to follow.

There’s also an appendix of ingredients, and a comprehensive Index. Every recipe is photographed in full colour. What’s missing — and this is a serious omission considering the purpose of this cookbook — is the nutrition panel for each recipe, listing fats, sugars, fibre and proteins, plus the kcals for each serve.  I also like my recipe books to indicate how long for prep and cooking time, whether or not some or all of it can be done ahead of time, plus storage times, including whether the food can be frozen or not.

I shall update this post with photos of the recipes as I try them.

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Notes on our trials:

22/9/22 Pasta ‘Pestomega’, green beans and spuds. The pesto is made with walnuts and seeds (we used pumpkin).

24/9/22 Sardine bruschetta: we added more garlic and it needs a squeeze of lemon in the sardines.

24/9/22 Chicken and leek pie: the flavour and texture are great, but the liquid proportions are wrong.  100ml wine plus 300ml of chicken stock makes the filling too runny.  The instructions say to reduce and thicken the wine, but adding 300ml of stick after that and simmering it for 5 minutes isn’t long enough for it to thicken properly.  Either the recipe needs more flour, or less liquid or much longer to simmer.  We used Dijon mustard instead of English because we prefer it.

Photo credit: Brownies: https://thebigmansworld.com/greek-yogurt-chocolate-brownies/

Author: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Photographer and illustrator: Simon Wheeler and Lucinda Rogers, respectively
Title: River Cottage Good Comfort, best-loved favourites made better for you
Cover design by Peter MoffatPublisher: Bloomsbury, 2022
ISBN: 9781526638953, hbk. 350 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury AU.


Responses

  1. Great post Lisa. It reminded me of when my kids were little and I would “health up” dishes like Shepherd’s Pie with things like grated carrot and zucchini (or chopped If you didn’t need to hide then!) I like his point though about texture and padding.

    The sugar thing is interesting isn’t it – and how much more sugar there is in old recipes.

    Are leftovers ever a problem? I try to ensure there are some and if there are I use them!

    Oh and I agree. I also like advice about things like preparation time, do-ahead, and storage of leftovers. I’m less bothered by nutritional panels for food I make, because I figure I have a good enough handle on that, but I always look at them for food I buy.

    What do you use your air fryer for? What I mean is, what things do you find it most useful for?

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    • We are still experimenting with the air fryer. The first week, we tried the things in the instruction book and I swear I’ve put on a hundred kilos. I’m sure an air fryer is healthier if you usually deep fry, but we don’t. Not ever, and the only time I have chips is very occasionally when I eat out.
      But I spent some birthday money on an Air Fryer cookbook and it’s got some intriguing things to experiment with. Baked savoury ricotta, for example. I’ll do a review of that one too, when we’ve got more of a handle on what it can do.

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      • No we never deep fry either though I love a good chip when I’m out! I’ll look out for your review of this when you are more experienced!

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        • I forgot to say, the impact on the electricity bill appears noticeable. The state government was giving away a usage monitor thingy, which is a bit wasted on us with all our solar, but it does show you the troughs and peaks — and the peaks that go with heating up an oven have gone because we’re using the air fryer instead.

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  2. Terrific review! I never quite know how to effectively review a cookbook.

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    • Well, we all do things differently, but what I do is work how who it’s pitched at, and judge it by whether it meets its target audience; pick out recipes that look appealing and do-able; set out the chapter headings because I’ve got some recipe books that make it hard to find a favourite recipe, especially if they don’t have an index.
      What I haven’t done here, and will do so now that I’ve remembered, is comment on the layout, readability and whether the instructions are easy to follow.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really like the judging if it meets its target audience. I hadn’t thought about that but it’s important. I’ve gotten cookbooks in the past and realised after that I’m definitely not the target audience.

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        • Yes. That’s happened to me too.
          Another thing can be, whether the book is Australian or not, and sometimes whether the measurements are metric or imperial.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I have his bread making book and its fabulous – unlike many cookery book writers he explains every step clearly (no missing out vital steps).

    Coffee in onion soup sounds an unusual combination.

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    • Yes, coffee does sound odd. But when we were courting The Spouse once cooked roast lamb with a coffee glaze, and it was ok. (I don’t eat lamb now, except very rarely to be polite).

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      • Just another example of a combo that sounds ugh but actually works – chocolate in chilli or black pepper and strawberries for example.

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        • The Offspring makes choc chilli icecream….

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          • Interesting mix – I’ve had wasabi icecream which was served as an accompaniment to seared tuna. Bizarrely it worked really well

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            • That does sound interesting!

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  4. Sounds good Lisa – I’d like a vegan version!! Having said that some of the vegan recipes in the Roasting Tin cookbook have become firm favourites so I recommend those if you haven’t explored them!

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    • I don’t think there’s enough vegan friendly recipes to make the purchase price worthwhile. And the other thing is that lack of a nutrition panel. I was Vegetarian for a long time so I didn’t have to think much about what was healthy or not (except for an excess of French cheeses sometimes) but vegans, as I understand it, have to balance meals carefully to ensure there’s enough protein and iron in the diet. With the few vegie dishes there are in this book, you can’t tell. What’s your favourite cook book?

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      • Hard to pick just one, Lisa. Have several ones from the 1980s from supermarkets, but I tend to return mostly to a scrapbook I made of recipes from magazines etc! 🤣

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  5. Wait… coffee in an onion soup? Hm… sounds… different!

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    • I know. It sounds a bit weird. But I am going to try it soon and will let you know.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The Pasta Pestomarga is made with parsley instead of basil, so you can cook it all year round. Also the nuts are lightly dry-fried then blended with the parsley, garlic, EV olive oil and lemon juice.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The Sardine Bruschetta (the author calls it ‘Sardines on Tomato Toast’) is made (including my changes) by gently mashing a tin of sardines in EV olive oil (using only half the oil) with a small chopped spring onion and a squeeze of lemon. Spread this on browned sourdough toast, and top with finely chopped ripe medium to large tomato in which a small clove of garlic has been crushed and the rest of the EV oil from the tin has been added. Garnish with black pepper and chopped parsley if desired.

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