Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 11, 2022

Author Talk: Alice Zaslavsky and The Joy of Better Cooking

One of my favourite local bookshops, Ulysses Books in Hampton, has begun hosting author talks in the Hampton Life Saving Club. It’s a great venue, with a glorious view over the bay, good kitchen facilities for the nibbles, and with comfortable chairs to sit back, relax and listen to an entertaining speaker.

Masterchef fans may remember Alice Zaslavsky who made it to Top 7 in 2012.  She began her working life as a teacher, but has transitioned to the food industry, though she is still teaching, just in a different way. She’s on a mission to encourage people into confident, intuitive cooking. She wants then to stop worrying about being a great cook, but to become a better cook, and to enjoy it.

Her first cookbook, In Praise of Veg has been an international success, because while it’s not a vegetarian or vegan cookbook, it centres vegetables on the plate. It won an ABIA award.

Her new book is The Joy of Better Cooking, is published by Murdoch Books. The launch nibbles included Melting Moments and Fried Green Falafels, and very nice they were too.

This is the blurb:

If you already enjoy the eating part, you have everything it takes to find joy in cooking too. There’s no pressure to be a great cook, but everyone can aspire to be a better cook, and therein lies the fun.

Let Alice Zaslavsky, bestselling author of In Praise of Veg, lead you on a journey to confident, intuitive cooking. This vibrant kitchen manual contains stacks of veg-forward recipes that you’ll want to cook on a weekly basis, but the real gold lies in the handy kitchen skills and know-how that will help build the foundations for a lifetime of better cooking. Start with Slapdash (really outstanding stuff simply thrown together) then move to On Autopilot (great go-tos for weeknights on the fly) and Making the Most of It (gluts and leftover makeovers). Soon you’ll be ready to Loosen Your Shoulders (weekend pottering and entertaining), just in time for some Seriously Good Sweeties (like, *seriously* good).

Whether you’re already a dab hand, you’re a battler who finds cooking a bit meh, or you’re starting from ‘which way do I hold the knife?’, The Joy of Better Cooking has all the inspiration, hand-holding and cheerleading you need to relax into the rhythm and truly enjoy cooking for your family and friends.

As you can see from that blurb, the format is different to a standard cookbook.  Most of the ones in our collection feature

  • an introduction to the food philosophy usually of the ‘things my nonna taught me’ variety
  • a ToC, listing (usually in this order): Soups & appetisers; Meat & Fish, usually separated into fish & seafood; poultry, lamp, beef and pork; a chapter on pasta; pastry and pies, followed by desserts.
  • An index, sometimes preceded by a glossary and/or where to buy uncommon ingredients.

For cooks who like to follow recipes, that kind of cookbook is useful for finding a recipe quickly.  But Zavlavsky’s book is intended as a manual to teach less confident cooks to try a recipe which can be modified, using what’s in the pantry or crisper. Her ToC goes like this:

  • Welcome Aboard
  • About the bonus bits
  • Slapdash: Bits and bobs tossed together
  • On autopilot: Great go-tos for weeknights on the fly
  • Making the most of it: Gluts, windfalls and leftover makeovers
  • Loosen your shoulders: For weekend pottering and entertaining
  • Seriously good sweeties: like ‘seriously’ good.
  • Some for ‘Ron: meaning some for LateR on.
  • Acknowledgements and an Index.

This last chapter Some for ‘ Ron is because she’s keen to see less food waste — which is a national scandal in this country, where over five million people struggle with food insecurity while

Each year we waste around 7.6 million tonnes of food across the supply and consumption chain – this wastage equals about 312kg per person, equivalent to around one in five bags of groceries or $2,000 to $2,500 per household per year. (Source: Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water).

The Joy of Better Cooking is also about tackling the fear of not living up to the images from fancy food shows.  Many people are afraid of cooking because they missed out on learning from home or at school, and don’t have ‘the flying hours under their belt’ to achieve products which take years of cooking practice to make.

There are 70-ish recipes in the book — plus loads of recipe riffs — along with extra tips and tricks, carefully arranged for newbies to begin at the beginning, and grow in confidence as they go.  All the techniques are transferable from the easy recipes to the more difficult ones, and there is also what Zaslavsky calls ‘insider-intel’ i.e. knowledge and ideas that usually take years to learn.

It comes with a reminder that bloopers and burnt bits are just part of the process of getting better.  It also comes with Zaslavsky’s framework for 21st century cooks:

  • Adaptable:  The book embraces ingredient substitutions and alternatives for hard-to-source ingredients;
  • Veg forward: Many recipes are entirely veg, with plant-based options for those who are vegan.
  • Low impact: There are tips for reducing food waste, and there are recipes to use up any special ingredients or leftovers.
  • Low effort: shortcuts and loopholes to achieve the desired results without hours in the kitchen.
  • High return: For cooks ROI (Return on Investment) means that the diners want second helpings, and they want that recipe again, please.

Better cooks, she says, are always willing to try new things — and classic old things — and look at recipe photos and just make the rest up. I know what she means, I have reached that place with my repertoire of one-batch-a-week muffins where I vary the basic recipe with whatever is to hand.  Some left over stewed apples and a ‘uselessly small’ quantity of dates made a great batch of apple and date muffins.  I always know when they’re a success, a batch of 12 doesn’t last the week like it’s supposed to.

Since I only bought the book last night, I haven’t tried any of Zavlavsky’s recipes from the book, but we have just recently tried one that turned up as a ‘Halloween themed’ idea in her column in the Weekend Oz.  It’s a savoury pumpkin pie with feta, hazelnuts, sage and a burnt butter sauce.  Within a week, we had it again, this time with goat’s cheese instead of feta.  It is scrumptious.

And if the full colour photography in the book is any guide, the recipes in it are too.  The layout of ingredients is clear and so is the method.  Sometimes there are extra tips or explanations, and some techniques are illustrated with photos of the work-in-progress.  I would have liked a larger font because the latest intervention on my troublesome eyes hasn’t made much difference to the size of print I can read, and I bet I’m not the only one who hates cooking with glasses getting steamed up as I go. But that is a minor quibble.

There were fans of the previous book in the audience, and they advised it had been gratefully received as 21st birthday presents.  There were other word-of-mouth recommendations about these books being worthwhile additions to the kitchen, as well as some impressive endorsements from Nigella Lawson, Yotam Ottolenghi and Anna Jones. Clearly The Joy of Cooking would make a great Christmas present for anyone who wants to be a better cook!


As a final thought: I have been troubled by some social media commentary after a particularly naff segment on the ABC, addressing eating well on a budget.  It was obviously well-meaning, but it was also obvious that the dietician had no idea what it meant to be really poor and that her advice about growing your own vegies was more irritating than helpful to people who are facing eviction because they can’t pay the rent.  The segment was followed by a social media pile-on which was more about garnering political pressure on the Treasurer to help via the upcoming budget.

Well, yes, it was disappointing to see that a Labor government had no immediate cost-of-living help for the very poor. That is what we should have and we should keep the pressure on till it happens.  But in the meantime, people living below the poverty line are hungry and they need practical help to get by, especially if they don’t know how to cook.

What is needed is more of the cheap and cheerful ideas on page 70 of Zaslavsky’s book.  What you can see in the photo is a miscellany of orange coloured veg and an onion, before and after it’s roasted in the oven. After that, you blitz it with some stock, or some water with a stock cube, (or—I would say—failing that, just water and maybe a slosh of tomato sauce if you have it.) This simple process can be done with any combination of colour-coordinated veg in your crisper. In my experience kids love bright coloured soups more than green ones, but can be persuaded with a dollop of yoghurt on top and crunchy toast to dunk in it. When I was really hard up, we even had ‘stump soup’, made from the stems of cauliflower and broccoli.

So libraries ought IMO to have a copy of this book and any others like it, and they and community centres have a role to play in running free programs that teach simple and nutritious cooking on a scanty budget.

Author: Alice Zaslavsky
Title: The Joy of Cooking
Publisher: Murdoch Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781922616043, hbk., 319 pages
Source: personal library, purchased on the night from Ulysses Bookstore Hampton, with thanks to Tracey for organising the night and cooking the nibbles with recipes from the book!


Responses

  1. Many years ago, when I was on a local council in the inner suburbs, we ran a program (with Federal funding) to teach low-income women how to cook (women did almost all home cooking in those days). This was to break the generational cycle of girls not learning how to cook from their mothers. These women used to say that they never invited anybody over for lunch or dinner because they couldn’t cook (they could only reheat fast food or processed food). So it had social benefits as well as nutritional ones. From the evaluations, this program worked and was very cost-effective (funding of 1 part-time social worker for over 100 women). BTW, the social worker organised guest cooking teachers, who were paid presenter fees.

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    • It would be wonderful if councils ran something similar today.

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  2. I am sorry your eyes are still troublesome Lisa … I completely understand the glasses issue. So frustrating.

    This book sounds a goer and a good Xmas gift idea. I’m just concerned that, like me, our family rarely uses cookbooks any more but just go straight to the net. I am entering favourite recipes into my app and otherwise I have favourite online recipe sources. I am so attached to my old cookbooks but haven’t bought any new ones for years.

    BTW the venue sounds great! And I love the sound of how this book is framed.

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    • I hear you, and I think that’s why this one is written the way that it is. We were told that the original plan was to have 100 recipes, and lots of text, which made it too long, and she had to choose between recipes and text.
      Knowing that people Google recipes all the time, she chose to reduce the number of recipes and keep the text because she wants people to read the message. It’s actually a recipe book to *read*, not for sentimental nonna stories, but for the principles that cooks need to understand, (I’ve listed them in the framework in the review) and they also need to identify the negative self-talk that makes them hesitant to cook.
      As is so often the case with cookbooks, it’s a question of audience. Experienced, confident cooks may not need a book like this, though I bet a lot of us could do better in the reducing waste side of things. But those hordes buying and reheating packets of processed food from supermarkets do need a book like this.

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      • Yes, sounds like it is a useful book for just that but I wonder whether it can reach such audiences. I don’t know what can really. It’s interesting that both the young males in our family – son, and daughter’s partner – are good cooks. Our son kept asking me to teach him , but was never free to be taught, so he taught himself largely from Jamie Oliver. I’m guessing the two things that inspired him were that we all ate around the table at night, and then his adult interest in quality, organic food. I’m not sure about daughter’s partner but I’ll find at over time.

        BTW, I do like cookbooks you can read. Oh and Daughter Guns and Parent Gums do buy food to reheat sometimes; we are whole gamut households from convenience foods to fine dining (though I do draw the line at McDonalds!)

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        • She did stress the importance of eating together at the table, nothing new in that, it’s proven by research. Remember that little book Does Cooking Matter? by Rebecca Huntley about families who eat together are more stable and less dysfunctional? https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/11/19/does-cooking-matter-by-rebecca-huntley/
          The problem, as you say, is achieving these aims. I don’t think anyone has a simple answer to that, a multi-pronged campaign has a better chance to catching some people, if not all.
          I don’t think there’s anything wrong with occasional use of convenience foods, and some are better than others. The problem arises when those foods are used all the time, so there’s less fresh fruit and veg and more salt and sugar in the everyday diet. There’s also a lot more waste and mountains more packaging.

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          • Yes, exactly.

            And I must say that when we use convenience foods the packaging bothers me more than the nutrition because I know we eat well. Some though are starting to use more paper based packaging, and less of it, eg not a box as well. There was a lovely French braised chicken one with lentils and leeks that I found earlier this year at a Coles in Fitzroy. It was really rather delicious!

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            • I was really quite shocked when a kindly neighbour gave us a free sample of a food box system that they use. (Hello Fresh, I think.)
              Anyway, we thought, why not, though we had no intention ever of signing up, but the packaging was worse than I had imagined. First, a big cardboard box, ok theoretically reusable, in practice going into Yellow recycling council bins, then lots and lots of insulation all destined for the Red Rubbish bins, and then lots and lots of little plastic packs of spices and herbs, a teaspoon of this and a tablespoon of that and stuff that had been pre-cut. Seriously, what kind of person can’t be bothered grating a carrot? And when you think how there are thousands of these boxes being generated and distributed all over the country for people using them all the time, I despair, I really do.

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              • I have a friend who uses these food boxes on and off … I haven’t any tried yet. She did say that some are better than others at reducing packaging or using better packaging. I think for her it’s not so much not grating a carrot but managing portions of food items they hardly use. They are out and about a lot – travelling or just busy here – so the pantry can get stale quickly? Anyhow, really interested to hear your experience as I’ve not heard many. The other thing for me of course is navigating those things with all my food intolerances. So, so far I’ve not tried them though we get those little offers from time to time.

                You’ve convinced me that those little higher quality reheat meals with perhaps some extra fresh vegies thrown in would be a better option for those occasions when you want something easy. Hmm … I wonder if those food boxes might teach people to cook then they decide to branch out on their own? That could be a plus!

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                • I think all kinds of convenience options have their place, my parents used Light and Easy in their very old age, and that was a good option for them. I expect they’re good for some people living alone too.
                  With the food boxes, I suspect that people with arthritis would welcome the shredded carrot. But the point is that that disability market isn’t big enough to be profitable, they need to capture the busy mums market, the underconfident cooks etc, and all the while the piles of waste grows.
                  So I do think, that whatever the convenience of all these options, that fresh, home-cooked is the best, least wasteful, most nutritious and cheapest option for everyday and that is what needs normalising.

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                • Agree…

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