You can almost hear my study groaning at the arrival of yet another pile of books. And yet any of them could contain a recipe that might change my life, or at the very least amuse me for the summer. Having had slightly too much on my plate this year, I have been regretting the lack of time to cook other people's recipes and risking the possibility of missing something utterly delicious.
Right now I am eating a little white pot of crabmeat, its spikes of white flesh and rust-coloured brown meat trapped under a thin layer of butter, and slathering it on to warm spelt bread. The recipe is not mine, but from Rose Prince's The New English Table. And last night, three of us passed around a dish of broad beans and artichokes from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, another book that has barely left my kitchen in the past few weeks.
To someone whose every meal has to be jotted down in oil-smudged scribbles, it is something of a relief to get the chance to occasionally cook from other cooks' books. For once I don't have to worry if it will be all right, or remember whether I put two eggs in or three, and I don't have to consider if it needed cooking for longer at a lower temperature or whether the method is ambiguous. Cooking other people's recipes is nothing short of going on holiday for me.
The New English Table is a book whose recipes are a gentle reminder of all that is good about local, sustainable food. There is much barley and rabbit, elderflowers and pigeon, and the recipes are a sound balance of cheap, everyday family eating and some special-occasion cooking, such as grouse with honey. Look deeper and there is more: a vegetable stock made with pea pods; a cheap cockle and potato hotpot; potted rabbit and a frugal salad of leftover chicken and mustard, and another of leftover lamb and rice. And although the ingredients are predominantly traditional British fare, they are used in startling and delicious new ways.
Ottolenghi has been part of my life for some years now. I find it difficult to pass its doors without at least a peep at its Mediterranean delights. There is no more vibrant food store in London. Leaving there without a box of passion fruit tartlets or a slice or two of plum cake with my 'good boy' broccoli salad requires more willpower than I currently possess. The fact that the proprietors Yotam Ottolenghi and his friend Sami Tamimi have been generous to put their recipes in a book is something I had long dreamed of.
There have been other favourites, too. Since last autumn I have been cooking the mushrooms à la plancha and the fried courgettes with whole, skinned almonds from Sam and Sam Clark's delightful allotment cookbook Moro East (£25, Ebury Press). Several times I have produced the sublime fish stew with saffroned onions from Joanna Weinberg's inspirational book Relish (£20, Bloomsbury). Though what I really want is the time to make Fuchsia Dunlop's steamed chicken's feet to 'serve with nice tea and steamed buns'. I may not have time to do it often, but there is something very relaxing about leaving the supper to someone else. Even if it is the cookery writers' answer to the busman's holiday.
Baked artichokes and broad beans
One of the many vegetable recipes in Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Serves 2-4.
4 lemons, plus a few thin lemon slices to finish
2 large globe artichokes
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of thyme
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tbsp pink peppercorns, plus extra to garnish
125ml white wine
60ml olive oil
250g shelled broad beans
250g shelled peas
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Juice the lemons and discard all but 2 of the empty lemon halves.
To clean the artichokes, cut off most of the stalk and start removing the tough outer leaves by hand. Once you reach the softer leaves, take a sharp serrated knife and trim 1-2cm from the top of the artichoke. Cut the artichoke in half lengthways so you can reach the heart and scrape it clean. Use a small, sharp knife to remove all the 'hairs', then rub the heart with a little lemon juice to prevent it discolouring. Cut each artichoke half into slices 5mm thick. Place in cold water and stir in half the remaining lemon juice.
Drain the artichoke slices and spread out on a baking tray. Add the remaining lemon juice, the 2 reserved lemon halves and all the rest of the ingredients except the broad beans, peas and parsley. Cover with foil and bake for 45-60 minutes or until the artichokes are tender. Remove from the oven, take off the foil and let the artichokes cool down.
Fill a large saucepan with plenty of cold water and bring to the boil. Add the broad beans and peas and blanch for 2 minutes, then drain in a colander and run under cold water to refresh. Leave in the colander to dry. If the broad beans are large and have tough skins, you may want to remove them. Simply press each one gently with your fingertips until the bean pops out.
Remove the lemon halves from the artichokes. Mix the artichokes with the beans, peas and parsley, and stir in the lemon slices. Taste for salt and pepper, plate, sprinkle with peppercorns and serve.
Rose Prince's potted crab
The mace warms the flavour a little, the cayenne pepper a touch more. From The New English Table by Rose Prince. Serves 4.
2 whole, medium-sized crabs or
350g mixed brown and white crabmeat
½ tsp ground mace
1-2 pinches cayenne pepper, to taste
juice of ½ a lemon
a few gratings of lemon zest
175g salted butter
a few chervil leaves or small parsley leaves, to garnish
a red chilli, seeded and thinly sliced (optional)
rye sourdough bread for toast
First pick the crabs: crack the claws, remove the white meat, then open up the whole carapace by snapping the little tab beneath the eyes and pulling it apart with your hands. Remove the dead men's fingers - the grey-green gills attached to the inner shell. Use a spoon to remove the brown meat and any red coral found on the inside of the main carapace. Crack apart the skeleton that holds the smaller legs and pull off the legs. Pick as much white meat as you can from inside the skeleton and crack open the legs and pull out any meat you can get your hands on.
Put the brown and white meat in a bowl, add the spices, lemon juice and zest and stir to combine. Season the mixture with a little freshly ground black pepper, then pack it into a shallow pot. The meat should be about 2.5cm deep. Melt the butter slowly in a pan, then tip it very slowly over the crab, taking care that the watery white sediment at the bottom is left behind. Scatter over the herb leaves. Press them down with your fingers to submerge them in the butter, then add the chilli if you are using it. Leave to set in the fridge - it will only take a few minutes.
Serve the potted crab, spooned from the bowl, with hot toast and a mustard and cress salad.
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· To order a copy of Rose Prince's The New English Table (£25, Fourth Estate) or Ottolenghi: The Cookbook (£25, Ebury Press) for £23 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885