There are moments when I think, "God, don't we have enough damned cookery books?" I look up at my shelves bent under the weight of them: so many volumes, so many recipes, so many ideas. How many do I turn back to? How many do I use? How many do I love? Can there be anything to say that hasn't been said before?
And then I pick out one at random, flick the pages, pause, my eye caught by a photo, recipe or chapter head, a gravy stain from a previous time when I'd taken it down. Soon, I am drawn into the dream world that cookbooks and food books weave about us.
It has taken me a long time to realise that you don't have to cook to enjoy cookery books. It may even be better if you don't. Too often, the gap between the dream of the recipe, or the perfection of the picture, and the domestic version is too great for peace of mind. It is quite possible to derive immense sensuous pleasure from the simple business of looking and reading, to cook the recipe in your imagination, the result unblemished by personal shortcomings and untidy reality.
However, any food or cookery book should enlarge your pleasure in eating and, at their best, will inspire you to cook, so here is a short selection of newish releases that, hopefully, might encourage both.
Good Things In England, by Florence White
(£10, Persephone Books)
"By 1928 I found I had struck a rich line of research... I founded the English Folk Cookery Association that year; but very few subscribing members were secured, English cookery was so much under a cloud that people might have paid a subscription to keep out of it." Plus ça change - but clearly Florence White was not a woman to be discouraged by such a minor setback, and this book is the result of her researches and of her spirit. First published in 1932, it is a marvellous compendium of recipes, as important a repository of our culture as Cecil Sharp's collection of English folk tunes. Minnow tansies, saucer pies, roasted cygnets, fag pie and Mrs Comber's sauce... they are all here, with sources properly acknowledged and recipes that are models of brevity and point. A true marvel.
River Cafe Cook Book Green, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers
(£30, Ebury Press)
At the other end of the universe from Florence White's treasure trove, but curiously similar in the tone of the prose, signore Gray and Rogers deal with food matters with admirable crispness. The recipes are sharp and clear, working in direct contrast to the superlatively seductive photographs of Martin Gray. The anticipatory greed created by the images gives you the courage to attempt the recipes. The degree to which they work, however, will depend on the quality of the ingredients to which you have access. That is axiomatic of all cooking, and of Italian cooking in particular. At the River Cafe, they bring in the best and freshest stuff straight from source. Sadly, the equivalent ingredients at your friendly supermarket down the road won't deliver the same oomph. Minimum guff, maximum price. Still, you can feast in your mind and start saving to go to Italy itself (or the River Café).
Scots Cooking, by Sue Lawrence
You suspect there is only one book in Scots cooking, and this is it - from Aberdeen rowies to white puddings, by way of ham and haddie, potted hough and raggy biscuits. There may not be much strength in depth to Scots cooking, but what there is is magnificent, rich, potent and profoundly comforting. The recipes are splendidly clear, the provenance and cause for each put forward with brisk clarity, along with many references to various aunts, uncles and other members of the Lawrence family, all of whom seem to have splendid, heart-warming greed in common.
Soup Simply Sensational, by Matthew Drennan
Simply silly title for a surprisingly good book. Some old recipes - avgolemono, gazpacho, ribollita; some new - roasted aubergine and courgette with tzatziki, summer herb with char-grilled radicchio, chicken and crab noodle with coriander omelette. None seems unduly complicated, and Drennan has an interesting take on turning traditional main courses into soups - viz Irish country soup, braised cabbage soup with beef and horseradish cream, soup of Toulouse sausage with borlotti beans and breadcrumbs, and roast vegetable medley with sun-dried tomato bread - but his tome is a little on the expensive side.
A Kitchen In Burgundy, by Anne Willan
A la Recherche du Temps Culinaires: this book is a personal memoir of the Chteau du Fay, which became the home of Anne Willan's family, and of rural Burgundy, where it is situated. While the prose is of the head-girl, no-nonsense variety, Langdon Clay's pictures reek of nostalgia for the kind of France and French food we would like to think we remember. The recipes seem amiable enough, but the pictures and the mood are the thing. One for dreams rather than the beastly realities of everyday life.
A Wolf In The Kitchen, by Lindsey Bareham
A late arrival, garlanded with pukkas from the generous Jamie Oliver. A compendium of Bareham's recipes from the Evening Standard. Sensible, accessible, eminently munchable. Not so much madcap inspiration, more (and more valuable for it) a warm and reliable friend in the kitchen. How she manages to keep up the enthusiasm, productivity and, er, standards beats me, but she does, and thousands of daily domestic kitchens are the happier for her.
American red bean soup with guacamole salsa
From Soup Simply Sensational, pictured left. Serves six.
For the soup
30ml olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp tomato puree
tsp dried oregano
400g can chopped tomatoes
2 x 400g cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and ground black pepper
Tabasco to serve
For the salsa
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 green chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
Juice of 1 lime
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan, and add the onions and garlic. Cook for four to five minutes, until softened. Add the cumin, cayenne and paprika, and cook for a minute, stirring continuously. Stir in the tomato purée, cook for a few seconds, then stir in the oregano. Add the chopped tomatoes, kidney beans and water.
Bring to the boil then simmer for 15-20 minutes. Cool the soup slightly, then purée it in a food processor or blender until smooth. Return to the rinsed-out saucepan and add seasoning to taste.
To make the salsa, halve, stone and peel the avocados, then dice them finely. Place in a bowl and mix in the red onion, chilli, coriander and lime juice.
Reheat the soup and ladle into bowls. Spoon a little salsa into the middle of each and serve, offering Tabasco to those who want to spice it up.
Tuna carpaccio with chili
From River Cafe Cook Book Green. Serves six.
4 fresh red chillies, washed
1.5kg tuna loin, trimmed of skin and sinew
Maldon salt and fresh ground black pepper
Juice of 3 lemons
200g wild rocket leaves, washed
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 lemons, cut into wedges
Preheat a griddle pan to very hot. Cover a board with a mixture of sea salt and ground black pepper. Roll the tuna loin in this to crust the surfaces with a thick layer. Place the loin on the hot grill and seal briefly on all sides. The salt and pepper should cook into the surface, making a coat. The flesh should remain raw. Leave to cool completely.
Cut the chillies in half lengthways. Scoop out the seeds and then slice across as finely as possible.
Using a large, sharp, thick-bladed knife, kept damp with a wet cloth, cut very thin slices from the tuna loin. Wet the knife each time you make a slice.
Arrange enough slices of tuna to completely cover each plate in one layer. Sprinkle over the chilli, squeeze on plenty of lemon juice and season generously with salt and pepper. Place a few rocket leaves on to each plate of carpaccio. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve with a wedge of lemon.
From Good Things In England - an 18th-century recipe from Worcester. Detailed measurements don't seem to have been Ms White's strong point - I'd go for a pigeon per person.
Water, 1 pint
Sweet herbs in a bundle
Beer, 1 glass
Flour and butter
Pluck and draw the birds. Boil the livers, chop them finely and make a stuffing with them, some yolks of hard-boiled eggs, nutmeg, pepper, salt, breadcrumbs, finely chopped suet, powdered sweet herbs, lemon peel all mixed together.
Stuff the birds and put them into a jug with a pint of water, the onion, a bundle of sweet herbs, and beer. Put the jug into a pot over the fire and stop your jug closed.
Let them stew until tender (depends on age - at least two hours) and strain off the gravy. Put 1oz butter into a saucepan, melt it, add 1oz flour, brown both together. Dilute with a pint of the broth, boil up and pour over the pigeons. Serve up garnished with pickles.
From Scots Cooking. Serves six.
125g jumbo oats
75g light muscovado sugar
250g mascarpone cheese
3-4 tbsp malt whisky, plus extra to serve
300ml double cream, lightly whipped
Runny heather honey (optional)
Put the oats and sugar on a large sheet of foil and place under a hot grill for three to four minutes, stirring every 30 seconds or so - they burn quickly, so watch carefully.
Remove and leave to cool. Put the mascarpone in a bowl, add the whisky and beat until smooth. Fold this into the whipped cream, along with the cooled oat mixture.
Once thoroughly combined, gently fold in the raspberries, taking care not to break them up. Tip into a glass bowl, cover and serve at once, or chill for no more than an hour. Offer an optional drizzle of whisky and heather honey, if you like.