by Donna Hay
Photographs by Petrina Tinslay
Published by Whitecap Books
192 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Read a review of the instant cook by Donna Hay
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
It doesn't take a foodie genius to realize that, not only is the very best food most often also the most simple, at the moment, it's also tremendously in vogue. After all, some very reputable people keep telling us this is so. With a wave, a flourish and a bunch of shouting, Emeril makes wonderful meals appear almost as though by magic. A dollop of potato there, a properly cooked steak there, a sprig of rosemary here and -- voilá! -- an elegant dinner is served and he hasn't even broken a sweat.
New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has practically built a career on informing people that great food doesn't need to cause you to elevate your blood pressure. He underlines simple ingredients and simple methods for food that will impress and tantalize.
Newest on this list of internationally recognized enthusiasts of the simple approach is Donna Hay. Hay's third book, New Food Fast, was included as one of January Magazine's Best Books of 1999. While it was odd to include a cookbook, Hay's book was so innovative and well-executed it was impossible not to give it a mention.
What the Australia-based food stylist and author has done is practically reinvent the cookbook format. Looking closely at any one of her books is like looking at a creature that's never been seen. Hay has, in effect, thrown out the rules of cookbook creation and started from scratch. It's a tasty trick.
All four of Hay's books have focused on a single aspect of kitchen creation. The aspect is artfully expanded into a book with a fairly broad appeal. Simple. The names are simple, too: The New Cook aimed itself at stylish edibles that the beginning cook could create with a minimum of fuss. The follow-up Entertaining was almost a natural extension of the first book: more sophisticated recipes for the more sophisticated chef. Book three, New Food Fast, focused on fast and simple recipes with the busy home chef in mind.
The fourth book by the author/photographer collaboration of Hay and Petrina Tinslay is Flavours. To me, this is the most impressive execution yet.
First of all, Flavours is beautiful to look at. If you weren't much into cooking, but just liked looking at pictures of mouthwatering food, Flavours would do it for you. Wonderfully styled, photographed and designed, Flavours is one of the prettiest cookbooks I've seen. The photography is absolutely modern without throwing the food entirely out of focus. (I loathe it when food photographers do that. A completely out-of-focus bowl of clam chowder doesn't look appetizing at all. It looks like a big pile of glop.) The food styling itself is, of course, simple. Lots of white backgrounds and even white plates and bowls. In Donna Hay's books, the food never competes with plates or background for attention. The food is perfectly styled. Perfectly. Chocolate glaze oozes cooperatively off of Simple Chocolate Pound Cake; basil leaves spring crisply from a bowl of Basil Feta and the light glows appetizingly through Onion Marmalade that's piled pleasingly on an open-faced sandwich.
What makes Flavours stand so far out, however, is Hay's ultra-straightforward approach to the food she shows us how to prepare. No step-by-step photos here: the instructions and format are too simple to accommodate even that. The book is broken into nine flavors and the glossary makes 10 chapters. Each chapter begins with a two-page spread called "Basics" followed by one called "Good Ideas." "Basics" includes the forms that particular flavor comes in and what to look for at market. "Good Ideas" covers several basic things you can do with the flavors covered in this chapter, plus several of Tinslay's photographs illustrating the tips Hay is covering. So, for instance, in the chapter on "Garlic + Onions" the "Basics" section covers how to roast garlic, prepare an easy garlic mayonnaise, bake onions in their skins, use leeks as a baking rack and so on. Simple. Easy. And all before you get anywhere near the actual recipes.
Those recipes are easy and simple as well. Hay cuts through the cookbook-speak to boil her instructions down to the fewest number of words necessary. The result is recipes that don't look intimidating because they aren't. Recipes, in fact, that anyone can follow with good results. Flavours is a delight: cover to cover. | November 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.