When I was a young reporter, a writing coach once said to me that I should aim to have one little prize in every story – one turn of phrase I was especially proud of, one unexpected and spot-on adjective, one curious last twist to bring the story to a surprising close.

Until picking up “New Kitchen Basics” by British food writer Claire Thomson, I’d never thought of applying this strategy to a recipe. But in paging through this fetching new book, and cooking from it, I was struck by how many of her recipes offered, in food terms, a similar treat.

Cover courtesy of Hardie Grant

Take the Tomato, Date & Chickpea Tagine. Thomson not only adds chopped dried fruit (pretty standard), but she takes some of the dried dates and blitzes them into a tomato base. Or the Dark Chocolate, Pistachio & Dried Cherry Torte, which cleverly uses half of the blended ingredients to make the crust, then adds sour cream, leavener and egg to the remaining half to make the filling. Or a Lamb Ragu, which unusually adds ‘nduja to the minced lamb to enliven the flavors. Such touches add intrigue and fun to “New Kitchen Basics.”

Thomson intends these recipes for use for ordinary weeknight dinners. In the introduction, she describes the recipes as “anchored by the practical. … ‘New Kitchen Basics’ is a straightforward recipe directory for the contentedly greedy and the curious. It is for anyone at a loss as to what to make for dinner.” But because the dishes they produce are stylish and reliable (also often reasonably quick), they’d work for company, too. This very night, in fact, I have company coming to share the Gorgonzola with Polenta, Walnuts & Radicchio in which a big, rich baked base of cheesy, buttery polenta is topped with more cheese, toasted nuts and quick-sauteed balsamic radicchio. (Update: the results were festive and delicious.)

The cookbook is divided into 10 chapters, based on the ingredients Thomson selects as her new basics, namely chicken, tomatoes, eggs, salad and vegetables, cheese, potatoes, minced or ground meat, pasta, lemon and chocolate. I was inspired to play a quick “name my own kitchen basics” game. My version drops the ground meat, chocolate and perhaps tomatoes and recruits tofu, beans and seafood. And though it’s old news, I still am not quite over astonishment at what “new basics” means in England, a country whose cuisine was for decades the butt of jokes. Among the ingredients Thomson confidently assumes her readers will have in their pantries are tamarind blocks, sumac, fish sauce and tahini. Among the dishes she prescribes as new basics are Llapingachos (Ecuadorian cheese and potato cakes), Chili Hoppers (Sri Lankan coconut pancakes with fried eggs) and Roasted Carrot Kushari (Egyptian rice, pasta, lentils, carrots and yogurt).

I tested seven recipes, including two desserts. The Chicken Madras was full-flavored and fast. It will enter my weeknight repertoire. The tagine, while a tasty vegetarian meal, I found a little sweet; next time I’d use fewer dates. The Whipped Feta with Blitzed Carrots & Roast Chickpeas was lively and intriguing, a perfect dish to put into party rotation. Milanese with Sausage managed to be homey and elegant at once. The Candied Lemon & Saffron Yogurt Cake was, as Thomson puts it, “a doddle to make,” and may have been the prettiest thing I’ve ever baked (though with a layer of candied lemons on top, it was a little difficult to cut). A few hours after I gave a friend a few slices, she texted me an Election Day non sequitur I am thinking of putting on a bumper sticker: “Cake is OMG. Who are you voting for for mayor?” Finally, Chocolate Toast with Olive Oil & Sea Salt required just about no work and made me feel a sophisticated and urbane hostess.

One criticism: At times, the recipe directions in “New Kitchen Basics” failed or, at least, deserted me. For instance, the tagine called for cilantro leaves and stems, but was I meant to chop up the stems or leave them whole? Anxiously, I left them whole. As I ate the dish, they wound themselves around my teeth. The lemon cake required a post-bake soak in lemon syrup, but was I supposed to take the cake out of the pan before drenching it in the syrup? The amount of tamarind called for in the Chicken Madras was maddeningly vague for an ingredient with which many even accomplished cooks are only glancingly familiar: “Simply break off as much of the tamarind block as you would like to use…” And most puzzling of all, except for the desserts, the recipes list no yields. Is Thomson philosophically opposed to recipe yields? Does she think my “serves 6” is her “serves 4”? If so, she never made her case.

Setting these quibbles aside, though, “New Kitchen Basics” – handsome photos by Sam Folan included – makes a winning case for itself, both on the page and in the kitchen.

CHICKEN MADRAS

Recipe from “New Kitchen Basics” by Claire Thomson. Personally speaking, I don’t think curry leaves are ever optional: They are wonderful. You can often find them, frozen, at Indian grocers. Thomson: “Do try to buy block tamarind rather than ready-made paste, which tends to be a bit salty and artificial-tasting. Simply break off as much of the tamarind block as you would like to use and place in a small bowl, covered with enough hot water to soften. Mix well and push the paste through a sieve (strainer) to remove any stones or fibrous matter.”

Vegetable oil

2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

30g (1 oz) unsalted butter

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1 heaped tablespoon grated (shredded) root ginger

2-4 small green chilies, left whole

10 fresh curry leaves (optional)

1-2 teaspoons chili powder (mild or hot, as you like)

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 x 400g (14 oz) can of whole plum tomatoes, blended until smooth with 100ml (3 1/2 fl oz) water and a pinch of sugar

100 ml (3 1/2 fl oz) tamarind liquid, or the juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon salt

8 chicken thighs, skin removed if you prefer, or 600g (1 lb, 5 oz) leftover cooked chicken

Rice to serve

Put the oil in a frying pan over a moderate heat. Add the mustard seeds and fry for 30 seconds, until they begin to sizzle and pop. Add the onion and fry gently for about 10 minutes, until softened and lightly golden.

Add the butter, garlic, ginger, green chillies and curry leaves and fry for a further 1 minute, until aromatic. Add the ground spices and fry for a further 1 minute, then stir in the tomato mixture, the tamarind and salt and simmer for about 5 minutes, until rich and reduced.

Add the chicken thighs, cover and cook for 30 to 35 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through (or 8-10 minutes if using leftover cooked chicken). Check the seasoning, remove from the heat and serve with plain rice.


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