Here at Bespoke we draw much inspiration for our menus from our extensive library of cook books. One book in particular that we have constantly found ourselves referring to is The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. Released back in 2010, this indispensable and in-depth guide to how to pair ingredients and what flavours work together – went on to sell over 250,000 copies and has been praised by chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Heston Blumenthal. We can’t recommend it highly enough ourselves.
Now Segnit has finally released a follow up book Lateral Cooking, which she says she sees as a companion piece to The Flavour Thesaurus, and it’s a book we’ve been eagerly awaiting.
This book is based around the connection that many global foods share and presents this as a new way to look at cooking. Segnit points out that many recipes and dishes are actually linked by ingredients and method and are at heart flavour variations on a common theme, and as such are open to interpretation and experimentation. The idea is to encourage a more freeform way of cooking, by showing that recipes are not set in stone, but are sometimes best when adapted and personalised. The overriding principle of the book, Segnit says, is simply fiddling about and creating delicious food without actual recourse to a set recipe – it’s a handbook for people to adapt recipes and for people to ultimately give up using recipes, and cook without referring to a book.
For example, by using this idea of lateral cooking Segnit shows how a classic béchamel can be turned into a mornay sauce or a soubise simply by changing a few ingredients, or a warming broth can be transformed into a soup, stew or risotto in the much the same way.
It also taps into our increasingly multicultural way of eating (as discussed in our previous blog here) explaining how many dishes and ingredients cross cuisine boundaries – think staples such as bread, rice, pasta/noodles and dumplings, variations of which can be found in many global cuisines – and how by tweaking a few ingredients they can be transformed into something new, yet familiar. She uses as an example the obscure Persian dish of fesenjan – which is made with crushed walnuts and pomegranate and describes its similarity to other global nut based stews such as korma, African mafe, Georgian satsivi and Peruvian aji de gallina – all of which utilise common ingredients and similar cooking methods, yet all have a distinct flavour of their own.
Segnit also points out that this style of ingredient-led cooking encourages more resourceful thinking and helps keep kitchen waste to a minimum (in much the way some restaurants regularly adapt and change their menus to make best use of their ingredients).
The book opens with a quote from AA Gill that finishes with ‘this is how cooks make food: they see something, taste something, and then tinker with it.’ It’s a sentiment that nicely captures the whole ethos of this book. Chapter headings include bread, sugar, sauce, custard, nuts and roux, and Segnit provides plenty of background to each food and ingredient grouping and offers a starting point of basic recipes alongside possible adaptions and alterations. In her own words, it’s quite a complicated book, but it’s also well-researched and witty, and is as much about a good read and inspiring culinary creativity, as it is about providing actual recipes. As such it’s packed full of useful information and should reward repeat readings.
The basis of this book is a process we already employ to a substantial degree when writing our daily working menus for one of our major clients. Where possible, these menus are written based around seasonal British produce, but at the same time need to provide variation which we achieve by using geographical breadth and adapting recipes to fit in with available ingredients. Recipes are used purely as a starting point to take us on a culinary journey depending on what is seasonal and what fits in geographically.
It’s this style of resourceful ingredient management and the ability to tweak recipes as required that allows us to have daily changing menus and yet keep waste to a minimum and costs as low as possible – something that is important to not only us but our clients as well.
From our initial reading of the book, some of the food groupings discussed by Segnit that we have found to be of particular interest include:
Crepes to Yorkshire pudding and popovers to blinis and yeasted pancakes to griddle pancakes to tempura to fritters to churros
In this chapter, Segnit devotes three pages to looking at variations in ingredients and flavours that can be used in batters and gives her take on what works and what doesn’t, as well as some base recipes to use as a springboard for your own experimentation. She discusses making batters with beer for lightness, grappa, chickpea flour and fenugreek for an Indian twist, cornmeal, curry powder, saffron or even egg nog, cola (she doesn’t recommend it!) and shellfish liquor – which lends a briny flavour.
Gumbo to espagnole to velouté to béchamel and white sauce to soufflé to croquettes
Although roux was once, in her words, as indispensable to chefs as ink is to writers, its perception as an old-fashioned cooking techniques has seen it fall out of favour with modern cooks. But as Segrit shows in this chapter – roux is the base of many a global dish and should be a part of any good chefs’ repertoire. Segnit starts by focusing on gumbo – the well-known Louisianan Cajun and creole stew, which uses dark roux as its base with which to thicken and flavour. She discusses the history of this dish and how, although different in its makeup, it has its origins in a classic white roux – something that given the region’s French roots should not be at all surprising. The chapter is wound up with croquettes – the perfect mix of soft roux based béchamel and crisp and crunchy crumb crust – a much loved snack in many a European country and apparently the ideal hangover food – tried and tested by Segnit herself.
Stock, Soup and Stew:
Brown chicken stock to broth to pot au feu to puréed soup to chowder to lamb stew to bean stew to tarka chana dal to kedgeree to risotto
Cornbread, Polenta and Gnocchi:
Cornbread to dhokla to halva to polenta to gnocchi alla romana to gnocchi Parisienne and choux pastry to potato gnocchi to ricotta gnocchi