Her dreamy descriptions of cooking with the seasons read like letters from your best friend's travels abroad, while the recipes themselves are just begging for us to throw a dinner party. Skye Gyngell is the head chef at Petersham Nurseries Café in London. Her aim in her restaurant dishes and those she transcribes for us in A year in my kitchen is to cook with the seasons, and furthermore, to make cooking fun, imaginative, and intuitive. We love this missive from her introduction, "Food only ever really sings if you have put your heart and soul. Taste as you go along and feel free to put your own stamp on a dish - I cook what I feel is right."
One of our favorite parts of this book is the chapter called "My Toolbox." In this section, Gyngell lays out all the ingredients and recipes that form the core of her cooking. She talks about base notes and top notes, and how they work to make dishes "really sing." She describes some techniques like tea-smoking and making stock, and also provides recipes that get integrated into dishes later in the book. These are things like braised lentils, roasted red onions, and tomato and chili jam.
From here, the book moves into the four seasons and the recipes in each section reflect both seasonal ingredients and seasonal flavors. Summer brings us baked eggplant and summer fruit meringues, while we can anticipate chanterelles with fried eggs in the fall and pheasant with beets in the winter. Most of the recipes have accompanying photographs that help to illustrate the recipes on the plate and make us hungry.
We're guessing that the growing season must be a little different in the UK than here in the US because we spotted a few out of season ingredients (for us) in various sections. One recipe from the Spring chapter calls for green beans that we won't see until at least mid-summer. We also tend to think of the arugula and dandelion greens in the pan-fried scallop recipe (from the Winter section) below as spring greens - or perhaps late-winter greens if you live somewhere temperate!
But here we have to fall back on Gyngell's own advice to be active participants in our own cooking and to trust our intuition when it comes to adjusting recipes. As she so eloquently puts it, "...merely following a recipe is ultimately an unfulfilling experience, unless you learn to apply all your senses..."
This is a comprehensive cookbook with plenty to inspire and challenge us as home cooks. It's also a gorgeous one, full of photographs and snippets of wisdom that encourage us to eat well and be happy.
• Find the Book: A year in my kitchen by Skye Gyngell, published by Ten Speed Press. ($14 on Amazon)
Pan-fried scallops with horseradish cream and winter greens
24 sea scallops, cleaned
handful of arugula leaves
handful of white dandelion leaves or pale frisée
handful of mizuna
finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
generous 3/4 cup crème fraîche
1 tbsp freshly grated horseradish root
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
minced curly parsley
First, make the horseradish cream (a day in advance if you like). Put the crème fraîche in a bowl and fold in the horseradish and mustard. Season with salt to taste. (If making ahead, cover and refrigerate, but return to room temperature before serving.)
Trim away the tough muscle from the side of each scallop, then set aside at room temperature. Wash the salad greens, dry well, and combine in a bowl. Dress with the lemon zest and juice and the extra virgin olive oil, then divide among four plates or arrange on a large platter.
Place two heavy (ideally, nonstick) skillets over high heat and allow them to get very hot. Season the scallops lightly with salt and pepper. Drizzle 1/2 tbsp olive oil into each skillet.
When the oil begins to smoke, add the scallops, arranging them in a single layer. It is important not to overcrowd the skillet (if you do, the scallops will stew rather than pan-fry), so cook in two batches if necessary. Cook for 1 minute only, then turn (in the same order that you put them into the pan) and cook for the same amount of time on the other side. The scallops should be crunchy and golden on the surface, with a sweet and delicious taste.
As you remove the scallops from the pan, place them on top of the salad greens, adding a dollop of horseradish cream. Sprinkle with minced parsley and serve straight away, with a wedge or two of lemon on the side.
Reprinted with permission from A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Photo credit: Jason Lowe © 2011