Published on 29 September 2021
A new book from Stephanie Alexander is cause for celebration in any situation. News that the cook’s companion herself has written a substantial new volume intended to enrich our lives in the kitchen is all the more welcome, though, at a moment when cooking is one of the few outlets many of us can access to enjoy ourselves in lockdown. Home would be a treat at the best of times; right now, it’s a godsend.
Stephanie Alexander's career in food has spanned five decades. For 21 years, she was the force behind Stephanie's Restaurant, an establishment that set a standard that defined an era. She is the author of 18 books, including The Cook's Companion, which has become the kitchen bible for Australian cooks, selling over half a million copies. In 2001, she launched the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program, which now operates in more than 1000 schools around Australia, teaching children about growing, preparing, cooking and sharing delicious, fresh, seasonal food.
A recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia and an Officer of the Order of Australia, Alexander has launched hundreds of careers, inspired generations of home cooks and fundamentally transformed the way we think about food in this country.
Here are her thoughts on writing Home.
In this book I wanted to bring together a collection of recipes that would please and challenge good cooks, but also encourage new cooks, and at the same time to allow myself the pleasure of recalling the places, people and experiences that lie behind the recipes. I’m very proud that my work is trusted by so many men and women. My primary interest has always been to enrich our food lives at home, and always to allay anxiety with clear instruction and encouragement. It was an extraordinary stroke of fate that this manuscript started in 2019, before the word COVID had been heard, but that it continued, certainly during the editing process, throughout our earliest lockdown. A book called Home seemed supremely of the moment.
The pitch to the publisher was… The publisher persuaded me. She said ‘we want you to write broadly, to extend yourself past writing a recipe. We see you as a food writer not just a recipe writer’. Seductive pitch. I too see myself as a food writer, writing about so much more than how to make a dish.
The main thing I learned writing it was how much I enjoy reflecting, looking back, looking closely, remembering, anticipating, finding connections, being able to comment on excellence I find in product, in writing and thinking, or in leadership.
If you take one thing from this book, it should be learning how to be comfortable and creative combining vegetables with a bit of olive oil, some herbs, a covered casserole dish and a slow oven.
A relaxed attitude to all that happens in a kitchen is the best possible lesson – enjoy the selection, enjoy the preparation, and of course enjoy the result. And combine different vegetables the next time to build confidence in being flexible.
But I’d also love it if you tried cooking with really fresh fish. Fast food in less than 10 or 15 minutes. Keep it simple and plain, or add interest with herb butters, or the juices from your braised vegetables, or just a squeeze of lemon and a shower of very fresh parsley. Find a good fishmonger and ask advice.
If you’re a relatively new cook, try the fish fillets en papillote on page 168. The preparation is super-easy, all done in advance and yet it results in a super-stylish and impressive presentation. Be sure you buy the freshest fish.
If you’re looking to extend yourself a bit more, meanwhile… I look to the experts if I want to understand a new skill. Sometimes just to understand what is involved and I may well decide to leave it to the experts. I’m not going to learn how to break down a lamb at this stage in my life, but it is interesting to understand how the different muscles in the leg of the lamb will behave when they are cooked, and if that can lead to a different way of approaching it.
When I’m weighing up buying a cookbook or a book about food for myself, I need to be attracted by the stories the author tells. I don’t really need more recipes (I say that only until the next enticing recipe comes to my attention) but I always need more food stories, more insight into how other families live, other insights into the connection between environment, weather, customs and what is cooked. And I love reading about how those I admire share their table and any other detail as to how they enjoy good food.
The book I refer to most often when I’m cooking is The Cook’s Companion – I have to say it. But after that I have a library full of friends. It has been radically culled.
When you’ve finished reading Home, I hope you’ll understand why I’m so determined to change the way so many of our young children learn about appreciating fresh, beautiful, and delicious food. And why I believe that sharing the table with good friends and family is the most accessible pleasure available to everyone at least once a week (at least when we’re not in lockdown).
Stephanie Alexander’s Home ($59.99, Pan Macmillan), is available now from great Victorian booksellers such as Books for Cooks, Hill of Content, The Paperback Bookshop and Readings, as well as online. Check out her recipes for a poached salmon dinner and the best strawberry tarts right here on MFWF.
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