Tomorrow is the 8th of December and officially the start of the festive season in Ireland. Traditionally, country people would travel to big cities and towns, especially to Dublin, to do their Christmas shopping on this day. An old lady friend of mine from Kerry used to have an annual arrangement with her friend from Clare. They would meet under Cleary's clock at 10am on the 8th, go for a cup of tea and a natter to catch up on the year's gossip and then do their shopping together. I like to imagine them all dressed up for a day out in the city, oblivious as the Dublin of bygone days bustled around them while they shared a year's worth of stories.
I'm not going to Dublin tomorrow and nor am I meeting anyone under Cleary's clock (more's the pity) but I have started thinking about my Christmas shopping. So too have most of you, I'll bet. If you're thinking of buying cookbooks for any of your foodie friends, these are the cookbooks that I've enjoyed reading and cooking from most this year.
Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty has to be my book of the year. I've cooked something from it most weeks since I got it and each one of those dishes has been great.
As I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, it's the perfect book for me. But it's not just a book for vegetarians. My meat-loving boyfriend has enjoyed the dishes I have cooked from it too.
As well as encouraging you to eat more vegetables, this book will also introduce you to new ingredients and flavour combinations. Ottolenghi draws on his Israeli upbringing and Middle Eastern heritage in his food and often recommends ingredients such as pomegranates, tahini and za'atar - which is a dried herb mix that was new to my store cupboard and which I have used often since Ottolenghi convinced me to buy it.
Supper Club by Kerstin Rogers: This pretty book written by the queen of supper clubs in London is split into two sections. The first tells the history of supper clubs and gives an insight into Kerstin Rogers' cooking. You'll enjoy reading her life story in food - from the days when her father would encourage her to eat horse meat to her teenage years cooking in squats and right up to her starting her Underground Restaurant in London. If you want to follow her example and set up one of your own, she even gives you all the tips on how to do so.
Most of you won't be interested in those, however. What you'll be interested in are the recipes. The recipes are for gutsy food that is full of flavour.
So far, I've made the aubergine curry with kissing apple chutney and Sikh (or spicy tomato) salad; the fabulous tarte tatin; and the cherry clafoutis. I'm dreaming of the day when I get to cook her entire menu for her Elvis dinner. It will happen!
Jamie's Great Britain by Jamie Oliver: Everyone loves Jamie Oliver and I think this is his best cookbook so far. It's bursting with passion for good, authentic British food - food that is rooted in its history and locality and food that everyone wants to eat.
I only got this a week or two ago and I have already cooked the sizzling lamb lollipops (lamb cutlets served with spiced nuts, cucumber dip adn a spicy tomato dip) and the Lincolnshire poacher pie (a pie filled with cheesy minted courgettes and served with roasted shallots). Both dishes were so good that I now want to cook everything in the book.
The Country Cooking of Ireland by Coleman Andrews: I have yet to cook anything from this book but it's already transformed my understanding of Irish cooking. Coleman travelled through the Irish countryside discovering the best quality ingredients - milk, cream, cheese, meat, fish, vegetables and more. He delved into the archives in the National Library and discovered age-old recipes. And he spoke to a great many people who shared their culinary traditions with him.
He then put all these things together and produced a cookbook that ranks with the very best and entices you with its recipes (watercress and almond soup, smoked cod and cheddar souflée, potted herring, Dingle mutton pies - I could go on and on).
There are so many dishes I want to cook from this book and I'm sure I'll refer to it again on this blog.
These are my recommendations for the year that is coming to an end. They're obviously very subjective as there are cookbooks that I haven't even read yet (Niamh Shields' Comfort and Spice, Lilly Higgins' Make, Bake, Love and Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day chief among them) but I hope to remedy that when I open my presents this Christmas.
What books have you enjoyed reading and cooking from most in 2011? I would love to hear about them.