Stephanie Alexander is not only one of the most recognised culinary names in Australia, her work and influence have spread farther afield. Little surprise with an extraordinary career spanning five decades. Not only as a chef and the force behind her eponymous restaurant Stephanie’s for 21 years, a restaurant constantly setting new standards in Australia, but as the author of 18 books including the definitive modern classic The Cook’s Companion with over 500,000 copies sold globally.
In 1991 she created the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation which now operates in over 1,000 schools around Australia, teaching children about growing, preparing, cooking and sharing delicious, fresh, seasonal food.
Having launched innumerable careers, inspired generations of home cooks who say “if you only have one cookbook it must be The Cook’s Companion” Stephanie has significantly influenced the way Australians think about food. Why then, at nearly 81 would she not opt for a relaxed life rather than writing a new book, Home? Probably because she still has plenty to say – as a food evangelist, lover of books and libraries, beautiful writer and archivist.
Although she trained and worked as a librarian for 10 years, Stephanie has not been a meticulous archivist but has always had notebooks at hand, from her first visit to France to her 30s in London and later in life in her restaurants and cafe. Looking back at them they may combine shopping lists and then thoughts. When she travelled she always kept a notebook for something that might have been as simple as noting something she had seen on the side of the road. Often in the evening, she would read over her scrappy notes. She has donated many of these notebooks to the State Library of Victoria which also has such memorabilia from Stephanie’s Restaurant, including a very grubby chefs’ jacket — “Why I wonder?” she jokes — and the large sign.
So around three years ago in discussion with the publisher of this new book Home, she agreed she would write a new and different tome. Something reflective, revealing where recipes came from and why they were important, her history, her life and her food life — giving full rein to her literary style with formal essays as well as recipes with gloriously long introductions.
The result is an evocative collection of over 200 original recipes, some updates on favourite recipes from the past, but mostly entirely new, reflecting her passion for seasonality, produce and flavour and ability as a teacher in communicating the fundamentals of technique.
While novice cooks could find much to love in this book, Stephanie expects it to appeal more to those who love cooking, eating and reading. Yet she comments that in Home she is able to go back and see connections did not previously see – and also thinks this might work for a newer generation of cooks, recognising something they may have missed out on previously.
Covid has made home cooks of us all and there is a section on essential building blocks at the end of the book – like the all-important pleasure of making chicken stock. Stephanie hopes her essays “will seduce and drag a few into the kitchen”. However, she also wants practical outcomes explaining why “A” works with “B” from a flavour point of view. So you have recipes for anchovy butter or red pepper & paprika butter which are used in multiple places.
Indeed her essays are seductive, easy to read and insightful of Stephanie’s views and beliefs. There is one on “Living in the Time of Coronavirus” though interestingly, it was the pandemic that gave her a full year to polish her manuscript which she found a pleasure and an indulgence. For this is also a book you can read or dip in and out of at whim. Much for us to read and reflect on as well as cook.
There are recipes to please us all, aimed at bringing joy and pleasure into people’s lives. From the simple to the more complex, kitchen wisdom abounds including do-ahead tips and even freezing. The chapter headings themselves are appealing: My mornings, To start, A bowl of soup, Brunches & lunches, Pasta & a handful of rice, From the sea, A few birds, From the paddock, The vegetable patch, Salads & sides and Sweet Things.
The recipe for Pipis with manzanilla, sherry, saffron, jamon, butter beans and crushed croutons which Stephanie shares with Happy Ali readers will be available for our readers tomorrow, Sunday 10 October.
She advises about sourcing pipis, how to clean them if necessary, acknowledges another food writer, gives the recipe context from Spain then gives several mini-lessons in the preparation.
Thank you Stephanie for another book, so much to read and enjoy, more pleasures of the table to experience and also that oft-used word of yours “deliciousness” to enjoy. I’m going straight to the kitchen.