Jamie Oliver's Jamie at Home: The Good Life Well Within Reach [cookbook review]

Culinary subtlety is not Jamie Oliver’s strong suit. Leave frail wisps of flavor, prissy ingredients, and foam concoctions to Vongerichten and Achatz — Oliver believes growing, cooking and eating food should be a literally down-to-earth experience.

As he makes clear in Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life (Hyperion, buy from Amazon), he has made it his mission to put people in touch with their food, encouraging them to caress it, loll in it and quite possibly even make sweet love to it. Then and only then will one be prepared — nay, worthy — to consume it.

Oliver — he of the carefully manicured faux-hawk, crusty Birkenstocks, and food-related devotions ballyhooing loud enough to rival the enthusiasm of the late, great Steve Irwin (to whom Jamie at Home is dedicated) — is already the author of nearly a dozen cookbooks, and has starred in 13 TV shows. But he still manages to serve up an original, animated and helpful guide for anyone who’s agro over agra in Jamie at Home, which is an accessible equal parts philosophical tract, cookbook, and for-dummies-style gardening guide.

Cook, Gardener, Philosopher

The book is divided seasonally and then subdivided again by ingredient, complete with both growing and purchasing tips. For cooks, he presents pantry-friendly recipes ranging from the pleasantly rustic (homemade ketchup; smashed peas and fava beans on toast) to the sublimely urbane (lamb tartare; crispy pigeon with a sweet and sour dipping sauce), though his recipe-writing style is such that one must be comfortable following measurements that dictate a "glug" of this, a "swig" of that and a "big lob" of something or other.

For current and would-be gardeners — whether ensconced in rolling acres of lush land, plopped on a tiny patch of dry soil, or crammed into a dark and green-free apartment — Oliver hands over innumerable easy to follow, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that tips for growing and harvesting gaggles of fruits and veggies. The cooking and gardening instruction is interspersed with periodic and (at times amusingly) solemn rants about the grim horrors of factory farming, the joys of barbecue (and how to build one from nothing more than bricks and a pan) and important lessons he’s learned from hunting.

While it could have been overwhelming, the combination of these elements is welcoming to the reader. Not a mere crack-n’-flip recipe file, Jamie at Home is clearly a labor of love: intricately plotted and editorially planned, with shabby-chic graphical elements and an earthy color scheme that reflects Oliver’s sensibility. The lush photographs of recipes, felled game, gardens and (an often comically earnest-looking) Oliver applying TLC to his self-professed "boss" Mother Nature, are quite simply exquisite.

An Irritating Enthusiasm

For all its appeal, the book is not without its flaws. Oliver does tend to stumble into the nonsensical at times, with assertions like "Rhubarb is a funny one" and his bizarre, out-of-left-field confession that "There are a few ingredients for me that if they didn’t exist I’d give up cooking tomorrow and become a carpenter." He also perpetuates annoying culinary myths (i.e. tomatoes were once considered poisonous) and makes womens-mag style claims like eating chillies "speeds up your metabolism by 25 percent."

And, quite frankly, Oliver’s pep can be exhausting. Reading Jamie at Home is like watching a toddler twirl tirelessly about, collapse to the floor in a screeching giggle fit, and get up to do it all again — despite yourself, you find it more irritating than inspiring. For that matter, the overly enthusiastic! Writing! Could perhaps! Be brought down! Just! A notch!

The Road Test

At the risk of invoking Oliver’s wrath, I tried out a recipe that, despite today's February date, isn’t in his Winter section. I think I’m safe though — the vegetables I used are in-season and after 398 pages of his shrieks of encouragement to "whiz it up," "get a feel for it" and generally stop being such a tight-ass in the kitchen, I thought a dash of respectful rebellion was in order. (Also, the Winter recipe section is the weakest by far. Roasted squash? Coleslaw? Bread and cabbage soup? Wake me when it's springtime.)

So I set out to make smoked beets with grilled steak and a cottage cheese dressing. Per Jamie's recipe, this is all done outdoors on a barbecue. I made everything in my kitchen and it was absolutely fantastic, with robust flavors that weren’t overbearing. Zingy, super-fresh, generally juicy without being soppy, tart, then sweet, and lip-smackingly savory. Mmmm.

The result of this road test revealed that my quibbles with this book are, at their core, minor ones. Oliver is not an aspiring Harold McGee, and that's a good thing. No one would pick up Jamie at Home seeking a scholarly, erudite account of the environmental, scientific and biological benefits of, say, chili peppers. But readers seeking enthusiastic good fun, sound advice and delicious recipes will be well-served by this book indeed.

–Kathleen Willcox


Recipe: Smoked beets with grilled steak and a cottage cheese dressing

From Jamie Oliver's Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life, Hyperion, 2009

Serves 2

8 small beets, tops trimmed
Small bunch of fresh rosemary, leaves picked
1 TBSP red wine vinegar
Several glugs of extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt, freshly ground pepper to taste
Small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and roughly chopped
Small bunch of fresh tarragon or basil, leaves picked and roughly chopped
4 four-ounce fillet steaks

For the dressing
4 heaping TBSP cottage cheese
½ lemon (juice and grated zest)
A few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
A few sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves picked

Indoor method
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place trimmed beets on a large strip of foil, top with rosemary leaves. Roll up, folding edges and twisting the ends together. Pop it in the oven for 1.5 hours. Unwrap and let the beets cool a bit. Once cool enough to handle, peel and discard skin. Cut into irregular chunks and place in bowl. Top with vinegar and 3 or so TBSPs of extra virgin olive oil, a hearty shake or five of sea salt and pepper and half of the parsley and tarragon or basil. Toss, adjust seasoning to taste.

Put cottage cheese into a bowl, add lemon juice and zest. Stir in two glugs of olive oil, add the thyme, a generous dash of salt and pepper and fold together so that the lemon and oil appear to marble through the cottage cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Rub some of the dressing on steaks. Throw into pre-heated (medium-high) sauté skillet and cook to your liking. (Mine were nicely browned but on the rare side — I gave them about two minutes a side). Remove from pan and let them rest.

Divide the beets between two plates, top with the steaks, dressing, throw on the extra herbs and dig in.

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