Review: Cook As You Are by Ruby Tandoh

Welcome to another cookbook collaboration. To review Cook As You Are by Ruby Tandoh, I teamed up with friends and fellow home cook enthusiasts Jenn and Markus. We cooked several recipes from the book and hosted a dinner party for friends and family.

My Quick Take: This was a warm and inclusive cookbook that invited us to prepare tasty food for friends with a minimum of fuss and great results.

“Our ways of cooking are as diverse as we are, reflecting every conceivable taste, talent, culture, body, ability (or disability), kitchen, mindset and skill set. I think that’s something to be grateful for.” -Ruby Tandoh, Cook As You Are
Trish: I remember the days when I began cooking new recipes in earnest. I’d set up house in our first apartment and had new-to-me pots and pans from the thrift shop, and we’d have a group of friends over for dinner. I was always on a budget. Sometimes my food experiments were a success, sometimes not so much, but the meal was always appreciated. I was gravitating towards vegetarian cooking, so think Moosewood cookbooks–a hippie, healthy vibe.

Cook As You Are feels so very reminiscent of those times, but updated and fresh. British author and baker Ruby Tandoh was a finalist on The Great British Bake Off in 2013, and has gone on to write four cookbooks. Indeed, Tandoh takes an approach to cooking that has a distinctly social justice overlay, and that’s very apparent throughout this book. Friends Mark and Jenn suggested we cook from this book, and when I took a look I immediately appreciated its inclusivity.

Jenn, what made you want to explore this book?

Jenn: I had initially purchased a copy for a friend as a gift! She was working at PosAbilities in Vancouver and sorting out some accessible cooking courses for her clients during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had many conversations about accessibility during that time and–a long time fan of Bake Off–I saw Tandoh’s social media post mentioning accessibility and the book around the same time. The recipes sounded delicious, and it seemed like the perfect gift.

Before I wrapped it, I cracked it open and read the intro essay to the book, it was unlike any cookbook I had ever read - Tandoh writes with a lot of tenderness to readers about the limitations of our lives, be they time, money, exhaustion, disability, or disorder. Later, I bought my own copy. I wanted it on my shelf as a caring clash among the glossy or intimidating cookbooks I’ve collected over the years.

Trish: It really is a “caring” cookbook. I also like the meatless options, with healthful and wholesome ingredients. There are lots of beans and lentils. Though not a vegetarian cookbook, there is an emphasis on plant-based options, with meat and seafood dishes taking a more supportive role. Tandoh encourages everyone to “cook as they are,” in the here and now, not how you feel you “should” cook. That will be different for each of us, and she notes that her own heritage, likes, and dislikes are evident in the cookbook, including that she doesn’t eat much meat.

Interestingly, even though we didn’t plan things this way, all of us chose vegetarian recipes.

Markus: Our process for choosing recipes was to lean into the non-visual nature of the cookbook. First pass selections included everything that we couldn’t mentally picture just by the title. This offered us the ability to be surprised by the process and outcome. An olive oil and black pepper DESSERT? Second pass selections included our must-haves. Jollof rice was a quintessential dish, and one that Trish had tried before. Our group adores kimchi, so the potato hash made the cut here. We added in the clementine hot chocolate because of the lovely mise en place illustration, as well as the curiosity of a so-very-short ingredients list on a dessert. We eliminated “flatbread, three ways” in the finals to arrive at a bountiful selection of textures, cooking complexity, and some guaranteed hits.

Trish: The illustrations by Sinae Park have a desaturated, muted palette and add to the old-school vibe. There are people of all sizes, colours and abilities. There are lots of different family configurations pictured, and as I flipped through, I wondered…where’s the older person? Everyone’s young! I’m middle-aged, so it’s something I’m aware of. Oh well, I thought, you can’t have everything. And then there she was: the older, greying, bespeckled woman pictured making Pierogi Ruskie. Obviously, there’s been a lot of thought put into an inclusive worldview here. The illustrations mesh so well with the text, and the book wouldn’t be the same without them; they have become an integral element. And there aren’t any photographs, by design.

Jenn: Being a millennial and having a degree in visual arts, I confess to being extremely predisposed to drool over glossy images of beautifully plated food (yes, even having my own cooking instagram). I also grew up with a professional chef in the family, and so was exposed to the obsessive care and creative plating that goes into the production of artistic food in fine dining establishments. Spending my late teens through my twenties working in the restaurant industry it became ingrained that how food looks is a part of how its quality is judged. With this initial mindset subconsciously lurking, I found myself hitting a reset button on my own attitude while cooking.

There are illustrations to show those tricky steps, which is much appreciated, but Tandoh points out that the decision not to have photos–which she admits to loving in cookbooks as well–was deliberate. “ can also be limiting: by photographing a cookbook in one kitchen, with one cook, I’d be capturing only one very narrow vision of what cooking looks like and who these recipes are for. Such photos can also end up feeling aspirations, drawing us towards the often-unattainable shiny and new.”

Instead of treating a beautiful glossy image as the end “goal” I was asked to trust the recipe and not to hold my version in competition to an unattainable studio-lit standard. This was particularly refreshing when the Orange, Pepper, and Olive Oil Cake did not offer the rise I had imagined. Despite its shorter than anticipated stature, the cake was BONKERS delicious and the bake was excellent. Keeping in mind Tandoh’s observation that the polished and curated photographs we lust after contain more marketing subtext about “success” than actual spectrum of attainability helped to free me from my own superficial judgments.


The Recipes:


Carrot, Lemon and Tahini Soup

This was so easy to make! In the introduction to this recipe, Tandoh emphasises the simplicity of a soup: “at its heart, a soup is just a vegetable, cooked with water, flavourings and salt.” And this hit the mark. Carrots are the star, and it was so satisfying to stand over my blended pot of soup and taste, adding more tahini, lemon juice and salt to get it just right. I ended up using almost double the tahini called for. Guests loved the citrus taste from the lemon.
Tofu and Greens with Hot and Sour Chili Sauce

A simple hearty recipe that I can see becoming a part of my regular dinnertime rotation. I’m always looking for new ways to serve tofu. Just sautéed tofu and greens, with a simple-to-make mild sweet and sour sauce to dress the dish proved delicious. Everyone praised this as tasty and something they’d happily eat regularly. I loved it too because I’ve had so much springtime kale growing in the garden and this uses up a ton of it for each serving!
Jollof Rice

When I explore a new cookbook, there are always hits and misses. This was a bit of a problem recipe for me, but the results amongst guests were mixed. I used jalapeno pepper instead of Scotch bonnet, and missed the heat; the rice didn’t cook in the time or amount of sauce recommended so I had to add more water and time; and the flavour punch I’d expected from the smoked paprika didn’t deliver. The rice ended up being a bit stodgy. We mostly thought it was “okay” but not great, though Alan liked the porridgy consistency and said he liked it better than the jollof rice I’d ordered last year from our local Nigerian take-out restaurant. It goes to show how truly different everyone’s tastes are! This actually did taste pretty good as leftovers, so maybe it just needed to stand a bit.

Markus and Jenn:

Harissa, Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni with Toasted Hazelnuts

Jenn: This was an absolute joy to make. Markus and I split the work, I love to simmer a sauce and so he took on making the filling and we came together to stuff the cannelloni. This was also one of the recipes Tandoh suggests you can make in advance, so while it's a little more time consuming to put together, I can absolutely imagine popping it in the fridge the night before a busy day, and busting it out for a gorgeous (even impressive) fuss free meal the next night.
Kimchi and Potato Hash

Markus: I selected this one as an early favourite because I had the perfect amount of last year’s homemade kimchi sitting in the fridge, fermented to perfection. It was a target for a recent fridge clean-out and I fought for its existence. This was the last dish to emerge from the overbooked oven, but during preparation I noticed procedural parallels to making shakshuka. Although the three 20-minute check-ins required more attention than I would have liked, Ruby nailed the dream potato texture of crispy outside, pillowy inside. I’ll never throw away kimchi juice again, each bite bursting with spicy, funky, salty goodness. This was as good, if not better as leftovers the next day, and I recognized that the density of this dish and mundane preparation set it as an ideal breakfast course. Three weeks later it re-emerged as a hangover brunch. I added the eggs a bit later to avoid overcooking them and spared half of the dish from any cheese to keep it lactose-free for our guests.

Jenn: I am demanding we make this regularly! Perfection!

Orange, Olive Oil and Black Pepper Cake

Jenn: As mentioned, I did not get the rise I anticipated from this cake, but regardless, it baked wonderfully. I may tweak this recipe a little the next time I make it and swap cake or pastry flour instead of an all-purpose. Tandoh hails from the UK where all-purpose flours (called plain flours) often have much lower protein content than Canadian flours. This may have contributed to a less-than-lofty loaf cake and so swapping for a lower protein flour might yield a better rise.

Clementine Hot Chocolate 

Jenn: The perfect cozy drink. I did this on the stovetop rather than in the microwave, and it filled the kitchen with the fragrant oils of the clementine peels. The only thing missing was the sound of rain outside!

Trish: This hot chocolate was a treat to drink, and the perfect end to our meal. 

Markus explaining the dishes!

Trish: In the end, we all enjoyed our meal, and with a full table of guests with different likes and dislikes, we all found something to suit our tastes. The food was hearty, warming and wonderful, a perfect match to our conversation and company. It was neat to see that though there were some clear favourite recipes and some that had less of a wow-factor, everyone liked everything, though opinions as to favourites did vary. For me, that Kimchi and Potato Hash? Unforgettable!

Jenn: A well written recipe feels somewhat magical to me, as if the person who wrote it teleports to your kitchen for a moment to help you conjure up something delicious. I found Tandoh’s presence comes through as caring, humorous, and easy-to-understand as she coaches you through recipes offering endless modifications and variations to suit your needs. Another particular joy of this cookbook is how many pantry staples and easy substitutions there are - I found the shop for the recipes seamless with our own regular shop and while we bought a few specialty ingredients, we will use up everything pretty easily.

Another thing I really admire about this cookbook is its commitment to accessibility in different forms. Tandoh has a PDF cookbook available for free on her website with 10 Recipes from the book that DO have photographs, but not of the glamorised variety. This version has been written specifically for folks with learning disabilities or anyone who might find the larger form cookbook overwhelming. In the intro letter to this version, Tandoh also points readers to a few other cookbooks that they might enjoy and find accessible, which I found really thoughtful - as I did her citations of the cookbooks and literature that inspired her books and recipes. Tandoh does no gatekeeping here, and instead holds the door open for folks to explore and enjoy the things that move them.

Trish: Tandoh obviously takes such pleasure in preparing food, and she wants to put us, the home cooks, firmly in the centre of the experience. There are so many reasons why we prepare food but Tandoh tells us: 
" the centre of all of this there is you: in your ordinary kitchen, with your likes and dislikes, your tastes and aversions and your washing-up pile in the sink, cooking as you are.”


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