Bill Granger is the reason this blog exists. He came to me in a dream, dressed in white denim, and after a plate of hotcakes said it would be a totally good idea for me to review cookbooks. I was all, “Thanks dream-Bill!” We high-fived before riding off into the sunset on pistachio Vespas.
Ahem. Let me try again.
Bill Granger’s cookbooks are the reason this blog exists. His collection of cookbooks were my first real cookbook loves. They impressed me with their design, their simple yet flavour-focussed food, and the lifestyle they suggest as being possible. Yes, there were other cookbooks before, and of course many, many since, but these books continue to hold a special place in my collection. Some are exceptional, some are good, and some are better not even mentioned.
Here are Bill Granger’s cookbooks in order of least essential to most essential:
Bill’s Italian Food (2013)
This is the most recent Bill book. Until this book was released in 2013, Bill produced a new book every few years. It has been complete radio silence since then. And I view this book as killing Bill. I can only assume it had mediocre sales and Bill realised he could make much more money with a slowly expanding chain of eponymous restaurants.
Put simply, it’s not very good. The recipes feel uninspired and familiar. The art direction is serviceable but feels forced. By the metric of a book’s quality being somehow proportional to the amount of recipes I have cooked from it, Bill’s Italian Food is the clear runt of the litter.
Bill’s Open Kitchen (2003)
Bill looks very happy on the cover of this book. You are unlikely to look as happy with this book. The food and photography feel ancient, like something from a lost civilisation.
Look, it’s not entirely bad. With some work and a little love, the recipes are going to be salvageable. Yet, in light of the Bill books to come, I do not know why anyone would bother with this one.
Bill’s Sydney Food (2000)
Bill’s first book, this book has a lot of the classic Bill recipes. With the distance of 17 years, I feel comfortable labelling this book as something that has not aged entirely well. There’s a lot of goats cheese and balsamic and hints at the Asian vibe that Bill will later adopt in a more committed way.
Calling it dated is almost too heavy a charge. It’s more that it is quite simple and unadventurous. Our collective culinary appetites and capabilities have improved significantly since then. No one in 2017 really wants a recipe for poached eggs with wilted spinach or a ham and cheese toasted sandwich.
And to top off my complaints with this book, all of the baking recipes feature volume measures (cup measures) instead of grams. Grr. The only redepemtion is this book gives you the recipe of many an expensive breakfast: Bill’s ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter. Yam.
Simply Bill (2005)
This book is pretty similar to Bill’s Open Kitchen yet has a slight edge: it’s hard to put my finger on it, but the food in this book starts to feel appealing and modern as opposed to dated in a sun dried tomato and balsamic drizzle sort of way.
The photography is somewhat off-putting and fussy. The cover photo, of Bill with a rictus grin, is legitimately frightening. The large format softcover presentation of the book is quite unpleasant to use. Despite these complaints you get a hint of Bill greatness: elements of this book point to what Bill is capable of.
Everyday continues the trend of Bill books that start to feel modern. Although dated occasionally by photography or vogue ingredients (sweet chilli sauce in this case), there’s enough here that feels familiar.
The book is organised around the conceit of providing different recipes for different days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and so on). It would take a far more capable mind than mine to spot the differences in the recipes assigned to weekdays versus weekend days.
I have railed against this gimmicky method of recipe organisation before. I am comfortable with a book having a central theme: a central post on which to hang the book’s recipes. Yet when the gimmick gets in the way of discoverability, I think it is a real mistake.
Despite the regrettable gimmick, this book is solid.
If you’re noticing a trend, it’s that the more recent Bill books are generally better (with an obvious exception!)
There are two components of this: the first is that the food presented in the book feels modern and aligned with the sort of food we (we here means the people who either buy cookbooks or read cookbook review websites!) actually eat. It’s food that is characterised by Asian influences, by middle-eastern flavours and techniques, and food that is often vegetarian, or at least food that uses meat as an accent. The other element is that Bill’s own creativity and writing techniques improve with each new book. It’s a privilege, borne out of the commercial success of Bill’s past books, that not all authors get: but when you compare some of the earlier books with the more recent books, the difference is clear.
I have not, I have to report, cooked a lot from this. In fact, it’s the newest addition to the Bill library. The few things I have cooked have been good, and the general feel of the book is positive.
Feed Me Now (2009)
The turning point. The books before are fairly average, and feel older than what they sometimes are. This book feels quite modern, even eight years after publication.
The photography is compelling: tight focus highlights the texture of food. The styling is restrained. The recipes featuring a compelling global mix of flavours that feels honest: miso fish, black bean quesadillas, roasted chicken curry. The book sometimes stumbles with these flavours, however: you get the sense that Bill has not mastered some of these global flavours.
Bill’s Basics (2010)
The next three books make up Bill’s best. You could forget about the proceeding titles and just pick up these three and you’d have a magnificent collection.
Bill’s Basics, seven years later, feels modern and delightful. The photography is excellent: focussing on the food and not over stylised knick-knacks. The book has loads of white space.
The recipes are also brilliant, both in terms of range and execution. I have a real fondness for cookbooks that have a breadth to their recipes. You could throw away loads of your other cookbooks and cook happily from this, eating baked orecchiette with sausage and cavolo nero one night and then tom yum the next night. Sure, some recipes need a little gentle adjustment, but never egregiously so.
Bill’s Everyday Asian (2011)
Bill certainly was firing on all cylinders in the early 2010s. Bill’s Everyday Asian digs down on an appreciation for Asian flavours in many of his earlier books.
The book represents contemporary Australian favourites: pork larb, massaman lamb curry, stir-fried prawn with tomato and chilli and so on. The recipes, as is I think will be readily apparent to anyone familiar with Bill, are not intended to be strictly authentic. They are intended to be accessible versions of familiar favourites, and the book succeeds in this.
The photography feels a little more alive and playful than the occasionally austere work in Bill’s Basics. Yet this is well balanced against a lot of white space. My only complaint is the tiny text: it looks smart, but makes cooking from the book harder than it needs to be.
Get Bill’s Basics if you want a mixture of food (Asian, Mediterranean, American-y). If you enjoy eating Asian food, than this book is the strong title. The recipes and the photography are better.
We have a winner! I am seriously impressed at the string of books Bill produced. I have cooked an enormous amount from this book, and have enjoyed almost every recipe. The recipes feel polished and honed in a way that earlier books do not feel.
I think the title is misleading: this book is not ‘easy’ in the way you would reasonably expect from the title. It’s more slightly simplified versions of quite impressive or involved dishes. Easy, in this case, is a spectrum.
The book is divided up into broad categories like Piece of chicken or Sack of potatoes. This is a smart way of diving up the book, if you’re determined to avoid a more orthodox ‘Starters, Mains, Dessert’ approach to organisation.
After the focus of Everyday Asian, this book returns to a more general focus. It does trend towards slightly more indulgent and richer fare. Our favourite recipe, one we have made at least once a winter since the book was released, is a Taleggio and Pancetta baked rigatoni. While I generally much prefer hard cheeses, I would sell my right pinky finger for a lifetime supply of Italy’s second best cheese. And this dish celebrates taleggio.
The photography and overall design of the book is compelling. Food is the star, with photos of Bill relatively few and far between. The book feels modern and I have a feeling it will for a long time yet.
I have thought about this book. It is not a book that will inspire generations of cooks. It is not a book that will teach you a lot about a particular cuisine. It is a book that you can cook from every night of the week and not get tired of. It will teach you to become a better, more confident cook. At least, it had that result on me!
- Easy (The recipes may not be easy, but they are delicious and will help you become a better cook!)
- Bill’s Everyday Asian (Asian flavours through the lens of the supermarket shopper! If you’re just getting started in exploring cooking Asian food, this is a good beginning.)
- Bill’s Basics (like Easy, but slightly broader in recipe selection. Although those recipes are slightly less polished.)
Nigella ░░░██ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct? Ottolenghi ░███░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy? Mark Bittman ██░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure? Gwyneth Paltrow ███░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food? #KonMarie ████░ Sticky floors And does it just spark joy?
(The table above shows the range. The blue block shows where the top three sit.)
Originally published at Cook These Books.