WHEN IT COMES TO MODERN cookbooks, one thing is clear: fast sells. The irrepressible Jamie Oliver may not be everyone's cup of tea, but he and his marketing team are doing something right. Jamie's 30 Minute Meals was not just the top-selling cookbook in Australia last year, but also the top-selling book. More than 220,000 copies made their way into Australian kitchens. This year's release, Jamie's 15 Minute Meals (the title alone might be enough to make you feel exhausted), is expected to give its older, slower sibling a run for its money.
After 30 Minute Meals, the next three top-selling cookbooks in Australia last year were Simple Dinners and Fast, Fresh, Simple by no-fuss heroine Donna Hay, and 4 Ingredients: Kids by Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham (the 4 Ingredients titles have sold more than 4 million copies in Australia).
The growing appeal of fast, simple recipes is clear. Gone are the days when households were structured around the male breadwinner and the stay-at-home mother who had hours to invest in the nightly dinner. We're far more likely to buy a ready-made dinner, then collapse on the couch and watch someone else cooking dinner on television.
Pamela Clark may have a better perspective on this shift than anyone else in Australia. Now editorial and food director at ACP Books, publisher of The Australian Women's Weekly cookbooks, Clark began her career as a recipe tester for the magazine and associated cookbooks in 1969.
A few things have changed in the ACP test kitchen. ''In the 1970s, we would think nothing of pouring a whole carton of cream into a recipe; now it's tablespoons, not cartons,'' Clark says. ''The other difference is that the person who is cooking also works [and] they don't want to spend hours shopping and cooking.''
A survey commissioned recently by ACP found that the most-cooked evening meal in Australia in 2012 was steak and salad. Clark says grilled meat and salad ticks all the boxes for the contemporary home cook: it's healthy, it has minimal ingredients that are easy to source, it's fast to prepare and cook and it's acceptable to most members of the family.
But there are only so many times you can eat grilled chicken breast before the appeal begins to wane. Herein lies the success of the fast or simple cookbook, which can help hapless home cooks broaden their repertoire of speedy meals, with a celebrity chef on hand to demonstrate how it's possible.
But do fast-easy books deserve to sell so well? Or, like weight-loss diets, is it all about selling a fantasy that we can look great or cook a flavour-packed, healthy meal with zero effort? There has to be a catch. We decided to road-test some recent releases that offer a magic solution to the after-work scramble.
Jamie's 15 Minute Meals
Jamie Oliver, Michael Joseph, $49.99. Released October.
Reviewed by Ardyn Bernoth, editor, Sydney. Lives with husband and three children, aged 4, 6 and 8.
Recipe road test Spiced chicken with bacon, asparagus and spinach lentils
Preparation time 13 minutes
Cooking time 16 minutes, 57 seconds
Clean-up time 18 minutes
Tastiness 3/10 (but it's my fault: I stuff up the recipe)
Overall comment You need to be a good multitasker to pull off this recipe, and most in the book. But there is loads of inspiration for simple, inspired week-night meals. This dish probably would have been tasty if I had followed the recipe properly.
WHAT a load of bollocks. How can you cook a meal - ''delicious and nutritious food that's a total joy to eat'', no less - in 15 minutes? You need to rest meat longer than that, let alone cook it.
Jamie's 15 Minute Meals is the latest cookbook offering from one of world's most famous chefs, which will no doubt sell in the millions. There is, of course, a matching TV series, which I dutifully watch before road-testing the recipes.
Oliver beams into my lounge room in full ''cheeky chappy'' glory. On steroids. He stirs sauces and pan-fries chicken with one hand, while throwing witlof onto a platter with the other. ''Just scatter those leaves all over the gaff,'' he enthuses as he multitasks furiously. His completed finished dish looks, it has to be said, delicious. But can something similar be achieved by a mere mortal?
First, we - my three girls and I - don our ''15 minutes frame of mind'' - I have my blender out, kettle boiled and pots and pans required for this spiced chicken with spinach lentils and asparagus dish on the stove at the ready.
I arrange my ingredients, chop the bacon, open the tins of lentils. We set the iPhone stopwatch - we are off and racing. Nothing is complicated, most ingredients are readily available and these are recipes tested to within an inch of their lives.
Except, I don't know if it is the stopwatch whirring under my nose, the eager ''help'' of the girls, or that I am simply trying to do too much at once, but I stuff the recipe. I miss the line in the method about frying off the onions and carrots before throwing in the tinned lentils. I realise my mistake but plough on, throwing the onions into simmering lentils.
We plate up and Willow the four-year-old hits the stop button at 16 minutes, 57 seconds. I am impressed. It seems you can actually execute these in roughly 15 minutes - excluding the prep time and the clean up (add another 30 minutes). However, it tastes awful - the onion is, of course, raw, and my girls refuse to eat it. It's boiled corn on the cob for dinner.
I test other recipes in the book, this time without such a monumental stuff-up. My conclusion is you need to be a practised cook to pull off the 15-minute promise. You need to be comfortable doing three things at once, to have chicken frying in a pan while blitzing spinach in a processor and stirring lentils in a pot. But I started this process as an unbeliever, quietly snooty about the gimmicky nature of a meal thrown together in 15 minutes, and end up having to admit this is a clever compilation of recipes that may take a while to master but may also persuade people that it's just as easy and speedy to rattle the pans as it is to dial takeaway.
The Australian Women's Weekly, Fresh Food Fast
ACP Books, RRP $39.95. Released October.
Reviewed by Simon King, retailer, Melbourne. Lives with partner and three children, aged 2, 3 and 5.
Recipe road test Passionfruit souffles
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 12 minutes
Clean-up time 10 minutes
Overall comment The souffles were extremely easy to make. When it hit the table, no one was more surprised than me. How did I make something that looked so good? The taste was a little on the eggy side, but the passionfruit countered this. I'd make them again for the impact, if nothing else.
HANG on, why did I get this cookbook? I'm a man who's comfortable in the kitchen - I even cut a fine figure in an apron - yet I'm still wondering why they gave me, a bloke, the Women's Weekly cookbook to road test.
So, the first challenge was to my manhood, the second was to my loose approach to following recipes. This will be the first time I adhere to prescribed measures and methods. Yes, I think I know how to do it better than the book.
Fresh Food Fast is a basic, easy-to-follow book aimed at people with few skills and little time for fussing in the kitchen. The book is divided into starters, mains, sides and desserts. I tried the pumpkin and corn patties, the pan-fried whiting with leek, tomato and green olive salsa for main, and the passionfruit souffles. Each recipe had a time target, and mostly I managed to get pretty close (only two minutes over on the souffles!). On the plus side: the souffles were dead-set easy to make. And when those four puffy, sugar-dusted beauties hit the table, there were stunned faces all round.
On the down-side, is it cheating if a recipe's ingredients list includes things such as ''cleaned and roughly chopped'' potatoes, instant mash and quartered green olives? OK, I should have bought pitted olives, but who sells them quartered? And those dirty little kipflers needed a good scrub down, and I don't know anywhere that sells them pre-cleaned and chopped. Prep takes time and the recipe's time allocation precludes prep.
Overall, the book uses ingredients that are easy to find and put together quickly to make some pretty good grub. There are a few recipes I'm keen to have a crack at and maybe add to my repertoire. But, if anyone asks where I got the recipe, I'll probably lie.
Bill Granger, HarperCollins, RRP $49.99. Released October.
Reviewed by Michael Sibel, sculptor, Melbourne. Lives with wife and son, 4.
Recipe road test Beef, mushroom and snowpea stir-fry
Preparation time 10-15 minutes
Cooking time 8 minutes
Clean-up time 10 minutes (the wok and a couple of bowls: not too bad)
Overall comment Nice and simple, with clear instructions. All I had to do was chop the vegetables and slice the meat. I cut the meat thicker than recommended. I should have cut it thinner. This was my least favourite of the four dishes that I cooked. I would have used more chilli and spice.
I AM pretty excited by this challenge. I hardly ever cook stir-fries. It is not really my area of expertise. But I am encouraged by how simple it all sounds and after we have picked spring onions and coriander from our vegie patch, I get cracking, with help from my four-year-old, who is keen to assist.
There are quite a lot of ingredients but most I am able to pull out of the cupboard or the vegetable crisper (I had bought the beef that morning). With 10 ingredients laid out on the counter (it has taken me about 10 minutes to prepare), I feel relaxed and ready for my challenge. I pore over Bill's directions. His time estimates are accurate. I have smoke billowing from a hot wok, throw my beef strips in, give a quick stir, hook them out, and throw in the next half of the beef. Meanwhile, I am also cooking the rice noodles on the stove. (Next time I will do rice instead - the noodles ended up a bit bland.) Within another eight minutes, the dish is done. I add the flourish of coriander on top, and am chuffed that my dish looks so similar to the picture in the book.
I think this book is great; the kind of cookbook I'll turn to regularly, not just once or twice. I'm the main cook at home and I get bored with my repertoire of family dinners. While I like tasty dishes, the reality is I'm not going to make things such as curry paste from scratch on a weeknight and this book takes such practicalities into account by providing a separate curry paste recipe, but also advising ''shop bought'' is fine.
Numerous recipes have a long list of ingredients, but they are mostly familiar and easy to source, and many recipes have an overlap of ingredients.
Granger's writing style is easy to follow. The most complex dish I made was a Spanish fish stew. I also made the cevapcici with radicchio and lemon and the ginger pear upside-down pudding. Of the four dishes, the simplest - the cevapcici - was the tastiest.
I like the way the chapters revolve around a main ingredient (''piece of chicken'' or ''handful of grains'') rather than by courses. This approach is good if you have ingredients you're not sure what to do with.
Hugh's Three Good Things... on a Plate
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Bloomsbury, RRP $49.99. Released October.
Reviewed by Kirsten Lawson, editor, Canberra. Lives with partner and three children, aged 5, 9 and 11.
Recipe road test Chicken, rocket, redcurrants
Preparation time Less than 15 minutes
Cooking time It was right on eight minutes
Clean-up time Five minutes (no pots, just the dishes to rinse and shove in the dishwasher)
Overall comment Hardly cooking. But fine for a salad, lifting it from ordinary to mildly interesting. It would have been boring if not the addition of the cranberries, which we used instead of redcurrants. It's a pretty dish but it didn't blow me away.
''RIDICULOUSLY simple'', insists the author in his introduction. This book, penned by the BBC's forerunner to Matthew Evans (Gourmet Farmer), distills recipes to a ''magic pattern'' of three key ingredients.
Initially, I was concerned. Had my favourite, bucolic television cook with the singsong voice, the owner of happy pigs and chooks, gone the way of the 4 Ingredients fad? Would all the recipes rely on a contrived formula?
Not exactly. Fearnley-Whittingstall claims most great meals consist of three key ideas or elements: salty, sweet, crunchy; sharp, rich, crumbly; double espresso, shot of brandy and a fag (that's a joke).
So while a recipe might be called ''liver, onion, spice'', the ingredients list drags in cumin, fennel, coriander, caraway, pepper, paprika and cayenne for the ''spice''.
Not precisely three ingredients, but I'd rather a bit of harmless contrivance than ready-made sauces.
Our first dish is ''chicken, rocket, redcurrants'', and we're offside from the start. Shredding a roast chicken and throwing a dressing on some greens can't be described as actual cooking. Hell, it's barely even dinner. Fast? Yes. Simple? Ludicrously so.
But as to the taste, well, it's pretty good. The cranberries (which we use instead of the unavailable redcurrants) add just enough excitement, sweetness and tartness to lift this dish from what would be better described as a sandwich without the bread into a mildly exciting salad.
Our second dish, ''rhubarb, champagne, cream'', is a rhubarb jelly. You make the rhubarb into a syrup, add the gelatine, then pour in two-thirds of a bottle of champagne so slowly you don't lose the bubbles.
The result is elegant and pretty, but not so lovely to taste, with a slight bitterness, which I'm thinking was contributed by the alcohol, or perhaps by our use of a low-alcohol fizz so this dessert could be shared with the kids. Quality fizz is probably required.
It's when we get to a polenta dish that Fearnley-Whittingstall's spell works its magic. This is our only successful home-made polenta ever. The milk is steeped in onion, garlic and thyme, adding those flavours to the polenta, which is cooked, cooled as a slab, then fried. Fry and throw on the onions and you have a quick, vegetarian dinner with an edge of sophistication. This I will cook again.
We'll keep this cookbook on our already over-burdened shelves for its simple, up-to-date ideas. We quickly forgot our irritation at the shoe-horning of every meal into a holy trinity, and earmarked other recipes to try.