Feathered by P J Booth – Book review

Dave Rose

The Melbourne-based lawyer turned cooking addict is at it again. Following on from his Gourmand award-winning madcap debut hardback offering A Charcuterie Diary (see Hunter 65), Peter John Booth comes back with a second helping and has turned his gastronomic gaze on poultry.

Feathered is the title he eventually decided upon, apparently after much conjecture, for his latest volume, which is even more expansive than the initial outing. This time he claims to serve up 530 pages, with about 180 recipes described via approximately 110,000 words. All this is backed by 60 colour photographs of the various fowl involved which appear almost as artwork portraits. The fare on offer may be bulkier than Booth’s previous outpourings from his kitchen lair, but the reader need not be alarmed - the words and often cheeky sentiments are quite digestible.

For those who have little patience for cooking, then prepare to be converted. There is no pause for pondering as Booth lays his mantra right on the table with his opening lines. ‘I like food,’ he barks. ‘Whether I understand it or not is another matter. I like looking at it in its fresh form particularly at markets. I like the history of it. I like reading about it. I like cooking it. I like eating it.’

So we instantly know where we stand. And off we go on a rousing escapade through pages of name-checks, locations, time zones and explanations that seem to suggest Booth could moonlight as a script writer for various episodes of Doctor Who if he ever became bored of his role as a rogue chef. But that seems highly unlikely. We don’t even leave the first page before we are transported to a passage of lunchtime whimsy from Kenneth Grahames classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows with Rat and Mole salivating over tucking into what is in their picnic hamper. This will be the first of many digestive digressions involving thoughts pilfered from the likes of French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, British authors A. A. Milne and Virginia Woolf, American writer Jim Thompson plus Irish maverick playwright Oscar Wilde. Also reappearing for encores from Booth’s first book are Isabella ‘Mrs’ Beeton, Emile Zola, Elizabeth David and in keeping with the zany asides, even Ernest Hemingway. So we are in elite company. Booth even lists his multiple references in the first Appendix.

When the word poultry is mentioned, most people would probably think of chicken. And that’s the starting point for Booth to summarise the array of species that are destined for his menus. We follow on with his nods to fellow staples turkey and duck before things gradually veer left of centre via pigeon, pheasant and an Australian connection of emu. The scale of oddities is rounded off by thrush. Ah well, it’s food for thought.

Before laying bare his assortment of recipes, Booth shows that he is clued up on the procedural side of affairs under the umbrella of ‘The technical stuff and the techniques.’ Along with the words, numerous charts highlight various nutritional values as well as the difference between white and dark meat.

There is still time to explore more systematic methodology of cooking before we get into the nitty-gritty of what Booth is going to put on our plates. The old jibe of somebody not being able to boil an egg is turned on its head by Booth’s intricate insight into the complexities of doing just that and ensuring something edible and enjoyable results. The actual egg recipes surface in a later chapter. An extended foray into cooking techniques including smoking, dry curing and browning meat suggests that for a self-confessed self-taught cook, Booth knows what he is doing.

Then Booth decides that we may have been hurtling along too fast, so he opts for ‘The Intermission.’ He takes time to outline the core of his beliefs and takes a swipe at the so-called celebrity chefs who clutter up our television screens ‘The art of good cooking is to understand food, to understand quality and availability (not seasonality) and to understand your audience. Know these things and you will cook well and intuitively,’ he opines.

When we come to the recipes, Booth is enamoured by the cooking potential of the chicken. So much so that he even invents his own vocabulary. ‘A whole chicken is an adventure in chicken-ology ( a new word), indeed some may say chook-tastic (another new word of which I am quite proud),’ he says.

As the chicken recipes mount up, so do the global influences with French, Spanish, Greek, Argentinian, Chinese and Singaporean tweaks applicable to certain dishes. Booth includes his own take on standard options such as Coq au Vin, Roast Chicken and even Chicken Burger. Scattered in the midst are some rather more unconventional creations such as Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic and Chicken Liver Parfait.

There are certain mild reservations voiced by Booth when it comes to duck but he emerges with a positive conclusion. And he warns against treating turkey as a mere substitute for chicken, believing that it has noble qualities in its own right.

Quail earns Booth’s tick of approval before he runs through the ‘other birds’ some of which he admits do not have a tradition of being cooked in Australia. But, as he says, this is no reason to ignore them.

Equally thought-provoking is the ‘The Recipes for the Brave’ segment, which again is a grouping reprised from Booth’s earlier publication. ‘You have come this far. You can go further. I just know it,’ says Booth as a modicum of encouragement. But rather than any outlandish or far-fetched concoctions, the recipes here appear just more testing than elsewhere. Duck is to the fore with Duck Bacon and Duck Pastrami among the challenges.

Booth takes an abrupt detour from his already dizzy route by including rabbit. He recognises the shock value of his brusque diversion by dubbing this section ‘The Exception.’ Then he explains his seemingly baffling reasoning: ‘Does rabbit belong in a poultry cookbook I hear you say? Yes, because it is game meat just like quail and pheasant. No, because it does not have feathers.’

Anyway, this is Booth’s book so he can do what he pleases. ‘...Enough of rationalisations. It is included because I like it.’ And so we ponder a brief but endearing assortment of dishes revolving around Monsieur Lapin.

With the weighty content of the core recipes suitably dealt with, Booth takes us on a smooth downhill cruise towards the conclusion of his assignment. We are given a peek into the art of Sous Vide. This involves cooking food within a glass jar or pouch in water for longer than normal periods. It sounds like something from a chemistry experiment but Booth again oozes enthusiasm as we give it a go.

Back on the straight and narrow again, Booth takes time to run through soups, carbohydrates, greenery, desserts and sauces. Nothing seems too much trouble. Even a seemingly obvious accompaniment like mashed potato is treated with loving care.

Salads are viewed with a rare hint of indifference but Booth lets Brillat-Savarin put forward their case with the gourmet’s summary: ‘Salad freshens without enfeebling and fortifies without irritating.’

Copious appendices, which include measurement tables and an affirmation of the joys of perusing Melbourne’s food markets, take us to Booth’s Epilogue.

Remarkably at the end of such a lengthy journey, Booth reveals that he does all his writing by hand, in his study at home - with no typing or computer screens involved. That fact seems testament to his zeal for cooking. But even he admits to not exactly knowing why he does what he does.

‘I do not know why I wrote this book, although I would like to think that it was not about ego,’ Booth concludes. ‘All I can say is that I like cooking, I like cookbooks and I have come to (quite) like the process of writing in this genre.’

That is a fitting finishing point. Putting poultry on a culinary pedestal works a treat. Initial glances at the book may spark fears that it looks rather daunting, intimidating or high-brow. But once you breach the cover, that is far from the case. Booth writes in a manner that is down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, colourful but opinionated and in passages even self-deprecating. And he throws in references from immaculate sources. The recipes vary from salivating to savvy to downright simple. So don’t chicken out ‑ pick it up and you’ll be glad you did.

Specifications

Title: Feathered

Author: Peter John Booth

Publisher: Publishing Productions

ISBN: 978-0-6484595-0-7

RRP: 74.99

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