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Cook This: Three recipes from Better Cooking

In her third book, Alice Zaslavsky shares skills in the hopes of building kitchen confidence

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Our cookbook of the week is Better Cooking by Australian broadcaster, cook and writer Alice Zaslavsky.

Jump to the recipes: cauli almond ajo blanco, fennel and citrus salad with smoky green onion dressing, and loaded potato latkes.

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People tend to put themselves in boxes when it comes to cooking. A few failures, and you tell yourself you’re a “bad” cook, as if that’s a forever thing. In her third book, Better Cooking, Australian broadcaster, cook and writer Alice Zaslavsky aims to disrupt this line of thinking — wherever you may be on the cooking continuum.

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“It’s not just beginner cooks that call themselves ‘bad’ cooks. Even people who have been cooking for decades will still put themselves in that box, and all you’re doing is setting limitations and restrictions on yourself.”

As the title suggests, Better Cooking isn’t about being a “good cook.” It’s about improving. Loosely organized by effort — easier to more complex — it radiates with culinary possibilities. Zaslavsky designed the compendium of 100-plus vegetable-forward recipes to boost confidence and build skills. Joyful and empowering, she didn’t want readers to feel as if they were being lectured. Instead, she hopes they “trip into learning” while having fun.

Zaslavsky, a MasterChef Australia “almost finalist,” former English teacher and humanities department head who lives on the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, describes herself as a growth mindset person. “I’ve been in a classroom. If I walked in there and said, ‘OK, so we’re going to learn something really hard today. You won’t be good at it, but let’s just see how you go.’ Even that is still too growth mindset for how people think about cooking. So, what I want people to know is you don’t have to be a ‘good’ cook. Because even the best chefs in the world still have off days.”

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Having a sense of humour may not be up there with attention to detail or multitasking in terms of prescribed kitchen qualities, but to Zaslavsky, it’s essential to becoming a better cook. Making mistakes and moving on is part of the process — we might as well be able to laugh about it. “I will still burn stuff. I will still forget things in the oven or walk away for a moment and char my pine nuts, and that’s fine. It’s actually funny,” she says. “That’s something that comes with removing the expectations we set on ourselves.”

The recipes in Better Cooking are eclectic by design, ranging in inspiration from Aussie childhood classics and Melbourne restaurants to Zaslavsky’s birthplace of Tbilisi, Georgia. As varied as their influences may be, they all fall into Zaslavsky’s definition of “Better Cooks of the 21st century”: adaptable, veg forward, low impact, low effort and high return.

“It needed to be a manifesto, in a way: ‘These are the points that make a better cook of now.’ And actually, some of those points aren’t so new. Some of them go back to granny skills or skills we’ve lost. So, what excites me about this new age of cooks is that they are coming back to low-waste cooking or finding shortcuts or being adaptable or whatever it is, and we can continue to evolve as cooks as well. I’m getting better every time I cook,” she says with a laugh.

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Better Cooking by Alice Zaslavsky book cover
In her third cookbook, Better Cooking, Alice Zaslavsky focuses on building skills. Photo by Appetite by Random House

There are roughly 150,000 copies of Zaslavsky’s second book, In Praise of Veg, in six languages and 14 countries. A proponent of food literacy and creator of Phenomenom, a free digital resource for teachers, she wrote the book for parents. (Little can quash kids’ curiosity and enthusiasm quicker than coming home to overboiled, underseasoned vegetables.) Wherever she meets people around the world, they tell her the same thing: “I’ve got it on the shelf, and I’m waiting until I’m a good cook to use it.” Better Cooking was a natural next step: the keys to not just the vegetable kingdom but any cookbook or recipe. After all, adapting, customizing and making your own decisions is part of being a better cook.

Freeing yourself from others’ tastes or expectations is essential, Zaslavsky writes — a lesson she learned when she appeared on MasterChef Australia in 2012. Some of the best advice the contestants were given, she recalls, was that when you cook out of fear — whether of failure or letting yourself or someone else down — the food will taste like that dread.

“Love is the opposite of fear. And what I mean by love is it’s not just love because you’re cooking with love for others, but it’s also a love for yourself. And it’s a love for the produce. So, if you have taken the care of shopping for the produce, speaking with the people who are growing your food, or you’re at a local independent grocer who’s chosen out of the wholesale markets, then you go home and prepare it; even if it’s just for you, there should still be self-love that comes through cooking for yourself. So, it’s a different way of cooking, and I think it comes back to loosening your shoulders and not worrying about everything being to the letter. If you don’t follow my recipe to the letter, that is a compliment to me because it shows that I have empowered you not to feel afraid anymore.”

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The cover, illustrated by Lynn Bremner, is a nod to the idea that no matter what baggage you’re carrying, better cooking is within grasp. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I know that you’ve got all these preconceived notions and ideas of domestic bliss, but just chuck them in a pan. Leap into this freely and with abandon and see what happens.’”

Each recipe comes with “bonus bits” including shortcuts, substitutions, riffs, tips for reducing food waste, gadget, ingredient and skills spotlights. As with her previous books, Zaslavsky carefully considered the user experience. Her parents are academics who work in decision support systems — “big ideas and big data.” Zaslavsky applies her computational skills to food.

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The recipes are in black text on a white background, each with an accompanying photo. (“If you can’t see what the juice is, you don’t know whether it’s worth the squeeze.”) In the case of longer recipes, the bonus bits follow on lilac pages for those who want to delve deeper.

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Some of the more complex techniques are illustrated with Ben Dearnley’s step-by-step photography, such as the loaded potato latkes. Zaslavsky extracts excess liquid from the grated potato using a tightly wound tea towel for a crispier result and then harvests the starch to reincorporate into the potato mixture. When she introduced this technique years ago in a latke recipe for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, readers turned to the comment section, unsure what she meant. In Better Cooking, she preempts the question by illustrating what the harvested starch looks like — a tactic she uses throughout the book.

“These days where we have so much access to recipes, and so much information at our fingertips, with the internet and with our smartphones, cookbooks need to behave differently for readers. So you need to be much more cognizant of what it is that you’re providing, what problems you’re solving as a cookbook author that they may not otherwise receive on the internet.”

Returning to the loaded potato latkes, the big lesson in the recipe is flipping them out of the pan. Once you’ve learned how to invert a pancake or fritter, you can translate that skill to many different dishes, such as an omelette, frittata or cake.

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“It’s one of those confidence builders,” says Zaslavsky. “It’s like, you can do this. You’ve got this.”

You’ve Got This is what Zaslavsky originally wanted to call the book, which is also the name of the cooking column she writes for The Guardian. She may have been outvoted on the title, but it encapsulates her encouraging style and Better Cooking’s essence. “You don’t have to worry whether you can manage this. You’ve got this — and you’ve got me.”

CAULI ALMOND AJO BLANCO

Cauli almond ajo blanco
“This is such a beautiful, velvety, creamy soup,” Alice Zaslavsky says of her cauli almond ajo blanco. Photo by Ben Dearnley

Serves: 4-6

1 cup (160 g) raw almonds
1/3 cup (80 mL) extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
2 French shallots, finely sliced
5 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1/4 cup (60 mL) good-quality sherry vinegar, plus extra to serve
6 cups (1.5 L) stock, or 6 cups (1.5 L) water mixed with 1-2 vegetable bouillon cubes
1 cauliflower, about 2 lb 4 oz (1 kg), cut into florets
3 1/2 oz (100 g) stale bread, crusts removed and reserved
1 tsp salt flakes, plus extra to taste
1/3 cup (60 g) fresh grapes, cut in half
Red-veined sorrel leaves, to garnish

Step 1

Cover the almonds well with boiling water. Leave to soak for about 10 minutes to help the skins soften, then drain and leave to cool. The almond skins should slip off easily with your fingers.

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Step 2

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Gently sweat the shallot, garlic and blanched almonds for 5-6 minutes, until the shallot is translucent but not coloured. Add the sherry vinegar, stirring to deglaze the pan.

Step 3

Pour in your chosen stock combo and bring to the boil. Add the cauliflower and cook for 15-20 minutes, until very tender, but not turning greige.

Step 4

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375F (190C) and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Toss the bread crusts in the last of the olive oil, spread on the tray and bake for 20 minutes, until dry and crispy.

Step 5

Add the torn bits of stale bread innards to the soup and blitz until super smooth and velvety. Season to taste with the salt flakes, some cracked black pepper and a touch more vinegar if needed.

Step 6

Ladle the hot soup into bowls and garnish with the grapes and sorrel. Finish with an extra drizzle of sherry vinegar and olive oil. Serve with the crusty croutons as well as any other crusty bread you’ve got in your vicinity.

BONUS BITS

Tips: These croutons will work with any bread, from sourdough to sliced white bread to ciabatta. If you’re worried yours is a little too hard to blitz, warm up 3/4 cup (200 mL) of the stock and soak the bread in it before blending.

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Waste knot: If your cauliflower came with leaves, toss these in oil and season and bake with the bread crusts for a lovely bonus zero-waste garnish. How cheffy of you!

SKILLS SPOTLIGHT: BLANCHING

Blanching is useful for several reasons. Firstly, popping plump fruit and veg such as peaches and tomatoes into boiling water and refreshing in iced water is a surefire way to soften skins for removal, without losing the integrity of the delicate flesh within. Nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts benefit from blanching to help peel off their fibrous skins. Blanching also locks in and intensifies the colour of leafy greens.

For a lazy blanch, I’ll shorten the time under heat and run under the hot water tap instead — or, for saucing tomatoes, a quick dip in boiling water, then straight into the bowl for peeling does the trick.

FENNEL & CITRUS SALAD WITH SMOKY GREEN ONION DRESSING

Fennel & citrus salad with smoky green onion dressing
“Fennel and citrus are always friends, whether it’s a winter recipe where you’re baking the fennel or a spring recipe where you’re mandolining it and acidulating with that lemon and segmenting.” Photo by Ben Dearnley

Serves: 4-6

Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 fennel bulbs, fronds picked
1/2 bunch of dill fronds (keep the stems to use below)
1 chioggia beet (optional)
6 radishes (optional)
2 oranges
1 grapefruit or blood orange

Smoky green onion oil:
1/2 bunch of green onions
1/2 bunch of dill, stems and fronds separated
1/2 bunch of chives
Scant 1/2 cup (100 mL) grapeseed oil
1/4 tsp sea salt flakes
1/8 tsp superfine sugar (optional)

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Chive vinaigrette:
1/2 bunch of chives, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, bruised
1/4 cup (60 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/4 tsp salt flakes
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Step 1

Pour some cold water into a bowl or salad spinner and add the lemon juice, ready for the fennel.

Step 2

Trim the very bottom off each fennel bulb, and leave on enough of the top green stalks to use as handles. Using a mandoline or sharp knife, shave the fennel very thinly, in the same direction as the ribs run. Pop the fennel shavings into the bowl or salad spinner, along with the fennel and dill fronds. If using the beet and/or radish, shave these thinly and add to the bowl or spinner, too. Leave in the fridge to get super crunchy, crisp and cold while you get on with the rest of the salad.

Step 3

To make the smoky green onion oil, cut the green tops off the green onions and reserve. Slice the green onion whites into thin ribbons, about 1 1/4 inches (3 cm) long, then pop in the bowl in the fridge with the fennel to curl up. Toss the green onion tops in a heavy-based pan and heat over high heat for 3-4 minutes until they turn a brighter green, with flecks of gold and black. While still hot, use tongs to add them to a small blender with the dill stems, chives, grapeseed oil, salt and sugar, if using. Blitz for 2-3 minutes to a bright green mush; the heat generated by the blender blades will help to extract the green colour and the flavour of the herbs.

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Step 4

Drape a piece of cheesecloth over a strainer and place over a bowl. Pour the green onion mixture into the strainer. Leave the oil to drip through on its own, which should take about 20 minutes. Pour the strained oil into a squeeze bottle or small pouring jug and set aside for serving.

Step 5

Meanwhile, zest the oranges and grapefruit, reserving the zest, then segment the fruit (see skills spotlight, follows). Squeeze the leftover citrus peels and membranes into a small jar to extract any remaining juice. Add all the chive vinaigrette ingredients and the reserved zest, seal the jar and shake vigorously to help them get friendly, to the point of emulsification.

Step 6

Drain the chilled shaved fennel mixture and green onion curls and spin until fully dry.

Step 7

Toss the fennel mixture in the vinaigrette and place in a serving bowl. Garnish with the citrus segments and green onion curls. Serve drizzled with the smoky green onion oil.

SKILLS SPOTLIGHT: SEGMENTING CITRUS

Place the peeled fruit on a chopping board and use a sharp knife to lop the top and the bottom off, so you have a flat surface to work from. The aim of the game is to keep as much flesh as you can on the fruit, while taking the bitter white pith off, by following the shape of the fruit. Start from the top, running the knife from top to bottom, and working all the way around the citrus until done. It might help to turn the citrus upside-down for some parts of this, especially for bigger fruit.

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Holding the citrus in your hand, look to the skin membrane and slice in on a 45-degree angle, then turn the knife to follow on the opposite angle against the other membrane, to release each segment. Don’t forget to squeeze the juice from the membranes into your dressing.

And remember to zest the fruit before you slice into it, even if the recipe doesn’t ask you to. It’s far easier to zest a whole citrus than to try to zest bits of skin!

LOADED POTATO LATKES

Loaded potato latkes
“It’s a bit rösti-like. It’s a bit hashbrown-y. It’s definitely latke-y, but it’s a little bit pizza-y as well. So, whatever you put on a pizza, you can put on top of this latke,” says Alice Zaslavsky. Photo by Ben Dearnley

Makes: 2 (serves 4)

6 medium-sized starchy potatoes (‘mashing’ or ‘roasting’ potatoes), about 2 lb 10 oz (1.2 kg) in total, washed and scrubbed
1 yellow onion, peeled
1 tsp sea salt flakes, plus extra to finish
2/3 cup (160 mL) olive oil

To serve:
Your choice of toppings or garnishes; we’ve used sliced avocado, baby red-vein sorrel leaves, sauerkraut, plant-based cream cheese and lemon cheeks.

Step 1

Coarsely grate the potato and onion, using a box grater or food processor. Line a large mixing bowl with a clean tea towel, scoop the potato mixture into the tea towel and sprinkle with the salt flakes. Squeeze the salt into the mixture with your fingers.

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Step 2

Twist the towel up into a bundle, then squeeze with all your might to ooze the liquid into the mixing bowl. I use a wooden spoon as a tourniquet, but you could just use brute force. It’s quite the workout! Don’t throw out the liquid just yet.

Step 3

Tip the potato mixture out of the tea towel into a fresh bowl, and leave to sit for 10 minutes. Carefully pour off the liquid in the other bowl, leaving just the gluey starch at the bottom, and reincorporate this into the potato mixture using your hands.

Loaded potato latkes process
Alice Zaslavsky squeezes the moisture from the potatoes and onion and reintroduces the harvested starch when making latkes. PHOTOS BY BEN DEARNLEY

Step 4

Heat an 11-inch (28-cm) heavy-based frying pan over medium heat. If your pan isn’t nonstick, line the base with a round of parchment paper. Add a quarter of your oil (roughly 2-3 tablespoons). Loosely sprinkle in half the potato mixture. Set the timer for 15 minutes, then walk away to live your life, get your toppings or garnishes together, maybe make a salad.

Step 5

After 15 minutes, come back and scoop in the sides of the latke. Grab a large flat plate or round chopping board that fits just inside the pan. Shake the pan gently to loosen the latke, then pop the plate/board on top and flip the latke out with confidence, being careful of leaky oil.

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Step 6

Pour another quarter of the oil into the pan. With a few choice words and the help of a spatula, carefully usher the latke back in, cooked side up. Set the timer for another 10 minutes. Go set the table, have a sip of water.

Step 7

Slip the finished latke onto a serving platter or chopping board and load up with your chosen accoutrements, finishing with a good grind of black pepper. Serve immediately.

Step 8

Before you head to the table, pop half the remaining oil into the pan, sprinkle in the rest of your potato mixture, set the timer for 15 minutes and away you go! By the time the first latke is well on its way to being devoured, your second should be coming up for a flip. Hit repeat.

Recipes and images excerpted from Better Cooking by Alice Zaslavsky. Copyright ©2024 Alice Zaslavsky. Photographs by Ben Dearnley. Published by Appetite an imprint of Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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