Finding fresh inspiration in the pages of old cookbooks

Lockdown, though frustrating, has helped me rediscover the joys of cooking

07 May 2020 - 09:20
There's nothing like the thrill of eating with your eyes as you flick through the pages of a cookbook filled with gorgeous food photographs.
There's nothing like the thrill of eating with your eyes as you flick through the pages of a cookbook filled with gorgeous food photographs.
Image: 123RF/rawpixel

When the beleaguered restaurant industry was granted a small reprieve last week to sell their wares as home-delivered takeaways, I was reminded of a conversation I had with SA-born celebrity chef Prue Leith in the late 1990s.

At that time, TV execs had turned their backs on dramas in favour of cooking shows. Foodtainment, some called it. Viewers lapped these programmes up — became obsessed really — and ordinary chefs were catapulted to star status.  

I asked Leith if she believed this trend had inspired more people to embrace home cooking. “Of course not,” she said, rather emphatically. “You’ll find most people are glued to the screen with their favourite takeaway on their lap.”

The ability to order takeaways again is indeed a pleasure but, on reflection, I’ve realised that weeks of being housebound during lockdown, though frustrating, have helped me rediscover the joys of cooking.

One of the ways I’ve done so is by delving into my library of cookbooks.

As I worked my way through several books by Englishman Nigel Slater, I've enjoyed noting how his style of cooking has evolved towards vegetarianism. His writing is so conversational that it almost feels as if he’s standing over your shoulder in the kitchen.

Jamie Oliver has grown up through the pages of his many cookbooks

Then there’s dear Jamie Oliver, whose ideas I never tire of. He too has grown up through the pages of his many cookbooks. The early volumes remind you just what a brilliant, fresh new voice he brought to the food arena, while the latest ones, which champion vegetables and quick five-ingredient meals, show how he’s kept up with the times.

I’ve sought out advice from the no-nonsense, home economics-style of writing of the late South African food icon, Sannie Smit, and turned to another renowned local food writer, the late SJA de Villiers, for guidance. The yellow pages of De Villiers' book Cook & Enjoy, first published in 1961, feature some awfully old-fashioned images — were we really inspired by them at that time?

Big names and great inspirations aside, I’ve yearned for the kind of food that lifts the mood, the simple comforting stuff that harks back to a time when life was “normal”.

It’s no surprise that the dishes I crave most contain carbs — lots of them — like good old-fashioned macaroni and cheese. And I’m not alone; the recipe for this family favourite has been one of those most-googled by South Africans during lockdown.

In fact, of all the things you could choose to cook to celebrate Mother’s Day, if someone would make me a big dish of mac and cheese, I’d feel loved, cherished and just fine in the noise of a troubled world.


Featured in my very first cookbook, Step by Step Cooking, which published in 1995, this macaroni and cheese recipe has stood the test of time.

Ham lends a salty smokiness to the creamy pasta, while a layer of tomatoes makes for a welcome change of colour and texture.

Purists can skip these extras, but never compromise on using mature cheddar cheese — it’s the secret of a good dish.

To make a dish that feeds four to six:

  • Cook 350g macaroni in boiling salted water until just al dente. Drain and set aside.
  • Make the sauce by heating a splash of oil and a knob of butter in a large pot and frying 1 large, finely chopped onion until soft. Add 45ml (3 tbsp) flour and stir until you have an oniony paste. Remove the pot from the heat and add 750ml (3 cups) milk.
  • Return to the heat and stir until the sauce thickens, adding 5ml (1 tsp) mustard powder or ready-made mustard, a dash of ground nutmeg and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
  • Once thickened, add 250g of grated mature cheddar cheese and 125g cubed smoked ham (you could use fried bacon instead). Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  • Add the pasta and mix through.
  • Butter a 2-litre baking dish and spoon in half the macaroni and cheese. Top with the slices of 2 firm, ripe peeled tomatoes. Add the remaining pasta, then sprinkle with extra grated cheese (preferably Parmesan) and bake at 160 until the top is brown and golden.