5 Reasons to Love James May’s New Cookbook

Books Reviews

I am always a little loath to try to review cookbooks, as I am hardly an authority on the culinary arts. As a matter of fact, my expertise is limited to:

  • I own cookbooks.
  • I use them to make things.
  • I eat food… every day.

When my copy of James May’s new cookbook, Oh Cook!: 60 Easy Recipes Any Idiot Can Make, arrived as a post-Christmas gift, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for it. After reading the book and trying out a couple of selections, I can now say I love this cookbook.

Here are five reasons why I think you will, as well!

You don’t need to see his show of the same name to enjoy it… but you’ll want to.

This book is a companion to May’s Amazon Prime Oh Cook! series and includes the recipes featured on the show (along with many others). It’s also one you can enjoy on its own merit without even having to watch a single episode. There is some explanation on the history of (or May’s personal history with) certain recipes, but for sheer entertainment purposes, I also recommend the show. His descriptions are more extensive, and his interactions with the crew and resident “food economist” Nikki range from charming to hilarious.

One of the aspects of the show is we get to enjoy his cooking mishaps a few times, which isn’t evident in the nice and pretty full-color images in the book. It is like taking that perfect family photo, where the predecessors all have us looking in opposite directions or trying to get the dog to turn around. Same concept: success in cooking often comes after a few imperfect attempts. Seeing someone else do that on television (without being part of a celebrity-chef driven cooking competition) somehow makes me feel better about myself.

Also, you don’t get a “Nikki” in the book, and she is wonderfully patient and encouraging with May. She also won’t hesitate to say is something is awful, and that is the kind of friend we all need.

You can read it cover-to-cover.

When I said I own cookbooks, it was a bit of an understatement. I collect really cool cookbooks, including many signed copies by well-known celebrity foodies such as the late Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain. They often include anecdotes, cultural and culinary observations of places they’ve been, and the occasional witty comment or two. None of them have actually been something I want to sit down and read when I’m not using it to cook.

I rarely muscle through every chapter introduction, and often skim around the recipes themselves getting only what I need. May’s book is as clever as it is useful, and even the recipes contain enough little quips, you’ll want to read through just so you don’t miss any jokes.

He casually starts the “Chicken Cheater Marsala” with “Bung all the marinade ingredients in a bowl…” for instance, and his “Minging Hot Dog” recipe concludes with “repeat until old people tell you how they had one like this when they went to see Towering Inferno in 1974.”

There are comments like this throughout, and it is well worth reading even the recipes you might not try.

The Spamen! A dish so nice… we made it twice. Image: Rick Tate

He knows how to properly raid a pantry.

His “Storecupboard Saviours” is particularly useful. We all want our families (and ourselves) to eat healthy and fresh, but sometimes we just need to feed everyone in a pinch.

This section starts out with him talking about his own pantry filled with what he calls “things that will sustain me if the zombies came,” and includes a practical list of foods every good “Cupboard of Plenty” should have under headings like “dried things” and “Nuclear winter miscellany.” There are items as boring as baked beans to spicier things like star anise and wasabi in a tube.

May doesn’t have any children that I know of, but this section is amazingly helpful for busy parents on a budget who are trying to get a decent meal together for different generations after having a beast of a day.

I love haute cuisine as much as the next food snob, but if I can find new ways to make Spam or alphabet soup work, then I am all for it.

This brings me to the next reason to love this book…

The recipes are both “user friendly” and very, very tasty. 

There are plenty of cookbooks devoted to making easy or cheap recipes out there. May’s isn’t the first to go in that direction, by far. From my personal experience, many of these tend to be pretty bland or simply unimaginative, and admittedly not always healthy.

Some of the more “fancy” cookbooks I have include beautifully rendered food setups but are difficult to make or include several ingredients that are not very obtainable or affordable for everyone.

Pretty much everything in Oh Cook! I could make it without too much cost or effort. But, will everyone eat it? I tried two recipes to start.

The first was the “Cauliflower Cheese.” I made this at the end of a busy day, and it was very much a case of classic “distracted cooking” on my part. I mean, I tried to screw this recipe up, with breaking up doggy battles in the middle of the kitchen, helping with homework, answering the phone… hanging up on telemarketers (don’t judge me), retrieving my Sherlock Funko that fell from the ledge into my pan, and assorted other little incidents. Still, the milk and cheese mixture was simple enough and the baking of the veggies went off without a hitch. It was practically picture-perfect when I pulled it out of the oven.

We had it as a side dish with some plain old diner-style meatloaf, but it was good enough to be a vegetarian main dish. It didn’t have that processed cheese taste like frozen veggies, and second helpings were had by all (including myself). There was enough to serve with my kids’ lunch the next day, which is a bonus while she’s still doing remote school.

It may not have looked as brown and bubbly as the image, but the cauliflower cheese was a hit with everyone. Images: Lisa Tate

The other item was the one that inspired me to get the book in the first place: the “Spamen.” It made use of two pantry staples: canned Spam and packaged Ramen noodles. My daughters helped me make four servings, but I worked on the “hard part” of frying the cornflakes coated Spam strips. May says in the recipe the coat will make a “mess,” and he wasn’t kidding, but once they were fried, they looked like something out of a swanky retro Tiki bar and grill.

One adjustment we made for time was, instead of boiling an egg, we “poached” an egg by putting it in the microwave. It wasn’t as pretty but tasted just fine.

The result was both attractive and very, very nummy. All four of us polished off our bowls, and my youngest told me after her new favorite vegetable is “bok choy.” Liking a new veggie on her own is a parenting win!

When my brother and his family came into town a week later, we told them about the dish, and we ended up making double the servings for an extended family meal. The result was the same, with everyone finishing up their entire meals.

Yes, the Spamen was a meal so nice we made it twice… and I’m looking forward to the next time.

This is one cookbook I plan to use often, and I think my family approves. Image: Lisa Tate

May is a lying liar who lies (sorta). That’s a good thing.

His jokingly stated “I can’t cook. Welcome to the cookery show” claim may be somewhat true to the extent that he isn’t a well-seasoned (no cooking pun intended) chef who can whip of elegant works of edible art, but he proves himself otherwise.

As a matter of fact, he can cook well enough to make an entertaining and craving-inducing show, create a practical and useful cookbook filled with meals kids and adults alike (including healthy recipes) will enjoy, and convince beginning and reluctant cooks they can also cook easy recipes that can both impress guests and save time and money for families.

That is something I can certainly appreciate.

Oh Cook! is available in bookstores and on Amazon for about $17.96 hardback from Pavilion books, as well as $9.99 on Kindle.

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