Who comes up trumps when you pit Eva Longoria, Sheryl Crow and Gwyneth Paltrow against one another? Well of course, it rather depends on the subject matter. Now Gwyneth may have warbled rather well on Glee, but Grammy award-winning Crow will always take the crown in the singing stakes.
In terms of acting, Desperate Housewives (the show in which Longoria stars) is very successful, but it's Gwyneth who can lay claim to an Oscar. When it comes to fashion and red-carpet dressing, all three have had their regrettable moments, but can scrub up enviably well.
But what about in the kitchen? Those names weren't just randomly plucked from thin air, you see: they've all put out a cookery book this year. Yes, surprising as it may seem, these celebrities do cook. Well, actually, two of them do. Crow admits to "not being a great cook" in the opening pages and recipes are supplied by her private chef.
So are these books any good? If sales are anything to go by, then yes. In May, Paltrow's and Longoria's offerings both featured in the New York Times' bestseller list, coming in at numbers seven and eight respectively. But as we all know, celebrity status guarantees interest, so this doesn't tell us a huge amount. To revert to culinary cliché, the proof is in the pudding. Over the past few weeks, I've been working my way through the three books and cooking from them as often as possible.
And the conclusion? Well, all of them are, as expected, rife with very consciously styled photos of the women, hair gleaming, perfectly made-up, cooking away in their unfeasibly immaculate houses. Paltrow, in particular, wafts around in billowy white outfits that seem highly impractical for whipping up sauces or making pasta, while Crow prefers to oversee operations from a distance, rather than get involved with the minutiae of carrot peeling and potato dicing.
They also all suffer from unnecessary recipe syndrome: do we really need to be told by Crow how to put together a Caprese salad? (Hint: slice tomatoes, tear mozzarella, strew over basil leaves). And I can't imagine that many people are going to be enlightened by Longoria's recipe for toast triangles or Paltrow's basic vegetable stock.
Paltrow's Notes From My Kitchen Table (titled My Father's Daughter in the US) was the first book I turned to, primarily because I was intrigued to see whether the essentially well-meaning, but unapologetically sanctimonious tone of her lifestyle website GOOP could be sustained for an entire book. The answer is yes, she can keep up the self-indulgent musing with the best of them. For example, in reference to her recipe for baked green vegetable crisps: "My kids eat them like they actually are potato chips." And: "With barely any extra effort, breakfast is an opportunity to speak to your loved ones' individualism." Yes indeed, but many of us are in a rush in the mornings and simply aim to get everyone fed.
So, as expected, life is very idealised, but to give Paltrow her due, the food shots look very appealing, recipes are laid out simply and are easy to follow and preparation times are realistic. The dishes may not be particularly innovative or original, but there are plenty of nice ideas (marinated gigante bean salad with grilled prawns and watercress, tuna and ginger burgers with soy and sesame mayo, duck ragu with gremolata breadcrumbs, for example) and those that I tested turned out well. If it was just a little bit less self-satisfied, this book would be easier to swallow, but as it stands it's not terrible by any means.
Judging by her svelte figure, Longoria doesn't indulge in her sweet potato empanadas, lemon fried chicken or Mexican lasagne on a daily basis, but she does seem to know what she's talking about and of all three books, Eva's Kitchen feels the most accessible.
Longoria tells us that she grew up on a ranch in Texas, where nothing was wasted and vegetables were home-grown. The best recipes in here (tortilla soup, flautas, borracho beans etc) are those that are influenced by this upbringing. Some of the others (tomato-basil spaghetti, garlic green beans, broiled asparagus) are so simple that they barely need a written explanation.
Perhaps I've been duped, but I got the impression that Longoria can cook, actually rather enjoys it and wouldn't turn on her (Gucci) heel and run screaming from a hunk of marinated flank steak à la Ms Paltrow (who doesn't eat red meat). Her recipe for carne guisada was really rather tasty (although I simmered the sauce for longer than the five minutes she advised) and I'll certainly be pocketing her tip for using lemon juice rather than lime when making guacamole.
Readers don't escape scot-free from tales of her seemingly perfect life, though: "I like to say that my house is not mine alone. When I am home, I happily share it with all my friends and family who come over almost every day." And I found myself rolling my eyes when glancing over the love letter that she writes to the grocery store managers who oversee the "beautiful and well-organised produce sections" that are apparently one of her "greatest joys". Thankfully, though, the majority of the introductory text is reserved for helpful tips and explanations.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, Crow decided to radically overhaul her eating habits; she worked with a nutritionist and hired a private chef, Chuck White, to ensure that she was getting the best out of her food. If it Makes You Healthy (groan) is a collection of the recipes that he created for her, with the focus on health, wellbeing and seasonality.
Despite there being plenty of recipes and some interesting ideas for replacing unhealthy ingredients with more nutritious ones, this was the book that I was least keen on. Although there are a lot of staged shots of White and Crow smiling away and numerous pictures of fresh produce, there aren't many photos of the finished dishes, which I always find strange. Ardent Crow fans who buy the book may be disappointed: White's voice is the more dominant one and he introduces the majority of the recipes.
I also found a number of the recipes unnecessarily long, too wordy and not particularly easy to follow. Measurements are given in American cups, which always feels a little slapdash to me: the amount of sliced basil in half a cup surely depends on how finely you slice the herb? Portion size also varied significantly: for example the recipe for watermelon, basil and feta salad on page 52 serves 6-8, but the tuna salad next to it provides enough for only 3-4. Some dishes are obviously better suited to large numbers, but there didn't seem to be any continuity or reasoning behind the changes here.
But, of course, this is all just my opinion. In order to find out what other people thought of the recipes and to see whether the cooking styles in the book reflected public perceptions about the celebrity in question, I decided to test them out on a few impartial guinea pigs - my friends.
In the interest of research, I invited six of them over for a dinner party with a difference: the starter, main course and dessert would be recipes by either Paltrow, Longoria or Crow (sort of) and all they needed to do was to guess who was responsible for each dish.
To prevent things from being too easy, I avoided selecting one of Paltrow's more evangelically healthy/high-end produce-loving recipes and also steered clear of anything overtly Tex-Mex from Longoria's repertoire.
The rules were that everyone had to sample all three dishes, before making an educated guess as to who they belonged to. Although I refused to be drawn into any "Guess Who"-style questioning, I did tell them what each author had written about their recipe.
Starter: hot artichoke dip served with toast triangles (Longoria)
Main: stir-fried chicken with fried rice, kale and spring onions (Paltrow)
Dessert: chocolate-avocado mousse (Crow)
As soon as we sat down to eat, the debate began. The richness of the creamy, cheesy artichoke dip (served warm from the oven) convinced the group that this wasn't a Paltrow recipe. While two of them plumped for Crow, the other four were right in thinking that it was one of Longoria's (not that I told them this until the end, of course).
Initially they found the main course more difficult to call. Everyone seemed stumped and there was some serious debate over whether Paltrow (who followed a macrobiotic diet for many years) would even eat chicken, let alone allow anything fried past her lips (even if it was brown rice with green vegetables). However, when I was coerced into reading out the preface to the recipe, which includes the line: "Oh how my heart leaps when I see them munching down kale with brown rice", they quickly became convinced that these words could only be uttered by one woman.
This meant that by process of elimination, five of them correctly guessed that the chocolate and avocado dessert came courtesy of Crow. On a separate note, it's worth pointing out that although it was certainly odd, the mousse didn't taste half as bad as it sounds.