There is a way.

In China when they ask me what I like to cook, and I don’t respond with ‘Chinese food’, I receive a kind of incredulous stare and barely suppressed snort of laughter. ‘You cook English food then?’ Because there cannot be an alternative. Describing that cooking is not totally about culturally- accepted and well-known dishes and more about putting together ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other, is, it seems, conceptually too difficult to grasp. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t worth bothering with. I could say, ‘Italian food’ and then there are the sighs of approval, the knowing looks: ‘Ah yes, pizza and pasta.’ It’s really not that simple….

Yet in Italy too there exists a similar culinary snobbery. There is a way of making things. There is a way, and there is no argument. On my recent trip I stayed in Arezzo with some friends and, on the first night, Gloria, a feisty Florentine, made us caponata. A Sicilian dish, yes, but the way I was invited to watch the procedure left me in no doubt this was the correct cooking method.

‘You should always blanch the celery first. Shouldn’t you.’ She was not asking for my approval.

Over the nine days I spent in the Beautiful Country I ate cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara, cacio e pepe in Rome and many delicious seafood antipasti in Pescara but that caponata, the mingling of the sweet and sour, was the one that tingled my tastebuds the most. Even better when we had it cold as part of a picnic lunch high in the Tuscan hills the following day.

So it was the first meal I made when I came back. Sourcing the ingredients was not difficult, a cycle down to Twin’s was sufficient and pop to the greengrocer’s. And what I wanted most of all, was craving actually, was to have celery as the star. Controversial, perhaps, as the vegetable gets a poor press, relegated to a support act in various sauce bases and derided usually for its lack of flavour. However I noticed that, on the Adriatic coast, as a motif through many of the fish dishes, from insalata di mare to the stock for the mussels, little ridged pieces of celery came to prominence.

In my recreation of the Sicilian speciality I stuck as close as I could to how I remembered Gloria go about it. The tedious woman in the newspaper put chocolate in hers, and I wasn’t going to do that. There is a way, after all.

First job was to cook the aubergine. I could only find one of the large round varieties, but I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as the veg is cut up into bite-sized chunks and salted for at least half an hour then patted dry.  Did it in batches, frying the pieces until brown in very hot oil – I used a shallow pan – before removing. At the same time the celery, chopped up into similar-sized briquettes, was blanched in boiling water for about thirty seconds.

I think the original recipe calls for shallots, and now I remember Gloria used a leek, but I had an onion and so that’s what I used. Diced and gently sautéed in the same oil with the celery. Then I basically jumbled most of the other ingredients in, the olives – green, which I hate on their own, but seem to enjoy in things these days – capers (Gloria said to only use the ones in salt as the vinegar-soaked variety have little flavour – but, again, I didn’t have/couldn’t find any of those), raisins and finally the passata which I made myself by combining a tin of chopped tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and reducing for about fifteen minutes. I was salivating. Then the aubergines got their welcome return, the lid was closed and I walked away to watch an episode of this, leaving the – what would you call it – the stew, I suppose, on a low heat to combine in a heavenly way.

My friend from Firenze bemoaned slightly the lack of a vinegary finish to her dish, and perhaps she was right. I had something on hand to add if necessary. But first, the caponata was ready and I toasted some pine nuts and tore up basil leaves as a garnish. Tasting, I realised that a little acidity was needed to offset the agrodolce. Splash of apple cider vinegar and the dish was ready.

And I have some left. Those Tuscan hills are only memories now though.

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Prove it

Twin hobs, toaster and an un-proven cupboard. Ever since I moved in to this apartment I’ve been intrigued by a certain fitting in the kitchen. The cupboard beneath the principal chopping area, usually used to house saucepans and most of my crockery, has behind it a radiator. Now I should say that I have no input in the heating situation in my apartment, as it is centrally controlled throughout the entire building. It is turned on in mid-November and switched off mid-March, virtually regardless of the outside temperatures. Beginning of the third month and the weather is getting milder, yet the heating pulses on.

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Said cupboard, in its usual state

Well. The idea occurred to me relatively early in my tenancy this cupboard, as well as an invaluable storage space, could at times double as a kind of proving drawer for bread products, such as one finds in some ovens. The temperature within is consistently warm, about that of a disappointing bath. Never mind it’s taken me over two years to try this out (lack of oven a key factor), my enthusiasm for this blogging project has given me the oomph – aided by the dull weather on a day off – necessary for the experiment.

Waking up I was initially sceptical of being able to easily locate yeast within the environs  of my apartment. I live in a quiet and unfashionable district, well away from the expat communities who might have better access to better-stocked western-style supermarkets, and I didn’t fancy my chances of finding said raising agent in the local shops – although, thinking about it, that was shortsighted given its presence in various bread products, including these.

Never mind. I got to cycle down to my favourite local, run by a woman I will call Twin, and found a sachet. Bonus exercise. Recipes I read for bread call for, variously, strong, or hard flour. I bought a packet of something called all-purpose flour and, obviously, the proof will be in the eating….

Actually I had no idea what kind of bread I was going to make. My preoccupations lay virtually solely with the aforementioned experiment meaning, typically, I was more concerned with the process than the result. And yet. As I went about the morning, doing laundry, tidying up, ideas began to formulate, as they will. I thought about what I had in my other cupboards, and in the freezer, and eventually I had a picture in my mind. A picture of beef stew and flatbreads. Slow Saturday cooking.

The scene was set. Not only did I have the ingredients, the time and the methodology, I also had things to listen to. One of these days I will publish a post about the things I have on in the background while I am cooking. At the stove and the train window are my favourite places to listen, to music or other. Today I had albums by these old favourites and this marvellous new discovery as a soundtrack but, best of all, piping in from sunny climes over eleven thousand kilometres to the south-east, this. If there’s anything better than cricket commentary on the radio I don’t want to know about it.

Baking calls for some precise measuring. That’s what the baking people will have you think. I found a basic recipe and adjusted the quantities to fit a smaller amount because as much as I wanted to try this out I didn’t want to be eating flatbreads for the next seven days. Not having any scales I wasn’t sure of the flour-yeast-water ratios so improvised by using measuring spoons my mother had thoughtfully given me at Christmas – figuring out that 1 millilitre equals 1 gram.

To make the flatbreads a bit more funky I augmented the dough mixture with a good couple of teaspoonfuls of za’atar, and once everything was combined I placed it, covered, in the un-proven drawer….

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….approximately an hour later, or could have been less, or more (I fell asleep), the dough looked like this….

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A proven success!

Buoyed by my small triumph I set about the stew with zeal. The beef was cubed and sprinkled with smoked paprika, salt and pepper, before being quickly browned then removed so that the carrots, red onions, garlic, star anise, thyme and rosemary could jostle for flavour favour in the pan. Once these had softened I added a tin of tomatoes, some stock (a cube) and the beef again. Lid on, heat to a simmer. I rinsed and chopped some kale in preparation as obligatory green addition.

I still had to cook the bread. After a bit more kneading – I don’t mind that – I oiled up the baking tray and set the oven dials for fifteen minutes on the highest heat. Rolling the bread out proved (ha!) to be interesting. I used, first, a bicycle pump and then a hand mixer to achieve the desired stretched flatness. The pump gave a more even roll but was basically inadequate because of its appendages which didn’t permit a direct contact with the bread surface after the initial roll. The mixer did not roll evenly but was more generally efficacious.

While the bread puffed up in the oven I cooked the kale in salted boiling water and threw in with the stew, now ready. The flatbread turned out to resemble a piece of driftwood but, fortunately, tasted pretty good – crisp exterior and soft inside, with the za’atar taste nice and mellow throughout. A grating of clementine peel over the stew was a perky afterthought.

Nice and mellow sums up the day.

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Becoming

The most interesting part of cooking is the way abstraction becomes concrete. One starts with a jumble of ingredients and perhaps half an idea, the idea based on one’s instincts born from experience. That experience may be first, second, or even third-hand; it may have come from one’s own previous cooking attempts, whether successful or less so, or it might have derived from a witnessing of a dish being created, or the discovery of a recipe in a forgotten magazine. The experience may have been passed down from another in the form of tips, or other half-formed ideas and inspirations. Whatever, experience comes as the instillation of eye-drops: blink and you’ll miss it.

So, with eyes opened, the process begins. And it begins with uncertainty. The what to do and maybe the how too. We have the raw materials and yet there is the lingering feeling that, despite whatever experience we bring to the chopping board, we have little idea how the dish will turn out. It is at this point a good idea to do one crucial thing: abandon all expectations. The glossy pictures in cookbooks are an ideal, but only that. Written recipes, too, are not infallible. There are many variables in the kitchen and one will do well to become familiar with the immediate environment and the tools therein. Whatever we end up producing will only be an approximation of that image or that set of instructions. Moreover that projection of an idea that became that picture is someone else’s ideal.

The uncertainty, the ‘not-knowing,’ is the game. When the lid goes on top of a pan filled with various textures and flavours and the flame adjusted to simmer mode one is left in the dark to some extent. What is happening under there? And the temptation of course is to tinker, to remove the lid and stir, stir relentlessly, disturbing the alchemy. A wiser man than me once said that trying to fight insecurity was like taking a flat-iron to the waves to smooth them down; doing that, you’re only going to rough them up some more. I’m learning to let the magic happen.

 

Today I took two apples. I mostly knew what I wanted to make, a kind of spicy apple sauce to go with a bowl of morning porridge. Cooking apples work best for this, because the flesh has that mealy quality which gives the final result a granita-like texture. However I didn’t have any, only two eaters I purloined from a hotel breakfast buffet, for this purpose. I chopped both finely and added to the pan: the juice and zest of a small orange; sprinkle of five-spice; two sticks of cinnamon; the grating of a toe-sized knob of ginger; star anise; a glass of water; sliver of butter; trickle of Chinese vinegar. Even when I make sweet things I want notes of sharpness, sourness or bitterness. On other occasions I have included rum, whisky, apple and/or cider vinegar, a lump of sugar and lemon peel. This is a recipe which changes constantly, depending what I have to hand and what comes to mind.

With a lid on I left it for about half an hour to reduce down and didn’t interfere at all. I decided it was ready once the entire apartment was suffused in a warm spicy fug. A  delicious spicy toffee-like sauce had pooled at the pan bottom beneath the fruit, which  had softened to the texture of mush yet still retained its form. I put it in a bowl and covered, to put it in the fridge for when I might need it, which, in the cold winter here, is often.

Everyone thinks it tastes daft

Today was a good example of how I go about things, kitchen-wise. A dollop of kitchen wisdom. How do I explain? It starts from when I wake up, or maybe even the day before, and I have a….taste…is too strong a word…an image, or, rather, a feeling….or, actually, it’s a combination of all these senses. Anyway, I know what it is I want to cook and eat and the idea possesses me to the extent I can think of virtually nothing else until the process is underway.

I sat down earlier to try and write. I wrote a bit. Then I got up and ironed some shirts, listening to The Wedding Present. I already had the notion of what lunch would involve, and yet, I needed a few things for the picture to be complete. Namely, some fresh coriander and some kind of greens. Bitterly cold outside but clear fresh air. There’s a large supermarket about fifteen minutes walk away which stocks a number of things I use regularly which otherwise might be difficult to obtain, like De Cecco pasta and properly sour yoghurt (A pot of which I threw into the basket, being unable to locate any coconut milk – the apron-wearing aisle monitor lady directed me to coconut water instead, although that might well have been because of my parlous grasp of the language).

Again, it’s one of those one-pot dishes I love. The kind of thing that needs equal amounts of adding, simmering and monitoring. This time it was a case of using up things almost festering away in the nebulous area of the fridge bottom. Where things get forgotten and rot. The half sweet potato I had intended to star had to be relegated to the role of something like a third-choice seamer, something to bolster rather than shine. Anyway I had celery as well, plus some oldish broccoli, courgette, carrot and a cupboard full of spices.

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I kept the veg chunky and threw things in as they were ready. With those browning away, I tossed in crushed coriander and cumin seeds and grated in a knob of ginger. Then added spices – smoked paprika, garam masala, medium curry powder, turmeric. Again, I don’t go for exact quantities, although that turmeric needs a careful hand. Chick peas were the final addition. Water with a crumble of stock cube, bring to the boil and let the thing simmer away. I had some spinach, coriander, lemon, tomato and yoghurt on hand to finish the dish. I reckoned half an hour.

I was more or less right. Thankfully the curry hadn’t boiled down to an indeterminate mush, as can happen, and the additions of the aforementioned handy stand-bys at the end – the spinach rinsed and chopped, tomato and coriander the same, lemon squeezed and yoghurt folded in –  actually elevated what might have been sort of dull, worthy fare into a light, citrus-heightened, fresh-tasting meal with a deep and piquant undertone. Rather like a sprinkling guitar line over a punchy bass and drum bottom.

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A success, and also my second vegetarian meal in a row. I’m not a vegetarian but I do think at least a few meals a week without meat can only be a good thing, for many reasons. This, actually, is part of the overall motive for this blog, to be more aware of the food I’m eating. I’m aware I have DONE A GOOD THING here, and, moreover, the meal was delicious. Enough, again, for a second – generous – helping.