I Am The Hero

Leaving tomorrow for ten days so a quick inventory of my fridge’s contents: a potato; some old celery; herbs – dried bay, thyme, rosemary; palmful of button mushrooms; half a large onion; a third of a stale-ish baguette; one egg; block of cheddar cheese.

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Nothing much to do with the egg unless I make a large potato cake and have a fried egg on top. There’s the issue then of keeping it for when I return. It seems to me that it won’t freeze well and, anyway, I don’t much fancy a big potato tablet today. The egg can wait.

It’ll be another soup then and, to this end, I have augmented my solid if unspectacular set of fridge-bottom staples with a leek from the greengrocer’s around the corner and a large clove of garlic from beside the stove. My one reservation in making soup is the lack of any handy stock. One of the reasons why my previous effort was so successful was the chicken broth used; I had the foresight to use the bones of a roast I had made for that purpose. I have learned how to make a scratch chicken stock, and I’ll include the features of that in a future post, but for now it will be a reliance on the flavours I already have, some careful seasoning and judicious use of a stock cube.

All this weighing up of what I have to hand, working out what it can be used for, puts me in mind of one thing, and then another.

At the beginning of many fantasy role-play gamebook series, most notably Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy line and the Lone Wolf sequence, the protagonist, the YOU, is given a run-down of what possessions he/she already has and what others, within certain and changing limitations, might be added at the outset of any particular quest as suitable supplements determined by their potential usefulness.

Typically, at least in the early Fighting Fantasy books, it was along the lines of ‘leather armour, sword and backpack’, plus provisions, and the adventurer got to choose one of three potions for boosting either of the Luck, Skill or Stamina values which made up YOUR profile. As the series grew, and different authors involved, so elements such as spells and other special features were included, depending on the type of adventure about to take place and the hero profile required. Early example of adventure sheet below, something of a blank canvas:

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Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf was different in that the protagonist was always the same character, the titular hero no less, and so a progression through the books, which followed a linear narrative of sorts, meant a gradual acquisition (and therefore casting off) of various pieces of equipment, items, disciplines and skills. The books differed also in the sense they specified where the various pieces of equipment and items could be carried: in the hand, in the belt-pouch, in the backpack, and so on.

Cooking is a kind of journey, as is this blog, and it’s natural before embarking on any meal preparation to take stock of firstly, what one has, and, then, what one needs. Sometimes I wear an apron, and I carry a wooden spoon in one hand, knife to chop and slice in the other. Like today I size up what is available and make a dish on that basis, adding as appropriate.

This moreover is a new adventure, a new quest. In the recent past I might have been tempted to look contemptuously at the contents of my fridge and decide there was nothing worth using, or nothing I could be bothered to use. I may well have gone shopping, purchasing sundry other ingredients – the point is, this conglomeration of objects is what I have, so I should make the best of them. Just as I possess various skills and disciplines of my own that, in the past, I have not fully appreciated or utilised. In the gamebooks you learn to use what you have wisely, whether it be in your hand, in your belt-pouch, or even in your head; such care and respect does not necessarily mean a positive outcome, because some things are out of your control – the dice rolls against you, for instance – but, by arming yourself in the best way possible, by recognising what you have, you are at least better able to deal with things.

In the past few years interest in the Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy series, to name but two, has been resurgent, leading to reprints, greater discussion (especially online), electronic versions of the books for iOS and android, and much more. Joe Dever allowed almost the entire back catalogue of Lone Wolf to be republished online, here, to create a ‘lasting legacy.’ For Fighting Fantasy there have been various print runs, containing some, but not all, of the original set. The most recent seems to be dumbing down slightly, especially in terms of the artwork (an index of the original artists can be found here), and in if you have a mind it is worth scouring charity bookshops across the UK for the original series, some editions of which fetch a pretty penny.

Failing that there are now quite a few blogs dedicated to playthroughs of one or both series, of which the most readable and dedicated can be found here, here and here.

But I was making soup. To maximise flavour I make sure to give each ingredient enough cooking time before adding anything else. So I cook the potatoes, seasoned, gently in olive oil to brown slightly, then every other component in turn: the leeks and celery, washed and rinsed; onion and mushrooms, coarsely chopped; rosemary and thyme, finely: bay leaves, cast in. Water to cover with half a chicken stock cube crumbled in. I simmer until the potatoes have more or less dissolved then blend, before cooking down potentially to thicken more.

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As in many of my attempts at the role-play adventures, I make a mistake, in this case forgetting to remove the bay before blending. This error has not led to instant death, I am pleased to say, and the results would have been worse had the herb been of the fresh variety, yet I am concerned the soup will be overpowered by its taste nonetheless.

The result is a light green and grey, gently bay-flavoured mellow soup which, jazzed up by some quickly-fried croutons and a grating of cheddar makes a more than satisfactory meal. The absence of proper stock is evident, as the overall savour is mild rather than robust. What I started with appeared a meagre selection yet, with some dedication and care, I was able to transform the ingredients into a tasty and hearty soup. Lunch made and a lesson learned (and barely a flicker of meat). Also, the day drab, an atmosphere more befitting to the making.

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Day of the Soup

Almost the perfect day for making soup. Many of the ingredients necessary for this most Sunday of Sunday activities, along with a long laundry cycle and a second cup of tea, were present: indolence of a day with nothing particular to do; cold symptoms – the muzzy head like some good hangovers; the afternoon drear outside and perhaps chilly too, dissuading any plans for a long walk.

I had the first two but the day itself was wonderfully clear and filled with sunshine, the air clean and fresh, the route around the park beckoning. I had a walk, to get the items I needed, indeed, the ingredients I had woken up thinking about. As the shop which sells fresh thyme, generic Italian-style cured ham and any kind of cream is a fair trek away, 8860 steps round trip my doting mobile app informs me, I now no longer felt guilty spending the rest of the day indoors, involved largely in the preparing, cooking and consumption of soup.

So I shlepped about the apartment, making soup in stages. It was always going to be a squash or pumpkin-based affair, though still not sure of the difference. In the greengrocer I pointed to what looked like a huge squash, certainly not the classic pumpkin shape one recognises from the commercialised approximation of the ancient and mysterious celebrations at Winter’s Eve. My translation app had it down as that, however, rather than squash, and so, after some inter-linguistic kerfuffle, I got the man to slice off a large portion with his shiny cleaver.

I had in my fridge a nice dirt-bejewelled carrot which would give depth to the orange colour and the aforementioned ham would add the required saltiness. The soup would work equally well without any meat and indeed, for some months now, I have been conscious of the amount of meat I consume, after reading an article by George Monbiot. His take is that the amount of land given over to grazing is disproportionate to the amount of meat actually consumed, at least in the UK. It is a phenomenal waste of resources, he argues, a needless ruination of countryside areas which could be left to their natural wild states, thus encouraging micro-systems to thrive and endangered species to return.

Not to mention the ethical questions regarding meat production. It seems as though more questions are being asked of meat’s place on our tables, with many meat-eaters going through trials of abstention, including a friend of mine, here. I’m still playing around with the issues, wondering where I stand. Certainly I think for now an awarenesscan lead to a gradual reduction in meat consumption and I am pleasantly surprised that, so far on this blog, I have included no recipes which have meat as the main focus.

In the meantime I mooched. The squash was to be roasted with three cloves of garlic (added halfway through the cooking) and added to a pan-cooked conglomeration of carrot, rosemary, thyme and ham. What? Roasted? But how….It’s here I have to admit to leading you a little up the garden path. When I started this blog and decided on its name, describing the mean amenities to hand, I did not possess an oven. Now I do. It’s a portable affair, limited in its scope but more than handy. It sits on top of the fridge in place of the microwave which came with the apartment and which I used but once.

The squash took about an hour to soften and colour sufficiently. Mixed with the other cooked ingredients, the garlic squeezed sluggishly from its crackly skin, I poured in a Tupperware-tubful of chicken stock I had prepared some days previously and brought all to the boil then simmer with a lid for about twenty minutes.

When I felt things should be ready I had a taste and decided I was right. Last but one addition was about 25ml of cream to thicken and then I smoothed it all gently with the whirring of a hand blender. Chopped parsley and trickle of olive oil to finish and there it was. Immensely satisfying to both make and eat, it brought the day together, from concept to conclusion. I have enough for three large bowlfuls.