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.

an egg is not an oeuf

I have, I think, become quite adept at one-pot or one-pan dishes. The kind of thing where everything gets gradually added to the same receptacle thus allowing levels of flavour to amalgamate and intensify. Ideally, the process is a relatively lengthy one with much simmering and reducing – a favourite method of mine, as I explained in the previous post – and the ingredients are always on hand, prepared in their own way, either chopped, diced, sliced or measured out. These dishes are invariably stove-top affairs, principally so I can monitor progress and augment and adjust as appropriate.

After the midwinter break I returned to my apartment carrying a suitcase filled with the kind of goods difficult – or, as far as I know, impossible – to find here. These included packets of diced chorizo and smoked pancetta, a jar of zingy za’tar, and, perhaps unnecessarily, a couple of those ready-vacuum-packed portions of smoked mackerel found in every supermarket across the UK. I’d decided wasn’t getting enough omega 3.

So far I’ve made two meals using the delicious fish. One light, healthy and flavoursome and the other, indeed the first of the new year, quite indulgent with a good rough sprinkling of grated cheddar and plenty of butter in the bargain. This one is intensely savoury, the kind of thing that goes very well with very cold beer or a chilled glass of wine or two. Sweet things ain’t my thing, really, and I rarely have the desire to make cakes, puddings or desserts. Pass me the salt please.

To make a good frittata two things are essential: courage to keep that gas flame as low as possible, so that it is a mere shiver, fragile in the invisible breezes; the other is a pan that will not stick – you want that egg-thing to slither out deliciously onto the plate.

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It started, as ever, with an onion. I used half a golden one, which I sliced and tipped into the pan with some dried bay leaves. More about this herb another time I think, but suffice to say I have always have some – something irresistible in their mellowness and their hue which always reminds me of autumn in England. I cooked everything down on a low heat with a big knob of butter until the onions were practically melting. No hurry here. I had the eggs – six – already beaten with the cheese, flaked mackerel and black pepper. I removed the bay and tipped in the egg mixture, moving the pan about to neatly accommodate it all. Then, I left it, although careful to keep an eye on that flickering flame.

Another who likes to be watchful, and likes his eggs, is Chief Inspector Maigret. Probably my second-favourite literary detective. He is a man who has hunches he does not question and instincts he follows, based on his vast experience in the work he does and his keen understanding of human nature:

‘”The evening before last,” he said, “I didn’t know yet that she was dead, or that she was your sister-in-law, and yet I was already interested in her.”‘

That’s from Maigret On Holiday. In another episode, based in a dreary coastal hotel, he fixes very early for no apparent reason on the sullen waitress, an inkling which proves decisive:

‘What was she watching for, with her restless glance?’

Essentially Maigret trusts his own intuition and he sees all his cases through with a dogged and, for the guilty parties, infuriating determination. Patience is a virtue indeed. I enjoy the books by Simenon especially, usually no more than a hundred-odd pages yet rich in subtle character observation and atmosphere – lighter in tone than his superlative romans durs, yet written in the same clipped and mannered prose which, like the hero, says always just enough.

I happened to watch a recent TV adaptation and found Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal wholly unlike the character I admire: physically, of course, bearing no resemblance yet it was the method of investigation which veered most I thought from the written original. There was too much confidence with his wife and colleagues, although I acknowledge allowances have to be made for the viewing public in order Maigret’s thought processes be made more explicit. Atkinson was also too morose (and one can say Michael Gambon over-jocular), too wearied by the job almost. By another name it would simply have been another good continental detective series but, as an adaptation of a classic, not in my mind cutting the moutarde. 

While I digressed, the frittata had been firming. I tend not to go for exact times and measurements, more on look, feel and taste. An exploratory prod revealed the sponge beneath the surface indicating its readiness. Flashed under a preheated grill and it was ready. In the end I had enough for two meals (it will keep in the fridge for a day or so) and consumed it with nothing other than a dollop of brown sauce.

Take an onion

It all begins with an onion. A stovetop stew with a melting heart or a chalk-white risotto, diced onions cooked slowly until translucent. An onion forms the base for curries too, perhaps a frittata. Chef and food writer Simon Hopkinson posits this as idea for an entire cookery book, so frequently we reach for the slippery bulb of gold, white or red.

You have to start somewhere. This is where I’m beginning. I’m going to start chopping without a clear idea what I’m making, This way ideas emerge.

There is a way to chop an onion without causing tears to flow. It is this: 1. Take your standard globular allium and peel. 2. Chop in half, on the horizontal 3. Take one segment and begin chopping, not too finely, from the side. The onion should crunch satisfactorily. 4. While chopping the onion hold it as intact as possible so it retains its semi-globular aspect. You will need to move your fingersor risk a bloody encounter. 5. You should now have half an onion divvied up into slices. Swivel this 90 degrees and begin chopping again, from the side up towards the middle. Onion may try to fall apart but persevere with firm grip. 6.  Once completed the onion will crumble into dice ready for its meeting with oil and/ or butter. If using, repeat with other segment.

 

 

Carrots, celery and other vegetables have their own rules, and their own time. I am only concerned with getting started. Getting what started? The process.

There are many days when all I want to do is to be standing by the stove, stirring something, a glass of something livening nearby and music or the radio playing. It is not uncommon for me to deliberately elongate the process of cooking so that I can savour it further. In a way, it seems, I am less interested in the end product, especially as I am often cooking for one.

To cook is to be in a delicious state. Absorbing and meditative and from it comes other thoughts, unbidden until now, given an abstract percussive rhythm by the tap of the wooden spoon, clink of glass, bubble of boiling water and scrape of the carving knife. So often, as now, it starts with an onion. Let us see what will emerge.