Archive for the ‘people & cooking’ Category

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Something borrowed

November 5, 2012

As any visitor here will know, the sharing of food is one of the great joys of my life – but I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the whys and wherefores of actually sharing recipes and ideas for dishes. It seems self-evident that folks who read – and write – cookery blogs have a natural, internalised desire to share knowledge and ideas about cooking, so it has always stunned me when people talk about having “secret” recipes.

Secrecy over recipes and the fierce withholding of kitchen expertise plays a central role in the film Toast, the dramatisation of Nigel Slater’s memoir of the same title (I’m assuming the same events occur in the book) . From Slater’s Wikipedia page:

[Slater] used food to compete with his stepmother – the former cleaning lady – for his father’s attention. Their biggest battle was over lemon meringue pie – his father’s favourite. His stepmother refused to divulge her recipe, so Slater resorted to subterfuge in order to turn out his own version. “I’d count the egg-shells in the bin, to see how many eggs she’d used and write them down. I’d come in at different times, when I knew she was making it. I’d just catch her when she was doing some meringue, building up that recipe slowly over a matter of months, if not years.”

Whatever the truth of Slater’s step-mum’s kitchen caper might have been, his portrayal of her represents a figure some people know well. I wonder if this kind of woman – always a woman in the stories I’ve heard – is still around, or is she only a figure of bygone eras, when a woman’s power in society was so limited that she felt she had to wield it in this manner?

Or am I inventing this Fifties Femme?

My own mother couldn’t give a damn about who had her recipes, but then she was never a particularly passionate cook to begin with. Unlike a friend’s aunt, who staunchly refused for decades to share the recipe for her legendary melting moments. Eventually, suffering a brief attack of magnanimity, Aunty Mean deigned to offer the recipe to her niece, a brilliant cook – but only on the proviso that she promised never to share it with her mother!  Rather takes the cake (boom-tish) for sibling rivalry, don’t you think? My loyal friend politely declined the offer, managing not to add, “It’s only a fucking biscuit!”

The holding of recipe cards close to the chest in this way speaks of all kinds of things that have, obviously, nothing to do with the biscuit. It implies that cooking is a contest, that the only value in making beautiful food for others is in your power to impress them, and indeed that one’s esteem in the eyes of others is so fragile that refusal to share something as trivial as a recipe will actually help maintain that esteem. When of course it just does the opposite – paints you as desperate rather than skilled, mean-spirited rather than generous. In fact the whole concept of generosity is completely absent in this kind of syndrome. As well, when all recipes spring from other recipes, it seems somehow dishonourable to suggest that my recipe alone is original, and therefore so much more valuable than yours. It also smacks of a lack of confidence about the bounty of creativity – this recipe is so precious because there will never be others to take its place. I’ve known writers like this in my time, who obsessively, vigilantly – and in vain – inspect the work of others for similarities to theirs. What such people seem not to understand is that this fearful obsessing over other people’s wells of creativity means that their own will always be in danger of drying up completely.

Anyhoo, I’m happy to say that among my friends and family, recipes and food ideas fly back and forth and round and about with complete abandon. Take the unbelievably good lemon curd fool we ate at the Empress’s palace last week, which I then immediately pinched for our dinner guests on Saturday night. It’s one of the easiest, quickest and yet most swooningly striking desserts you’ll ever try. Bizarrely, I had never made lemon curd until that day but now I know how easy and how very fine it is – my favourite meld of citrussy tartness and sweetness –  I’m going to find many other desserty avenues for it.

Which brings me to another part of the pleasure of sharing recipes; one leads to another, which then morphs into another which gives birth to another and another, in a rich cycle of generosity, abundance and plenty. And as soon as I “invent” – or am given! – a suitably delicious new incarnation of this luxurious dessert I’m inviting the Empress over to eat it.

Lemon curd fool

  1. Make a lemon curd – I used the recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, but there are thousands about – and let it cool, then chill (I made ours the day before).
  2. Whip some cream into stiff peaks – from memory I used 300ml pouring cream for a curd of 1.5 times Stephanie’s quantity.
  3. Mix the two together – that’s it! Simplicity itself.

We served ours in small glasses with a sploosh of passionfruit pulp on top of each one. The Empress had a wafer of home-made biscotti sticking out of hers. I can imagine all kinds of lovely toppings and additions –  crumbled pistachios maybe, or a little finely chopped mint?

Love to hear your tales of recipes shared or protected. Do people still refuse to share recipes? Or, as women have actually begun to take part in the world beyond the kitchen, has such desperate recipe-protection become a thing of the past? And I wonder if the syndrome has arisen among men as they begin to take up more space in the kitchen? Or am I looking at this whole thing from the wrong point of view? Is there any virtue in keeping “secret recipes” that I’m overlooking?

And if you have a favourite use for lemon curd, do share ……

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Hazelnuts, sisterhood & serendipity

September 3, 2012

I love how the best meals so often come about through serendipity. Last night’s was like that for us, prompted by a gift from my friend Tigs last week (delivered along with a fresh batch of Alice Thomas Ellis books, woohoo!) – a little bag of these rather beautiful hazelnuts from the Blue Mountains.

My first thought was to serve the chopped hazelnuts with green beans, but then I decided to try something new, so turned to my trusty Eat Your Books account to search further afield. I can’t recall if I’ve raved here before about EYB, though I certainly have elsewhere. In fact, here’s what I wrote about them for Good Weekend magazine earlier this year.

Have too many cookbooks, yet still find you’re always Googling recipes? Eatyourbooks.com is a search engine for the cookbooks you already own. Register, then simply type in the book titles to create your database. Then enter ‘cherries’, for example, and up pops an index of every recipe using cherries in your collection. Choose one, pull the book from your shelf and cook yourself happy. The site’s index is often far superior to those in your books, and provides a shopping list with each summary. It’s a global site with an impressively vast and growing Australian book list, and even includes options for indexing blogs, obscure books and your own ragged clippings. $25 per year.

I have no affiliation with EYB apart from being a huge fan of this idea and of the very cool women who run it. It was started by sisters Jane Kelly & Fiona Nugent, but has grown heaps. Their customer service, from what I’ve seen, is brilliant and the site is so well designed and constructed I use it all the time. It also now has a mobile version so you can look up stuff from your smartphone while you’re shopping, and it will provide you with a shopping list of ingredients you need for each recipe – ingenious!

One of the best things about it is the quality of the indexing, which means you can often find things here that won’t appear where you expect, if at all, in your cookbooks’ own indexes which are often pretty basic.

Yesterday was a case in point. My search for  ‘hazelnuts’ brought up a zippy-sounding dish from the first (much loved in our house) Ottolenghi book – a red pepper & hazelnut salsa. But when I searched in the book’s index I couldn’t find it, until I looked up the full recipe title handily provided by EYB – ‘Salmon with red pepper & hazelnut salsa’. And then off I went – but without Eat Your Books I doubt I would have come across it at all. And it was good.

We planned to have it with some panfried snapper fillets, and I was toying with another couple of side dish ideas – but then I spied that the opposite page to the salsa recipe held another great Ottolenghi combo: sweet potato with a lime, chilli and coriander dressing. More serendipity, and more divine dinner for us.

Anyway – back to the nuts!

First step was to crack those babies – our bowl of nuts yielded about 50g of hazelnuts. I think I used about 30g in the dish and saved the rest – shelling nuts always makes me appreciate how relatively cheap it is to buy shelled nuts, because with hard nuts like these it’s a bit of a palaver. Once I got into the rhythm of it with our nutcracker – also known as The Big Red Pliers – however, it only took about five minutes. Collecting all the sharp little bits of shell out of the stove fittings, off the floor, the kitchen shelves and so on took a little longer. They were very nice raw, even with the slightly bitter skins on, but toasted in the oven for ten minutes and with most of the skins rubbed away they were really good – crunchier, and with the unique, slightly sweet flavour that hazels have.

Next step was to roast two red capsicums until the skin blackened enough for peeling, and then I cut it into thin strips rather than finely chopped as the recipe says.

A dressing of chives, lemon juice, a single finely chopped garlic clove, olive oil and the surprise star  ingredient of apple cider vinegar  made this a really delicious side dish.

We’re trying to eat more veg so along with the sweet potato we had some blanched green beans and gorgeous balsamic roasted beetroot. I used to always roast the beetroot whole and then remove the skin – but now I just quarter it and roast in pieces, keeping the skin on (hooray, yet another way to avoid boring & annoying peeling!) and then tossing the caramelly chunks in a spoonful of Balsamic vinegar just near the end of cooking.

I have to say, this was one of the best dinners we’ve eaten at home for ages – and all resulting from a friend’s generosity, a couple of gals with a smart idea and a computer – and serendipity.

What about you – made anything good by happy chance lately?

 

 

 

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On shopping, surliness & sustainability

August 21, 2012

I have always been rather afraid of stir-frying fish.

I have visions of fish fillets falling apart and turning to soggy mush, making not so much a stirfry as a soupy mash. As I think I’ve discussed here before, my thoroughly inland childhood meant I came late to seafood and, unlike my beachy husband, I still lack a natural confidence in cooking much seafood.

This is one of the reasons I love Neil Perry’s recipes for cooking fish and seafood – his instructions are always so exact and clear, especially in Good Food, one of my essential books.  So when I saw Mr Perry’s stir fried blue eye in last weekend’s paper I determined to look again at stir fried fish.

The recipe is for blue eye trevalla, which, while recommended for its firmness of flesh and ability to stand up to robust flavours, the sustainable seafood gurus GoodFishBadFish put in the category ‘Think Twice’. “Stocks are currently fully fished, with localised depletions. Some bycatch concern,” they say.

However, given that so much of the other seafood we like to eat is firmly in the “Say No” category, I find myself thinking that everything’s relative, and so blue eye is not so bad after all. GoodFish folks suggest alternatives of mulloway or coral trout, neither of which my nearest fish shop stocks.

I know I should ask them about mulloway, and start talking about sustainability, and “building a relationship” for future reference. But I’m weirdly, ridiculously shy of such conversations. I don’t know why, exactly. But with things like this I’m reminded of Julian Barnes’ amusing piece on food shopping in his Pedant in the Kitchen, where the author admits that for him, as for most of us, the idea of “developing a relationship” with or “instructing” one’s butcher, fishmonger or candlestick maker is as realistic as “advising” one’s local policeman or garbage collector.

This is why the Pedant’s morale is rarely lifted by a recipe beginning “Instruct your butcher to…” or “Telephone your fishmonger in advance and ask…” Now I know some excellent butchers, fishmongers and fruit ‘n’ veggers, though I don’t think of any of them as “mine”. Equally, I sometimes encounter a needlessly surly butcher who, when you hesitantly propose what you might require, will seize something in a flurry of hands, offer it for a nanosecond’s inspection with a lip-curling “That do?”, and have it on the scales and off again before your eyes can refocus, while calling out a weight and price which could well be a touch speculative.

I can imagine the look of bafflement on my fish shop man’s face if I quizzed him on his sustainability credentials. I suspect it would resemble the response of the woman behind the counter at a terrible local store laughingly called a “deli”, when I asked her about the origins of one of her four slabs of unmarked, unlabelled cheese. “I dunno,” she said, crossly. I tried again, valiantly. Might she know what kind of cheese it was? She sighed, cast her eyes to the ceiling, and shot me a look of undisguised contempt as she said: “English”.

Sometimes I wonder if avoiding this kind of exchange  is part of the reason some people actually prefer supermarket shopping. (It’s also one of the reasons, apart from the amazing quality of the meat and the ethical aspects, I buy almost all our meat from Feather & Bone – they actually do like to talk to you, are happy to help, and are generally Lovely Humans.)

Anyhoo, back to fish!

I bought blue eye trevalla from my surly fish man, and with it made a bastardised version of Neil Perry’s recipe last night. I marinated the chunks of fish as per his recipe, but from there returned to the old faithful stir fry combo taught to me a thousand years ago by my friend Ricardo: red capsicum, lots of sliced garlic, 3cm batons of green onion, a couple of birdeye chillis, split lengthwise, and then half a bunch of basil leaves tossed in at the end. Add to this a goodly slosh of fish sauce (I tend to go for at least one tablespoon, sometimes more) and a good pinch of brown sugar.

Method wise, I began as Neil suggests:

1. Heat a wok with a little vegetable oil until just smoking, then add the fish pieces with the marinade, spreading these evenly around the wok.

2. “Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, allowing the fish to start to brown” – then I turned the chunks once until almost cooked, then removed them and set aside.

3. I then added the vegetables but not the basil to the wok and stirfried them for a few minutes (adding a little boiling water), then returned the fish, slooshed in the fish sauce and brown sugar and gently stirred to combine, still at high heat.

4. As I turned off the heat, I threw the basil leaves in, put the rice in one serving bowl and the fish in another. By this time the basil leaves had wilted just nicely.

It was excellent.

Do you stir-fry seafood much? any problems? And what about “your” butcher, fishmonger or baker? How do you begin the conversations I’m too chicken to have? I would really love your views.

 

 

 

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Universal admiration

July 24, 2012

A Love & Hunger dinner at Universal Restaurant

One of the cool things about writing books is that through them you get to meet some fantastically interesting people – and I am so excited that Christine Manfield, the renowned chef and cookbook author from Sydney’s Universal Restaurant (anyone see Christine on Masterchef the other week?), has invited me to speak at a special dinner at her restaurant.

It’s on Wednesday, August 8 and is extra special because Christine has invited Alex Herbert, former chef at one of my favourite restaurants Bird Cow Fish (which Alex closed earlier this year) to cook with her.

Together, Christine and Alex are coming up with a four-course menu “inspired by” Love & Hunger  – but I can tell you now the food we’ll eat that night will be far more wondrous than any of the recipes in my book!

If you’d like to go, tickets are available now at a very reasonable $100 per head, which includes four courses and wine by Ulithorne wines by Rose Kentish, as well as a reading by One.

I would so love to meet any How To Shuck An Oyster readers there, so if you do come, make sure you say hi, okay?

Bookings are being taken now via Universal’s website http://www.universalrestaurant.com/home.html, by email eat@universalrestaurant.com or phone (02) 9331 0709.

Tell your friends!

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Home on the range: Mr Slater’s aubergine

July 11, 2012

Regular visitors to this blog might recall that I am an avid fan of the aubergine.

And winter visitors to our house know that I am also a fan of roasted or oven-baked things of every kind, as it means I can justifiably keep the heat cranked … while Senor reclines in t-shirt and shorts in an oven-induced tropical torpor, I find this kind of temperature juust right…

I’m also a fervent admirer of Mr Nigel Slater, whose recipes and writing in the Guardian I have always loved for their elegance and flair. I have his wonderful veg book Tender, and I shortly hope to deepen my acquaintance with hm via the TV series showing on the ABC – haven’t seen the show yet but look forward to it, to see if he can replace Mr Fearnley Whosywhat in my affections.

I do feel I know him quite personally now, as recently my nieces Anna and Rosie, both budding fine cooks (cue gratuitous photo opportunity – there they are below, after teaching me how to make pasta), sat me down at their house to watch the rather wrenching film version of Nige’s autobiography Toast (they had seen it twice – their other fave watch-over-and-over again movie is Julie & Julia. You can see why we get along).

Anyway – this week my warm feelings for Nigel, the oven and aubergine converged in perfect harmony when I came across Mr Slater’s wondrous Baked Aubergines with Thyme and Cream in Tender, also handily online here at The Guardian. This rich, rib-sticking winter food is something the English do particularly well, I think, do you?

I have now made this twice – once as per his recipe, and once with a couple of very minor variations. Nigel salts his eggplant slices and then fries them in oil before layering with the onion and thyme and garlic, but given that one then swamps the whole thing with cream (oh yes) and also that I am lazy, the second time I just sliced the eggplant and grilled on the barbecue before layering. Or you could dry-fry them or brown in the oven with the same result, I think. I also added some chopped tomato to the onion & garlic, taking a little passegiata down the parmigiana route. The second time I made this I served a big dish of it with some slow cooked lamb and lentils to a table of eight, and everyone loved it.

Nigel’s pristine recipe is at the link above, but my slightly lazier version is this – to serve 8. And I promise, what it lacks in elegance it more than makes up in popularity …

Nigel Slater’s creamy baked aubergine – serves 8

  • 2 large eggplants, sliced 1cm thick & grilled, baked or dry-fried till brown and floppy
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 small bunch thyme, leaves picked
  • 600ml thickened cream
  • a couple of tablespoons of grated Parmesan
  • salt & pepper
  1. Saute the onion slices gently in some olive oil till soft, then add garlic and fry a few more minutes.
  2. Add tomato, cook till soft and combined.
  3. Lay half the eggplant slices in the base of an oiled baking tray, then spread most of  the tomato-onion-garlic mixture over the top.
  4. Scatter the thyme over and season this layer.
  5. Layer the remaining eggplant over the mix and then the last of the tomato mixture  (I didn’t do this the second time but it looks nicer and more golden if you leave some onion on the top so I will from now on).
  6. Pour the cream over the whole dish, making sure to go to the edges.
  7. Season, sprinkle with the Parmesan and bake in a moderate oven for around 30 to 40 minutes or until golden and bubbly.
  8. Remove from oven and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving.
Offcuts
Thought I might start to include a small list of other random things I’ve cooked lately at the end of these posts – this week’s list includes:
  • Yoghurt, my new hobby as you know.
  • The slow-roasted lamb served with this aubergine was very similar to this one, though with less liquid and just loads of garlic instead of the other vegies, and as the lamb was only a bt over 2kg I cooked it at 150 degrees for only about four hours – was perfectly falling-off-the-bone and delicious though.
  • Chicken stock (if I don’t have chook stock in the freezer these days I get a bit edgy – but the other day I didn’t think of it till mid-evening, so just chucked everything in the slow cooker till morning –  it was fab, and addressed recommendations I’ve recently been given by more than one good cook to barely simmer the stock and cook it much longer).
  • Our old standby fish curry with salmon instead of prawns & fish – love it – and this time I also made a very basic Charmaine Solomon mattar paneer  (peas & paneer cheese) to go with it (leaving the peas out of the fish one) and the always-fabulous CS leeks mirisata as an accompaniment.
  • Senor made two of Karen Martini’s amazing seafood pies and a huge batch of spag bol for some family friends who are having a rough few weeks. The rough puff pastry for the pies was mine, happily leftover and waiting in the freezer after my beef pies (see below). The seafood pies include Israelis couscous and lots of leek and tasted divine.
  • Another weeknight standby – pasta with cauliflower, chilli, anchovy & pine nuts – ours is adapted from a Neil Perry book but is a standard classic and very similar to this one.
  • And last, as I’m heading off for an intensive writing retreat with some friends next week I’ve made and frozen a few meals – beef pies (from my book but adapted from these ones of Maggie Beer’s), and Maggie’s quite amazing moussaka (more eggplant, hooray!) which includes a layer of pureed pumpkin and is one of the most delicious things you will ever eat – it’s from her Verjuice book which is a revelation.)
What about you all – any weeknight faves you wanna share? Or random triumphs that need boasting about? Eggplant issues? Love to hear your thoughts.

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Why cook?

June 19, 2012

This post is rather a cheat, but as I’ve been travelling so much lately (last week back to  good old Varuna, where I spent a week remembering what it is like to sit still, think in silence for hours at a time and even – gasp – write a little) I’ve hardly been home to cook anything. It’s been a pleasure to meet readers of Love & Hunger at events around the place, including a couple in Sydney, one at Bathurst, another at Huskisson. And this coming Sunday I’m in conversation with the Jennifer Byrne at the Noosa Long Weekend Festival, after an event tonight here in Sydney which promises to be a real treat – not abut my book this time, but I’m in conversation with the wonderful Ailsa Piper about her book on pilgrimage, Spain and ethical life without religion. It’s called Sinning Across Spain. Do come along if you get a chance… 

All this running around, while such a gratifying response to the books, can tend to separate one from real life and what for me are the grounding, nourishing routines of ordinary domesticity. So I’ve decided to remind myself about that real life by posting the first chapter of Love & Hunger. It’s called Why cook?

And soon I’ll be back with some new adventures in the kitchen, hopefully starting with a successful first edition of homemade yoghurt – stay tuned. 

PART 1: ORIGINS

WHY COOK?

I began really learning to cook in my mid-twenties, at about the same time as I began really learning to write. I have only recently wondered if there is a link between these two things, other than the circumstances in which I found myself: an idle university student in possession of time for dawdling, some vague creative urges and new friends who inspired me with their own creativity and skill with a pen or a frying pan.

I had, of course, been cooking for years, in the way one does to feed oneself on first leaving home. I cooked sturdy, cheap and cheerful meals that were nutritious enough, if not exactly adventurous. I had also been writing for years, as a journalist on our small-town local newspaper, and I suspect the properties of my writing echoed those of my cooking. My articles—about artificial insemination of cattle, say, or the latest Lions Club fund-raising effort for a new piece of hospital equipment—were competent, and no doubt accurate enough. But the desire to write creatively, to bring out into the light and give shape and purpose to the inchoate longings and imaginings of my young mind, was still too unformed—or else too deeply buried to acknowledge. I remember once being asked if I had ever thought about writing a novel. The idea seemed utterly ludicrous. My questioner might as well have asked if I had yearnings to captain a ship to Antarctica, or to become a world-famous belly-dancer. It was not just that such an achievement was beyond me, but I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to expose herself—to danger, to knowing—in such a way.

Skip a few decades to a recent dinner, when a dear friend who likes to be provocative suggested that people like me cook for others as a way feeling superior to them. I admit I was a little rocked by this idea. Could he be right? Might there be even a kernel of truth in this? And if it wasn’t true, why then do I cook, and why does the satisfaction it brings me feel so profound?

I hope my friend is wrong about my motives—or mostly wrong—but I do see his point, given the almost obscene contemporary obsession with what I think of as fashion cookery: the slavish reproduction of the latest television fad, the obedient queuing outside this cake shop or that restaurant, the cult-like allegiance to this brand of olive oil or that cookbook. All this worries me, because it seems born of a kind of competitive social anxiety rather than a confident love of food, and it makes cooking into a club of knowing insiders, excluding all others. The fetishisation of chefs and dishes and ingredients and equipment led one woman I know to declare in exasperation that she just didn’t get this obsession with something as basic as food, she said. ‘I mean,’ she cried, ‘it’s just petrol!

I am not immune to food fashion, and some of it can be fun. But I aspire to something nearer to the ground, more elemental. The home cooks I know who have the most strongly anchored, easy relationship with their skill and interest in making food are somehow both serious and casual about it at once. They might make their own passata, but they would never dream of replicating an Adriano Zumbo cake. They spend hours a day reading food books, but couldn’t give a damn about where ‘the best’ olive oil comes from.

But I’m drifting from the question. What is the nature of the pleasure I get from cooking?

Whenever we whined about being bored as children, our mother would call over her shoulder that we should ‘go and do something constructive!’ This may well have merely sprung from the desire to get yet another of her five children out of her face for a moment, but she touched on something important: the deep arising from the act of creating something that didn’t exist before you made it. Whether it’s a drawing, a paper plane, a garden bed or a tub of baba ganoush—there is something fundamentally enriching about bringing something new into existence. It’s constructive, in the most literal sense.

Another aspect of my pleasure in cooking is in the mental diversion it creates. When cooks speak of preparing a meal as a way of ‘unwinding’ or ‘relaxing’ after a hard day at work, I think there are several things at play. I am reminded of the great joy I felt for the year or so I went to Latin dancing classes. As with any kind of dancing involving patterns, what’s essentially happening when you cook is a focused engagement with something physical and momentary, with patterns of repeated movements (chopping, stirring, turning a piece of fish or meat, for example). And in that focus on the physical, the mind may be freed from whatever had previously been occupying it. One woman I spoke to about this described it as ‘free concentration’—a graceful transition from the intellectual part of her day to the leisure part of it. I wonder if this kind of freeing of the mind from niggling worries of the past hours or days, or of future expectations, the intense focus and control only of the present moment, is part of the serenity that people seek from meditation.

At the same time as I am freed from the past and the future, though, in some subtle but definite way I am also connected, at least once every mealtime, to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own. This might sound grandiose, but pour a cupful of dried Puy lentils through your fingers and tell me you don’t feel at least a faint twinge of earthy delight. Similarly, whenever I thump a cleaver through a piece of raw meat, it inevitably provokes a subtle but definite stirring of some primal life-and-death struggle.

Pinching the balled-up bud of a basil flower off a knee-high plant by the kitchen door and tossing it into a pan of pasta sauce might not satisfy as deeply as making cheese from the milk of your own cows, as does one gentleman of my acquaintance, but it’s still there, this tiny thread of connection between me and the earth. This thread is so fine nobody but me would notice it – and to others it may sound tenuous and highly romantic, but I don’t care. It’s true for me.

This kind of creativity is also mercifully free of public evaluation. In a creative field, your work is always attended by the possibility of humiliation—when a novel is published you are at the very least subject to several cool public assessments of your work, if not to newspaper declarations of your failure, or screeds of online comments about how stupid are your characters, how scant your ideas, how tedious your voice. Even when reviews turn out to be positive, the period of waiting for them makes opening the Saturday newspapers an exercise in nausea control for weeks, if not months, around publication time. So freedom from critical evaluation of the result makes the creative pleasure of cooking even deeper for me. Nobody is going to publicly declare your soufflé a workmanlike attempt in which the slight dip on the left-hand side ultimately led to the failure of the whole dish. For me, cooking (and gardening, a related pursuit) represents creativity in its purest form. It’s no surprise that many fiction writers I know also have other private creative pursuits: one plays the ukulele, another sews stunningly beautiful bed quilts. We do these things partly, I think, because the strain of producing creative work under the watchful eye of reviewers, even publishers, even our beloved readers, can leach the work of much of its joy. It’s work, after all. But cooking – or quilting, or ukulele-playing—is pleasure.

Ah, pleasure. Of course physical pleasure must also be at the heart of every good cook’s desire to do it. A friend (who, ironically, doesn’t drink much at all) once told me she didn’t trust teetotallers. To her, permanent abstinence from alcohol equates to a pathological fear of losing control, which in turn equals a fear of life. Having a couple of life-loving friends who don’t drink at all, I’m not sure about that—but I certainly agree that a love of eating and drinking seem to correspond, among the people I know, with a love of life. A powerful appetite for food and an open emotional and intellectual appetite tend to go together—or perhaps that’s my convenient prejudice.

What is not a prejudice but firm, proven data is something social researchers have been telling us for years: that connection with other people is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. For me cooking creates the occasion and the place for those connections to happen. I remember several years ago stirring a pot of something in the kitchen, listening to the near-deafening hubbub of a dozen people sitting around the table in the next room, and thinking: I have never been happier in my life than in this moment.

But what about my devil’s-advocate friend’s assertion, that people become good cooks in order to impress—even intimidate—others? Well, no doubt this is true for some. But I think the inverse is far more prevalent: that people become good cooks in order to be loved. The writer and former restaurateur Gay Bilson has spoken of her ‘need to be needed’ in this context, and in her book Plenty: Digressions on Food writes of the moment she learned, by making cream puffs at age eleven, that cookery leads to praise. I think it would be a rare cook who could truthfully deny sharing these desires. For one thing, this kind of praise is so easy to get: any good cook will tell you that the compliments lavished upon them usually far exceed the effort it took to bring the lauded dish to the table. (This is not all sweetness and light, however; so bound up is my social life and my cooking that in my darker moments I have occasionally wondered whether, if I didn’t make food for them, I would have any friends at all. If there is a sombre underside to be found in my cooking life, that is it.)

But some of the deepest satisfactions of cooking are not necessarily to do with sharing food with others, with the big dinner party or the impressive dish; it might be a single perfectly seared piece of salmon eaten on a weeknight in front of the television, or the pleasing consistency of a pea and mint soup eaten at your desk for lunch.

Thinking about the quiet but serious pleasure in these small moments, I finally recognise the most persistent feeling I have about my skill with cooking. It’s not superiority, or even wantedness—it’s that I feel lucky.

Every now and again someone will say to me wistfully, ‘I wish I liked cooking.’ I think my mother was probably this sort of person. My siblings may have differing opinions, but it seems to me she did not really like cooking much and yet she did it, hour upon hour of it, every day, with very little money, to provide nourishment for five children and a husband. Her garden was where her heart lay, and I think with a kind of sadness sometimes about how often she must have longed to be out in the garden instead of buttering yet another biscuit tray, or chopping another carrot, and I blush at how much we complained about the food she so selflessly put on our table each night.

This is when I realise my luck. To derive so much pleasure from what to some people is a chore as joyless as vacuuming feels like an enormous stroke of good fortune.

Writing and cooking are, as I have said, two separate arenas of my life, and their separateness is part of what makes them both so satisfying to me—and yet here I am, bringing them together. But there is another thread that joins them. Like many before me, I write fiction to find out what I think about the world; to open it up, look at it and place myself in it—and, in sending those books out into the public space, to share with others what I have found. In some ways, cooking does this for me too. When I try out a new technique or a recipe on my friends, or I pick a bay leaf from the little potted tree outside my kitchen, or I get excited by something as simple as a well-made frangipane tart, I am extending myself, discovering something new, and connecting myself to my world in a way that feels important.

As I write this I am increasingly impatient to get into the kitchen. I have ten people coming for dinner this evening, and I’m roasting two experimental chickens. I’m brining one of the birds before cooking, for the first time, to see why people make such a fuss about brining. As well, I’ve just been given a whole real truffle—an amazing black, chocolatey nugget of a thing—which I’m to shave and put under the skin of the second chicken before roasting. I am more excited by these two experiments to come, and yet so anchored to myself and my place in the world because of them, than it is possible to explain in words.

From Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, by me.

Now it’s your turn. What is the nature of the pleasure you get from cooking? 

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On your guest behaviour

May 23, 2012

The other night we had about a dozen people round for dinner. About half the guests knew one or two of the others, but mostly they were meeting for the first time, and it turned out to be one of those glorious evenings. Within minutes of everyone arriving, avid conversations had begun, even between strangers – and as the night moved on there was much laughing, boisterous disagreement, delighted and intense seizing upon common interests, entertaining stories, thoughtful discussion, the works.

Afterwards, S and I tried to work out what it was that had made the evening work so well. We can take credit for some judicious selection – a good mix of personality types and so on, and I think the fact that lots of people were meeting for the first time gave it an edge of animation that fades into comfortable but lower-energy ease when old friends eat together.

But mostly, I reckon, it was because everyone there knew how to be a great guest. We are blessed with socially dexterous friends who know how to be entertaining, how to give and take in conversation, how to raise riveting topics, and how to make new people feel welcome. When you have people like this at your table, hosting a dinner is a breeze. All you have to do is provide a space for it.

In Love & Hunger I wrote a chapter on how to be a host – because I have seen people get so stressed out about entertaining that they can’t enjoy it – in which I asked various friends for their views on what goes into making entertaining at your house work well. And early in that chapter I hinted that there were also responsibilities as a guest, but I never really got around to that topic.

Off the top of my head, when I think about being a guest at someone else’s house there are only a few obvious essentials:

  • show up on time or phone if we’re going to be late
  • don’t arrive empty-handed
  • make an effort to dress reasonably well
  • make an effort to be conversationally energetic
  • have a good time
  • don’t refuse any offered food and try new things
  • thank the cook!
  • make sure my part in any argument is good-natured – this has been difficult at times!
What do you think? As a guest, what is your role? Do you think about it, or just show up? Do you try to fill awkward silences and draw out shy people, or do you reckon they can fend for themselves? What about dealing with jerks? I have had to bite my tongue quite severely at times. A friend’s stepfather once said some appallingly racist things and I found myself very confused as to how to behave – should I have challenged him? It wasn’t my house, he was an old man, and so I erred on the side of politeness, smiled and bumblingly demurred, then changed the subject. But I hated myself for it. Or what about being seated between someone wonderfully interesting and a crashing bore on your other side – are you allowed to turn your back on the bore? Can you take the piss out of a pompous git, or are you obliged to nod and smile?

What else is your duty? I never offer to wash the dishes, do you? I never allow people to clean up in my house and so I don’t offer in theirs – but I do clear plates or help bring plates or people to the table. I do sometimes take flowers, but some people say that’s a bad idea. We always take wine, of course. Can you start a raging argument? I love a heated discussion – more in  observation than taking part – but at what point does it get out of hand, and whose responsibility is it to hose things down? And turning up on time is easy, but what about going home? What if you’re exhausted – are you allowed to nick off straight after dinner? And how do you know if you’re outstaying your welcome?

Would love your views on these things and more – and specially your disaster stories. What makes a great dinner guest? Are there people you will never have to your house again? Why? And what about the ones you always want to be there – what makes them so welcome? Come on, spill.