Ricotto

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Sometimes coming up with a recipe or (to put it another way) cooking dinner requires a long and hands-on process of tinkering, of adding salt here, acid there, a little cooked-out tomato puree because you didn’t use enough to begin with, constant top-ups with water or quick reductions; sometimes it just opens up like a flower. In the latter case, although it feels like you are cooking with rare grace and skill the apparent ease is usually just because you are using four or five ingredients and doing very little to them; it can require more craft and skill to fix something already broken than to make it properly in the first place. Some things – a scrambled custard, a stew made with an unsweated mirepoix – are beyond repair, while some things require not fixing but rather a little nudge to give them a new lease of life, like a cleanly diced broth of mushrooms and potatoes given a handful of pasta and a squeeze of lemon, and eaten as a late breakfast on a cold day.

Mostly plants

Strange though it might seem to the long-term reader of these pages, I don’t actually eat very much meat. I’ll eat it when I’m out, because that is a treat, and because I generally go to restaurants I trust to source well-raised and -slaughtered animals; the last time I bought any to cook at home was for my birthday in April when, unable to find any coq, I got a couple of the large, slow-grown Sutton Hoo chickens to braise au vin, with buttered fresh pasta on the side and radishes to start. I don’t shop at supermarkets and I can’t afford to buy meat from the butcher anything more than occasionally – and rightly so. By meat, I should say, I mean chunks of skeletal muscle. I eat a fair amount of other animal products.

When I lived in Suffolk, I ate a lot of eggs, because I knew the chickens. I don’t drink milk, in part because the dairy industry is a dreadful thing but largely because I prefer oat milk; I find it less intrusive in coffee and it obviously has a greater affinity with cereal and porridge than does the milk of cows or other ungulates. I choose oat milk over other plant-based alternatives because it is readily available unadulterated with sugar or with emulsifiers and because the alternatives are disastrous environmentally. To pick almond over cow’s milk is to weigh the ravages of the Californian drought against the mass death of newborn calves; ultimately, I suppose, everything we do is destructive to the face and the depths of the earth, and the puzzle is to find some sort of balance.

For me the answer lies in a sort of economics of death. How much can you wring from each animal, and do you need to? Fish sauce is brewed from entrails and bycatch, and a few drops transforms a meal; a chunk of salt pork enriches a whole mess of beans. If you’re going to eat something like a burger, sandwich ham or chicken nuggets, which bears little resemblance to its original form, I think you may as well eat seitan or Quorn or whatever. A cow might provide vast quantities of meat but the point is that it does so inefficiently and largely unnecessarily. Nobody needs to eat the amount of protein that huge steaks provide and in any case steaks are boring. Even a really good steak just tastes like a steak. To grill a rump or a porterhouse is to close it in on itself; the more economical cook allows meat to give itself up. Even so, I like to save it for moderately special occasions.

The cliche, of course, is that vegetarians and especially vegans are evangelical about their dietary choices, and will aggressively bore anyone nearby about, say, the exploitation of bees in the Chinese honey industry; while I have no doubt this is true of some, I find evangelical carnivores far worse. There is a certain type of person who takes the fact that you don’t eat very much meat, actually, as a personal affront not just to them but to their ancestors, their family, their beliefs; I’m not sure why this should be. The economic ability to consume meat, actual pieces of meat, three times a day has come very recently to most of Western society, and the vast majority of the world does not possess it. It is never presented as a hard-won privilege jealously guarded, though, more as a divine law flouted only by heretics and fools. The fact, as I say, that the vast majority of the human diet throughout its history has been composed of plants in various forms makes this all the stranger. I can only imagine how these people must react to actual self-declared vegans; luckily, I suppose, I like cheese too much to ever become one.

Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.

Long Story

It is a curious thing, as I believe others have remarked, that the written recipe – at the moment probably the principle medium for the sharing of culinary knowledge – represents at the same time the end of a long and often tortuous journey, and the beginning of a new one. For the recipe writer and professional cook, the neat list of ingredients and method is an imperfect distillation of not only a more-or-less exacting process of thought, testing, tasting and adjustment, but also of a lifetime or even lifetimes of experience, whether your own of that of family, friends, or indeed total strangers. As Sarit Packer once said to me with a shrug, when I confessed to wholesale theft of her method for cheesecake, recipes travel; how they do so might be a fascinating story.

There is, of course, the what-I-did-on-my-holidays school of recipe writing, of which I admit I have been often guilty; in the right hands, which is to say those of Claudia Roden, this can be illuminating. Her anthropological rigour, and the easy skill with which she teases out tangled family recipes into long threads of history, is quite remarkable, and her books, at their best, open up entire worlds. More often than not, though, this sort of food writing is conducted in a spirit of magpie dilettantism; I went here and I ate this and then I recreated it at home is not a particularly interesting story, and nor, to put it another way, does it show much interest in the story of the recipe itself.

Far more interesting, to my mind, though they may lack in exotic locales, are the lists of odd coincidence and happy chance by which written recipes travel about the place – a clipping from a magazine tucked inside a book given to a charity shop bought by a pub for decoration and opened only out of boredom, perhaps, or just one passed on by a friend, knowing that it in time would be cut and adapted, mutilated and changed, and become the start, in time, of its own story.

Boat Bread

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Of all the alien things about Georgia – the language, apparently written in Elvish, the darkly ornate Christianity, the fruit-and-garlic sauces, the tininess of their cats – perhaps the strangest is that that they simply don’t eat breakfast, or at least have no real culture of doing so. Although there is something to be said for the lingua franca of the hotel continental breakfast – always different, always the same – one of the key pleasures of travelling, I find, is to explore the different ways in which various peoples choose to start their day. The mezeish spread of a Turkish weekend, picking at muhammara, sausage, dates, cheeses, tahini, clotted cream, olives, salads and fruit, puts you in a frame of mind very different to that engendered, say, by a pastry washed down with an espresso at a Neapolitan bar, which is one of the reasons that being in Naples is very different to being in Istanbul. The lack of breakfast makes Tbilisi hard to grasp.

Given that another key pleasure of travelling is staying out until two every morning drinking in the street, however, it is easy enough to get up late and treat every lunch as brunch. Although we went to an excellent place which specialises in hangover cures to try the traditional Georgian remedy of spiced tripe soup (properly speaking this should be slopped down drunkenly before you go to bed, though it still seemed effective after the fact), I couldn’t entirely escape my British craving for egg and bread; the Georgians will see your scrambled egg on toast and raise you an Adjarian khachapuri.

Khachapuri simply means cheese bread, a genre of Georgian baking which sees the one stuffed into the other; in its Adjarian form it is boat-shaped, similar to but rounder than the Turkish pide, and crowned, as pide often also is, with an egg. The genius of the Georgian version is that the egg is left almost raw and joined with quite a large amount of fresh butter, to be mixed into the still-hot cheese filling at the table; cheesy scrambled eggs, essentially, which you scoop out with pieces of the crust – an excellent way to begin the day, although given that in its smallest tourist size it is a good seven inches across, that day is unlikely to be very productive. These are easy enough to make at home – Olia Hercules has a recipe in her new book or here, which you will need to triple in size for the full experience – although you might find that negates the lazy pleasure of having one brought to you as you sit in a cafe in Hackney or Tbilisi or Batumi over late coffees and salty mineral water, your head still full of last night’s wine.

An Old Sweet Song

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As you fly into Tbilisi the morning sky is the colour of just-poached trout and the only buildings to be seen are tower-blocks of a dense Soviet gray which give way to the flimsier gray of office and mall as the bus circles its way into the city but as soon as you come up through the underpass the gray refracts into a gentle riot of mint, peach, aquamarine and marigold, the air smells of tarragon and charcoal, and there you are, surrounded by cats, on a street you can’t pronounce at the north end of the Old Town of Tbilisi, already thinking about dinner.

If, the three or four books already published this year on Georgian cuisine notwithstanding, Tbilisi is not yet a major destination for European food-lovers or indeed for European tourists in general then I think the variegated shades of its culture are partly to blame, sat as it is seemingly at a trading post between Europe, Russia, Asia Minor and the Middle East, both exotic and eerily familiar. At first glance, in fact, most of its food seems borrowed from elsewhere, cucumbers pickled with dill and garlic, little money-bag dumplings, pilafs, kebabs both shish- and kofte-, the boat-shaped breads of the Black Sea, though it’s hard, of course, to say where these things originated and who took them where; who knows what came from Georgia?

Perhaps the round translucent leaves of fruit leather, which, folded neatly into albums, are sold in backstreet market and tourist emporium alike, find their way into dense meat broths, a little sharpener to complement or replace the sour plum sauce which is used also as a table condiment, sharp with garlic and spices, to lift up some grilled pork or a little chicken, crisped under hot weights and served with all its juices; perhaps wine, all wine, although I believe some Armenians would dispute that. Certainly there is no doubt in the Georgian mind that their country is the cradle of wine-making, that their qvevri were turned into amphorae and their techniques taken around the civilised world, altered, bastardised, forgotten. Certainly the newer generation of Georgian vintners, having thrown off the travesties of the Soviet years, make wines which feel correspondingly ancient – intense, spicy, dry, of the rich ambers and dusty reds of a sunset across the Caucasus or the Black Sea or anywhere at all.

A Tale Of Two Pickles

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It strikes me as odd that we use the terms pickle and ferment so interchangeably. Ask for a pickle in America and you will most likely be given a dill pickle, that is to say a lacto-fermented cucumber; ask for the same in England and you will probably receive a heavily vinegared baby onion or, if your hypothetical pickle-giver didn’t catch that indefinite article, some sort of Branston-alike, which is to say an equally vinegared vegetable chutney.

Fermenting and pickling, it’s true, do serve the same purpose both practically and culinarily; they preserve the gluts of summer against the long bare winter, and add (ironically) freshness and life to otherwise bland or rich meals. It’s amazing how much more gruel you can choke down if it’s interspersed with bites of sauerkraut, or, at the other end of the scale, how much more palatable a couple of cornichons renders an inch of good foie gras terrine. Despite these seeming affinities, pickling (by which I mean vinegar pickling) and fermenting achieve their aims through exactly opposite approaches; the fermenter creates, but the pickler destroys.

In its classic British format, such as the aforementioned sweet pickled onion or the murky pub egg, pickling constitutes a four-pronged assault against the forces of decay. A solution is made of a strong vinegar, sugar and salt, all in themselves harmful to various forms of microbial life; just in case you thought the sugar might encourage and feed any lurking yeasts or bacteria on your onions, the whole lot is heated and poured boiling over the vegetables in a final sterilisation, and the jar sealed against the living air. No life thrives in such an environment, and the only instability is the slow action of enzymes on vegetable flesh.

This is an excellent way of preserving things and it has unsurprisingly become the standard method (with additional pasteurisation) for industrial pickling; as well as satisfying the hatred of bacteria which is the lynchpin of food safety practices, it produces a consistent and stable product which is capable, on occasion, of deliciousness. Although bought pickled onions are never quite crunchy enough for me (probably that pasteurisation) their vinegar is always excellent, with the ferocious quantities of salt, acid and sugar colliding in the middle into something like balance, while good jarred cornichons are essentially perfect. Certainly they are good enough to render making them at home pointless, even if you had a ready supply of cucumbers no bigger than the top two joints of your little finger. If I did, I think I would ferment them.

Invisible Pickles

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been quite hot lately. Hot enough that it is actively unpleasant to spend much or any time cooking, which is unfortunate if you happen to do so for a living. These are days for methodically tidying the walk-in fridge, for bathing the salad more carefully than ever, or in extreme circumstances for staging a rodent infestation so your kitchen gets closed down and you can go to the park, or, once you’ve realised that it’s too hot there too, home. The problem is that you still have to make dinner. Cooking in the sense of heating things up was obviously out of the question, but I almost gave up on the idea of preparing food entirely and went to that Italian place down the road, with the windows wide open to the street and a good selection of wines by the glass; I would have done, if I hadn’t already been shopping, and bought

YELLOW CHERRIES, CUCUMBER, GOAT’S CHEESE + DILL

which I can’t, given the heat, really be bothered to expand into what is conventionally called a recipe. The goat’s cheese was a crumbly one very similar to feta and the cucumbers were the English crooked type which also, it should be said, pickle extremely well; having chopped them fairly haphazardly and added them to the stoned cherries, I seasoned them with enough coarse salt and good apple vinegar to almost constitute a pickle, along with a long slug of surprisingly expensive olive oil and some picked dill, gently turning the lot and then crumbling over the aforementioned crumbly cheese.

I suppose that is a recipe, if you squint, but I prefer to see it as merely one possible consequence of a too-hot day; I could instead have made a watermelon salad, eaten a Mr Whippy, or fallen in and out of a tumultuous love.

wander in simplicity

You may have noticed that I haven’t written anything much lately. You may, of course, having many other things to concern you in this wide and dangerous world, not have noticed at all, but we’ll let that slide; I’ll assume the former, and apologise. I’ve been pretty busy, having just moved to London and started a new job, and don’t seem to have been able to find the time to write – or rather, as I have if anything more time to myself than I did before, I don’t seem to have been able to enter the writing frame of mind.

Partly this is down to simple disruption and tiredness. I do my best work (I think) second thing in the morning, after a good night’s sleep and walking the dog; the first few sentences form on the walk, with the gist of the rest pacing behind, and when I get back I make a pot of coffee and write them down. With no such routine in place, and with my main walk of the day taking me to work, ideas simply have no space in which to land. More subtly, perhaps, I think the newness has shaken me.

So much writing, of all kinds but particularly about the craft of cooking, comes from a position of wisdom or at least authority. If we are to take advice on what is after all the most fundamental and universal of human activities, then we rightly expect the advice-giver to know more about it than we do, whether we think that knowledge was handed down over generations (as we assume with ‘ethnic’ food writers) or forged over years of training, thought and research, as with professional cooks and writers.

Part of what stuck in the craw from the now-stalled ‘clean eating’ movement was the fact that the pampered children at its helm obviously lacked both breadth and depth of knowledge in their assumed field, despite their posturing assumption of authority both medical and culinary; they claimed theirs was the only way when it was the only one they had ever tried. At the other end of the scale, you have chefs like Shaun Hill of the Walnut Tree and Stephen Harris of the Sportsman, the last of whom is finally publishing a cookbook after nearly twenty years of running probably the best kitchen in the country (I don’t count anything with two stars or more as really cooking); you can be sure their authority and even wisdom is absolute. Everyone else, I suppose, falls somewhere in the middle.

In reality, of course, no-one ever stops learning, or rather they shouldn’t; the fact that I am again learning new techniques and facts not just from reading but personally from others with far greater experience than me is no reason to stop writing – at the very least I guess I should be taking notes. I learnt the other day, for example, that it is some compound in the dripping steam that makes covered pans of vegetables go that sickly grey; leave the lid off for brighter greens. I suppose I might have learnt that for myself, if I have ever finished reading Harold McGee cover-to-cover as I planned. I didn’t, though, and so was happy to hear it from someone who had winnowed a relevant fact from those masses of words, and applied it to the first flush of sweet French peas.

green in judgement

It used to be quite common in recipe books to read that if you didn’t like coriander, parsley could easily be used instead – an instruction so entirely wrong-headed it is hard to know where to begin. Britain then being in thrall to French notions of gastronomy, perhaps parsley was considered so innocent and ubiquitous that to use it was almost the same as using no herb at all; perhaps, to put it another way, as the use of such garnishes and flavourings is all so much affectation and ornament, as they all taste the same, no-one will eat them and in any case all meals and all lives eventually come to an end, it doesn’t particularly matter which selection from the herbalist’s garden you choose to throw all over your food – I don’t know. The increased use and therefore availability of good fresh herbs (or perhaps vice versa) is, I think, a handy way in which Britain’s food renaissance can be measured.

The thing about herbs, of course, is that none of them can be substituted for any other, which is odd when you consider that almost every herb we cook with comes from one of two families. Certainly nothing can be substituted for coriander, evoking as it does either the aromas of distant shores or the poky hum of a shield bug. Experts seem to differ as to whether this difference can be explained by a difference in human biology – like the gene which supposedly allows some to taste the hidden foulness of brassicas – or in the plant itself as it varies across place and across time. Personally, I have always found it to be more unpleasantly pungent as the plant begins to bolt, as most herbs are. At any rate, it is one of those smells which, once experienced, seems to lurk always in the background of the once-loved flavour, in the same way that the sweet smell of fresh crab meat can never be entirely free of its sickly decay.

No, apart from the bitterness of plants gone to seed, and the generic greenness which comes out when you bruise or smash any leaf, every herb has a flavour which is really entire and of itself, to the extent that cooking with one new to you is really like discovering a whole new flavour, the more so as the varieties less-used for cooking tend often towards the bold and astringent – whispering Sweet Cicely being, I suppose, the honourable exception. Lovage! Its folding leaves and umbrellas of flowers mark it out as a member of parsley’s team, and it is often compared to celery, but it takes the latter’s astringency to the point where it almost tastes like mint – really, of course, it just tastes like lovage, and very fine it is too, if too strong to be used in great quantity.

One of the delights of Levantine and related cuisines is the use of herbs more as a salad or even a cooked vegetable than as a flavouring or garnish; think of a properly made tabbouleh, which contains only a hint of bulgar wheat against great fistfuls of neatly shredded mint and parsley. The use of similar amounts (the proper measure, Olia Hercules assures us, is “a shitload”) of dill in food that stretches round from Turkey and Georgia, up and through into Russia is something that many find off-putting; for me it is a shibboleth which ties together those rather disparate cuisines, and points to shared origins. Although, as with any herb, you can have too much of a good thing, it is the heavy use of dill and of flat-leaf parsley which makes me prefer the food of Turkey to my once-favourite Moroccan cuisine with its blanket of soft-leafed coriander. Context, though, must play a part; perhaps it is the heavily spiced sweetness I object to more than the herb itself, as I enjoy coriander tucked amongst fish sauce and shredded cabbage and chilli and lime.

Perhaps this kind of taxonomy of food is mistaken; many herbs are more ubiquitous than you might think, although in Britain their use seems to have always been more medicinal than culinary – although as these two pursuits have forever been intertwined, perhaps it would be better to say that their use has been homeopathic, in food and medicine alike. One bay leaf tucked into four litres of braising beef is quite sufficient, thank YOU. Personally, I like to use herbs in great handfuls, whole-leafed in salads, bunches flavouring cream or liquor, masses chopped into a sauce for cold roast mutton. The stronger ones can be chopped up with parsley, which while not featureless does act as a good carrier for more assertive flavours; I like to use the leaves of alexanders, chopped half-and-half with those of parsley, in a green sauce for braised rabbit. Some can still be used homoeopathically, though. Gill Meller tucks a couple of stalks of lovage into some poaching rhubarb, which he serves with fresh cheese; I have an urge to replace the cheese with smoked eel and serve the lot on burnt toast, pink fruit, buttery fish, the scent of mint and iron.