Sometimes it’s nice just to follow a recipe. I own a LOT of cookbooks and eagerly await new ones, although I rarely follow them directly. There are a few exceptions, of course; technical procedures like baking or pickling, or dishes from cuisines that are entirely outside my understanding. In general, though, I (and I imagine a lot of people) use cookbooks chiefly for inspiration, the more so the more complicated the book is. I have never, for example, followed an Ottolenghi recipe through from start to finish; the number of ingredients alone is enough to put me off, even though I’d happily use that many myself when improvising. Fergus Henderson’s books are a joy to cook from, but the sheer effort involved can often be dispiriting – if it doesn’t need ordering in advance from a butcher, it probably needs brining for 5 days or (the most extreme, if tongue-in-cheek, example) cooking on driftwood in the Hebrides.
Give me an Elizabeth David or a Claudia Roden, though, and I’d happily cook every dish. You look at the short ingredient list and think “How could that be nice?” – but it always, always, is. They are vague where they should be vague, and precise when they need to be, forgiving of substitutions and geographical issues with sourcing ingredients. Although they have both since been coffee-tabled up with hardbacks and photos, in their original editions they are perfect to work from, small enough not to take up half my work surface, cheap enough that I don’t worry about getting wine all over the pages… And with no varnished, styled images to compare the end product to, I’m generally happier with the result.
Another fine food writer who seems to have resisted the coffee-table trend is Elisabeth Luard. Her European Peasant Cookery has the authoritative and pleasingly wordy air of a well-written reference book, a Brewer’s or similar; you can dip in and out whether cooking or not, and find solid, time-tested iterations of traditional recipes free from authorial meddling. If you want to know how to make, say, a pork pie, without Tom Kerridge or whoever faffing about with it, this is the place to go. So, I had some ox kidney, a steak in the freezer, and half a pack of suet in the cupboard; where else to look?
STEAK AND KIDNEY PUDDING
A pudding for two. You’ll need a little pudding dish.
The only deviation this involves from Luard’s recipe is in halving the quantities, and in the manner of arranging the meat; she slices the steak into little fillets and wrapping these around the kidneys, which seemed like a waste of time.
125g self-raising flour
1 tsp salt
80g shredded suet
up to 100ml of cold water
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl, then stir in the suet. Gradually mix in the water until you have a nice smooth dough. Roll out two-thirds to line your buttered pudding basin, roll out a lid, then get on with the filling.
250g stewing steak (I used 1 flat iron steak, which was ideal), cubed
125g ox kidney, trimmed, cubed, and soaked in water and a little vinegar
about 6 button mushrooms, sliced
half an onion, diced
1 tbspn chopped parsley
50ml red wine
salt and pepper
Put a pan of water on to boil, big enough to house the pudding. Mix everything except the wine with a generous amount of seasoning, then pack into the pudding case (I know it seems weird to put in a raw stew mix, but it cooks beautifully in its pastry home). Pour the wine in, then dampen the edges of the pastry, cover with your lid, trim and crimp. Make a slit for steam, and cover with a disc of greaseproof and some foil, with enough give in it to let the pastry rise.
Place a folded tea towel into the boiling water, to protect the pudding from direct heat, then place the pud carefully on top. The water should come two-thirds of the way up the basin, so adjust as necessary. Cover the pan and boil for three hours, making sure it doesn’t go dry. When done, take it out and let it settle for a few minutes before turning out. Serve with greens and mustard.