Dine & Wine

Making a risotto, you might think, is a fairly tedious business, which it is unless you do it properly – which is to say in the right frame of mind. One way to enter this frame is for the bottle you open to add the first splash of liquid among the toasted grains to be the one you drink throughout the cooking process; unless you are making a radicchio risotto, this will probably be a light, dry Italian white, perfect for the slight mental dislocation required to stand stirring, watching and listening for the next twenty minutes or so as your rice turns into velvet.

We are told, often, never to cook with anything we wouldn’t drink, which for most young cooks is almost meaningless. a category containing only, at a push, WKD Blue; it certainly includes no known wines. It is intended, of course, to advise us only to cook with good wines, but then what does that mean? Good for cooking, should be the answer, in which case the advice becomes tautologous and disappears. Certainly the idea that we should cook with the best wines we can buy is flawed.

If you are making, for example, a fine coq au vin, then the bosky pinot noir you rightly intend to drink with it would be wasted on the cooking; for one thing, you are going to brutalise the wine by reducing it by half, emphasising some flavours and destroying others. More importantly, though, you don’t need subtle undertones of mushroom and herb when you are in fact going to cook it with both of those things. What makes a good wine as opposed to just a nice wine, you might say, is nuance, and you can always add nuance; that’s what seasoning is for.

Leave the aforementioned bosky delight unopened for now, then, and reduce instead two bottles of the Co-op’s own claret with a couple of sprigs of thyme and a handful of dried mushrooms – if you’re making a fine coq au vin, that is. If you’re making that risotto, in which the wine element is more of a votive offering than anything else, then open something bright and white, and toast with it the coming meal, and the fellow drinkers you are cooking it for.

Nothing Is Lost

When I was going to sleep, I think the night before last, I had a really good idea for a piece. Today I need to write it, and I have not the slightest idea what it was. Gone. Possibly it was in fact quite a bad idea for a piece, or, it might be, a few lines from a song or a book, the memory of a smile from an imaginary film, which became entwined in my nearly-dreaming brain with, say, a discussion of the relative methods of octopus preparation, complete with recipes. I remember once, in the drifting minutes between the first alarm and the final waking, composing a song which was also a pie, a very fine pie, and am still rather disappointed that I have forgotten the details, which, come to think of it, are probably non-existent and at any rate impossible.

The problem is that, between work, a demanding puppy, and the cold and the dark, I am really quite exhausted, and I can see why most food writers confine themselves, in December, to the production of lists of various kinds, or to a retread of festive tropes providing twists on seasonal classics. Now, I can see why these are useful, if you have a lot of parties in December (as apparently people do), or indeed if you work in a restaurant, and wish to serve people something other than a bulked-up Sunday roast, over and over again. Personally, though, I feel a little sorry for anyone who feels that they need to constantly change the Christmas meal itself, to fall in with fashion or diets or simply for variety’s sake. Surely the point of such meals is that they are always, by and large, the same – like listening to the Fall, or reading PG Wodehouse.

If I was at home for Christmas (‘home’ in this context always being where your parents or the majority of your family live) I know that on Christmas Eve there would be shepherd’s pie with braised red cabbage and mulled, perhaps blackberry wine, with a treacle tart to follow (or is that New Year? Maybe it’s warm mince pies), a warm hug after standing in the cold for the carol service; Christmas dinner means soup, a leg of pork, long chipolatas wrapped in good bacon, stuffing balls, slightly overdone sprouts, sneaky parsnips to be picked out of the roast potatoes, proper gravy and all the rest; it means Christmas pudding and ice cream, mint chocolates, nuts, fruit, the yearly indulgence of coffee with cream in it, and the rest of the day spent dipping bread in gravy every time you walk through the kitchen. The soup might change from year to year; an extra piece of meat might come out, or the veg vary depending on what is left of the allotment in the freezer, but the essentials remain.

I won’t be at home for Christmas itself, this year, so we can do what we like. I think a salt cod and potato pie for the night before, and maybe a game-hung five year old hen, perhaps pot-roasted, for the main event. If it ends up tough and stringy, as well it might, considering I have never cooked one before, then at least we have the trimmings, which are after all the best bit.

Just Enough

Eggs, really, are little miracles – so much more useful than chickens. Neatly packaged and compartmentalised by nature, they are, appropriately, a starting point in the wider world of food, fed to babies and invalids and anyone who needs to (re)learn the pleasures of eating; proverbially if not actually easy to cook, they are the first ingredient a lot of us work with, a fact we pay homage to every day at breakfast (“we” not including the unfortunate cereal-munchers and toast-snatchers of this world). Go to work on an egg, they said, and it was good advice – but they’re even better for long, lazy mornings. The meal of brunch could not exist without the emulsifying presence of the egg to combine its disparate parts, its salads and sandwiches, hashes, leftovers and toast. Egg (or more particularly its yolk) is a great match-maker.

What magician first made a mayonnaise? What was she (probably not he) doing? How did she know? It can’t have taken a Heston to work out the effect that breadcrumbs or ground nuts (which we still occasionally use in bread sauce, in picadas) would have when thrown into a stew; but to bring together two liquids and end up with something thicker than either – we can only bow down to this long-lost innovator, who should be the patron saint of the kitchen. Perhaps you don’t make mayonnaise at home (you should). Think about a cooked yolk, then – the way, mixed with cream, it bakes or simmers into a silken whole, occupying a perfect liminal space between solid and liquid. A well-made quiche, quivering plainly in a buttery shell, is a beautiful thing – a bad one a disaster. Eggs are difficult to cook. When such things were still fashionable, a soufflé used to be considered a real test of skill – Anthony Bourdain describes the soufflé station as the ultimate ordeal of his education at the confusingly-named CIA – which is a testament to the tricky versatility of the egg. Essentially a yolk-enriched béchamel mixed with extraordinary amounts of air, a soufflé showcases the egg white, its ability to become something both extremely rich and toyingly light, decadently ephemeral. If this seems to circle around French cooking, that’s no coincidence. If there’s one area of cuisine that the French can really claim to have raised to an art, it’s egg cookery. From the humble omelette to the most delicate creations of the saucier, the egg, more than butter, wine, or garlic, is the real hero of the French kitchen, the symbol of its gift for complete transformation.

Eggs, for all their work behind the scenes, are capable of standing on their own in a way that flour, say, is not. I just ate two fried eggs, cooked in butter with salt and pepper; I’d happily eat them again. Maybe poached are more your thing – fair enough, though butter isn’t bad for you any more. Scrambled, although laden with bad memories, are wonderful if done well (which, for me, means extremely sloppily), and particularly good if you don’t have any bread – there’s no escaping yolk that needs mopping up. Leave them alone and you have a kind of omelette. Even a boiled egg can be a fine thing. None of these, however, are particularly easy to do. The difficulties are obvious with scrambled – just take them out of the pan quickly and you should be fine. Boiled eggs never take the time that anyone says they do – they are a struggle between you and your cooker, mediated by the pan, which might take years to resolve itself – and even plain old fried are a delicate balancing act between soft yolk and set white. The trick, generally, is to cook them a lot cooler than you think you should (ridiculous advice, once you’ve started taking it). Egg will cook if left alone in a hot place.

Eggs are so homely, so comforting, that it always comes as a surprise to see them abroad – although it shouldn’t be, given all of the above. A chicken is a present help to any family, fits easily in even urban gardens (‘yardbird’) and can be eaten when it gets old; mad-eyed squawking idiots that they are, they have spread from India and abundantly populated the world (although what percentage of that population exists in battery farms I don’t dare imagine). So we have avgolemeno soups and dressings, shakshuka, tortilla, egg-and-kofte tagines, egg curries, eggs on pizza and omelettes on sushi and egg-fried rice, we have egg salad and gala pies and pickled eggs to go alongside or before or after pastries and cakes and sauces, meringues and curds and ice-creams; we can eat eggs from terrible French hotel buffets, magnificent New York diners (the closest the egg has to a temple), shacks and stalls and counters across the world. Never trust anyone who doesn’t like eggs, and pity those allergic to them.