Nothing But Flour

Imagine if there were no more recipes. A provincial lifestyle blogger quietly posts a gluten-free iteration of Southern Fried Chicken, accompanied by her Smashed Cucumber Salsa and Rainbow Slaw, and that is it; the last possible combination of edible ingredients with heat, salt and time. There are no more recipes. The deluge of food related content begins to slowly dry up. The first things to go are the words “my”, “new”, “unique”, from headlines, tweets and titles; the writers know there is nothing unique in their oat cookies, their mixed salads and complex braises – not that there ever was. The adjectives of surprise start to disappear, too; as the rabid hunt for the new dies down, cooks realise that they never wanted dinner to amaze, only to fill and to delight.

As professionals and amateurs alike return to the archives, to their heaps of coffee-table cookbooks, to family recipe collections and to the depths of the Good Food website, to revisit old favourites and to finally try that dish they’d always meant to, the food-writing community is thrown at first into a blind panic. What are they to do without their newness? For a while there are no food pages in the supplements, no blog posts, no stop-motion recipe videos; Ottolenghi weeps into his spice cupboard, for there are no more worlds to conquer. Gradually, though, they recover. If they cannot create, at least they can still cook, interpret, curate; days can be spent exploring the possibilities inherent in a few lines of Elizabeth David, Mrs Beeton or Apicius. The fringe elements of cooking, the bakers, brewers, charcutiers, anyone who has spent months or years perfecting a single technique, come to the fore at last; their patience, long appreciated, is finally celebrated as a love of craft overtakes that of creativity.

This new sensibility, transferred to more everyday cooking, to the slow perfection of pasta, crackling, fried fish or salad, has immediate results; palates widened by a thousand flavour combinations become narrow of focus, gradually attuned to more subtle variations, to salt applied half an hour before or five minutes into cooking, to leaves picked in the heat of the day or by wet moonlight, to different ages of wheat. No-one can master all of these things; as specialisation deepens, meals become communal and sprawling, as everyone contributes the element they do best to the table, which might be cultured butter, pork pies, or a croquembouche. All of these things are equals at the feast, and our food has never been better.

Craft turns into cult, as the special knowledge of each technique – of little interest to anyone else, busy as they are with their own trades – is hardened into mystery, to the secrecy of family and guild; experimentation and perfectionism, at first the lifeblood of what has become known as the New Cooking, is discouraged. Adherence to the rules, to the recipes laid down in the ancient texts and websites, becomes a matter of almost religious discipline. There is clearly a best way to make, say, bread, which is that enshrined in the Book; any deviation is, by definition, inferior, and should be rooted out in case it spoils the palates and the hands of future bakers – so the thinking goes. Understandably, many baulk at this; they are suppressed. Finally, after generations of this, someone dares to tinker. Rebellion builds in their heart until they can take it no more. One day, at Stage Two of The Recipe, they swap the vinegar for lemon juice and capers for finely chopped cornichons; they serve it, against all precedence and logic, with salmon. It is disgusting.

With Relish

Despite repeated resolutions to the contrary, I don’t really use cookbooks. I own a lot, and I read them all and often look at the pictures; apart from a select few, covered in cake mix and butter and blood and tomato, which I know and love and trust, I don’t really follow their recipes. I think I do, though. “That sounds nice”, I say to myself on the sofa, “I’ll try making it sometime.” When that time comes, of course, I don’t have the book to hand – and if I did, I wouldn’t have half the ingredients – so I cook from memory, which is to say I make it up. Only after months of cooking a dish do I look back at the book at realise that my recipe has become something entirely other, related to the original book only in the manner of folk songs or language – tangentially, driftingly.

If, sometimes, this can be limiting – it means that you rarely stray outside your own idiom and technical comfort zone – then it can also be liberating. It is certainly convenient; few cookbooks are actually easy and pleasant to use for their intended purpose. Anyway, here is a recipe I remain convinced comes from Diana Henry, despite her original (itself an imagined version of a never-tasted Turkish dish) containing, it turns out, coriander (don’t much care for it) and green olives (totally forgot about them). That, I suppose, is how cooking works. Conveniently, this goes extremely well with octopus.

GREEN CHILLI RELISH

15 green chillies (or a mix of red and green), thinly sliced

6 cloves of garlic, crushed with salt

about a tbsp caster sugar

a slosh of sweet white vinegar

a big handful each of mint and parsley, chopped across a couple of times, to encourage them to join in

Mix together everything except the herbs, scrunching a bit to dissolve the sugar. Add the herbs and toss and scrunch some more. WASH YOUR HANDS. An hour or so hanging around mellows things out, but much longer and it’ll go a bit manky.

The Matter of the Heart

  
One man’s (or woman’s, or culture’s) offal is another man’s premium cut; these things are as much about demand as about supply. A beef fillet may be prized partly because there is only one of it, but its status, still, as an expensive piece of meat comes as much from its giving tenderness – a texture which, coming as it does at the expense of flavour, many (yes, myself included) find if not unpleasantly then at least indifferently soft – at least when raw or extremely rare. Overcook it, of course, and it will be as dry and grainy as a minute steak.

 

Premium cuts often follow a French ideal of quality, and as such are rated by their edibility when sanguine; the cheaper ends of animals, either fatty or sinewy, tend to need much longer cooking – This is one of the things which defines their cheapness, despite the fact that a slow-cooked piece of belly pork is infinitely more delicious than a tenderloin cooked any way at all – unless you’re talking really cheap, in which case, things having come full circle, a quick sear in a very hot pan is often the best course of action. These cuts – skirt, flatiron, whatever – have long been enjoyed as steaks by the French (at a bistro level, perhaps, rather than haute cuisine) but are only now making their way out of our mincers and diced mixed stewing steak and onto waiting coals. Not premium, perhaps, but no longer as cheap as they were.

 

Heart, though, and despite its uniqueness in the animal, is still very cheap – in fact, our butcher gave us one for free, along with the tongue, kidneys, and some scraps of skirt, when we bought some excellent veal chops from him. He had the whole bullock, you see, and they were only going in the pet mix. Well, when life gives you offal, make a Fergus Henderson recipe, that’s what I say; and it turns out quickly cooked calf heart is a wonderful thing. I’d only ever braised hearts before, which takes bloody hours. I had a willing commis to do the wibbly bits for me, but even if you don’t, preparing hearts is pretty straightforward, should a jolly butcher ever give you his.

 

Essentially, you want to remove from this strange, muscular organ anything which is not in fact muscle; the top is surrounded by hard, suety fat, which you trim off; inside there are tubes, which you cut out; slicing the heart lengthways and opening it like a book, you will find the heartstrings, which it turns out are both real and extremely strong. Cut them off at each end. When you have a more-or-less homogenous pound of flesh, cut it into steaks. There’ll be a couple of triangular flaps which can be sliced off as is; as for the rest, it depends on your needs and appetite. You’ll want, though, to cut the thicker sections lengthways, so that everything is roughly of a muchness.

 

Now, following Fergus, toss the steaks with a splash of vinegar, a good pinch each of salt and pepper, some oil, some rosemary or whatever seems appropriate. The vinegar, I think, performs vital tenderisation, but the herbs, I suppose, are fairly optional. Leave in the fridge til tomorrow.

 

Now, get an appropriately sized pan screaming hot, lightly oil it, and add your steaks, pushing down on them to discourage curling; season a bit more if you feel it necessary. Cook until you get a good brown crust, (say 2-3 minutes) then flip and cook a minute or so more. Remove to rest.

 

While it rests, shave some fennel and sweet white onion as thinly as your mandolin will allow you, then dress heavily in a lemon vinaigrette and finely chopped parsley. Slice the heart, which should be pink and gently weeping, and serve with a little fennel and onion. This is true love.