The thing about being a chef is never having any free time. A normal working day is at least 13 hours long, not including the necessary wind down into drunkenness after a busy service; days off are spent either catching up on normal life (shopping, laundry, friendships) or else in full recovery mode. This is tolerated because of the mix of monomania and bloody-minded machismo that fuels most kitchens. The majority of chefs are either totally obsessed with food, to the exclusion of all other interests, or else in love with the camaraderie that comes from working long hours in close proximity, masochistically driven to work harder, longer, better. Or both.
The problem, for me, was that working full time in a kitchen didn’t give me the chance to indulge my love of food. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it – I contributed to the menu, and had carte blanche when it came to specials, so it’s not like I was ‘creatively stifled’- but the pace and demands of a busy kitchen meant I had no time to try longer projects. I was getting more interested in older, slower processes, in pickling and fermentation and salting and curing, and there was no way I could do that. I couldn’t start making something that would be ready in 5 days, a week, 2 months – it was busy now!
Unsurprisingly, then, when I quit to concentrate on freelance catering and popups, I got into preserving straight away. I’ve written before about pickling, and I’ve done a fair bit of smoking and salting, but the most satisfying thing for me has been cultivating a sourdough mother. I’ve always wanted to do this since reading about the psychotic baker Adam in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential,(“Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”) and even more since reading the St John and Justin Gellatly cookbooks, but it always seemed too complicated and time-consuming. Well, I’ve got loads of time now, and it turns out to be not that complicated at all. You just have to treat it like a little pet.
I’m not going to go through the actual process of creating the mother – I just followed Gellatly’s recipe, swapping grapes for the rhubarb and adding a little live yoghurt – nor give any recipes for bread, as I can’t pretend to be anything other than an enthusiastic amateur. I will, however, give you an answer to the question “what else can I do with this weird pet bacterial culture?” It’s a good question. It takes quite a lot of motivation and time to make sourdough every day. You can leave your mother in the fridge to go dormant, but that seems a little dull. Luckily, a Pole of my acquaintance pointed me in the direction of this rather odd soup.
ZUREK (SOUR RYE SOUP)
This is weird, and needs judicious seasoning. If you like the tangy taste of rye bread, though, this is delicious, warm and filling. Serves four.
You’ll need to feed your starter some rye flour the day before.
2 onions, diced
2 sticks of celery, sliced
2 carrots, quartered
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
a few juniper berries
a few peppercorns
a few bay leaves
Put everything in a pan, and cover with water (a litre or thereabouts). Bring to the boil, and simmer for about an hour. Strain and discard the vegetables, which have done their job.
About 150g sourdough starter
2 tbpsn of chopped fresh marjoram or oregano, or 1 of dried
A big dollop of sour cream
Just whisk the starter into the broth while heating gently, until it comes to a nice simmer. Leave it for about 5 minutes, then add the herbs and your extras. This being Polish food, these should definitely include some sausage – raw smoked sausage, sliced and then boiled in the soup, ideally, although I used Mattessons smoked sausage (sorry, all Poles) – and maybe some bacon too. Any sort of cured pig, in fact, would be good, a savoury hit to counteract the sourness. Hard-boiled eggs and diced boiled potatoes are usual, I think, although the soup is already quite heavy. Greens, cabbage, some parsley, whatever. When you’re done, stir in the sour cream, heat, but DON’T BOIL AGAIN. It’ll split. Season well with salt and plenty of pepper. Serve with beer, pickles, and rye bread.