Pulse of Life

I have long appreciated the Italian habit of eating lentils on the last evening in December, the little coin-shaped pulses, we are told, guaranteeing prosperity in the twelve months to come. The joke, of course, is that if you feasted on lentils every day prosperity would be almost guaranteed. This combination of superstition with practicality strikes me as very Italian or perhaps very Catholic, the flipside of the Feast Of The Seven Fishes, that blowout fast, observed in Provence as well as parts of Italy, where diners gorge themselves on the few ingredients allowed them by their religious dietary calendar. As well as the titular seafood, an array of no less than thirteen desserts is offered; to be fair, though, most of them are fruit. Still, after such extravagant frugality, you can forgive the Italians for confining themselves to lentils for the next big event.

Sausages, of course, are the proper accompaniment, and I have had a hankering for this particular preparation of the two; for a variety of reasons, though, not least the general availability of cotechino on a Sunday in Norwich, I’m not making it today. Instead I am reading back into my own family traditions for this lentil ragu, a constant in my childhood and still much-requested whenever I or my brothers visit home. In fact, as my mother told me when I asked her for the recipe, we once had it as the main course on Christmas Day, piled (as is traditional) on top of a mound of spaghetti; I say ‘we’ but this was, by my mother’s account, six years before I was born. I think, anyway, that New Year’s Eve is a more appropriate place for it – you need something to line the stomach, after all.

My mother claims to have found this recipe in a women’s magazine some time around 1980; be that as it may, the use of sweet spices in a tomato sauce for pasta strikes me as rather Venetian and so this evening we will be preceding it with sardines agrodolce and some little crostini of smoked eel, a little touch of luxury before our frugal feast. This is what she sent me –

The recipe as I always cook it:

4oz red lentils
1 small can (140gm) tomato puree
4 small cans (ie the empty tomato puree can) of water
1 tsp grd cinnamon
1 tsp grd coriander
2 cloves garlic, crushed
olive oil

Lightly cook spices and garlic in olive oil in a pressure cooker.
Add lentils, tomato puree and water.
Bring to the boil, stirring all the time, then cook at pressure for 30 minutes.
Salt to taste.

The above quantities and timings give a rich thick sauce – the only thing that has ever gone wrong is that it sometimes burns a little on the base – but stirring carefully until it boils prevents that. I have never cooked it in an ordinary pan, and am not sure whether it’s the pressure cooking that gives it its particularly rich quality.

The pressure cooking certainly fits with the dates my mother gave, and I think she is right to attribute the sauce’s particular richness to that technique. Heston Blumenthal says that pressure cooking allows liquid to boil at a temperature high enough for Maillard reactions to take place, those complex caramelisations of sugar and protein which give well-browned meat its irresistible savour, which is why he always cooks stock in a pressure cooker; this being the case, the sweet tomato puree and savoury lentils must be undergoing the same process in the method above.

Half an hour at pressure, furthermore, roughly equates to (I think) around one and a half hours of regular simmering, much longer than you would usually give red lentils. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, as I’m sure most people don’t, then fry the tomato puree in the oil after the garlic has coloured a little, so it cooks out and begins to darken; then, when everything is added, simmer slowly for one hour and one half (you might need more water) until the lentils collapse into absolute submission. If their particular rich quality does not guarantee your own richness, you will, at least, be well-fed.

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.

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.

Not A Fig

One of the best things about growing your own food (or rather, working somewhere where someone does it for you) is that you get to use parts of the plants that, as a consumer, you wouldn’t even see. Pinched-out broad bean tops make a fine salad; artichoke leaves can be infused into cynar; rosemary flowers have a vagrant fragrance, more delicate by far than the bruising aromatics of the leaves. The basic rule, which seems very obvious once you realise it, is that all or most of the plant carries flavour. We usually use just the fruit, or the leaf, or the root, but the rest is full of untapped potential.

 

Of course, we have to exercise some restraint in this. Broad bean flowers are very good, but if you use them all you won’t get any broad beans – a bit of a waste of a plant. Leaves are less finite, but strip too many off and your tree will die. Luckily, in most cases you only need a few to bring a strong flavour to your recipe – in this case, your ice-cream. The leaves of fruit trees or bushes lend themselves very well to this. The bursting fragrance of fresh fruit is beautiful in a water- or buttermilk-ice, but the added acidity and liquid can be difficult to handle in a proper creamy ice-cream; the leaves give a lot of the former with none of the latter. You just need to plan a little in advance.

 

Although a lot of recipes for fig leaf ice-cream cook the leaves, I prefer not to. Broadly speaking, leaves of all kinds contain two strands of flavour. There are the oils and aromas particular to the plant itself, redolent of mintiness or blackcurrantness or whatever; then there is a more generic leafiness or grassiness, common to most greenery, which is in fact a defence mechanism against violence, and is brought out by physical insult or by heat. Sometimes, as in a chlorophyllic chimmichurri, you want this latter quality, which is why you smash the leaves in mortar or in magimix; more often, you don’t. In these cases, careful chopping or cold maceration are the way to go.

 

FIG LEAF ICE-CREAM

You’ll need, obviously, some fig leaves. We have a tree growing against the wall of the cafe, which is handy. Without this luxury, you’ll have to hunt one down. There’re a couple in the ground of Canterbury Cathedral, and I’m reliably informed there’s one in Vauxhall Park. Just don’t take too many.

300ml full-fat milk

4-5 fig leaves

300ml double cream

200g caster sugar

8 egg yolks

a pinch of salt

Scrunch or slap the leaves lightly, so they smell strongly of figs; put them in the milk and leave for two or three days, then squeeze them out and discard them. Add the milk to the cream in a saucepan.

Whisk together the sugar, yolks and salt (preferably in a free-standing mixer; it takes ages) until really fluffy and pale. A sort of wan lemon should be your guide, but it obviously depends on the eggs.

Meanwhile, scald the milk mix, and when the eggs are right, pour the hot liquid over them, still whisking, and then pour the lot back into the pan.

Heat very gently, stirring the whole time, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of whatever utensil you are using. If you overcook it, it will scramble, and you’ll have to start the whole three-day process all over again.

Decant into a container and cool completely, preferably overnight in the fridge, then churn in your ice-cream machine or whatever charmingly old-fashioned arrangement you have. Eat it now as a soft-serve or freeze overnight for a more traditional scoop. Some little biscuits would not go amiss.

Panacea

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Whatever some might say about the roast beef of old England, the pig is, in religiously amenable areas at least, the indisputed king of the eating animals. Although it arguably deserves this accolade for its belly meat alone, not to mention the succulent beauty of its shoulder, cheek, and plump double chins, a large part of the utility and therefore the beauty of the pig comes from its suitability for curing of all kinds, in nitrate-protected salamis, salted raw hams, chunks of smoked bacon and jowl, dry-cures and Suffolk-cures, treacle and beer and vinegar; its ability, in other words, to be charcuterised. Since time immemorial, or at least a short time after that, the pig has lent itself, from snotter to trotter, to the sausage-maker’s trade – and we should all be very glad of that.

Still, there are hams beyond the porcine. Turkey, which has a pickle culture to rival that of Poland, has the meats to match, the best known here being suçuk and pastirma, both made from beef, the latter related in etymology if not technique to pastrami, which has in recent years overtaken the simpler salt beef as the most famous cured meat product of the Ashkenazi Jewish deli culture which has brought dill pickles to so many disparate parts of this world. The beef being cured here is generally brisket, sometimes fillet; the parsimonious celebration of flesh gifted to the pig is, for the cow, mainly expressed in the search for ever-more niche cuts of steak, possessed of either odd French or quaint English names and cooked bloody as hell, bavette, onglet, hanger, butler’s, butcher’s, baker’s , and candle-stick-maker’s, though an honourable mention should go to the salted and pressed ox tongue, one of the few pieces of world charcuterie which requires its own, specialist device.

Where, though, is the cured lamb? Perhaps the climates where lamb is the main protein are ill-suited to the curing of meat; perhaps I am just extremely ignorant on the subject. Either way, I know of few traditional recipes for cured lamb. This is a shame, as it can be extremely delicious. I have made a Serrano-style ham with the leg of a hogget, which was a thing of beauty; you had the squidge and edge of a good raw ham, but with an almost overbearing sheepiness, not quite edging into rancidity … I can taste it now. It did, however, apart from the whole leg, take several kilograms of salt, besides space and time and probably, I suppose, quite a lot of luck; a charcutier of my acquaintance was surprised and jealous that I had managed to make a bone-in cured lamb leg without rot or mould. I suppose the chimney in which I hung it must have been a particularly hospitable environment.

Whatever the reason, it is not a recipe suited to repeating at home, and, indeed, I never have. We should be getting another sheep soon, so I will try again; until then, this is an excellent, and extremely easy, cured lamb dish. Lamb fillet can be pale and unappetizing, but a couple of days makes it as dark as a Carpaccio; if it looks like a Caravaggio, it’s gone off.

CURED LAMB, BROAD BEANS AND FENNEL

2kg lamb fillet

600g coarse sea salt

400g granulated sugar

zest of 4 lemons

2 tbsp fennel seeds

Mix the salt, sugar, lemon and fennel together, and spread a layer in a plastic or otherwise non-metallic tub. Nestle in the lamb, and cover completely with the cure. Leave in the fridge for two or three days, then rinse and dry. Slice thinly and top with

a handful of raw broad beans, from however many pods it takes to get a handful

2 bulbs fennel, sliced wafer-thin

dressed with

juice of two lemons

200ml extra virgin olive oil

a pinch of salt

a good 6 grinds of pepper

whisked together.

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.

A Time To Build Up

There’s no denying that these are slow months. Feast-weary and diet-starved, eating out holds less attraction for most; the garden gives only the slow, iron creep of green leaf, brassica and root, and even the gas emerges slowly from the frozen pipes, bursting reluctantly into flame. A perfect time, then, for slow, nurturing cooking. That could mean a stew, a casserole or hotpot or daube puttering slowly in or on the back of the oven; it could mean a basket of bright Sevilles transmuting slowly into jewelled glass. For me, this year, it mainly means fermenting things.

At the last count, I had fourteen pots, buckets, crocks and tubs of (mainly) vegetable matter, being gradually colonised and transformed by bacteria. A mash of green chillies, gathering flavour before their vinegar bath; a souring julienne of roots and stalks; pungently spiced cabbage bubbling under airlocks; a foul-looking bucket of squid trimmings and guts. On the more experimental side, there is a vat of sweet honey-water that may or may not attract enough wild yeast to turn into alcohol, and a jar of brined radicchio that probably won’t, now, reach a pleasant eatability. All these things and more require almost daily attention or at least awareness, to be alert to the first sign of mould or rot or, equally, deliciousness; you don’t want your pickle passing its peak before it even gets jarred.

While there is, I suppose, a certain fascination in watching all this happen, the main payoff comes when your ferments are ready – which won’t be for a while. These things take time, especially in cold weather. Luckily, winter is full of instant gratification too, if you look for it – crisp salads of fennel and blood orange and chicory and nuts, or warm ones of roasted brassica, lentils and cheese; steaming, boozy pots of mussels or clams, or spitting pans of squid. All wonderful things that barely need a recipe. Slice Florence fennel and segment the juiciest Sicilian oranges, and combine them with the aid of sweet vinegar and bitter oil, and you have one of the world’s perfect dishes. How is it John Lanchester has it? “A taste that exists in the mind of God”. I can’t remember what he, or rather his narrator, is talking about.

My dinner last night was Romanesque cauliflower, roasted in thick slices with black pudding, tossed with braised lentils, shredded confit chicken, red onion and lettuce, dressed with olio nuovo and some vinegar from a jar of jalapenos; easy for me, because I had all of those things cooked or ready to hand. From scratch, a bloody faff of a recipe that probably wouldn’t be worth it. Still, you get the idea. We need something to keep us occupied while our slow food takes its time. You probably remember (ha!) how my rabbit ragout (my slowest recipe, I think) leaves you with spare saddle fillets; here, finally, is what to do with them. You are WELCOME.

RABBIT PASTRAMI
You’ll need a smoker, or some kind of tray-rack-lid contraption that does the job.
How much this makes depends on how many rabbits you had in the first place. It is very adaptable.
Brined rabbit saddle fillets, rinsed and dried overnight in the fridge
A handful of coarsely ground black pepper (you’ll probably want to do this in a spice grinder, if possible; you could use bought cracked pepper, but it’s not as nice)
2 tbsp loose black tea
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
Take the fillets, which should be a little tacky after drying (this is called the ‘pellicle’, I don’t know why) and roll them in the pepper to coat. Shake them gently to remove the excess, and arrange on the rack of your smoker so they aren’t touching. If you don’t have extraction, open a window.
Put the tea and spices in the bottom of the smoker, drip tray (if there is one) on top of that, then the rack, and then the lid, or tinfoil, leaving a small gap. Place on a high heat until smoke starts to wisp out, then close the gap and smoke on a medium heat for ten minutes. Take off the heat and leave for another ten before taking the lid off.
The ‘pastrami’ can now be sliced thinly and served with, say, sweet-pickled cucumber and rye crispbreads, or sauerkraut and cheese, or whatever; if you make tiny bagels to put it in, please send me pictures.

A Pinch Of Salt

In my experience, the most common way to express praise for someone’s cooking (after furious consumption) is to ask for the recipe, by which they often mean a list of ingredients. This is odd. It could be construed as mildly insulting (as if the recipe was the only good thing about the dish), and at the least it displays an almost wilful ignorance as to the mechanics of cooking. This is especially noticeable in restaurants. Yes, they have better equipment, more cooks, and often much better ingredients than you would normally use at home – but the main difference is that the people who work there are better at cooking than you. People sometimes seem to think they’re being tricked when this is pointed out to them. They ask how you make your scrambled eggs, as if there was one secret ingredient only available to the trade, and are disappointed when they hear the answer – “eggs and butter”. And “extremely well”. This is a charade that a lot of cookery writers are involved in. Not wanting to admit that cooking requires skill and effort, and a lot of practice and cock-ups of various kinds, we are told that all you need to do is buy the best, the free-rangest, the rarest – helpful in constructing a tomato salad, less so in making, say, a soufflé, though I guess nobody makes soufflés any more. A loaf of sourdough, say. Yes, good flour is better, and of course you need your well-fed, bubbling SCOBY, but your bread will still be awful if you don’t know how to knead it properly – worse, in fact, than a loaf made with dried yeast, because wet, recalcitrant natural leaven is quite difficult, or at least frustrating, to work with.

In fairness, baking books suffer the least from this affectation, but only because baking (especially bread-baking) is seen as inherently “different” from cooking (by which is meant roasting, braising, sautéing, grilling, and so on), being more scientific, precise, a boys’ game (only bread-baking), a craft requiring patience and graft, totally unlike the free-form expression of personal genius one finds, say, in the construction of an omelette. (You might have guessed from my tone that I find this position a little immature.) It might be true that a sourdough boule requires greater precision of execution than a “rustic” (horrible word) stew, but that doesn’t mean that the latter requires none – only that the consequences of imprecision are more obvious, and less fixable, in the former. Baking is a high-stakes game. Mess up at any one stage – kneading, proving, even (especially) in the proper feeding of your yeast source, before the recipe begins – and you have probably messed it up for good. No amount of prodding and tweaking will rescue it. This is important, and it’s what people mean when they say that baking is more of a “science” – but it doesn’t follow that stewing (braising, sautéing) is a free-for-all. The many opportunities for personal intervention only really offer more opportunities to mess the whole thing up. If you know what you’re doing, you won’t – but the same is true of baking. It’s just easier to master the basics of stewing, which – depending as it does on controlled interactions between heat, protein, acids and salt – is just as much of a science as baking.

Anyway. The consequences of this, for the average cookbook user, are that while some (not all) baking books, (to which I might add brewing and barbecuing – notice a trend?) as purveyors of a specialised craft, are happy to give technical instruction to an almost exhaustive degree, most (nearly all) cookery books, on the other hand, are content to give almost none – or to give the pretence of it in a way that is almost useless. Sweat, sauté, sear; it is assumed that we (I mean you) know the difference between all of these, their particular applications and circumstances. But – and this is the paradox of food writing – if you did, you wouldn’t need the cookbook at all. What you would require is a list of ingredients and the instruction “make a stew (fricassee, daube, whatever)”. A smattering of technical language lets you feel you’re in the club, and ignore the fact you’re reading a recipe that takes two pages to reiterate a basic technique, and add cardamom. I’m being unfair, perhaps, but only a little. This does, however, ignore the real reason we (I) read recipe books, which is for the recipe introductions, sparsely evocative, lushly hedonistic or winningly self-deprecating, which I’m told are a particular forte of British food writers. (In America, where practicality and competence are not considered personal defects, recipes do tend more toward the technical.)

This trend for inclusivity is a relatively new one. Look at old books of “receipts”, as they are still called by the kind of person who says “sparrowgrass” and owns waistcoats, and you will find a shorthand written by and for professional, or experienced domestic, cooks. These are, in the main, just lists of ingredients, which assume you know how to perform a plethora of kitchen tasks (cake-baking, pastry-making, braises and sauces and so on), and need no instructions; often, quantities and timings aren’t given, at least not precisely – the assumption is that you can judge for yourself how much pastry you need for your joint of lamb, or whatever. Partly, I’m sure, this reflects the now-broken oral tradition of “real” “peasant” cooking, handed down from master to apprentice, mother to daughter; equally, though, it’s just that cooking has got more complicated. A pastry designed half as glue and half as insulation, and not at all as edible, can be a little rough around the edges – add enough water to make the flour stick together, and you’re done. A pastry designed to hold a rich, golden custard through baking without cracking, and then to melt into butter in the mouth, needs a little more precision. Or take thickeners. A handful of breadcrumbs or ground nuts, added to a sauce, has an effect that is both intuitive and quickly obvious; the amount of slightly cooked egg yolk, stabilised yoghurt, roux, cornflour, or agar agar that might have a similar but more refined effect is less easy to judge by eye – and, as with baking, a mistake does more lasting damage. There is a tendency to a sort of Golden Age view of cooking which ignores the steady technical progress in the field.

All of this, really, avoids the original question, because the answer is quite unpalatable. Yes, I am better at scrambling eggs than you; I know the texture, the look, when to take off the heat and when to return, when to quickly shuffle out of the pan – and when to chuck the lot away and start again. Yes, my eggs are better, larger, fresher, their yolks more golden, their hens happier – but I also use a lot more butter and particularly salt than you would care to think about. It’s a sad fact, but people who will scour the outer reaches of Waitrose for the most obscure of Ottolenghi’s demands are often scared of simple brute seasoning – a shame, when the way to improve on almost any recipe is to take it with a big, three-fingered pinch of coarse sea salt.