When Jamie Oliver's latest cookbook, 30 Minute Meals, was published, I have to admit that I didn't have the faintest desire for it to join my rapidly growing collection. I'm suspicious of anything that attempts to put a time limit on cooking: I never trust the guides that some recipe books give you for 'preparation time' or 'cooking time'. Why? Because things like that vary dramatically depending on an array of factors including the organisation of the cook, the skill of the cook, the size of the kitchen, the available kitchen equipment, whether there is a small army of minions around to wash up utensils in between uses, and so on and so forth. I can peel and chop an onion in about thirty seconds, but that's because I cook pretty much every day. I remember cooking with an ex-boyfriend of mine once. I put the pan on the hob with some oil in and turned on the heat, asking him to chop the onion to go in the pan. In the end, I had to turn off the pan because the oil had got too hot while I waited for him to painstakingly peel said onion and slice it into meticulously even pieces.
The Guardian were just as suspicious about the title of Jamie's new book, and decided to put some of his recipes to the time test. It makes for entertaining reading. I decided to do the same thing, when my boyfriend mentioned that he'd watched Jamie on TV cooking a 30-minute dish of herb-crusted cod. He said it looked delicious, and wanted to try it, so he sent me the recipe. I actually laughed when I saw it: going by the list of ingredients alone, there is absolutely no way that it would take just thirty minutes (scroll down to the recipe and you'll see what I mean - it has five different components. Any recipe with five different components belongs in the Masterchef cookbook). I'm pretty good at gauging how long a recipe will take (the trick is to add about half an hour longer than you'd think, to allow faffing/washing up/searching for ingredients), and I knew Jamie was having a bit of a laugh.
As Jon pointed out, it probably would take just thirty minutes if you had a small army of kitchen helpers to wash up your blender in between use, weigh out all your ingredients and arrange them in nice little bowls so you don't have to poke around in cupboards or rummage in the fridge (all of which will shave valuable seconds off your time). But to make your own tartare sauce, cook the cod, make the flavoured crust for the cod (which contains about twelve ingredients), cook the cod again, boil the potatoes, broccoli and peas, mash said veg, THEN make a 'garden salad' with leaves and fried pancetta...no way.
Anyway, I set to work with a timer in hand. Except I didn't have it in hand, because I needed both hands to deal with prepping the epic list of ingredients Jamie suggested. First: potatoes. Dice and put in pan to boil. Time: four minutes. Oh, but wait, you have to allow time for the kettle to boil. Another three minutes. Then, cod. Season - one minute - and cook under grill for five minutes. Then it starts to get a little more labour-intensive. In all fairness to Jamie, this next stage would have taken half the time if Jon had had a blender. Unfortunately, I had to make the paste that flavours the cod by hand. So, chopping up anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, basil, chilli, grating lemon zest and parmesan, and mixing it all together. With blender: about a minute. Sans blender: about ten.
This paste (delicious, by the way) goes over the top of the cod that you've grilled for five minutes. On top of that goes a layer of breadcrumbs, followed by a sprig or two of thyme and rosemary. It then goes under the grill for about ten minutes while you make the 'mashy peas'. So far, so simple. It's not exactly a taxing recipe, but it does require quite a lot of ingredients and quite a lot of preparation. When Jamie makes it on the TV he starts with everything already weighed out and prepared, but cooking isn't like that. Most of the time is spent chopping and peeling. And nibbling anchovies from the tin.
'Mashy peas', it turns out, just means potato, broccoli and peas all mashed together. You add the broccoli and peas once the cod goes into the oven, give them about seven minutes, then drain and mash, adding butter and - yes, really - mint sauce. I did not add mint sauce. I hate the stuff; it reminds me of school dinners. 'Minty lamb stew' was a favourite on my school menu, and the overpowering vinegary smell of the sauce used to waft from the lunch hall and make me feel mildly nauseous. A shame, as mint is such a lovely herb. Anyway, mint-related gripes aside, mashy peas are actually quite nice. You end up with something that looks a bit like that Masterchef staple, pea purée: a bright, vivid green, with rustic chunks of broccoli and whole peas in it (you only mash it roughly - I'm sure John Torode would weep at the sight).
Now, forty minutes in, the cod was ready to emerge from the oven. (Forty minutes into the recipe, I mean - I did not cook the cod for forty minutes). I would like to point out at this stage that I had not attempted to make Jamie's tartare sauce nor his 'garden salad'. Largely because as mentioned, Jon has no blender, so the tartare sauce was not really an option. As for the garden salad, the piece of cod was fairly enormous, as was the amount of veg we had cooked, and I couldn't really see myself needing anything else to eat, especially not something that involved bacon (although bacon and white fish is a good combination - see whiting with clams and bacon). So we tucked in to crusted cod, mashy peas, and tartare sauce from a jar.
It was excellent. The paste that goes over the cod under the blanket of crumbs contains an explosion of flavour; it's quite sharp and salty from the sun-dried tomatoes, parmesan and anchovies, then there's a nice freshness from the lemon and basil. The soft, meaty white fish with the salty paste and crunchy bread topping is really wonderful, and the mound of mashy peas is just what you need to accompany it: tasty and comforting, but bland enough to stay in the background against the fish and its adornments. I also rather like the contrasting colours: golden crumbs, white fish, vivid green peas. I imagine a dollop of home-made tartare sauce would have looked very nice alongside too, but to be honest it doesn't really need tartare sauce at all. That sharpness you'd want from the sauce is provided by the anchovy and tomato paste.
Also, has anyone ever noticed what a disgusting consistency bought tartare sauce has? I had never noticed this until I put the tartare sauce spoon, fresh from the jar, into the sink full of washing-up water. About two hours later, the sauce was still stuck to the spoon. Lord knows what revolting chemicals they put in it to make it stick like that. It has the same sort of texture and appearance as wallpaper paste. But never mind that.
So, Jamie failed on time but not on taste. I think this issue is easily rectified, however. All the publishers need to do is include free with every purchase of 30 Minute Meals a voucher that entitles you to an army of kitchen minions trained to chop, peel, purée and wash. And a blender. The blender is your friend when it comes to swift cooking. But if Jamie can convince people to cook who normally can't be bothered because they assume any half-decent dish will take hours, then I think his latest offering is an admirable endeavour.
Herb-crusted cod with mashy peas, tartare sauce and garden salad (serves 6):