When I first started cooking, really cooking, I would follow recipes to the letter. I had very little experience of techniques and anticipating how things would taste, so I made anything and everything from recipes, rarely departing from instructions or ingredients. Then came a phase where, having picked up a lot more experience and confidence, I would cook predominantly from my head. I'd wander the markets, buy what looked nice that day, then invent a dish in my mind on the spot, often based on components I'd made before, a slight variation on something that was tried and tested. Sounds liberating, perhaps? Maybe, but it's more complicated than that.
Cooking without a recipe can give you a real sense of freedom. The freedom to make exactly what you feel like that day based on the absolute best produce available - no point in going to the shops armed with a list that includes avocadoes and strawberries if the only avocadoes to be found are rock hard and the only strawberries woolly and over-sour. No point in brandishing a beautifully planned shopping list that all revolves around a big leg of lamb if you then find the butcher has sold out. Shopping without a list and based on impulse and inspiration avoids these pitfalls.
And yet, it can be incredibly stressful. I would sometimes find myself wandering around the same stalls and shops for hours on end, agonising over various menu ideas in my head, unsure that they would work or how best to make the most of the ingredients I wanted to buy. Nothing worse than being asked by the man behind the counter what you would like, and having to keep saying 'I'm just looking' despite having been there for over fifteen minutes, getting increasingly flustered and red-faced, wanting to make the very best dinner possible but unsure how, or wondering whether the mackerel might be better than the trout, or whether those plums are a better option than those oranges.
So now, things seem to have come full circle. I decided that, with a collection of over sixty cookbooks, I should start using them. Really using them, rather than seeing a recipe and then tweaking it beyond recognition. I still do this, of course, but one day I just told myself to start following the damn recipes a bit more often.
It was liberating. Ridiculously liberating. While a shopping list can be restrictive, it can also be your passport to sanity and peace of mind. In order to avoid minor crises when a crucial ingredient can't be found, I often have two or three different options for meals, so I have a backup if something important (pomelo? galangal? ripe avocado? watercress? mackerel?) can't be located. I go to the supermarket with a list of military precision, organised into columns, so that if the central ingredient for one dish is missing, I can buy the components of something else instead.
Honestly, after cooking from your head for so long, sometimes it can just be stupidly relaxing to let someone else tell you what to buy and what to do, and for you to be fairly sure it will come out tasting pretty nice (with exceptions...but there are some cookery writers who just never fail me, like Nigel Slater, Diana Henry, Bill Granger, and Ottolenghi). To just write down a shopping list from a cookbook page, and ponder a list of instructions as you potter around the kitchen. No last-minute stress at the fish counter, or flusterdness in the fruit and veg aisle, or sinking feeling as you eye up your conveyer belt of groceries and realise you had no idea what you were planning to do with them, and wish you'd just decided to make a bowl of carbonara instead.
In the spirit of this, I am going through old cookbooks and trying out recipes that have been gathering dust. While I discover new recipes every day, I do try and keep on top of things by making a couple of new recipes each week. I have a battered but well-loved recipe journal, a birthday present many years ago from a friend, that is full of recipe cuttings from magazines. I am attempting to make a substantial portion of the recipes inside it before I move onto a new blank journal (it's now full).
This recipe for tamarind glazed pork chops with a pear and watercress salad appeared in Sainsbury's magazine a few months ago. I had a beautiful pair of thick Saddleback pork chops in the freezer from my gorgeous Farmison meat hamper (they also sent me the fruit hamper that spawned this pomelo salad), and when I realised I could buy all the other things I needed at the Co-op on the way home from work (rather than trekking to the supermarkets), it just had to be done.
I don't normally cook pork chops. When I do cook pork, it's either bacon, sausages, or tenderloin. However, I could tell this was going to be good from the beginning. I marinated the chops in a mixture of turmeric, ginger, oil, seasoning and white wine vinegar, which gave them a lovely deep yellow colouring. Before baking in the oven, they are doused in a glaze made from tamarind paste, sugar, cumin and a little water. This is thick, dark and treacly, imbuing the meat with a delicious sweet-sour earthy flavour. They bake in this luscious mixture before going under the grill to finish off, leaving them deeply sticky and caramelised on the outside, while moist in the middle. The tamarind glaze is stupidly good - it's hard to describe the addictive tang of tamarind, but it combines so well with the slightly sweet meat of the pork, resulting in a deep, almost caramel-like moreishness.
I was seriously impressed with these pork chops. This cut can often be quite bland, fatty, or chewy. However, they were ridiculously good. They still retained their rich flavour, while being given a deeply delicious sweet-savoury kick from the glaze. The best bits were the charred, sweet edges of fat around the bone, which had to be nibbled off, while the inside of the meat remained moist (which is often hard to achieve with chops). I'm inspired to cook more with pork chops, and I think I may just have to get them from Farmison in the future (they're not asking me to say that, either - I was genuinely impressed).
To accompany the pork, an unexpectedly delicious salad. Unexpectedly because the dressing lifts an otherwise fairly standard pear and watercress combination to new heights - lime juice, crushed fennel seeds, olive oil and a little honey result in a gorgeous fruity, slightly liquorice-scented coating for the leaves and fruit. It's the perfect refreshing partner to the deep, sticky, savoury pork - crisp, crunchy, peppery, sweet.
This may look like an ordinary meat-salad combination. It's not. It's a really simple recipe, but one that is deeply, deeply satisfying. Refreshing and unusual, it makes a delicious light meal for the warmer weather. If you want something a bit more substantial (i.e. you're scared by no carbs on the plate), you could serve it with a yellow split pea dhal, like I did. The combination of slightly charred, caramelised, sweet-sour meat with the crisp, fruity salad is perfect.
Further evidence that cooking from recipes can sometimes pay off.
Tamarind glazed pork chops with watercress, fennel and pear salad (serves 2):
Adapted from Sainsbury's magazine, not sure which issue
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp rapeseed or vegetable oil
1/2 tsp salt
2 large pork chops
20g tamarind paste
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp lime juice
1/2 tbsp clear honey
2 tbsp olive oil
2 ripe but firm pears
100g watercress or a mixture of rocket, watercress and spinach
First, marinate the pork. Mix the turmeric, ginger, pepper, vinegar, oil and salt in a shallow dish then add the pork, coating it well with the mixture. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge overnight, or for as long as possible (I left mine about 8 hours).
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Pat the pork dry with kitchen towel then transfer to a baking dish. In a small pan, heat the tamarind paste, sugar and cumin until combined and it turns bubbling and sticky, then pour over the pork. Cover with a lid or foil and bake for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the fennel seeds in a dry pan then crush with a pestle and mortar. Combine with the lime juice, honey and oil in a large bowl and whisk together to make a dressing. Core and quarter the pears, then slice into thin segments. Toss together with the salad and dressing, and divide between two plates.
When the pork is done, remove it from the oven. Pre-heat the grill to high (about 230C), then place the chops under the grill for five minutes to caramelise the glaze. Rest for five minutes, then serve with the salad.