After promptings from various friends, and far too many targeted Facebook adverts offering me diet pills (though I must add here that I am not in need of them, though I don't understand how, given my gluttony...my friend Nick once said something along the lines of, "Elly, you'll never get a job anywhere, because people will read your CV, assume you are morbidly obese and not invite you for interview"), I decided my obsession with food should no longer remain confined to random postings on Facebook and the occasional uploaded blurry iPhone photo. Admittedly the photography will still be quite bad, despite my excellent camera, because I have not yet figured out how to use it. Having had a look at various food blogs, I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to achieve the same beautiful, thought out photos of my culinary creations, largely because my student kitchen is unfortunately not the most beautiful setting, being largely flourescent yellow and faux-granite, and my crockery collection is severely limited, normally to what I can find that is vaguely clean and isn't languishing in a mouldy pile next to the sink. But I like to think that is what gives my kitchen its charm...mismatched cutlery, blunt knives, an odd collection of random utensils.
It's almost a cliché to say that the cliché about students is that they live off kebabs and alcohol. I have actually found this not to be the case: students can be very inventive and resourceful when it comes to feeding themselves, largely because cooking facilities can be so abysmal. A friend of mine cooks pasta in a kettle due to his lack of kitchen: apparently the key is to just keep pressing the switch to keep it boiling. Another, also lacking a kitchen, had to make couscous in a bowl with a kettle on the floor of her room, because the room was so small there was no available surface on which to prepare it. As far as I can see, student cooking really isn't that bad - it's just not very adventurous.
Admittedly, I am probably not going to set the world alight with my culinary combinations, but I am always keen to cook something more interesting than spaghetti bolognaise. Five minutes from me are four excellent butchers, a fishmonger (how often do you see those nowadays in small English cities?), two greengrocers who are guaranteed to sell every fruit/veg ingredient under the sun, and a truly exciting Italian deli that I have loved ever since I saw the huge wheels of Panforte on the counter, having worried that I’d be deprived of its fruity delights until I next went to Siena. It also does excellent ciabatta sandwiches, but I think they frown on my slightly weird requests – seafood salad with marinated artichokes wasn’t a good idea; no wonder they raised an eyebrow. A bit like the time I ordered a gelato in Ravenna; I asked for a scoop of apple and a scoop of hazelnut. The waitress looked askance. “Insieme?!” she enquired (Together?!). “Si, insieme,” I replied, and only when I left with my ice cream did my friend comment that I’d clearly made a huge gelato faux-pas. Clearly the Italians have never heard of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, and if they did I reckon they might just cry.
Anyway, my point is that with such excellent and exciting produce around the corner just waiting to be sampled and cooked, it would be a shame not to spend my days broadening my culinary repertoire. I think that is one of my favourite things about cooking: I love the raw materials. I find it oddly satisfying to unload my vast bag of shopping on the kitchen counter in preparation for that night’s dinner: huge vivid green bunches of coriander and parsley that sway like horse tails; bright blood oranges that somehow seem so much more racy than your average orange...perhaps it’s the mention of blood in the title; a big butternut squash, oddly comforting in its curved solidity; a large round of goat’s cheese (my favourite type of cheese); two fat mackerel, silvery and glistening as if they’d just come out of the sea to say hello; champagne rhubarb, which I always think is slightly outrageous in its shocking colour...the pre-teen girl of the food world, it insists on painting everything pink; maybe a bag of cinnamon sticks, for everything from fruit compote to go on porridge to a lamb tagine. OK, so I’ve probably never had all these ingredients out at once together – I’m not entirely sure what one would be cooking that incorporated everything on this list (and I doubt it’d be very nice), but they are some of my favourites, things that I always take a few seconds to glance over and appreciate as I put them down, excited about the prospect of transforming them into something delicious.
That’s another thing I enjoy about cooking; the incredible versatility of so many different ingredients, the art of adding a bit of this to a puree of that to a splash of that and a grinding of that in order to make something that just works. I suppose I could tenuously link my liking of literature to my liking of food by saying that ingredients are a bit like words; every so often, you’ll find them combined in a way that strikes you as novel and wonderful and just makes you want to relish said combination; but they also have their charm put together in time-honoured recipes that you savour again and again, like a good book. I have yet to decide what my ultimate Wuthering Heights dish is, one that I go back to again and again for the sheer enjoyment of its familiarity.
Though I do know that my last meal on earth would most definitely be scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on a toasted wholemeal bagel, with a grinding of black pepper and a squeeze (or three) of lemon juice. I am glad I have come to this conclusion; somehow, I feel my identity in the world has more definition now.
I will eat pretty much anything. The only thing I do not like is yoghurt, and even then I must qualify that statement: I like yoghurt when mixed with savoury food: as tzatziki, in curry, in cake, with desserts, in Middle Eastern cooking...the only thing I cannot stand is the notion of eating it on its own with a spoon. The thought makes me nauseous...I think it's the texture. I'm also not a huge fan of whipped cream. Basically any form of semi-liquid dairy...though bizzarely, I adore cottage cheese, I think because I ate nothing else as a child. I was a notoriously picky eater until about the age of 15 - lived off cottage cheese, fish fingers and cheese sandwiches. My parents left me to it, always predicting that one day I'd be ravenous for anything and everything food-related. It seems they were right. I will try anything once...I did once eat a mackerel's eye after a chef I worked for dared me to. It tasted a bit like a salty tic-tac. Not the next gastronomic sensation, I don't think. Other than that, anything goes.
A few of my favourite things, however, are: game, particularly venison and pheasant; any combination of savoury with fruit, like Moroccan tagine, or duck with orange, or mackerel with rhubarb, or goats cheese with apple; rhubarb; quinces; Medjool dates; orange flower water; any type of fruit (but especially pears, mangoes and ripe figs); mackerel; mussels; tuna and swordfish steak; lamb tagine; aubergine, grilled until shrivelled and then mashed with yummy things like lemon juice, garlic and pomegranate seeds; all cheese, but especially feta, goats' cheese and halloumi; granary bread; cinnamon; coriander; rosemary; couscous; falafel; almonds. I'm sure there are many others. There's a bit of a Moroccan theme to my cooking a lot of the time. I think if I absolutely HAD to choose my two favourite world cuisines, Moroccan and Italian would win. The latter because of the sheer simplicity, fabulous flavours and abundance of carbohydrate (my favourite food group, naturally), the former because of its incredible marriage of the sweet, the savoury, the spicy and the perfumed.
So, this blog is intended primarily as a personal way of reminding myself of things that I have cooked that I have been proud of, or that have been disasters (so I know to avoid them again). It will probably also play host to my frequent little moments of food-related excitement: the day the first quinces or rhubarb appear on the greengrocers’ shelves, promising a plethora of tagines and spring-coloured desserts to come; the day the fishmongers have a special offer on shellfish or red mullet and provide me with the excuse to make a beautiful seafood risotto; the first Alphonso mangoes appearing in the Indian deli (an event made known to me by the truly exquisite mango smell that lingers around the doorway even though the crates of mangoes are several metres away...you just don’t get that with those under-ripe, stringy, over-chilled specimens that come wrapped in plastic in the supermarkets); the finding of wood pigeon for £2.50 a brace at the organic butchers; the special offer on osso bucco, again at the organic butchers, which led me to first attempt this most sublime of Italian dishes; the reception of a pasta machine as a present, and the disastrous first attempt to make pumpkin ravioli; buying baskets of fresh figs for next to nothing at the market in Nice, warming them in the August sun on the beach and then eating them, warm and perfectly ripe (a ripe fig is a bit of a gold mine to find in England); flicking through the leaves of a recipe book to find a recipe it seems I’ve waited my life to find, and then cooking it to find I was right; the arrival of Jerusalem artichokes in the Riverford veg box, an elusive creature that I had heard many good things about but never before tried; returning from holiday to find two huge bowls of figs from a friend’s tree that my family had neglected, and managing to rescue them from the compost heap by transforming them into a truly luscious jam, after a frenzied trip to get preserving sugar from Tesco before it shut (and then finding out that they sell it at the corner shop); the day I made my own quince jelly (the labour to reward ratio is severely skewed...I think this is one thing I might buy rather than make from scratch); the first time I made fish stock and scared my housemates with a giant pot of floating salmon heads; the day I decided, in homage to that culinary classic, Masterchef, to cook a three-course dinner of some Masterchef favourites - scallops with black pudding and pea puree, rack of lamb with spring vegetables and minted peas, and chocolate fondant – and found that I was in fact able to achieve all three, and my fondant was not a cakey or a soggy failure.
There are lots of these moments, and I’m sure I would have a much longer list had I written them all down. So that is what I intend to do. Buy, cook, (photograph), eat, reminisce. And also discuss things I have eaten elsewhere...college dinners, restaurants, friends’ houses (though never in a critical way...so few people cook for me that I am eternally grateful whenever they do, and guaranteed to give even a plate of pasta the highest praise simply because I haven’t had to make it). It should be fun.