It's a common scenario. I'm standing stirring a bubbling pot of something on the hob (which makes me sound a little bit like a witch from Macbeth, come to think of it) or putting the finishing touches to a dessert using a tea strainer and a spoonful of icing sugar, invariably covering myself in a thin film of sugar in the process. I'm tossing together a salad and its dressing, or carving a piece of meat. Someone peers over my shoulder and says, "Looks good! Whose recipe is this?"
"Mine," I say.
By far the most common reaction is surprise, usually swiftly followed by a comment along the lines of "wow. I could never make up my own recipes - I have to follow cookbooks to the letter". Suddenly my culinary intrepidity is viewed with an awe and respect that I don't feel I really deserve. I don't believe being able to make up your own recipes is an immediate sign that a few years down the line you'll be the proud owner of three Michelin stars, unless perhaps you were able to make up recipes before you really even learned how to cook. No, making up recipes is, rather boringly, just down to mere practice. Until recently I hardly ever cooked from my head. I always had a cookbook to hand, and if I lacked a certain ingredient specified I would get all flustered thinking about what to use instead. My shopping list was a rigid specification of ingredients and exact quantities, and I would sometimes take two or even three different shopping lists for different recipes to town just in case one of the ingredients for one of the recipes turned out to be unavailable.
I've had no magical gastronomic revelations since then, no cookery classes or soufflé-making epiphanies. There is no secret to the fact that I can invent things from scratch; it's simply the result of a lot of hours in the kitchen and possibly even more hours watching food television, reading food books and magazines, and eating in restaurants. On top of that is the importance of confidence; once you've invented something and gained a positive reaction, you have more faith in your own ability and more drive to continue. I think one of the first recipes I ever invented was a Moroccan-style pheasant cooked with quince, pine nuts and spices. Delighted by the fact that it wasn't horrible, I persevered. The recipe wasn't ground-breaking, but simply a result of my extensive cooking from Middle Eastern cookbooks; I knew that quince would go well with gamey meat, and that cinnamon, turmeric and ginger make an excellent spice mix for a tagine. I now experiment with pretty much anything; if I read a recipe I like, I'll still usually alter or add at least one ingredient to give it my own personal touch. Desserts are my favourite to invent, often because I like to try out interesting combinations of fruit and spice. I can even bake cakes without a recipe now, which is widely regarded as the ultimate challenge. Again, it's no real expertise on my part, just the consequence of enough time baking cakes to know how a batter should look and feel before it goes into the tin.
I realised quite how far I'd journeyed from a recipe-constrained mentality yesterday when shopping in the market. I had a definite plan for dinner: I was going to make a risotto using some beautiful red rice I bought in Vercelli in April, pairing it with roasted peppers and cherry tomatoes, then a liberal sprinkling of fresh basil and homemade ricotta. I went to buy tomatoes. My favourite stall had sold out of the lovely little baby plum tomatoes I'm so fond of, and all the other stalls were charging extortionate prices for vine-ripened cherry specimens. Rather than dissolve into a panic, I had a further look around. There were some lovely yellow courgettes, so I got a couple of those to replace the tomatoes and add some colour to the whole affair. About to wander home, my eye suddenly landed on a huge bunch of rainbow chard. I have only seen it once before at the market; the last time I bought some to try out in a French dessert, tourte de blette. Whilst I'm eager to try that one again, I started thinking about the savoury possibilities of chard. Still in the risotto mindset, it struck me that a pile of creamy rice would be the perfect blank canvas for an outrageous splattering of coloured chard stalks. I bought the entire bunch.
How beautiful is this vegetable? I'm often inspired to wax lyrical about the beauty of my ingredients: the orange blush of an apricot, the glossy red flesh of a pepper; the nubbly rose-coloured skin of a lychee all send me into raptures of kitchen delight. This chard was no exception. It was so outrageously bright, almost neon in its pink, yellow and green hues. No wonder it caught my eye in the market. You rarely find so many gorgeous colours in one vegetable. The bright pink stems reminded me of early season rhubarb, but then there were the sweetcorn-yellow ones and the lime-green ones, all tapering into delightful bushy, cabbage-like leaves. I couldn't wait to see how these amazing colours looked on top of a risotto.
Even if you don't think you can invent recipes, risotto is usually an exception. Once you've figured out the basics (sweat onion and garlic, add rice, coat in butter, add splash of wine, bubble until absorbed, add ladle by ladle of hot stock until each is absorbed, stirring all the time), you can flavour a risotto with almost anything (I saw a recipe for a strawberry and radicchio one the other day - which sounds utterly horrible, yet I'm quite intrigued by it). Meat, cheese, fish, shellfish, vegetables - just as most things taste good covered in batter and deep-fried, most things taste good folded into the savoury, rich creaminess of a starchy risotto. I decided to make risotto largely because I had a big ice-cream tub full of homemade chicken stock in my fridge which needed using. I really would recommend making your own stock next time you have a roast chicken - all you do is chuck the bones into a big pan of water, add some chopped veg (carrots, onions, leeks and celery are all good), a couple of bay leaves, any herbs you have lying around, some peppercorns and some salt, and let it boil very gently, covered, for an hour or two. Although risotto is still great made with stock cubes, there's something rather satisfying about using your own stock, and the flavour is undoubtedly better.
For this recipe I used pearl barley, because I like its nutty crunchiness and warm beige colouring. The downside is it takes about an hour to cook, but you can just leave it to get on and stir it every few minutes. The individual grains retain their shape and bite, giving a much more interesting risotto than your usual white rice. It's also a bit healthier. For the base of the risotto I just used onion and garlic, stirring in my homemade stock, and then finishing with lemon juice and a good grating of nutmeg. I folded the leaves of the chard into the barley as it finished cooking, so they could soften and tangle themselves around the grains. The stalks I boiled in the hot chicken stock to add extra flavour before it went in the risotto. They were scattered over the barley at the end. I was pleased that they retained most of their colour; they weren't quite as outrageously neon by the time I'd boiled them, but still one of the more startling additions to a risotto I've ever seen.
Finally, a good sprinkling of lemon thyme, a grating of parmesan, and some cloud-like spoonfuls of homemade ricotta. I was genuinely surprised at how utterly delicious this tasted. I think it was all down to my homemade stock, which had an amazing depth of salty, savoury flavour. The nutmeg gave the barley a lovely warm note, and the lemon juice and lemon thyme a fresh zestiness. All this deep flavour worked extremely well with the tender chard stalks, which have a very slight bitterness about them, like spinach. The contrast between the hot, salty, flavoursome barley grains and the cool, mellow tang of the fresh ricotta was incredible. I'm not sure how it would work with vegetable stock, but I'm sure it would still be excellent, in which case this would be a very very good vegetarian main course - it's far more delicious than most meat-based dishes I've eaten recently. I have a feeling I'm going to make this again and again, especially because I still have half the chard left in my fridge (along with those yellow courgettes, which were sadly relegated once I acquired my more aesthetically pleasing option).
Does the idea of creating recipes make you break out in a cold sweat? Or do you agree that it's just the culmination of a lot of practice?
Pearl barley, rainbow chard and ricotta risotto (serves 2 generously):
160g pearl barley
1 onion, very finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
About 1-1.5 litre chicken stock (if you run out before the barley is cooked just use boiling water)
A bunch of rainbow chard (about 8 stalks and leaves)
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Juice of half a lemon
A few sprigs lemon thyme
Salt and pepper
Parmesan, to serve
About 150g ricotta (homemade is obviously best!)
First, put the stock in a lidded saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep hot on a low heat. Slice the chard stalks into 1-inch lengths and place in the hot stock. Simmer until the stalks are tender to the point of a knife, then set aside and keep warm.
Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-based non-stick pan and fry the onions and garlic until soft and translucent. Add a knob of butter and leave it to melt, then add the barley. Stir it around to coat it in the butter for a couple of minutes.
Add a few ladlefuls of stock - it should hiss and bubble when it hits the pan. Put the pan on a medium heat and stir the barley, waiting until it has absorbed all the stock before adding another ladleful. Repeat this process for about 40-60 minutes until the barley is mostly tender but still has a little bite.
Just before the barley is ready, when there's still some liquid in the pan, roughly shred the chard leaves and stir them into the barley to soften and wilt in the heat. Grate in the nutmeg, juice in the lemon and strip the leaves from the thyme and add them too. Season to taste.
Pour the barley into serving bowls and top with the cooked chard stalks. Grate over a little parmesan, and crumble over the ricotta.