What is it about cooking? When I left home at 18, I could just about make a salad and boil an egg. As a student, I made bland budget tuna casseroles and soups. In my early married years, I made pasta, pasta and pasta. And then at some point a culinary explosion happened in my consciousness and I developed a genuine interest not just in eating good food, but in cooking it too. Perhaps it was moving to London from provincial Germany and being amazed by the variety of foods available. Around that time, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater were starting to publish their cookbooks, and the way they wrote – unintimidating, gentle, with clear instructions – spoke to the kind of direction I was needing in the kitchen. My skills needed to catch up with my tastebuds.
The planning, purchasing and preparing of food takes up an enormous amount of my time. I don’t resent it. It’s a daily pleasure, not a daily bind. I like the idea of the slow movement, of selecting lovely fresh ingredients, taking them home, and preparing something delicious to feed my family. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s just the kids eating I do trot out certain standards – the faithful fishfinger, sausage and mash, pasta with pesto – but I do try to push their eating boundaries often.
With so many people posting about their delicious Christmas and New Year meals, I couldn’t help thinking about how much cooking means to me. It’s gone from being a dull necessity to something approaching a craft, but more than that, as it encompasses a whole range of things that are important to me.
One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s creative – I’m mixing flavours, colours, things that go well together on a plate. I discovered for our New Year’s meal that braised red cabbage and apple is a great accompaniment for grilled salmon. Salmon’s quite oily, and the red cabbage counteracts that heartily. Also the pink salmon and the purplish cabbage look beautiful together. I still love a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, because it’s a threesome that works on the palate as well as the plate. I love putting a wet mess of ingredients into an oven and taking out a cake an hour later. I’ve discovered recently that I can smell when a cake’s ready. I’ve got a nose for cake.
Another thing I love is the pleasure food gives, both to others and to myself. Thanks to Nigella, I taught myself to bake while pregnant with Ollie and now he sees the muffin tin and starts shouting “cake, cake”. He even ate the chestnut cheesecake I made at Christmas, despite its being brown and heavy with chestnuts and slightly tinged with rum. Lily adores soup, and begs me to make it for her. I made a shepherd’s pie the other night – a really bog standard English mince and potato pie – and my husband and father-in-law gobbled it up making appreciative noises all the while.
Cooking is an escape, but a legitimate one, because I’m feeding people. I can say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to cook a meal here”, but I can’t say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to write a blog post here.” I love pottering in my kitchen, browsing my recipe books, staring out the window in a half-daze, imagining our next meal.
Living in Germany, I’ve had to learn to love the challenge of sourcing unusual ingredients (things like coriander, mint, halloumi cheese, butternut squash, pitta bread, limes) in a country where supermarkets are small, focus on seasonal food and cater for provincial tastes. If I’m planning to cook something unusual, it takes time and planning to source things – if I can’t find it in the supermarket, I visit a grocer, order what I need and he provides it the next day. It requires forethought. When I first moved back here, I resented the fact that I couldn’t just walk into Sainsburys and say “Oh lamb would be good, let’s pick up some mint and couscous too” but now I find the slight hardship adds to my enjoyment when I finally eat the meal I’ve planned. It’s got to be character-building.
I like looking in the fridge, seeing what I’ve got, reading a recipe, making a match and producing something delicious. I like using things up. For instance, we had half a stale panettone left over from Christmas, and I turned that into a delicious bread and butter pudding for New Year’s Eve dinner. After Christmas, we were all feeling a little queasy from the rich meals we’d been having, so I used a couple of chicken breasts and some sticks of lemongrass to make a lovely, refreshing chicken broth. There is something of the happy homemaker in this, but I don’t deny, it gives satisfaction.
I love cookbooks. In the last few years, I’ve got a bit stuck on Jamie and the two Nigels, the latter both being great writers. A new cookbook that’s started challenging my repertoire is Moro, which is Spanish and Moroccan food. Jamie’s just inspiring – I still learn something every time I read one of his books. Tonight it was how to chop potatoes into matchsticks for rosti. I browsed through a friend’s Elizabeth David the other day and saw how well she writes. She does much less hand-holding than Nigella or Jamie, it’s a more seat-of-your-pants kind of cooking. I want to do some of that. Nigella’s taken me through my apprenticeship, but it’s time to graduate to bolder stuff.
I like that my repertoire and courage are growing. I’ve learnt that if you follow a recipe, you’re likely to have success, and this has given me confidence. My next step is bread. I want to start baking bread. If I can do cakes, surely I can do bread. Perhaps that can be my second new year’s resolution: in 2007 I want to write more and learn to bake bread.
I like the values that home-cooking instills. I’d rather make my kids a tray of home-cooked muffins than buy them the plastic ones filled with preservatives in the supermarket. I love that they are becoming brave eaters, and in our home there is a lot of praise for trying food. They are not required to like it, but they are required to try it. One will eat any soup under the sun, another adores pulses in any form, and my darling baby boy will eat anything his mummy bakes. We sit and eat with our children for at least one meal a day – usually lunch – we light candles, chat, gently impart some table manners and enjoy some family time. They know where their fruit and vegetables come from, they know that their bodies “need green” and they love their food.
I like sharing recipes and talking food. This I do with many of my friends, and also with my blog friends. I’ve made Bloglily’s spice cookies and they were gorgeous, and I’m going to make Kerryn’s white chocolate cheesecake with raspberries when I host my bookclub dinner in January. I’m planning to try Jen’s fudge once I’ve recovered from the Christmas excess.
Cooking is also an act of love, and a way to show caring. I’ll let Kerryn (who puts it beautifully in one of her comments) round up this long and winding post succinctly for me:
I believe strongly that food prepared with love has the ability to pass that love along. I try never to cook while angry and always try to add a dash of love for those I’m cooking for.