I came to cooking relatively late. I wasn’t a complete novice in the kitchen as a post-university adult, in that I could assemble an edible meal, but it was on an entirely different level (lower, you understand) to that of some of my friends.
Cass’s blog, written in May 2014, with Jonathan’s comments in manly blue, and Cass’s rebuttals in lady-like pink.
Somehow, bewilderingly, they’d already learned ‘proper’ cooking – homemade pastry, actual cakes, real gravy – while I faffed about making heavy work of a small repertoire of not particularly good meals. Nonsense, darling! Shall we talk about your repertoire? According to my mum, “the best ever scrambled eggs”, thank you Matters weren’t helped by the fact that I only had stupid, coffee table cookery books that required the creation of complicated stock reductions before you could even get going. The recipes might as well have opened with: “well, I wouldn’t start from here”.
Aside – favourite cooking book title ever: First Catch your Eland
I’m not sure what Jonathan thought of my culinary skills at first (though I’m sure he’ll tell us!), given that a previous girlfriend had been a Cordon Bleu chef Ah yes, the one that got away Hmm. However, the point is that we lived and worked in London, one of the food capitals of the world, so we didn’t exactly go hungry. Whenever we liked we could have any flavour, from any cuisine, either eating out, or delivered to the door, or presented enticingly in the heaven that is M&S food.
I gradually improved though, helped enormously by the advent of the Jamie, Nigella, et al. TV shows, which made me realise that I could enjoy cooking, and not feel that I needed to be an artist. All of a sudden, I was making banana bread, brownies, and cupcakes, all manner of roasts, and perfect Yorkshire puddings, and casseroles, and fish pies, and risottos, and general yumminess. And Christmas! Christmas dinner for eight! All true, all true. She was “lugging” olive oil, saying “Kushti”, and kittenishly licking her fingers with the best of them – ooh, ooh, DO watch this, if you haven’t already, it’s Naughty Nigella – and the food was good too. Good???!! Sublime. Sorry (jeez – needy much?!) Perhaps I am an artist after all…
It wasn’t always successful. One year my sister gave us a pasta machine for Christmas, so we decided we’d make our own dough, enjoy rolling it out, then invent all kinds of clever and delicious ravioli fillings. Not sure you’re supposed to do that all in one evening. By midnight, we’d still had nothing to eat, and the domestic goddess tiara had slipped off my tired head and into the flour. But it was always great to experiment, and everything was doable because everything was available.
Fast forward to July 2011 and our arrival in Spain. We are particularly well served in the village with butchers, and the grocery stores sell fresh, seasonal fruit and veg, but even in the towns there is no such thing as fancy, M&S-style just-put-it-in-the-oven food; there are very few imported ingredients, and no takeaways except pizzas (rubbish ones at that). It’s almost as if the Spanish want to eat Spanish food! How selfish is that? And another thing: the shops – even the giant supermarkets – are closed on Sundays, like in days of yore in the UK. Suddenly we had to remember to buy milk IN ADVANCE! No remember, no milk. And if no milk, no coffee, and if no coffee – CRANKY!
That first summer, I didn’t know what or how to cook; it was hard to adjust. I don’t know what I’d been thinking: did I imagine that the village would have an international food hall selling sushi and pak choi? This from our archive of rejected business ideas.
So here’s what happened… Nowadays, we make pretty much everything from scratch. We never eat processed food or takeaways (because we can’t, not because we wouldn’t. Please! We’re still us). We’ve discovered where you can get lots of exotic ingredients, and if we can’t get them, visitors are asked to bring them in their suitcases. (They’re always surprised, assuming that we’d crave an English tea, or jam, or biscuits, but no; bring me chillies – hot ones! Curry leaves! Dried seaweed!
Or – this is to be whispered far away from Alfredo’s Café – our favourite espresso blend from the Monmouth Coffee Company in London.
I do sometimes get cooking fatigue. Especially when we’ve had loads of guests. But on those occasions, I can usually head to the freezer and find a spare curry sauce, or Moroccan marinade or a spicy ragù, and make my own convenience food. My God! She really IS Nigella! Confession: I’ve discovered that our lovely husband and wife butchers make delicious stuffed chicken thighs that you can pre-order and freeze. Shhh! Tonight, in fact, we’re meeting friends at the bar, so I need something quick to make when we get home, and the bol for spag is defrosting as I write. You can take the girl out of the 80’s…
In case anyone fancies, here is my slightly adulterated, slightly Spanish version of Jamie Oliver’s quick ragù from his 30 minute meals. All I’ve done is add morcilla sausages (black pudding equivalent).
4 spring onions
1 stick of celery
1–2 fresh red chillies
1 x 6-pack of good-quality sausages (approx. 400g). This is where you substitute two pork for two morcilla.
1 heaped teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried oregano
4 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
a few sprigs of basil\
Parmesan to grate over, if liked (we wish there was a Spanish equivalent, but there doesn’t seem to be – same with feta, as it happens)
Trim the spring onions, carrot and celery. Roughly chop all the vegetables, then blitz in the food processor with the chillies (stalks removed). Add the sausages, 1 heaped teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1 teaspoon of oregano. Keep pulsing until well mixed, then spoon this mixture into a hot frying pan with a lug told you! of olive oil, breaking it up and stirring as you go. Once it’s coloured up and has the look of cooked mince, you’re ready to move on.
Crush 4 cloves of garlic into the sausage mixture and stir in 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and the tinned tomatoes. Let this cook for five mins or so and you’re done.
Jamie Oliver serves his with Penne pasta. I’ve done that, or with spaghetti, or even with couscous (in a carb-conscious moment) and it’s delicious every which way. True dat