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Baking sole with Jamie

"If I've learnt anything from the Italians about fish, it is definitely 'less is more'" Jamie Oliver

It's lucky dip time because it's late in the day and I need to be quick, and the 'less is more' concept definitely applies to this particular lucky dip recipe. The recipe is from Jamie's Italy, written way back in 2005, when Jamie was still relatively young and fancy free. He has written another Italian book since then - Jamie Cooks Italy, which is perhaps a bit more - well I was going to say learned, but Jamie is never learned. A bit more 'authentic' maybe, but that's not fair either. Just a bit more something. But this is, nevertheless a lovely book with lots of delicious recipes, from the well-known to the obscure, and some that are just Jamie playing with Italian methods and ingredients. I think my younger son gave it to me because he knew I liked Jamie Oliver and because he loves Italian food. He probably hoped I would cook him lots more Italian food.

So David picked out the book for the lucky dip and I randomly picked a page, and this is what turned up - Sogliola in a tre modi - which translated means Sole three ways. Apologies for the slightly murky photograph. My scanner does dull down lots of photographs, and it seems to have done a particularly good job on doing that with this one. The other thing to note is that this is Australia and we don't have sole. So I looked up what I should use instead, and it seems to be flounder or John Dory. Maybe whiting? A flattish fish anyway cooked whole.

The recipe is not online alas, but it's really simple. On a bed of rosemary leaves and stoned black olives you place sliced potatoes which have been tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook in a 200° oven, covered tightly for 20 mins.. remove foil and cook an extra 10 mins until lightly golden. Brush fish with olive oil and salt and pepper, place on top. Top with a favourite topping drizzle with oil and return to oven for 15-10 mins. Done.

As to the toppings, he suggests: sliced tomatoes (from the picture I would say he deseeded them as well) and anchovies; chopped pancetta and rosemary; deseeded cherry tomatoes and basil. So pretty simple things, and obviously you could just make up your own.

It's not really a recipe is it? It's more a technique which you can adapt to your own tastes. And it's probably the layer of potatoes underneath - also infinitely open to variations - that makes it different and more of an almost recipe. A kind of different fish and chips.

And whilst we are still on sole he has another dead easy recipe upon which you can improvise which he calls The nicest tray-baked lemon sole and this one's online. Very similar really - something underneath, then fish and something on top. Bake. No potatoes though.

These recipes got me thinking on how some recipes in some cookbooks, are almost not recipes at all, and a couple of the things I cooked for yesterday's lunch were a bit like that.

Nigel Slater's dessert of peaches and blackberries for example was really just stewed peaches - I guess the only thing a little different was that butter was in the mix - plus blackberries thrown in at the end and cooked with the peaches until the juices ran. I mean anyone could do that, and anyone could think of other things you could add - like liqueurs, maybe herbs, wine ... or other fruit that could be treated the same way.

And Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's two appetisers - roasted peppers with feta and croutons - if you know how to roast peppers you can easily devise a presentation that would look good and involve something else - just roasted peppers on their own are lovely anyway. And the other was just burrata with a roasted tomato sauce (I suppose that needed a little bit of instruction - and a mouli), and pesto. The taste of this dish was spot on but not the presentation, because I didn't get burrata and instead went for bocconcini, which I could not make look pretty.

So when one of your favourite cooks writes a recipe like this, are they cheating, or are they actually guiding you to become a better cook by giving you a basic idea and the enthusiasm to have a go at fiddling with it a little bit? I think the latter. Although I suppose you need to know the basics in terms of method, and also what goes with what. If you know that you can do anything really.

"Improvisation is the art of being completely O.K. with not knowing what the f— you’re doing." Mick Napier

Which ties in with my book group book of this morning. Chums by Simon Kuyper which was all about how a group of public school boys - almost exclusively from Eton - who then went on to Oxford, and ultimately became prime minister - 15 of the 18 since WW2 - in England of course. And how most of them had as their major talent being able to improvise witty and engaging speeches about just about anything, without knowing anything about it. Confidence writ large.

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