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Competing with Robert Carrier

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

"Culture stems from the stomach as well as the brain." Robert Carrier

I'm still doing my weekly cooking classes with the grandchildren, and this week I said we would do kebabs. What I hoped would happen was that each grandchild would choose the main ingredient for their kebab and then we would all discuss what we could marinate their ingredient in. So my aim was not really how to cook the actual kebabs, but rather how to make a marinade.

Well that was the idea. Of course it didn't quite work out like that. First and major problem - the dads and the granddad to whom the word kebabs means just one thing - Robert Carrier's California Beef Kebabs. They were not really amused when I said that this was not what we were doing and I at least had to promise my husband that I would make them for him later in the week.

I first found this recipe before I had any Robert Carrier recipe books and when he was writing columns in The Sunday Times. I think I mentioned recently that I collected them all and have now tragically lost them. The recipe first appeared with a different name. I can't quite remember what it was but it had an Indonesian slant because he was writing about the Indonesian tradition of the 'rice table'. I thought it sounded interesting and made it for my new husband and we were both blown away. It is another of those dishes that make you realise how good food can be. Since then I have made it regularly - there I am eating it outside one of our houses back in the 70s I would guess. And below are my small sons also tucking in.

For they loved it instantly too. And that is quite an achievement. Small children are notoriously fussy. And I have to say that everyone I have ever fed it to has felt the same. As I said, with kebabs it's all about the marinade so here it is:

For 1kg of rump steak, cut into strips (you thread them on to the skewers):

9 tablespoons olive oil; 3 tablespoons soy sauce; 3 tablespoons lemon juice; 1 medium onion, chopped; 1 dessertspoon ground cumin, 2 garlic cloves crushed.

Yes there's quite a lot of oil, so I guess you could decrease the quantity if you wish but it gives you plenty of sauce, which is absolutely necessary to pour over the kebabs. Ditto for lots of ground black pepper.

I do know that my daughter-in-law - a terrific cook - has actually modified this a bit. For one thing I suspect they eat it in a wrap rather than with rice as we do. And obviously if you barbecue them - which we have done, you lose some of the sauce, and what remains has to be just heated up on the cook top which is not the same at all. So yes her modification - to respect the desire for more sauce I suspect, is to just pan fry the strips of beef and then add the sauce near the end - double the amount of sauce that is. At the same time as adding the sauce the cooked rice is added too - so - as she says a sort of biryani, or maybe a kind of fried rice. Sounds good though. I have modified it too - much more onion - they love the onion - and somewhat more cumin than in the original recipe.

I tell you all of this because this is the benchmark against which I (and everybody else in the family) have to work when cooking kebabs.

The second problem was, that my enthusiastic and accomplished granddaughters had decided exactly what they were going to do well before the lesson. The younger one found a recipe for some Turkish kebabs and followed it almost to the letter, although she added some grated lemon rind to the mix. The older one decided she would feature halloumi and asked for ideas, so I just sent her a few recipes I found on the net. In the end she had a chilli sauce that she marinaded the halloumi in and then threaded it on to skewers with vegetables. I am told they were all delicious.

But what of the boys? Well they are much less confident cooks - as is their dad, with whom they were cooking, so they decided to just follow what I did - chicken with a not very adventurous marinade constructed with oil, mustard, tarragon with a little parsley, cream and lemon juice. They didn't have any fresh herbs so used some dried oregano I think instead. And I gather it worked. Alas I have no photo.

I have to say that my finished result - shown at the top of the page - was pretty nice but still I guess it paled into comparison with Robert Carrier's, which are very definitely a 'wow' taste sensation.

And it made me realise how many of his recipes have, in fact, become Dearman household favourites. I think I have mentioned the cookbook I made for my sons when they set up their own homes which was based around their top ten favourite foods. Three of those were from Robert Carrier - spaghetti and meatballs, the Christmas turkey and these kebabs. Since then I have also passed on other of his recipes and I gather that in the boys' household his Egyptian Lemon Chicken is now top of the tree with his Chicken paprika being another firm favourite. And for all I know others too. In fact my second 'cooking with the grandkids' attempt was his Apple streusel tart - and his Old English apple pie is another tried and true family favourite.

He is my cooking hero:

"I learnt to cook from him too. He is like Delia Smith – there is a recipe for everything in Robert Carrier. Pancakes, steak, apple crumble. Everything." Shahrzad Ghorashian

So true. And most of them are pretty easy to make. My copies of his big two cookbooks - Great Dishes of the World and The Robert Carrier Cookbook - the only ones of his that I possessed for many years - are falling to pieces. But now thanks to friends and family I have acquired just about all of the others, and a bigger more luxurious hardback version of Great Dishes of the World - thanks to my op shopping friend. I don't think I have ever had a failure with a Robert Carrier recipe which cannot be said of many others - Stephanie Alexander, and yes, even Nigel Slater among them.

Yes Elizabeth David was a major teacher too followed by Jane Grigson and later still, Claudia Roden, Charmaine Solomon and Madhur Jaffrey who took me out into the wider world of cooking. And yes, of course there is Delia.

And that quote at the top of the page. Yes I hope I am teaching the grandchildren a little bit about different cultures as well. Like language you can learn so much more about a culture through its food. But I'll never be able to compete with the man himself. I have made so many of his dishes, but fortunately there are still more to explore.


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