"If you haven't got all of these, just use whatever you have."
It was a fasting day yesterday so I got a chance to catch up with Jamie Oliver's latest on cooking in a lockdown situation, and at one point the above statement appeared as a text message at the bottom of the screen whilst one of his archived/old recipes was screening. And it struck me that even though this is particularly relevant in the COVID19 lockdown situation it is actually and increasingly the way we are being taught to cook and to read recipes by celebrity chefs.
I know I have sort of said this before, and I know that it's a semi obvious thing for Jamie to say, but for some reason, yesterday this struck me as a fundamental change in the way we are being taught to cook. A couple of times whilst demonstrating his recipes he mentioned that we should pay attention to the principle rather than the actual ingredients. And that's the new way isn't it? Learn a method and then make it your own by changing the ingredients. The big examples of this being things like tray bakes, pasta and stir fries.
It's probably no longer relevant to us in Australia to make do with what we have in the pantry and fridge, although it has perhaps been a valuable lesson in scouring the back of your fridge and the dark recesses of your pantry to use up stuff that has been there for far too long. As long as it is safe to do so of course. Actually there has never been a problem with fresh fruit and vegetables here, and I think the meat shortage only lasted a day or so. But the shortage of pasta may have taught a few people to make their own - until the flour ran out that is. And the flour is still not really back to its former range. But over there in England I think it is rather a different matter. I suspect that more of their food is imported, and the lockdown has been quite severe. My sister certainly hasn't been out and about so much and has resorted to online food shopping, and I have to say she has been delighted with the result. She gets very fresh fish from somewhere - some of which she freezes and a box of fruit and vegetables which she says is an absolute joy. Not quite knowing what to expect is part of the fun. She also thinks she will keep doing this in the future - which is really good for those small businesses that provide these services. Well I assume they are small businesses, though I do know that some of this kind of service are run by large companies. And I suspect that is what is happening here too. Which is yet another good thing to come out of the whole COVID19 thing. Yes, as my sister says, it's more expensive, but she thinks the trade off is the quality and the convenience - and unlike me she doesn't like shopping.
I too am spending more money on fresh fruit and vegetables because I'm shopping in the supermarket not the Queen Vic market, but I'm beginning to think about returning there, and besides whatever else you might say about the supermarket prices, at least it's good quality stuff. And if you stick to the specials it's not too bad, and you get that element of surprise too.
And whilst we are on fresh fruit and vegetables Jamie Oliver was saying that in England apparently people have been cooking with aubergines/egg plant, and coincidentally in an email update from the CEO of Woolworths he too noted that sales of eggplant were up 38%. Which is really interesting. I don't quite understand why. Yes it is an amazingly versatile vegetable, and, I guess, a bit like pumpkin and sweet potato, can bulk out your meals if you are going vegetarian. But it's really an acquired taste I would have thought. I like it now but it took me some time to get there. Still - yet another indication that more cooking is going on.
But back to making do. I had a quick glance at the Coles Magazine and noted that almost every single recipe in there has a little note somewhere suggesting you use something else instead of a particular ingredient - either because you haven't got any or because you don't like it. For example, substitute chicken for prawns and vice versa. It's a regular thing isn't it? And so, so different from Elizabeth David et al. They might have occasionally been a bit vague about things - Elizabeth David in particular - but they never suggested leaving something out, substituting something else or even changing the method - roasting instead of frying for example. No - there was a recipe and you followed it.
To be fair I guess my first cooking lessons were at home and in France, and were not recipe based. They came from watching my elders do things and I probably sub-consciously noted that my mother did not always put exactly the same ingredients in her rabbit stew or even her apple pie. But she didn't really vary things that much. When I started to sort of teach myself from cookbooks, being an unadventurous type I stuck pretty closely to what was written down. But I guess over the years, I had unconsciously absorbed what went with what and how I could swap and substitute. Even so I am still learning because I don't really think I am imaginative enough. Even my fridge raid meals are not particularly imaginative.
With respect to imagination though, take for example Jamie's show last night. He was making a kind of bread and butter pudding with frozen hot cross buns and had no sugar to put in the custard. Also no eggs, so he used packet custard - interesting that he should even have any in his cupboard - and apricot jam instead of sugar. Now I would never have thought of using apricot jam. I might have thought of using the hot cross buns, because I have now seen so many recipes for variations on bread and butter pudding that use all manner of different kinds of breads, but I'm not sure what I would have done about no sugar. Honey or maple syrup I guess. We always have some of that.
So pay attention to techniques more than ingredients it seems. I learnt a new technique last night with the aforesaid egg plant, which Jamie cut in half lengthways, put in a baking dish with some roughly chopped onions, put on a lid and sort of steamed them in the oven until soft. They were then mashed up and made into a kind of lasagne
- I can't quite remember how, but it looked really yummy. He also, for this dish, just tore up the lasagne into bits and poked them into his mixture, rather than layering it all - which, of course, you could still do. He called it Scruffy aubergine lasagne. And at the end of the recipe on his website there is quite a long list of alternative things you can do with it:
"EASY SWAPS - Not an aubergine lover? Try courgettes, peppers, portobello mushrooms, or even squash in its place. - If you don’t have fresh lasagne sheets, you can use dried. Simply cook them according to the packet instructions, then drain and refresh under cold water, so they’re cool when you come to use them. - I’m using sage, but rosemary or thyme would work a treat, too. - No almonds? Try peanuts or cashew nuts instead."
The tearing up of the lasagne is a bit like a pie in the Coles Magazine that cut the puff pastry for the lid into triangles and then placed them randomly over the top. Made a pretty pattern. Just another example of using your imagination to make something at least look a little bit different, even if the dish itself - in this case a filling made of already cooked chicken, bought mushroom sauce, spinach and cheese - is, well, sort of cheating cooking. Probably pretty nice though.
The big lessons to come out of all of this I think, are - most importantly to keep a well-stocked pantry with all sorts of things that will enhance flavour. Stock your fridge with all the fresh things that make a difference, and also always have emergency stuff in the freezer. Then, with the little lessons you learn along the way, either through reading, watching or just plain experience, you will always be able to whip up something to please you and your loved ones.