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Memory + imagination = dinner

“It needs to have whatever it was that you were reaching for as a kid: This is my after school memory, or this is the thing we always brought to a Christmas party — whatever random association you have with it that is really memory-based more than it’s flavor-based.” Stella Parks

A day or so ago I managed to watch a few snippets of Jamie Oliver's latest cooking program. And a very frustrating experience it was too. It was being broadcast on Channel 10 and so you got about two minutes of Jamie then at least five minutes (I'm not kidding) of ads. Anyway in the course of the program he demonstrated how to make fish cakes from smoked haddock. It was a pretty simple recipe and below is the video. Try it sometime - well maybe not here in Australia (more on that later).

The point, for this particular post though, is that in the course of his introduction to the dish - not included in the video - he mentioned that it was inspired by another dish he had eaten somewhere in Scotland - a kind of soup, if memory serves me right, featuring smoked haddock served up in hollowed out and toasted bread.

It was called Cullen Skink - very Scottish - and I think this picture may be what he ate. Not at all the same thing as fishcakes but his point was, that from his memory of this very unusual and delicious dish, he had used his imagination to create these fishcakes. I'm not quite sure of the process whereby he got from soup to fishcakes, because the only common denominator seemed to be the smoked haddock, but nevertheless his theory of memory + imagination = creativity in the kitchen was an interesting one, that sort of struck a chord.

When we go to the fridge to concoct something for dinner - I'm willing to bet that that is what most of us do most of the time - it was my very first blog I seem to remember and concerns the process of making our decision as to what to cook based on what is there, what goes with what, what you fancy at that particular moment. And memory + imagination plays a part in all of this. Not necessarily, as in Jamie's case, a memory of a particular dish, or a particular occasion. It could just be memories of successes and failures in ways of dealing with particular ingredients, or memories of techniques and processes - how to make a basic quiche for example - our dinner tonight. Then, building on those memories we sometimes just do something very familiar and very instinctive, that doesn't really require much imagination, but sometimes we might use our creative imagination to invent something totally new, or at least an evolution/variation of something we have made before. Using up leftovers always demands a certain amount of imagination and creativity and sometimes - no often - it involves memory too.

I found one example of this process online on the Kitchn website, in which the author Dana Velden described how she had 'invented' a Caramelized pear tart.

"The inspiration was actually a mosaic of many things arising together at the right time. In this case it was a simple equation of memory and ingredients: Memory (Nigella Lawson’s Gorgonzola Pear Appetizer video clip + beautiful photo of a tart in David Tanis’ A Platter of Figs) x Ingredients (the pears + puff pastry from the freezer) = a really amazing dessert." Dana Velden - Kitchn

And that mind map at the top of the page is a pretty good illustration of what goes on in your head when you are trying to construct a meal from a memory. Just click on it to get a better view. Sorry it's in French - couldn't find a similar one in English. At the heart of that particular mind map is the memory of a beautiful meal alfresco somewhere I think. That's my interpretation anyway, and that's where we sometimes begin is it not? It might just be because we want to recreate that particular dish - like the beef and black olives that I constantly try to reproduce - generally with complete and utter failure - from my memory of the dish created by my au pair employers' cook, Madame Perruque. But even if I fail to reproduce it I nevertheless get close and I do revive that memory, so that:

"almost as good can be as good as it gets when it comes to capturing that sweet nostalgic feeling." Stella Parks

After all a nostalgic moment can never, ever, ever be recreated exactly can it? And let's be honest we don't even remember it exactly anyway. Imagination plays a part in the memory itself. Good memories before better, bad memories worse. Besides you can never remember absolutely everything about a particular moment in your life. All you remember really is a feeling, an emotion, a sensation. And that's really what you are trying to recreate, not the dish itself. So imagination that creates something new out of something remembered is something to be admired. And yes - you do it all the time. You just might not realise it. So pat yourself on the back for your inventiveness and creativity.

Food of course - and smell a major component of food, is particularly good at inspiring memories:

"all of us have a food memory which links us to family or relationships with people we love." Jay Rayner - The Guardian

I am not the only one for whom many of life's most intimate details come flooding back at the sight, smell and taste of particular foods. Everyone I speak to seems to have a favourite or, in some cases, a most hated dish with which they can recall particular moments of their lives." Nigel Slater

Apparently, at some point, Nigel Slater had a television series in which he interviewed various celebrities on their food memories. The link will take you to the article he wrote on the topic and of course, he describes that side of things so much better than I.

But that is sort of an aside - the Proustian Madeleine thing. What Jamie was trying to do was encourage you to search your memories of foods you have enjoyed, and use your imagination to do something different, and most likely simpler. I'm pretty sure, for example that his fishcakes and their accompanying sauce were rather simpler than the bread enclosed soup. They might look fancy when plated up as here, but believe me they were not. Fishcakes are fishcakes - in this case - potatoes, smoked poached haddock, an and chives, served with a sauce made by whizzing the poaching liquid with a bunch of chives. A pool of chives on the plate, the fishcakes on top, scattered with more chives and chive flowers, and accompanied (though not here) by a wedge of lemon. Easy peasy.

However, where do I find smoked haddock here? Yes you can get smoked cod, but I believe it's from South Africa or other such places and also is dyed and full of chemicals. All of which is somewhat disappointing. Yes you can use smoked trout instead, but this would not be any good for this particular dish because the sauce is constructed from the poaching liquid (basically milk), used for the fish, and you obviously don't need to poach the smoked trout. So, of course, you don't have to serve it with a sauce - fishcakes can be dry and served with salad, but I do like the idea of the sauce. So it's a dilemma. For dishes like kedgeree too. Now I'm sure that there are substitute fish - a thick white fish - maybe even flake would do, and there's certainly snapper and blue grenadier - but nobody in Australia seems to smoke these things. All you can get here are the more refined smoked things like mackerel, salmon and trout. Delicious though they all are they don't cut it for this particular dish.

So I guess that Jamie's fishcakes would be a further exercise in imagination for us Aussies. Let me know what you dream up.


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