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My ten go to dinners

"Most households have an average of 10 go-to meals on rotation." Alice Zaslavsky

In Alice Zaslavsky's book The Joy of Better Cooking, she has a chapter called On Autopilot which she describes in her introduction as:

"Midweek meals are all about mind over matter. What matters is getting dinner on the table using as little mind power and as few pots and pans as possible."

And further on she makes the statement at the top of the page. I bet lasagne (or Spaghetti bolognaise) is one on everybody's list. It's certainly on mine. Which just goes to show the difference between my top ten (if you can call them 'top') and my mother's for example. Well the mother of my childhood anyway. She learnt to make Spaghetti bolognaise with me when I was in my teens, and so may well have continued making it into her old age.

But I'm not here to talk about Spaghatti bolognaise - or lasagne which is the preferred option in this house ever since my older son left home. He preferred bolognaise, and so I had to offer both options. Easy enough to do in this case. I waffle again. Apologies. No I am here to ruminate on what my ten go-to meals might be and also to wonder on what yours are. Or are you one of those rare people who try something different every night? Even in my most lovestruck days as a new wife I didn't do that. There were certainly more completely new experiments but not every night.

When my two boys left home in their late teens I made them a cookbook with recipes for their ten favourite dishes, and ways that they could expand that top ten into something else. I believe they cook from it still. Every now and then anyway. I could sort of cheat and just repeat that ten. But when I think about it now I find that today's ten, although including some of the long ago ten, is not quite the same.

So what is number two? )Lasagne was number one remember?) The most frequent dish on the table in the Dearman home - after the lasagne. It's actually a tricky question because although I am tempted to include most of that original ten and although I do still cook them now and then, I don't think they are the ones that I actually cook for the two of us most often. Not that I cook the same things week in, week out anyway. But I prevaricate.

Quiche. Yes quiche. Hardly a week goes by without me making a quiche of some kind, because this is not really an actual recipe, it's a method, a generic quiche. What goes into it depends on what I have in the fridge and that needs using up whether it be fresh vegetables and/or meat or fish of some kind, or whether it be some leftover cooked something. For me it's a quick and easy dinner that I can do almost with my eyes closed. Mostly because I make it easy by making the pastry in bulk in my Kenwood mixer. It takes about five minutes. Then the pastry is divided into quiche size lumps and frozen so that whenever I want to make one the pastry is already done. Roll out the pastry, bake blind, and whilst it's baking make the filling with the base of three eggs and 300ml of cream - plus whatever I'm using for the actual flavour note that day. A favourite is beetroot and smoked trout - or just onions which have been softened in the microwave with som oil or butter. It's a real fun thing to do. Often on a Friday. It's almost become a Friday tradition. With a glass of wine - the first of the week and the 'inventive' weekend ahead. Because as Alice Zaslavsky says: "There's always the weekend to get creative." Although in my case of course, every day is the weekend.

Number three? A Spanish kind of omelette - I suppose it's a frittata - sort of. Another leftover dish that's quick and easy. Gather and chop your leftovers, boosted with some fresh things, vegetables, bacon, ham, salami ... and some herbs. Fry them in a big pan and pour over your beaten eggs. Finish under the grill, where it will puff up. Well that's what I do anyway. I used to call it a Spanish omelette because it began as a mostly leftover potato thing, but as time went on frittata became the more fashionable name for this sort of thing, and so, yes I guess it's a frittata. Except I don't bake it in the oven for ages. It's just a few minutes under the grill. I don't think that's very authentic.

Four? Here I pause for thought. Soup perhaps although this is more a winter thing than a summer one. And not only is it generic, but it's also another leftover dish - or a dish to use up a surplus of something. Fundamental method? Fry some onions and garlic. Add some other things that need a bit of a turn in olive oil, add tomatoes, stock, wine - liquid anyway - and finally add things like potatoes and cook. Mostly I don't purée the soup, but sometimes I do. David prefers it chunky. Of course I do make actual recipe driven soups as well sometimes - Bert Greene's Winter Squash Bisque or Elizabeth David's Potage Crécy (Carrot soup) perhaps, but mostly it's a hearty soup made with whatever I have and which sustains us for quite a few days.

Five? Fish cakes I think. We had fish cakes last night. I try to cook fish at least once a week and fish cakes are sometimes made from tinned fish - usually salmon - sometimes from leftover fish - as last night - and sometimes from smoked fish. They are such an ordinary thing - a leftover from my poor childhood - but so delicious. I bulk the fish out with some mashed potato usually, but last night, for example, I had a very small amount of Delia's Pesto rice salad - a most wonderful carbohydrate salad by the way - and so I added that. But it could be another vegetable or some breadcrumbs I suppose. Add herbs, spices, maybe even cheese, although I have never done that. Form into patties, dip in flour, egg, breadcrumbs or something that will be crunchy and fry. Quick, easy, nourishing. Delicious.

Six? Here I pause for thought. That original ten included roast beef and Yorkshire pudding - not eaten in this household for simply ages now. Neither is the Shepherd's pie that is made from the remains. Because we very rarely have a roast. It's not really a dish for just two. There's the spaghetti and meatballs that I make from time to time but they're a real labour of love and so I only do it for big family gatherings now. Robert Carrier's beef kebabs that he calls by various names perhaps, although I don't make them very often now. For no good reason for they are divine and not hard. Ditto for Tandoori chicken - another of the original ten. I know - Pizza. Although it was actually an addendum in the original volume - along with hamburgers and curry.

Yes pizza. How predictable is that? Like the lasagne. I would not claim to be a great pizza maker. They are never quite crisp enough on the bottom for me. Although I feel I'm getting better at it. Sometimes I make the dough myself, sometimes I use a bought pizza base, sometimes pitta bread, or even turkish bread. Maybe you could do it with a ciabatta cut lengthways. If I'm feeling good I make the tomato sauce, if I'm feeling lazy I just use bottled passata. The toppings depend on what I have and the cheese is mostly just grated cheddar - not at all 'authentic' - but sometimes I do buy an almost real ball of mozzarella and grate or slice that. For me I have to have anchovies. For David, absolutely not, so I make two smaller pizzas rather than one large one. And even they generally last us two days. Yes, I reheat pizza. Black mark.

Seven - Goulash was one of the original ten - a particular goulash recipe that I no longer make. I don't know why. It has sort of been replaced with Delia's Pork Stroganoff with three mustards which is quick, simple and absolutely delicious although I wince at the amount of sour cream you add at the end every time. Mostly I make this when I have a surfeit of mushrooms, which I actually have at the moment. Although this time I don't think I shall make this. It's more of a winter thing really. Served with rice, which might be marginally unconventional but which goes very well with it.

Eight - This is getting hard and there are three more to go. So another generic dish - Risotto. It was years before I steeled myself to have a go at risotto and was astonished to discover it was a really easy thing to make. And so we often have one. Mostly it's like my other generic dishes in which I am using up something to embellish the basic - soften some onions, add rice, stir for a bit, add wine, stir for a minute or two and then add boiling stock every now and then until done - and your chosen flavourings. At the end stir in a knob of butter and some parmesan. I do have a favourite recipe though - Delia again - Roasted and sun-dried tomato risotto. It's marginally more complicated because you are supposed to roast those tomatoes so I reserve it for special vegetarian meals. Risotto in general is a go to though.

Nine - Gnocchi. Yes I make my own. They are really not difficult. My grandchildren can do it. Sometimes they are ricotta ones, sometimes potato but there is usually spinach involved. I don't have a single recipe that I use but Elizabeth David is a go to source of inspiration. I generally just finish them off in the oven with some butter and parmesan but sometimes with a tomato sauce or pesto. Sometimes I just make the tomato sauce separately and serve it at the table. David likes to have the tomato sauce I think. I probably should be rather more adventurous, both with the actual gnocchi recipe and also with the sauce that they are served with. Not a weekly event but a useful vegetarian one to tick my weekly vegetarian box.

Ten - last of all. Hard to decide here between a generalised curry, or cannelloni, or Belinda Jefferey's Upside-down tomato and basil pie.

But let's go for the curry because cannelloni are really a different kind of lasagne don't you think? And the tomato pie, although cooked reasonably frequently it's mostly saved for vegetarian granddaughter or friends. Highly recommended though. So let it be curry in a very general sense.

I feel I am stretching the envelope a bit here, because (a) I haven't made a curry for a while although I don't know why that should be. And (b) I usually choose a particular recipe and follow it. However, on occasion I have been know to just throw a curry together using a bought curry paste or some curry powder. Which is rather more go-to. Fry some onions, garlic, ginger. Add your spice mix or paste. Stir your meat - or vegetables I suppose - in it. Add your liquid - tomatoes, yoghurt, stock, vinegar, tamarind water or just water and cook until done. At the end you can add things like herbs, garam masala, lemon juice. Done.

I suspect my ten go-to recipes will be similar to your own - unless you are from a completely different cultural background, have some kind of dietary requirement or eat takeaway all the time, which I suspect the younger generations do. Lots of Italian - the whole world cooks Italian these days. And I have cheated somewhat by mostly being generic. Lots of throwing stuff into a pot and cooking it. Well that's what everyday cooking is all about isn't it?

The point that Alice Zaslavsky was making was that we shouldn't be restricted by just ten go to recipes.

"If you can set yourself the task of acquiring at least one a month, then by the end of the year, you'll be operating on autopilot."

I definitely try to cook something new every week. Something from an actual recipe that isn't just fridge raid stuff. Every now and then I do indeed come across something that I shall make again. Quite a few of Ottolenghi's and Nigel Slater's fall into that category. But it takes a while for a recipe to be absorbed into your everyday go-to list I think. Longer than a month anyway. You have to make them a few times. And half the point about the go-to recipe is that you are indeed on autopilot and don't actually need a recipe. By not following the recipe exactly you are making it your own.

The first recipe that Alice offers to boost your list is what she calls Schi. Schi is a traditional Russian (and I think Jewish) cabbage soup, but she has stretched the definition to be more like my own version of catch-all soup - with an Eastern-European/Jewish flavour. Flicking through her chapter I see that she also offers a risotto, a pasta, some latkes (instead of my fish cakes), a curry and several other things, including a stir fry. I did consider a stir fry for my list because I do attempt them quite frequently. Attempt is the operative word here because I do not consider myself to be very good at stir fries. I'm always hopeful but frequently disappointed. I should learn. Maybe I should add it to my list of dishes I have always wanted to master.

I wonder what your ten go-tos are?


In the middle of the night I realised that in yesterday's post I didn't address fully what was possibly the real point of the whole thing. How come the same spelling in English means two completely different things? I also didn't explain the etymology of the one that means talking or writing on and on without really saying anything. An admired characteristic of politicians and those trained in debates - it seems to me.

Firstly the etymology of to waffle. Not at all the same source as the waffles you eat. Waffling on comes from 'waff' which was a Scottish or at least a regional word meaning to yelp or bark - which I think I did tell you. And very probably it is alliterative - it sounds like a bark. Around 1700 it acquired a 'figurative sense' of 'to talk foolishly' which in 1803 came to mean 'to vacillate and to equivocate'.

Meanwhile, however, back in Scotland 'waff' also came to mean to waft (which is different again from 'to waffle':

"c. 1500, transitive, "to move gently" (through the air), probably from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German, ultimately from wachten "to guard" (perhaps via notion of a ship that guards another as it sails), related to waken "rouse from sleep," from Proto-Germanic *waht-, from PIE root *weg- "to be strong, be lively." Etymonline

I could waffle on about waking - probably I could waffle forever from one word to another. But I won't.

So the same word 'waffle' but not connected at all either in meaning or source. Two different sources, therefore two different meanings. Which leads to perhaps the biggest question of all. When speech began why did different peoples around the world use different sounds to denote different things? Much too big to answer that one.


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