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Same old, same old ... Part 2 - cooking

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"Cooking is not something you do, and then it's finished with. It is a thread woven through our lives ... It can never be an end in itself."

Nigella Lawson

I'm hoping to kill a couple of birds with one stone with this post, but I suspect I shall not manage to say what I want to say. If I know what I want to say that is. Something about the potential boredom of cooking I think, and also something about my Christmas cookbook from Nigella - Cook, eat, repeat. And lemon tart.

So why the photograph at the top of the page? Well this is the photo I chose for the front page of my old blog, which I started way back in July 2016 - coming up for a fifth anniversary, so I shall have to think of a way to celebrate. Anyway I began it with the words, "I like food and I'm bored." Well I had been retired for a while and was running out of ideas as to how to amuse myself.

Now why did I pick that photograph, because I certainly wasn't bored at the time of its taking? It was a small restaurant in Italy somewhere between Mantua and Lake Garda called Le quattro gatte - the four cats - well that's my memory anyway. I suppose I chose it because there was anticipation, the setting was a restaurant and I was obviously thinking - or at least I looked as if I was thinking. Not bored though. Mostly enjoying all the things one enjoys about being in a beautiful country like Italy and anticipating a wonderful meal - and it was. But it was difficult to think of a picture to illustrate this particular post, so I hope it will do.

I started on the 'same old, same old ...' theme because the other day I was a bit bored and somewhat uninspired, but I got a bit sidetracked when I found the picture of the Parmiggiana couple at work - a couple whose lives seemed to be almost entirely bound by repetition.

At different times of our lives just about everyone falls into a pattern of repetition. Maybe not in those first years before school - every day brings something new and amazing to a small child, although their parents' lives, certainly with babies anyway, falls into a pattern of the same routine day in and day out that is centred around the baby's feeding and sleeping habits. Then comes primary school and repetition begins to play a larger part in a small child's life - at least through the routine of getting to and from school, but one would hope that there is still plenty to surprise and amaze their growing minds. At high school boredom is almost de rigeur. One is almost not cool if one is not bored - even if one secretly isn't. After school everything changes again whether it be further study or a job and so life continues with some subtle and many sudden changes - parenthood, a change of job or home, a new partner until perhaps the biggest change of all - retirement. Freedom. To do what? In a way it's like being a child all over again. The world is your oyster. Well if you are the privileged few of the world like us. Of course, life for the poor of the world is not nearly as unrepetitive and in many cases becomes like the life of animals - finding enough to eat and drink for oneself and one's offspring.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about - even if I should. The focus of this blog after all is supposed to be food. And today it is cooking.

A brief word first about the professionals. Those whose job/profession is to produce food or drink. I did consider a career in food - well hotel management - but my thoughts were mostly about food and I nearly followed that path. I'm glad now that I did not because I cannot think of anything more boring than cooking in a restaurant and cooking the same food over and over again. Last week we went to Paris Go with friends. It's always a treat for us and a chance to eat something different. But that restaurant has been run by the same man for twenty years or so. Every night he is open he cooks more or less the same small list of dishes. Yes there are daily specials but I actually think that this is selected from a very small list as well. And even if you change your menu every season or month it still must be completely boring. How do they do it? If I had a restaurant I would change the menu every day according to what was good at the time - or at least every week. It would be a small restaurant of course. You couldn't do that in a large one. And everything you cooked would have to be good or you would lose your customers. Consistency is the key in a restaurant. But fortunately not at home. And here we come to Nigella, who says in the introduction to her recent book - my Christmas present - Cook, Eat, Repeat:

"we who cook in our homes, as distinct from those who cook professionally in restaurants, do not have to be shackled by the creatiivity-draining need for consistency"

Restaurant chefs are seeking perfection all the time. It matters for their success in business, and I guess if you cook the same thing all the time, eventually you must surely get it just right. Or do you? Do you become so bored that that boredom somehow creeps into the food itself. Is that boredom why people like Heston Blumenthal are constantly pushing the boundaries, trying to create something wildly and unexpectedly new?

I guess that's why things like that little video from yesterday of Gennaro Contaldo playing around with the concept of the Italian scotch egg, or Jamie's lockdown television programs in which he often seemed to be inventing on the fly according to what was in the fridge or freezer, are so different and so encouraging, so everyday normal. So relatable. Because there was always the danger that it didn't work.

When looking for illustrations for this post I came across this which I thought admirably showed how repetition - doing the same thing over and over again, cooking the same dishes over and over again - can nevertheless expand into something greater. Every time we cook something familiar it changes and becomes new again.

"However many times we cook a recipe, and perhaps especially when we cook it so many times it ceases to feel like a recipe at all, we never exactly replicate it." Nigella Lawson

Tomorrow we are celebrating my younger son's birthday with another family dinner and he has requested spaghetti and meatballs which is his very favourite meal and not enjoyed that often because it's a bit of a pain to make. Every time it is different - largely because of the tomato sauce in which the meatballs are cooked, because it depends on so many different things. Are there fresh tomatoes or do we have to use tinned? If they are fresh, there is enormous potential for difference, and even if they are tinned they might not be the same as last time - even within the same brand they can vary. Do we have any home-made stock to add to the sauce or do we have to use a packet or even a stock cube - or none at all? If it's home-made there will be enormous variation depending on what went into it and for how long it was cooked. What else has gone into it? Did I sneak in some carrots, or mushrooms or zucchini as well as onions and garlic? What herbs went into it? Did we have a splash of wine to add? So many potential variations that in some ways it's amazing that the dish is recognisably the same each time it is made. Not to mention the meatballs themselves. How big, how small? What herbs? How much cheese? What kind of breadcrumbs ... Even the pans you cook it all in and the cooktop you cook it on will make a difference. The picture is my granddaughter doing her thing.

But that's fun isn't it? It means that even though we are yet again cooking meatballs, it actually won't be the same. And besides the routine in itself is an opportunity for relaxation.

"Because one is doing something so familiar, so unthinkingly rehearsed, one isn't on high alert, but can let the senses - touch, smell, sight, sound - take over ... It takes practice to trust your senses, but essentially that's what cooking is: a practice, like doing yoga is a practice, and not a performance." Nigella Lawson

Which brings me back to Nigella's wonderful book. Theoretically at least it is full of recipes that she has cooked at home, over and over again and every recipe has suggestions for tweaks that you can do to it. Whether, of course, this is just an artful ruse we cannot know, but there are certainly a heap of recipes to try, and perhaps even more useful - lots of little tips and tricks and bits of kitchen wisdom. Like this:

"this dynamic relationship - between reliance on familiarity and curiosity about the as-yet-untried - that underpins, perhaps even defines, what cooking is all about. For cooking, like life, in order to be manageable, enjoyable even, relies on both structure and spontaneity."

Today I am doing a bit of a mix. I am attempting the Roux Brothers' lemon tart for the birthday tomorrow. Also a request from my son. I have made lemon tart before, but have never tried the so-called definitive version. I am trying to follow the recipe exactly. I began by making the pastry yesterday. This afternoon I complete the process - after I have finished this post. It has an alarming 9 eggs in it - but what the hell - it's sort of a birthday present and as we haven't got much else for him - he, like his father, is very difficult on this front - it will have to do as a present. Actually my main worry is whether I have the correct tin.

But dinner tonight will be something concocted from pork loin, celery and mustard. I've sort of done this kind of thing before, but nevertheless tonight's effort will be unique. Ditto for the potato gratin to go with it. Cooked in stock and cream perhaps. I shall be making it all up as I go. Which is fun. And all that repetition in the kitchen - the processes I have learnt, the knowledge of what goes with what, will stand me in good stead as I create something new. Well almost new. The lemon tart which will be new will be done under instruction as it were. No experimentation there - other than attempting it in the first place. Wish me luck.


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