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Take five - from maths to Jamie

I began this post yesterday, inspired by the painting on the left, but I didn't finish it and anyway I was very dissatisfied with what I had written, so I am starting again. I had intended to just write about the number five as I had once written about seven but as I investigated I got into more and more stuff about Jamie and his 5 Ingredients, and so I am now slightly changing the emphasis - well the content anyway - perhaps. We'll see. I never really know where I shall end up when I begin.

The painting is by Charles Demuth and it's a tribute to a William Carlos Williams and a poem of his called The Great Figure. The painting is in the Met and you will find more explanation of the painting there. On 9th November it was my work of art of the day. It has nothing to do with food, and I'm not that enamoured of it either - I quite like the colours, and it's quite striking but that's it. However, it reminded me of that past post on the number 7 so I thought I would have a go at 5.

Mathematically speaking there is a long treatise on the number 5 in Wikipedia hardly any of which I understood, although I did learn that prime numbers are not just prime numbers, there are many, many different kinds of prime numbers. If you are fascinated by prime numbers - as is my husband, then check it out. At the other end of the educational spectrum the numerology people are no clearer or enlightening either - the significant words here seem to be Mercury, and pentagons and other such five-sided symbols. In fact really the only meaningful thing - for me anyway - that I learnt from all of this was that the number five is important in many, many ways, and, most significantly, probably has something to do with the fact that we have five fingers and toes and is therefore often the basis for counting systems - and twice five is ten of course.

And a tiny thing whilst we are still on maths I remember that the five times table was the easiest after ten. I remember because once, in primary school I was punished for something minor in class by having to stand up and recite the five times table. The teacher must have been feeling benevolent because he would have known that I would find it easy. So the crime cannot have been great.

Five is a somehow a neat number for any number of things is it not? Which most likely comes from the digits on your hands and feet. We apply it to things like five stars - five is more rough and ready than ten which is more specific and you can argue for and against either. Thinking of five ... whatever - is a common thing. Five is achievable. I even found this little piece of wisdom about to do lists:

"On a piece of paper, write down only the five most important tasks you can think of. Then do them, in order, crossing them off as you go. (If you stop before completing one, add it again at the end.) Once the list is only two items long, add three more, to bring the total back to five. Then repeat." Mark Forster

His reasoning was that if you have a long to do list then you do the easiest so that you have the satisfaction of ticking off things from your list, but the important things get left aside.

One more scientific fact before I turn to food - the fifth element - no not Milla Jovovich in Luc Besson's rather wonderful sci-fi film - is boron which is shown here. I mention it because it serendipitously leads us into food - as borax it used to be used as a food preservative and:

"Boric oxide is also commonly used in the manufacture of borosilicate glass (Pyrex). It makes the glass tough and heat resistant."

Just one of those little things one learns and immediately forgets no doubt, as we travel through life.

And I shouldn't forget that there are five senses of course - touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste - all of which are important when it comes to cooking. They are not just important in helping you know that everything is going OK as you cook, they are also important healthwise - those leftover sausages were very carefully sniffed and looked over before I decided they were safe to use. Although that also demonstrates, that our senses are often not that reliable. I was indeed taking a risk, a risk that paid off in that particular instance, but I suppose, if for example I had been suffering from a blocked nose, and couldn't smell very well I might have made a wrong decision. And as you cook those senses don't just determine how things are going, they also alert you to when things are going very wrong - the smell of burning for example.

There are also five tastes - sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami - it used to be four before they added the most elusive - and in many ways the most important - umami. Some of us are more attuned to the sweet, some to salty, or sour. And where does spicy in the sense of hot come in? Is that a separate taste? Well I have just discovered in a technical but clearly explained article on the website Owlcation that spicy is not a taste because it is not experienced through the taste buds on your tongue, it's actually a kind of pain, experienced by nerves. Obviously I need to look at this in more detail some time, but not today. Today I'm just skimming.

My next foodie five are the five main food groups - grains, vegetables and legumes, fruit, proteins and dairy. Which ones you should eat and which ones you shouldn't varies slightly from time to time as well, but currently proteins in the form of meat and fish and dairy are the big villains. What I found most interesting when searching for an illustration here, was that dairy was sometimes completely left out and was often out on its own, not quite attached to the rest.

Associated to this are the five types of nutrition - if that's the right word - carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. I think I've got that right. And people will argue about how much you need of each of those.

And now we come to the five ingredient controversies. There are actually two types of five ingredients here. The first is from Michael Pollan who is famous for his five ingredient rule -

"Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients." Although he does go on to say that "the specific number you adopt is arbitrary, but the more ingredients in a packaged food, the more highly processed it probably is."

Not a bad rule to abide by.

And finally to Jamie and his five ingredients. Now Jamie Oliver was by no means the first to think of the idea of a five ingredient meal. I tried to find out where it came from but failed miserably. Suffice to say it's been around for a long time. Jamie's book 5 Ingredients: Quick and Easy Food, however, published back in 2017 was enormously successful and so he has - he maintains due to requests for another - just published a kind of second edition - 5 Ingredients Mediterranean. I do not have either of these books, so can't really comment but there are two or three things I would like to say about them, arising from some amazingly vituperative comments I came across on a website called Hungry Onion - like this:

"books like Five Ingredients have no more coherent vision than a publisher looking to make money."

Partly true of course. What publisher is not looking to make money? And yes it was a catchy trope but if it was so successful, then surely that shows that a lot of people were at least ready to have a go? After all you don't have to buy the book these days, you can find most of the recipes online. It was also so successful that many others have copied it and also used it in other ways.

One shouldn't be daunted by a long list of ingredients, as sometimes it's just a case of gathering them all together and throwing them in the pot, but it is, nevertheless offputting. It also stops people like me adding in things that really just cloud the initial concept - as Jamie says:

"with only five ingredients to play with, the process became a total masterclass in restraint."

I have certainly noticed of late with my 'guru' experiments that their recipes often have very few ingredients - as witness my Claudia Roden en papillote meal. Chicken breast, lemon, butter, garlic, parsley - oh no it was six - I forgot the breadcrumbs. It was very delicious, I have to say, and I will definitely make it again. In fact I shall definitely experiment with the method - next time I cook fish perhaps.

Other cooks have gone for three ingredietns - I have a book from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called Easy which features three and others have gone for four. I have not seen anyone attempt just one or two as yet however. The point, however, is that you don't need a lot of ingredients to make something delicious, and moreover classic - pasta cacio e pepe, pizza margherita, sole meunière, gooseberry fool ... - and these are just off the top of my head.

Those Hungry Onion people, however only focussed on the idea as a gimmick - well of course it was a gimmick. Every cookbook has a gimmick - how else do you get people to buy? Publisher's are not in it for fun. The 5 ingredients gimmick, however, has infiltrated into many different corners of the foodie universe, as witness the blatantly commercial take on the concept that you see in every edition of the Coles and Woolworths magazines. The example shown here looks very tempting - I just picked it at random - and indeed in lots of ways you can't fault it. It's very simple - bake your slices of pumpkin, spread your pesto and salami over your thin beef steaks, roll up, secure with toothpick and fry and serve with the baked pumpkin and the salad leaves. Note however, that the pesto is from a jar, the beef steaks are of course 'Coles Australian No Added Hormones Beef Sandwich Steaks', and the salami is a processed meat. Nevertheless it's a perfectly Ok meal to serve and can be served in half an hour. If you are a busy mum after a hard day's work this kind of thing is a boon. And if you are a more experienced and innovative cook you could do something a bit more with the pumpkin and the salad it sits on, and make your own pesto - roll the steaks round something else ... Though why would you?

I suppose I'm a fan of Jamie Oliver - mostly because of the good things he has tried to do, not always successfully, but also because his food is often very interesting and actually tastes good. Yes he is mildly irritating at times, but he does his best to enthuse ordinary - very ordinary people who might otherwise not even think about cooking. Some of those Hungry Onion people said that they learnt nothing from his recipes and his videos, but they also admitted here and there that they were probably not the target audience. Now I class myself as an experienced but ordinary cook, not at all a gourmet or chef, but with years of experience and years of reading cookbooks and reading videos, but even so when watching a Jamie video I often do learn one little thing, and if you know nothing you would learn a lot. As the last commenter on that thread said in contrast to almost everybody else who had contributed - "Food after all should be fun!"

They also had a go at the writing in cookbooks as a whole but I'll save that for another day.


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