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The shock of the new

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Seneca

Back to my arty desk calendar. Yesterday it was the Mona Lisa - the most famous painting in the world surely, and today it is this Composition in half-tones by Theo van Doesburg, a one-time friend of Mondrian. Together they founded De Stijl - both a magazine and an art movement. Anyway the point is the world of difference between the two and, yes, the shock as you turn from one to the other, as I did this morning. The Mona Lisa is so famous that familiarity can be said to breed contempt and yet the Mona Lisa also produced its own version of the shock of the new when it was painted.

"None of Leonardo's works would exert more influence upon the evolution of the genre than the Mona Lisa. It became the definitive example of the Renaissance portrait and perhaps for this reason is seen not just as the likeness of a real person, but also as the embodiment of an ideal." Frank Zöllner

Placed together like this the shock of change over centuries is quite apparent, although, in fact, the passage from one to the other was more of an evolution than a sudden change - just over 400 years lie between the two after all. Which is not to say that every now and then there was not a sudden, or almost sudden change - Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism - all the other isms of the art world. And yet there is always something of the old in the new. To be truly new you would have to be a new born baby or the very first man or woman on earth. Not that there is one of them either - so - the very first amoeba? Or the Big Bang?

“There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” Marie Antoinette

And yes even the Mona Lisa was forgotten for a while, hidden away in the palaces of the French kings. Leonardo was famous for not finishing things, or even worse, experimenting with new kinds of paint, painting a masterpiece with it, only to see it crumble and disappear. He kept experimenting and learning and studying things of the past and of the natural world throughout his life. He also kept the Mona Lisa with him all of his life and was constantly refining it. Always trying to improve on his initial vision.

Even here with these two paintings - it's a bit of a jump I suppose - but could you not say that they both ultimately produce the same feeling of mystery, of enigma? The smile of the Mona Lisa is famous of course for its inscrutability - is it even a smile some say? In Van Doesburg's painting, what about that tiny gap in the horizontal black line top right in the newer work? Why doesn't it go all the way to the edge of the painting? Why those two rectangles of colour? Why those colours? For me it is all rather haunting and I could easily live with it on my wall - it suggests so many things somehow - even though I could not say what those things are. I think I would see something new in it every time I observed it - as one would with the Mona Lisa too. Not that any ordinary mortal is allowed more than 30 seconds at a time to view the real thing. We have to make do with reproductions, whether digital or on paper, and there is no telling then whether the colours are true. And yes Composition in half-tones is just lines - very straight ones. Very basic things arranged in a new and surprising way. It's the sort of painting you can look at and say I could do that, but you couldn't really. Well you can copy it, but you wouldn't have thought of it all on your own.

“The line has almost become a work of art in itself; one can not play with it when the representation of objects perceived was all-important. The white canvas is almost solemn. Each superfluous line, each wrongly placed line, any colour placed without veneration or care, can spoil everything — that is, the spiritual" Theo van Doesburg

Yes - spiritual. They are both spiritual.

All of which ties in with a couple of food related things I have been mulling over in my mind - Nigella's dictum of Cook, eat repeat - the title of my Christmas present book - her latest - and also my recently different experiences of cooking something completely new and something old and familiar. It might seem a massive jump from the world of high art to the world of the home cook, but if you look more closely it isn't really. Indeed Nigella talks of the everyday, repetitive tasks of cooking being the closest she comes to spiritual meditation because:

"Just enough focus is required to silence that chattering monkey-mind. 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 from intellect."

And what is a recipe - whether it be online, in a book or written on a scrap of paper - if not somebody else's idea that you can copy and maybe change - just a little? A major change would be a new idea perhaps. And even the most innovative and experimental of cooks - Heston Blumenthal for example, are always working from the basic building blocks and fundamentals of cooking food. The basic lines.

As I have mentioned - I experimented a bit with my menu for our Easter brunch. Experimented in the sense that I decided to try out three new recipes - two from Greg Malouf and one from Yotam Ottolenghi - as well as fiddling a tiny bit with the tried and true version of tandoori chicken that is Charmaine Solomon's and a favourite in our home. Plus my very own 'experiment' of pork kebabs. I decided to be adventurous (a) because entertaining a large number of people is always an opportunity for such things, even though the conventional wisdom would say otherwise, and (b) I have not tried anything 'new' for some time, and as I have said before, this gets to be boring after a while.

So how did my shock of the new experiments go in comparison to the tried and true and what did I learn? Did something new reveal itself as something that might become something familiar?

"although there seems to be an ever-increasing amount of pressure to rise to the occasion of cooking something new and complex and unfamiliar ... it becomes our food only when it eases its way into our repertoire, that list of dishes we return to and repeat, a list that grows and changes, to be sure, just as we grow and change." Nigella Lawson

Well no I don't think they will become new family favourites. Why?

The two recipes I got from Greg Malouf were Loubia bi zeit - green beans stewed in tomato and cumin, and Shredded bitter leaves with roasted grapes, almonds & avocado. The photographs below are neither mine, nor Greg Malouf's versions but they look pretty much how mine turned out to be.

The problem they had in common was that I made far, far too much. Basically I doubled the recipes, but because I was feeding 13 and the recipes were for four I thought I was being conservative. But no. I had heaps of leftovers. But then again that might have been because people didn't like them. I confess I have made similar bean recipes in the past and have not been that enamoured, so I was a bit doubtful. But I told myself I should lash out, try something new. The problem is that when it comes to beans I much prefer the familiar - either the French way of finishing them off in garlic and butter, or, if I could get runner beans - just plainly boiled as in my childhood. Runner beans have a very distinctive fresh taste that I just love. Now that I think of it, there is also one other method I like - another recipe from Charmaine Solomon which is a quick stir fry with onions and samba omelet. Surprisingly and simply tasty. Now that also is an occasional family favourite. I remember my mother liked this. Anyway I have frozen the leftovers and I'm sure they will be very useful in things like soups and pasta.

As for the salad, which I feel enormously guilty about because I had to throw the leftovers in the compost bin due to dressed salads not keeping well, well I think there were a few things wrong with it. I don't think I had enough dressing, or enough of the roasted grapes and avocado. Mind you the avocado was such a no no for my husband that he passed on the salad I think, and my older son was very dismissive of the roasted grapes. I might try this one again some time - in much smaller quantities, although it was a bit of a faff really for the result.

And what about the Ottolenghi potato salad. I had hoped that this would be my pièce de résistance, but alas in spite of the beautiful photograph, mine just was not the same. I had far, far too much liquid. Where did Ottolenghi's tomato juices all go? The tomatoes, of course, burst whilst being charred under the grill, and the liquid just wouldn't dry up. And the potatoes didn't do their bit in soaking up the juices and the flavours too. And again a bit of a faff to make. I suppose the salsa was quite tasty but not tasty enough to repeat. The roasted pumpkin seeds were though. And again - heaps of leftovers. But here I sort of made a virtue out of necessity and tried to emulate this other statement from Nigella in a way:

"it is this dynamic relationship - between reliance on familiarity and curiosity about the as-yet-untried - that underpins, perhaps even defines, what cooking is all about."

Because what we had for dinner last night was a tried and true family favourite of potato omelette - always different according to what I have in the fridge, but always including potato, onion and bacon or ham. I had to fish the potatoes out of the salad, but otherwise it was all such a familiar and happy process, because I knew the end result would be tasty.

"it is the essential repetitiveness of cooking that takes the pressure off. It's not now-or-never; every day, every meal, its another opportunity. And herin lies the particular joy of leftovers, when ingredients are related, reworked, to make something new and different."

So satisfying, as she says, to use leftovers and create something delicious if not different in this particular case. Different from the original dish but not new and different. A bit like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa? Not really.

I still have a few potatoes left - and the salsa - but that is infinitely adaptable as a sauce for all sorts of things or as a component in a stew or soup. I haven't decided what yet. But yes - more experimentation with leftovers fun.

My own experiment, - the pork kebabs - was not nearly as audacious as Yotam Ottolenghi's dish. It was simply pork strips marinaded overnight in a mixture of various things I had in my fridge and pantry - red wine, chutney, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, paprika, sage - honestly I can't quite remember what. They were barbecued - pretty much perfectly by the men - well done guys and I only had one leftover I think. Well I think there were more but they went into a doggy bag for my son.

As for Charmaine Solomon's version of Tandoori chicken - well it's a longtime family favourite - one of the Dearman top ten from way, way back and very popular it was. My minor experiment was to add some tomato pasta to the marinade, but I don't think it made much difference. Some more for the doggy bag and also some for David and I for dinner tomorrow. Accompanied by the delicious pita breads that my daughter-in-law and son cooked for us.

So the Easter brunch was a mix of shock and comfort, with comfort coming out on top this time. But then comfort can sometimes be boring. I have often said on this blog that I am fed up with cooking the same old things all the time. Every now and then we need to break out and try something new. And you never know every now and then you find a new family favourite. Our family favourites - like the tandoori chicken were once sensationally, maybe even shockingly, new.


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