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Tried and true vs New and different

"Feelings of emptiness are normal in times of stress and uncertainty. But isn’t cooking supposed to be a balm?" Helen Rosner - The New Yorker

That episode with the chard and saffron omelettes has affected me more than it should really. I seem to have suddenly lost enthusiasm for trying new things, and have also lost faith in 'popular chefs' and pretty pictures.

I think part of it was that it came after a long series of minor mishaps which, of course, happen all the time - to everyone - although they seem to have been happening more frequently of late. I remember Delia once, at the end of one of her cooking programs showing a whole lot of disasters that had happened during filming one of her cooking series because she wanted to show that nobody is perfect. And I thank her for that. And really, in the end, in spite of my omelette disaster the end result was entirely eatable, even good - but not sensational - which is what I was hoping for. The disappointment and sense of failure was huge though.

Then last night we had the tried and true Curried squash bisque, as Bert Greene calls his recipe and it was just superb - and I am not a fan of pumpkin. (The picture is not the real thing but something very similar looking.) The recipe is also not on the net, so if you want it, just ask. I discovered it several years ago now in his book Greene on Greens. I have tried a few things from this pictureless book and none of them have failed me. Carrot gnocchi are another regular treat for example and a sausage and carrot tart. And I could say the same of several other of my favourite cooks and books, and most of them I have had for some time now. Not all, but most.

Mind you, that soup might be tried and true, in that we often have it, but it's not ordinary. Its list of ingredients is not quite what you would expect - it includes green capsicum, no onions - just a few spring onions, and that curry powder. Nothing outrageous but nevertheless different. Like Delia, Jamie, et al. And when I first made it, it was new and exciting, not tried and true for what is new and exotic changes according to where you are in life does it not?

As I was pondering on what to write today around my vague feelings of wanting to go back to my roots, I read through the beginning of that cookbook I wrote for my sons when they first left home. It included a section on my food influences, beginning with my mother and going all the way through to my cookbook heroes of the time - long before Jamie - whom I noted I had not read at the time - Nigella, Nigel, Ottolenghi and so on. Each of those influences changed me in different ways - visits to France - perhaps the most crucial, to Yugoslavia via Germany, America and, of course, Australia, plus marriage, children, executive wifedom ... All of them important and going hand in hand with my growing cookbook collection and the authors who wrote them. It made me realise that change is an inevitability of life and that what was comfort food in my childhood is not necessarily the same as my comfort food of today, although those early comfort foods are included in the ever expanding collection. But some, indeed most, of those comfort foods were once new and adventurous - like spaghetti and meatballs, hamburgers, vinaigrette, kebabs of all kinds, goulash and curried squash bisque. Maybe one day Ottolenghi's food will be considered old hat comfort food.

Failure does dent your enthusiasm though does it not? It has rather put me off trying something new. Indeed, although I was looking forward to trying out Nigella's chicken with orzo this weekend with the grandchildren, I am now nervous. Yes, I think that's what my failure has induced in me. Anxiety. Plus an inability to get enthused about cooking.

About this time in the week I would be asking David for an idea for a David special meal, but this week I am very nervous about this. Am I up to another experiment? Of course I could play it semi safe and only refer to my tried and true - and old - cookbooks, but even that makes me anxious. For if I didn't try a particular recipe from them way back then when they were new and exciting, I would have to ask myself why I didn't. Which is not exactly a recommendation for trying it now.

Helen Rosner wrote an interesting article in The New Yorker recently, which she called The Joylessness of Cooking. It's not quite the same minor malaise as I am currently going through. Hers is more to do with the effect of COVID - and it's not quite what you might think but it is an interesting read.

I'm currently suffering from a sore back - too much weeding and lifting heavy wood for the fire - and so I need to get up and walk around every now and then, and during one of these ambles around the immediate environs, ruminating upon what I was writing about, I thought of the leftover omelettes and how dreary it would be to just reheat them and remind myself of the disaster. I mean I can't just throw them away. And then I had a flash of inspiration - I could extricate the filling and shred the omelette and add them to other leftovers in the fridge for a stir fry. I'm sure it won't be brilliant - stir fries are not really my strong point - but it will at least be different and they will be gone, gone, gone - along with a few other things I must do something with.

“what I love most about cooking (in theory) is that it’s a puzzle to be solved. In its best form, cooking is a practice measured not in individual dishes but in days and even weeks—a strategic navigation of ingredients, expiration dates, uses and reuses, variety and sameness. I’m no good at chess, but in my mind the rush of realizing that the jumble of aging ingredients piled up in your fridge composes exactly what’s needed to make a beautiful dinner has to be, on some level, how Kasparov felt when he realized he was about to sock it to Topalov.” Helen Rosner - The New Yorker

Not that I could ever sock it to Yotam Ottolenghi.


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