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When a guru disappoints

'if you follow a recipe carefully and end up with a disappointing result, then it’s bound to be offputting.” Charlotte Pike

It's a guru week, and by pure coincidence I had picked up Claudia Roden's Med from Readings bargain table, a week ago, so I decided that she would be my guru of the week. I have no idea why I picked the recipe that I did - Chicken with white wine and rosemary - but anyway it was disappointing. Just bland. I take full responsibility for the chicken being ever so slightly undercooked but not for the lack of taste. Alas I did not think to take a photograph. It did not look as good as this - although I suppose even this version which I found online doesn't look spectacular. The sauce looks as if it would much tastier than mine however. Mine just looked - and tasted - watery.


There are lessons to be learnt from disappointment though, as from failure. And now that I look at those two words - 'disappointment' and 'failure' I see there is a subtle, maybe not so subtle difference between the two. Mostly in the sense of blame. 'Disappointment' implies that you are blaming somebody else, 'failure' implies that it's your fault. So what was I really feeling? Actually a bit of both I think. Is there a word for that?


But let me go back to the beginning. Which is this book - Med - by one of my all-time favourite cooks Claudia Roden - the lady who introduced me - and the cooking world to Mediterranean food - particularly the food of the Eastern Mediterranean. It's a stunning looking book, inside as well as out. However, when it first came out - that year - 2021? - when a whole lot of wonderful new cookbooks came out, I rejected it. This was because, in comparison to some of the others, it looked to me to be same old, same old, and there were others that looked more tempting. Besides, ever the frugal one, it was also more expensive than some of the others.


I now have the book and I finished reading through it last week. Because it is indeed a book that you read as well as search for a good recipe. Increasingly I find that these are the kind of books that attract me, and I suppose that some of the cooks I have followed over the years, are now getting older and more reflective as they introduce a recipe. This book is a prime example. With most of her books Claudia Roden has written a great deal about the background to each of her recipes - where it comes, from, the ingredients, the history and geography of the area, its culture. This one, however, is more personal.

Each recipe tends to have a recollection or a reason why it has been included rather than a more academic, if you will, introduction. For example this very touching one which introduces a recipe for Fried fish with cumin and tahini sauce found on the website Ever Open Sauce


"I was sitting in a restaurant in Tripoli in Lebanon, overlooking the sea, eating fried fish. The crisp sea bream with a delicate lemony tahini sauce, the smell of the sea, the gentle breeze and brilliant light took me back to Xenophon, the Greek fish restaurant in Alexandria where we always stopped on our arrival from Cairo when I was a child. The joy of it! I wanted to cry."


She is indeed old. I think now 89 or thereabouts, and perhaps when we reach this kind of age, we do regress to earlier, possibly happier times and want to live in the memory of the supposed beauty of youth and home. Even if these are illusions. She also frequently references her family of children and grandchildren throughout the text. And yet there she is - still cooking, still writing.


And maybe it's a recipe - the fish one - I should try because Robby Dog Cooks also tried it and said:


"This recipe is just lux.

Total joy.

Total simplicity.

Total genius.

If you served this to friends as part of a long lunch in the sun, there would be smiles all around. It’s just that good." Robby Dog Cooks


Which brings me back to simplicity. In recent times I have tried a few recipes from old gurus, most of which have been very, very simple, and totally delicious. So I think I chose this recipe because it was indeed so simple. Saute your chicken legs in butter, pour over some white wine, add a couple of sprigs of rosemary and a couple of garlic cloves cut in half, bring to a boil, cover and simmer until done. Voila. I mean it should be good shouldn't it?


As good as something like this - not the actual recipe I think, but it has all the elements by the look of it. So was it me or was it Claudia? After all the Instagram lady thought:


"Reading the book, it may be one of those recipes you'd skip by, but you shouldn't. Yes, the ingredients and instructions are undoubtedly simple, yet the result is utterly delicious." Laurie's Food and Drink/Instagram


The temptation to skip past the recipe was not just the simplicity - it was also down to the fact that there was no photograph of the completed dish, just a nice story about enjoying it with her granddaughter in her garden on separate tables during COVID lockdown.


I do think that part of the disappointment was me. I didn't brown the chicken enough. I never do - but having said that, chicken Marylands are hard to brown all over. Bits of them miss the pan. And how difficult is it to find Marylands these days too? I searched the supermarket shelves but had to go to the deli section to get some. I notice that the cook of the dish pictured above has used breasts, which might have been a better choice in this instance, although the Instagram version looks good too. I have to say that David had the solution here - to shove them under the grill to brown them off.


I also didn't cook them quite long enough. They weren't pink, but they weren't falling off the bone either. I think this was because there was a degree of a 'why isn't dinner ready yet?' vibe going on. No words, just a feeling.


Then there was really too much watery sauce, and, honestly I think this was down to Claudia who said to cook them with the lid on for 30 minutes. So the sauce didn't reduce much. Of course, I now realise, and perhaps my gut was telling me this at the time, that I could have simply taken the chicken out, kept it warm, and boiled down the sauce until it was syrupy. After all, as well as the butter there was a very small bit of sugar in there which would have helped. An alternative choice might have been to simply deglaze with the wine at the end, leaving the chicken to poach in the butter - as Julia Child did with her chicken breasts au blanc. I think David's concern about it not being brown enough distracted me.


But honestly it was bland. So Ok I wasn't using the very finest organic, corn fed, hand-raised chicken, but I don't think that was the problem. Other flavours were supposed to come from the rosemary and the garlic. The recipe said to just add two sprigs of rosemary - and yes, rosemary can be a bit dominant, but I now wonder whether I should at least have chopped it up - or just added more, as is my basic instinct. Ditto for the garlic. The instructions were to simply cut two garlic cloves in half. Maybe I should have crushed it.


So how does all of this make me feel? Should I just shrug my shoulders and move on? After all this is a basically trivial event. And even Claudia Roden, in answer to the question "What has been your biggest disappointment", answered"I forget them." Or should I have another go, ignoring the recipe and going with my own instincts? Too soon to tell I guess.


Did I expect too much? Should I have found this quote before I even started?


“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Alexander Pope


We do expect a lot of our heroes though don't we? Claudia Roden is a revered author/cook whose food I have generally loved, with a few recipes I make over and over again. So when they fail us some of us - well I - automatically blame ourselves. After all others - in this case just one other - seem to have thought it delicious. Which makes me think I should give it another go.


"Disappointments are inevitable; discouragement is a choice." Charles Stanley


But it's a beautiful book and there are certainly many other things in the book that I am definitely going to try. Maybe mozzarella soaked in cream with baby tomatoes - no picture again but a tantalising concept.


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