The Dishes

Doing the dishes seems to have been the underlying theme through most of my life.

It was one of the first of the ” chores ” that was assigned to me as a kid – in exchange, I suppose, for my weekly allowance. This was never stinted, I might add, and I was as free to spend or save it as my understanding might dictate. But the dishes were always there.

They are still here. Two or three times daily there is a fill up of the basins – detergent in one and fresh in the other, and the results of four people cooking and eating are dealt with. I do not include the cat as a person – I am able to distinguish species – but the cat dishes get done as well.

In truth I should not complain.

a. If I am doing dishes it is because we have eaten. We had enough money to buy food, a stove to cook it on, and plates to bear it. Being fed is better than being hungry, even if you work afterwards as well as before.

b. We have dishes that can stand cleaning. The people who eat off paper plates or flimsy plastic dishes do themselves, the food, and the environment no good.

c. If it was really that onerous a task, we could buy a dishwashing machine. But we’ve never used one that was satisfactory and the addition of another complexity to life is unappetizing. Just scrub and wipe dry.

All this having been said, it is a pleasure sometimes to take a meal elsewhere – a hotel or restaurant – where the staff may pester for tips or to move you on, but they cannot compel you to the soapy water torture. It makes holiday eating a pleasure.

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You Cannot Break Eggs Without Making An Omlette

I think that’s how it goes – it’s one of those memes that sounds profound until you say it aloud eight times. I like to say memes aloud on the train as it gets you a seat and space around you.

Idly, if the om of omlette refers to eggs, and the lette part indicates a small thing…is there a full-sized dish of eggs that is just an om? Perhaps an emu or ostrich ? They never tell you these things on the cooking shows.

Tonight we make one with bacon, champignons, and onion bits. Also whatever herbs and spices are in jars in the pantry. It may involve hundreds and thousands or marzipan icing, if the contents of the shelves are anything to go by. Thankfully, I have a wife who can taste it before I do  – as long as I watch to see for any dangerous signs I should be alright.

End of the week menus are always speculative things – they consist of whatever might be left over in the ice box or overlooked on the pantry shelves. Of course, logic will tell you that whatever has been overlooked has been overlooked for a good reason, but desperation cuisine knows no barriers. If it will fit in a pot it can be cooked.

Sometimes the journey is exciting and sometimes hazardous, but always exciting. The old rules about segregating sweet from sour or liquid from solid can be ignored. It is possible to mix oil with water if you put them both into a sponge and eat that. It is an acquired taste.

Of course, the chief contents of the pantry shelves will become depleted over the week – and if you do your shopping once a month the last week can get pretty much like a Mother Goose rhyme. But you can always count on spices – and packets of sample foods that are given out at supermarket promotions. And then it’s simply a matter of combining the jalapeno marshmallows with the dried capers and the contents of the little sushi soy fish for a sensational Saturday breakfast surprise.

This sort of cooking is one of the explanations of why Gordon Ramsay is the way he is.

 

What’s For Dinner?

I used to ask my mother this question with some trepidation – the answer might not be what I wanted to hear. In fact, it frequently wasn’t what I wanted to eat, either, but it took a few years before we adjusted ourselves to an agreement between the cook and the customer.

Essentially it amounted to me agreeing to eat what was on my plate as long as it did not have liver, kidneys, or eggplant. I wasn’t being precious about it – I just could not, and can not, stand the taste or texture of these foods. I could be bent to liverwurst in small doses and like patés nowadays, but steak and kidney pie or liver and bacon was a case of electing to go to bed hungry rather than gag on it.

These days I am the cook, and the question exercises my ingenuity daily. We have plenty of ingredients in the pantry and freezer, and it is just trying to get a variety into the week as well as a balanced meal on a plate. Sometimes the family is out doing things elsewhere and I am cooking for myself – which generally results in a cold cut and cheese sandwich – and sometimes it is two rather than four to table, but if you have ingredients that are divided sufficiently and are warned about the expected crew, you can size things well. I do not want to leave days of leftovers, but a  couple of extra serves is always handy for lunch next day.

I do appreciate the plates being cleaned, as it shows the meal was a hit. I appreciate them being washed and dried even more…

How Many For Dinner?

A simple question, but there is room for pain and suffering between every word.

a. ” Don’t know “. Shall I cook for four or one? Because it does make a difference in the amount of ingredients committed to the pan.

b. ” I’ll be working late”. Well that means you’ll either be eating late or elsewhere or not at all. Shall I cook a soup that can set or a quiche that will not?

c. “I’ll let you know “. If I am going to cook something slow, complex, or hazardous, tell me early in the piece. If you wait until 5:30 for 6:00 you will be getting scrambled eggs on toast. If you tell me at 6:00 neither the eggs nor the toast will be cooked…

d. ” We were going out but we changed our mind “. Oh good. Let me do the mathematics of dividing a two-person dinner, perfectly cooked, into a four-person snack.

e. ” I brought people home “. Good – you divide your guests into the ones who are to be eaten and the ones who get to eat. Let me know and I’ll stoke the oven.

f. ” I decided that I am not hungry “. The leftover pot grows fatter.

The House Special

House specials can be just that – and they can be special for both the firms that serve them and the customers who consume them.

The special aspect of the ” Special ” for the house may be many-fold:

a. It may be a dish that they are really passionate about, that recalls the native culture of the chef, and that is a superb introduction to fine dining.

b. It may be the only thing that the chef actually knows how to make.

c. It may be a way of using up food that has been hanging around the freezer for too long. Or something that the owner bought a lot of when they were not thinking.

d. It may be an extremely profitable dish to make – costing little to produce but selling for a high price.

e. It may be trendy.

f. It may be a signature dish – but the cook may have extremely bad handwriting.

g. It might be salty as all hell to boost bar sales.

h. It might be spiced like an artillery shell to disguise the ingredients or to boost bar sales.

i. It might be the sort of thing you can foist on drunks after the bar sales have been boosted.

The customer who orders the House Special also gets something:

a. Food they might not have tried before because it was always too hard to understand.

b. Food combinations that seem odd but actually work out well. No-one is Brillat-Savarin these days and we all have something to learn.

c. Food that teaches them a lesson…

d. Food that introduces them to a culture or style.

e. Food that is cheap, tasty, and nourishing.

f. Food that is cheap and tasty.

g. Food that is cheap.

h. Food that is not cheap. When you see the kitchen staff doing high fives with the accountant you know something went wrong with your order.

I do try specials, if they come at all within the purview of my own tastes. Appallingly exotic proteins and/or salads are sometimes bypassed for the more prosaic items – I do not do digestion as a competitive sport. I do not try special cocktails – the Savoy book was written for a good reason and casting further into appalling combinations is irresponsible.

 

 

 

” You’ll End Up Eating Beans “

” You’ll end up eating beans ” was always the go-to threat when I was at school – generally uttered by a teacher predicting a sad life of utter failure if I did not take an interest in whatever they were saying. It had the immediate effect of making me lose both  interest in what they were saying, and respect for them.

You see…I knew the Secret Of The Beans.

I had been initiated into the society of bean eaters early in life. Unlike some children, I was not raised on Heinz Baked Beans as a quick sop to just fill a gap. I did get Heinz, but when I got Heinz they had been supercharged, spiced, and done to perfection. My Heinz were superior beans, and they were just the start. You see, my mother was raised in New Mexico in hard times and beans were an art form.

Mexican beans, Texican beans, Boston Baked Beans, green beans, yellow beans, pinto beans, chickpeas…and there were as many variations of sauces and sides as there were beans. Fresh, canned, dried..we had ’em all and we loved ’em all.

The south of the bean border ones were so potent that the Army used them to clean out the receivers on machine guns. The Boston beans were proper. The green beans were always accompanied by bacon and onions. Beans and rice with cornbread filled all the requirements.

Mexican beans were always a meal that drew us home – the other favourites being sauerkraut or fried smelt. We rarely ate out and never missed it.*

And the Secret Of The Beans? The secret was we loved ’em! They nourished us and comforted us and gave us terrible gas. A long drive in a closed car with the Stein family was a risky proposition for the stranger. You could have a lot of fun guessing who dealt it.

But seriously – beans are a family food that scores high on most dietitian charts. Protein, fibre, taste, energy…you never feel like you have to snack halfway through the evening if dinner was a good bowl of beans.

But back to my teacher’s dire prediction. I have arrived at retirement age and am now rich enough to do as he says – I can afford to eat beans every week. I’m grateful to him for his insight.

*  Even now I eat out less often than my friends do. I like home cooking. Invite me to your house.

If You Don’t Have…

I’ve just seen one of those cooking sites that specifies extra virgin water grown on the slopes of the Gobi desert and kept under magical moonbeams for one of their ” signature ” dishes. I’m left with a number of questions…at least one of them pertinent:

a. What is a ” signature ” dish?

Is it a dish that has been signed? By whom? In what? Ketchup?

Would the bank accept a plate of ravioli at the bottom of a cheque?

Are there people who forge cutlets?

b. I get virgin. Not as often as I might like, but I do understand the concept. Something that has been previously untouched by human hands or any of the other parts. It’s a one-off thing.

But what is extra-virgin? Virgin on steroids? Virgin with attitude? The sort of virgin that marches in protests and yells at the police?

c. Water. It isn’t virgin now and hasn’t been for aeons. Every molecule going has been through something before: an animal gut, a pore, a plant tubule. Some molecules have been through every single Tom Cruise movie…but then you have to sort of admire that.

But all water is experienced. It knows its way around. It might appear in lite beer but not willingly.

It does appear in bullshit…and some cooking sites.

d. I’ve seen pictures of the Gobi desert. It looks like the Simpson desert or the Mojave. Without the taco stands. If you want water in the Gobi you need to order it waaaaay in advance. Like the Pleistocene era.

e. Magical moonbeams. Well thank God we’ve returned to sanity. I was starting to suspect a scam for a while there. No-one who has ever read J. K. Rowlings’ books …or for that matter her bank statement…could ever doubt the power of magic.

For my part, I prefer the recipes that allow some wiggle room in the pan. When they specify shrimp they will equally accept chicken or rat. I do draw a line at the medical advice columns that deal in substitutes, though. The one that said you could substitute wasabi for Murine wised me up.