the reluctant gourmet Food

Step by step to great taste

Some recipes make me resentful. And I don’t mean in a wishy-washy rhetorical way. It’s more of a let-me-hit-you-on-the-head-with-a-saucepan-for-saying-that visceral response. Because, lets face it, the world is full of recipe writers who think we have nothing else to do. They want us to peel and pit and glaze and deglaze. They have reams of fiddly instructions. Requiring a veritable circus of mysterious ingredients and accessories.

It’s infuriating because, more often than not, cooking is a necessity not a hobby. Nigella and Co may be able to stand in their gorgeous kitchens, in perfectly done make-up and carefully mussed hair, looking dreamily into their herb gardens and telling us how sensuous and fulfilling making dinner can be. However, when you’re back home after a long day at work, with your mascara creating raccoon eyes and your shoes viciously pinching, all you want to do is throw something reasonably nutritious, and tasty, together.

Then, you flip open a book and find a recipe writer matter-of-factly telling you to peel your chickpeas for perfect hummus. Peel chickpeas? Each and every one? I’d rather have a root canal while listening to Taylor Swift moan about her latest break-up. So I throw all the chickpeas into a pressure cooker, and once they are done, I tip them into a blender with lemon juice, garlic, salt and tahini. The results are alright — but nowhere near the silky perfection of authentic hummus.

Determined not to cave in, I look online. For the next one year, every single time I make hummus I try a new recipe. I follow a lovely Lebanese woman’s recipe on YouTube. I try various bloggers — including one who claims the best way to dodge peeling chickpeas is by using channa dal. (It’s not.) I attempt jazzing up the hummus with zaatar, cumin and sumac. I find Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s incredibly clever version, which involves drizzling cold water into the paste at the end, and results in deliciously fluffy hummus. But, I’m still not satisfied with the texture.

Finally, I realise I have spent far more time and effort finding ways to avoid peeling the chickpeas than I would have if I had just followed the original recipe. So I bite the bullet and peel, with a timer on. It takes 10 minutes. Longer than a commercial break, but shorter than every mindless sitcom I watch. When you look at the bigger picture, that’s not much time at all. And the results — brilliant. I’ve never made such smooth, creamy, light hummus before.

It got me thinking about how much time we take to dodge simple steps, just because they sound tedious or boring. I’m a prime example. I chuck olives into salads with their seeds in, because pitting them seems just about as exciting as watching nail polish dry. I never wait for anything to cool. And when I’m in a hurry, I turn up the temperature on my oven, hoping it will make my cakes bake faster. It really annoys my chef friends. They’re all big on ‘technique’ and doing things correctly. No short cuts or substitutions.

As I start cooking more, I’m beginning to realise this is not just the best way but, honestly, also the only way to cook. Although we’re the get-rich-fast and get-dinner-on-the-table-faster generation, the truth is all these shortcuts and substitutions don’t make us efficient, they make us mediocre.

This is why there’s now a return to conscientious cooking, driven by technique. Think of Heston Blumenthal’s scrambled eggs recipe, which is astonishingly popular despite being almost exasperatingly intricate. It involves putting eggs, milk, cream, salt and butter into a bowl, which is in turn set in a saucepan of ‘barely simmering water’ and then stirring it with a spatula for 20 minutes. After which you have to make a beurre noisette by browning another pat of butter, which is then drizzled across the perfectly scrambled egg. Is it worth it? Compare it to a regular lumpy egg, which will take you about 12 minutes, and then decide. Michelin star eggs to compensate for eight minutes of extra work.

Admittedly, it’s not an easy decision. We’re a generation brought up on shortcuts. At the International Yoga Festival at Parmath Ashram in Rishikesh, during a particularly challenging asana, most of us quit. Then the teacher said, “Our parents bought fridges that lasted a lifetime. Now they’re being built to only last a couple of years, or less. Sub-standard work has not just become acceptable; it’s now the norm. Fight back.”

It made sense (and not just because he was extraordinarily good looking.) When you do something well, it’s infinitely more satisfying. Besides, the easy way out is inevitably not that easy.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 5:26:08 PM |

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