A Cook's Book
I am a cook who writes. You could measure my life in recipes. Each one a letter to a friend, a story of something I have made for dinner, the tale of how it came to be on my table. A salad tossed together with fava beans, salted ricotta, and the first white-tipped radishes of spring; a roasted chicken, its crisp skin served with a fat jug of its roasting juices on an autumn day; or a gloriously messy platter of grilled eggplant, hummus, and torn flatbread shared with the best of friends.
That letter might accurately chronicle the details of a cake with which I am quietly pleased, tell the reader of a quince that has simmered peacefully in lemon juice and orange blossom honey on my stove on a winter’s afternoon or mention a pillowy dumpling I have just lifted from a steaming bamboo basket. Sharing food with those at your table—passing around a bowl of late autumn raspberries or a slice of sugar-encrusted blackberry and apple pie—is heart-warming enough, but a recipe posted in a newspaper, ephemerally on social media, or in more lasting form in the pages of a book, has widely. It is just a recipe, a suggestion for something you might like to make for others, but it is what I do.
The first recipe I encountered—for a Christmas cake—belonged to my mother. Handwritten on a piece of ruled Basildon Bond notepaper, it lived in the bowl of the electric mixer that only saw light of day once a year, when I helped her make The Cake. The first cooking I did on my own was a baking sheet of jam tarts—black currant, marmalade, and raspberry. The ghost of them lingers still, me standing on a stool in an attempt to reach the kitchen table, rolling out scraps of pastry into a craggy rectangle with a red-handled wooden rolling pin, pressing Mum’s crinkle-edged cutters into the pale dough and filling the little tarts with jam as bright and clear as jewels. The jam boiled over and glued the tarts to the pan, but peeling off the chewy crumbs and eating them was a delight.
There is something—and this is the point really—that goes hand in hand with making something to eat, that transcends putting the finished dish on the table. Cooking for me at least—is about making yourself something to eat and sharing food with others but is also—whisper it—about the quiet moments of joy to be had along the way. Watching the progress of dinner as you stir onions in a pan, at first crisp, white, and pungent—you may have shed a tear—then slowly becoming translucent gold, darkening to bronze, all the time becoming softer, sweeter. Take them too far though, and those sweet onions will turn bitter. And that is where a good recipe comes in and partly the point of what I do, to guide a new cook toward a pleasing dinner, and for those who have been cooking for years, to share a recipe that they may not know.
I am not a chef and never have been. The word means “chief” and is therefore somewhat inappropriate. It is no secret that I ran away from the heat of the professional kitchen. The stress and frenetic speed of the work, the dedication required to be really good at what you do, and the relentlessness of that life simply wasn’t for me. I wanted to cook for a living but without the seasoning of stress and adrenaline. I fell into writing about food by accident—while working in a rather lovely café—so it is odd to think I have had a food column for nigh on thirty years, written ten cookbooks and penned a memoir (that itself spawned a film and stage play). My respect for professional chefs not only remains undimmed, but I find myself in awe of what they do. It just wasn’t my thing.How I cook
I am a home cook. I have cooked for half a century and still love every slow turn of the wooden spoon. Simple food, nothing fancy. Just something to eat really. Yes, I go out to dinner or bring home a tray of sushi; I will phone for gyoza or biang biang noodles but even then I will probably have cooked lunch at home. I once described my cooking as “straightforward, everyday stuff, the sort of thing you might like to come home to after a busy day.” I still stand by that.
Making a few ingredients into something good to eat continues to give immeasurable pleasure. Making dinner for others even more so. I love the deep reassurance that comes from cooking and eating something familiar, a dish I know well, but I also possess an endless curiosity with the new—an insatiable hunger for what is to come. I am never going to be someone who repeats the same old dishes year in year out as if on some sort of culinary treadmill. There is far too much fun to be had for that.
As cook and writer I have got things right, wrong, and somewhere in between. I know my faults—in particular my ability to be contradictory, by turns pedantic (handmade basil pesto is better than that made in a food processor, fava beans are much nicer to eat if you take the time to pop them out of their papery skins), and can at other times be happily laid-back (it truly doesn’t matter if the fruit sinks to the bottom of your cake; it is just as delicious). We are what we are.
I enjoy eating complex, exquisitely presented food. I just don’t like cooking it. More truthfully, I can’t. I leave such delicate artistry to the professionals. So, back to simple
Dinner is rarely more than a single dish in this house. A bowl of noodles with chile and greens; plump, garlicky beans slowly cooked in the oven, a boned chicken leg on the grill brushed with thyme and lemon. Sometimes we feast: a vast dish of pasta with mussels and shrimp; a steaming pie of sweet potatoes and lentils; baked fatty pork with butter beans and broth. Even then, this is straightforward eating. The nearest you will get to a starter is a bowl of olives. Dessert or cake is more often a midmorning thing. Tiramisu, after all, means “pick-me-up”—a neat, sweet punch of energy for when we start to flag. Come to dinner and you are just as likely to get your food in a bowl as on a plate. And those bowls won’t match either.
But casual does not mean careless. There is much pleasure to be had from doing a little thing meticulously—taking your time to perform a kitchen task that could be done more quickly. There is a lot of satisfaction in slowly, carefully unfurling and washing salad leaves. Drying them too. If I am enjoying a specific kitchen task—making a salad dressing, shaping a loaf, or grating a lemon—I will often slow down, taking a minute or two more to enjoy the process. It is why my mortar and pestle gets as much use as my food processor. Both have a place in the kitchen, but one is about getting something done, the other about enjoying doing it.
It is true that I like to keep things minimal. I often look at a recipe and consider what I can take out rather than what else I can put in. Following a recipe with nineteen ingredients is rather like walking into a room where every surface is awash with ornaments.
I have no patience with perfection. I would rather have a good time around a table with friends and some rough-edged cooking than marvel in silence at the cook’s technical precision. I have been to too many dinners like that and they are painful—it is almost a relief to go home. To put it another way, let’s just make something good for dinner and enjoy ourselves.
My cooking is free, without being constrained by the rather tiresome idea of doing something as it has always been done, or worse—how someone else feels it should be done. Unfettered by the chains of classical cooking or misplaced authenticity, I am free to enjoy myself in the kitchen.
I couldn’t care a jot what is, or is not, considered fashionable. I only care whether or not it is delicious. When some keyboard warrior—or heaven forbid “influencer”—decides that “sourdough is so yesterday, gochujang is a passing fad,” I just find myself laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Something is either good to eat, or it isn’t.