A couple of weeks ago, on the recommendation of a couple of food blogs (101 cookbooks being the big one), I picked up a copy of Nigel Slater's 'Appetite'.
I think I'm in love.
I already own a few cookbooks. Standard fare like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Then things like "1000 Quick and Easy Recipes". And "Good Mood Food". And they have all, without exception, bored me rigid.
You see, I'm not much for following instructions. I was brought up by people who were quite happy to boil/roast the shit out of every meal. This taught me that not everyone's palette was the same. And from this, it taught me that slavishly following recipes is no way to create a meal. Especially when you're just cooking for yourself - how do I know my tastes are going to be the same as Jamie's? (For the record, they're not. His recipe for Chicken Maryland made me quite ill).
In comes Nigel Slater.
His book explains everything I knew instictively about cooking but had never heard from someone who actually knew how to cook: recipes are not gospel and should be used only as a guide. He reminds us that recipes were originally used by chefs to keep track of where the housekeeping money was spent. And as he so correctly points out, being told to "put it in the oven for 35 minutes" will not give the same result for everyone, since everyone's setup is different, everyone's meal is different. Everyone's palette is different.
Another thing I love about Nigel Slater's book is the straightforward way he presents his food. There is no trace of snobbery in his writing. In fact, he writes as elegantly about the delights of a Big Mac as he does of any of his other recipes. Lines like "there is nothing wrong with using a stock cube, not all stock has to be home-made" have led my girlfriend to refer to the book as "vidication" for all the frilly 'domestic goddess' nonsense being thrown about by other food writers that make us normal people who can't spend all day reducing stock feel slightly boorish for turning to Knorr for some help.
Also unusual about Nigel Slater's book is the way the writing lends itself to casual reading. Unlike the other cookbooks in my collection which have a brief introduction and go straight to the recipies, Slater's book has a conversational tone, and almost half the book is given over to best practices - how to best cook a steak, how to best store food, and how to best enjoy your food. This leads to 'Appetite' being the kind of book you can pick up and read at any time, not just when you're looking for ideas for something to cook.
I also can't argue with anyone who extols the beauty of a simple sausage and mash done well.
And with that, my first attempt at a homemade ragu.
A Simple Ragu*
*"Simple" in this case meaning "made with things we had lying around in our kitchen".
If you're like me, you probably buy a load of ingredients with good intentions and never get around to using them before they go off. The three main culprits for me are tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. So last night, I decided to do something about this. I decided to make my own ragu.
For this, you will need
- Plenty of tomatoes (12 or so small ones)
- A large onion (or a couple of small ones)
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Dijon Mustard
- Dried Chillis
Get a few cloves of garlic (I'm fond of garlic and used 3 large cloves, which didn't overpower the flavour of the rest of the ingredients), and slice them very thin. As thin as you can.
Then cut the onion, as thin as you can. If you're no good at cutting onions, or want to improve your onion-cutting skills, you could do a whole lot worse than checking out Peter Hertzmann's article on "How to cut...".
Finally, cut the tomatoes into small chunks about the size of a jellybean. Keep every part of the tomato, don't try getting all fancy and de-seeding it. We'll need everything.
Warm a good, solid non-stick pan and in it, melt some butter with a little olive oil to keep the butter from burning. When it starts to warm up, throw in the garlic and fry until it starts to brown. Then add the tomatoes and onions.
You'll need to keep stirring the tomatoes until they start to get really mushy. This should take about 20 minutes. Then season well with plenty of salt and black pepper.
Right now, you have a very basic ragu. From here, it's up to your individual taste. Personally, I was in the mood for something with a little kick, so I put in a bit of balsamic vinegar, basil and a heap of dijon mustard. I also put in a good helping of red wine. To spice it up, I crushed some dried chillies and put them in too. Once you've added your last incredients, you should leave it for another 10 minutes or so before it gets really sticky.
This is perfect for putting over your favourite pasta. If you want to mix in some mince, you should put your ragu through a blender first, and cook it with the meat for about 20 minutes until the meat soaks up all of the flavour.
If you do decide to try this, comment and let me know how you got on. Although don't worry, I'm under no illusions as to how many people are going to try cooking something they found on a random website.