Monday, 26 December 2011

Book Review: Cooking Without Recipes

For some reason, I got given a lot of cookbooks yesterday.  Do you think that maybe people might be under the impression that I like cooking?

One of them was this.  My mother's note with it said 'saw this and thought of you' - and she was so right.    This book says what I have been saying for many years - that recipes are all very well, but that they are only a guideline.  Except when baking, you can usually just ask Nigella what she thinks chestnuts are for and just wing it.  Even when baking, start with a basic sponge mix at 180 and whatever else you put in it (except too much liquid) can't go far wrong.

The book starts nicely with a bit of family background, with the author talking about his aged, widower father finally learning to cook all the dishes he loved best.  It's a bittersweet tale as father dies before he achieves his goal of effortless cooking, but it's a lovely example of the 'if so-and-so can, then you can' school of encouragement from food writers.  Delia tries it with herself but I don't know if any of us believe her.

Moving on, he describes the basic tools needed for decent cooking - big pan, frying pan, pestle and mortar. Not much else.  The pestle and mortar is a very nice touch, non-obvious and an encouragement to get mashing unusual flavours.  No-one uses enough marinades and rubs in this country.  The big pan is the Etch-A-Sketch of the kitchen - create anything you like by twisting the gas knobs, and if it goes wrong just shake it all up and make soup.  Soup is Mr Dundas' fallback cock-up dish, which is again a philosophy I can get behind.  What happens to cocked-up soup however remains a mystery.

Then he goes into the main description of what sort of cooking you might try with various ingredients.  They're divided very roughly into meat, fish, veg, nuts and seeds etc. and there are some great suggestions for combos (eg. seafood and vermouth) and basic sauces with which to experiment.

Influences and flavours
There is a lot of French in this book I think, but then I was never quite sure what 'French' cooking was as a child.  To me, using a lot of garlic and herbs became second nature watching my parents, so I never made the distinction between French and British.  The big 5 flavours in this book are virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, peppercorns of various colours and lemons.  Not unfamiliar to many I hope.  I've already vowed to have more lemons in my kitchen when I get one of really my own, partly because the Man and I drink a lot of G&Ts and partly because Dundas is right - they are a very versatile flavour.

Suggestions, Hints and Tips
The biggest tip in the book, most repeated and consistent is 'look at the food.'  Look at it, poke it, prod it, smell it, know it, and start to work out what it is for.  Is it a crunchy thing, an oily thing, a gamey thing, a slow-cook or fast-cook thing?  Then you can start to mix and match it with other things.  He gives some guidance on meats, and how to get the best out of them; a couple of not-really-recipes along the way like 'squash whole tomatoes into the English Breakfast pan so that they explode tomato over everything else' (I'm paraphrasing).  Generally though you are left to make up your own mind, mistakes and -along the way -cock-up soup.  There is also the usual (nowadays) tiresome evangelisation of local shops and farmers markets etc, which we all know we should shop at more but won't.  I forgive him.

I forgive everything because the writing is so very lovely.  Pretty unsubtly Significant Othered (the mention of the many men in his life comes early in the intro) Dundas is constantly referencing how good it will be to cook for friends -or a lover.  Favourite turn of phrase about the necessity of lemons -'Being ill without hot toddy with lemon and Scotch whisky is like being in love without Champagne.'  Possible, but not nearly as nice.  Brilliant.  Unlike my other favourite gay cook, Nigel Slater (who Dundas is also justly fond of), his writing evokes not the simple, tasty but rather lonely supper for one man and his food but the joyous shared experiment.  There is a 'we're all in this together' about the whole book.  None of Nigel's small, perfect, seasonal portions here - it's all bold, random, hearty and 'whatever you fancy'.

I recommend that everyone read this book.  It's great inspiration for even the most established foodie, and the best call-to-arms I could think of for anyone who's just trying to make it on their own.  Dundas and I share the despair at the cook-by-numbers, Delia generation who have no idea how food actually works, just do as they're told until it comes out 'like it should.'  Shake off the shackles of How To Cook, and pick up Cooking Without Recipes.  Then put it down, buy a pestle and mortar, pour yourself a G&T and wait for inspiration to strike.


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