Monday, 13 April 2009

Take just a few ingredients ...

You've got 15 minutes and you want to make something decent for lunch.

Stick some salad leaves on a plate, top with a few anchovies (not the tinned ones, but proper ones, available these days in delis and even in the better supermarkets), a few black olives, some fine beans you've cooked for around seven minutes, and an egg that you've boiled for around the same time.

Squeeze some fresh lemon into a jug, whisk in some mustard and some virgin oil. Drizzle on your salad.

And you have an-almost-but-not-quite salade Niçoise, missing only tuna, tomatoes and potatoes.

Actually, what you've got is a half-way house between a Niçoise and a Collioure salad of anchovies, roasted red pepper, black olives and the egg (with leaves) and anyway, there's much debate about what constitutes a 'true' Niçoise.

But the real point is the sheer simplicity of such dining. And the more I read Elizabeth David, the more I find myself agreeing with her that this kind of food is the best there is.

In one of the collected articles in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, she talks of the whole idea of the store cupboard basics – rejecting the idea of cupboards and cupboards stacked with tins of un-appetising and processed excuses for real food, and particularly when one keeps these things for 'emergencies', if unexpected guests turn up needing fodder. Why, she asks, would it be acceptable to give guests such food when you wouldn't eat it yourself on a daily basis?

Her own store cupboard basics were, according to the book, were very much a result of living on the Ægean coast during the war: "bread, olive oil, olives, salt white fish, hard cheese, dried figs, tomato paste, rice, dried beans, sugar, coffee and wine."

And I find, much to my delight, that I have started, without ever planning it, to develop a rather more Davidian approach to my cupboards and fridge. A cannot now do without olives and olive oil, red chillies, lemons, cheese, eggs, good butter and onions and shallots (the last are mentioned by US chef Anthony Bourdain as indicating real cooks). There's also always flour in my cupboards, dried mushrooms and beans (tinned, I must say, for the sheer convenience), pasta and rice (two varieties – Arborio for risotto, plus Basmati), and quite a few vinegars and spices. There is also, of course, always wine around too.

It's really not a very English cupboard, but it is amazing just what you can do with such things.

Perhaps the thing that surprise me most is that I've reached a point (only really rather recently) where I can rustle up things like today's lunch without thinking much about it and without it in any way being a strain. In other words, I've reached a point where a body of knowledge and some basic skills have actually sunk in. I'm not sure whether the eight or so years since I actually started cooking is a particularly long time and indicative of a slow brain or not.

But it is probably fair to say that now, finally, the last debris of a puritanical upbringing (at least in regard to food) has been swept away. And that store cupboard is as good a body of evidence as any.

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