Thursday, 7 May 2009

Sources of inspiration for inspirational sauces

A couple of years ago, in an article in the one of the more serious newspapers by someone suggesting that cookery books by TV chefs were all a load of rubbish, and what we all needed to do was bin our tomes of recipes and go and spend a year in France learning to cook properly.

Which is a lovely idea – well, the bit about spending a year in France learning to cook is a lovely idea. Trashing my kitchen library is not.

The central tenet of the writer's case was that we lack proper skills in the kitchen, and celebrity chefs and their books don't actually teach us anything, but end up collecting dust, never to be actually used.

Now of course I'm not cynical enough to suggest that the scribe in question – his name fails me and Google has failed me too on this score – was only trying to sell copies of the book he'd written about his year in France learning to cook, but that entire proposal is codswallop.

My own cookery journey started nine years ago, when I stopped dieting and started to eat without worrying about calorie counts. Over the course of about a year, I started to actually enjoy food. The natural progression saw me starting to take over the kitchen from The Other Half. And the crucial moment came when I went to Spitalfields Market one Sunday morning to return with a very nice piece of organic beef – only to realise that I hadn't a clue what to do with it.

Obviously I knew to put it in the oven and roast it, but at what temperature and for how long per however many grammes?

One course of action was open: I phoned my mother, who went and found a book from her own collection and read me the formula.

That week, I went and bought Delia's Complete Cookery Course. It remains on my shelf, a veritable Bible for exactly that sort of information. And she's got a good method for doing jacket potatoes too – much slower cooking time, and brush them with olive oil and then sea salt before popping them in the oven. I also employ her instructions for potatoes dauphinoise. And jolly good it is too.

There are people who consider Delia Smith to be boring – she inflamed some when publishing her three-part cookery course by including a section on boiling an egg – but Delia is trustworthy.

My next purchase was Jamie Oliver's Return of the Naked Chef. It's rather popular in the UK at present to lambast Oliver, not least for his faux cheeky Cockney persona. But he's made a wonderful contribution by making cooking seem fun. And indeed, I couldn't believe that I could make dishes that were modern, easy – and tasted good!

There are a few dishes I still do from Oliver's books (I added another three over the years): one involves marinading pork chops in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and rosemary. The instructions tell you to use your hands and massage the marinade into the meat. The first time I made it, I stood there, hands covering in oil and juice and garlic and herbs, grinning like a loon. I was finally the little girl who was allowed to get her hands messy. And there was something so earthy and sensual about it.

Then a slender volume that had been gathering dust for some years came into its own. Gordon Ramsay Pasta Sauces is a 32-page booklet that had come with two pasta bowls and some small bags of dried herbs in a Christmas gift set. It had been a present from The Other Half, frustrated doubtless by my former addiction to boiling a bowl of dried pasta and a bit of frozen veg to buggery as a post-pub repast.

It came at a time when I didn't even know – or care – who Gordon Ramsay was. And besides, the recipes were scarily complicated and looked far too posh for my taste (or lack thereof). The box was emptied, the contents stashed and it was all forgotten.

I did have a couple of cookery books in my pre-cooking days – three Good Housekeeping volumes that my mother didn't want, a Marks and Spencer book of salads, a vegetarian Mexican collection, a Schwartz Spices booklet (free with however many jars of spices) and a notebook in which to note down recipes. Over almost 20 years, it had had around five entries. Which might tell you something.

Then, one day, I decided to try one of Ramsay's pasta dishes. A velouté sauce for scallops (or salmon – the suggested alternative being what I served it with). So began an understanding of sauces – more to the point, of reductions. And the dishes in that little book are delightful: a sauce of very lightly curried shallots and carrot batons, with wilted spinach; mushrooms in a velouté – incredibly intense; another cream-finished sauce with lardons, rosemary, cannellini beans and asparagus (which also taught me that two minutes is sufficient time to cook those wonderful spears of flavour).

Also in my possession from around the same time is Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey. And although there are not a great many recipes I've done from that book or continue to use, one of the dishes taught me to make and use a beurre manié, a mix of flour and butter that is added at the end of a reduction to thicken a sauce.

The dish in question I do quite often – seared tuna steak (substituted for swordfish), served with a mushroom gravy. It might sound odd, but it works very well.

So between Ramsay and Stein, I've picked up some real basics of sauce making – and not just the mechanics, but some comprehension of why you do certain things and what they achieve. That is the sort of thing that inevitably leads to understanding why stocks are so important and why it's worth making your own. And thence to creating your own sauces.

I find myself using River Café Easy Two frequently, even if just to take inspiration and then adapt things to my own specific needs. The food is easy and light, with some great salads, soups and pasta dishes.

And it also has the best recipe for roast chicken that I've used, stuffing the bird with rosemary and thyme and garlic, cooking it very slowly at a low heat, and then finishing it by adding Vermouth to the dish for a final half hour at a higher temperature, while rubbing butter all over the skin. It's divine – and the carcass makes a fabulous stock.

It should be said that my favourite recipe book remains a tome of French cookery, authored by a team who only got their names mentioned on the inside back cover. And a little book of pasta dishes that I picked up for next to nowt in low-cost supermarket Lidl, which also has no author listed. But I've learnt so many actual skills from books by celebrity chefs – it's errant nonsense to suggest that they have nothing to teach us.

All of those have helped educate and draw me to a point where I can now appreciate the work of the UK's cookery goddess, Elizabeth David.

I have enough reference points and understanding to skills to be able to relish reading her books. And indeed, to be inspired by her work. If those muslin cloths arrive through the post by Saturday morning, I'll be trying out potted fish this weekend – the result of reading, with mouth watering, the section on potted meats and fish pastes in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

Whoever that writer was who suggested throwing away books by celebrity chefs because they have no real value – they teach you nothing – he was a fool. And he'd do well to actually try reading a book properly next time before claiming that the recipes in such tomes never work properly.

And I rather hope his own literary effort is languishing on the shelves of those remaindered bookshops. It'll save people having to take his own advice and trash the thing after wasting their money on it.

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