You know what I want? What I really really want?
A cookbook that tells it like it is.
The marvellous writer Julian Barnes has written very entertainingly on the subject of recipes, the frustrations inherent in trying to follow them, and how they fail to meet the expectations of one who wants to be told exactly what to do. If you don’t have this book, I thoroughly recommend it.
My beef is a bit different.
I have yet to read a cookbook that accurately represents the experiences of the normal cook.
I would love, just once, to read a recipe like this (with apologies to The River Cafe, from whose blue book this is first extracted, then distorted):
Penne with Tomato and Balsamic Vinegar
Serves between 3 and 6.
If 3 you will have far too much and will pick at the leftovers for the rest of the afternoon, finally succumbing and finishing it off because let’s face it there wasn’t enough left for a whole portion by that stage.
If 6 you will realise when it comes to serving time that there isn’t enough and will try to salvage it with a tub of double cream or some bread on the side.
You will need:
2 tablespoons olive oil. Bugger, none left. Butter then (scrape the jam off first. Actually, leave it on – it adds a pleasant sweetness.)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into slivers. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Allow at least ten minutes for this bit, mostly for getting the papery bits off the second clove. There will still be a little bit attached and you’ll have garlic under your fingernails.
A sharper knife.
A handful of fresh basil. But only if the pathetic little plant you bought from Sainsbury’s hasn’t died. Otherwise forget it.
1 x 800g tin peeled plum tomatoes. Or 2 x 400g tins. That’s the normal size in a normal kitchen. We’re not all the bloody River Cafe you know, our larders groaning with catering size packets of everything, and our scouts constantly on the lookout for the most authentic, used-by-actual-Ligurian-peasants-you-know-but-actually-grown-on-the-Contessa-di-Vecchio-Prosciutto’s-fifty-thousand-acre-estate, unbelievably expensive and exclusive olive oil.
Some sticking plaster handy for when you cut yourself opening the tins.
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. No sea salt? What kind of foodie are you? Sod it, Saxa will do.
250g penne rigate. Or fusilli. Or farfalle. Or, come to think of it, a mixture of all three because that’s all you have left. And 250g, by the way, serves 2, not 6. Chuck the whole lot in.
75g butter, cut into pieces. Yeah right. Make that an indeterminate-sized lump of butter plus a little bit more. Oh go on then, another little bit.
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar. Now where was it? Somewhere in this cupboard. Oh here’s some white wine vinegar. Will that do? Hmm. Looks a bit manky at the bottom. Sell by…oh. Ah. Never mind, in it goes anyway. How much? 4 tablespoons. Oh look, just slosh in a good glug.
120g Pecorino cheese, freshly grated. Ok so nobody has pecorino. Use parmesan. Yes you have. Have another look. It’s in the scrunched up foil package at the back. There you go. A bit dried up, but it will do.
More sticking plaster for when you grate your fingers trying to eke out the parmesan dog end.
Heat the olive oil/butter/whatever oil you managed to lay your hands on in a pan that is either far too big or just too small. Answer the phone and come back to find that the oil/butter/whatever oil you managed to lay your hands on has burned.
Clean the pan and start again, this time with a more suitably-sized pan.
Fry the garlic slivers until light brown. Leave them for half a picosecond too long. Burn them.
Swear lightly. This is authentic and entirely in keeping with the provenance of the dish.
Add a few of the basil leaves. Throw some of the others on the floor by mistake. Leave them there to steep with the garlic slivers that fell off the chopping board when you were ‘slicing’ (hacking) them ‘thinly’ (misshapenly).
The basil leaves appear to have disappeared. Plunder the plant again. The stalks contain more nutrients apparently.
Add the tomatoes. Stir and cook gently for 30-40 minutes.
Yes, 30-40 minutes. Should have read it before you started, shouldn’t you?
It’s cooking too fast. Turn it down.
Too low now. Up a bit.
Make some toast while you’re waiting.
Put some water on to boil. No not that pan. Nor that one. Bigger. Bigger. Is that the biggest one you’ve got?
When the water is boiling remember that you should have salted it. Salt it. Throw the pasta in.
The pan boils over. That’s why you need a larger pan.
Relight the gas. Mop up the water.
Cook the pasta. Realise that the fusilli need nine minutes and the penne thirteen. Never mind. Just boil them all until they’re lightly dead.
When the pasta is cooked, realise that you need a colander.
Walk from cooker to sink with saucepan full of boiling water and pasta in one hand, colander in the other.
Vitamin E is good for burns.
Drain the pasta in the colander. Rescue those pieces of pasta from the sink.
Realise you should have rinsed the sink first.
Return the pasta to the saucepan with the butter.
Add a bit more. Can’t do any harm.
Add the vinegar and coat the pasta thoroughly.
Now add the tomato sauce. Realise that you should have stirred it while it was cooking. Scrape the burned bits off the bottom of the pan and mix them in thoroughly with the rest of the sauce so that nobody notices.
Now is the time to throw in the double cream.
Realise that the reason they specify balsamic vinegar is because it tastes horrible using anything else.
Grate a lot more cheese over it in a doomed effort to cover up the acid taste of stale vinegar that pervades the dish.
Next week: overcooked roast lamb with undercooked roast potatoes.