What strikes me, the more I cook, is that the best recipes are ones where the basic anatomy is so sound it will survive multiple adjustments. When a recipe has good bones, you can change the seasoning, double the garlic, swap lime for lemon, and it still turns out delicious.
The great American food writer M. F. K. Fisher once wrote an essay called ‘The Anatomy of a Recipe.’ To have a good anatomy, in her view, a recipe should have a sense of logical progression. She despaired of recipes with ‘anatomical faults,’ where the reader is told to make a cake batter and only then to grease the loaf pans.
I appreciate recipes that tell you what can be changed and what must remain fixed. ‘The Zuni Cafe Cookbook’ by the late Judy Rodgers is superb at this.
A recipe is not an exact formula, but it does need a certain structure. When the bones are right, you can dress it in many ways.
Learning to cook in the 1990s, I thought ‘proper olives’ meant black. The benchmark was Kalamata from Greece: purple-black with an almost mushroomy depth of flavour. Other fine examples were tiny Coquilles from Nice and plump round Tanches from Nyons.
The comeback of true green olives was part of a Spanish food revival in the early 2000s. I credit Sam and Sam Clark of Moro Restaurant in London with making them cool again.
There’s a new dividing line in olives: between those who prefer Nocellara to all other varieties, and the people who have never tasted them.
The saddest utensil I’ve come across is an ‘anti-loneliness ramen bowl,’ which holds your iPhone to keep you company as you slurp your solitary bowl of noodles. But the iPhone cannot return your gaze or reassure you that you didn’t squeeze too much lime into the soup, though maybe a dinner-conversation app is only a matter of time.
In the right circumstances, I’m a big fan of eating alone. Often, on a Sunday evening, I go to a yoga class whose charm is largely that it gives me an alibi to avoid cooking family supper for once. I return to have boiled eggs and soldiers in silence with a book. Bliss.
In 2009, it was forecast that the number of single-person households would increase by two million in 10 years, suggesting that social isolation will only get worse.
Protein bars, protein flapjacks, protein granola, protein ice cream and protein coconut water… To look at the health-food aisles, you’d think that protein was a substance no one could overeat. Even bread now comes in protein-enriched form.
Protein, we keep being told, is the vital nutrient that will give us a boost. It will burn fat, build muscle, reduce tiredness and kill our hunger pangs. Maybe if we shake enough protein powder into our daily smoothie, we will actually morph into Gwyneth Paltrow.
When we consume vastly more protein than we need, our kidneys struggle to process it, resulting in protein in the urine. Too much protein from meat may also contribute to kidney stones.
The group who really could benefit from more protein is not fit young gym-goers but older people, who seem to be at much greater risk of protein deficiency.
The more people get advised to eat vegetables, the less it seems they wish to eat them. And it is quite a natural response. So I’ve said that the main way that we get to like food is through being exposed to them, but there’s a second condition. We have to be exposed to them without feeling any sense of coercion.
I’d rather have a good food – lots and lots of different varieties of good foods – than search for something perfect.
One thing I always make – and I’m sure this is partly to do with memory and yearning and because I’ve made it ever since my children were born – I make gingerbread every year. And it’s partly just the perfume of the spices in the house, makes it smell like winter to me.
I like quinoa. I like gingerbread. I feel they should be kept separate. I’m not in favor of this thing of making kind of raw, vegan chocolate cake and saying it’s as good as chocolate cake. I mean, just eat cake and be done with it. And then have a separate meal of quinoa.
If we are going to change our diets, we first have to relearn the art of eating, which is a question of psychology as much as nutrition. We have to find a way to want to eat what’s good for us.
All the foods that you regularly eat are ones that you learned to eat. Everyone starts life drinking milk. After that, it’s all up for grabs. From our first year of life, human tastes are astonishingly diverse.
The main influence on a child’s palate may no longer be a parent but a series of food manufacturers whose products – despite their illusion of infinite choice – deliver a monotonous flavour hit, quite unlike the more varied flavours of traditional cuisine.
The danger of growing up surrounded by endless sweet and salty industrial concoctions is not that we are innately incapable of resisting them but that the more frequently we eat them, especially in childhood, the more they train us to expect all food to taste this way.
One of the rudest things you can do, food-wise, is to stare at someone in the act of eating. It draws attention to the unseemly fact that eating is a bodily function – like animals, we are trapped by our hungers, but we do our best to disguise them with such civilized props as menus and forks.
When someone watches us eating, we feel exposed. We might also harbor a suspicion that the person staring wants to steal food from our plate. The taboo, in any case, is long-standing.
Sometimes the buzz of reading about others eating comes from the voyeuristic thrill of seeing how the other half lives: the gold leaf and truffles or – in the case of Trimalchio’s feast in Petronius’ ‘Satyricon’ – the dormice and honey.
Years ago, during a John Grisham phase, I tried to pinpoint exactly why I found Grisham’s often predictable legal thrillers quite so comforting. The best answer I could come up with was the frequency with which Grisham tells us that his lead characters are sipping coffee. When it comes to food and drink, predictability can console.
The old injunction ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full’ is based on the presumption that, however multifunctional a mouth may be, it should only perform one job at a time. Humans have found a way around this limitation in the form of food writing.
Restaurant critics all struggle with the difficulty of writing about eating without resorting to the word ‘delicious’ and its synonyms.
In theory, food writing is an aid or a prelude to actual meals: you read a recipe, and then you cook. In practice – in a ‘paradox’ that Michael Pollan, among others, has identified – our current gastronomic fantasies, particularly on TV, have coincided with a decline in home cooking.
One of the strange things about imaginary food is that it allows us to take pleasure in reading about things that we would never want to eat in real life.