We have learnt to cook and now we're having fun winging itby Wendell Steavenson / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
I bought a turbot. He was mottled grey, large and handsome, and so expensive that my knees buckled—wallet quavering—at the cash register. For dinner he was very fine, roasted with lemon and dressed with a cockle buerre blanc. He fed four of us fat and happy, with nothing more than boiled potatoes and peas and lettuce on the side.
When the guests had gone I took up a half-finished glass of wine, put on Radio 4 and went into the kitchen to clean up. I always like this time of the evening, when I am still warm and buzzy from company and conversation. The pots stuck with clumps and lumps. This is the fun part for me, the cook’s perk: the feast of leftovers. The marvellous and uncharted possibilities of imagination and invention.
What curious new deliciousnesses can I concoct from already-cooked potatoes or meat bones or a wodge of clammy rice? To the sonorous sound of late night radio, I carefully set about separating all the turbot flesh from the bones with my fingertips. It was a messy and satisfying job. Bones and skin and head and fins went into a pot with all the pan scrapings of crusted burnt lemon and wilted parsley stalks and a spoonful of cockles clinging together with claggy butter. Tomorrow this would be simmered into fish stock.
And then? Risotto? Fish soup with rouille? Bouillabaisse stew? A miso broth for clams and soba noodles? Thai prawn curry?
I have been wondering recently why I have stopped reading glossy cookbooks. Maybe it’s that the cooking lifestyle inspired by all those bestselling Nigels and Nigellas has outgrown its own progenitors. We have learned how to cook and now we’re having fun winging it. We are tired of recipes. You can’t write a recipe for the way many of us cook on a daily basis: mixing and matching what’s in our fridges with what we found at the market. Mash up of old-familiar and experiment, fusion cuisine of leftovers and new comers, the fresh and the cooked-last-week.
I cook what I see around me. I didn’t go to the fishmonger wanting a turbot—in fact I didn’t go to the fishmonger at all; the turbot winked at me from his icy slab as I was walking by. Cooking leftovers is not a compromise; leftovers encourage a free form extemporaneous creativity that home cooks enjoy in a way chefs with menus almost never can. Let’s give up trying to make food like the professionals. Rediscover, instead.
The joy of unexpected serendipity: I remember one day standing in my kitchen, hungry, without much in the fridge or an idea in my head, except that I wanted pasta. In the cupboard I found a few loose pine nuts in the bottom of a bag, there was a pot of growing basil on the windowsill. Yes, half a rind of parmesan wedged into the fridge door in a clingfilm skin. Hey presto: pesto!
The satisfaction of perfection according to your own specifications: many times, when I am alone, I will whisk powdered onion soup mix into sour cream and eat it with crisps in front of the telly and never tell anyone this is really my favourite meal ever.
The wisdom of grandmothers: another time, I was hungry with the fridge door open and no idea what would come next. Inside there were several bowls that had accrued from the previous week’s meals—a bit of boiled broccoli, a bit of fresh spinach, a bit of tomato sauce, some chicken stock. Suddenly I realised I had minestrone—after all, what is minestrone but leftovers soup?
I have come to appreciate that everything is minestrone. Anything can be soup. Or spaghetti sauce. Or repurposed into stew or curry or stock or pie or hash… Possibilities and combinations are infinite.
We ate the leftover turbot flesh cold with chervil mayonnaise. I kept some back and mashed it into the reduced stock and baked two turbot soufflés. For some days I was stumped about what to do with the large bag of raw roe that I had reserved before cooking the fish. I looked up home smoking on YouTube and it turned out to require no more than tinfoil and a pot. I ordered wood chips from the internet and smoked the week-old roe, blending it with stale bread soaked in water and lemon juice to make turbot taramasalata.
And the wallet-quavering price of the turbot? I felt a little less guilty about it now.
Wendell Steavenson is an Associate Editor of Prospect