Last night, I did something in bed that I’ve not done before (OK – you can stop that right now!) – I bought a Kindle book via my phone being, as I was, bored and plagued by insomnia and, at that point, not yet had my cottage cheese.
The book I got was The Pedant in the Kitchen, by Julian Barnes, in which Barnes, clearly not a natural cook (which he freely admits), bemoans – among much else – vagueness by chefs who have the temerity to write cookery books. How very dare they!
Now my view, as I’ve said in these pages, is that it’s not the job of a cook-book writer to lead you by the hand through Cookery 101. It’s perfectly reasonable for a professional chef to expect someone who buys their books(s) to have, at least, mastered the basic techniques.
I, on the other hand, write for people who might have very little in the way of skills or knowledge, even none at all, and who might, like me, be disabled, so I try to cover all the bases to make it as easy as possible. It does make for a lot of repetition, but it’s better than omitting a vital step which I know, and maybe you do too, but there’s bound to be somebody who needs it, and it should be there. If, though, there’s something I’ve accidentally not covered, or glossed over, they can use the comments to ask. And if I ever write my cookbook, there will be a section on the basics to which readers will be expected to refer rather than have me repeat it in every recipe as I do now. In the blog format, though, that’s probably not feasible so everything has to go into every recipe, down to the smallest detail. It’s a pain – often literally – but it has to be done. The reader comes first.
Anyway, Barnes objects to vagueness, to words like a glug (he must hate Jamie Oliver with his utterly meaningless “lug”), or a splash. Fair enough – I’m the sort of cook who measures almost nothing – if it feels right, it is right** (and despite that, I have no problems with replicating the same dish time after time – not measuring is not the same as random). But I accept that this is a skill not possessed by everyone, so I try to convert my splashes, pinches, and squirts into comprehensible measures in my recipes, and with the advice – if I remember – to add more according to personal taste. The trick is always to err on the low side – you can always add more, you can’t take it out.
**A philosophy of which Barnes severely disapproves, something I find a lot in people with only the most meagre of culinary skills. I can get my head around them not understanding it – hell, I don’t understand, it’s purely instinctive*** – but why resent it? For me, it works, and according to Rick Stein it pretty much drives the culinary engine of Spain, where they call it “cooking by eye”. Sounds better in Spanish.
***Just as I know that combining ingredients A and B will give me the desired flavour C and not horrible flavour G. I have no idea how it works, I just know it does. I suppose it’s simply accrued experience but, if it is, it operates on a subconscious level.
I also make a point not to use unfamiliar words, at least not without an explanation, and this is where I fall out with Barnes – he has no such scruples. On the very first page of his diatribe, he tosses in “matutinal”.
I pride myself on having a vocabulary that is considerably better than average, and on having an ability to divine meaning from context, but this word – which I have never before encountered in my life – defeated me. And that, as regular readers will know, is a capital crime. Writers should not send their readers scurrying for the dictionary unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, and it very rarely is (it wasn’t in this case, as we’ll see). And call me awkward, but I tend not to take a dictionary to bed with me (yep, I know my Kindle has a copy of the OED but I was tired and couldn’t be arsed).
But I do have the OED link in SpeedDial on my PC’s browsers (I favour Chrome right now as Firefox has gone to hell), and having plugged in matutinal, it gave me this:-
Of or occurring in the morning. Origin: mid 16th century: from late Latin matutinalis, from Latin matutinus ‘early’.
And even knowing that now, there was no way I could have got that from the context.
Consciously or not, Barnes was showing off, and in a writer that’s unforgiveable. It’s a writer’s job to impart knowledge (or to entertain – or both), not to try to impress with their erudition. If you are good enough, you will impress anyway – you should not make it a project! And you certainly should not use obscure words or terminology in a book in which you are bitching and whining about others doing the same thing. It makes you an instant target for crotchety buggers like me.
But is the book any good? Well, one thing is clear, Barnes pretty much defines the reason for Delia Smith’s existence, because Dreadful Delia doesn’t teach people to cook, she teaches them to slavishly follow recipes, removing all the joy and spontaneity from cooking. Exactly what Barnes needs. Well, OK, he could use the joy and spontaneity too! Seriously, about the only thing that still gives me pleasure in my blighted life is cooking, and devising recipes. Eating them, too, of course. If I lost that I really would end it, without further notice.
Although I don’t use the recipes myself, I have a lot of cookbooks (about 40 or 50 of them within easy reach, many more of the older ones boxed and put away), spanning over a century, and I’ve always felt that, for those who do use them, they make a good place to learn the basics, before branching out and doing your own thing – starting by modifying recipes to more suit your own tastes and, sooner or later, graduating to recipe creation.
However, over the years I’ve come to know quite a few Delia Disciples and it’s clear – and Barnes seems to confirm this, at least the little I’ve read so far – that for many people the creation of a recipe would be a task as difficult, and as fraught with mystery as, say, building a particle accelerator would be for me. And I really do mean that level of perceived difficulty. The very idea of going shopping, buying a selection of ingredients and cooking something – anything, it doesn’t even have to be original – from scratch positively terrifies them.
And I know these people exist – I married one of them. It didn’t matter, I was happy to cook, always have been, but my wife decided she wanted to learn and I found myself, for the first time in my life, having to write down my recipes – and it was quite astonishing how many I’d been carrying in my head most of my life.
Among the things I tried to teach my wife was how to cook lambs’ liver. It’s really very simple. Slice it thinly, lightly dust in with seasoned flour, and fry it briefly in a lightly-oiled and hot pan. Turn it frequently and the moment the tiny beads of blood stop appearing on the top surface, remove it, it’s done. It’ll still be a little pink, not overtly bloody, but moist and tender –the next stage is well-done, dry, and tough as old boots.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I came home to find the flat full of smoke, the cat looking panic-stricken, and my wife in the kitchen, presiding over a frying-pan full of nuggets of carbon.
I enquired – with great restraint – as to what she was doing.
“I’m cooking liver the way you showed me…”
“Really? Do tell.”
“You said cook it hot and fast – and I am…”
“Ah, but I think you might have forgotten something.”
“Well, at some point – probably before it turns black and starts to glow red hot – you’re supposed to take it out of the pan!”
We wound up with a takeaway and that was the end of the great cooking experiment.
In fairness, my wife wasn’t an idiot (she’d taught English to A level), but as well as having no innate cooking ability she had severe MH problems and was prone to drifting away into her own head. Letting her loose in the kitchen – not my idea – was foolish in retrospect. In addition, as has been the case with so many women in my life, and currently is again with a close friend, she found my knives terrifying. If this is as general in the female population as a whole as it is among those I know, how do most women ever cook?
This is my collection.
Left to right a serrated knife used for slashing the tops of loaves when I make bread, a 3” utility knife, an extremely flexible blade used for skinning fish, a carver, a Santoku, the breadknife, my 8” rosewood-handled chef’s knife which is the one that is used for almost everything, a scalpel, and a small pair of scissors. All, needless to say, as sharp as they possibly can be. To the left are my measuring spoons (the wooden one, in olive wood, fits the narrow Schwartz jars). By the way, I know the blades look dirty, it’s a quirk of my camera, they’re actually fine, though the original mirror finish is dulled by use. And they’re just tools…
Back to the Barnes kitchen, and I see that his knives live in a drawer. This is a seriously bad idea – it’s not a drawer you want to absent-mindedly rummage in for a start, you could lose a finger – and knives lose their edge rapidly when kept cheek by jowl with others, which is why I keep mine on a magnetic rack above my workspace. I don’t even need to open a drawer – just reach out.
Actually, I do keep one knife in a drawer, a short, stiff, exceptionally sharp, boning knife. Quite safe, though, as it’s in a hard plastic sheath.
One thing worth a mention while we’re on the subject. A sharp knife will cut cleanly and safely. A blunt one is likely to turn in your hand and cut you instead. To keep mine sharp I have a diamond-coated steel. Not cheap, and there’s a technique to learn, but it’s invaluable.
Knife blocks, did I hear you say? No, never. The slots are crap traps for a start but, worse, they take up valuable space. A hazard if little kids are around, too.
And there, for now, I must leave Mr. Barnes to his pedantry – just one last thought – there is no need to repeat the book’s title at every opportunity, unless you’ve forgotten what you called it. The rest of us can manage quite well, thanks.
Anyway, as I mentioned the other day, I have plans to add video to this blog, particularly the foodie segments. To start with I’m going to make a video version of Cooking – Back to Basics, Part 1 – the Batterie de Cuisine including the addendum. Partly because tackling a familiar subject will allow me to focus on the new (to me), technology, but also because for kitchen newbies, being able to see what I’m waffling about might actually be useful. Likewise, for future posts, demonstrating techniques is much easier than describing them.
I’m not sure if there’ll be a voice-over – I doubt that many people want to listen to me wheezing – so the accompaniment to the visuals will likely be text-based.
There are two ways of running video on my WordPress blog. The free but largely out of my control way – YouTube, or WP’s VideoPress service which costs $60 a year (£36-ish). The upside is that there are no caps and no ads, and all the traffic stays on my blog, and doesn’t go buggering off to YouTube to get sidetracked by kittens and not come back.
There’s also the YouTube 15-minute video limit to be considered. I suspect that most of the time 15 minutes will be ample, but there are bound to be times when it’s not. You can ask for more time, but that depends on how successful you are.
All things considered, I think I’d rather pay WordPress and retain full control.
There is, naturally enough, a learning curve for both hardware and software, and I’m waiting for some kit to be delivered, but I’m hoping to be up and running next week, so do watch this space…