Fun First, Second, Third

For most of us, cooking is not about recipes, or routines, it’s about what’s in the fridge, or what’s cheap, or what’s growing in the garden. Recipes, I have noticed, are for special occasions, or for those things which need fine detail to make them work. For me, that is more likely to be for baking or desserts.

This is not a book about fine detail. It’s a book about discovering flavours, simply. It’s about the constant joy of surprise in the kitchen. There are two kitchens in the world, one a drab, sad, quiet monument to pragmatism; the other a bubbling, aromatic cauldron of desire, spontaneity, and familial joy. This book is in praise of the latter.

This is, for those who haven’t experienced that, the sort of fun you have during adolescence when you discover that there’s more to the world than football, or basketball, or comics or swimming, or mum and dad. Life in my kitchen is about constant discovery with fun and joy as key ingredients. It’s messy, in its physical, but ordered in its mental. So, you can have a kitchen with ingredients all over the bench yet neatly arranged in your head. I wouldn’t recommend it. It is a sort of illness I have yet been unable to deal with, so I look on it, unwisely, as a virtue. If I didn’t, I’d be dead.

If you ever have the opportunity to watch a really special, classy, professional chef in action, you will notice a couple of things immediately. He/she is impossibly well organised. Everything is pigeon-holed to be grabbed routinely, blindfolded, under the most intense pressure, and – and this is the most important item in any cook’s repertoire, the only lesson you must not dismiss, no matter how poor your aspirations are – the pro is incredibly cool. You sense that nothing is a worry, nothing can go wrong. If the observer senses things are getting out of hand, such negativity never enters the head of the pro. There is always another way. Or, heaven forbid, if it is a disaster, then it can be done again. Nothing’s lost, except time, valuable time.

There’s another lesson about cooking which has nothing to do with routine, or technical skills, or the ability to whisk egg whites while standing on your head. It’s about tasting, tasting, tasting. Don’t ever assume anything. Never assume the raspberries you bought today will be the same as those you bought yesterday; never go into a recipe blindly without tasting first, if possible; and never add an ingredient you’ve not met before without tasting it, or learning about it and its idiosyncrasies.

How else will you really know what a quince will add to a recipe, if you haven’t puckered up your lips at its acidity and wondered how something so grainy could be worth looking at? How can you be bothered with all the deseeding required for a cumquat marmalade if you have never bitten into a cumquat and resiled at its initial sharpness before swooning at its brilliant middle sweetness? How can you serve a sauce if you haven’t put your finger into it and tasted it for all its flavour levels in its bare, unaccompanied state?

And finally, when you must do something blind, go back to your roots, and think of those wonderful after-school days when you dashed into the kitchen, raided the bread bin, and then wondered what you would have between the slices.That’s what cooking is all about: familiar flavours combined with a little style and a compromise when something is missing.

So don’t get cross if something is not where it should be. Just think back to those times when there wasn’t any peanut butter left in the cupboard. Remember? First the disappointment, then the positive change of heart: to the vegemite, or cheese, or lettuce, or jam. Do the same now, and finish off your preparation with a gin. You’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Geoff Slattery, May 1991