Beef and pea soup, anyone?

Beef and Pea

I’m all in favour of a spot of innovation in cooking. It’s pretty much what this blog is all about.

But there’s a fine line between innovation and total weirdness. And even when you’re eating the results of your most recent brainwave, it can be hard to be certain which side of the line you’ve fallen.

My friend Dylan, who was born and raised in a pub – what a fine grounding in life – told me a story recently that illustrated this neatly. He was on duty one Monday afternoon, and precisely nothing was occurring: no customers, no sign of any customers, and no apparent threat of any customers in the foreseeable future. Then the door opened, and a hiker walked in, exhausted and in search of something hot and sustaining.

What’s the soup of the day?” asked the hungry hiker.

Just a moment,” replied Dylan, thinking on his feet. “I’ll just go and ask the chef.”

Of course, there was no chef, save for Dylan himself. He went to the kitchen and checked the fridge to find it entirely bare, save for some scant leftovers from Sunday lunch: a few cooked garden peas, and a jug of beef gravy. Inspiration – of sorts – struck. He returned to the bar.

I’ve had a word with the chef, and the soup of the day is…er…beef and pea.”

There was a brief pause as the hiker processed this presumably unexpected news and weighed the pros and cons in his mind. Eventually, hunger got the better of trepidation, the “soup” was duly ordered, and Dylan went back to the kitchen to assemble what may be the world’s first and only portion of beef and pea soup.

Dylan watched closely as the hiker sat by the window and worked his way through his creation. His expression veered between curiosity, suspicion and satisfaction; but ultimately he finished up, and rather enjoyed, his bowl of improbable soup-gravy.

And in retrospect, why wouldn’t he have? After all, it was unusual only in what it lacked. If you were nearing the end of your Sunday roast and had only a pool of gravy and a few peas remaining, you’d think nothing of grabbing a spoon and slurping them all up. But put the same ingredients in a bowl and call it soup, and for some reason it becomes weird.

Of course, some other combinations seem weird for a simpler reason: because they actually are weird.

My own low point occurred in my late teens, at a holiday cottage in beautiful Bamburgh, when much beer had been consumed but very few ingredients purchased. The outcome of these circumstances – spam curry with “inside-out rice” (inexplicably soggy in the middle and crunchy on the outside) – still causes those who consumed it to shudder at the memory.

But even here, there’s some crossover with the beef-and-pea example, in that much (though certainly not all) of its perceived oddness lay in its unexpectedness. It’s true that spam is pretty horrible stuff – apologies to any devotees who might be reading, but you’re wrong – but my logic at the time was that its taste would be suitably obliterated by the power of the curry sauce.

And in a way, I was right: it wasn’t that the taste was so troubling but the texture. Accustomed to eating meat curries of various kinds, we’d become used to the chewy resistance of the chunks of lamb or chicken. Replacing these with the oddly textureless spam meant that the whole experience was simply too unfamiliar to enjoy (leaving aside – as we assuredly did – the science-defyingly unpleasant rice).

So what – if any – are the lessons of these two examples?

Well, to take my own experience first, the most obvious learning point is “don’t cook with spam”. Or rather, if you do decide to cook with spam, be alive to its bizarre texture and address this in the way you cook it. There’s a reason why the fritter is one of the more enduring (and less nasty) ways to serve spam: it’s because the crisp batter provides a degree of textural interest that is singularly lacking in the meat itself.

As for the beef and pea soup – well, given that it was, ultimately, something of an unexpected success, maybe we just need to be a bit less prescriptive about what we see as viable combinations.

But I’m far from certain about that, because those same prejudices can be surprisingly useful when it comes to cooking inventively but non-disastrously. Granted, some of the world’s finest chefs have made their names through playing with our expectations of flavour and texture – Heston Blumenthal’s bacon and egg ice cream being a celebrated case in point. But for the less eminent among us, it’s probably best to rein in the innovations just a little – otherwise you might just find yourself with another spam curry on your hands.

But that’s not to say that you need to revert completely to the tried and trusted. Assuming your stores aren’t quite as bare as Dylan’s fridge and our Bamburgh cupboards, you’ve always got the opportunity to take the “million things” approach discussed at the beginning of this article.

Treat your main “ballast” ingredient – pasta, rice, potatoes, a roasted butternut squash, whatever – as your blank canvas. Then it’s time to start “painting”. Add your more flavourful ingredients one at a time (naturally taking account of how long they need to cook) until you’re happy with the combination. Stop and think before each addition, and you’re unlikely to go far wrong. As I’ve said before, you’re well capable of doing this when you’re inventing pizza toppings in a takeaway, so why not when you’re cooking at home?

And to refer you to more of my previous musings, a spot of Gran logic never hurts. Throw half a dozen ingredients together at random, and the chances are it won’t turn out too well. But select your ingredients with particular goals in mind – combinations of taste (sweet, sour, salt) and texture (crunch versus give) that at once complement and contrast with one another – and I’d give you a much better chance.

What’s more, you don’t need a wealth of cooking training or experience to identify these combinations; all you need is to think a little about what you’ve eaten and enjoyed over the years, and what it was you liked about them. If you’d like a case in point, section 1 of this piece will give you the idea.

After all, cooking lessons take time and cost money. But you can have a free eating lesson every time you pick up a knife and fork.

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You’re all right, Jack

Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to lose interest in writers’ and artists’ work, and to doubt its worth or significance, as their success and profile rises.

I’m far happier in a cellar bar among an audience of 50 people, sharing the secret of a brilliant but undiscovered band, than in the arena or football ground they might eventually graduate to playing. Once they do, I tend to leave the adoring masses to watch their gigs – often from 100 yards away, while nursing a £5 pint of piss – and return to my preferred dingy haunts to discover someone new.

It’s an attitude that’s both healthy and unhealthy at once. It’s healthy because it allows me to discover new and potentially exciting artists as a matter of course, and so to maintain a state of near-constant renewal and curiosity.

But it’s unhealthy, not to mention illogical, because there’s absolutely no good reason to turn your back on someone whose work you’ve long enjoyed and admired, simply because other people happen to have noticed it too. That’s nothing more than cultural snobbery, which is hardly an attractive trait. And it’s hard to escape the uneasy feeling that such changes in perspective have relatively little to do with the quality of the artist’s work, and plenty to do with your own tacit resentment of that person’s success.

In the modern world of blogging, social media and instant celebrity, there’s more scope for scorning the successful than ever before. A blog post that happens to go viral, usually by virtue of a well-placed retweet or two, can be the catalyst for turning a virtual unknown into a ubiquitous media personality. And when success really does arrive overnight for a select few, but never at all for the vast majority, it’s little wonder that some of the latter group should come to resent the former.

All of which brings me to one Jack Monroe.

It’s possible, though unlikely, that you haven’t yet heard of Jack Monroe. In case you haven’t, she’s a food writer who rose rapidly to prominence through the frugal, meticulously-costed recipes on her blog, A Girl Called Jack. Now, she’s a Guardian columnist, Labour Party activist and anti-poverty campaigner, with two books and (surely) a TV series on the horizon.

Other than Nigella, I doubt there’s a food writer or broadcaster who has occupied more column inches over the past six months or so – thanks in large part to the Daily Mail and its perennial rent-a-prat columnist Richard Littlejohn, whose ill-researched character assassination (I refuse to link to it, but search it out if you like) was promptly and brilliantly dissected by Monroe herself.

In Monroe’s case, the majority of the backlash has come not from her blogging and tweeting peers but from the reactionary right within the “old media”: those who genuinely seem to believe that anyone who’s ever called on the social security system is, by definition, a workshy scrounger. Given that I believe that view to be complete bollocks, it’s probably unsurprising that I’m inclined to take her side on most things. But there’s a further reason too: I’m convinced she’s doing something that’s not just new but genuinely important.

Now, on the face of it, I don’t cook like Jack Monroe. As regular readers of this blog will know, I believe in shopping without lists and cooking without recipes. So her approach – recipe-driven, measured to the gram and costed to the penny – might appear to be the antithesis of my own.

But in reality, it isn’t; because without a cogent, costed demonstration that home-cooked can be cheaper as well as better than mass-produced frozen filth, the single biggest justification for my way of cooking is removed. All the other reasons for home cooking – recipe or none – are, to me, secondary to the fact that it makes financial sense. With that point proven, cooking for yourself can be seen as a logical lifestyle choice. Without it, a sceptic could reasonably argue that it’s little more than an indulgent hobby.

By breaking down all her recipes into exact unit costs – based, it should be said, on a single supermarket (Sainsbury’s) that she began using, like most of us, purely for reasons of proximity and convenience – Monroe gets us thinking about one of the more important but ambiguous words in the English language: “value”.

Take a look at her latest piece for the Guardian, published online yesterday. It chronicles her attempts to create home-made versions of cheap ready meals for a lower price. In all but one case, she succeeds; but that’s only part of the point.

When we think of value, our first association is likely to be the one I’ve made already: monetary cost. But “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily equate to “better value”. If you were looking to debunk the Jack Monroe rationale – and God knows, enough people have tried – you might observe that it fails to take account of the value of people’s time. After all, no-one could reasonably claim that it’s quicker to make a lasagne from scratch than to microwave a shop-bought one.

But this is where other, less obvious notions of value come in.

Monroe’s lasagne, as well as being cheaper than the bought version, uses free-range meat – whereas most ready-made ones contain unspecified, untraceable mince that, for all we know, could well be somewhat horsey. So if you place value upon the provenance of what you eat, the DIY approach enables you to feed your family with a relatively clear conscience, while still undercutting the frozen food giants. (Try to find a ready-made lasagne that uses free-range meat, and the cost differential will come into far clearer focus.)

And, as the dietitian Sasha Watkins points out in the same Guardian article, going home-made gives you far more control over what goes – and what doesn’t go – into the meal. Excess fat can be poured away and excess salt omitted. So, if you have your eye on another kind of value – nutritional – there’s a further reason to cook for yourself.

The only reason I haven’t cooked any of Monroe’s recipes – though I’ve certainly taken several ideas from them – is the same reason I rarely follow anyone’s recipe to the letter: because it takes the fun out of both shopping and cooking. And one of the things I value about creative cooking is that it’s stimulating and fun; whereas following a recipe, however good it might be, feels like a chore. When I cook, the satisfaction of a job well done – or, more specifically, a set of instructions well followed – isn’t quite enough. I want to be able to say, “I invented that.”

Nonetheless, as I make my way round the supermarket, my thought processes are, I suspect, very similar to Monroe’s own, rooted in the time-honoured principles of home economics.

In other words, if an ingredient is on the cheap, I’m much more likely to buy it. I might fancy some cashew nuts on my stir-fry; but if I can’t find the “value” brand at one-third the price of the regular one, I won’t bother – or, more likely, I’ll seek out an alternative way of delivering the desired crunch. (Fried breadcrumbs – a Monroe favourite garnish – offer a cheap and effective option in this case. Granted, you’ll never find them on a Chinese restaurant menu – but really, what does that matter?)

So, while I’ll leave others to test out Jack Monroe’s recipes, I’ll continue to endorse the principles behind her work – even as she becomes a near-constant presence on our cookery pages and TV screens, as she inevitably will. Should I ever feel any momentary pangs of resentment towards her success, I’ll do my best to dismiss these for what they are: simple jealousy.

And where I fit in – if I fit in – is at the margins of Monroe’s work. She’s doing the measuring, the costing and the testing – and, if I’m honest, taking quite a few of the bullets – so the likes of myself don’t particularly need to. What I’ll continue to do instead is to explore the myriad possibilities that exist beyond the confines of the recipe, and to encourage anyone who appreciates the value (there’s that word again) of her approach to cooking to develop the confidence to take it a step further.

Don’t just make it yourself: make it up for yourself.