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.