The State I Am In

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With the near-inevitability of drunken late-night attempts at cooking and/or the need for a restorative New Year breakfast, it seems as good a time as any to post this – a guide to cooking for the pissed, hung over or otherwise damaged.

It’s the second edited extract from my book, The No Recipe Manifesto, which will finally see the light of day in 2014. (In case you missed it, here’s the first extract).

Lastly for 2013, thanks for following the blog, and for the likes, shares, retweets and comments – they mean a lot.

Have a good, and well-fed, New Year.

Drunk Plate

It’s perfectly possible that much of this advice will be of little relevance to you, because you’ve never been in the position of needing to feed yourself, and potentially others, while dealing with the immediate or residual effects of the demon drink.

But if you have, I suspect that my experience – depressingly extensive as it is – may be of some use. And even if you haven’t, you may yet be able to find a point of reference, if ever you find yourself afflicted by a lack of motivation, coordination or both.

Floyd

I can’t be certain who was the first TV chef I ever saw – not because I was drunk, I should point out, but because I was young – but since we’re talking about the mid-1980s here, I can be reasonably confident that it was either Delia Smith or Keith Floyd.

In case you didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing the great man in action, I’d better provide a bit of context. Keith Floyd was a fine cook, a funny and charismatic communicator – and, on the telly at least, permanently pissed.

I can’t recall ever seeing him cook without a large glass of wine within easy reach, which he would slug merrily in between tasks (and, I’m quite sure, in between takes as well). I’ve certainly followed his estimable example as regards wine consumption; so it would make sense that I would also take his lead when it comes to drunken cooking too. But, oddly enough, I don’t.

The thing is, Floyd would guzzle wine as the rest of us might drink tea. It wasn’t that the food he was making was somehow appropriate for the inebriated; just that he happened to be so. In fact, many of the tasks he undertook while under the influence were among the last things you’d want to replicate if you found yourself in a similar state: chopping, slicing, sautéing and flambéing.

Without the presence of a well-prepared camera crew, no doubt armed with first aid kits and fire extinguishers, I’d have worried for his well-being. If I tried anything similar myself, I’d be even more worried for my own.

As a consequence, my advice on alcohol-influenced cooking is quite unlike Floyd’s, with rather more emphasis on personal capability and safety.

(I’m pretty sure this is the sort of thing they mean when they talk about “responsible drinking”.)

Soaked cuisine

The first question to ask yourself when drunk and hungry is the same one you’d ask yourself when sober and hungry: “What sort of thing would I like to eat?” (Admittedly, it may sound more like “whassorrhing waaaaliyyaeeee?”, but let’s not split hairs.)

The pissed answer to that question, though, is likely to be different from the non-pissed one, and not just in its pronunciation. All five senses are impaired as a result of drinking alcohol; so a meal that would smell and taste just fine to your sober self may well seem rather bland once you’ve had a few jars. As a consequence, you’re likely to seek out, and be able to cope with, more potent flavours than you normally would.

You’re also more likely to crave fatty foods. Scientific opinion is divided as to the primary cause of this: some believe that it is caused by an alcohol-induced change in the balance of brain chemicals; others argue that we are naturally programmed to seek out the highest energy (i.e. fattiest) foods, but that our rational minds are capable of overriding this instinct when we’re sober. From the drinker’s point of view, it hardly matters which theory is nearer the mark, because the outcome is the same.

And lastly, you’re likely to want – or rather need – some starchy ballast to soak up some of the booze.

Now, having decided roughly what you’d like to eat, it’s time to ask yourself a further question: “What am I capable of doing?”

This is a trickier one, because the answer you produce will most likely be optimistic going on ludicrous. Mercifully, though, such optimism will rapidly dissipate once you work out what you can actually be arsed to do, so you should be reasonably content to rein in your initial ambitions.

Nonetheless, it’s probably worth drawing up a few house rules. Anything requiring elaborate knife skills, precision timing or significant quantities of hot fat is best avoided. (As is flambéing – sorry Keith.)

Put all those criteria together, and you may well find yourself being led in the direction of rice and spice.

Rice and spice

Unless you’re in a desperate hurry – in which case you’d probably have stopped for chips on the way home anyway – rice is a near-guaranteed winner. Whether you use the microwave or stove-top absorption method, it takes a matter of moments to assemble.

My microwave rice prescription, incidentally, is this: Put three parts water to two parts rice – unrinsed, and not the easy-cook kind, which is the rice equivalent of UHT milk – into a microwaveable thingy, cover it with cling film, pierce the film a couple of times and microwave until all the water has been absorbed. Even if you’ve overdone the bevvy quite severely, it ought to be within your powers. If it isn’t, I’d respectfully suggest you rethink your cooking plans.

How you accompany your rice will probably depend on what you have in your fridge, because you’re unlikely to have planned your food shopping with drunken cookery in mind. But on the off-chance that you have, the ideal ingredients are those that require no chopping, no frying and next to no attention.

Chicken thighs or drumsticks (bone and skin on), duck legs (ditto) and pork ribs will all satisfy your meaty cravings, and can simply be coated in your chosen sauce or spices, covered in foil and bunged in a low to medium oven for an hour or so. If you feel confident in your capacity to pay sufficient attention, you can always remove the foil and turn up the heat at the end for a spot of browning.

Some of my favourite drunken combos include: sweet chilli and soy (good for ribs); curry powder, honey and soy (particularly with chicken); and five spice, chilli powder, salt and a pinch of sugar (ideal for duck legs, as the absence of added liquid allows the skin to crisp up).

Accompany any of these combinations with a pile of lovingly microwaved rice and you’ve got a hefty and powerfully-flavoured meal on the table – or, far more likely, on your knees in front of the telly – in about an hour, without using a single hob, knife or chopping board.

Tasty though these simple, spicy dishes are, they’re conspicuously vegetable-free. You may not care about this in the slightest; but if you do, and if you reckon you can cope with a small amount of chopping, some sliced onion and peppers, and perhaps some fresh chilli, can be scattered over your saucy meat before it goes into the oven.

Alternatively, if you feel more confident about using a hob than a knife, one of those handy supermarket packs of stir-fry vegetables (fresh or – whisper it – frozen) will allow you to introduce a modest dose of vitamins to your meal without having to handle any sharp implements.

Lastly, the benefits of textural contrasts in a meal are, if anything, increased after a few drinks – think of the salad on your late-night burger or kebab – so a healthy stash of peanuts or cashews is worth maintaining for garnishing as well as snacking purposes.

Or, with a little lateral thinking, you might be able to find a less obvious source of crunch in your fridge or freezer. I’ve had surprising success with breadcrumbed scampi, cooked in the oven as directed, and mixed into a spicy, saucy concoction at the very last minute. It might be a rather low-rent version of the crispy chilli dishes I frequently order from Chinese takeaways; but I don’t see anything too much the matter with that.

Pasta

It takes quite a lot to persuade me away from the rice and spice route after a night out. If it happens, the compelling reason is normally a lack of suitable ingredients: plain rice and curry sauce doesn’t quite do it for me these days.

But if I’m out of fresh meat, I try to make sure I haven’t exhausted my stash of the cured stuff. Bacon is a reliable staple – and can, of course, be turned into save-the-day sandwiches to render all “what to eat” discussions redundant – but if I’m craving something more varied and substantial than a bacon sarnie, they’ll find their way into a dead simple tomato sauce.

If I feel capable of using a knife, some onion and garlic will never go amiss. Nor, especially in a post-pub state, will a good dose of chilli (fresh, dried or powdered). But if I conclude that I shouldn’t be messing around with sharp implements, a pair of scissors will suffice for snipping the rashers into the oiled pan. With the addition of a tin of chopped tomatoes, followed by some enthusiastic bubbling and stirring to conduct a controlled evaporation on the excess liquid, it should be done by the time the pasta is. I’ll normally finish it off with an extra swirl of oil, just for luck.

Potential variations are pretty much endless. Replace the bacon with fat slices of chorizo, salami or other spicy sausage. Or, if the fridge is looking bare, it’s always worth scanning the shelves for suitable tins and jars. I’m not a fan of tuna in tomato sauces – it always seems to degenerate into a pink, visually and texturally unappealing sludge. But olives, anchovies and capers are all favourites of mine; used all together, along with tomato and chilli, they form a puttanesca sauce that veers remarkably close to southern Italian authenticity.

One further thing: in your weakened, fat-craving state, you’ll probably want to top your meal with cheese. Lots of cheese. All the cheese. Parmesan is all well and good, but I’ve a none-too-guilty fondness for cheap, plastic cheese strewn all over my 2am pasta. I’m usually too drunk to remember the ensuing nightmares anyway.

Oh, and one further further thing: if any wine (red or white) has survived the evening thus far, use it to enliven the sauce. You might thank yourself in the morning.

Bread

As well as the ever-welcome bacon, there are plenty of late night candidates for slapping between two slices of bread. Leftover roast meat – refried if you like, and can be arsed – is an ideal candidate if you happen to have some in the fridge. Failing that, if you can’t squish some mince into a vaguely burger-like shape, it’s a poor show indeed. And if you feel like jazzing it up with some cumin, chilli or whatever else, that’s probably within your powers too; but remember to avoid any liquid additions, as they’ll take away the natural binding qualities of the minced meat.

With either of the above examples, there’s a good case for using your alcohol-fuelled creative streak to invent a fancy mayonnaise of some kind (and by “invent”, of course I mean stirring your preferred powders and unctions into a blob of bought mayo). Stick to what’s familiar by all means – tomato ketchup and mayo for a no-frills variation on thousand island dressing, or mayonnaise and curry powder for a basic Coronation-style sauce – but you’ll probably end up being rather more imaginative than that.

Fortunately, if the mixture turns out to be indescribably, inedibly awful, even in your less than discerning state, you can find this out from a quick taste before you slather it on your sarnie, so you shouldn’t be faced with that of “Christmas is cancelled” moment that occurs when you arse up the seasoning of a lovingly-cooked stew.

Best of all, as far as I’m concerned, is that an enhanced mayonnaise – or, for that matter, an unenhanced one – effectively removes the requirement to butter the bread. Much as I love butter, the task of spreading it, rock hard from the fridge, on to soft white bread is one I can rarely manage successfully at the best of times, so I’ve got no chance after a few bevvies.

And finally, my friend Emma’s excellent rule of thumb – that any sandwich is improved by the addition of crisps – becomes even more accurate, and more relevant, with respect to the drunken sarnie.

The morning after

For many of us, hung over eating means one thing: the fry-up.

I’m an avowed fan too; though I confess that its regenerative effects seem to be diminishing as I get older. These days, when I’m looking to extinguish the raging inferno in my head and body, I’m more likely to turn to a spicy, salty noodle soup.

Having sworn by this for some years, I was pleased but not too surprised to find that this approach appears to have some basis in science.

Dr. Alyson E. Mitchell, a professor of food chemistry at the University of California, recently presented research findings indicating that “Yak-a-mein” – a highly spiced beef and noodle broth from New Orleans, known to locals as “Old Sober” – is one of the best hangover remedies going. The soy sauce in the broth restores salts lost from the body as a result of alcohol’s diuretic properties. Vitamin B1, found in the beef, helps to prevent the buildup of glutarate, a substance thought to contribute to the headache part of the hangover.

The broth also contains sliced hard-boiled egg, which I’m not sure I could stomach when feeling queasy, but apparently I’d do well to: eggs are a good source of cysteine, which breaks down the toxic substance (acetaldehyde) produced when alcohol is broken down by the liver.

With or without the egg, I can certainly vouch for the overall feeling of well-being, or at least slightly-better-than-before-being, conferred by a salty, spicy soup. It’s also reassuringly easy to make: boiling water, noodles, a good beef stock cube, seasonings (including plenty of soy) and some fresh chilli, and you’re just about there, though some chopped spring onions and fresh coriander will never go amiss either. Should I wish to add meat – and let’s be honest, I probably will – I’ll try to stop my hands shaking for long enough to slice it finely, so that a couple of minutes’ poaching in the stock will be enough to cook it through.

If I decide to go breakfasty instead, this will take one of two forms: a full-on fry-up; or a ridiculously proportioned “Scooby snack” style sandwich, with a slice of toast in the middle as part of a token, doomed attempt to hold the thing together.

When it comes to fried breakfasts, there are only three pieces of advice I can usefully give. The first – which is dependent on having sufficient patience – is that good sausages respond wonderfully well to a very slow fry, over up to an hour if you can bear to wait that long. Any fat and gristle lurking within, which will have been broken down to some degree by the mincer, will become more tender still during a long, slow cook.

Secondly, it’s worth yet another reminder that a low oven provides a more than handy store for anything that’s ready ahead of time. My policy these days is to get the meaty parts of the meal ready first, so that the last few minutes can be spent on the more time-critical tasks of cooking eggs and making toast.

Thirdly and finally, if you’re as hopeless at frying eggs as I am, may I recommend what an old university friend of mine called “flat egg”. This is basically a thin omelette; or, if you prefer, fried beaten egg. You don’t have to worry about breaking the egg yolk, because you’ve done this on purpose at the outset. And for sandwiches in particular, I find it works at least as well as a regular fried egg. You’ll miss out on the arguable joys of runny egg yolk running down your chin and on to your jumper; but you’ll probably find you can live with that.

Sober uselessness

Even if you’ve never had a drink in your life, some of the above advice may yet prove useful.

The qualities that make these meals appropriate for stumbling drunks – minimum hassle, little or no chopping, forgiving ingredients – also make them suitable for the sober but listless. After all, being unable to face the washing up is by no means the sole preserve of the hung over.

Without the effects of alcohol, the cravings for fat, spice and stodge may not apply; but on the other hand, a number of “easy” ingredients that are a little too worthy for the intoxicated eater can come back into the mix.

For instance, if you want an even simpler equivalent to the pasta dishes described in this chapter, make the sauce in the same way but add a drained tin of pulses – white beans or chickpeas, say – at the end. The pulses take the place of the pasta, allowing you to create a genuine one-pot meal – a handy thing when you really can’t be arsed to wash up. For an added touch of piousness, not to mention crispness, you might even choose to accompany it with a green salad.

On the very odd occasion, I’ve been known to whip up such noble and healthy meals myself.

The trouble is, I always seem to want a pint afterwards.

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The Art of Stopping

As this blog develops, I’ll do my best to balance my fondness for theorising and pontificating with some more practical thoughts around the many aspects of cooking that recipes can never adequately cover.

And where better to start than with the question of when to stop?

OK, perhaps there are more logical places to start. But stick with me, because this one’s pretty fundamental – especially if you’ve ever found yourself in a panic in the kitchen, feeling that you’re losing all control of the meal you’re cooking.

(If you’ve never experienced a kitchen panic of this kind, congratulations. It probably means that everything I’m about to say will seem ludicrously obvious. It also means that you’re weird, and that normal, fallible people are very likely to hate you.)

One of the most fundamental but rarely discussed skills of cooking is knowing when to stop. I mean that in a couple of closely connected senses: firstly, the ability to recognise when food is optimally cooked and to halt the process at that point; and secondly, the capacity to calm down, take a deep breath and, if necessary, re-plan.

Neither of those abilities is straightforward to develop. Both come with experience, and with familiarity with particular ingredients and processes. So it’s hardly surprising that I’ve rarely seen a recipe that offers much help with either.

But on both counts, a simple change of method, allied to an associated change of psychology, can make an enormous difference; not only to the quality of the meals you produce, but also to the amount of nervous energy you expend while making them.

For some reason, we have a tendency to view cooking – and in particular, so-called “fast” cooking, such as stir-frying – as a continuous, unarrestable process. Heat the pan, start adding ingredients, and keep adding, cooking and stirring until everything’s ready.

With a stir-fry, our perception is that this all has to happen very quickly. This is why any chef will tell you how important it is to have your mise en place set up in advance. (A non-chef might instead talk of the importance of getting all the meat and veg chopped before you start cooking. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing.)

The thinking behind this is entirely sound. If you have to turn away from a sizzling wok to slice a pepper, there’s every chance of something unfortunate happening during the minute or so that your attention is elsewhere. Get the preparatory tasks out of the way, and you can focus completely on the cooking.

But while the advice might be perfectly correct, it only perpetuates the notion that the cooking absolutely has to be done in a tremendous rush. Heat the oil, then it’s all systems go. Add the meat, stir, add the veg, stir some more, add your sauces, powders and unctions, stir again, serve. But whatever you do, don’t stop. You’re Magnus Magnusson: you’ve started so you’ll finish.

Most of us approach our stir-fries with this mentality, and that’s none too surprising. It’s the only way we’ve ever seen it done; either on the telly, or in the open kitchen of a noodle bar.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious once again: these are professionals, working with excellent equipment in well-appointed kitchens. When we’re armed instead with clapped-out electric cookers, a flimsy frying pans and far less experience and confidence – and when we’re subject to all the interruptions and distractions of domestic life – it’s little wonder that our own attempts often turn out rather differently.

For instance, what do you do if you misjudge the heat of the pan, so that the chicken takes forever to cook, and steadfastly refuses to brown on the outside as intended? What if you’re a little heavy-handed with the soy sauce, leaving your stir-fry sloppy and wet, instead of the prescribed “glossy”? What if your best-laid plans are sabotaged at a crucial moment by an external source: a ringing phone, or a crying baby?

If your answer in each case is “plough on and hope for the best”, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what most of us do, most of the time. But it rarely produces a happy outcome – and more to the point, it isn’t necessary.

Keep frying the chicken pieces in the under-heated pan until they finally turn vaguely brown, and they’ll end up dry and overcooked. Leave the vegetables in the pan while you wait for the excess liquid to boil down, and they’ll become soggy and miserable. Let the whole thing continue cooking for as long as it takes you to placate a screaming child, and God only knows what will happen.

But in each case – and as with so many things in life – the best solution is also the simplest.

Stop.

If the chicken isn’t browning as it should, lift it into a bowl while you get the pan back up to temperature, then try again (perhaps in two or more batches, if you’re struggling to maintain a high enough heat).

And if the meat and veg are cooked but you need to reduce the liquid, put them to one side while you do. What harm could they possibly come to as a result of spending a few minutes away from the heat? Far less, certainly, than if they were left in the pan to overcook horribly.

Extend these principles, and a potentially stressful method of cooking becomes far easier to control, and to carry out successfully.

Yes, it’s worth getting all your chopping (or mise en place, if you will) done first; but if you’ve already started cooking and suddenly realise you’ve forgotten the onions, don’t fret: just stop.

And if you regularly struggle to get the various elements of the meal ready at the same time, try a change of approach: do them one by one. Put a large bowl next to the cooker, and get started.

Fry the chicken, in as many batches as seems appropriate to the size of the pan, and put the pieces in the bowl when they’re done. Do the same with the veg, halting the cooking process while they still retain the desired amount of crunch. Then get the sauce – whether bought, concocted or some combination of the two – to a taste and texture you’re happy with, before returning everything to the pan for a final amalgamation.

Written down, this might seem a long and convoluted process. But in practice, it barely takes any longer than trying to do the whole lot in a frenzied oner.

In a suitably hot pan, and with plenty of room to move around, the chicken should be nicely browned all over in a couple of minutes. Even if you have to cook it in three batches, that’s still only six minutes in all.

But if you try to cram all the chicken into the pan at once – which, given that you’re filling it with fridge-temperature meat, is bound to cool the pan down significantly – and it’ll take at least six minutes to cook through, and probably more. And you’ll be lucky to achieve any surface browning at all.

The same applies to the veg, and in particular to the sauce. On its own in a hot pan, the liquid will reduce rapidly, and should reach a desirable consistency in moments. Force it to share the space with all the other ingredients, and you slow this process dramatically. It might take several minutes to reduce sufficiently; during which time, the meat turns to shoe leather, and the vegetables to mush.

When you break the process down into distinct, manageable stages – and in so doing, come to realise that even stir-frying, for all its associations of frenzied pace, affords you plenty of opportunities to pause, breathe and reassess – you regain control over what you’re doing. So if the phone rings, that’s OK: just turn off the heat, take the call, realise it’s another sodding recorded message about PPI, hang up and start cooking again.

Best of all, you can take the same principles and apply them to almost any style of cooking.

If the beef in your stew is cooked but the sauce is too runny, you don’t have to chuck in a load of flavour-deadening flour, or carry on cooking and risk ruining the meat. Stop; lift out the solid ingredients (or, if it seems easier, use a colander to drain off the liquid into a clean pan), and reduce the sauce, pretty much as fast as you like. A few minutes off the heat won’t do the meat or vegetables any harm; and stirred gently back into the newly reduced, thickened sauce, they’ll soon come back up to temperature.

Or if you’re making a fry-up for several people, and you’re struggling to keep track of multiple pans at once, don’t bother to try. If the sausages are ready but you haven’t started on the bacon yet, don’t worry. Just keep a dish in a very low oven (around serving temperature, 70°C or so), transfer the cooked items into it when they’re done, and forget about them until you’re ready to serve. Even toast will cope with a lengthy stint in this “holding chamber” without losing its crunch.

So you can stop worrying about getting everything ready at once, and just let things take their own time. That way, you can leave the one task that’s really time-critical – cooking the eggs – until everything else is done. Your friends might get ravenously impatient after a while; but the quality of the finished product will more than make up for the brief wait.

Almost any cooking task is rendered so much easier if you give yourself the chance to stop, think and relax. And it’s no coincidence that the few that don’t really allow you to do that – deep-frying in batter, for instance – are the same tasks that I’ll rarely bother to take on at home. Instead, I’ll try to keep my cravings for such foods in check until I find myself somewhere that’s better set up for cooking them. The chippy, for instance.

So when you next find yourself in a kitchen panic, remember that just about the worst thing you could do is to “keep calm and carry on”. Firstly, you can’t keep calm, because you’re already not calm. And secondly, it’s rarely a good idea – for your meal or your sanity – to carry on doing something that patently isn’t working.

On that basis, perhaps we could all throw away all those stupid bloody “Keep Calm” T-shirts, tea towels and mugs, and agree to a more appropriate mantra.

“Become calm…and stop.”