The No Reci-Pie Man

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Close-up photo of pies

Last Saturday afternoon, I was a proud guest at the marriage of my great friends Eilidh and Carl. In the evening, I fed 160 people at their wedding ceilidh. What’s more, I didn’t cock it up.

Here’s how I did it.

First things first. Why am I bothering to tell you all this, other than for the anatomically improbable purpose of blowing smoke up my own arse? (Actually, a length of hosepipe and a firm shove would probably do the trick, but let’s not go there.)

I’m telling you about it for a few reasons. Firstly, I’d never previously cooked for more than about 30 people. So my story might be of some help to you, if ever you find yourself catering for larger numbers than you’d ever imagined.

Secondly, I don’t always find it straightforward to explain what I mean by “no-recipe cooking”. Many people, understandably, presume I’m advocating a “throw it all in and hope for the best” approach. I’m not. But between that ill-advised method and its ultra-cautious opposite – measuring everything to the gram, millilitre or minute – there’s a vast middle ground. And that’s what I’d like to encourage all cooks to explore, whether they’re cooking for two or 200.

And thirdly, the reason I set up this blog in the first place was to encourage more people to cook the way I do: with imagination, with freedom, with the senses – and without recipes. I’m pretty much evangelistic about this, because I’ve done it, I’ve eaten the results, and I know it works. But if you haven’t, you’ll probably need some convincing. If I can’t do that by cooking for you in person, then this is probably the best example I can give you of the no-recipe method in action.

I hope it’s helpful, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

The background

I’ve never organised a wedding. But I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have. And of all the many stresses associated with the day, the catering has to be one of the greatest. You want every aspect of the day to be happy and memorable, including the food. You want to be able to feed all your guests, whatever their dietary requirements. But you don’t want to spend weeks trailing around potential caterers, shelling out two months’ wages to the only one that turns out to be available, then staring forlornly at a load of uninspiring, unwanted curled-up sandwiches at the end of the night.

Against that background, I can see why Carl and Eilidh turned to me. They’d eaten my food before, and they knew it was pretty good. They knew I wouldn’t charge the earth (in fact, I was more than happy to give my time for free, by way of a wedding present). And they knew, I hope, that I’d do everything in my power not to let them down.

But to look at it another way, they must either have been desperate or stark, staring mad. I’d never done anything approaching professional catering in my life. And while I’d fed them pleasant enough meals in the past, I hadn’t always done so at the appointed time – not always within an hour of the appointed time, in fact. If I couldn’t serve a meal for four at roughly the time I said I would, what chance did I have with 160? They haven’t said as much to me, but as the day approached, they must have woken in a cold sweat more than once at the prospect of the food turning up halfway through Auld Lang Syne.

Still, desperate or otherwise, they asked me, and at once I said yes. From that moment, I was obliged to indulge in a pastime I usually prefer to avoid.

Planning.

The plan

I was fortunate to be given free rein on what food to serve. But at the same time, there were several qualities that the meal had to have.

Most obviously, it had to be tasty. As noted above, it had to be prompt. It had to be varied enough to cater for a range of tastes, appetites and diets. As it would be served from a single buffet table, it had to be portable. It had to be a one-person job – particularly once I’d established that my flatmate and potential co-chef would be away in Portugal at the time of the wedding. Out of consideration for Eilidh and Carl’s budget, it had to be affordable. And taking all those other factors into account – it had to be doable.

All of which appeared to rule out my originally intended centrepiece for the meal: pies, and lots of them. But just as I was about to resign myself to this, I stumbled upon the company that would make the whole thing possible again: the DIY Scotch Pie Company.

The DIY Scotch Pie Company, I discovered, is a small and recently established business in Fife that makes empty Scotch pie shells and sells them by mail order. In other words: my saviour.

A few emails later, I was the proud owner of 240 mini Scotch pie shells. A “doh” moment of realisation after that, I was on a train to Kirkcaldy to pick up some vegetarian pie shells as well. And after some welcome words of advice and support from the company founder, Martin Burns, and a reassuring look at the large Combi oven that would allow me to bake four large trays of pies at a time, I was ready to write the menu.

The menu

I’d never written a menu before. And as those who know me would testify, marketing isn’t exactly my natural calling. But I’m not completely oblivious to the importance of good presentation, both of the menu and the food itself. With this in mind, I took the basic ideas I’d had for soups, stews and pie fillings, and set to work on giving them some extra allure.

For instance, as one of the vegetarian options, I wanted to make a cheese, onion and potato pie. I knew it would taste nice enough; but it didn’t sound particularly appetising. The solution: to take each constituent element and tart it up a bit. Bog-standard “cheese” became “mature cheddar”; onions were replaced by shallots; and as they’d just come into season, I decided my potato of choice would be the Jersey Royal. “Mature cheddar, Jersey Royals and shallots”: yep, that sounded a whole lot better. For a few pence per pie, and with no extra effort, I’d enhanced both the quality of my pies and – almost as importantly – their appeal.

Similar This Morning-style makeovers were applied to other parts of the menu. Broccoli and Stilton soup is cheap and easy to make, and justifiably popular, so I decided early on that it should make an appearance – but it all sounded a little familiar and dull. But if one blue cheese would work, why not another? Scotland produces some spectacular blue cheeses of its own, so I chose to go local. The soup would be not broccoli and Stilton, but broccoli and Dunsyre Blue.

On a more practical note, I planned where possible to work on multiple dishes at once. So the curry pies – one meat, one vegetarian – would come from the same onion and spice base, before being separated for the meat and vegetable additions and finishing touches. And the filling for the beef and ale pies would, with the addition of boiled potatoes, fried mushrooms and a little thyme, become the basis for one of the stews.

The other determining factor of the menu takes me back to my “no recipe” principles. Wherever possible, I like to cook without unnecessary restrictions: so if I can avoid using scales, measuring jugs and timers, I will. Precision cooking is all well and good; but imprecision cooking is so much less stressful.

The most obvious pitfall of this approach is the potential for losing track – especially with four or five giant cooking pots on the go at one time. (How long has that stew been cooking? An hour? Two hours? A week?) But if the pitfall is obvious, so too is the path around it: choose ingredients that will readily forgive a spot of inattention.

Carl and Eilidh's wedding menu

Look through the menu and you’ll see that everything on it is oversight-friendly.

The soups were to be blended, not chunky; so it’d hardly matter if I cooked the vegetables for far too long (which I did). Shin of beef takes a good three hours to become tender, and several hours longer to fall apart. (I’ve no idea how long I ended up simmering it, but the chunks of meat stayed happily intact.) The flesh of a chicken is more delicate; but by using thigh meat instead of breast, and with plenty of chorizo to donate flavour and lubricating fat, even this would stand up to a fair bit of careless cooking.

The shopping

With the menu finalised, it was time to shop.

Actually, when I say “finalised”, that isn’t quite true. Yes, I’d given names to each of the dishes; but I didn’t know exactly what they’d comprise. I hadn’t worked out which vegetables and spices would find their way into the vegetable curry (in the end, I went for sweet potato, peppers and marrow), or how tomato-ey I’d make the chicken stew.

I did toy briefly with the idea of doing a trial run of the meal in advance of the wedding, to give me a better idea of quantities and proportions, but decided against it for a couple of good reasons.

Firstly, producing a small-scale version of the wedding meal wouldn’t have come close to replicating the challenges of the real thing, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment.

Secondly – and far more significantly – I couldn’t be arsed.

Instead, I worked out – very roughly – how much of each meat I’d need, along with the other main (i.e. advertised) ingredients such as cheese and broccoli. That was as far as I intended to dabble in weights and measures. Beyond that, I decided simply to buy a shedload of the flavouring and bulking ingredients that would find their way into several of the dishes (carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes), along with plenty of the extras that would allow me to adjust, boost and balance the flavours at the last minute: not just the obligatory salt and pepper, but sweeteners (sugar, honey, mango chutney) and sharpeners (lemon, vinegar) as well.

And I had no shame at all in buying a selection of “lazy” ingredients: stock cubes (good ones, mind you), curry pastes, minced ginger, tinned beans as opposed to dried. My bad. I promise to do better next time – if you agree to provide me with an army of sous-chefs. Otherwise, I won’t. [Gratuitous plug: for a more extensive take on so-called “cheating” at cooking, beg or borrow a copy of Fire and Knives issue 12 and read my article in that. Gratuitous plug ends.]

In short, I tried to make everything about the meal preparations, from shopping to serving, as “normal” as possible. In my day-to-day life, I don’t make minutely detailed shopping lists, turn my nose up at “cheaty” ingredients, weigh ingredients to the nearest gram or time my cooking to the minute. So why do things differently here? Adopting a load of new habits would only make a tough task tougher.

In retrospect, this was the best single decision I made during my first attempt at mass catering: that I would do it the no-recipe way.

The day before

All of this sounded great in theory. But as a catering novice, I still had no real idea how well it would work in practice. At around 4pm on Friday, on being handed the key to the kitchen, it was time to find out.

As others set to work decorating the hall – stunningly, as it turned out – I plugged in my iPod and speakers and tried to work out where to start.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I already knew where to start: in the logical place. My soups, stews and pie fillings would all take different amounts of time to cook: three hours (ish) for the beef, two for the lamb, barely an hour for the chicken, and even less for the various veggie options. So that, roughly speaking, would be the order of events.

So, having sliced 4 kilos of beef into what Fergus Henderson describes as “pie-sized chunks” – now there’s a man who appreciates that there’s a time for specifics and a time for common sense – I was ready to cook.

I mentioned a little earlier that I saw little point in doing a scaled-down dry run of the meal, and here’s why. Had I been making this stew for three or four people, I’d have done a lot of things differently – and, to be honest, better. I’d have dusted the meat with seasoned flour and seared it in small batches, maybe 200g at a time, so that the browning flavours (and colours) would dissolve into and enhance the sauce. But with 4 kilos of meat, that would have equated to 20 batches. Sod that.

Instead, the browning phase became more of a token effort – three big batches, as I recall – giving the meat a bit of colour, but not much. Where I’d ordinarily have softened the onions slowly to release their sweetness, here they received little more than a cursory shoogle-about in the pan. And while I’d have liked to have made a rich beef stock to enhance the gravy, there just wasn’t the time or space here. So I’d have to look elsewhere for my flavour boosts.

“Elsewhere”, in this case, refers to a few good beef stock cubes, plus a couple of big bones, bought for 50p each from the butcher’s freezer and left to simmer away with the rest of the meat.

So this wasn’t going to be my dream stew, then; but under the circumstances, it would more than do.

Similar short cuts applied to just about everything on the menu. Any spare bones were added to the appropriate pots – I’d bought the lamb and chicken on the bone for this exact purpose – and my powders and pastes were thrown into the curries with something approaching abandon.

While the stews bubbled away, it occurred to me that the whole operation was, so far, proving remarkably serene; and so, for the time being, it continued. A quick sample indicated that the chicken was cooked, so I added the last-minute ingredients (olives from a jar, haricot beans from a tin), adjusted the sweet/sour/salt balance (in this case, with sugar, balsamic vinegar and just a little salt, as the chorizo already contained plenty), then, after a final taste to confirm that all was as it should be, took the stew off the heat. One dish down, seven to go.

The same pattern applied to each dish: check for cooked-ness; add any final ingredients; adjust the seasoning with appropriate sweeteners and sharpeners (redcurrant jelly and red wine vinegar for the beef; mango chutney and white wine vinegar for the curries); and leave to cool. Where the stews needed thickening, I used cornflour dissolved in a little water. Perhaps wheat flour would have been preferable in some cases; but the risk of filling my stews with little gluey lumps was too great for me to take.

As more dishes were completed and more hobs freed up, I caught up with some of the remaining jobs: boiling spuds, wilting spinach, starting out on the soups. I kept half an eye on the clock, but only for selfish reasons: I was determined to make it to the pub in time for last orders. Beyond that, I had little reason to worry about timings at this stage; that was an issue for the following day.

The night before

Whatever job you happen to be doing, it’s important to take time out to unwind. Arguably, I did this to a fault: a quick pint before last orders turned into a trip to an impromptu house gig featuring the wonderful Viking Moses. My state at the end of the evening is summed up by this video (warning – contains strong language and gratuitous close-up beardage).

(Some context might be useful here. Just before I left, I was discussing the following day’s pie plans with the illustrious DJ, video editor and occasional guest star of this blog, Dylan Matthews. Dylan was patiently explaining to me that it didn’t matter how much meat or gravy I put into my pies, as long as I put a lot of love into them. Understandably alarmed, Tom Youll suggested strongly that I should avoid putting any love into them at all – hence the “love pies”/”no love pies” debate.)

The wedding day

Fuzzy-headed as I was, I hadn’t completely lost sight of what remained to be done. And unlike the day before, the success of Saturday – well, my part of it, at least – would all be in the timing.

The ceremony would take place at 1pm. At 5pm, after the first of the post-wedding feeds (this one, mercifully, not my responsibility), I’d be free to return to the kitchen. The ceilidh would begin at 7, and I’d be serving food at 9.

I’d left myself a couple of jobs for the morning – making the broccoli soup and finishing off the veg curry – so I popped into the kitchen to complete these before donning my gladrags and making my way to the wedding, which, as you can see on the Darroch Photography blog, was bloody fantastic.

All of this meant that, come 5pm, I was exactly at the point I’d hoped to be: everything cooked and ready to reheat, with only one job left to complete. One job; but it was a biggie.

Making the pies.

Several pies

This was the point at which, to use a highly technical piece of chef’s terminology, I began to shite it. Every task I’d done up to this point had felt familiar, even if the scale didn’t. But this was new territory, and the doubts began to appear.

How long would it take me to make, roll and cut the pastry for around 200 pie tops? Were the DIY cases as good as the online testimonies suggested, or would I open the boxes to find hundreds of mouldy and/or shattered shells? Would I just end up panicking and running out of the kitchen, jumping on a train to the Highlands and living out the rest of my days in a bothy?

Well, no, I wouldn’t. I’d like to make this bit sound more dramatic than it was, but as soon as I started up my pie production line, I realised it was all going to be OK. With an hour and a half to go until service, I was feeling in control again, and my kitchen looked like this:

The author in the kitchen

And with a bit of welcome assistance in transporting the food to the buffet table, the guests were happily slurping and chomping away by 9pm. (OK then, 9.05pm.)

Not everything went exactly as planned, of course. Without the benefit of properly browned meat, the beef looked rather more like dog food than I’d have liked; though it still tasted bloody good. And I didn’t have time to make quite as many pies as I’d hoped – though 168 isn’t half bad – so I’ve been left with rather a lot of spare shells. But that’s hardly a disaster: it just means I’m going to have to eat an awful lot of pies over the next few weeks. Life’s a bitch, eh?

Importantly, everyone seemed to enjoy the food. At least two people told me that these were the best pies I’d ever eaten – and one of them wasn’t even visibly drunk. Vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free-ers stopped to thank me for thinking of them while planning the menu: many of them hadn’t expected to find anything they’d be able to eat.

And most of all, Eilidh and Carl loved it: the food, the dancing, the music – everything. So my last words are to them: many, many congratulations, all my very best wishes for the future, and thanks for inviting me to be part of the day.

It was a crazy idea, but somehow it worked.

[All photos by kind permission of Darroch Photography, apart from the blurry and rubbish one, which is my own.]

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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.

Chicken à la Gran

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Gwen Lees

At what point would you begin to describe yourself as a good cook?

Is there a particular rite of passage involved? Does it happen when you first cook something that wouldn’t be out of place at a half-decent restaurant? When you host a successful dinner party? The first time you make a proper pie from scratch?

In the absence of an agreed definition, here’s my take on the subject.

I started to believe I was a decent cook when I realised that, instead of thinking “how do I make this dish?”, I found myself thinking, “what shall I make with these ingredients?”

As with most life changes, I’d struggle to pinpoint exactly when this shift of perspective took place. But at a conservative estimate, I’d say it took me ten years of regular cooking, and quite possibly more. And if I’m honest, I’m still learning.

Looking back, this probably isn’t surprising. Learning my cooking skills in the 1990s through reading books, watching TV and following recipes, I was in thrall to the celebrity chefs who were just beginning to take over our tellies. I’d go round to my Gran’s house and watch Ready Steady Cook with her; and as the likes of James Martin came up with fabulous-looking meals on the hoof, I’d wonder aloud how exactly they managed to do that.

As I recall, my Gran didn’t say much, if anything, in response. But on reflection, I’m sure she must have been smiling to herself. She knew exactly how they did it, because she used to do the same thing herself, every day.

By my definition of “good” cooking, my generation are indisputably lesser cooks than our grandparents – or, in most cases, our grandmothers – were. We might be able to produce pleasant enough meals. But because we’ve grown up in a time of plenty – plenty of choice, at least, if not necessarily plenty of money – we simply haven’t learned to innovate.

In the cases of my grandmother and her contemporaries, innovation was born of necessity. Bringing up four children during post-war rationing, the ability to conjur a meal from whatever happened to be around was an essential survival skill, not a lifestyle choice.

Moreover, it was a skill she had to develop swiftly. By her own admission, when she got married, she couldn’t even boil an egg. (Though as I’ve mentioned before, I have some sympathy with that.)

When I came to sample her cooking, some forty years on, it reflected the good habits she’d taught herself as a young mother. She had a seemingly miraculous ability to expand a meal to serve twice the number, or deal with an excess of a particular ingredient without wastage or over-repetition.

(That last point, incidentally, is more fundamental than it might seem. As the ever-excellent Amy Fleming explains in the Guardian this week, the urge to avoid eating the same thing over and over again is more than mere fussiness: it’s hard-wired into us for our own survival and well-being.)

So my interest in – OK then, obsession with – creative, resourceful cooking can be traced directly back to my Gran. In fact, I can see her influence in almost all of the principles I’ve discussed on this blog.

For instance, she had a tremendous appreciation of flavour and texture; and in particular, how to create contrasts of flavour and texture in order to enhance a meal. She saw any foodstuff as a potential ingredient, if the circumstances were right; to the point that various unlikely foods – crisps, biscuits, breakfast cereals – found their way into her creations, to remarkably good effect.

And while she enjoyed cooking, she saw no point in toiling away for hours for the sake of it – especially when the wine was flowing freely in the other room. So she would happily use tinned or otherwise prepared ingredients when it made sense to do so. Some might see this as cheating; to her, it was merely common sense.

These traits were captured in one particularly memorable meal – a spicy, creamy chicken casserole containing, among many other things: a tin of Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup; tinned artichoke hearts (why go through the palaver of preparing fresh ones if they’re going to spend an hour or more in a stew?); and a crunchy topping made from…Phileas Fogg corn chips.

Memorable it may have been – to the point that my sister and I still talk about it in awed tones – but like anything she cooked, it was never to be repeated in exactly the same form. There was no point asking her to recreate a dish, because she wouldn’t be able to tell you how she’d made it. In any case, the contents of the fridge and cupboards would never be exactly the same as the previous time; so the resulting meal would be different too.

As you’ll gather from the Ready Steady Cook example, I didn’t give all this a lot of thought at the time. Only in her later years, when she was too unwell to cook and I could no longer enjoy her creations, did I realise that one of my greatest ambitions – in fact, one of my only clear ambitions – was to be able to cook like my Gran.

It was, and remains, a worthy ambition, if a relatively uncommon one. Her skills, if not altogether lost, are far rarer these days, because we have so much more choice in what and how to eat than she did when she was feeding her family.

To reiterate, I’m not ignoring or denying the fact that millions of people are living below the poverty line. But in 2013, we’re presented with a huge selection of available ingredients, as well as countless cheap if not exactly nutritious alternatives to resourceful home cooking.

Under such circumstances, how do we get people cooking as my Gran did? And do we really need to?

To answer the second question first: yes we do. Even if we accept regular food scares as an inevitable by-product of our pursuit of cheap food, there’s a limit to how far costs can be trimmed. Food prices are rising overall, and will continue to do so, with the consequence that even the nastiest reformed-meat horror shows will take an increasing chunk from already tight household incomes. And if we continue to throw away the best part of half the food we produce, rather than teaching ourselves the skills and thought processes that will allow us to make use of it, the problem will only get worse.

Back to the first question, then. How do we learn – or relearn – to cook?

I don’t believe it has to be a massive undertaking. A collective lack of confidence, combined with a bewildering array of cooking and eating options, might have led us to fall out of the habit of thinking creatively; but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capacity to do so.

As I’ve written before, we all know more about food and cooking than we realise. Everything we’ve ever eaten has the potential to teach us something about cooking, if we only stop to think about it.

My Gran certainly understood this. Her wartime service in Italy introduced her to a range of ingredients and flavours she’d never have encountered at home. She didn’t actually do any cooking while she was there; but years later, when the relevant ingredients became available in Britain, she was able to introduce them to her meals. (On reflection, this would explain why much of what she cooked was so magnificently garlicky.)

As you’ve probably gathered, I could talk all day about my Gran and her cooking. But it wouldn’t get us all that far; and she certainly wouldn’t have appreciated an extended public tribute. So instead, here’s a real life, practical example of how cooking like my Gran – or, more specifically, thinking like her – remains as useful and relevant as ever.

Cooking “Gran-style” – a case study

Recently, I bought a chicken.

My decision to buy it was a relatively straightforward one. First of all, I wanted to eat some chicken. Second of all, the choice of free range chicken in the supermarket was typically depressing: a few whole birds for about 7 quid apiece, or countless twin packs of breast fillets for a fiver. The bits I really wanted to buy – whole legs or thighs – were nowhere to be seen. Not for the first time, looking across shelf after shelf of identical breast fillets, I found myself wondering where all the chicken legs actually go.

Anyway, I worked out that if two breasts cost £5 on their own, and if the whole chickens would almost certainly boast two breasts apiece, all I needed to work out was whether the remainder of the bird – comprising (to my mind) all the best meat, plus the skin and bones that would make a fabulous stock – was worth two quid of my money. Not a difficult decision.

So I bought a whole free range bird. As chickens go, this one wasn’t huge. But it was still more than my flatmate and I would be able to manage in a single sitting.

This left me with a few options. The first, and the simplest, was to roast the chicken whole, eat what we wanted, then think of a way to use up the leftovers.

Contrary to popular cliché, however, the simplest ideas aren’t always the best. Had I taken this option, I know exactly what would have happened. We’d both have gorged on our favourite bits – the legs, the wings, the little nuggets of juicy meat next to the backbone – and left the dry, pale breasts untouched, condemned to a future of distinctly unappetising chicken sarnies. Once we’d worked our joyless way through those, hopefully I’d have found time to make the carcass into stock before it began to smell a bit iffy. But I have to confess, my record on that is some way short of 100%.

An alternative possibility was to take the meat off the chicken before cooking. On the face of it, this had several advantages. It would have provided enough meat for two separate meals – one made with the breasts, the other with the rest – thus reducing the scope for unappealing leftovers, as well as sidestepping the problem of cooking the breast and leg meat together, when the former requires much less time to cook. It would have allowed me to make the stock that same day, and to use some of it to make tasty sauces for the two dishes. And best of all, it would have given me the opportunity to announce, “I’m just off to bone the chicken”, before bursting into fits of schoolboy giggles.

So this plan had quite a lot going for it, and only one downside: I really, really couldn’t be arsed.

I’m sure an expert butcher could bone out a chicken in a couple of minutes. Well, I can’t. Experience has shown me that it takes me at least fifteen minutes, and sometimes more, to get a significant majority of the meat from a raw chicken. It’s a messy, fiddly job, and the kitchen always ends up looking like a Hammer horror set by the time I’ve finished.

So I’d ruled out one option because I didn’t much fancy the likely outcome, and another because it failed the all-important “arsedness test”. What to do?

Fortunately, there was a third option – a method I’d come up with a couple of years back, using my very best Gran logic.

Removing the meat from a whole chicken is messy and laborious; but removing the breast fillets is an absolute doddle. (If you’ve never done it before, there’s many a YouTube clip to show you how, such as this one.)

With the breast meat removed and set aside for a future stir-fry, all I do is cut away the breastbone with scissors, so that the chicken lies flat when placed upside down, and I’m left with an ideally proportioned two-person roast.

Cooked this way, what would have been the soggy underside of the bird instead crisps up nicely in the oven. And without the breast meat to worry about, it’s far easier to cook – or should I say, far more difficult to overcook – than a whole bird. Finally, the bones – both the roasted carcass and the raw breastbone – get turned into stock, either the next day or (my preference) overnight in the slow cooker.

So. I had my chicken. I had my plan. All was well with the world, and I imagined my Gran giving an approving nod at my resourcefulness. I got home, thoroughly pleased with myself, before remembering something rather important.

My flatmate was in Portugal.

Some swift replanning was required. A chicken that would comfortably have served four – or, as I’d originally envisaged, two people twice over – now had to serve one person. Repeatedly.

All of a sudden, many of the parameters had changed – but not quite all of them. I still couldn’t be bothered to bone the chicken – especially with no flatmate with whom to share my smutty jokes. But the roasting option, with its now-inevitable excess of leftovers, had to be ruled out. And with no freezer space going spare, my primary challenge was to find a way to get through the whole bird on my own, with enough variety to minimise the risk of chicken fatigue.

There was only one question to be asked at this point: “What Would Granny Do?”

After a moment’s reflection, I decided she’d probably have done this.

I cut away the breasts as usual, bunged the rest into a large saucepan along with a couple of onions, a carrot and a few peppercorns, and brought the pan to the gentlest possible simmer.

After an hour’s simmering, the chicken was cooked and the stock, enhanced by the presence of lean meat as well as the skin and bones, was starting to look and smell very tempting indeed. But I knew that, while the meat itself was cooked through, the skin and bones had plenty left to give.

I lifted the chicken out of its hot bath and left it on the worktop to cool for fifteen minutes or so. Once it had cooled enough to handle, I picked the just-cooked meat – easily two meals’ worth of it – away from the bones, which went back into the stock for another couple of hours, enhancing its colour and flavour even further.

Here, incidentally, is demonstrated the value of the “arsedness test” – which is firmly grounded in my Gran’s principles, even if the terminology is very much my own. Removing the meat from a raw chicken, as I’ve indicated, demands a lot of skilled knife work and even more patience. Removing it from a cooked, cold chicken is easier, but still requires a fair bit of cutting, prising and tugging as the cooled-down meat clings determinedly to the carcass. But with a moist, still-warm bird, the meat comes away in the fingers with minimal persuasion. In other words, it passes the arsedness test with flying colours.

Over the course of three hours – but only a few minutes’ actual work – my single whole chicken had turned into three ingredients, each of them full of potential: breast meat (raw); the meat from the legs and body (cooked, but not overcooked, and ripe for reuse in any number of dishes); and rich, tasty stock. Yes, I’d be eating chicken for a few days to come. But importantly, I wouldn’t have to eat the same thing twice.

So I turned half the stock into a broccoli and potato soup, using the veg I’d originally earmarked for the two person roast, and topped this off with a few shreds of the cooked meat. Over the following three days, I made a stir-fry that used up both breasts (a touch excessive to feed one, perhaps, but sod it) and two meals (a curry and a pasta sauce, as I recall) from the remaining meat. Each of these was enhanced with a little of the remaining stock. And all that – four quite different meals, one of them preposterously large – from a single free range chicken.

Of the tasks I’ve just described, there’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself, whether you’re an experienced cook or a novice. I had all the skills needed to do it myself while I was still in my teens. But it had simply never occurred to me to do it

In other words, it’s taken me twenty-odd years to think like my Gran – that is, to think in terms of resources rather than process, and to respond creatively to changes of circumstances. And most importantly of all, to understand there’s more than one way to skin a cat – or, in this case, divide up a chicken.

The Hunger Games

There’s a significant danger I won’t come out of this article with my credibility enhanced.

Not to worry. I was a geek before I was old enough to know what the word meant, so I shouldn’t really fret too much about flaunting my continued geekery on the web. So here goes.

It’s my strong belief that cooking should fit around the rest of your life, not the other way round. And if you agree with that mantra, it follows that what and how you cook will change depending on what else you’re up to.

This is hardly a ground-breaking observation, of course. Plenty of writers and TV chefs have offered cooking advice to suit particular situations: for instance, dinner party dishes that can be prepared in advance and require the minimum of last-minute activity from the host.

But what about all those times when you’re not hosting a dinner party? Shouldn’t cooking always be situation-specific, even when the occasion isn’t all that special?

Of course it should. But when it comes to everyday meals, there’s only so much assistance a cookbook can provide.

The dinner party example is a familiar one to most of us. Even if we don’t play host all that often, it’s useful to get some advice and reassurance when we do. But our daily cooking routines are less well suited to “catch-all” advice. We cook different things, at different times, on different budgets, for different numbers of people. So we’re never likely to find a “how-to” book that quite matches our particular situation.

If such bespoke cookbooks did exist, mine would be quite an unusual read.

Why? Because I’m a gamer.

I’ve been playing computer games since long before I knew how to cook. And my gaming preferences, established on a BBC Micro and green-screen Amstrad CPC, are the product of a different era. Not for us your snatched 2-minute game of Angry Birds. The computer games I played as a kid could take ten minutes or more to load from tape, if they decided to load at all. Having stared at the screen for most of that time, desperately willing the title screen to appear rather than yet another error message, I’d need to play it for at least an hour, and probably several, in order to justify the time and nervous energy I’d expended getting the bloody thing started in the first place.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem. Back then, if I could have played games all day, every day, I would have. Even now that I’m a grown-up – legally, at least – the urge hasn’t entirely left me. And while the demands of adult life aren’t really conducive to near-constant gaming, I still like to devote the occasional evening (or, exceptionally, an entire weekend) to the indulgent pleasures of my computer or console.

When I do, my cooking requirements are very specific. I still need to eat; and while it’s sometimes tempting to exercise the time-honoured gamer’s opt-out (phoning for a pizza), I’ve neither the money nor the inclination to do this every time I decide to have a Playstation session. But equally, I’ve no intention of putting a thrilling Mexican World Cup campaign on hold to peel a pound of spuds. And if my meticulously planned Polynesian invasion of Denmark reaches a pivotal stage just as the oven timer tells me that dinner’s ready, it’s the meal that will have to wait, not the march of the troops.

So my circumstances – or rather, my wishes – effectively lead me towards a certain way of cooking.

I want a meal that can be assembled in short bursts away from the screen, not in a single extended stint in the kitchen. It needs to be something I can safely put on hold – for an hour or more, potentially – when “urgent” matters intervene. And as I’ve no intention whatsoever of leaving the flat, it’s going to have to correspond with whatever I happen to have in the fridge and cupboards.

On the face of it, this is quite a restrictive set of requirements. But that suits me perfectly; because it prompts me to cook in a way that doesn’t just accommodate my gaming, but that I can approach as I would a video game.

Many of the games that have become enduring classics – the Grand Theft Auto series, say, or any number of strategy and exploration games from Elite to Skyrim – owe their longevity to a carefully judged balance of linear and non-linear activity. In other words, the ultimate goal of the game never changes, but the player can employ any number of routes to get there, and much of the stimulation and fun can be found in the journey, not the outcome.

Take away that overall aim, though, and a lazy but frequently heard criticism of computer games – that they’re fundamentally pointless – takes on a ring of truth, even to an unashamed gamer like me.

When you cook, the aim of the game should be self-evident: you’d really quite like to have something to eat. But how you go about achieving that – which individual missions you take on, and in what order – is up to you.

The other night, I had some chicken thighs that needed using up, and a range of other ingredients including pancetta and tinned tomatoes. In other circumstances, I might have taken time to remove the skin and bone from the chicken pieces, dice up the meat, brown it along with the pancetta, soften some onions and garlic, then allow the whole thing to simmer away while I cooked the accompanying pasta.

But this time, my flatmate and I had an important, evening-long appointment with Civilization V. Time, then, for a spot of gamer logic.

I declared the onions to be “optional” (that’s to say, fiddly) and decided to leave them out. The chicken went – skin, bones and all – into a medium-low oven, along with salt, pepper, a healthy splash of olive oil and a couple of crushed fat garlic cloves. A tin of tomatoes was emptied into a saucepan and placed on a very low hob to reduce. Two minutes. Back to the game.

Some time later – I’d guess around forty minutes, but I’ve no real idea – a trip to get a beer from the fridge afforded the opportunity for a quick check on proceedings. The tomatoes were beginning to thicken and darken nicely, to the point that they needed a spot of lubrication as well as flavour. So the seasoned, chickeny, garlicky oil went from the oven dish into the tomatoes, which immediately took on an alluring gloss, and the diced pancetta went in with the chicken. One minute. Back to the game.

The need for another beer prompted a further progress update. The skin of the chicken had crisped up nicely, as had the pancetta. The tomato sauce had, if anything, overreduced slightly, but that was easily rectified with the addition of a little white wine (red wine or water would have done different but perfectly good jobs). A quick taste, followed by an appropriate adjustment of the seasonings (in this case, a little sugar and the tiniest dash of white wine vinegar), and the sauce was done. Two minutes (at the most).

Five minutes’ work, spread across a thoroughly leisurely evening, and dinner was a pan of pasta away. But frankly, I was having far too much fun for that. Time to turn the oven into the trusty “holding pen”.

So I turned the oven down to 70°C, put a lid on the sauce and a loose foil covering on the chicken, put them both in the oven and carried on with my game. Only when the need to eat finally overcame the urge to keep playing did I take the final step of putting some macaroni on. And even then, once that was bubbling away cheerfully, I still managed to fit in a further few minutes’ world conquest before draining the pasta, tossing it in the sauce (itself given a final boost by the addition of the cooked pancetta), and topping it with the crispy chicken, haphazardly torn from the bones.

It was delicious – made all the more so by the self-imposed wait, and by the satisfaction that comes from making a tasty meal with minimal effort. With a lowish oven temperature, plus the protection afforded by its skin and bones, there was never any realistic chance that the chicken would end up overcooked and dry. And the tasks that would have required the most time – the chopping and the browning – were largely sidestepped, because my gamer’s instinct allowed me to find a suitable way round them.

If you’re not a gamer yourself, is all this actually of any relevance?

I’d argue that it is. The precise circumstances might be gamer-specific; but the broader situation is a relatively common one. There will always be times when you need to create a meal from what you happen to have in the house, or when you’re obliged to start cooking before you know exactly when mealtime will be. And even if you’ve never played a computer game in your life, and have no intention of starting now, there’ll be occasions when you have to cook but you’d much rather be doing something else.

Take a rigid approach to your cooking, with strict adherence to prescribed ingredients, timings and processes, and you’ll struggle to do any of these things successfully. What you decide to cook will determine what else you’re able to do, and when you’re able to do it.

But think creatively and laterally – in other words, like a gamer – and you come to realise what some of us have known for years: the game itself may never change; but there are infinite ways to complete it.