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.

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What do you mean, no recipes?

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I launched this blog in something of a hurry, and with something of a rant.

It occurs to me that I should probably explain a little more of what the blog is about, why I’m writing it, and who I’m writing it for.

So, in the “first things second” spirit in which I seem to have approached this blog, here’s the closest I’m likely to come to a mission statement.

First of all, when I say “no recipes”, I’m not denying that recipes can be useful, or that I never refer to them when I cook at home.

There’s a whole category of cooking that depends on weights, measures, precision timing and often dramatic chemical reactions. You’d struggle to make decent soufflés, pastry or bread, particularly the first few times, without the assistance of a recipe. To varying degrees, the same applies to pâtés and terrines, jams and jellies, and all sorts of other foods.

But for the vast majority of the meals I cook, I have neither the need nor the inclination to follow a recipe. If I can do without the kitchen scales, the measuring spoons and the timer on my phone, and instead rely on my senses and imagination, I will. It’s less hassle and much more fun.

Nonetheless, the majority – the huge majority – of food writing is in the form of recipes. I often enjoy reading (as distinct from following) them, and I’m always interested to see a combination of ingredients, or a way of cooking a particular foodstuff, that I’ve never considered before.

But actually following them from start to finish? Not so much.

I don’t think cooking should feel like a chore. But when I cook from recipes, it does. The prospect of noting down the required ingredients, trudging round the shops to buy them, measuring them out meticulously, then following the chef’s instructions to the letter, seems a thoroughly miserable way to spend my time.

And if for some reason I do decide to do all this, and the finished dish turns out to be an unqualified triumph, it still leaves me feeling hollow somehow. Because what have I really achieved, other than demonstrating that (1) somebody I don’t know has devised a nice recipe, and (2) I am capable of following basic instructions? As my eight year old self might have put it: “big wow”.

I seem to be in a minority, though, because as a society we’re consuming more and more food writing, almost all of it in the form of recipes. Sales of recipe books continue to grow; and of course, there’s the small matter of the Internet, through which we can obtain any number of recipes, instantly and for free, for any dish it might occur to us to cook.

That cookbooks continue to sell in their millions in the Internet age is little short of extraordinary, when their reasons for existing have, on the face of it, disappeared. The equivalent recipes, by the same authors and thousands of others, are a Google search away; and the more technical elements – how to fillet a flatfish, say – are demonstrated more clearly and informatively on YouTube than through the static diagrams and photos in a cookbook.

This paradox is explored by Claire Strickett in her brilliant piece, The Tyranny of the Recipe. She argues that “the same kind of behaviour that drives millions to buy gym memberships they’ll barely use drives people to buy cookbooks. The act of purchasing itself feels like a commitment – an achievement, even. Googling a recipe can’t give you that comforting illusion.”

I don’t mean to tell you how to live; but if you have the slightest interest in cooking, and you don’t read Strickett’s article, you’re making a colossal error. It’s the best deconstruction I’ve ever read of the essential pointlessness, and indeed unhelpfulness, of the “recipe first” approach, and of how the ubiquity of the recipe is making us worse, not better, cooks.

Her conclusion is as compelling as it is inescapable, and also does me the helpful service of capturing exactly what this blog is for:

“Freedom from lists and instructions should be the end goal of the home cook – it is more satisfying, much easier, and less time-consuming. A lot more liberating, too. We need to put cooking back in a wider context, not just of other directly food-related issues but questions of economy, health and the environment, for it is always connected to those broader issues, whether we think about it or not.”

Quite so. And in fairness, several of our more celebrated food writers have been trying to do exactly that – in amongst the obligatory recipes, obviously. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall merits particular recognition on that front: whether or not you agree with his point of view (and I usually do), you couldn’t accuse him of ignoring the wider context. And more than most, he encourages readers to think, improvise and invent for themselves.

But if he were to leave the recipes out of his weekly Guardian piece, there’d be uproar. Where we see food writing, we’re conditioned to expect recipes. And if we don’t find them, we tend to presume it’s some sort of ultra-highbrow piece, relevant only to the cooking-obsessed few.

Have a search around the web for “no recipe cooking”, or similar, and the Internet cupboard is unusually bare. There are a handful of books available on the subject – Glynn Christian’s How to Cook Without Recipes and Philip Dundas’s Cooking Without Recipes are both worth exploring – and there are a few discussion threads on specialist food websites and forums. But by comparison with the volume of recipes available online, there’s very little to be found.

Most tellingly – and amusingly, to me at least – there’s a very successful (and very good) US website called norecipes.com. Have a look at the homepage, and one thing is likely to strike you before anything else: there are hundreds and hundreds of recipes on there.

To give due credit to site author Marc Matsumoto, he does acknowledge this point in the site FAQs:

“I can see how this might be confusing, but to clear it up, I make almost everything I post without a recipe. I think cooking is most fun and innovative when you just wing it. I do recognize that not everyone is as adventurous as me, so I post the ingredients and method to give you a starting point. It’s my hope that by telling the backstory of a dish and teaching you basic techniques, I’ll arm you with the know-how and give you the inspiration and confidence to come up with your own dishes sans recipe.”

Fair enough, I suppose. And Matsumoto’s recipes are much fuller and more informative than most, offering plenty of contextual information and explanation among the directions.

But something still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Are we so completely inured to working from recipes that even a site called “no recipes” is chock-bloody-full of them?

Perhaps we are. And if so, it’s possible that I’m wasting my time and yours. But I’d like to think there’s a bit of room in this recipe-stuffed world for a different kind of food writing.

I’m talking about words intended to be read at leisure, between meals; not in the kitchen, next to a dangerously hot frying pan, while desperately trying to remember whether you’re supposed to add the mushrooms or the onions first.

I’m talking about ideas and principles that encourage you to approach your cooking in a different, more liberated and creative way; and that, once you’ve read and absorbed them, will leave you feeling a little more confident and capable next time you set foot in the kitchen, and every time after that.

I’m talking about advice that enables you to cook with a degree of flexibility that a recipe never will, so you can adjust your approach to suit your circumstances, and those of your fellow eaters: ingredients, time, equipment, finances, numbers, preferences, allergies and so on.

And I’m talking about writing that will help you to discover, if you haven’t already, that cooking needn’t just be another domestic task, to be fitted around the washing, ironing and hoovering, but a genuine source of pleasure and fulfilment.

Is that too much to ask?

Well, we’ll soon find out, won’t we?