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 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.