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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Beef and pea soup, anyone?

Beef and Pea

I’m all in favour of a spot of innovation in cooking. It’s pretty much what this blog is all about.

But there’s a fine line between innovation and total weirdness. And even when you’re eating the results of your most recent brainwave, it can be hard to be certain which side of the line you’ve fallen.

My friend Dylan, who was born and raised in a pub – what a fine grounding in life – told me a story recently that illustrated this neatly. He was on duty one Monday afternoon, and precisely nothing was occurring: no customers, no sign of any customers, and no apparent threat of any customers in the foreseeable future. Then the door opened, and a hiker walked in, exhausted and in search of something hot and sustaining.

What’s the soup of the day?” asked the hungry hiker.

Just a moment,” replied Dylan, thinking on his feet. “I’ll just go and ask the chef.”

Of course, there was no chef, save for Dylan himself. He went to the kitchen and checked the fridge to find it entirely bare, save for some scant leftovers from Sunday lunch: a few cooked garden peas, and a jug of beef gravy. Inspiration – of sorts – struck. He returned to the bar.

I’ve had a word with the chef, and the soup of the day is…er…beef and pea.”

There was a brief pause as the hiker processed this presumably unexpected news and weighed the pros and cons in his mind. Eventually, hunger got the better of trepidation, the “soup” was duly ordered, and Dylan went back to the kitchen to assemble what may be the world’s first and only portion of beef and pea soup.

Dylan watched closely as the hiker sat by the window and worked his way through his creation. His expression veered between curiosity, suspicion and satisfaction; but ultimately he finished up, and rather enjoyed, his bowl of improbable soup-gravy.

And in retrospect, why wouldn’t he have? After all, it was unusual only in what it lacked. If you were nearing the end of your Sunday roast and had only a pool of gravy and a few peas remaining, you’d think nothing of grabbing a spoon and slurping them all up. But put the same ingredients in a bowl and call it soup, and for some reason it becomes weird.

Of course, some other combinations seem weird for a simpler reason: because they actually are weird.

My own low point occurred in my late teens, at a holiday cottage in beautiful Bamburgh, when much beer had been consumed but very few ingredients purchased. The outcome of these circumstances – spam curry with “inside-out rice” (inexplicably soggy in the middle and crunchy on the outside) – still causes those who consumed it to shudder at the memory.

But even here, there’s some crossover with the beef-and-pea example, in that much (though certainly not all) of its perceived oddness lay in its unexpectedness. It’s true that spam is pretty horrible stuff – apologies to any devotees who might be reading, but you’re wrong – but my logic at the time was that its taste would be suitably obliterated by the power of the curry sauce.

And in a way, I was right: it wasn’t that the taste was so troubling but the texture. Accustomed to eating meat curries of various kinds, we’d become used to the chewy resistance of the chunks of lamb or chicken. Replacing these with the oddly textureless spam meant that the whole experience was simply too unfamiliar to enjoy (leaving aside – as we assuredly did – the science-defyingly unpleasant rice).

So what – if any – are the lessons of these two examples?

Well, to take my own experience first, the most obvious learning point is “don’t cook with spam”. Or rather, if you do decide to cook with spam, be alive to its bizarre texture and address this in the way you cook it. There’s a reason why the fritter is one of the more enduring (and less nasty) ways to serve spam: it’s because the crisp batter provides a degree of textural interest that is singularly lacking in the meat itself.

As for the beef and pea soup – well, given that it was, ultimately, something of an unexpected success, maybe we just need to be a bit less prescriptive about what we see as viable combinations.

But I’m far from certain about that, because those same prejudices can be surprisingly useful when it comes to cooking inventively but non-disastrously. Granted, some of the world’s finest chefs have made their names through playing with our expectations of flavour and texture – Heston Blumenthal’s bacon and egg ice cream being a celebrated case in point. But for the less eminent among us, it’s probably best to rein in the innovations just a little – otherwise you might just find yourself with another spam curry on your hands.

But that’s not to say that you need to revert completely to the tried and trusted. Assuming your stores aren’t quite as bare as Dylan’s fridge and our Bamburgh cupboards, you’ve always got the opportunity to take the “million things” approach discussed at the beginning of this article.

Treat your main “ballast” ingredient – pasta, rice, potatoes, a roasted butternut squash, whatever – as your blank canvas. Then it’s time to start “painting”. Add your more flavourful ingredients one at a time (naturally taking account of how long they need to cook) until you’re happy with the combination. Stop and think before each addition, and you’re unlikely to go far wrong. As I’ve said before, you’re well capable of doing this when you’re inventing pizza toppings in a takeaway, so why not when you’re cooking at home?

And to refer you to more of my previous musings, a spot of Gran logic never hurts. Throw half a dozen ingredients together at random, and the chances are it won’t turn out too well. But select your ingredients with particular goals in mind – combinations of taste (sweet, sour, salt) and texture (crunch versus give) that at once complement and contrast with one another – and I’d give you a much better chance.

What’s more, you don’t need a wealth of cooking training or experience to identify these combinations; all you need is to think a little about what you’ve eaten and enjoyed over the years, and what it was you liked about them. If you’d like a case in point, section 1 of this piece will give you the idea.

After all, cooking lessons take time and cost money. But you can have a free eating lesson every time you pick up a knife and fork.