Saturday, 28 August 2010

Of Mess and Men

This post is about recipe books. Wait, wait, don't yawn already! I assume that most of you think I'm talking about those things that you get in a bookshop, under the impression that they will boost your cooking prowess and spice up your culinary life, then all too often end up sitting on your counter gathering splashes of you default pancake batter?

But no - I'm talking about proper recipe books: handwritten compilations of recipes that were carefully selected and copied with much finger grease into previously extra virgin notebooks, to be used and then passed on to the next generation. And they all have one thing in common: if they are really good, loved and useful, they are messy...

Exhibit 1: Alchemical recipe books
Ever been to a manuscript exhibition? Do illuminations and freakishly neat script come to mind? Then I'll have to disappoint you: not all manuscripts look like that. In fact, most manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were quite different, rather akin to your trusted Moleskine diary - practical, plain, and often just plain illegible.

Unfortunately, most of them were discarded at some stage (why keep them when there are, ooh, printed books around and so much neater, prettier copies of texts without mistakes?). But let me let you into a secret: any alchemical historian's heart will work itself up to a whirligig whenever a scruffy, everyday notebook turns up on a library desk.

Exhibit 2: The perfect housewarming gift
While alchemists debated the perfect combination of substances for the perfect recipe, they were, true to their trade, rather secretive about any specifics and changed their minds quite often. If this was the case for modern cooking today, the home cook could be scared into repeating trusted recipes over and over... oh wait! That's what most of us do!

Think about it: there are some foods and flavours that are clearly made for each other (chocolate and caramel; onion and garlic) and others which disgust even as a possibility (meat and anything for yours truly - but you know what I mean). Celebrity chefs tap into the common consensus and add a twist here and there; or, in the case of Heston Blumenthal and peers, deliberately set out to shock and amaze with unusual ideas. But even then, it is often hard to move beyond one's comfort zone in one's own kitchen. One finds. If one is the writer of this blog.

Niki Segnit's Flavour Thesaurus, a house warming gift from a dear friend, is the cure for all the flavourally challenged. It brings structure, history, new ideas and background info for 99 different flavours and their combinations. It brings order, yet creativity, to kitchens of any state of messiness. And rather than reviewing it here in detail, I refer the reader to the Guardian's review and move straight on to today's recipe, which I concocted, inspired by this publication, for my kind moving helpers a couple of weeks ago.

Exhibit 3: The recipe (now copied into my own messy handwritten recipe book)

Lemon Pasta
-ingredients for 2 portions-

Soften 1 shallot, finely chopped, in 2 tbsp olive oil. Add 2tbsp white wine and cook a little longer. Then add the juice and zest of 1 lemon, some fresh basil, generously season with salt and pepper. Stir through 200g freshly cooked linguine (fresh pasta is best for this purpose), with a good knob of butter. Top with grated parmesan.

Eat with friends. Follow up with ice cream and hours of good conversation.

Now you may yawn.

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