I was chatting to someone the other night, and we got on to discussing what each of us worked at. He was in construction recruitment, he told me with a straight face, before adding that there’s a big demand overseas for our highly skilled Irish construction workers. He asked what I did so I explained I’m a journalist and I write mostly about food. Shortly after, he asked did I cook and I said I did. His party piece was potato gratin, he stated rather proudly. What was mine?
For someone who regularly has these kinds of conversations, I’m pretty bad at them. I struggle when people ask me what my favourite restaurant is. For what, I want to reply. For a slap up treat? (Chapter One) For a meal you wouldn’t possibly cook at home? (Gregan’s Castle) For being made feel totally at home? (l’Gueuleton) For something seasonal and special? (Mulberry Gardens) For cooking something simple as well as you would at home? (The Winding Stair) For the craic with a load of mates? (M&L Szechuan) For a hangover? (Sausage sandwich at Pepperpot Cafe) For a solo supper? (RIP Gruel)
Anyway, I paused for what was apparently a suspicious length of time and said I didn’t really have a party piece. No pause in his reply. Eyebrow raised, chin lowered and head tilted to one side: do you really cook Aoife?
It got me thinking, as I often do when asked that question (which, as someone who writes about food, you get asked an awful lot), what exactly do you mean, do I cook? If you mean do I take on famously difficult classic dishes just for the challenge or spend hours slaving over cookbooks planning elaborate feasts that take days to prepare, well then no I guess I don’t cook very often. If you mean do I drop writhing lobsters into vats of boiling water, or skin rabbits and cook them slowly into ragout, then no, I’ve never cooked – though I’m lucky enough to have some great friends who do, and sometimes they invite me over. If you mean do I ever have friends over for dinner, well yes but less than I’d like to now I live in a small space (though I do have some very obliging friends who sometimes let me come and cook for them in their own spacious kitchens). But if you mean, do I buy things like vegetables, herbs, spices, grains, fish and meat, and turn them into tasty dishes with which to feed myself, well yes, I do cook. Most days. Sometimes several times in one day.
I often wonder what people who don’t cook – in any of the above senses of the word – actually do to feed themselves. If takeaways and ready meals and frozen pizzas and jars of pasta sauce tasted better than they tend to, and were a bit more affordable, perhaps I’d be tempted to eat them more often. But on the rare occasion that I do decide to ‘treat’ myself to any of the above, they tend to disappoint.
Besides, does ‘cooking’ have to be such a challenge? Or a chore? There are so many easy tasty things that can be thrown together, and there’s such a comfort to be gotten from doing so. It helps to have great ingredients, of course. Sometimes they’re so good they need very little effort to make them bloody brilliant.
Tonight’s dinner was a case in point. A pot of salted boiling water on to boil, a handful of De Cecco linguine popped in for seven minutes. Enough time to rinse the coriander and rocket leaves, slice the green chilli and garlic, chop a little red onion, cut a wedge of lemon, open the picked white meat of brown crab caught and vac-packed by David Browne of Yawl Bay Seafood. Linguine cooked al dente, slung into the colander sitting in a bowl to catch the starchy cooking water. Same pot back onto a very low heat, warm through some peppery Spanish ‘Ame’ extra virgin olive oil together with the garlic and chilli till it starts to smell really good. Stir in the onion, tip in the chunky juicy crab, warm the whole thing through while picking and chopping the coriander, and tossing the rocket in Ame oil and Llewellyn’s Balsamic Cider Vinegar. Stir the drained pasta and chopped herbs into the crab, moisten with a little pasta water, a drizzle more oil and a squeeze of lemon and season with a grind of red chilli peppers. Serve with the dressed rocket and a glass of chilled manzanilla.
The fact that the lemon was picked last week from a tree in Jerez, the home of sherry, while touring the home of Harvey’s and brought home in my suitcase with the bottle of manzanilla added to the poetry of the ensemble, if not the flavour.
Now, I don’t know if tonight’s dinner can be classified as cooking. I cooked the pasta, yes, but the rest I just piled together in quantities I liked the look of and warmed through.
What I do know is that I enjoyed the compiling of it almost as much as the consuming of it. And that’s good enough for me.