I’ve been doing a lot of cooking today, and in general over the past few weeks, and while cooking I’ve been thinking about how I got to where I am today cooking-wise.
My first cooking influence was my mother, who insisted I did not leave home without learning to make a white sauce. She also typed up some “home” recipes for my sister and I. We didn’t do much of the cooking at home at all, but I think her example of cooking a lot of “real” food was one that we’ve tended to follow.
My mum cooked a lot of (extremely tasty) standard meat and veg type meals and brilliant cakes and buns of a fairly homespun type – a big tray of sponge cake with white icing and sprinkles. She also made the best cannelloni I’ve ever tasted – I was just thinking the other day that I should give that a go myself, though it’s richer than what I would usually cook. She rarely cooked from a recipe, measuring most things by feel and by eye. The recipes she did use were often from the side of a packet and I still use some of those today – I have a feeling the marvellously moist gingerbread was one of those, and “million calorie chicken” (chicken curry mayonnaise, which I often make for buffets). Occasionally the blessed Delia was also consulted. I have a notebook of my mum’s where she wrote about the dinner parties that she held when first married: when her aunt came to visit they added a course each time till they got up to 8 or 9!
I didn’t really learn to cook (other than the white sauce) until my third year of university. I lived in a student house with 5 others, and three of us pooled cooking resources – 2 days each with a veggieburger from PM’s on the Saturday night. K was vegetarian, so we were all vegetarian. I used to go to restaurants and forget that I actually ate meat: I would just go automatically to the vegetarian section of the menu. It’s probably not surprising that I still default to vegetarian meals today.
I’m sure I made the others suffer through some unfortunate experiments and I do feel guilty for how often I fed soup to non-soup-eating A. I remember going to ask K how much spaghetti was an ounce of spaghetti (for minestrone soup) and the look on her face as she said “some, just some“. A and K were both much better cooks than I was. K was particularly good because an episode of veganism in her teens had seen her cooking for her whole family of 7. Also, as a metropolitan type, she introduced me to challah and avocados.
My saviour was the student cookbook I had acquired. It outlined simple, cheap and easy meals that were mostly pretty edible. I still cook its pasta with spinach sauce recipe every couple of weeks or so.
One thing that brought back the student days was the other day when I cooked what was a student staple when living on my own the following year: noodles with tuna, mushrooms, spring onions and soy sauce. It looks quite pretty in my picture but I’m not sure anyone other than me should be subjected to it:
That final year when I lived in self-catering halls I ate a lot of peppers, onions and mushrooms – add some soy sauce and call it a stir-fry, add some chopped tomatoes and call it pasta sauce, add some curry paste to that and call it a curry.
Over the next few years I did gradually become a bit more accomplished. I lived with A again at the end of my PhD and she introduced me to the wonders of Nigella’s Domestic Goddess book. It’s one of only 3 books I use regularly – the others being the Be-Ro book and Susan Reimer’s Muffins: Fast and Fantastic. As you can see, I’m much more likely to go to a recipe book for baking than for cooking!
I’m not entirely sure where all my cooking recipes have come from. They’re in a falling-apart notebook that started with my mother’s recipes, added some of K and A’s and some from the student cookbook, then a very few odds and ends from the row of cookbooks that I enjoy reading but hardly ever get round to using in anger. I still learn recipes from ingredient packets (lamb and spinach curry from the side of the curry paste jar is one of my favourites).
I realised a strange thing about recipes when Mr Woodsmoke and I were living apart. For one birthday, I gave him his own notebook with some of the recipes that I cooked that he enjoyed. In isolation, like Darwin’s finches, the recipes grew apart. We chopped things to different sizes, cooked for different times, added different off-piste ingredients. It was really strange having my own meals fed back to me in a really different form.
Mr Woodsmoke is generally a better cook than I am, though I’ll lay claim to being slightly the better cake-maker. He does show off with profiteroles. And although I thought my family’s lasagne was definitive, his is truly delicious.
I’m the cook at the moment, but we both share a fondness for frugal food made from scratch. Since we’ve been economising more we are almost back to how I used to cook when I started, just a bit more accomplished and inventive (though I’m still capable of giant disasters). We’re eating predominantly vegetarian food with a couple of fish days.
Where I know I fall down in cooking is that meat and veg style that I grew up with. I’m good with the mince meals and stretching out a bit of meat in a bulky veggie sauce, but the Saturday night roast dinner is something I’ve never mastered. Maybe sometime soon I’ll try to loop back to where I began.
I did make white sauce recently after years of getting Mr Woodsmoke to do it. It was great!