Cook’s tour

As a child my interest in cooking was rather limited.  I was aware that it took place in order for food to appear on the table in front of me at regular intervals.  I also knew that for certain processes, hanging around the kitchen could enable pre-meal scraps to be scrounged from the process: the licking of spoons and the like.  I was always especially fond of the delicious ‘scum’ that formed on the top of the jam: oddly, no-one has ever seen fit to market this as a product and I haven’t made jam in nearly 30 years…

It was when I left home to go to university that I came to realise that food did not just arrive by magic.  I also discovered that the pre-made food available from the supermarkets of the mid 1980s was terrible.  As a result, I had to learn to cook in a hurry – and using very basic equipment.  Initially, I had little more than a mini-oven/grill but could still create moderately interesting food.  I remember somehow making omelette Arnold Bennett: though I seem to recall using tinned tuna rather than smoked haddock (I don’t think haddock had learned to smoke in those far off days: they are probably vaping now…).

In my second year at university, I had access to a single ring and a slow cooker.  This significantly expanded the scope of my culinary creations.  I can clearly remember making orange and lemon flavoured sponge cakes in the slow cooker: they had a slightly different texture than a more traditionally baked cake, but were moist and very tasty.  From my third year, I had access to a full kitchen and I have retained that access ever since.

I will admit that I am a lazy cook, I usually want to eat NOW and don’t like getting my hands dirty if at all possible.  This means I am generally reluctant to make dishes that have very long lists of ingredients or long preparation times, especially those that need to rest, soak or chill for extended periods.  There are also some processes that can be used in cooking with which I would feel less than confident, especially those that require fine motor control given that my hands and general mobility are somewhat agricultural in nature.  I also have very out-of-date (i.e. mid-80s student) views about the cost of ingredients which surface in unexpected places, e.g. I would usually think twice about the bootless extravagance of any recipe needing more than two eggs and view tinned cherry pie-filling as a luxury product.  However, I will spend ridiculous amounts of money on ingredients that did not form part of my student diet as they are unaffected by my internal auditor: I am nothing if not maddeningly (to me at least) inconsistent.

From my university days, I have generally cooked at least one meal per day from basic ingredients – and, more recently, often two such meals.  Pretty early in my adult life, I discovered the joy of cooking for others.  For a start, it somehow gives me licence to attempt more exotic, complicated or just plain expensive recipes than I would feel were suitable for satisfying my own quotidian hunger.  Guests also approach the food I’ve wrought afresh and without the long backstory that accompanied planning the menu, buying the ingredients and then preparing and cooking them: I can then share in their reaction.

In recent years, my cooking for others has become more infrequent: partly, because I am usually out every evening doing something cultural.  It had fallen to one major Fish Supper every other year on New Year’s Eve: as has been documented before in GofaDM, I am the Fish and actual fish may, or may not, make an appearance within the meal (knife-related accidents can cause actual Fish to appear in the meal, but I seek to avoid this).  My time on Lundy (see The Lundiary for more details) along with my recent sharing of a range of Frankenfoods with friends (and their largely positive reactions thereto) reminded me of how much I missed cooking for others.  So, in late November, I resolved up my game and the frequency with which I cook for friends.

From Christmas to mid January, evening cultural events can be rather thin on the ground and so I decided I could squeeze in a Fish Supper at the end of December.  I seem to recall that this had 7 or 8 courses: which is not unusual, though I don’t recall precisely when the Fish Supper was subject to course-inflation from its initial format of starter, main and choice of two puddings.  For one of these courses, I made fresh pasta (broadly tagliatelle) which I did live at the dining table: largely for reasons of practicality, as it is the best (or only) location where I can mount my pasta machine.  I had made fresh pasta once before, about 18 months previously, and I’ll admit the live process did not go entirely smoothly.  In the fullness of time, beautiful fresh tagliatelle did emerge from the machine but prior to this, the cook was suffused by a degree of panic – which I believe improved the floor show for the audience.

Having tidied up the debris from this meal, mostly a matter of loading and emptying the dishwasher, I found myself enjoying the relatively spacious feel of the flat.  Prior to the arrival of guests, I’d had a decent tidy-up and the results of my efforts continued to pay off into the early days of 2020.  Liking this feeling and having few other excuses – beyond basic self-interest and the dregs of my self-respect – to keep the place tidy, I resolved to have guests over for a meal once per month in 2020.  Given that I don’t want to interfere with my hectic cultural calendar, it was time for the Fish Supper to make way for the Frankenlunch!  I decided that a Frankenlunch would tend to be a weekend event (as neither myself nor my putative guests are independently wealthy and are stil beholden to “the man” during the week), commencing around 13:30 with the aim to finish by around 17:00.  The intention was for a light lunch format with a more modest number of smaller courses than has tended to characterise the Fish Supper.  The hope is guests may be able to perambulate their way home without too obvious a waddle

Frankenlunch 2020/1 was staged on the 17th and broadly followed the planned format: though I found myself unable to resist making five courses.  It was partially inspired by my desire to “use up” a magnum of champagne given to my by a (presumably) grateful client some years ago and which was taking up a lot of storage space.  So, the menu was designed around courses that the internet suggest go well with champagne: as it transpired, this did not restrict my creative scope to any significant degree.

I hosted four friends for this inaugural event, which was more people around my dining table than ever previously achieved and did require the acquisition of some new crockery in John Lewis’ sale:  years of exposure to my clumsiness had meant that most of my crockery was only available in sets of between one and four items, rather than their original families of six.  I assume, were I to live long enough, evolutionary pressure would lead to larger litter sizes from my flat ware…

Inspired by this year’s NYE menu in Lewes, we started with individual cheese soufflés.  I had carried out a practice run on these, partly process-wise but mostly to calibrate my oven for temperature and ramekins for size: recipes do seem to be based on the Platonic ideal of a ramekin but never give its dimensions and real-world ramekins are very varied in their volume, diameter and form. As it transpired, the process is straightforward and rather satisfying, my oven is slightly cooler than it claims and my ramekins appear to be close to the Platonic ideal.

As I think will now become a standard for all 2020’s Frankenlunches, I then prepared a ‘live’ pasta course with walnut pesto, mushroom and chilli.  Experiments during the week had pinned down the key driver to the successful conversion of dough to pasts via a machine: make sure the dough isn’t too thick or it braids.  I’ve also worked out how much pasta to prepare per person for a ‘starter’: around 50% of the lowest value discovered through internet research.

For the main, I had planned to cook scallops but one of our number was a better vegetarian than I (not hard, I’ll admit), so I simultaneously prepared a vegetarian alternative.  This used King Oyster mushrooms in lieu of the scallops which are not a bad substitute in appearance and have a decent texture and absorb flavours in a not dissimilar way (and the name, at least, maintains a seafood vibe).  Due to chronic indecision, I did not decide how I was going to cook the scallops (both real and simulated) until they were in the pan cooking.  I used elements of several recipes and my own slightly drunken ideas: the champagne was history by this stage and I can confirm that the client was more grateful than I’d appreciated (or deserved).  I kept it fairly simple with a ‘sauce’ formed from garlic, chilli, butter, lemon and a little white wine, which worked rather better than its rather ad-hoc creation deserved, served with a rocket and watercress salad.

For dessert, we started with a memory of Lundy and an apple and forest fruits crumble (just once, I’d love to visit this fruitful forest with its eccentric seasons!).  This was followed by a dark chocolate nougat semi-freddo: though I will admit that I did not make the nougat.  However, I do have a sugar thermometer and I rather fancied giving this a go but it does seem to need an electric mixer or more than the standard issue of hands.  John Lewis does have a Kitchen Aid mixer heavily reduced at the moment, but do I have the room?

The first Frankenlunch appears to have been a great success: I had fun and the guests were all convincing in their expressions of approbation (and none were professional actors).  I rather like the lunch format, it somehow seems more relaxed and to carry less cultural baggage than an evening meal and its associations with the dreaded dinner party of sitcom and stage.  As the meal neared its end, without anyone bursting(!), I did a quick and dirty calculation of the cost of the food.  I reckon that in terms of ingredients, I probably spent a little under £40 in total: so £8 a head for a five course lunch which seems infeasibly good value.  There would be some cost for electricity in the cooking and chilling and some costs in consumables (baking parchment and the like) but I think these would be mere pennies.  There was some labour involved – mostly chopping and beating – but only a couple of hours of prep and some more time cooking live.  The costs compare very favourably to the £9.50 I paid for, an admittedly very nice and filling, pizza last night when I arrived home from the excellent Personal History of David Copperfield.

One of my friends, and guests, does seem keen on me monetising my limited culinary skills: I can follow basic instructions (mostly) and even go off-piste to a degree (usually when I have either forgotten to acquire an ingredient or have something already in the larder which needs using up).  My divergence from any given recipe has usually proved successful, or at the very least interesting and/or educational.  His original plan was for me to sell slices of Frankenmas cake to young people at the gates of their place of schooling which I can’t help feeling could bring me into conflict with the law and some parents: a middle-aged white man trying to ply minors with rather alcoholic fruit cake would probably be viewed amiss.  I think the latest plan is to have paying guests who take their chances with the menu and my ability to deliver it.  They will also be exposed to my sense of humour and rather informal approach to meals, which may not suit all comers.  I believe my friend sees himself as my agent in this new role, so I feel he has an incentive to keep me safe from unwanted legal entanglements…

I have already started thinking about February’s Frankenlunch and am considering making the project more challenging by not repeating a dish during 2020.  This seems like a great idea now, but future-me may be cursing current-me by the autumn (or indeed, well before!)…

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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