Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Ramble About Cooking ....

from Jacqueline

I know this might seem mildly controversial, after all, with cooking shows running from noon until night on TV and an abundance of celebrity chefs, I have come to believe that the ability to dish up a good meal is overrated.  I’m with Princess Grace of Monaco.  “If you can read, you can cook,” she apparently commented, though I am a bit pushed to imagine Grace Kelly getting to grips with a good old fry up.

It’s not that I can’t cook – I am told I’m a pretty good cook, which is all very nice – but I have realized that I don’t get a heck of a lot out of it.  Now, if you love to potter in your kitchen, that’s fine – invite me over anytime, if you think you can deal with my list of food intolerances.  Really, I never used to be like that – had a cast iron stomach from Crete to Jeddah, and from Rabat to Algiers – but a bad stomach bug, picked up while on book tour a few years ago, has left me “delicate” in the digestive department.  I like to keep it simple – no fancy sauces (my Dad was right – they cover up the flavor of good produce), and nothing with more than five ingredients.  Any more than five ingredients, and I know one of them will keep me up at night.  But back to cooking.

I’ve always been able to cook. I came from a household where both parents worked - pretty much all of my peers at school were in the same boat - so my first job upon arriving home from school was to “start the dinner.”  That meant preparing vegetables.  So, off came the school uniform, on went the jeans and t-shirt – and apron.  Before starting my culinary chores, I’d make a quick tea for my brother (he was my job, when I was a kid) and any pals he brought home – his friend, Pete, still remembers me bossing a little gang of 6-year-old boys around, making them sit nicely at the table while I put cups of tea and slices of bread and jam in front of them, plus a chocolate cake I’d made the day before.  That would tide everyone over until dinner. 

It was therefore strange, at age 11, to go to a girls’ high school where “Domestic Science” was part of the curriculum – most of the girls knew how to cook an entire roast dinner before they even left primary school!  Yet there was Miss Chapman – who had it in for me from Day One – trying to teach us how to make cheese on toast in the first lesson.  Cheese on toast?  My friend Anne-Marie looked at me and rolled her eyes – she could make the best risotto bar none by the time she was ten, and was known for being able to rustle up a great meal for twenty, if the occasion demanded.  I still love her risotto!  But back to Miss Chapman.  She loved to hover near my “station” in Domestic Science, hoping to catch me doing something wrong. I remember the day she leaned over me as I was chopping onion.  “I’ve caught you!” she said.  That was a giveaway, wasn’t it?  “You’re not using your vegetable knife!” She pointed to the offending large knife in my hand.  “Well,” I said, “I prefer this knife because I can really get going with some speed and cut finer slices.”  She reddened, as if to explode.  I might as well have said, “Who gives a flying you-know-what whether it’s a vegetable knife or not?”  Which is what I was thinking.

Back to the main point of all this. I think cooking is overrated.  I don’t enjoy it, though I love to have people over to dinner. I love setting the table with linen and silver, my best crystal glasses, and the little cruet set I’ve had for years.  But all that messing with pots and pans – heck, you can keep it.  I’m always a bit taken aback when I’m asked for the recipe for a dish, because I can’t remember how I’ve cooked something half the time – slap a bit of this or that on the salmon or chicken and hope for the best.  And always roast the potatoes.  I have to tell you, I make great roast potatoes – always have done.  But you see, I don’t know how people don’t make good roast potatoes. A friend even asked me around to her house to cook them in front of her in her kitchen, so she could watch – and she still can’t cook roast potatoes.  She can do everything else far better than I ever will be able to, and she loves – just loves – to cook.  Just not roast potatoes.

To wrap this up – and I am amazed you’ve got this far – I remember reading that author Sue Grafton has a personal chef.  Personal chef!  I’ve met authors who have their own jets (yes, really, though I had better not tell you who it was – he told me about the jet when we were on panel together.  His wife was also there, head to toe in Chanel), and I have met authors who have made it really big and have large properties and – get this – bodyguards.  Now, you can keep your private jets, and your bodyguards, and your big compounds and luxury apartments. I have a small bungalow, and that’s just fine – but I would give anything, almost anything, to have my own, private, personal chef.  Someone who can do gluten free, no dairy, no soy, only fish and fowl, and never shellfish.   Wine would be nice. 

I should probably add that I really love making jams and chutneys. My Summer 2013 Mixed Berry is the best yet, to say nothing of my Spicy Tomato & Apple.  Making some more this weekend.

Enjoy your weekend - I hope you've not been landed with the cooking, unless you really, really love slaving over a hot stove.


  1. I love to cook but not to fuss; I agree that it's not complicated and shouldn't be. That said, I'd LOVE to learn how you make the Spicy Tomato and Apple Jam/Preserves/Whatever....

  2. from Jacqueline

    Oh, Tinky, preserves are just so easy! I always thought it was complicated until I tried - with a bumper crop of lemons in my backyard, I thought, "Lemon Marmalade." It was a hit! Stick to the simple recipes - preserving was always supposed to be an easy way of keeping summer's bounty for the darker days of the year, so nothing was complex. Look for the word "simple" in the recipe - always best!

  3. I don't like to cook but I'm pretty good at following recipes. I'm one of those people who levels the tablespoon with a knife to get EXACTLY the right amount. If the recipe says "cook two minutes or so to render the juices," (whatever THAT means) I actually set a timer. People love to come to my house for dinner because I live by Julia Child's HOW TO COOK, which is brilliant. I also use fresh everything. I once baked bread in order to make my own croutons.

    I'm sounding a little neurotic, aren't I?

  4. from Jacqueline, Oh no, you're not neurotic at all, Patty - you are obviously from the Princess Grace School of Cookery, and that's not a bad act to follow! I'm a great believer in timers, however, according to Jamie Oliver (a favorite of mine), you can take liberties with appetizers and mains, but when it comes to desserts, you have to be exact - and I mean EXACT - with your measurements and timing, especially with fiddly things like souffles. My dad, by the way, was a terrific cook - once, during a bread strike in Britain (only in Britain!), Dad made a stack of loaves so that no one on the street went without bread! No one wanted the strike to end.

  5. I always say that the part of parenting for which I was most unprepared was coming up with three healthy meals and a snack or two...every single day. I agree - my greatest desire is a personal chef. That would be so wonderful. In the meantime, I love your advice about limiting to five ingredients. Simple is the way to go.

  6. From Jacqueline

    Yes, that personal chef is number one on the "If I won the lottery" list of many people I know. Years ago women would make up a menu list for the week, which dictated the weekly shop - I think we've moved away from that now, though it's a great way to go, a sort of map for the week. And five ingredients - I feel much better if I keep things simple.

  7. I recently tried a "healthy" delivery service that brought meals over in the middle of the night and left them on the front steps for the next day. Food was inedible. I'm taking two cooking classes shortly. (30 minute meals this week and grilling the best burgers next week). I am old enough to remember when "personal chef" basically meant "wife." (Not that I want to return to those days, Jackie...just remembering is all).