My Cookery Heritage

OK, so by the time I moved into a (rented) house with my husband, I had a reasonably solid repartee of recipes (read: Spaghetti Bolognese, Lasagne, Chile, a curry non-specific and all the other usual suspects). However, I have always had an over-whelming desire to cook mountains of food for people. This is somewhat of a non sequitur because I am not particularly sociable. I enjoy the preparation of food, and I enjoy people enjoying my food but I find having to be polite to work colleagues or old friends who you haven’t seen in quite a few years to be a bit of a chore. I suppose if you produce a bountiful tableful of food, then you’re at least halfway there. Essentially, food and eating IS a social matter and to be honest, I do like cooking for my family although their dietary requirements can be tedious. There are two sides, like yin and yang or, perhaps more fittingly, Laurel and Hardy, to the eating habits of the women in my family: fad dieting or voracious eating. There is no middle ground. I have seen Atkins, GI, Food Combining, Detoxing, Liquid Diets come and go and I’ve even heard alarming reports of the usage (unwittingly) of amphetamines in the 60s and 70s to induce rapid weight loss. I am not an advocate of fad diets or in fact any diets! I am unable to give up carbohydrates, particularly potatoes and pasta. It is a burden being an ancestor of a survivor of the Irish Potato Famine and for sure I won’t let that happen again.
Many people learn how to cook through example as children, and I spent much of my childhood chopping onions or peeling garlic or stirring tomato sauce alongside my mother. I don’t wish to sound as though my mother put me to use in some sort of child labour, far from it. I have always felt at home in the kitchen, even other people’s – I suppose I’m a sort of portable kitchen utensil that can be used to rustle up a meal if everyone else is too lazy/drunk/incompetent.
I believe that if you grow up in a household where a kitchen is used for (gasp!) cooking and not just for microwaving ready meals or warming socks in the oven or looking like a showroom, you automatically become used to home cooking and nothing else will do. You utilise age-old family recipes, each generation adding their own minor adjustments to suit their lifestyle and that is how family histories are made. Many families have an old cookbook that Great Great Aunt Dottie started in 1850 and although some of the recipes, like those for brawn or pigs trotters stewed in blood of hare are not likely to be made anytime soon, there are recipes for fruit cakes, sponge cakes, peppermint creams, stews and casseroles, that are the best you will ever taste. Unfortunately in my family, all the recipes are scrawled on pieces of paper that my mother fastidiously filed away in a special recipe binder. Some of the recipes are written in faded pencil so it’s always pot-luck as to whether it calls for 2 tbsp or 2 tsp of baking powder. Many are splashed with milk or stock or chocolate icing.

Good Beef vs Bad Beef
When I was very small, my parents divorced and my father disappeared never to be seen again. As those were the days before single mothers had access to government funding, my mother and I had to live on a shoestring budget, and minced beef was always a cheap but versatile meat (still is). Back in those days (and I’m referring to the 70s and 80s), meat from the supermarkets was pretty much just meat. There was no organic meat, no lean mince, no 70% pure beef mince, very few 100% pork sausages; you paid 70p for a small polystyrene packaged of mince and that’s what you got. I rapidly gained a weak stomach for minced meat after several phobia-inducing episodes with small bits of bone or gristle finding their insidious way into my Shepherds Pie. I much prefer to use a vegetarian substitute meat for any dishes that require minced beef if I can’t get hold of 100% lean mince, or else I simmer it in a pan of slightly salted water which draws the fat to the surface and can be easily drained off. I can’t deny though that minced beef still gives that deliciously savoury flavour to any dish it inhabits. That flavour unfortunately has to be faked with beef stock cubes in vegetarian dishes.
It still amazes me that we always ate nutritious, delicious and filling meals on such a tiny budget, particularly when I consider how much money I spend on preparing dishes these days. I only eat organic free range meat, and that isn’t cheap. However, I feel that for peace of mind that the animal in question had a good life, organic free range is the only way to go and I would urge anyone who can afford to pay a bit extra to do so. The same of course qualifies for eggs. Beside the humanity aspect, free range eggs give a sublime taste that is far preferable to insipid factory forced eggs. Consider it this way: If cost is an issue, it is better to eat one decent piece of meat once a fortnight that bland meat two or three times a week.
I imagine that there is not one child from the 1970s who wasn’t served Spaghetti Bolognese on a regular basis and it was only recently that I discovered that this IS’NT the traditional meal of Italy (in fact it was developed outside of Italy, possibly in America during the 1950s as an extension of Spaghetti and Meatballs). Whilst Spaghetti benefits from delicate, herb-infused sauces, Spag Bol is a young kid’s dream food. It combines tomato sauce (and there are not many children that don’t love tomato sauce, as Ronald Reagan would attest to) and the permission to be messy when eating. It is also a good way to disguise such horrendous vegetables as carrots, or celery (both of which give tomato sauce or ragu a delicious, multi-layered flavour). Here is the Pilgrim family recipe for tomato sauce, to be used with or without minced beef, quorn or spaghetti (n.b. If you add chilli powder and kidney beans, it becomes a completely bastardised but still tasty chilli con carne, and in fact my Mother also adds a touch of cinnamon and a couple of squares of dark chocolate). Finely diced celery and carrot has also been known to have been added which gives a finer ragu.
The Family Basic Tomato Sauce Recipe
Large Onion chopped
3-4 Cloves garlic, chopped finely
1-2 tins Tomatoes (not the kind with herbs, those dried herbs really get stuck in your teeth)
Large squirt Tomato Puree
Malt Vinegar (I have known orange juice to be used in the place or vinegar or red wine, it’s really just a hidden, pleasurable depth of acidity needed). Balsamic Vinegar would work but really isn't necessary.
Olive Oil
Basil Leaves or Parsley
Sauté the onion and garlic in a little olive oil over a low heat until soft and translucent. Add the tinned tomatoes and break up with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat up midway. Once the mixture starts to bubble, add a squish of puree, a splash of vinegar (malted or red wine vinegar will do), a good teaspoon of salt to taste, and, if you like your tomato sauces sweet, as I do, a little sugar (and by a little, I mean less than half a teaspoon, add more if you need it). Let this mixture simmer until it the watery liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated and you are left with a thick, rich red sauce. At this stage, taste again and add more salt or sugar if necessary. Rip up some fresh basil or parsley leaves and stir in before serving.

Tomato Sauce with Meat
Proceed as above but saute the minced beef in the olive oil first, then add onions, diced carrots and celery etc. Now here's the weird bit. Cover the meat with about 150ml of milk. Yes milk. The milk protects the meat from the acidity of the tomatoes which will added shortly and ensures a sweet ragu. Simmer until the milk is absobed. Add 150ml of white wine (any type will do, I've even used stock if I'm out of wine) and again simmer until the wine is absorbed. Add two cans of tomatoes, about a teaspoon of sugar and simmer for at least two hours. This is a perfect meat sauce for lasagne or bolognese and is traditionally served with a good bulky pasta such as penne or fusilli. It is great.

Ridiculously Basic Tomato Sauce
This is my most favourite tomato sauce which I serve with stuffed pasta shells or cannelloni. It is also good as pizza sauce but you may need to add some salt. It is also obscenely easy.
Sauté 1 large onion, very finely chopped in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until very soft but not brown. Always heat the oil up with the chopped onions to avoid burning them. Add 2-4 cloves finely chopped garlic and sauté again until soft but not brown. Add two cans of tinned plum tomatoes, including the liquid and bring to the boil. In the meantime, put two tablespoons each of malt vinegar and castor sugar and dissolve over a low heat. Once the tomato mixture has started to boil, add the sugar/vinegar mixture, turn down to a low simmer and cook until reduced. The mixture will reduce down as much or as little as you let it. If I was very well organised and more importantly had a large freezer, I would make this in large batches and freeze it in washed-out ice cream or margarine tubs for a quick supper. Alas, I am neither organised nor have a large freezer so it remains somewhere near the bottom of my list of things to do one day. Besides, it really only takes about five minutes to prepare.

I have very fond memories of my mother’s kitchen. Running along the top of the kitchen was a small recess in which a myriad of spices were stored. It was one of my chores to dust these tiny pots. I would teeter on top of a rickety wooden chair, unscrew the wooden lid from each pot and inhale their unique aromas: the musty nutmeg adored by Italians and remembered fondly as the dusting on top of custard tarts; the heady, perfumy 5-spice and Star Anise, used primarily in our household for molasses sticky, mouth wateringly tender spare ribs; Cinnamon, the queen of all spices, overtly loved in America but beautifully redolent in Mexican Cuisine; ancient Bay Leaves, their delicate crumbliness belying their irreplaceable flavour in stews and soups; finally the fiery, russet coloured dried chillies - always the most alluring to me because of constant warnings about eating them straight from the jar. One afternoon, not being able to resist their temptation any longer, I pulled a spectacularly long chilli from the jar, sunk my teeth into it, tasted nothing at first, as dried chillies really have no flavour until they are soaked, just heat, and then scuttling to the sink to souse my burning mouth with cold water.
Just as my mother and her mother before her has, I too have little pots full of exotic spices, of which I only use a handful. However, I feel safe knowing that I can produce some Middle Eastern delicacy or a Mexican Mole because I have Nigella or Achiote Seeds. Really, I'm just carrying on a family legacy.

1 comment:

Keith J. Crocker said...

Well, without a doubt, this is one of the most amusing "cooking blogs" I have ever scene. To be fair, I haven't seen any others because I'm lazy and hate to cook. Regardless, all this info should be compiled into a book, your writing style is fantastic, the way you blend your life into the recipe is out of site. From here on I'm your number one groupie!