Cooking is easy
My first cookbook was a big, yellow-paged tome.
It was from the days before glossy photo spreads. Before the need for a gushing, personal introduction from the chef for each and every recipe. There was no evangelising about some ingredient you had no hope of pronouncing or finding in the supermarket. It was not a manifesto urging people to rediscover the joys of the simple lemon. It didn’t contain the word Himalayan anywhere.
The chapter headings were simple: meats, fish, poultry, vegetables, and several chapters on technique, including fifteen pages dedicated to the art of measuring. I estimate it had about 1,216 recipes, of which I made two. It was called Cocinar es fácil. Cooking is easy—but it wasn’t, not for me. That’s probably why my friend bought me the book in the first place.
I’d been living in Spain for six months and Spanish wasn’t coming easy for me either, so I suppose she thought she’d kill two birds with one very heavy cookbook.
She was thirty-one and I was twenty-two. She’d just left her partner of eight years, moved out of their apartment in the centre of Madrid. Way out, in fact, to the end of the line, beyond even the airport, to my place.
On day one, I made breakfast—a whole box of eggs that I fried to a blackened crisp, one after another.
Lunch consisted of runny potato mash—just add water, the packet said, and I may have added a drop or a litre too much.
The greatest assault on her taste buds, though, was when I made her three cups of coffee in a row, each with a big spoonful of salt.
My sugar and salt were stored in identical plastic tomatoes that had cost about 200 pesetas at the local Carrefour. They sat alongside each other on the kitchen counter so there was always a fifty-fifty chance you’d get salt in your coffee and sugar on your cabbage.
The next day she arrived from work with a sugar bowl and a twelve pack of eggs in her bag, and Cocinar es fácil under her arm, and my culinary education had begun.
A few years later I moved to London and purchased my second cookbook, the first I’d ever bought for myself. New Vegetarian Entertaining. It was more than a collection of recipes. It was a statement. Its glossy pages announced to the world that I had arrived in London, full of ambition, ready to be fabulous.
The chapters weren’t arranged by ingredient, but by occasion: casual lunches, formal dinners, summer buffets, and, my favourite, cocktail canapés. There was nothing easy about any of it. I used it to prepare my first ever dinner parties. They weren’t quite the occasions Jane Noraika probably had in mind. The adjectives were all wrong. Swap casual, formal and summery with over-ambitious, overwrought and overcooked and you’ll get the picture.
Other books followed, but the next one that really stands out is Ottolenghi’s Plenty. It was the first time I’d bought a cookbook because of peer pressure. Because all the cool kids had it and so I had to have it to. I’m not sure I made too many, if any, of the recipes. But it did have a prominent place in my kitchen. And it came in handy one year when, in a moment of madness, I offered to cook a big Christmas dinner for our London gang.
A few days beforehand, I got an email from one of our guests. Had I planned the menu, she asked. I didn’t realise people did this, plan meals they were going to make days in advance. No, I responded. Not yet. Could she offer a few suggestions? Ok, fine. In return, I got a five-page memo. I probably should have handed over the reins to her at that stage. But, instead, my competitive spirit kicked in.
I enlisted the help of another friend, who wasn’t part of the same group and so wasn’t coming to the dinner. She’s my capable friend. The one who always seems to know how to get shit done.
‘Make roast beef,’ she advised. ‘Everyone loves roast beef. And just buy the sides.’
‘Buy the sides? What, like not cook them myself?’
‘Sure. Isn’t there an Ottolenghi near you?’
'Two blocks away.'
That evening, in our eat-in kitchen, as everyone made yummy noises over the carrot and pomegranate salad and sweet potatoes in a miso glaze and told me how delicious it all was, I nodded towards the bookshelf and said, ‘Well, I can’t really take all the credit. They’re Ottolenghi’s recipes.’
And in that moment I thought, perhaps cooking is easy, after all.