I was picking a few herbs to put in a stew earlier and realised I’d picked parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Yes, I do know that the song is a traditional one, but it’s completely associated with S&G in my head. Despite the fact that they pronounce Scarborough with an ‘o’ on the end.
The stew was nice, either way. I sweated down some shallots, half an onion, a stick of celery, a tomato, a couple of cloves of garlic and a green chilli in olive oil and butter with some of the herbs. In a separate pan I fried off some smoked pancetta, then some free-range rare breed pork sausages then some mushrooms. I combined it all in a casserole and deglazed the frying pan into the casserole with a bit of water; then added a rinsed-off tin of borlotti beans, some fresh chicken stock and some more herbs, brought it to the boil and put it in the oven at 160C for about an hour and ten minutes, the last ten minutes with the lid off.
Sausage casserole isn’t a dish that has very positive associations for me. It reminds me of student cooking, and students are, after all, cheap and don’t know what they’re doing. And, at least in my day, we all seemed to drown everything in tinned tomatoes.
But you learn as you get better at cooking is that for most of these dishes which seem naff or old-fashioned, it’s not the fault of the concept, it’s the execution. Use good ingredients, treat them well, and the result can be delicious.
The recipe that really brought this home for me was meatloaf. I remember on the sitcom Roseanne, she was always cooking meatloaf for her family, and that was exactly the image I had of it: blue-collar utility food. Convenient, cheap and easy; one step up from a TV dinner. And then, in a book of Italian cooking, I found a recipe for something called polpettone; a rich, mouth-watering concoction of beef, chopped salami, cheese, onion, peppers, herbs, garlic, but a meatloaf by any other name. And as American as it seems now, it seems plausible that meatloaf actually is polpettone, taken across by Italian immigrants and naturalised, just as the equally American barbecue ribs are Chinese. That meatloaf is in fact as American as apple pie.
Aside from displaying the various facets of my food snobbery, I do have a broader point: there is no excuse for boring food. The whole craft of cooking is to make food interesting. Most ingredients are fairly dull on their own: it’s the cook’s job to enhance the flavour that’s there and add more favours as necessary. Things like sausage casserole, fish pie, beef stew, and meatloaf aren’t inherently bland: they’re only bland if they’re made that way.