Everything I Know About Cooking, I Learnt From Making Stew (addendum)

Just another thought that occurred to me while I was cooking this the other day:

Food isn’t fashion.

I’m always annoyed by the way they present food products in the style section of the Sunday paper: a stylish-looking package of olive oil/chocolate/wine floating in white space to tempt shoppers as though it was a new pair of shoes or some face cream. Or those terribly precious delicatessens with largely empty shelves which just have a few products artfully arranged as though they were Fabergé eggs rather than, for example, eggs.

It’s not the cost — I’m not averse to spending money on food — it’s the suggestion that good food is just a style issue. Which is kind of ridiculous. For example, Spanish food has been a bit trendy over the past couple of years in London, and so people who care about such things are perhaps more likely to buy Spanish Iberico ham where before they would have bought Italian prosciutto. And why not, it’s a great product. But there’s nothing new about it. It is made in the same way as ham has been made over half of Europe for hundreds of years. It may be new to us, but it is the most traditionally produced product imaginable, the antithesis of fashion.

So what’s the significance of the [delicious if not very photogenic] gloop? Well, it’s a sausage casserole. And sausage casserole is, for me, a dish very much associated with bad student cooking: cheap sausages, too much tinned tomato, big lumps of random vegetables. My sausage casserole was made with Toulouse sausages and chorizo, a mixture of brown lentils and black beans, a jar of Spanish tomato and red pepper sauce, all backed up with lots of onion, celery, garlic, bacon, fresh herbs, and stock made with the carcass of a roast organic chicken and a pig’s trotter for extra oomph. It’s somewhere between a cassoulet and a feijoada. But it is still, really, a sausage casserole. The difference is that I am a better cook than I was back then, using better ingredients and making better use of them.

My personal tiny epiphany about this came when I was looking through an Italian cookbook and found a recipe for polpettone. You take minced beef, mix in some onion, herbs, garlic, chopped salami, milk-soaked breadcrumbs and grated parmesan, press it into a bread tin and cook it in the oven. In other words, it’s meatloaf. But up until that point I had entirely associated meatloaf with blue-collar American cooking of a, umm, not very aspirational kind. In the sitcom Roseanne, she was always cooking meatloaf, and I’m sure I’ve seen it used elsewhere in US popular culture as a signifier of social class. But seeing it in an Italian cookbook with an Italian name made me look at the recipe and think, you know, that actually sounds rather delicious. And it was. My preconceptions about meatloaf were simple snobbery.

Maybe there are some dishes which are genuinely just a bad idea, but which were inexplicably popular at some time or other. But generally, no matter how old-fashioned or déclassé or boring you think a dish is, if you make it carefully and thoughtfully with good ingredients it will be delicious.

[The first two parts of Everything I Know About Cooking, I Learnt From Making Stew are here and here.]

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No more links

The plugin which automatically fetches links from delicious.com and posts them to this blog went wrong last night. So it seems like as good a moment as any to stop posting them to this blog altogether, since they are all posted to A London Salmagundi as well.

If you want to keep reading the links but have no patience for all the other bits and pieces I post to Salmagundi, you can also find them at delicious.

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  • 'The image is all to scale and shows just how enormous the near-complete International Space Station really is. A traditional Routemaster bus, at a little over 8 metres long is dwarfed by the ISS, which has a wingspan of 108 metres. Even the good ship HMS Nelson's Column, here seen coming in to dock, looks feeble by comparison.'
    (del.icio.us tags: London space )

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  • ‘Tiger Wood’s apology (and his mother’s reaction during it) made him seem more Asian American to me…’ The first interesting perspective I’ve seen on the whole Tiger Woods thing.
    (del.icio.us tags: TigerWoods Asian )
  • Matt Taibbi gets very angry at Wall Street again; I’m not sure how fair some of it is, but it’s entertaining stuff.
    (del.icio.us tags: economics )

Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

Chris Ofili is a contemporary British artist who is, I suppose, best known for using balls of elephant dung in his paintings. Indeed I’ve been well-disposed towards Ofili for years, ever since The Daily Mail or some other self-consciously philistine rag decided to be terribly outraged when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. It’s always irritating when hard-nosed tabloid journalists pretend to have the delicate sensibilities of Victorian spinsters, but it particularly irritated me because actually elephant dung is really very innocuous stuff: I remember reading about palaeontologists in Africa having ‘snowball’ fights with elephant dung, which gives you an idea of how harmless it is. They eat lots of dry vegetable matter and it passes through them barely digested, emerging almost as tightly-bundled balls of hay.

In retrospect, this quibble about the particular characteristics of elephant dung was rather missing the point. Especially since when you look at the early paintings he clearly was being intentionally provocative; for example, one of the titles is 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung. And several works with ‘shit’ in the title, like the distinctly creepy little sculpted head, made with elephant dung, dreadlocks and human teeth, called Shithead. And the painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by snippets cut from pornographic magazines. Indeed, if you’re an artist who wants to shock people the Daily Mail* provides a valuable service; it must be difficult to find anyone easily offended in the world of contemporary art.

Not that the dung is just there to wind people up; it’s also a symbol of Ofili’s African background. Apparently he started using elephant dung after a trip to Zimbabwe, along with a dot-painting style inspired by cave paintings in the Matobo hills. The style developed into elaborate paintings that combine paint with collage, sequins, resin in layer after layer, and the effect is both decorative and very visually engaging: there’s a lot to look at in these paintings. The major theme is, broadly, images of black identity: hip-hop and blaxploitation movies provide a lot of the visual cues. These paintings really are gorgeous as objects, which always helps.

Over time his paintings got less aggressively confrontational and more, um, spiritual, I guess. But he still kept developing that style, with the dots and the elephant dung and so on, in various different ways, until recently he clearly felt he had taken it as far as it could go, because his latest paintings are quite different, much more straightforward, painted with big sweeps of colour. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t really keen on these new works: they didn’t have the same visual impact and they just felt a bit insubstantial to me. But it will be interesting to see where he goes with them, because he’s a talented man.

* And, incidentally, Rudy Giuliani.

» The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars 1998 © Chris Ofili. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Everything I Know About Cooking, I Learnt From Making Stew (part two)

The first part was very broad-brush stuff: here I get (slightly) more specific.

Learning to cook is a lifelong project.

Learning to cook is a cumulative process. Some bits of it are widely applicable, but there are also many small pieces of specific knowledge. They aren’t generally complicated or difficult, but there are a lot of them, because there are so many different ingredients and cooking techniques. You build up a stock of knowledge as you learn new recipes. You can’t really rush that process, short of going to catering college or working in a restaurant so that you’re cooking all day every day. But learning is part of the fun.

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Everything I Know About Cooking, I Learnt From Making Stew*

These are some general thoughts about cooking; things I wish someone had told me when I first started. If you’re wondering about my credentials to be handing out that kind of advice… well, I don’t have any. I’m just a keen home cook. So take it with a pinch of salt.

Cooking is easy.

This is how to make a stew:

Peel, chop and brown some onions. Brown some chunks of meat. Put the onions and meat into a casserole. Put a glug of wine (or water, or whatever seems appropriate)  into the hot pan the meat was fried in and while it boils away a bit, scrape up the sticky brown goodness from the pan; pour that into the casserole as well. And some stock, a few vegetables, some herbs (perhaps a few bay leaves, sprigs of thyme and parsley stalks) and some salt and pepper. Leave it in a low oven or over a low heat for a few hours.

None of that is difficult.

I don’t want to be glib about this; I know that when you first start cooking, even quite simple things like peeling, chopping and browning an onion can be intimidating. Everything is new to you so you’re never quite sure you’re doing anything right; you’re not particularly comfortable handling knives; the onions make you cry†; you’re not quite sure what level of brown you’re aiming for.†

You’re never going to remove that learning curve completely. But we’re talking about a pretty manageable level of difficulty here.

Admittedly, not all dishes are easy; some things are technical, or require very precise timing, or have a chance of going dramatically wrong. But not as many as you might think. It’s entirely possible to avoid all that difficult stuff and still have a whole repertoire of delicious recipes that you can use to impress your friends/colleagues/in-laws/potential bedmates.

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Un prophète

I went to see Un prophète today, which is, as you can see below, un film de Jacques Audiard. Though obviously I saw the subtitled version.

It’s a gangster/prison drama about a young French Arab, played by Tahar Rahim, who arrives in prison at the start of the film and is immediately approached by a Corsican gang who threaten him and offer him protection in return for killing someone.

The film starts with Malik arriving in prison — we learn almost nothing of his life beforehand — and ends when he leaves, so it’s set in a very grey, constrained, claustrophobic world, and visually it’s mainly a kind of gritty realism. It’s rather Wire-esque, both in that visual style and in the attention to the procedural and mechanical details of prison life.

I thought it was a very good film. It works as a gangster movie — perhaps slightly slower-paced than you might expect from most American movies in the same genre, but none the worse for that. But it’s a gangster movie with an underlying serious-mindedness and darkness, and with other themes running through it, most obviously the French muslim immigrant experience, that give it a bit of heft. And it has a very good, understated central performance by Tahar Rahim.

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Announcing Salmagundi

I’ve got a new little side project, Salmagundi, which is a Tumblr-powered short-form, scrapbooky type blog-thing where I can post assorted bits and pieces — photos, links, amusing cat videos — that I find on the internet. A web-log in the original sense.

Which probably means I’ll stop the automatic link posts here, and keep this blog for longer text-based pieces, although I won’t actually make that change until it’s been working for a bit.

I think it looks quite spiffy on a Mac; it’ll look slightly less spiffy on a PC, not least because it relies heavily on Helvetica Neue Light. And on any version of Internet Explorer older than IE8, you’ll just see a message telling you that your browser sucks. In your face, Microsoft.

There is a link to it (Tumblr) in the sidebar on the right. Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed.

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‘The Real Van Gogh’ at the Royal Academy

Not that rubbishy fake Van Gogh that other galleries having been fobbing us off with, then.

The exhibition’s full title is ‘The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters’. The inclusion of some of Van Gogh’s letters supposedly provides a bit of biographical-intellectual-psychological context for the paintings. Which is an interesting idea, but calling it ‘The Real Van Gogh’ is still ridiculous.

The show hardly needs a special hook to attract the public’s attention; it is, somewhat surprisingly, the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London for 40 years, and I’m quite sure that it will be packed for the whole run. And rightly so: it has a lot of marvellous paintings in it. Van Gogh is so universally popular that the bloody-minded part of me almost wants to argue that he’s overrated, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Quite apart from anything else there is to say about his work, there is just such a lot of straightforward pleasure to be had from it.

Looking at the late landscapes I found myself thinking of El Greco: the strength of colour, the tension in the distorted forms, the stretching of the possibilities of figurative painting without losing that connection with real objects. By which I mean: he doesn’t seem to have been heading towards abstraction in that way that, in Cezanne’s landscapes, the mountain sometimes seems to be fragmenting into patterns of light and colour. Van Gogh’s landscapes are full of the thingness of things.

So it is a marvellous exhibition which I highly recommend. On the other hand I thought the letters were a bit of a sideshow. Most of them were written to his brother Theo; in the relatively short sections which the curators have translated from Flemish or French, Vincent talks about what he has been doing, how his work is going, and provides little ink sketches of the paintings he has been doing. It’s quite interesting; you do get some sense of his personality, of how articulate and thoughtful he was. And some of what he has to say about the work is somewhat interesting. But even without buying into the Death Of The Author idea that the artist’s life is irrelevant to understanding the work, I do think there is a limit to its value. Artists’ comments about their own work always seem so vague and generic compared to the specificity and particularity of the work itself; which I guess is why they end up as artists rather than writers. And the awkwardness of putting too much text in an exhibition mean that you’re not getting that much of Vincent’s thought anyway.

Perhaps there is a particular value in providing this kind of biographical material for Van Gogh, since he is probably still widely thought of as the mad genius artist. The letters at least give a more rounded sense of a real human being, since he comes across in them as, well, fairly normal. Intelligent, good with languages and incomprehensibly good with paint, but certainly not frothing at the mouth. I guess that point is worth making.

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The Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre

The Guildhall, for those who don’t know, was basically the town hall for medieval London; it is now the only surviving stone building in the City from before the Great Fire which isn’t a church. And, again for those who don’t know, when I say ‘the City’, I don’t mean ‘the city’; i.e. not the whole metropolis of London, but the City of London, the area within the medieval city walls, which now operated as its own special little fiefdom by the Corporation of the City of London. It’s the kind of place where you can’t throw a plate of tapas without hitting a banker or a lawyer.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is another gallery which I decided to check out because it’s on the Art Fund list and I’d never been there. Unlike the Guildhall, the gallery building is fairly new. The original gallery was extensively remodelled by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and didn’t reopen until 1999. And the building is rather grand — though if the City of London couldn’t grub together a few quid to build an art gallery, it’s hard to imagine who could.

The actual art was a bit underwhelming (or at least not my taste). Especially so at the moment as they are between exhibitions, so one of the large rooms was closed. What was left was a load of portraits of royalty and City grandees (Lord Mayors, heads of livery companies, yawn), some scenes of London, and a selection of Victorian/Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Some of their Pre-Raphs are rather famous, but still: really not my favourite thing.

The amphitheatre was quite interesting, although rather less spectacular than the word might suggest. Ephesus it ain’t. They didn’t even know it was there until 1988, when archeologists found it, and they decided to incorporate it into the building of the new gallery. So you go down to the basement and you can see a section that was the entranceway. Basically it’s a few traces of wall and some wooden drain, but it was interesting to see it.

» The painting is My First Sermon by John Everett Millais. The photo is of a bit of the 2000-year-old wooden drain from the Roman Amphitheatre. OPH 2008__0079_Guidhall.JPG is © king_david_uk and used under a CC by-nd licence.