International Writers Magazine: Life (From our archives)
Wisdom and Student Cooking tips
over and need to know how to provide for a vegetarian, a coeliac
and a fussy child all in one go? Just pop into any high street bookshop
and you will be faced with thousands of books on every possible
aspect of cookery. Alternatively, you could tune into one of the
many dedicated television channels and watch a celebrity chef effortlessly
whisk up a seemingly idiot-proof feast suitable for all.
Food has always been
a vast industry, but it is only recently that "cheffy" ingredients
and their preparation have been demystified. Nowadays, it is all about
cooking good, wholesome meals using high quality ingredients people
are genuinely interested in ensuring that the plump, crimson tomatoes
in their salad have been grown pesticide-free, and on which farm their
meat was reared.
It is hard to explain why food is such an emotive and intricately complex
subject, one that causes heckles to raise and passions to flair among
otherwise ordinary folk. After all, at its most basic level, food sustains
us; it gives us energy and is one of the three fundamental elements necessary
for life itself. However, to many people, it is much more important than
I first became aware of food being something other than sustenance when
I went away to school. The canteen provided enough calories to see us
through the day, but you were never entirely sure what the grey slush
oozing across your plate was. Every meal carried a certain sense of déjà
vu it did not seem to matter whether you asked the prune-like dinner
lady for custard or carrots, turnips or trifle it all tasted identical.
My young, developing palette craved something more than that though: something
that would spark my interest and do more than just keep me alive.
It was in the dark evenings when battered wooden tuck boxes came out and
deals were done. I am positive many of todays captains of industry
learned their negotiating skills whilst bargaining hard for a strawberry
lace. After the dreary fare served in the dining hall, how exotic a Mars
bar seemed! What lengths one would go to for a pack of bourbons! I remember
quite clearly one night a boy visiting the matron with a scratched eyeball
and a dislocated finger, caused by scrapping violently for instant noodles.
Moving on to University, food again increased in importance. Here I was,
in the great wide world, with nobody providing for me. I had to cook something,
or I would fade away to nothing. At first, bravado had been yelling that
a liquid diet was all that the modern undergraduate needed to fuel his
journey into learning. Moreover, of course, there was the obligatory weekly
kebab some carbohydrate, some protein and the salad, which I presumed
must have counted for at least one of my five-a-day. This lasted for just
a few weeks, by which time I was yearning for a square meal. Something
had to be done.
A hungry student can pick up skills in an amazingly short space of time
when faced with such a desperate situation. There was also the small matter
of being able to budget correctly when shopping. A supermarket was an
alien place, full of strange ingredients, and my eyes widened in confusion
as I faced raw, unprepared foodstuffs for the first time. Knowing that
somehow I would have to heat them, peel them, stir them, fry them and
boil them to create something vaguely edible was a daunting prospect.
However, through a process of trial and error, counting pennies and many
burnt fragments of goodness knows what, I slowly began to learn and improve.
Initially, a spaghetti Bolognese was some mince and something red from
a jar. This was fairly tasty and seemed adventurous enough. One day though,
I had some bacon left over. "Lets add that", I thought,
and I did. It transformed the dish. Then, slowly, I began to customise
the sauce until it was not from a jar, but made entirely from fresh ingredients.
I took huge pride in this, and would stand guard for hours over my pan,
defending it from finger-poking attacks by my flatmates, whilst it simmered
gently to a rich, deep red sauce.
I would imagine it is at this stage that many take to cooking, whereas
some file it in their mind as a chore. I certainly began to take pleasure
in it. How remarkable it was to create something that could warm you on
a cold day or cheer you after the misery of a particularly boring lecture.
Another aspect of cookery became obvious to me at this stage. Cookery
could make me popular, well-liked even! Certainly, my lack of knowledge
of the subject I was studying chemistry and my lack of prowess
in the laboratory had won me no admirers. I remember clearly my first
Sunday roast when I had invited what dauntingly seemed like several dozen
ravenous students to my digs. My nerves were as frazzled as the skin of
the chicken (must remember: 170 is the temperature, not the cooking time
as they crowded expectantly round my tiny plastic table. It was certainly
not a gastronomic delight, but I took a huge amount of pleasure in seeing
people really tuck in, have a second helping, then throw themselves back
in their chair and gasp and clutch at their full bellies. People paid
me compliments. I liked that.
A cunning extension of this idea then brewed in my head as the stock does
in the pot. I had again invited company for supper this time just
one person, and of the opposite sex. If I could hone my skills, and produce
something that could be viewed as more exotic than home cooking would
I be more than just popular? Would I also have the envious problem of
wondering what I should cook her for breakfast as well? I had to find
out, so it was off to the library. I spent many hours pouring over Thai-infused
this and Cajun that, but could not find any inspiration. I then decided
to ring home and ask advice. Mum was delighted: I was cooking, and for
After much debate, I decided on a dish that looked simple enough for me
to prepare, yet complex enough for the lovely Miss X to think that I was
particularly skilful and had gone to a lot of trouble on her behalf. So
here it is, my "recipe for success".
Measure out enough Puy lentils named after the region they grow
in France for two, and cook them in good quality chicken stock
according to the instructions on the packet, although do check they are
tender as they can take a little bit longer. Using stock instead of plain
water imparts a beautiful meaty flavour into the lentil.
While they are simmering away, take a handful of smoked lardons of bacon,
and add them to a non-stick frying pan preheated to high with a touch
of olive oil, pushing them around the pan when necessary to stop them
catching on the base. Enjoy the marvellous smell that wafts up whilst
they dance in the pools of hot oil, releasing their amazingly pungent
flavour. Remove the bacon once nicely crisped up and brown, reduce the
heat, and add a clove or two of finely chopped garlic to the pan, stirring
until its sharp pale rawness has been removed. When this is done, remove
from the heat and set the pan aside.
Drain the lentils, and while still steaming hot, stir in the lardons and
garlic that you prepared previously, along with the some of the fat released
from the bacon which will have captured the essence of the smoky bacon.
Believe it or not, the recipe is now nearly complete.
All that remains is to add a good slug of olive oil, and a dash of balsamic
vinegar, and a really generous grinding of sea salt and black pepper to
taste. A decent handful of bright green finely chopped chives doesnt
go amiss, adding a subtle onion flavour and a vibrant colour. Serve the
lentils topped with a beautifully, delicately poached organic egg and
you will become renowned and admired for your talent. There will be no
better feeling than watching your guest tuck into their meal, the yolk
of the egg breaking over the glistening lentils, and seeing a slight smile
spread across their face as the taste bursts in their mouth.
This dish is one of those great store cupboard standbys, and can be adapted
to suit whatever is lurking in the fridge. The lardons could easily be
replaced with rich, fiery chorizo, the balsamic vinegar with acid sharp
lemon juice. All these years on, its still a family favourite, but as
for Miss X thats another story.
This is the story of why food became important to me, and how it continues
to grow in importance in many aspects of my life. The use of quality ingredients,
combined in simple ways, is a powerful concept.
© Simon Bishop
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