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The International Writers Magazine: Life (From our archives)

Kitchen Wisdom and Student Cooking tips
Simon Bishop

Having friends 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 that.

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 today’s 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. "Let’s 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 a girl!

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 doesn’t 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 – that’s 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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