Introduction to Sunday cooking

Recently I bought a cook book in a flea market. The title is The Sunday Times Complete Cook Book. I have never bought a cook book before; the sisters supplied me with a thick stack of recipes. Also, varieties of them are available in the internet, and in Trondheim, the local supermarkets provide recipes and cooking booklets in a periodical basis for free. So for this book, it was the word Sunday alone that attracted me. I would surely like to learn to prepare nice and simple home-cooked Sunday food for family and friends, and I no longer need to mention how much I yearn to be a little of service to the sisters in the church kitchen for Sabbath meals. However, there was one careless overlooking. Only at home Adi remarked that the word Sunday actually came from its publisher The Sunday Times. I was quite flustered with my inattention. Nevertheless I would persist with my original motivation.

Below is only the introduction of the book, but I have benefited from it as much as I am eager to learn from the rest of the contents. I would like to share this to all homemakers and sisters, just as I am learning to share the small baby steps I am taking in learning to cook. Enjoy!

“Like most daily habits, our cooking can be cultivated and improved immeasurably, without making vast efforts. I have spent the past year working on this book with these aims in mind. Into it I have poured all my enthusiasms and prejudices: my love for food, and for cooking, in all its traditional forms, and my growing irritation with phony and unrealistic trends. I would like to put in a particular plea for cooking more fresh vegetables, fish, and farm-raised chickens—not just for special occasions, but as a general rule, until it becomes second nature. Foreign exotics such as tempura and bourride are fun as occasional variations, but they should be seen against a solid background. For parents of young children I feel this more strongly; they should be given an appropriate culinary background to relate to, not a cultural hodgepodge of pot noodles and milk shakes, samosas and Kentucky fried chicken.

A visitor to this country might well imagine—judging by the amount of literature on the subject, rather than results—that we had become a nation of restaurateurs, as opposed to shopkeepers. Am I the only one who does not want to compete with professional chefs? I find it hard to believe that there are thousands of others like myself, who want to cook in a more relaxed way, for the sheer pleasure of it, and for the fun of eating simple dishes. As I see it, the distinction between home cooking and restaurant food seems to have been lost, or wilfully cast aside. In the UK, as in the USA, cooking has become the new leisure activity, which is fine, except that the aims and aspirations seem to have been grossly distorted. Who wants to spend all day pounding and sieving a puree of crawfish, or reducing a sauce? Such exaggerated activities fill me with apprehension, for they seem to have more to do with exhibitionism than hospitality. The desire to give pleasure to ones’ friends can soon deteriorate into a demand for applause.

I suspect that many of us have become too pretentious about our food. Every meal does not have to be a culinary experience; such expectations soon escalate, and the pleasure of eating simple dishes is lost. Some of the dishes I remember with most pleasure have been the simplest imaginable: a green salad made from the first pickings of different sorts of lettuce fresh from the garden, served as a first course; the first of the new vegetables, poached and served warm, with a garlic mayonnaise; large prawns, served in their shells, with a sour cream and dill sauce. Such things cannot be too simple, but they must be served with style, and with the necessary confidence. I remember Cecil Beaton describing Dorelia John carrying an immense bowl of green peas to the table, during a lunch party in the John household. Although no cook himself, he was perceptive enough to recognise this as a symbol of generous hospitality, since the picking and shelling of peas on such a scale represented some herculean labour, but without pretension.

For me, this could serve equally well as a symbol of ‘real food’. This, rather than ‘good food’, is now my aim. By ‘real food’ I mean fresh ingredients, cooked for the most part in classic ways. Nothing ersatz or contrived; no clever mixtures of bought foods in a processor. I should like to reinstate the classic arts of poaching and braising, both out of fashion and largely forgotten. These are good examples of genuine dishes, based on tradition, yet open to individual variations, as the French term ‘a la mode de chez nous’ indicates. I have grown to dread the tidal wave of ‘dinner party food’ that threatens to engulf us, immediately recognisable from rented Swiss chalets to Tuscan villas, wherever the cookery school graduates wend their way. As Coronation Chicken raises its head yet again, irrespetive of season, locality, or occasion, I find myself longing for a poached fish, or a dish of Boeuf Braise a la Mode.

The main body of the book is devoted to the actual cooking. Unlike most authors, I have chosen to concentrate on the techniques, rather than the ingredients. Instead of a chapter on fish, for instance, you will find a chapter on poaching, steaming, boiling, and pressure cooking. First comes an explanation of the method, with background information and tips, and a guide to the best equipment that is available. Then come the recipes. In each case, I have chosen one typical recipe which is given in detail, called the Master Recipe. This is followed by the series of recipes—the Family of Recipes, which explore other foods that may be cooked by the same method. Thus, in one chapter, we learn how to poach chickens and fish, boil beef and gammon, cook root and leaf vegetables, steam fish, poach eggs, and make compotes of fruit. The more complicated techniques are illustrated with step-by-step illustrations, invaluable for such tricky processes such as poaching eggs. Also included are the relevant accompaniments—for instance a veloute watercress sauce to go with poached chicken, or a vanilla cream to serve with a compote of apricots. All the recipes are thoroughly indexed at the end of the book; you will find them listed under their chief ingredient as well as their full title.

The first part of this book is devoted to choosing, buying and storing fresh produce. This is vital information, for raw ingredients lie at the root of our cooking, and must be treated with respect. Ideally, buying should be done with a combination of daring and common sense. Sticking rigidly to a shopping list compiled before leaving home may be safe, but can be depressing, for it does not allow for the unexpected. Yet impulse buying demands flair and sounds instincts or, like unsuccessful clothes buying, it can leave one with an ill-assorted array of things, none of which complement each other. Learn to think in general terms and make your shopping list vague, not precise.”

(In Trondheim, the price of food produce is generally high. However, there would be occasional—often weekly—offers on different types of food each time. We go to shop without first having in mind what to buy; only after we discover what is in discount, we decide on what to buy. In Singapore, the prices are somewhat stable all-year round, except one or two big sales on all goods. This enables us to plan ahead of time. Situation in Indonesia is similar to Trondheim. Food is cheap in Indonesia, yet, not all the time we can get good-quality food, unlike in Singapore and Trondheim. So, if one day we come across fresh fish in a wet market that does not usually have fresh fish, it is wise to have a dish of fish that particular day.)

“Lastly, come to entertaining. In order to demonstrate my belief that the heart of entertaining lies in the personality of the hosts, rather than in the actual recipes, we asked eight different cooks to suggest and cook dishes for specific occasions. Their styles and attitudes are diverse, and there is much to be learnt from these masters in the art of hospitality. For it is not just the food that is important to a guest. Individual ways of presenting food, laying the table, choice of dishes—all these reflect the character of the house and its inhabitants. In my own home, I care more about creating the ambience where my friends feel relaxed and at ease, rather than stunning them with elaborate dishes. It takes time and trouble to build up a pleasant atmosphere, yet, once established, it is easy to maintain. All make their contribution and give a sense of place.”


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