Sleeping in the kitchen

Cooking is about capturing the imagination. Just like writing. So what better way to approach a recipe than with a story in mind...

By: Clare Howdle,   6 minutes

I’ve been thinking a lot about food recently. Or at least a lot more than usual. Triggered into action by a few proposals we’ve been pulling together, I spent a Day 10 mulling over recipes and how they take shape.

When you cook it feels like it’s all about the moment – the ingredients available, the kitchen you’re using, even the mood you’re in dictate whether you make a good meal.

The inspiration for your cooking – whether it’s a recipe in your head, or a reliable favourite from your cookbook of choice – will have been born in similar circumstances too; influenced by the ingredients, surroundings and mood of its inventor. There’s a unique story to be told about every recipe in the world and asking about, recollecting or reading that story could bring a whole new flavour to your dish.

From Ripailles to Polpo, The Good Life to Leon, books that capture and share these stories can rouse your heart, soul and palette – so you want to recreate the writers’ food world, bringing the farmhouses of the Ardeche, the street cafes of Venice or simply the family kitchen of east Sussex to life on your stove.

To get the most out of a recipe you have to feel it, it needs to stimulate all your senses, instincts and emotions so you’re excited to cook. There’s no doubt the story of a recipe is an essential part of that. And so I was led to a – somewhat obvious – epiphany. Recipes shouldn’t just be written by cooks. They should be written by storytellers.

Let me explain more what I mean. A few weeks ago we found a wonderful thing in the back room of our office. A well-leafed, yellowing 1968 reprint of the 1961 handbook Cooking in a Bedsitter. Now here was an author who knew how to conjure a scene to engage the reader. Written by Katharine Whitehorn, columnist for the Observer who prior to owning “a perfectly respectable kitchen stove,” “cooked on a variety of gas rings”, this was no gourmet tome or designer coffee table item.

The recipes in the book are simple and straight forward. They have to be. It’s for people with one hob. But Cooking in a Bedsitter is about more than the ingredients or instructions. The way each chapter is framed and the context and motivation for it, all see you smiling, laughing and rolling your eyes. It makes you want to cook.

Any cook book with an introduction that explains that “the grubbier rooming houses, where cooking is done by an indifferent slut with no standards to maintain, are easier to be adventurous in,” is sure to capture your imagination and get you turning the page.  It’s the little incidentals in the way that she writes, the description, the rye wit, the picture-painting and the simple readability that leave me eager to try her recipes out. It has me falling in love with the idea of cooking up the bohemian bedsit spirit of the Sixties, in a creole liver risotto. And I hate liver.

The best example of Whitehorn’s evocative storytelling comes in the epilogue, where she meets Britain’s finest bedsit chef, a man whose whole room “spoke of food.” As she writes of going to visit him it’s easy to lose yourself completely:

“A compound smell of celery, garlic and freshly ground coffee – the essential smell of a French kitchen – met me faintly as I climbed the stairs. There was a sound of steak-bashing from within and when I knocked on the outside of his door a bag of vegetables tumbled heavily to the ground on the inside.”

In fact, the closing line of this epilogue captures the sense of passion, magic and story that great food writing hinges on, perfectly:

“When I asked him ‘how do you manage to live so well in your bed-sitting-room,’ he winced like a huntsman hearing a fox’s brush called a tail.

‘You mustn’t think of it as a bed-sitting-room,’ he said. ‘I’m sleeping in the kitchen.”’

When writing gets it right, it takes you over. Whether it’s fiction or fact, recipe or reference, if you find – for the moment you’re reading – that you’re living and breathing the experience of the writer, then you too become the fanatic, you too are ‘sleeping in the kitchen’.

It made me want to try it.

Not the cooking, you understand – although that liver risotto will be gracing my dinner table sometime soon – but the writing. I wanted to see if I could capture the story of a recipe and get other people to live it. I’m no chef. Nor am I a masterchef wannabe. But I love food and the tales it can tell. So I thought I would give it a go.

Here it is. Thanks for the Day 10 inspiration Katharine Whitehorn. If just one person enjoys reading this, or even considers cooking my dish that would be amazing. If it inspires you to write down one of your own recipes and the story of how it took shape, even better.

Here’s to stories that inspire action. Wherever we find them…

Red Tomatoes Tuna

We were latch key kids for a while. Most nights Mum would be marking ‘til well after 6pm – late in our eyes – and once the Ready, Steady Cook titles rolled at 5pm our rumbling tummies would be too much to bear. Often there were leftovers in the fridge and freezer, a spag bol to thaw out or a shepherd’s pie to heat up. But some nights we had to fend for ourselves. Those were the exciting nights. The cupboard-trawling, try anything nights, the nights where – spurred on by Ainsley Harriot’s Red Tomato win – we’d get inventive. And that’s where Red Tomatoes Tuna came from.

A sort of poor man’s fish pie, my little sister Lucy’s Brownie Guide Handbook and a healthy dollop of ingenuity forged this recipe. Firing up the oven and switching on the hob, I’d empty things into the pan, stretching across the kitchen as Lucy teetered on a chair, reading labels on tins and passing them over if she thought they could fit the bill for our DIY feast.

The first one tasted amazing. Because we’d made it up ourselves. The second one, even better. By variation 20, years later, we’d got it down to a fine art; a rich creamy tomato sauce, flaky tuna, spicy paprika and a crunchy topping. Today I’m tweaking it again, seeing if I can continue its evolution. It might not be gourmet, but for me it’s store cupboard cooking at its best – with  creativity – at its heart.

This one’s for you Luce. Total red tomatoes.

Serves Two

Preparation time: 25 mins

Cooking time: 30 mins

Serve with a fresh green salad and apple slices (although we never did as kids. But then who ate salad as a kid in the ‘90s unless they were being made to? Exactly.)

For the filling:

  • 1 tin of tuna
  • 1 tin cream of tomato soup
  • 1 tin sweetcorn
  • 100g peas
  • 5 mushrooms
  • 1 onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 stick of celery
  • A glug of olive oil

For the topping:

  • Big bunch of flat leaf parsley
  • Four slices of seeded bread, left out to stale
  • A healthy handful of mature cheddar cheese and a generous grating of Parmesan
  • Crunchy crisps, or baked snacks (this time I used Llama Bites, so I could scoff handfuls as I went along)

Heat up your oven to 180 degrees. Finely chop the parsley. In a blender, blitz up the crisps and bread then add in the cheese to make a topping. Mix in half the parsley and add salt and black pepper. Set to the side.

Finely chop the garlic, celery and onion. Get a heavy bottomed dish that can go in the oven onto the hob and glug in some olive oil. Heat until sizzling then toss in the onion and celery, turning the heat down a little so the onion doesn’t burn. As the onion starts to turn transparent, scrape in the garlic and leave until all the ingredients turn soft.

Chop the mushroom into chunky pieces and open the tuna, tomato soup and sweetcorn. Add the parsley to the mix in the pan, and sprinkle in some mixed herbs if you have them. A glug of white wine at this stage never goes amiss either. Next add the mushrooms, peas and all the tins, season and taste. It should look like a chunky, but wet pie filling. Stir thoroughly and heat until just bubbling. Take the pan off the heat. Sprinkle the blender-blitzed crunch mix over the top to make a thick layer and then scoot into the oven, for 20-25 minutes or until the crunchy top goes brown.

Spoon out in heapfuls and serve with green salad.

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