I am not Lazy, I cut corners
Over the years, in my 40s and 50s, I got myself attuned to the subtleties in the balance between an effective, good-looking meal, and the complexity involved in preparing it. Some friends didn’t see it that way. I have, in my time, been called all manner of things, particularly by women, once they have got to know me and see the apparently nonchalant, uncaring, corner-cutting, lazy way I purchase food and prepare meals. I am immune to their abuse unless it is meant in a vindictive or offensive manner, in which case the relationship ends and it no longer matters. Those that have only just met me never moan. They are simply impressed by all those professional noises coming from the kitchen. And if they walk in and see unusual practices, there is little reaction bar curiosity. Guests might carp but only after knowing that they can get away with carping. That’s before they sit down and enjoy the meal of course.
It would surprise some of them to know that I have quite severe principles about corner-cutting and laziness. One is so fundamental that it is easy to miss. I actually cook. There is no need to do that. There is an endless variety of ready-made meals in any supermarket that can go straight into the microwave oven and be ready in less than ten minutes. There are almost as many sources of food from salad bars and delicatessens that don’t even reach the microwave. There are takeaways selling beef burgers, fish burgers, cheese burgers, pizzas, chicken legs, tandooris, baltis, jacket potatoes; you name it and it can be taken away. In commercial centres, particularly London, sandwich bars line some streets like banks and building societies used to in the good old days. In short, the effort required to buy food to prepare at home is substantial compared to the ease with which I can eat by doing nothing except pass money to a vendor and the food down my throat.
At times, of course, this is exactly what I want to do. If my partner and I are rushing to the cinema, she would be somewhat surprised, and probably annoyed, to hear me say: “Oh, while you’re putting your coat on, I’ll just make a Boeuf Bourguignonne.” Often, a sandwich or a takeaway pizza is all that is needed for a fun time with good company. But for formality, for an event that says: “I have invited you to my home because you are worth inviting”, I cannot bring myself to present something I bought in a cardboard box and prepared by pressing a button and waiting for six minutes.
That does not mean I do not cut corners. This book is crammed with examples of how not to do things the traditional way because my way is less hassle. But there is a difference between cutting corners and laziness. The principle of corner-cutting is finding a different, simpler, yet interesting way of providing meals. Laziness is not being aware there is a corner to reach and not caring anyway. Many would not agree that I have got this right but I am not trying to undertake a PhD on “Corners and How To Cut Them”. I am just explaining the way I see it.
Finding the fine line between cutting corners and laziness starts at the time I buy the food. To get the point, why not walk with me around the local supermarket? Here are the vegetables. I note a pile of neat packs, each with a red, green and yellow pepper in it. Now, I could be grateful to the shop because it has tried to save me the need to stretch out my hand three separate times. Two extra movements of my arm are worth saving. On the other hand, I could reduce that movement by buying a free-standing green and red pepper, because I don’t actually want a yellow pepper, and because that avoids the need to fold and dispose of the utterly irrelevant, costly and environmentally damaging polystyrene tray and sheet of cellophane.
Baking potatoes are another example. Here, customers gain nothing by buying them on a tray because potatoes don’t come in different colours. They just pay a few pence extra then throw the tray away when they get home. Why do they do it?
Nearby are the trays of Fine Beans. I have no doubt they are “fine” but why hand-cut them? I am quite capable of using my own hand, having bought the ones that are uncut. I might lose 15 seconds in the process but if, as is usual, the uncut beans are sold loose, then I recover that time not having to dispose of one more polystyrene tray. Next to these are bags of previously cut, previously washed and previously chosen stir-fry vegetables. I would far rather cut and wash my own vegetables, thank you very much, especially when I’m trying to impress by wearing my tall hat. As for choosing them for me, the store is in danger of removing the very point of experimental cooking. How can I have fun not knowing how things will taste, not being able to make mistakes, not being able to recall evenings that threatened disaster and ended in passion, if shops start choosing which foods I should buy and in what combinations?
Another classic example of laziness is the purchase of cheese ready grated. Not only can nothing be done with the stuff except melt it, but if I didn’t own a grater, I could slice up a block of cheese with a knife quite easily enough to be incorporated into or lain on top of an expectant dish. And I can choose what cheese I want. I would have to be very desperate to buy grated cheese.
On the other hand, I would buy ready-prepared salad. Bags of salad are great for the corner-cutter. Once I started to create romantic evenings, I discovered ranges of leaves of which I was only dimly aware and which grow their own sparkling flavours of herbs and spices. But finding all the variations amongst the shelves in the right proportions, without ending up with a sackful that would have lasted a month if it hadn’t rotted first, is simply too much effort. Buying ready-prepared is on the defensible side of the divide which separates the lazy slob from the corner-cutter.
Herbs and spices are a different issue. If I can find them, I can buy jars of dried leaves, powders, grains and pastes all of which are essential ingredients to interesting meals specially when, for me, much of their job is to conceal errors in preparation. But the problem is that I might need almost a jarful to make a real difference. The real thing avoids the problem. This is particularly true of some of the dried herbs, garlic and ginger, the powdered versions exhibiting but a vague pretence of their origins. It’s more hassle buying a real stem of ginger and head of garlic, but it takes just a few more minutes to strip and crush a clove or two or to skin and finely dice a couple of inches of ginger. Ideally, I would make these dextrous moves while wearing my tall hat and try to ensure my girlfriend was standing nearby, chatting. Opening up a little jar and throwing some dust around just doesn’t have the same cachet.
Although I did not do this myself - one of the rare mistakes not in my repertoire - I know of one poor beginner who did not understand the difference between a head and a clove of garlic. An entire head went into her meal, all finely crushed. She and her guests made a brave attempt to get through it but friends who were not there were aware of the effort she’d made an entire day later.
I found that cutting corners while cooking opened up a whole new world. I could turn my kitchen into a domestic science laboratory though, if at all possible, initial experimentation would be undertaken without onlookers. What if I did this instead of that? Suppose I put this in and not that? What would it taste like if I put this in, then this, and this?
After a cauliflower cheese debacle, that meal became my first successful, repeatable experiment once I had come to the conclusion that making a roux was a bit tedious and didn’t often work. To be frank, when in my 40s I wasn’t really sure what it was and didn’t know it was spelled like that for years. I had just heard the word bandied about by people while in conversation discussing recipes and would nod sagely at what I assumed were the right moments.
“I made a roux last week,” they would say, “but it simply would not thicken up. It could have been the new flour I bought recently.”
“Mmmm,” I would reply. It was at that point that I would nod sagely. “Could have been.”
It is embarrassing to note that many recipe books consider roux making so basic that they do not describe how it’s done. In desperation, I turned to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.
“‘Roux’ is a mixture of fat and flour used to make sauces.”
It sounded awful, but then I suppose it was asking too much to get recipes out of a dictionary. I decided that the consistency and colour I was looking for was reminiscent of mushroom soup, so I poured half a tin into a saucepan and mixed it with cheese and flour. Once poured over the cauliflower, it tasted really good.
Subsequently, I tried mixing herbs or curry powders into the soup to get other unusual tastes and eventually experimented with alternatives to the cauliflower. Broccoli worked well and even sprouts did a turn if they were firm and fresh. I then turned to other soups such as leek. Thus, I had travelled from a roux-based cauliflower cheese to a soup-based broccoli cheese with herbs and had discovered, on the way, a list of easy, tasty and nutritious variations on a theme.
Potatoes are another example of worthwhile corner-cutting. I have never skinned them, even when they are to be mashed. It is quicker, tastier and more nutritious that way. If I have stored them too long and they have threatened to plant themselves into the kitchen floor, I always cut off the roots, but that is largely for reasons of aesthetics.
One of the major events in my childhood was the discovery of baked potatoes and, once I realised how easy it was to make them (put them in the oven and switch it on) they became a weekly habit. The trick was to know how long to leave them cooking. I found it was much more difficult to over-bake than under-bake and large ones could be left for an hour and half without any problems. Of course, microwave ovens would do it in ten minutes but the end result is not so brown or crisp so I tend not to cut this particular corner. But if large ones take an hour, what happens if I slice them into small segments? I tried it once, while I was heating a quiche, and found that chopped potato took only a little longer to brown and soften as the quiche took to heat, about forty minutes. They came out nicely coloured, particularly on their cut sides, crisp, tasty and without a hint of oil or fat. A great discovery, and one which I now use every time I want potatoes with a meal that needs baking.
One operation which illustrates the subtle difference between laziness and corner-cutting is cleaning the kitchen. It is a diabolical job. The floor gets bits all over it, not all from me, surely, and sweeping it is only the beginning of an answer. Eventually, I am forced to get some floor cleaner and a bucket and get on my hands and knees. Such ignominy. The question is, how often? Between the paranoia evident in those who do it daily and the bloody laziness of those who never look at the floor, there is a frequency, and method, that can properly be described as corner-cutting. Once a month seems perfectly civilised to me.
The work surfaces give me an easier time because they necessarily have to be cleaned off after working on them, but the crannies and wrinkles around and over the gas rings and the hidden surfaces that make up the taps provide real exasperation. And if I do it less frequently to avoid the pain, I am confronted with more of it later with compound interest.
A similar dilemma applies to cooking utensils. Do I make it more difficult for myself by not buying it, in order to save myself the effort of washing it up? I find that whisks and garlic presses are a total pain to clean. Can you do without them? Yes, you can whisk and press manually and you can squeeze lemons without a squeezer. But you have to be fit. You can store food without sealed containers if you’re satisfied it won’t go off. You can grate without a grater, mince things crudely without a mincer and crush things without a mortar and pestle. But, in the end, it’s just easier to give in. Using the right things, even including the tediousness of washing them up, amounts to corner cutting for all the right reasons. And if you’re really investing in your kitchen, you can buy the electric
versions that do everything. There’ll be more washing up though
I met a girl once who did not bother with cutting corners. She was a consummate expert in the concept of laziness. Louise was her name. I met her at some seminar we were attending and was quite deceived by her smart business outfit. Once I had invited her round for a meal, she seemed to cool a little at the sight of my kitchen.
“Grief,” she exclaimed, “you are a tidy person. Or do you have a series of women who come and do it for you?”
She was of those who are put out by tidy men. As though a fellow is a little less masculine if he doesn’t drop everything where he last used it. But if we’re talking stereotypes, she would have had one of her own. When I got to see her home, for the first and last time, it was a tip. Sugar, salt, packets of rice, flour, tea bags, half clean saucepans and ladles, and rows of herbs were all thrown randomly over surfaces, spilling the contents over the worktops and onto the floor. She knew where most things were and when she didn’t, she took it in her stride by nipping down to the shops and buying another packet. Indeed, she seemed to accept with humour the sheer awfulness of her place. When I arrived, I stood nervously at the threshold of this domestic Hades surveying the carnage.
“You can come into the kitchen,” she said, “but mind you don’t trip over the stains.”