Life, The Universe and Aubergine Flan
Some years ago, my marriage failed. Hardly an earth-shattering event in the history of the world. Just another item on the never-ending lists pinned up on divorce court walls. But, as a personal event, it was pivotal to my developing a new view of myself.
I had settled into a suburban lifestyle, not particularly through choice but because that’s what everyone did. I got the children, the mortgage, the car and the annual holiday but, over the years, imperceptibly, my significance seemed to become defined either as one half of a couple or by my membership of a family unit. I was losing “me” in a social cobweb that threatened to smother like a delicate but insidious blanket. I knew of many marriages that had collapsed and had seen one or two people collapse with them because they could no longer see themselves surviving life as a single person in their own right. I feared very much that this was going to happen to me.
But it didn’t. In fact, once single again, I discovered that the reverse was true. The chronic lack of significance that I had thought would envelop me was submerged by the euphoria and excitement born of newly discovered independence. Suddenly, I could do what I wanted without reference to anyone. It didn’t matter if I was thinking about minutiae: “shall I get up or continue reading the paper?”, or the long term: “shall I continue with this job or backpack round the world?” It was exhilarating to realise that, though I was not part of a couple, the world and I were okay.
Not that there weren’t many problems. The idea of living alone removes many of life’s hassles, only to replace them with others. One of the challenges was to keep the euphoria and avoid the loneliness, and - much the same issue - to attract women back into my life. The sort of female company I liked would go for a man who could entertain, act the suave host and present romantic, quality meals. I could take them to the occasional restaurant, of course, but not for ever. Apart from the cost and the eventual tedium – “Not another meal out, for God’s sake” - cooking a candlelit meal for two seemed to me a much more effective, if clichéd, way of ensuring a successful evening.
The next problem was that some of my guests were likely to be good, even expert, at providing their own meals, and I was not. It was around this time that I saw a TV programme in which a chef was teaching viewers how to make a layered cake. I can’t remember much of the detail but it resulted in about six rectangular layers of thin sponge each separated by a delicate, strawberry-jam-like substance. I was impressed. Not only had the sponge mixture been prepared and baked but the filling had been created from scratch with fruits and cream.
But the chef wasn’t nearly finished. He laid the sponge on its side, cut a thin strip across its width and manoeuvred the delicate red and yellow section to the side of a shallow pie dish. He repeated this until the dish was surrounded by a coloured palisade fencing. The whole project, requiring hours of planning and preparation of which any domestic chef would have been proud, was intended as nothing more than a retainer for a mixture resembling lemon custard, which was poured in last of all while I sat there open-mouthed.
It was at this point that I realised my problem might well be bigger than I could handle. My meals had to be edible and look good, but did they have to be that delicately constructed? If it meant spending 24 hours planning, choosing, buying and preparing before I could even turn the cooker on, failure was staring at me full-frontal.
It was clearly going to be a risky business offering potatoes like rocks, unripe tomatoes, undercooked chicken and rice so late it turned up as afters when I was trying to woo women into my arms. I imagined my guest behind a closed bathroom door clearing her mouth of shattered fillings, washing tomato stains out of her blouse, or simply vomiting while I tapped nervously on the door and called out: “Er, when you‘ve finished, any chance of a cuddle?”
I needed to find a way out of my imagined nightmare. I needed recipes that were easy to follow and looked good. There were a host of things that passed the first hurdle but fell at the second. Beans on toast, egg and chips, bread and cheese (okay, so it’s a very simple recipe) were all very tasty but you don’t serve them to women by candlelight and expect a rewarding hug. At least, not to the women I wanted to know.
My search for recipes which met both requirements had one unexpected result: I found no particular objection to cooking and came to quite enjoy it. In those pre-‘PC’ days, more enlightened friends would just raise their eyebrows. But sometimes, I imagined I heard small gasps, sharp intakes of breath and the sound of a jaw hitting the floor. Anyway, there it was: the beginnings of nineties man.
One reason I enjoyed cooking was because my new freedom meant I could break rules and cut corners without a shrill admonishment over my shoulder. I recalled faint echoes of: “Don’t put the herbs in yet” or “That broccoli should have been chopped finer than that” while a recipe book was being held reverentially, as though for a sermon. I discovered the principal way to provide interesting and easy meals was to read up complicated recipes and find simple alternatives to some of the ingredients and procedures. I enjoyed this so much that rule-breaking became almost a raison d’être. What is the point of independence if you can’t break rules?
The most fundamental rule I broke concerned the cooker, more particularly, the lack of it. For many years, until I moved into a flat with a built-in hob and oven, I was a zero-cooker family. Reactions to this state of affairs varied from laughter to those sideways glances reserved for the occasional eccentric when you’re out shopping on a Saturday afternoon. But it also meant less washing-up, easier maintenance and no complicated dinners for eight.
Dinners for two, or even four, were no problem once I had learnt some corner-cutting tricks. My trusty electric frying pan and dual-ring portable hob did their best to provide myself and my guests with roast turkey, curry, paella and risotto to name but a few of my many successes. Tricky things like baked alaska and meat and five veg I didn’t bother with, unless of course you count the times I threw all five veg into one saucepan.
I found, however, that recipe books included a few crucial rules which I disobeyed at my peril. While a cookerless existence was comparatively successful, not following recipes, with all those irritating little instructions, occasionally led me to the brink of outstanding failure until I learnt ways to break those rules successfully.
I saw before me a page of requirements. Not only what to include but proportions as well, even in what order! I remember one recipe I found at random in a fat-splattered volume while I was searching for something rewarding for a new girlfriend. It told me to sauté aubergines for three minutes. Then, remove from the pan using a slotted spoon. A slotted spoon? What eternal plan would I have spoilt if my spoon had no slots? Now heat some spices and leeks, but only for 30 seconds! That wasn’t long. I could easily have tripped just reaching for the clock. In the time it takes to rub a sprained wrist and bloodied nose it could all be over. Half a minute and total success would have vanished with the smoke of blackened leeks. Add stock, sugar and lastly, the lonely aubergines of 45 seconds ago were to be returned to the fold. It was all too much to grasp. Was this detail all based on research or articles of faith? Why did 30 seconds and not 35 allow me to reach Nirvana? Was this the answer to life, the universe and aubergine flan?
I confess I forsook my place at the right hand of Cordon Bleu before I considered applying. Getting the drift of what was intended and compromising from there worked, once I had served my apprenticeship. Need a roux? How about mushroom soup. Does it say chicken? I have some frozen prawns here; they’re just as tasty. As for saffron, I actually spent a few hours searching for the stuff once. It looked like a broken twig from a bonsai and was actually more expensive than gold dust. In any event, turmeric or Madras curry powder turned things just as yellow.
Before I discovered ways of avoiding making sauces, I invited Ted round for a meal. I had worked with him some years previously and knew that his casual attitude to life would suit my newly developed disregard for detail. Having started on cauliflower cheese, my first mistake was to forget the milk, so I mixed some cheese, water and coffee whitener to see what would happen. The melting of the cheese was expected, but its coagulation with the powder was not. Imperceptibly, a dirt-yellow rubber ball formed and bounced around in the bubbling water. Had I invented a magic plasticine or was this cackling brew completely useless?
What to do next? I could open a tin of peas, changing the menu to “no meat and two veg” or, with real sang-froid, serve cauliflower cheese without the cheese sauce. I did neither. For a reason which I cannot truly explain, but is somewhere along the lines of lucky guesswork, I poured in some flour.
The whole mysterious routine went into reverse gear. The tennis ball gradually broke up and turned into a pale paste and, finally, I ended up with something that resembled my original intention. Just to make sure it didn’t taste too bad, I dosed it with herbs. For the record, Ted not only enjoyed it but didn’t even guess at the deviant route the food had taken to reach his plate.
Does the end justify the means? The transposition of good housekeeping into the world of ethics might seem hard to swallow but, in my experience, judging by the fun I’ve had, the lack of horror on visiting faces and the lack of rejection by visiting stomachs, the answer is “probably”.