The trouble with recipes is I often feel they are in fact anti-cooking, or at least they make us think about food in the wrong way. A recipe reads like a list, a set of rules - orders even - and cooking is not - or should not - be like that.
Cooking is a creative and a flexible process. Like all such processes it begins with an idea. You see, think, hear, taste, find something and the idea is planted. The next step is to make that idea a reality.
With cooking, as with painting or drawing, that is how I think. I see something, whether it’s a glowing apricot on the tree, or a shining aubergine in the market, and I think – that looks good, fresh, juicy or ripe, what could I make with that? Cooking begins with an ingredient, an ingredient which sparks an idea.
Even if we do not all have markets/gardens etc at our disposal, which we don’t, and I haven’t for many years, cooking still begins by peering in a fridge and spying half a pack of cheese, a bunch of wilted spinach and a jar of mayonnaise. This is also a beginning, and no less inspiring at that.
Reading and following recipes kills this aspect of cooking. Recipes can function as guides, inspiration or help yes, but they should never be everything.
The trouble with recipes is following them. The thing that puts me off cooking most is when I try and follow a recipe. I have to make a list. I have to go to a specific shop and find all the things on this list. I hate it. I always forget things, and that drives me mad, because I’m following the recipe to the letter dammit, and now I’ve forgotten the milk, so how can I possibly make it?
The very worst thing of all is when a recipe doesn’t work, which they frequently don’t. To have magicked something up out of your imagination and for it not to work is one thing, but to have blindly followed someone else’s instructions and for it to turn out badly is one of the most frustrating and deflating things imaginable. For this reason too I feel it is safer to take all recipes with a pinch of salt.
This is perhaps, you think, the luxury of those who know how to cook, or who really enjoy the process. But it doesn’t have to be. If you start to shop differently, you’ll start to think differently, and you can use recipes as reference rather than rules in this way, and I can guarantee you’ll be inspired to start creating. If you start to enjoy the shopping part the rest will follow suit. Shopping for food is my favourite thing, after eating food and just before cooking food. I could do food shopping all day every day. Not just at fancy markets, or independent delis. Any old food shop. When I was in London I revelled in the corner shops, each one more fascinating than the next. I went through a Lidl phase when I lived in Scotland. It was so bloody cheap it made me ridiculously happy. Now I live here in Sardinia there is Eurospin. How I love Eurospin. It is even cheaper than Lidl. Any shop, market or deli, I’m not fussy. The truth is, going food shopping is a chance to let your thoughts wander, and to let inspiration come to you.
Thus, for me, the best way to use a recipe is after I have my initial inspiration. I buy some plums because they look good. Then I look up plums in three or four of my favourite recipe books, and I adapt one or blend two or merge all of them into one plum-centric dish. If I don’t have cream I substitute crème fraiche, if I don’t have caster sugar I use demerara. This way you also give birth to a new recipe, your own. This is the most satisfying way of shopping & cooking, because the two are intrinsically linked. How you shop informs how you cook. This is why people get so romantic about markets. I understand this romanticism. What could be more pleasant than going to a market? And what could be more satisfying than scoring a bargain, a brown bag full of ripe apricots for a puny 2 euro. There are always bargains to be had, whether at market, corner shop or supermarket. A bargain begins the whole process on a happy note. And even better than a bargain? Growing you own. Not only is growing your own satisfying because you know where your food has come from and exactly how it has been grown, but you are also saving yourself money. It’s a win-win situation.
However, I digress, let’s go back to the beginning, back to the apricot tree and the apricot recipes, or lack of them. The house we now live in has a scrub patch of vines, olives and fruit trees. The house itself is a tip, it’s been left to fall apart, and the garden is overgrown and wild. But, there are still the trees, fruiting happily in the chaos. The apricot is the second this year. The nespole came before but most were sick and rotten before they ripened. The apricots are perfect. Heady with scent, mottled and flecked with scarlet. Now I just need to decide what to do with
Here is one idea....
Old Fashioned Brown Butter, Apricot & Mascarpone Tart
I’m always piqued by recipes with ‘old fashioned’ in the title, as almost any ‘old fashioned’ food appeals to me. This is adapted from a classic Jane Grigson recipe, which I took from her Fruit Book. She doesn’t brown the butter, but I love brown butter and from previous experiments know it works very well in fruit tarts. With the butter and custard this tart is unmistakably French, but by adding mascarpone & lemon in the place of the original sour cream it sits very happily with Sardinians and is a wonderful way of using up apricots of any nationality.
For the Pastry
My go-to sweet pastry recipe, which makes enough for two wide flan cases.
350g 00 flour (or plain flour)
100g icing sugar
3 egg yolks
Blitz the butter, flour, salt and sugar in a mixer until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the yolks and blitz briefly again until the dough starts to come together. With your hands press it into a flat-ish ball and wrap it in cling film. Place in the freezer for at least 20 minutes.
Grate the pastry into a tart case using a normal grater. This is a River Café method and ensures that:
A) there is no need for baking beans
B) that the pastry does not shrink when cooked
Whilst grating spread the pieces evenly over the case and press in well with your fingers and palm of your hands to form an even, flat layer.
Place in the fridge/freezer to cool for at least 20 minutes.
Bake in a preheated oven at 175 for 12-13 minutes, until golden. Remove and set aside to cool.
12-15 apricots, halved and de-stoned
150g caster sugar
2 strips lemon peel
Bring the water and sugar to the boil and simmer for a few minutes. Add the lemon peel. Add the apricots and poach them lightly until just tender but not falling apart. Remove them from the syrup and set aside to cool. Reduce the syrup until you have a lovely sticky gel. Reserve for glazing the tart.
For the Filling
200ml double cream
Good squeeze of lemon juice
Melt the butter and allow to turn nut-brown, removing quickly before it burns. Whisk the eggs, sugar & creams with the lemon juice and salt. Add the warm butter and whisk until all incorporated. Pour into your baked tart case and dot the apricots about. Place in a preheated oven at 200 and bake for 20 minutes. Lower the temperature to 180 and continue baking until the filling sets firm. Remove and glaze with the apricot glaze. Serve warm or at room temperature, unadorned.