No Scales or Measuring Jugs – Just Imagination and Senses
Welcome to my new blog, Feasts & Fancies and the first recipe.
When I moved away from my family, to another country, I asked my grandmother to write down the recipes of my favourite dishes and cakes. She bought an exercise book — grey with a cluster of multicoloured stripes running across it – for that very purpose, only I waited and waited, but the recipes weren’t coming. “Wait, it’s not ready yet,” she kept saying. On one of my visits, I saw her writing in the exercise book, then tearing out the page almost immediately. “No, that’s not quite right,” she muttered to herself. The loose cover led me to suspect this wasn’t the first page she had torn out.
“If you carry on like that, I’ll never get my recipe book,” I said. She gave me a look of barely perceptible frustration.
When, at long last, my grandmother gave me the exercise book, the cover was a little frayed and only half the remaining pages had been filled with her neat handwriting. I thanked her, took a look, and didn’t open the exercise book again for three decades. Her recipes were no use to me: they contained hardly any measures of weight or volume.
Cooking had always been a bone of contention between us. Her voice would call from the kitchen. “Katia, I’m making borscht [or kalach or Salade Olivier]. Come and watch, so you can learn.”
“I can’t. I’m doing my homework.”
Sometimes, when unable to provide the unarguable excuse of homework, I would drag myself to the kitchen and stand fidgeting, forcing myself to watch my grandmother slicing, chopping or stirring and listen to her explanations. But then some beautiful piece of music would catch my attention and I would turn up the radio dial, or our dog would stroll in for some company and I would start playing with him, or else I’d be rescued by a ringing phone.
My maternal grandmother, a Russian-bred Armenian from Rostov-on-the-Don, was a superlative cook, and any friend who came for a meal would eagerly accept a second and third helping of her food. My mother, on the other hand, was an enemy of all household chores, cooking first and foremost. When I was growing up, she could produce all of four dishes: lettuce salad, tomato salad (she did not believe in mixing the two), artichokes a la romana and steak, my absolute bête noire.
I will never forget my mother’s daily steak during the fortnight my grandmother spent in hospital because of a ruptured hernia, when I was about six years old.
“Katia, eat your steak. It’s getting cold.”
“I can’t swallow it – it comes back up.”
“Nonsense. You’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate. You’ll sit here all day, if need be.”
After a couple of days, Snoopy, our gentle English Setter cross, came to my aid. He learnt to sit very still under the table and quietly wolf down the chunks of meat I would spit, unchewed, into my napkin before placing the said napkin back on my lap.
In her later years, my mother became a vegetarian, and so added pasta sauce, roast potatoes and two or three other dishes to her repertoire, although raw salad (which included uncooked grated potato) was always one of her favourites.
I prided myself on being my mother’s daughter. In my first week away from home as a self-catering student, I dined on grilled apple halves filled with Cheddar cheese. In my late twenties and married to my future ex-husband, I produced some very respectable dishes from recipes copied to the letter without the slightest deviation.
In my forties, I learnt to cook. Using imagination and instinct in preference to scales and measuring jugs. Trusting my senses. Trusting the vegetables, the fruits, the grains, the herbs.
A few months ago, when I opened my grandmother’s grey exercise book with the cluster of multicoloured stripes running across the cover, I suddenly understood her frustration at having to squeeze her intuitive cooking into exact grammes and centilitres, her inability to explain her creativity in cups and centigrades. She tore out the pages because the recipes she recorded were not true to the reality of her cuisine.
With age, I have become more and more my grandmother’s granddaughter in the kitchen. When friends ask me for the recipe of something they’ve enjoyed eating at my table, I, too, hum and haw, struggling to provide exact instructions. “It’s a handful of this,” I say apologetically, “and a small fistful of that – but if you prefer you could use that as a substitute for this and add another thing instead.”
All that is a roundabout way of saying that most measurements in Feasts & Fancies will be approximate. These posts and the recipes included in them are intended for spontaneous, intuitive, fun-loving cooks. If you cannot trust your intuition in the kitchen, where can you trust it? I will provide no oven temperature settings because I wouldn’t dream of assuming that your oven and my oven have the same personality. Only you know your oven and its quirks. I will not tell you how many apples to use in a cake or how many spoonfuls of cinnamon powder to add to the mixture. No two apples are exactly the same size, or have exactly the same degree of sweetness. It is up to you to consult your palate and decide how much sugar it craves on that particular day. Or how much salt it fancies. No two snowflakes are the same, and neither are two vegetables, two pieces of fruit, or two eggs. No two dishes will turn out identical, even if you use the same recipe twice. And that’s part of the fun.
I hope you enjoy Feasts & Fancies, and that it inspires you to take joy in cooking if you don’t already.
I dedicate this blog to the memory of my grandmother, Yekaterina Gregorián. Wherever she is, I hope she watches me cook – and smiles.
Unpasteurised Brie* Tartiflette
A bunch of fresh basil (washed in cold water)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper
When my potatoes are organic, from a trusted greengrocer, and the skins are smooth and glossy, I scrub them thoroughly under the tap, but don’t peel them.
Place a large pan of salted water to boil, while you cut the potatoes into slightly thick, even slices. Once the water starts bubbling, remove it from the heat and carefully ease the sliced potatoes into the hot water with a long-handled spoon. Once they’re all in, place the pan back on the ring and turn down the heat. The bubbling must be gentle, playful, like a giggle, not a volcanic eruption. How long should the potatoes cook for? Well, as long as it takes for you to stick a fork in easily but without the flesh crumbling. Once that’s achieved, drain the potatoes, taking care not to break them – so don’t go shaking the pan. This may be a good time to preheat your oven and set it to a moderately high heat.
With a perforated spoon (to make sure the excess water drains), place each potato slice in an oven-proof dish previously drizzled with olive oil. How you arrange the potatoes is entirely a matter of personal preference. You can line them in rows, wind them in a spiral, form them into a flower, or however you please, depending on the size and shape of your oven-proof dish. A generous drizzle of olive oil on top, then slide the potatoes into the oven and wait for the edges to brown.
Meanwhile, cut the Brie into thick slices, not forgetting to put one piece into your mouth – a cook’s efforts deserve a downpayment.
Then, tear up the basil leaves into large strips. Some people cut herbs with a knife. I find metal too hard and cold against the delicate leaves, so I use my hands, and the bright, joyous aroma of basil rubs off on my fingers.
Once the potatoes have got a golden crust on them, take them out of the oven and scatter the shredded basil over them, then distribute the slices of Brie, making sure most of the potato and basil surface is covered. Uncovered basil is likely to turn black in the heat. On some days, I add a very, very light dusting of freshly-ground black pepper.
And now everything goes into the oven… for as long as it takes for the Brie to melt and perhaps turn golden.
This is the stage when H., my husband, starts loitering in the kitchen, asking when the food will be ready. And it soon is.
I usually serve my tartiflettes with a side of stewed spinach, or some steamed green kale, or cooked red cabbage.
* I prefer unpasteurised Brie, but please check if you can tolerate unpasteurised dairy produce and note that it is generally not advised during pregnancy.