Heaven in a tin
Improvise in the kitchen, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Underdone fish fingers and a glass of vermouth: John Bayley recommended the combination with mock solemnity, as if he had planned it all along. But it’s an example of improvisation under-celebrated in cookbooks and unexalted in the annals of cuisine: making the most of a little, or the best of a bad job, when short of ingredients through negligence, disaster or isolation.
Wartime produces minatory expedients. Poulet Marengo is the most famous and most palatable. Napoleon’s chef supposedly concocted it out of a stray chicken and stolen crayfish, when he had nothing to hand after a battle beyond the reach of his supply train. But the story is probably mythic, and most extemporisations are repulsive.
War’s cruelties include Spam, snoek and Woolton pie — the World War stodge for which fancy recipes exist but which essentially calls for disguising potatoes under a potato-pastry crust. The Dutch pretend to like hutspot, the national dish that mashes root vegetables into an insipid pulp to commemorate self-sacrificial resistance during the siege of Leiden in 1574. In the tradition of nail soup, one can embellish such messes with garnishes and flavourings that war forbade, but efforts to elevate snoek or Spam demand valour unattainable even among the siege-victims of yore.
Without time or inclination to shop, and encumbered by a visceral distaste for defrosting, I live from the larder, like a throwback to an era before supermarkets and fridges.
Recipes I have tried — contrived hashes, defiant fritures, despairing sandwiches and salads — ruin the encircling starches or traduce the meat or fish for which the main ingredient feebly substitutes.
Remoteness, idleness and self-neglect are other forms of siege. I spend a lot of time en garçon in a large dwelling near my workplace in northern Indiana, because my wife gives due priority to two dachshunds and one grandson, who live 4,000 miles away. Without time or inclination to shop, and encumbered by a visceral distaste for defrosting, I live from the larder, like a throwback to an era before supermarkets and fridges.
Because I recoil from gadgets I can’t mend myself, a hob (a survival from an era when my wife had fewer distractions) is the only electrical apparatus in my kitchen. Food doesn’t reach my table unless I can chop it, whisk it or squeeze it by hand. Without recourse to John Bayley’s level of desperation, I have found wonderful things to do with cans and dried staples. Empty sardines into a hot skillet for a couple of minutes with abundant chopped garlic: they make a perfect garnish for spaghetti.
Gently sauté gnocchi: they grow crisp around a delicately toothsome centre and go well with an egg. If your grocer has the good taste to stock the food of my homeland, a tin of squid in ink stirred into a pot of rice will delight you. Canned octopus is more reliable and much cheaper than the mighty tentacles now popular in plastic: add large amounts of paprika and smother with steamed farro or canned chickpeas.
I weep when I contemplate the decline of the can. All forms of processing for conservation seem magical to me, changing ordinary foods into something rich and strange. Petits pois are preferable from a tin, I think, to their uncanned equivalents as accompaniments for crisp duck or lamb, because the yielding structure complements the carapace of the roast.
Who will dissent from Jerome K. Jerome’s praise of canned pineapple? I won’t say that tinned sardines are better than fresh: they are incomparable on their own terms. Confit de canard, for most home cooks, is, like Boston-baked beans, best from a tin. Some recipes properly demand condensed milk. Yet the market has turned from tinning.
The range of fabulous confections manufactured by such venerable firms as the Comtesse du Barry in France and Félix Soto in Spain — a business specialising, in a way unthinkable in the dull Anglo-Saxon world, in imaginatively canned partridges — shrinks in scope and becomes ever harder to source.
I used to carry kilos of Soto’s truffled partridge across oceans. Now I can’t get it even in Spain. The comtesse still plies her trade over the web, but, in the Trumpian era of restrictive commerce, not in the US. Her parmentier de boudin noir and blanquette de veau, insuperable even in the grandest restaurants, are denied me in my loneliness.
Leftovers sometimes inspire creative extemporisation. For me, they’re obsessively challenging, as they were for Sally Rorer, the bossy apostle of meals of un-American economy in her cookery school in late nineteenth-century Philadelphia. She urged every housewife to save the residues of yesterday’s meals from the throwaway profligacy of the average maid, and transform them into disturbingly random purées, or fragments of broken meats bound in béchamel.
My greatest triumph issued from a desiccated crust, a sad garlic clove, an imperfectly squeezed tube of passata and a date-expiring tin of anchovies. Mix, spread, et voilà! It went well with a glass of vermouth.
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