Recipes for conformity

Reject the joyless nursery arithmetic of cookbooks, says Felipe Fernández- Armesto

Eating In

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

‘‘Our pepper grinder’s like the mills of God,” said my wife. “It grinds exceeding small. So what implement can you use…” [The question started badly. My Señora knows I’m a hands-on cook: that is, I use only my hands and wield only the simplest pre-industrial technology: knife, spoon, fire, pan, plus the occasional skewer, hammer and thread. The ill-starred question got worse as it went on,] “… to crush the peppercorns roughly enough?”

Steak au poivre caused the marital rift. A concession allowed me to make it: my wife usually excludes me from the kitchen when we’re together, partly to show contempt for the gastronomic prizes I’ve unjustly won, and partly because, as she says, I make too much mess. But of course in steak au poivre, like every intelligent, informed cook, I use only whole peppercorns. I said so, markedly, with an affectedly injured air.

On steak au poivre I will not compromise — not even with my wife

I believe in freedom and one of the reasons for my hatred of recipes is their peremptory, commanding tone, as if the writer knew the only way to fashion the dish. Variants from the inflexibly regimented columns of most cookbooks are made to seem like heresies.

Recipes are typically officious and pettifogging, treating readers as idiots, who don’t know how to suit their own taste or adjust traditions.

Many read like nursery-school arithmetic: add x amount of flour and y of milk to z of butter to produce a predictable outcome. Creativity and adventure get no badge. By specifying quantities, the teacher robs cooking of its status as art and turns it into drearily certified schoolkid-science.

Doctrinaire cuisine is dangerous. Friendships founder and marriages crash over differences about whether — for instance — to put onions in Spanish omelette or chillies in curry, or disputes over whether eggs are better scrambled in a deep or shallow dish. I’m happy to leave chacun à son goût in almost everything.

If you want to marmalade your kippers or make mayonnaise with sunflower oil, I’ll despise your mind and denounce your taste, but I’ll defend your right, as thoroughly as if you wanted to vote Republican or learn line-dancing. I’ll tolerate tinned tomatoes in ratatouille, as long as I don’t have to eat it, or rose veal in Wiener schnitzel, or even honey instead of molasses in baked beans.

But there are some abominations that are destructive of happiness, because they deprive eaters of opportunities of enjoyment, or turn wonderful ingredients to waste. Most of them occur in recipes exposed to the internet, where nannies write for nincompoops.

On steak au poivre I will not compromise — not even with my wife — or resort to the pluralist platitudes with which I evade political hatred and religious crusades. The steak must be a thick fillet. Though I deplore the way the mavens of dietetics demonise lipids, there must be no exposed fat: it would ruin the sauce.

Rubbing the meat well with olive oil helps contrast caramelisation on the outside and melting dissolution within. Unless you work a few peppercorns into the marbling it is a mistake to season ahead of cooking.

The heavy, ribbed pan must smoke with heat before you cook. The meat’s à point when a clear ribbon of pink, a chubby finger’s width, shows around the sides. Resist the temptation to turn the steak early: side one must be thoroughly seared before you flip.

While the steak rests, be quick with the sauce to maintain the cuisson. Brandy must sizzle in the pan while you fling in a crushed garlic smidgeon and plenty of peppercorns.

At this point, on the occasion of my wife’s offensive question, drama set in.

There were green peppercorns in the larder. But they were dried.

Steak au poivre demands pickled peppercorns. Peter Piper, evidently, was on his way to cook it in quantity. Only the green berry, preserved with the squelchy consistency it had on the tree, can take the eater in imagination to heroic histories of Vasco da Gama, il cavaliere Pigafetta and Pierre Poivre, risking death, defying oceans to pluck the precious condiment. I favour olive oil or brine for pickling, but vinegar is the commonest medium.

In any case the peppers must be rinsed and dried. If they still taste acidic, a sprinkling of muscovado sugar in the brandy restores balance.

Remove from heat to stir cream in gently but quickly. The sauce must be slightly viscous; really thick cream is indispensable. Butter for thickening cloys what is always a luxuriously pinguid dish.

What could I do without the right kind of peppercorns? I kept the whole, hard kernels simmering for a few moments to cut their pungency. I tasted, fearing the unaccustomed crunch. The result, I am ashamed to say, was delicious. Doctrines be damned! I turned to my wife and reluctantly grovelled: dried pepper-corns work. But let them be whole!

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