NoRecipeMan: Painting With Spaghetti

Posted by in April's Magazine

One of the great joys of cooking is that it offers a regular opportunity to get creative, an opportunity that frequently arises after a working day that has provided nothing of the sort. And unlike most creative pursuits, cooking isn’t an extra-curricular activity in which we’re required to invest our valuable spare time. We all have to feed ourselves; so we might as well take whatever benefits we can from the process.

If you choose to use your kitchen as a creative space, you’re faced with a choice of art forms. The first is that of the jazz musician: take someone else’s composition and improvise around it, as much or as little as you like. This can encompass anything from the hotel lounge band (putting an extra carrot in Delia’s casserole recipe) to the avant-garde (adding layers of banana to Giorgio Locatelli’s lasagne). One is unlikely either to offend or excite; the other could be uniquely brilliant or utterly perplexing. Both are creative in their own ways, albeit to different degrees.


The alternative approach, and my preferred one, is that of the painter at the easel: start with a blank canvas and work from there.

Paint base jumper
This form of culinary art brings two particular challenges: knowing where to start, and knowing where to stop. At the beginning, you’re faced with the tricky problem of infinity: when your options are endless, it’s difficult to focus your thoughts enough to come up with anything at all. And at the end, it can be all too easy to forget that the beauty of an image (or meal) often lies in its simplicity. By the time you realise the snow-capped mountain looked just fine as it was, you’ve already painted someone base jumping off it.

Fortunately, these challenges have a shared solution. Don’t attempt to visualise the complete picture at the outset; instead, get your centrepiece in place – anything from a T-bone steak to a mound of rice – and develop the painting from there, one element at a time. Start with a single addition, and then pause for thought. If it feels appropriate, add something else. And if you’re wondering whether to add a further element, take a moment to consider whether it complements what’s there already – then trust your instinct. If it makes sense in your head, it will almost certainly make sense on the plate. If it doesn’t, it might well be time to stop. And just when you’re about to paint that base jumper, you’ll put the brush down, and your painting will be the better for it.

For instance, take a bowl of spaghetti, which in its unadulterated form might seem to lack a certain something. But add just one element – a splosh of good olive oil – and your edible painting begins to take shape. Chop a clove or two of garlic and fry it gently in the oil before mixing with the spaghetti, and you’ve got something approaching a meal. Add a chopped chilli as well and you’ve got spaghetti agli olio e peperoncino: the dish half drunk Italians cook when you or I would be queuing for a kebab, and the best example I know of how to eat well when you’re convinced there’s absolutely no food in the flat.

With each added element, visualising your completed pasta painting becomes easier; and when you feel it’s finished, simply stop. Until then, the only limiting factors are your ingredients, imagination and time. Add meat (fresh or leftover), seafood or vegetables (all sliced finely enough to be cooked by the time the pasta’s ready). Throw in some fresh herbs towards the end if you want some extra colour and freshness. Add Parmesan if you like, or not. Omit the chilli – or even, at a push, the garlic – if you don’t fancy it or simply don’t have any. There’s no need for a sauce as such, because the olive oil will provide the necessary lubrication; but you could always cut back on the oil and stir in a little cream, soft cheese or passata for a different finish.

Blank canvas
In other words, you can do exactly as you like, secure in the knowledge that your systematic pauses for thought will help you avoid the ‘base jumper’ scenario.

Whether or not you think of yourself as an accomplished cook be assured that you’re perfectly capable of making such judgements. In fact, you probably do it already, when you make your selections at a pizza shop, noodle bar or breakfast buffet. Fundamentally, the process is no different, except that your menu – or, if you’ll forgive me one last painting analogy, your palette – is determined by the contents of your own cupboards and fridge.

And that, perhaps, is the best justification of all for this ‘blank canvas’ approach: it prompts you to make best use of what you already have, and so develop your kitchen thinking from “How do I make that?” to “What shall I make with this?”

And that’s a very, very good thing.

Tom Wheeler

Twitter: @norecipeman

One response to “NoRecipeMan: Painting With Spaghetti”

  1. The cooking has the vast scope of creativity and even in the daily busy routine one can find the pleasure to its creative side by cooking. You can take a recipe from internet or a magazine or even from some aunt of yours then can improvise it in your own way. You will end up having a new creative dish of yours.

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