TheNoRecipe Man by Tom Wheeler
There’s something in the water
So that would appear to be that. Courtesy of the General Election result (except for viewers in Scotland), we can now be sure not only that Brexit is happening, but that it will take a form likely to delight the frothiest-mouthed of its proponents – people who are happy enough to tolerate casual racism, but would be happier still to see it worked up into something more purposeful. Minor details such as the risk of mass poverty, race wars, a dearth of NHS staff or the wishes of entire nations of the UK seem unlikely to get in the way of a good old-fashioned bit of jingoism – and so we enter the “transition period” with the same enthusiasm with which someone moving into a hospice enters their own transition period: we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen and when, but we can be fairly certain it’s not going to end well.
Under the circumstances, I thought it might be helpful in this issue’s column to provide a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to post-Brexit cooking. The only problem is, we still don’t have any real idea of exactly how leaving the EU will affect our food supplies. Some ingredients will get more expensive; others will become scarcer; plenty will do both. But until we see how it all plays out, it’s tricky to get into the specifics. So I’ve decided to focus on a resource in which Scotland is more than self-sufficient and which should be mercifully free from import tariffs and supply crises. I’m talking of course about water.
Now, the more nutritionally savvy among you may have observed that water is not in itself a food. I’ll grant you that much; but I’d argue in return that understanding water is fundamental to good cooking, both in what to buy and how to cook it. Just as our bodies are mostly water, so is the food we eat. In theory, if we stuck to the appropriate foods, we could get all the water we need from eating, and some of our early ancestors did. (Our cat, whom I’ve never seen touch his water bowl in seven years, still does.) But we’ve come to prefer our food in sufficiently concentrated form that we’re well advised to wash it down with something wet. And it’s this issue of concentration that’s worth keeping in mind when cooking – or, for that matter, shopping.
We’ve become conditioned in recent times to use the price-per-weight calculation on the supermarket shelf as our main guide to value. This brand of sauce is 18.3p per 100g, but that one is 21.8p, so I’ll take this one, thank you very much. But while the labels of both sauces will list water as the first ingredient, neither will show a percentage. That being the case, how do you know how much you’re paying for water, and therefore where the value really lies? In general, you don’t; but if you try the cheaper one and find it oddly insipid, the reason might just be that it contains an awful lot less actual food. Similarly, meat that has been properly hung will have lost much of its water to the air, whereas meat that has been vacuum packed at the first opportunity is likely to have a much more alluring price-per-weight figure – an allure that soon dissipates when you put it in a hot pan and it shrivels into a dismal doll’s house equivalent of its former self.
Whatever you choose to buy, your chances of cooking it effectively improve no end if you keep its water content in mind. One British tradition I’d hoped we’d left behind – though who knows, it might be legally enforced after Brexit – is that of boiling all vegetables for the better part of a month. My phobia of cauliflower in school meals originated not from the food itself (who wouldn’t love a vegetable that looks like a brain?) but from how it was cooked. Already pretty full of water in its raw form, it was boiled mercilessly in unsalted water, leaving behind next to no flavour or nutrition but no lack of squelch.
However, when judiciously seasoned and cooked uncovered in the oven, the cauli’s flavour is concentrated rather than lost, its texture is tender yet nutty, and I’d defy even my childhood self to turn it down. If there’s a watery vegetable that’s been in your own “never again” category since you were a nipper – courgettes and aubergines being popular examples – you might be surprised at how good they can be if you can just keep them vaguely dry.
Finally, keep in mind that when you make just about any kind of sauce, a jug of water kept close at hand is a trusty friend. If the sauce is too plain or runny, let it bubble away to concentrate it. If that process goes a little far, add a drop of water to rectify. This correcting and compensating process can go on for as long as is required, because water is both fundamentally neutral and endlessly forgiving. And right now, those seem like qualities that are badly needed. n