The No Recipe Man
I Was Monty’s double
Chinese curry and Shane Warne, who could smuggle the sunrise past a rooster
Cricket balls served up by me have been deposited into the Water of Leith, Murrayfield stadium concourse and the greenhouse of an irate Penicuik gardener
It can hardly have escaped your notice how few cookery columns are based around long-drawn-out cricket analogies.
But given the rich history of the game around these parts – it had been played on Leith Links for years before those two cricketing powerhouses, the USA and Canada, contested the first international match in 1844 – this seems the obvious publication in which to right that wrong.
However, out of consideration for anyone who somehow remains immune to the charms of the world’s greatest sport, I promise not to get too technical. Which shouldn’t be too tricky because, in cricket as in cooking, technique has never been my strongest area.
Anyway, a few years back, England had a bowler called Monty Panesar who was something of a cult hero. His batting and fielding were endearingly, legendarily rubbish, which brought great comfort and encouragement to hopeless club cricketers like me. But his bowling was captivating: technically superb and metronomically accurate, honed over years of near-obsessive practice.
Yet for all his qualities, Monty never quite joined the ranks of truly great players. His great strength as a bowler – the ability to repeat the same process over and over again – was also his Achilles heel, as he was perceived to lack the flexibility and to vary his style when the situation demanded it, and the best batsmen learned to take advantage.
The Australian great Shane Warne, whose ability to wind up the English was exceeded only by his ability to bowl them out, once said that Monty hadn’t played 33 Test matches; he’d played the same Test 33 times.
My own bowling, to put it generously, provided a sharp contrast to Monty’s. It could never have been accused of lacking variety; indeed, it was something of a miracle if two successive balls pitched in the same postal district before being casually thwacked several parts of the way to the Moon.
Over the years, cricket balls served up by me have been variously deposited into the Water of Leith, the Murrayfield stadium concourse, countless allotments and the greenhouse of an irate Penicuik homeowner. And those who know me will confirm that my cooking has often taken a similarly scattergun approach.
For reasons I probably don’t need to spell out, many of us have been cooking more over the past year or so. I certainly have. But in my case at least, something curious has happened.
For want of a better phrase, I’ve started to go the full Monty. Whatever other qualities have historically been lacking in my cooking, it never used to lack variety. But over months of lockdown, I’ve had neither the imagination nor the inclination to venture far from the tried and trusted.
Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, nor is it entirely bad: comfort food is so called for good reason, and it’s especially welcome when there’s so little comfort to be found elsewhere. And while I may never emulate Monty’s mastery of spin bowling, I’ve come as close as I ever will to mastering the art of making Chinese curry. So that’s something at least.
But there’s a fine line between familiarity and monotony, and we’ve all crossed it too many times in recent months. So I’ve been trying, with limited success, to break the cycle of repetition, and finally I seem to have stumbled on something that’s worked.
When I’ve lacked the capacity to create, I’ve begun just to prepare: not full meals, but the components of future ones. When I find a lonely courgette at the bottom of the veg drawer and I’ve ten minutes to spare, I’ll slice and chargrill it rather than guiltily watching it rot.
My fridge has begun to fill up with tubs of sautéed leeks, roast cherry tomatoes, garlic butter and shredded vegetables ready for stir frying. And all of a sudden, as I look through these little tubs of potential, something clicks in my mind and I begin to see how they might come together into all sorts of different meals.
This might seem a small change in practical terms, but psychologically it’s been transformational. I’d reached a point at which a fridge full of fresh food was prohibitively daunting.
Usually I’d end up ignoring most of it and making yet another Monty meal or sticking the oven on for a supermarket pizza. But turning those raw materials into a collection of nearly-meals has had the effect of awakening my pandemic-frazzled brain.
The path from ingredients to end result, obscured for so long, has appeared like the yellow brick road. As a direct consequence, I’ve been eating better, wasting less and beginning to rediscover the way I used to cook before the world went to hell: imaginatively, intuitively and with joy.
Such progress should not go unrewarded, especially in times like these. And while options for treating ourselves remain somewhat limited, I know exactly what will do the trick in this case.
Time for a Chinese curry, I reckon.
N.B. This piece is dedicated to the memory of Don Wheeler, who enjoyed this column but would have preferred it to contain more cricket and classic film references.