Its about the process not the product. That’s a mantra that I’ve been telling myself for some time about my cooking. It isn’t about the food that results from what happens in the kitchen, but about the process that gets it there, the choosing, the shopping for ingredients, collecting everything together and selecting the right knife and pan for each task. It’s about the choreography of coordination to get the various parts of the meal to come together so that when we finally sit down at the table together everything is there, and the meal can be enjoyed to its fullest extent without having a mountain of washing up to do afterwards. It’s about enjoying what you do, not just why you do it.
My girlfriend was sat in my lap tying my tie. My hands, on the soft satin of her slip, were holding her in place, preventing her from falling off, and she was humming softly, under her breath, a French folk song she learned at school. This, I thought, is about the process too. We were getting ready to go out, and I realised that the process of getting ready is as much a part of the evening as the film we were going to see, the dinner afterwards, the walk along the foreshore to listen to the waves breaking on the beach. Our dates frequently end at a caravan near the museum where an Italian fellow sells burgers to customers escaping from the nightclubs nearby. We stand there in the shade of a London Plane, in the eerie orange glow of the sodium lights drinking hot chocolate from paper cups. She usually has my jacket on at this point so I’m shivering in my shirtsleeves but my tie is still as artfully declasse as it was when she put it on whilst sitting in my lap. The next day, I might mention to a colleague that we went to see a film, but the other things, the tiny details that make the night complete, they are the process, the tie tying of summer dates, the celery brunoise of our relationship without which we would just be friends going to see a film together.
I’m making kedgeree, with smoked haddock. This isn’t real kedgeree, but a version of it that has evolved out of the process, a dish that is as pleasant to make as it is to eat and the making of it fits into the greater process of our lives like the folds in a tea towel nestled in a drawer. The boiling of the eggs means that we really ought to be doing this on a Sunday.
It starts with the potatoes. There are two sets of potatoes involved in this and you will need to keep track of them. If I just said, the potatoes, you would soon get confused so these are the salad potatoes. The salad potatoes are not going in the kedgeree but since I’m going to be boiling eggs it makes sense to do the potatoes at the same time. Perhaps now you can see what I meant about the process. I need two boiled eggs for the kedgeree but this week I will also need four boiled eggs for two day’s salad so it makes sense to boil all six eggs at once. Since I will have a pan of boiling water on the stove anyway, I might as well boil the potatoes for the potato salad while I’m at it.
So I put the potatoes, about 600g of new, baby potatoes, into a stainless steel pan and top up with a generous amount of cold water. Add a pinch of salt and bring to the boil with a lid on. Turn down to a simmer and five minutes later add the eggs and set the timer for ten minutes. When the timer goes off, drain and refresh with plenty of cold water. Peel the eggs and place them in a bowl in the fridge. Drain the potatoes and put them in a bowl in the fridge. Tomorrow, I will chop spring onions and fresh parsley, dice the potatoes and stir over some Greek yoghurt mixed with a little German whole grain mustard to make potato salad. And since there will be enough potato salad for two days, Tuesday’s evening meal has practically prepared itself. This is what the process does, it doesn’t just enhance the momentary experience, it simplifies other things and makes future choices inevitable; having boiled the potatoes, I no longer need to think about what to have for supper on Tuesday.
For some people, this inevitability is a restriction. They see the removal of choice as a constriction, an inhibition of their freedom to choose, a box within which they are confined. Whereas for me, it is a release, it is freedom itself. Any future event I no longer have to think about releases more time to think about and achieve what is truly important. Boiling potatoes on Sunday morning and putting them in the fridge means that I have Tuesday afternoon to iron a few of the white cotton blouses my girlfriend wears to work, arrange some flowers on her bedside table, read an essay by Montaigne or sit on my balcony and watch the seagulls gathering on the roof across the street. And rather than squeezing those things between the necessities of living, I can do them in peace, at grace with the world, and enjoy them to their fullest extent so that the doing of them brings me an inner joy that cannot come from the mere ticking of completed tasks on a list of things to do.
I usually use half a carrot, but that doesn’t mean anything to you because I haven’t told you what a carrot is. I choose thin ones, not those diamond-shaped daggers that Bugs Bunny gnaws on but narrow carrots with little taper. I like them to be smooth and young, the thighs of nubile nymphs rather than the trunks of ancient oaks. Carrots you would want to dip into humus and eat raw. A good length is from your wrist to the tips of your fingers. Half of one of those carrots is sufficient for kedgeree for two.
Run the knife along the steel and the steel along the knife. When you have learned to do this properly the rhythm of it comes out of you as naturally as singing in the shower. It is an elemental part of a chef and discovering it is a clue to your calling; a violinist doesn’t have it, a biologist doesn’t have it and engineers don’t have it either. Only chefs have this, and anyone who has it is a chef. This has nothing to do with employment, but calling, what you are in the essence of yourself, not what you do to survive. It’s about what you really are, and if you have this rhythm you are a chef; anything else is merely cooking.
Wash the carrot. Since you took care to choose the carrots I described rather than simply taking carrots from the box, there is no need to peel it, and in ignoring the peeler lying unused in your cutlery drawer you are coming closer to an understanding of the process. Cut the carrot into narrow strips and dice them. Be as precise as you wish and use the time you saved by not peeling the carrot to savour the sound of the cut, the texture of your board, the sunlight glistening off the water droplets from where you washed the carrot. I am usually doing this before breakfast on Sunday morning, around half past seven, and from my kitchen window I can see young boys sent on errands by their fathers to collect the Sunday papers from the newsagents, struggling back with armfuls of newsprint the majority of which will never be read. These boys are not part of the process. They are achieving nothing and learning nothing other than obedience to their fathers, and the fathers are not benefiting from this, they are not freed by it to do with joy something important in their lives. They are simply indulging their pretence at being up to date with world affairs whilst subjecting their sons to pointless labour.
An athlete and his coach are a team who work together towards a common goal from which they both benefit. But a worker and his boss are not a team in the same sense, in that they are not working towards a common goal. The factory owner’s goal is to make more sales of more widgets to achieve more profits so that he can buy a nicer steel box to sit in and wait in longer traffic queues, but the worker wants to produce only that number of widgets that will earn him his pay. If he makes more widgets today that does not free him to make less of them tomorrow, give him more time to watch seagulls, jump for joy or play with his dog, it only increases the factory owner’s expectations of how many widgets he can make. Working harder does not make life easier for him, it makes life easier for his boss whilst making life harder for himself. This is the very opposite of the process.
Chop a stick of celery, half an onion and two spring onions. Choose the ones with narrow bulbs because it is the soft, aromatic tang of youthful green springiness you want to impart not the bulbous acidity of onion. Select half a dozen small button mushrooms, cut them in half and slice them, thinly. Put all these chopped vegetables in a bowl and put them in the fridge until you are ready to start cooking. As you close the fridge door think about what else you can do today because you have done this so early in the morning while those pointless boys were indulging their fathers.
You may, if you wish, chop a tomato, and any of the above may be replaced with half a red capsicum and I have also occasionally included a dozen sugarsnap peas. The point of being a chef is that you are free to choose, and being a chef means that all of your choices are equally valid. Broccoli florets, or fresh spinach or a little butternut squash or courgettes, or sweet potato, all of these are excellent choices. You want a breakfast bowl of mixed chopped vegetables of your own splendid combination. Choose things with different colours, or not, as your fancy takes you, choose only red vegetables or some other colour that appeals to you. Enjoy choosing.
When you are ready to start cooking, forty minutes before you want your meal to begin, take two pitta breads and turn on the tap so that cold water runs into the sink. Hold each pitta bread by one end and hold it briefly under the tap, turning it to moisten both sides. Shake off the excess water and place them on a clean tea towel. Fold over the tea towel and set the pitta breads aside.
Now put the same stainless steel saucepan you boiled the potatoes in on the smallest ring on your stove. Do not switch it on yet. Put a little oil in the bottom, about three or four dessert spoons of oil. In the oil put half a teaspoon of each of the following: crushed red chillies, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds. Add six cardamom pods and four whole cloves. Weigh out fifty grams of rice. There are two schools of thought about weighing things. The first school says that chefs do not weigh things, they just know what enough means. The other school says that no one really cares which school you went to. I weigh my rice for portion control purposes, to prevent me making far more than we can eat, to prevent waste, to ensure that I do not become that fat guy waving goodbye to his girlfriend as she walks off down the street with her suitcase under her arm. I consider myself very lucky that this is where she comes home to, and I will do anything it takes to keep being that lucky so I weigh my rice. If that’s a sin, then call me a sinner and see if I care.
Weigh the rice into a cup or a saucer or a small bowl of some type. On top of the rice measure out half a teaspoon of each of the following: ground coriander, ground cumin, chilli powder, turmeric, black pepper. I like coarse ground black pepper because I like when I get a piece of it caught in my teeth and I have to crack it open and the flavour spills out like a dam wall bursting and this reminds me of Reese Witherspoon in the film Walk the Line, “You can’t walk no line,” she says, and a man’s voice calls out from behind the chair where he’s hiding because she threw beer bottles at him, “we’re not ruining the tour, June,” and she turns and walks furiously out of the theatre. “I am not going to be that little Dutch boy with my finger in the dam no more,” she calls angrily over her shoulder, with the boys who want to be men laughing at her from behind the chairs where they are hiding and watching her through the bottoms of their beer bottles. But one of those boys stands up and calls after her, “this isn’t about a tour, this isn’t about a song,” because he realises that the moment is a powerful statement about the two of them and even though he said it wasn’t about a song he takes her line and it becomes a song through which he tells her what the upended beer bottle was intended to defend him against. But that’s just me; you can use ordinary ground pepper if you want.
Now add a quarter of a teaspoon of paprika and of garam masala. Notice the many different colours of the spices, look at them, no really look at them and compare them and think about the relationship between strong colours and strong flavours. Paprika is a deep, rich red, almost a magenta colour and it has a strong, pungent flavour while cumin is a pale, tan colour with a more subtle flavour that comes at you indirectly long after the sword thrust of the paprika has waned. That’s what the process is for, it helps you to get all the pleasures out of the things that you do, to learn to notice, to see as though you have never seen before, to enjoy what you do for the doing of it, not just for what it achieves.
Skin your fish. Since you are a chef you know how to do this, right? Take your fish fillet by the tail and revel in the sound it makes as you slap it on the board, skin side down. Turn the board so that the head end of the fillet is away from you, tail towards you. Take a knife with a straight blade and run it along the steel and the steel along it. Listen to the sound and practice maintaining pressure so that the sound is the same when the blade runs along the top of the steel as it is when it runs along the bottom.
Start at the tail end of the fish. Press the tips of two fingers of your left hand against the very end of the skin and keep your wrist close to the board. Just in front of your fingers, cut through the flesh but not the skin and angle the knife so that its blade is along the back of the fingers of your left hand. As you cut from side to side draw the knife away from your left hand (and away from you) so that the blade skims over the skin and parts the flesh from the skin. If you have a long fillet you might have to stop and move your left hand further up the skin and start again from there. If you find holding the skin down difficult, dip your fingers in some salt. The trick is to keep the angle of the knife so that it scrapes rather than cuts the flesh from the skin and some practice might be required but is worth it. If you cannot do this, do not despair, you can cook the fish in the kedgeree first and remove the skin later but this is not as satisfying and may leave fish scales in your kedgeree unless you scrape it.
But to scrape is to depart from the process. If you are going to spend time scraping the scales off your fish only so that you can cook the fish with the skin solely for the purpose of skinning it after it is cooked, does it not make more sense to skin the fish before you start? This would be like holding your furled umbrella over your head while it is raining only to open it when the rain has stopped and your hair is a soggy mess, or getting into your car on the passenger side so that you can climb over the gearstick to get to the driver’s seat. It can be done this way, and does not affect your driving, and might even be fun to do on purpose with your future mother in law watching, but I don’t recommend it at job interviews or on first dates.
When you have skinned your fish, cut it into pieces about half the size of a playing card. Put all of them on a plate but keep any pieces with skin on to one side of the plate. You don’t have to give them names, but it helps to know which ones they are so you can put olives on them or stick them with cocktail sticks, or you could cut thin slivers of tomato skin into the correct shapes and number them. Or maybe just turn them skin side up or something.
Turn on the heat under your oil, as low as you can possibly get it. The very gentlest of flames. Put some water in your kettle and put it on to boil. Run some water in your sink for washing up. Take the bowl of chopped vegetables out of the fridge and set it beside your rice and fish. Take a fresh lemon and squeeze the juice over your fish. Wash your board. Take the other potatoes, the ones that are not the salad potatoes, two or three small new potatoes, and chop them the same size as your vegetables.
Watch the oil. The object is to gently warm the seeds so that they will ooze their flavourful oils out into your kedgeree, so do not fry them in the oil which will sour the flavour, just tease the subtle flavours out of them. When the seeds are colouring the oil and they begin to move in the warm currents toss in the bowl of mixed vegetables and the potatoes and stir it with a wooden spoon. Put the lid on. Wash the bowl. Enjoy being this organised.
Take a wide bottomed thick based pan and put it on a medium heat with the lid on. If you don’t have one of these turn your oven on to about 100 degrees or turn your grill on; you want something to warm the pitta breads in. When I discovered that my sister toasts her pitta breads I stopped talking to her for six months until she learned her lesson. Please don’t make me do that to you.
Stir the vegetables with your wooden spoon and study them. When the onion pieces are starting to turn translucent add the rice with the spices and stir. If you don’t have onion in your vegetables then you might have to imagine how long it might take for them to turn translucent, if you had them. Ask yourself, if there were onions in there, would they have turned translucent by now? I prefer to have the onions in there but really artistic people might like not having any vegetables at all and just imagining their colours falling over each other as the wooden spoon stirs them away from the sides of the pan. When your existential onions are philosophically translucent, add the rice with the spices and stir. Put the lid on and leave for about five minutes. You should still have this on a very low heat. Stir it occasionally to stop the potatoes or the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan but try not to mush everything up with too much stirring.
Add the water. Use the hot water in the kettle you have previously boiled. The trick, if there is a trick, is that you add exactly the right amount of water to the rice. When you have finished cooking this the rice will have absorbed some of the water, some of it will have evaporated and you will be left with a soft, fluffy, but moist rice and vegetable pilau with fish in it. The water should weigh six times what the rice weighed. I weighed my rice so I know I used fifty grams and therefore my water weighs 300 grams. If I do this it works. You might have to experiment a bit depending which type of rice you use. I use long grain Basmati rice but there are hundreds of types of rice and you should feel free to use whatever you want. A recipe is not a prison, it should not constrain you to cook like a robot, blindly following instructions to the letter like a computer program, it is a launchpad for a voyage of discovery, a prompt for your imagination and a window into a world of wide-eyed wonder. Experiment.
Turn the heat up and bring it to the boil, then turn it down a bit and watch it. If you think you have too much water, turn the heat up and cook it more quickly and the water will evaporate. If you think you have too little water add a little, but make sure it is boiling hot before you add it. When the rice is about half done, lay the fish on top and pour in the lemon juice from the plate. After you have added the fish you want to stir it as little as possible and keep any fish pieces with skin still on them on the top where you can see them. Keep an eye on it and when the water has almost gone down to the level of the rice turn the heat off, put a lid on top and set your timer for ten minutes.
Put your pitta breads, but not the tea towel, into whatever warming device you have invented. Retrieve your boiled eggs from the fridge and cut each of them into quarters. Wash the plate you had the fish pieces on. Drape the tea towel over your head and pretend to be Lawrence of Arabia.
When the kedgeree is ready, if you still have some skinning to do take each piece and put it on a board and use a knife to peel the skin off. Otherwise, give your kedgeree one quick stir, you want the fish distributed through the rice but not mushed up. Turn it out onto plates and arrange the egg quarters on top. Spoon a couple dessert spoons of natural yoghurt over the top, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with the warm pitta breads.