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This year’s best cookbook is Jonathan Meades’s The Plagiarist in the Kitchen. Taking as its motto James Joyce’s “God made food; the Devil cooks”, it is a counterblast to celebrity chefs, to “inventiveness” and to a world of “waffle-crusted chicken bites, maple-syrup floss, Coca-Cola drizzle, salted-air foam (!?), micro coriander”, all of which Meades claims not to have made up himself.
At its core, the book asserts that good cooks steal but steal well. Meades disparagingly quotes TS Eliot: “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique,” and, more approvingly, Gore Vidal’s dictum that a craft must always be the same while art must always be different. I happen to disagree with Vidal: I must have made a navarin of lamb or a pot au feu at least 30 times each and they are never quite the same; similarly, if a like-minded cook, say Simon Hopkinson, and I make a salade Niçoise with the same ingredients, our dishes will be different.
Here are two recipes that illustrate the kernel of the argument, one inspired by something I ate, but very different in style, the other a straight lift. Coincidentally, I was dining with Meades at Stevie Parle’s new trattoria, Palatino, when our eyes alighted on a salt cod crudo. I had never eaten raw salt cod: tasting it, I got the point immediately. The salting — it was sufficiently soaked so that it was not too salty — had firmed the flesh up beautifully, with the result that it had more the texture of tuna or yellowtail than the flaccid flakiness of even the best cod. It was cut thin like most sashimi and simply dressed. It gave me an idea.
The other dish — both are little appetisers — I pinched from a blog, ElizabethMinchilliInRome.com, in which she posted a video of a snack being made on board a boat in the Venetian lagoon. Like raw salt cod, I had never eaten whole lemons, pith and all, and it intrigued me. I made it, loved it and have, I think, changed nothing. Both would be plagiarisms if I did not acknowledge my sources, just as it behoves me to admit that Meades and I share the same publisher.
Raw salt cod with peppers
A starter for six or an hors d’oeuvre for quite a few more
|400g||fresh cod loin|
|100g||coarse sea salt|
|3||large, fleshy red peppers (or a mixture of red and yellow)|
|A little pinch of chilli flakes to accentuate the flavour of the peppers|
- The day before, rinse the cod fillet and dry with kitchen paper. Lay half the salt on a plate or plastic container and place the cod on top before adding more salt. Cover with film and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, rinse off the salt and soak the cod in cold water for three hours. While the flesh will be much more dense than the original — it will have yielded a lot of water — it should no longer taste salty.
- Massage the peppers with a little olive oil and scorch the flesh, either under a very hot grill or directly on a naked flame. When every face has been blackened, place the peppers in a plastic bag, knot the top and leave them to sweat for 15 minutes. Take the peppers out of the bag and ease off the blackened skin before removing the stalks. Scrape out all the seeds and cut the flesh into strips half a centimetre wide. Add a sprinkling of chilli flakes.
- Cut the cod into half-centimetre slices straight down to the skin, removing the skin as you do so. Cut these slices into strips the same size as the peppers. Mix with the peppers and season with crushed pepper. Taste for seasoning (the salt in the cod should suffice) and dress with very good olive oil. Garnish with basil and serve with toast or bruschetta or on its own.
Lemon and onion salad
Normally an appetiser — the lemon certainly stimulates the appetite — this salad is also an excellent condiment to a piece of grilled fish such as sea bass or bream.
|2||large unwaxed lemons|
|a small bunch of mint|
- Cut the lemons across the top and the base to reveal the flesh at each end. Cut in half through the centre (as opposed to across the middle) and lay flesh side down on the board. Again cutting down from top to bottom, make two cuts to produce three segments. Keeping the half lemon intact, cut across the three segments to produce thin little triangles. Place in a bowl.
- Peel and slice the onions very finely and soak briefly in cold water. Drain well and add to the lemon. Pick and wash the mint leaves before adding. Season well with sea salt and a little black pepper. Turn with some good olive oil before leaving to macerate for an hour. Serve on toast.
Photographs: Andy Sewell
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