I can at least say this for 2020. It reminded me of what’s important in life: family, food and telly.
Best of all, telly about food. I watched a lot of that. Nigella. Masterclass. Midnight Diner (on Netflix). I particularly relished Servant (on Apple TV+), the latest offering from M Night Shyamalan, which follows a Philadelphia couple who employ a young nanny to look after their baby. Except the baby is a doll. Or is it? The husband (played by Toby Kebbell) is a consultant chef who innovates dishes for high-end restaurants, and the show gets to feature food in thrillingly offbeat ways (chef Marc Vetri was a consultant). We see eels being skinned, crickets injected with sugar, lobster ice cream. Not since Hannibal Lecter ate someone’s liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti has gourmet cooking been put to such horrific metaphoric use. The second season starts on 15 January. I can’t wait.
British restaurants missed an entire spring season due to lockdown. No chef got to serve homegrown asparagus or rhubarb. Wild garlic was another loss, though you might still find some on winter menus. At Osip in Somerset, for instance, chef Merlin Labron-Johnson has been using the wild garlic he processed during lockdown – serving wild garlic pesto with warm carrot salad and wild garlic stems in a butter sauce with roasted scallop. He loves the pungent surprise that comes from using it in wintry dishes. Since we didn’t get much of a spring this year, I like the idea of catching up on its flavours now. If you didn’t preserve your own, you can find artisanal versions of wild garlic pesto, oil and fermented wild garlic at Farmdrop.
Meal kits were big news this year as restaurants scrambled to cater for customers at home, and new online outfits such as Restokit and Big Night delivered the makings of a world-class banquet. A word of warning: some of the kits are a real ball-breaker to put together. I recently tried an Iranian feast from Nutshell in Covent Garden (to order via Slerp). There was a lot to enjoy, but the meal consisted of 25 different elements in separate pots and vacuum-sealed pouches: it was a major operation just working out which ingredient belonged to which dish. The instructions then asked me to “quenelle” sauces and arrange endive leaves on a plate “like a forest”. I felt like an under-qualified sous-chef in my own kitchen. Similarly, the extensive tapas menu from Michelin-starred Sabor was delicious but required superhuman levels of coordination to bring it off. Less exacting but very tasty were kits from Bancone (via Plateaway) and Rochelle Canteen (via Resy at Home), though most fun was Berenjak’s Kabab Kit, where you mould and grill the meat on skewers the size of swords.
Although I adored the feast laid on for “Persian Sunday” at The Drunken Butler in Clerkenwell, one of my favourite meals out this year was at KOL in Marylebone, the new Mexican restaurant from chef Santiago Lastra. The place was abuzz (which was exhilarating in itself after so many dinners in half-empty venues) and the tasting menu was full of surprises and discoveries, including pairings with the most gorgeous orange wines. There was pistachio mole, kohlrabi ceviche, lamb-leg tostada, roasted skate wing stained crimson-red (presumably from the baked achiote rub) and a squash sorbet with rattlesnake chilli and mezcal that was every bit as kickass as it sounds. Plus the tortillas came in leather wallets so handsome I had to resist pocketing mine. It was fine dining without the fuss and full of the joy of sharing and exploring, which has otherwise been in short supply.
Unable to travel much, I relied on cookery books to transport me to far-off places. One of my favourite recipes this year was the beef rendang from Lara Lee’s debut cookbook Coconut & Sambal. The dish takes time to cook (two to three hours) but delivers. I interviewed Lee in April with her mentor, legendary Indonesian cook Sri Owen. Owen, 85, lives in a care home with her husband Roger, who has Alzheimer’s. When I caught up with her recently, I was glad to hear she’s doing well and working on a new edition of her classic, The Rice Book. Despite being unable to get to the shops for ingredients and having to cope with a small, poorly equipped kitchen, she has been testing out new recipes for jackfruit rendang, stir-fried scallops and black-rice-stuffed squid. With sadness, she told me how her son has had to social-distance on his visits and how suddenly her husband can no longer bear the taste of chillies, a staple of her cooking. But working on the book (due for re-release next autumn) has saved her from feeling bored or lonely, an admission that will surely resonate with many of us who have turned to cooking and other pastimes for diversion in this strange discombobulated year.
Another book that has been particularly good company is Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary but has never felt so timely. In cataloguing pairs of ingredients that work well together, it sparks ideas and inspires you to improvise from your pantry. Coriander seed and coffee? Bedfellows in Morocco, apparently. Cauliflower and chocolate? Heston Blumenthal proves that it can work. The book also doubles as a compendium of witty one-liners. Cucumber and mint are deemed “colder than a couple of contract killers”. Capers and lemon “could wake the dead”. Even better are Segnit’s comparisons with famous couples. Lime and chilli are Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the “turbulent twosome” of Mexican cooking. Black pudding and egg are Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Anchovy and garlic are Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Anchovy’s saltiness and garlic’s pungent sweetness combine in a slanging match where neither partner wins.” The ultimate parlour game, it begs the question, what would Kim and Kanye be?
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