I’ve known my friend Sarah for the best part of a decade now: since the days when we both lived on the south coast of England. We share an abiding love of horror movies, but food has always been our favoured method of communication. Despite having left home with a good grasp of the basics, I was a very unadventurous cook. More importantly, despite my love of planning and organisation, I’m fundamentally not a very organised person. (Most jobs I’ve ever had have involved either high levels of organisation or working to deadlines, so all my energy goes into those, leaving my personal life with a sort of Douglas Adams approach to deadlines…) So when I was living down by the sea, working on my masters’ dissertation, my organisational energies for anything that wasn’t research or writing was utterly minimal. I would get up eat breakfast, start working and get caught up, forget to have lunch and suddenly it would be dark and I’d be feeling light-headed, because it was 8 at night and I hadn’t eaten since 10 in the morning. And at the point when you’re already ravenous, that’s a really bad time to try and make sensible and healthy choices about food and what you want to eat. I ate a lot of pasta with sauce that was made from chicken soup, generally with either sausages or bell peppers. That or chicken in a cook-in sauce with rice. Unsurprisingly I got sick a lot. (I eat a lot of fruit – I suspect it’s the only reason I didn’t get scurvy as a student.) My blog from back then talks a lot about poor health and poor diet and learning to cook to combat that. At some point I borrowed one of my mum’s OXO cookbooks and diligently worked my way through that to varying degrees of success. Along the way, as I started feeling the benefits of cooking properly, I started to branch out into ingredients I wasn’t familiar with. Sarah started gently nudging me towards new and interesting foodstuffs, sharing quick and easy recipes that were tasty and simple, but felt grown-up and adventurous. (She mothered me a little, but far from home and determined I could make it on my own, I kind of needed it.) The distance between pasta and sausage and peppers in a chicken soup sauce and gnocchi and chorizo, with cherry tomatoes, in pesto is not that far, but it feels a thousand miles away. Pancetta and Parmesan and spinach and ricotta, all rolled into my repertoire and stayed there. Mostly she taught me how something a little different (that squeeze of lime juice or sprinkle of parmesan) could turn an ordinary meal into something special. Reassuring instructions and tips in the IM window as I cooked, encouraging me to be adventurous in the kitchen and somehow it was easier to be brave.
I was a long way from home those days, and it was years ago, but gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and pesto is still comfort food. I’m older and wiser – I hope! – now, a vegetarian even, but I’m a long way from home again.
I’ve recently discovered Instagram (I keep a food blog, no one should be surprised that I would gravitate towards a social media format stereotypically known for people photographing their food) and have been vicariously enjoying other people’s food. One of those people being Sarah. The other week she made a particularly tasty looking soup. Mussaman chicken soup. She reckoned it would be dead easy to make it veggie with lentils instead of chicken. It sounded pretty darn good and I told her so, and she responded with the recipe.
I’d not been…good about cooking during September (or August really); in fact the only thing I’d been consistently making was soup. I’ve eaten a lot of broccoli and blue cheese soup but otherwise if I did a decent cook once a week I was doing well. I make grand plans about what I’m going to make, but I don’t actually make very much. If food is self-care for me, then I wasn’t doing a very good job of looking after myself. I needed to break the spell. Soup I could do, I bought the ingredients I didn’t already have – the list nestled safely on my phone as a reminder both of what I needed and that Sarah would be expecting to learn how I got on with it.
One Sunday I made the soup. I even remembered to buy a nice crunchy loaf to eat it with. It was warm and aromatic. Spicy without a chilli kick of doom. I mentally made notes for future cooking, an extra five minutes for the lentils and sweet potato, perhaps a little seasonal squash (if pre-cooked) would work well in the mix, debating whether blending it would improve or weaken the soup. It was tasty and comforting and a bit different from anything else I’d made recently. Almost as though my friend had reached out through the Internet and given me a hug. It was, in fact, exactly what I needed.
It did in fact break the spell, setting me off on all sorts of cooking adventures. Sausage rolls and pesto puffs, various curries and several different ways with apples. I made spanakopita from her instructions too, despite never having eaten feta cheese before, stepping into the unfamiliar territory of Greek cuisine with only an old friends reassurances that they were simple and tasty – correct in both cases. (Exploded a little but I’ll get the hang of them eventually.) I’m on a downswing again from my cooking kick of the last month or so. I feel all scatty and disorganised. But when I was searching through my cupboards and fridge for inspiration this evening, I came across the left over feta from the spanakopita and remembered to be brave. Made something simple and filling, but a little bit different.