I now have a spice cupboard. Well I have spices in my cupboard. Two spices. Paprika and Chilli. They are enabling spices. Over the years I have discovered that much is possible with these two friends in the house. And if I add a lot of lemon juice, even I can now make something that is vaguely edible. It also helps to be living through a pandemic; no longer do I just pop out to a restaurant if I’ve destroyed the food before it reaches the table. But it isn’t just the pandemic that has re-awoken my respect for these ingredients and the food traditions they represent.
Let me give you an example from the 90’s. Yes, I was alive then, and cooking. Well attempting to cook; I drew the line at eating out six nights a week.
I’d just left home and was renting a little one bedroom in Ashfield. I’d bought a wok and truly believed that I could replicate the meals I loved in the Thai restaurants that were my second home in those days. I think we can leave that story there. I don’t think I really need to humiliate myself by telling you the results of my efforts at stir frying vegetables in a cheap wok over an old electric plate on the one day a week that I bothered trying to eat at home.
You see, I had fallen for the furphy, fed to my generation, that anyone could be a chef. Well some of us could; the trained chefs amongst us. But most of us, or at least me, would have been better off replicating the food that we ate while growing up. The kind of food that I’d watched my mother make.
It was mainly vegetables; meat was a rare treat. A lot of potatoes, which I had to peel, and onions, which I had to chop when I got home from school so that they were ready for mum when she got home from a day at the factory. The basic idea was to sauté the vegetables in some olive oil and garlic and of course chilli or paprika, or both, then add a little stock and let them cook slowly until they were soft and tasty. ‘Cucinati al umido’ – Italian for what I just said. And I also learnt, from the mothers of the Greek girls I hung out with as a teenager, that lemon juice is your friend.
But when I left home, I wanted to forge my own life, not replicate that of my parents. I wanted to leave all those old ways behind. So, I bought a trendy wok and rejected the everyday frying pan. And in so doing I also rejected the years of learning I‘d unknowingly gained in my mother’s kitchen, instead attempting to cook a type of cuisine that was wholly new to me. It was literally like a fish deciding to ride a bicycle because it thought swimming, which it had being doing all its life, was now boring. You learn by watching, listening and trying. And when you do one thing over and over again, eventually you become an expert at that one thing.
But I was a young, well paid, professional and even though my only expertise in Thai cooking was ordering number thirty seven, admittedly over and over again, I assumed that I would be able to cook it. I’d never even seen those Thai chefs doing their stuff and wouldn’t have a clue how it was made. But I loved Thai food, so that would surely be enough? How naïve. How arrogant to devalue their expertise. And how silly to have devalued the expertise I did have. I had not only watched my mother cooking my whole life but had been her sous chef for 15 years.
So, now that I haven’t been allowed into a restaurant for four months, (yes, I know restrictions have eased, but my fear hasn’t) it’s been either reclaim my heritage or starve. So, I started with broccoli and rediscovered how delicious it is with pasta, and in sandwiches. Yes, the same broccoli sandwiches that the bullies at school teased me about. I’m finally standing up for myself.
And I’ve cooked cauliflower, capsicums, eggplants, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, and even made a quick tomato sauce, in this way. But I have never cooked cabbage. Mainly because I’ve never had the opportunity. But also because I hate cabbage. I mean who doesn’t. Cabbage is a vegetable that would need a huge marketing budget to sell it and it still wouldn’t guarantee success. Or a world war to make you desperate enough to eat it. Or a pandemic.
Well I’ve finally got the last one. What an opportunity. Or at least that’s how I decided to view the cabbage that my mother gave me the last time I visited her. She usually gifts me food when I visit and I always accept, even pre-pando. But now that I like to have a full fridge and overflowing cupboards, and a box of essentials under the dining table and in the… never mind.
So, when my mother ran out to the car the other day, just as I was leaving, and said, “Do you want a cabbage? They gave me two” – they being her local bartering buddies, all Italian migrants over seventy-five, who source their food from their back yards and goodness knows where else – I of course said yes. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But I also couldn’t, in these times, say no to free food. Even cabbage.
By the time I got home I’d had a rethink. I would just throw the thing out. But as I took the cabbage out of the plastic bag, I noticed its amazing green, almost absinthe, outer leaves. Its crisp firm texture. And its gentle roundness. Perhaps I had maligned this vegetable. Held in my hands, over the bin, my foot poised on the lid pedal, it had a certain beauty, a dignity in the face of its cruel demise. I hesitated. Why did I hate this vegetable? What had it ever done to me? Was I so shallow that I would judge a fellow creature of this earth by its reputation? And so, amnesty was given.
Also, I knew that I had plenty of chilli and paprika in the cupboard. And if I shredded it really finely, perhaps I could pretend it was something else. And if I cooked it with some of the green capsicum and potatoes that I had in the fridge it might get lost amongst the other vegetables. And if I sautéed it in lots of olive oil, garlic and leek, then simmered it in a good vegetable stock until it was all cooked down, it would hardly be recognisable. And of course, right at the end, if I drenched it, I mean drizzled, lemon juice all over it, it might actually be tasty. Lemon juice is, along with paprika and chilli, a miracle cooking ingredient. It can turn anyone into a semi- competent cook.
The true test came when we sat down to eat dinner. I’d added some thin rice noodles to the dish in my desperate attempt at the continuing disguise of this vegetable. Amazingly we were actually able to eat it. It could also have been the excellent bottle of Riesling that I’d chosen to accompany dinner, much of which had been drunk during the cooking, making it another miracle cooking ingredient. But perhaps, it was also a reward for having accepted my heritage and using some of the knowledge drilled into me by my mother all those years ago. It’s taken a pandemic but I’m now grateful for all those hours spent peeling potatoes and chopping onions. It’s come in handy when I’m still too chicken to step into a restaurant.