Disasters are to a budding cookery writer what work in progress is to a literary aspirant. Grist to the mill, experience under the belt. But should you or shouldn't you be open and honest about them? By doing so, you make yourself a hostage to fortune. How will you feel years afterwards when colleagues chuckle over your Chicken Alaska - a bird cooked to golden perfection on the outside but, because it was plucked untimely from the deep-freeze, completely raw on the inside?
You should tell all, declares cookery writer Judy Jackson, who made the unfortunate salmon pate. She is author of a new cookery book, A Feast in Fifteen Stories. Disasters are part of the story of cooking, she says. By sharing them you reassure beginnersthat mistakes are part of the learning process.
So, first of all, did her guests survive the salmon pate? Yes, yes, of course. But it was a salutary lesson. Ambitious to produce something really special, she'd decided to make a wonderful-sounding dish she'd seen vaunted in magazines - mousseline de deux saumons.
The recipe called for fresh salmon pounded with cream, covered with a thin layer of gravlax (pickled salmon) and served in a shallow ring decorated with sprigs of dill. "I served a wedge to each guest and everyone seemed happy. Five minutes later one of my friends went quiet, whispered that she had a fishbone caught in her throat, and left the room. Seconds later, she and her partner were roaring away to casualty."
Overcome with guilt and embarrassment, Mrs Jackson agonised over the circumstances and what she had done wrong. A salmon has a number of pin bones along the spine, and clearly she had not managed to remove them all. By putting the fish into the food processor, she had compounded the crisis, honing the bones into dangerously pointed needles.
"They must have been as sharp as a razor," she says. "I was left in silent misery trying to make conversation with two guests, waiting for the return of the others. They came back hours later, the fishbone having been dislodged by probes." (Chef's belated tip: press the salmon mousse through a sieve after processing to remove any stray bones.)
Judy Jackson's book is more than a catalogue of disasters. It's a distillation of a lifetime's experiences in the kitchen, social and practical, that reach back to the beginning of the century. Her Portuguese mother, a gifted cook (now 92) taught her howto make Jewish chicken soup, caramel stuffed dates and beautiful pastries and cakes.
Mrs Jackson survived the rigours of the cuisine of an English girls' school, including such staples as grey baked potatoes which were hard in the middle and stuffed with short-cut, tinned spaghetti, and Dead Man's Leg, a 2ft-long suet pudding spurting out dark red jam. Then she was a mother and brought up her four boys, taking time out to run a catering business called Spoones. Finally she turned to teaching cookery and writing about it and has published two books, Jewish Cooking and Micro-wave Vegetable Cookery.
But the new manuscript, addressing beginners, did not grab publishers by the lapels. "It didn't fit into a tried and tested publishing formula," she says. "Publishers either want a book by a name linked to a television series or a book on a single theme,preferably prefaced by the word `Fast'. There were at least five different themes in my book."
Then a year ago, she was listening to a discussion on the Radio 4 Food Programme in which the current crop of cookery titles was being reviewed. More than 600 are published every year, reviewers complained, but there wasn't one designed for idiots.
"I had such a book in a drawer with my agent," she breathed, "for people who can't cook at all, or don't want to cook, or don't have time to cook - or if they did, would rather spend it doing something else." The manuscript was subtitled A New Start for Hesitant Cooks.
She sent a copy to the programme's presenter, Derek Cooper (see Show People, page 27). He wrote back with a stirring endorsement. "It was a book to beckon the most bashful into the kitchen. Unpretentious, written with wit and clarity, this is not only a sane and simple guide to the mysteries of cooking, but an endlessly diverting celebration of the joys of food. A feast in itself."
Having won Mr Cooper's praise, Mrs Jackson was now convinced that the time for such a book was ripe. But her agent told her it would not be published before late 1995, which was at that time nearly two years away. "Then I will publish it myself," declared Mrs Jackson. "And why not? I once read that Michael Huffington spent $28m trying to become a US senator. In comparison, this would be a tiny effort."
It depends what you mean by tiny. Mrs Jackson gives us not only 120 recipes, proceeding from the simple to the moderately ambitious, but also advice on such matters as home freezing and how to kit out your kitchen. There's a whole section, too, on microwave cooking - a microwave oven is the one piece of kitchen equipment that a lazy or hesitant cook is likely to possess.
Most people start with high ambitions for their microwave, but after attempting some risible recipes that fail and discovering that it can't make pastry, bake potatoes or roast chicken, they use it only for reheating frozen cooked meals. But it's a brilliant form of cooking for vegetables, fish and a steamed pudding (see recipe on the facing page) which takes just a few minutes to bake, rather than the hour or more it would take in a conventional oven.
In many ways the microwave is the greatest advance in food preparation since the introduction of gas in the 1900s. The French have realised this for some time. About three years ago, Elle magazine published articles about the "cordon bleu in your kitchen", referring to the excellent results produced by a microwave with fish and vegetables.
The Americans published the first microwave encyclopaedia, but forgot to edit out the more crazy notions: if you heat fat for five minutes, for example, the spattering takes another 10 minutes to wash off. The idea of stirring sauces through a slit in film covering is nonsensical. Worst of all is the notion of attempting to deep-fry in a microwave.
To find out why microwaving is such a good method for poaching salmon or steaming asparagus, you need to experiment with liquid. The more you put into a microwave, the longer it takes to cook. (This applies to everything, but especially water.) Half a glass of water will boil in about a minute while a pint (cooked in a milk bottle just for fun) will take about five.
It follows from this that if you cover vegetables or fish with lots of water, they will take longer to cook than if you sprinkle over a few spoonfuls. Incidentally, it is better to add any salt used in the cooking to the water rather than put it directlyon to the food, where it dries.
If you wre cooking broccoli on the hob, you would boil it in a large pot of simmering water, drain it and then throw all the liquid away. The microwave method is quicker and more economical. Similarly, the old way of cooking asparagus involved tying the stems with string and standing them upright in a steamer, being careful not to damage the tips. Half an hour later, with a room full of steam, you would burn your fingers while lifting the bunch on to a plate.
QUICK SALMON AND VEGETABLE TERRINE This is a dish born out of disaster. Mrs Jackson resolved never to put her guests at risk from fish bones again - and this is the consequence.
114 lb/575g salmon fillet or steaks 4 tablespoons white wine 8 tablespoons mayonnaise, plus more for serving 112 lb/675g fresh spinach 2 very large courgettes salt and pepper a few sprigs fresh dill You will need: a large dish with a lid for the microwave or a saucepan large enough to take the fish in one layer; a parer or sharp knife.
In the microwave, cook the fish on high, sprinkled with the wine and covered with a vented lid (or film wrap with a few holes in it). It will take 3-4 minutes and the fish is done when it is pale pink and opaque all over. Alternatively, poach the fish ina pan with the wine and enough water to cover it. Bring the liquid to the boil and simmer for about 5 minutes. Leave the fish to cool in the liquid to complete the cooking.
Wash the spinach very well and cook it, with no water, until it wilts - about 2-3 minutes in a pot covered with a lid or film in the microwave switched to high, or in a saucepan over low heat for a bit longer. Drain it very well, season with salt and pepper and chop it finely.
Wash the courgettes but don't peel and with the vegetable parer cut them into thin, long strips about 1in/2.5cm wide. Cook them very briefly (this is called blanching) so they will bend but are still slightly crisp. Do this in the microwave by arranging the strips on a large plate and cooking on high for about 1 minute. Alternatively throw them into some boiling water for about the same time, and drain. Leave to cool.
Lift the cooked salmon out of the liquid and flake it with a fork. Mix with half the mayonnaise.
To assemble the terrine, pile the spinach in the centre of a flat dish. Spoon the salmon mixture round the spinach. Then, holding each courgette strip vertically, drape it round the salmon, overlapping where necessary, to make a circle. Decorate with some sprigs of dill and serve the rest of the mayonnaise separately.
ce POTATO LATKES Latkes can be a meal on their own, served with sour cream and apple sauce or even gooseberry puree. Here, they are fried (preferably by somebody else) just before you serve the main course.
12oz/350g medium-sized potatoes (about 4)
1 onion 112 eggs (beat 2 eggs and remove a spoonful)
2 tablespoons medium matzo meal (optional)
lots of salt and pepper oil for frying You will need: a grater or food processor with a grating disc; a colander or sieve; a large frying pan and some paper towels.
Grate the potatoes and the onion into a colander or large sieve. Press them down and squeeze out the thick starchy liquid that comes out. In a bowl, beat the eggs and then stir in the drained potatoes and the onions. If you have the matzo meal, which youcan buy at a Jewish deli, put it in as well. It is coarsely ground, unleavened bread which adds flavour and crunch. Add plenty of seasoning.
Pour in enough oil to cover the base of the frying pan and heat for about 1 minute. Place spoonfuls of the mixture all over the pan. The oil should sizzle as soon as the first pancake goes in, but make sure they are not too close together as the latkes will spread. Flatten them with the spoon so they are about 12 in/1cm thick, and fry until the underside is crisp and brown. Turn them over and brown the other side. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
ce COFFEE SPONGE PUDDING Nobody would contemplate making individual puddings with the conventional method of steaming for an hour or two. This recipe is fun. You can't get it ready in advance, but the 5-minute preparation and 1-minute cooking time are quite theatrical, so invite a friend to watch it happen.
For the sauce: 2 sticks frozen double cream (or 3-4 tablespoons fresh double cream)
1 tablespoon golden syrup For the pudding: 1oz/25g butter 8 pecan nuts 12 teaspoon instant coffee granules 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1 large egg 1oz/25g self-raising flour ce You will need: a small bowl; a slightly larger bowl; 2 cups or ramekins (6floz/175ml capacity) with no metal or gold trim; a small jug or bowl; a strainer; a microwave.
First make the sauce. In the small bowl, defrost the cream sticks on the lowest setting for one minute. Melt the golden syrup on a saucer on the high setting for 20 seconds. Pour half into the cream and mix well.
In the larger bowl melt the butter for 20 seconds on the high setting. Arrange four pecans in each cup and pour over a teaspoonful of the butter. Swirl it round and then pour in the rest of the golden syrup. Pour a tablespoon of boiling water over the coffee granules and mix them up until they dissolve. Now everything is ready for you to assemble the puddings.
Stir the sugar into the butter, throw in the egg, beating well, then sift the flour into the bowl through the strainer. Pour in the coffee and mix the butter quickly to make it smooth, then spoon it into the two cups on top of the pecans.
Put the cups in the microwave, standing them well apart, and cook on high for one minute. Something amazing will happen. The puddings will rise to almost 1in above the rims, then subside slightly. They will look very soft but you should take them out, run a knife around each one and turn it out on to a plate, arranging the nuts on top if they have been displaced. Stir the cream sauce and pour it round the puddings.
Eat the puddings straight away because they are not good cold; not surprisingly, they don't retain heat like a pudding steamed for two hours.
ce 8 `A Feast in Fifteen Stories' by Judy Jackson is available by mail order, exclusively to Independent on Sunday readers, from Marsons, 101 Hamilton Terrace, London NW8 9QX, tel 071-266 2645 (price £9.95 including p&p); or from London bookshops.Reuse content