Food & Drink: One man and his dogma
Saturday 31 July 1993
A short absence - say, a long weekend - is one matter. Freed from the routine of my presence, for instance, Madame tends to forgo eating altogether; only No 5 son receives a proper meal. Most men I know will simply pig out for a few days, or abstractedly consume whatever is around. A long absence is something else, and every summer Madame makes a point of casting me adrift for a few weeks (seven this year), and I myself go into solitary for two weeks to put my magazine to bed.
It is true that, in these periods, abstinence beckons. Unless professionally engaged (as in China), I eat a great deal less. In the case of most temporary bachelors, this cutting-down is part smug virtue and part sheer laziness. But such is the odium I feel for eating out (I am puritanical about paying six times what the same meal would cost me to prepare; I dislike the fraudulent ceremony that attends on restaurants; and Anglo-Saxon countries are short of cheap, efficient, well-prepared meals such as the French and Italians prepare at the drop of a hat) that I tend to cook for myself, though more simply than for others.
It is the only time in the year that I go through the whole cycle by myself, from shopping to digestion, and I have certain inner rules that govern these periods.
First, my advice to the solitary is to keep it simple. Some of the best things in the world of eating are dead simple. And nothing is simpler than the one-person, one-dish meal consisting of meat or fish, a fresh vegetable and a carbohydrate (optional). On the other hand, nothing is so disconsolate- making as eating the same dish two, three, four days running. Thus does one, alone, eschew stews and roasts.
There are, for instance, few better ways of preparing meat than by grilling it over a very hot stove.
When I am alone and meat or fish is on the menu, I tend to focus on my beloved French, cast-iron, ridged grill. I will light a (medium) fire under it, leave it to achieve a real glow, and when the rest of the meal is prepared, rub the ridges quickly with a little oil or butter, and, presto, the meat - a chicken breast, a half-dozen gigantic shrimps, an entrecote, a fillet of veal, a swordfish steak, a boned loin chop of lamb sprinkled liberally with some fresh herb - is done.
The solitary cook, after all, has some advantages. Chief of these are: that he (or she) may eat when he wants, what he wants, especially that which he does not regularly receive en famille (offal for me, crudites for Madame); and that he may spend more on quality or delicacies than would be considered economical by a frugal French wife.
Thus a Botsfordian menu for one in France will certainly include lambs' tongues (served in a mint vinaigrette), boudin blanc and noir, or blood sausage and Joycean kidneys, not to speak of fresh oysters and other sea creatures that Madame thinks of as being of 'dubious texture': eels in hot garlic oil and cuttlefish. In America, I will eat white asparagus when I can find it, crayfish in quantity and, as an accompaniment, a regular plateful of wild rice.
In the process of cooking for oneself, discoveries are made, for temporary solitaries are poor staple shoppers. Some ingredient is always running out, some necessary item missing; indeed, one can be hungry and not have shopped at all. We unfortunates are also bedevilled (at least in Anglo-Saxon countries) by the markets' notion that every buyer is a large family, that pork chops are never eaten fewer than four at a time, or carrots save in great clusters. All of which induces in me a nightmare of constant spoilage.
This is when a cook's mind is most concentrated, for he is eating out of stores, the larder, tins. He sets himself the task of getting the most out of the least. Faced with but two veal kidneys, for instance, I cut them fine, sauteed them in butter, lowered the temperature, added a rice vinegar and a touch of true balsamic, raised the spice content with chopped hot pimentos from Jamaica, plundered the garden for fresh tarragon and lemon mint, chopping these in at the last moment, and served it over steamed wild rice.
The solitary cook, you see, is one for whom the evening meal is an exercise in imagination. He is not merely served something good; he consults his stomach and says, 'The flavour, the aroma I fancy tonight is . . .' and off he goes. He adds ad libitum, he tries the unheard-of, saying to himself, 'Mmm, I wonder how these dried tomatoes would go with two over-ripe plums.' Thus a series of experiments in stuffing chicken breasts (which I know to be delicious filled with ricotta) with different French cheeses. Does a chevre work? How about Tomme de Savoie?
To be king of one's own eating acquires - with a bit of practice, a lot of invention and the assistance of a better-than- decent bottle of wine - its own charm. Madame has Junior babbling at her; but I read in splendid solitude.
Hence my summer library is marked with food stains through which, later, I can trace and identify my meals. Hence this blackish smudge (tenderloin of pork in the leftover juice of ink-fish) just where Jean-Paul Sartre is getting into (yet another) ideological twist.
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