Going commando in the kitchen

I use recipes. Some people think that’s a weakness, a sign of someone lacking creativity or confidence in the kitchen. A person who is afraid to take risks. Perhaps they’re right, but I have good reason to cling to my cookbooks, and to my scraps of paper with hastily scribbled recipes from Epicurious. It has to do with:

Usual Suspects

The film that inspired our affectionate names for really bad dishes

A) a particular dish I made several years ago;

B) the 1995 film The Usual Suspects; and

C) my husband’s disused degree in German from Exeter University.

Shizer Soße

Here’s how it went. At a time when I wasn’t cooking as much as I do now, I set out to make one of our staple meals: pasta with cheese sauce. But boredom struck – I wanted to mix it up, do something different. As the flour and butter gently sizzled for my white sauce, emitting its nutty aroma, I opened the spice cabinet for inspiration. Oregano? Paprika? Turmeric? Yes! A curry sauce! With pasta? Maybe not. My forehead wrinkled at the thought. I can’t remember the rest of the details, but there was a lemon involved. And an onion. Salt, pepper and, of course, the milk for the sauce.

The result was gray, thick, mucilaginous, and mixed with al dente fusili. I warned my husband that it didn’t look good. He was optimistic as always, but after a few bites admitted that, in fact, it wasn’t very good. I said it was sh!t. He said, yes, it is. It is sh!t sauce. Shizer Soße, he said, pulling up those German language skills from bygone days. He also thought the sauce was mysterious and evil, like the similar-sounding Keyser Söze – the mysterious and evil unseen crime lord from the The Usual Suspects.

Henceforth, terrible dishes were christened, for example, Shizer suppe, which was a memorable soup my husband made with tonic water instead of the recipe’s suggested spring water.

Since the sauce incident, I mostly stuck to using recipes. Now and then, though, I improvised. Once I prepared something to share with the book group I belong to, and mixed ideas from a few different recipes to create what I envisioned would be a festive pumpkin filled with spicy fruit. The actual result was a baked pumpkin filled with clovey, gray stuff, in which floated raisins and dried dates. My friend B asked if it was savoury or meant to be a dessert. I wasn’t sure. It was Shizerkürbispampe (sh!t pumpkin mush), and went directly on the compost pile.

The Taste for Civilization

The Taste for Civilization, a fascinating book by Janet Flamang, which tells us why we need recipes (at least some of the time).

Recipes are there so we don’t kill ourselves

Recipes, of course, aren’t foolproof and there are so many available online now (including on this blog) that it’s likely you’ll come across a few which just don’t work (probably also from this blog). That’s why I tend to rely mostly on cookbooks, where the recipes are at least (or should be) tested. Even if you’re more of a ‘going commando’ cook, though, it’s good to pay homage to recipes: they keep us from killing ourselves.

As omnivores, we can eat lots of things (unlike most other animals), so recipes are a “condensed survival guide”, according to Michael Symons in A History of Cooks and Cooking. “Recipes signal safe, proper, and delicious eating,” claims Janet Flamang in her fascinating book The Taste for Civilization.

My Shizer Soße  and freaky pumpkin mush weren’t unsafe to eat, but they were a waste of time and ingredients (as well as an assault on the palate). But cooks are like “scientists, developing cuisines through trial and error” according to Flamang. I’ve now spent a number of years cooking with my survival guides, and can at last call myself a cook/scientist in the kitchen.

This recipe is an example of one of my more successful experiments: a layered vegetable bake. It takes a couple of hours to prepare and bake, but the majority of that is unattended. Hopefully it works for you, and doesn’t get compared to an evil crime lord.

Layered vegetable bake

Layered veggie bake

The layered veggie bake with cheese: the crispy, cheesy onion rings on top are the best bit.

1 egg

¾ cup milk or cream (or a mixture of both)

¼ cup yogurt, soured cream or crème fraiche

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash of nutmeg

1 – 2 cups each of cleaned, peeled and thinly sliced root vegetables: e.g., potatoes, rutabaga (aka swede), carrots, squash, leeks.

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 onion, sliced in thin rings

Preheat oven to 190C (375 F). Whisk together the first five ingredients and set aside.

Butter a large, shallow rectangular baking dish. Place a layer of vegetable slices in the dish, then sprinkle with some of the cheese. Keep layering vegetables and cheese until you run out of vegetables.

Pour the egg-milk mixture evenly over the whole thing. Arrange your onion rings over the top of the dish, then sprinkle on the remaining cheese. If you have any bread crumbs or sesame seeds around, sprinkle those on top, too, for added crunch.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for around 1 ½ hours, or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the foil and put back in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp the top. Serve with a salad.