HIT IT WITH BLACK CARDOMOMS

HIT IT WITH BLACK CARDOMOMS

When my daughter Ione came to Kythnos at the start of December, I was impatiently  looking forward to cooking for her. She likes my food very much, and although I cook conscientiously for myself alone, it is always more enjoyable to prepare food for others. She is a vegetarian and I believe that I am a piscatarian (which sounds like one who is both a singing drunkard, and has gleeful Fountains of Rome enuresis, so I never use the word). It means that I eat fish and vegetarian food, but never eat meat. This is deeply inconsistent, and yes, definitely  immoral on my part. I don’t eat meat because I hate the idea of animals suffering, but then again I know the poor fish don’t enjoy having a bloody great hook lodged in their throats. Would you enjoy it, do you think, all things considered? And then being bashed to death with up to four charitable blows, once unhooked, how nice of us to do this selfless act of mercy  to them. I suppose the main  difference is that the fish aren’t bundled brutally into lorries, driven often vast distances aching with thirst, and then bolt-stunned before having their throats slit and being disembowelled. It is of course kinder than what the authorities did to Guy Fawkes and his co-plotters, but it is still not kind. I have not eaten meat since 1982, and any time I pass a butcher these days it always looks to me precisely what it is, a grotesque charnel house, a gallery of animal flesh caked in its ambient blood. I’m sorry by the way, if you are eating your breakfast of bacon and sausage and kidneys while reading this…

Cooking for Ione is always a pleasure, but it can be moderately taxing. Considering she is a vegetarian, there are quite a few front rank as opposed to lowly vegetables she does not like. My favourite vegetables are the kingly aubergine and the queenly courgette, but she doesn’t like either of those. Neither will she eat coriander leaves as in fresh Indian chutneys or pasta coriandolo, which is that ingenious substitution of fresh coriander for basil when making your pesto. Try coriander pesto and I can assure you, you will be a different person by the time you have finished your plate. In my daughter’s case she complains that what the Americans and Mexicans call ‘cilantro’ tastes like soap. Ione also does not care for that exquisite Korean garnish of toasted sesame seeds, and that I find hard to comprehend. It is a bit like not liking the sight of a bus ticket or being put off by the letters q or z in the alphabet. However we both love mushrooms and cauliflower and broccoli, and there are wonderful pasta sauces can be made out of all those. The Sicilian cauliflower sauce added to pasta is  flavoured with olives, nuts, sultanas and saffron, and  is both Arab-derived and of gourmet stature. My daughter would usually agree wholeheartedly, but alas I went and roundly bollocksed up its gourmet status last year, by failing to examine the cauliflower adequately.

Ione is one of those who fastidiously examines her cutlery and wine glass to see if they are dirty, and especially if they come to her via me. Personally, like Homer Simpson, I see only  the wine and rarely the glass, and a fork would have to be considerably tarnished, caked, oxidised and possibly blue, before I would ask for a replacement. Not so Ione, who successfully discovered the mesmerising corpse of an earwig on her plate of Sicilian cauliflower sauce last April, and took a royal fit. She simply could not see the funny side, nor see why I found it at all amusing. If it had been me I’d have removed the earwig, which was after all dead and incapable of inflicting any harm, checked for others, and kept on eating. In fact this is exactly what I did do. But sadly Ione could not touch it, and became mildly traumatised at the fact she had almost swallowed an insect. Perhaps that was simply  because she is a pure and principled vegetarian, not a compromised piscatarian like her Dad, and she would not wish to eat even a humble earwig much less a pork chop or disgusting osso buco or Scottish white and red puddings, and all the rest of it…

I learnt to cook relatively late in life, at the age of 27. Before that I scorned recipe books, and if I tried to invent a meal I cooked impressionistically, then wondered why my mongrel Bill gingerly took a single bite and then stunned and incredulous at its taste, dropped it like a chromatic turd on the carpet. Having broken up with Nina the nurse, I also suffered from single guy status, and was sharing with two other young men, neither of whom could cook. I ate meat in 1977 and our staple bachelor dinners were either spag bol or beef curry, and nothing else. They had identical components save substitute plain boiled rice for spaghetti, and ‘curry powder’ for ‘mixed herbs’. Tinned tomatoes made the bulk of the sauce, but it wouldn’t have occurred to any of us to mash the bloody things, and stop them behaving like unpleasant miniature balloons slithering away against our repulsed tongues…nor to add tomato puree to thicken the sauce and stop it being so wretchedly aqueous. The beef was not proper beef but cheap mince meat, which was regarded as cooked once it had turned fifty shades of grey. The association of louche but low-grade and badly composed culinary pornography is obviously very apt here. Pardon me while I go and gag at the unProustian recollection, where instead of exquisite madeleines, it was smelly and rank mixed herbs, and horrible fenugreeky curry powder, all too biliously vivid even if it is nearly forty years ago…

One day I had had enough of miasmic spag bol, and  even more of dung-flavoured beef curry. In the shared kitchen were a few cookbooks left by previous tenants, and one of these was to be my primer and my late 1970s godsend. It was called 500 Vegetarian Recipes by Marguerite Patten and had cost 30p when purchased originally in 1975. The recipes were remarkably easy to follow, in lucid numbered stages, nearly all of them being more than tasty, and of course as they were vegetarian, cheap. The first meal I attempted I was a bag of nerves, and had no hope whatever, as I vaguely imagined all cookery books were obscure and unplumbable confidence tricks. It was a kind of fusion style Indonesian sauce for pasta, and it contained peanut butter, lemon juice and chopped tomatoes.  Brainy old Patten had the inspired notion of decorating it with fried cashews, fried green peppers and lemon rind. At any rate it tasted heavenly after ballocky spagbollicks, and I tried it out on Ted and Ben, and they both gave it thumbs up and asked for more. But just in case your credulity is jibbing at the very costly cashews in the culinary equation, I need to point out a) Ted ran a grocery wholesale depot, and kept some of its splendid contents on his strictly  private shelf in the kitchen, and b) I am on occasion and regrettably a thief.

To accelerate the narrative and foreclose the chronological axis, over a year or so I worked my way through all 500 recipes. Only one was revolting, and I was very tempted to write to Ms Patten and spell out a home truth, whilst congratulating her on the other excellent 499. It was parsnip and banana curry and my bile rises as I think of it. You fried an onion, put in the fruit,  water and the parboiled parsnip, and then tipped in a few spices, princiapally garam masala, ginger and turmeric. Frankly you could have tossed in liquid gold, phlogiston, ambrosia and the Elixir of Life, and it would still have tasted like, what’s that subtle and challenging epistemological categorical term, as liked even by the most sesquipedalian of philosophers for its considered, incisive and pithy semantic hubris? Ah yes, I remember now. The word is shite

To resume. Parsnip, a bit like turnip …

Ah. I’m sorry. But I need to stop here for a weighty parenthesis, and brackets will not work. I wish to say, bloody hell, bloody hell, I am 64, and I have never ever juxtaposed those two words and thus never twigged that both of them end in ‘nip’! A ‘pars’-nip and a ‘tur’-nip. But what the hell are a ‘pars’ and a ‘tur’ (and I hope against hope that ‘tur’ is not an abbreviation of ‘turd’)? Answer, google it tomorrow, and then you’ll be able to sleep at night. Or no, no, no, maybe the day after tomorrow. And please, everyone carefully note, that all sensible cultures have a single word for ‘the day after tomorrow’ and only an uptight anally-retentive and hopeless milieu such as Mother England, does not. A single word means of course it’s a metaphor for ‘possibly never’, and is thus a handy procrastinatory aid for e.g. philosophical and unphilosophical idlers. Why, even in ratatat officious German they have ubermorgen, and in Greek it’s methavrio and in Albanian pasneser.

To re-resume. The parsnip, a bit like the turnip, has such a strong taste, that it needs very drastic culinary treatment to bring out its subtle virtues. And frankly, in the case of the parsnip, I doubt it is even worth the considerable effort. The only parsnip dish I really like is when it’s oven-roasted in honey, as my late wife Annie used to do it, to great effect. I don’t think Indians ever eat parsnips, but they do manage astonishing things with shalgam/turnips on a brilliant kind of homoepathic or contrary  principle. What is that, you ask? OK, raw turnips taste and smell as uncompromisingly vicious as buffalo shit/ farts, am I not correct? So, if you attempt to ameliorate the flavour by gentle and delicate spices, you might as well try and get the left half of your esteemed backside to transcribe Schubert’s Lieder for euphonium, and/or write the Mabignogion in Old Welsh. However. Suppose instead you attack the turnip with very strong spices, as in cough medicine tasting black cardamoms (not the sweet little elaichi green ones)and then maybe fearlessly chuck in some laung/cloves, to make damn sure. Prior to that, you have sliced the shalgam very thin, and then smeared with thinned tomato puree and the dynamite cardamoms and cough drop cloves as above. You bake slowly in the oven, and lo when you taste the turnip, all that bitter buffalo dung taste has gone, and instead the shalgam is delicate and redolent with pungent and delicious taste.

But, and I hope you do not mind this considered and tantalising example of august  pre-prandial anticlimax, parsnip and banana curry as I have indicated both looks and tastes like merde/skato/copros…and I think Ms Patten included it as a welcome harmless joke

TO BE CONTINUED

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