Cooking Diary, Part 0
Many years ago I left home and thus life changed. I rented a small room in a house, and lived happily there with two brothers as joint landlords. It was a peaceful existence, with only a few noisy moments when the younger brother entertained his girlfriend, usually a virtuoso performance amplified by the fact our bedrooms shared a wall. Then the other brother bought what appeared to be an entire herd of Siamese kittens, but in reality may have only been two very active bundles of fur. It certainly seemed like a small herdlet, pridelet or whatever the collective term is for kittens. He then ‘came out’ which didn’t bother me but not everyone in the house took the news so well. These tumultuous developments were fortunate, because they distracted from the real danger to the occupants, which was me.
Most people, when they leave home, learn how to cook. I am an exception. You see, within three minutes walk of my abode there were three takeaways – an Indian, Chinese and a chippy. So, why cook when there are people willing to do it for you? Occasionally I would tire of such fare and appear uninvited at a friends’ house proffering bottles of wine in for food, an exchange which always seemed to go down well. But every so often I’d feel a small, nagging doubt, that I really, really, should learn to cook on the basis everyone else seemed able to.
Then one day I found myself with a little spare time, and an empty house. This, I decided, would be the Cooking Day. As I had no idea where to start I called my friend Tracey for some guidance. What, I asked, would be a good starter dish?
“Omelettes” said she, and outlined the recipes, starting with those words which I have come to dread – “It’s really easy, all you need to do is….”. Tracey was, of course, lying. Or was she? She believed her statement to be true, but it wasn’t. Is that still a lie? Maybe, maybe not, but I didn’t know it at the time so I trusted her. Indeed, the directions were, on face value, quite simple. I was to procure eggs, milk, butter, a saucepan and a spatula. Armed with the component list, off I set to the hithero unexplored place known as a “Supermarket”.
I entered this “Supermarket”, looking for eggs and found them. Rather too many. There were a great multitude of eggs, different sizes, shapes and even styles of laying. Which type of egg did I need? Tracey had not described the specifications of the eggs and I had no experience on which to draw. Choosing the butter and milk was equally difficult. I never gave any thought to what sort of milk I usually used; white from a cow was about all I was concerned with, but here were all sorts of milk and no user’s guide listing the pros and cons or each, or even pointers to Omelette Making Milk. In confusion, I called Tracey who referred to something called “just bloody eggs for chrissake”. I was in the process of explaining that there were no eggs of a bloody nature and I was engaged on omelette construction but she had to go.
Anyway, I bought the necessary components and the tools – eggs, butter, milk and a spatula. I knew the kitchen had a pan as I’d seen it thrown once (not at me, at the cats, and not by me either I hasten to add. I’m not unkind to animals as pointless as cats, just unkind about them). I had been told I was allowed to use the kitchen and the tools within but so far had not made use of anything more than trivial items such as cups, knives and forks. This was about to change as I arrived home with my omelette construction kit in a bag.
I recalled Tracey’s recipe, located the pan, placed it on a stove and heated it. To what degree the pan should be heated was, as per usual cooking practice, not specified. So I went for maximum heat. I mean come on. If I am specifying software I can’t say things like “make it a bit good” or “oh, it sort of needs to add a few numbers to calculate a loan agreement”. If I was like that I’d be working on the business side of things. Why are cooking people allowed to get away with being so hopelessly vague? Anyway, while the pan was heating I assembled other tools needed for the job such as a dinner plate, knife, fork and a celebratory beer. This took a while.
Eventually the pan became what I presumed was suitably hot, so I carved a large chunk of butter from the lump and flicked it off the knife onto the pan, in order provide some lubrication for the omelette construction, as per instructions.
I’m not sure it actually reached the pan.
In the same way meteors hurtle in from outer space and burn up as they enter the earth’s atmosphere, so too did this butter globule enter the pan’s superheated micro-climate and dissolve into gas before it ever got close to the surface. It was a small kitchen, and a big butter globule, so there was an almighty fizzling sound and suddenly I couldn’t breathe or see. I opened the door by feel and staggered out.
Bloody Tracey, her recipe is downright dangerous.
The haze cleared, I returned to the kitchen and turned the heat down on the pan. I then left the door open, poised myself into a sprinter’s stance and launched another butter meteor in the direction of the pan. There was a muted sizzle and the butter melted, as opposed becoming a gas. This was more like it. I closed the door, grabbed the spatula, and whooshed the butter around the pan for maximum lubrication, adding another healthy splodge as what I had in there seemed to be evaporating. I understand the necessity for lubricant from various other experiences, especially mechanical.
Next, according to Tracey, were eggs. Given the low quality and reliability of her instructions thus far I was naturally worried about trusting her any further, but I’ve always been a curious sort so I ploughed fearlessly on into unknown territory. I took an egg, cracked it smartly against the rim of the pan, emptied the goo in the pan and revelled for a moment that something had gone right. Tracey had said a “couple” of eggs so I repeated the process with another one, then added some milk. All this made rather a mess in the pan. According to the recipe this mess would now become an omelette and my job was to stop it sticking to the sides. Given the quantity of butter invested as an anti-stick lubricant I thought that unlikely, but I pushed the spatula around a bit, not really quite sure what I was meant to be doing but I had an idea that omelettes don’t auto-cook so I’d best be doing something.
Five minutes passed and the mess was as messily liquid as ever. I cautiously increased the heat.
Another ten minutes of cooking had no further effect.
So I gave it another half an hour, during which I slowly ratcheted the heat back up to nearly maximum, yet the thing in the pan was decidedly not resembling an omelette, more raw egg.
Another ten minutes with the addition of super-nuclear heat saw a result with the mess finally coasecling into something less than liquid. Didn’t look particularly appetizing though.
I turned the heat off and surveyed my handiwork. Time to eat. I took the pan and emptied it onto my plate, or rather attempted too. Whatever it was I’d cooked just remained in the pan. Stuck. Not to be deterred I found a knife and cut away at the sides, to reveal a perfect injection moulding of the pan made from egg. The underside of this…thing..was carbon black, and the topside was a sort of unappealing yellow. There was a smell not unlike that of a Ford Escort’s clutch after one a handbrake turn session.
Clearly, I’d made some form of momumental error, so I phoned the person responsible to demand an explanation.
“Tracey. This recipe you gave me doesn’t work. How long is it meant to take to cook an omelette?”
“That recipe has worked for millions of people over hundreds of years, it’s very…”
“Simple. I know. But it’s not working, I cooked it for over an hour and the thing looks like goo.”
“An hour since I cracked the eggs into the pan, like you said. At what point was it meant to turn nice, fluffy and edible?”
There was a silence on the phone. I could imagine her face, focused into that cute expression she has when she’s working out a particularly tricky problem. She would be replaying what she told me and wondering how in the name of all that is holy could I have been cooking an omelette for an hour and not yet finished. She couldn’t solve it so she went for the diagnosis.
“OK. How many eggs?”
“Two. You said a couple, so that was within parameters…”
“How much milk?”
“Half a glass or so, I like milk.”
There was a sound on the other end of the phone. Did you know emotions have their very own sound? They do. I was listening to pure frustration. It sounds a bit fizzly.
“That, that…is WAY, WAY too much milk! You’re only meant to use a little bit!!!!”
“Now Tracey. How much is a ‘little bit’? You’re an engineer, you should know better…”
The rest of the conversation was short and I was given to understand several points, including a comprehensive analysis of my shortcomings as a cook, human being, friend and inhabitant of the planet, with some pointed observations about intelligence, time wasting and pointlessness. Still, at the end of it all, Tracey appeared to accept at least some of the blame that was surely her due, so to make up for her failure she gave me an even simpler recipe. Rice.
“This is really easy, all you….”
“No. No, it’s not.”
“It’s not really easy. Rice. It’s cooking. It can’t be easy. If it was, I could do it.”
“Don’t make me go there. Honestly, it is. Just get some rice, from that supermarket you now know so well, and…follow the directions on the packet which say to put it in some water and you can even use the microwave . Oh, remove the rice from the packet first.”
“Obvious to most people but….”
“Yes, yes. OK. Rice it is then.”
Given there were directions on the packet I decided to forge ahead and try again. There are no directions on egg cartons nor milk containers, so maybe some written guidance would mean success this time. So, in short order I was back in the kitchen with a packet of rice, and carefully perusing the instructions. It was quite simple; I was to locate a receptacle for the rice, add water, and microwave for a prescribed amount of time on a given setting. Excellent. Not quite the precision I was hoping for, but certainly better than “a bit” of milk and the insanely vague “heat” the pan.
By this time I was feeling rather hungry so, being optimistic, I added a goodly portion of rice into a largish bowl, filled it with water, placed the lid on top and left the microwave to do its thing while I read a magazine. This was more like it, all of about a minute’s preparation and the microwave would regulate the amount of heat required. Couldn’t go wrong. I even began to think kindly thoughts about Tracey and began reading the newspaper while I awaited the no doubt delicious fruits of my labours.
But then I heard the sound.
I didn’t know what it was, but there were two clues that not all was well. First, the sound came from the direction of the microwave. Secondly, it sounded very much like the sort of noise you hear when tension is, finally, released. The sort of sound you hear when something gives way after a titanic battle of forces. The sort of sound that heralds disaster.
I shot over to the microwave. As I skidded to a halt it was clear not all was as it should be. Firstly, what should have been a transparent window where I could see my meal rotating on a nice platter was now obscured by some white stuff. Whatever had, or was happening needed to be stopped so I opened the door.
When I was smaller, I had once watched in wonder as a large truck carrying many tonnes of sand had tipped its tray to deposit its load. The sand seemed to come out of that truck forever. It was a memory that was about to be reawakened as when I opened the microwave door rice flooded out. Not just a little, but a lot, with the bowl and its now-detached lid surfing down the white avalanche like a lost toboggan on a ski slope. I was genuinely bemused. Where, oh where had this come from? I’d only put in about 750g of rice on the basis I was hungry and wanted to maybe save a bit for later. Yet here was sufficient rice to feed Calcutta. For the next century. Certainly enough to cover the floor and my shoes.
As I stood there, the chief landlord walked in. He stopped, and he looked. First at the floor, or where the floor used to be before I redecorated it in rice. The bowl was gently bobbing its way towards him, carried by the eruption from the microwave. Then he looked at me, registering my ingratiating grin. Then at the microwave, door ajar, with the last remnants of my erstwhile meal slopping out. His eyes turned to the sideboard, where I had left my injection-moulded omelette at a jaunty angle. The air was thick with the smell of food that had been bastardised; vapourised butter, burnt egg and overcooked rice do not combine to form an aroma that have people following their noses into the kitchen asking what’s cooking.
I could see him doing what people so often do when confronted with the results of my cooking; they go silent and look confused as they process various bits of information and attempt to come up with a reasonable explanation for the disaster they see. The slack jaw and vacant gaze indicated computational overload and indeed he gave up, muttered “I hope you’re going to clean all that” before leaving as suddenly as he had appeared.
Well I did clear it up, which took a while. I phoned Tracey and again demanded explanations. Readers who understand the black art that is cookery will have noticed that one does not need 750g of rice along with a lake’s worth of water to feed one person, and, the bit she’d yet again left out – rice expands when cooked. This is pointed out to me, using more words than were strictly necessary and really not called for.
After two dismal failures most people would give up. Not me. Clearly, Tracey was hopeless as a cooking mentor so I decided that should I continue to follow her advice I would destroy the house, not my appetite.
So I went right back to the basics. Boiled eggs, of which I had all of a carton, bar two.
Rather than trust myself with boiling water, I simply took an intelligent shortcut by popping three of them into the microwave and set it for three minutes, maximum power.