18 December 2012

On a culinary con

S. gave me the book of  Jamie's 15-minute meals as part of my birthday present, concluding her inscription with "Now feed me!"

I've now cooked a dozen or so of his recipes--more or less. Why so vague? That goes to the heart of the issue...
  • Some of the ingredients are rather obscure, so I substituted others. "Prepared polenta" is a cheat. I can't even find ordinary polenta at Waitrose. And yesterday it took three members of (brilliantly keen to help) staff to locate the bulgur wheat. Frankly, all these staples taste of very little, so why not list substitutes in the recipes? So I can legitimately be accused of not following instructions properly. OK--I've not done that for forty years... Read on...
  • because the whole project is driven by a silly and arbitrary constraint--fifteen minutes. Get real. Yes, assuming that you have lined up all the prep at the head of the recipe, zapping ingredients and cooking them may take only a few minutes, but that is catering-speak, not home-cooking-speak. "15-minute meals" is an appealing marketing idea, but it imposes a stupid structure on almost all of the recipes (exempting some of the fish and veggie ones). 
Assuming that each "meal" (read "course") consists of meat/fish + veg/salad + staple  (potato/ pasta/ rice-based carbohydrate), Jamie's staff* have been driven down the line of creating:
  • something which can be portioned, beaten and flavoured/seasoned to be fried or grilled in a few minutes.
  • a salad or quick-cooked vegetables
  • a filler--probably not potatoes because they take too long
--and there are only so many variations on the theme. So most of the recipes I have tried share:
"On a large sheet of greaseproof paper, toss the [meat] with salt, pepper [herb/spice 1] and [herb/spice 2]. Fold over the paper then bash and flatten the [meat] to 1.5 cm thick with a rolling pin."
(I don't know how to 'toss' with those dry ingredients on a sheet of greaseproof paper without making a dreadful mess, incidentally--but I do admit that greaseproof paper works better than the clingfilm I have been wont to use...) There isn't very much alternative if you are going to cook meat in about ten minutes--the cuts, moreover, have to be premium and expensive.

And there is no time for subtlety in seasoning, so most recipes call for chillies and garlic. But if you are going down that route and time is of the essence, why can't you use chilli and/or garlic and/or ginger and/or anchovy... puree? Delia conceded that in How to Cheat at Cooking so why not Jamie?

What both Jamie and Delia have in common, however, is far too many ingredients (Delia's first edition in the '70s was much better in this respect). On my latest effort with Jamie, (p.40) not only did I substitute couscous for polenta (with some knock-on changes), but I dumped the asparagus and the spinach. Even so, my notes read; "lots of flavours --not much flavour overall. Confused."

I know little in this field, but I would have expected that the test cooks would have systematically tried recipes with and without the seasonings and sides, and decided which made a difference and which were swamped. I'm sure that the 80/20 rule applies here as much as in the rest of the world.

So--why this post? It's not a formal review, and apparently the book is not doing as well as Jamie's previous Christmas offerings, in any case.

It's not about the book, or the Jamie brand*--it's about the approach. Apparently, for all the popularity of cooking shows on TV and the (tie-in, of course) books, fewer and fewer people are cooking from scratch at home (sorry, too many sources of variable quality to evaluate).

Recipe books are a dead end, a cul-de-sac. They reinforce the difference between the chef (chief) who originates the recipe, and the compliant cook, who follows it. They are the culinary counterpart of Freire's banking model of education.

It's interesting to think about alternatives.As long as they taste good!

* "Jamie Oliver" ceased to be a person and became a brand about a decade ago. I'm sure he signs off each project which bears his name, but he cannot possibly develop them all personally.

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