Nigel Slater: Get cracking

Could 2001 be the year I finally get it right? Will this be the one when I succeed in grasping only what is worthwhile about food and cooking, and discard, with the thwack of a meat cleaver hitting a chopping board, that which is not?

I long to be the perfect cook; to shop knowledgeably and to prepare my food with total understanding; to respect the materials I work with and to comprehend fully the techniques I use; to make my own stock, my own chips, my own bread, every time.

Will this be the year I buy only that which has been produced organically and with deference for the environment? Is 2001 set to be the date I finally bottle my own fruit and grind my beans for every cup? Perhaps, just perhaps, I could now bear to sieve my sauces twice, and through muslin.

Is this to be the year I learn to choose faultlessly in restaurants, always put away the dishes before I go to bed and never let the greengrocer get away with sneaking a duff one into the bag? Will I be able to get through the entire year without forgetting something in the oven, cribbing an idea or opening a wine bottle in lieu of a meal? Is this, the second year of the new millennium, the one in which I will never, again let anything go slushy in the salad drawer of the fridge?

But I am not a perfect cook. Yes, I can enthuse wholeheartedly about the buzz ingredients for 2001 - which, for the record, will be seaweed, verjuice, maple syrup, sea salt (it is turning up in both butter and chocolate), rare breeds of poultry and their exquisite blue-grey eggs, sushi, dim sum and teas from way off the beaten track. But should I be a good boy and agree with those who say that restaurant cooking has never been better? Well, no. It is now almost impossible to find simple food, cooked with care and restraint. All I see now are menus that are a hotchpotch of ingredients, cultures and styles. A bit of French, a bit of Thai, a bit of Italian. (Will somebody please, please put that mess known as Pacific Rim cooking out of its misery?) It seems to me that anything goes nowadays just as long as the chef can pile it high in a deep, wide-rimmed dish and crown it with a froth of hamster straw, aka deep-fried leeks. Hype and artifice are what much restaurant cooking is now all about.

In the year that follows, I promise to never resort to frozen chips, to bunk off from the compulsory five-a-day fruit and veg rule and to bang on mercilessly about how good food used to be 20 years ago. I will always eat a square meal, never get drunk and never go food shopping when I am hungry.

But I am not sure I can. I know very well that for all the life-enhancing, vitamin-packed liquid that spurts daily from my juicer, nothing quite beats the sweet shock of an ice-cold Coca Cola when I want one. That the best curry is the one you scoff from its tin-foil takeaway container while watching the football on the telly. And you know that, hiding underneath those organic, artisan-crafted ingredients in my shopping bag, there lurks a Terry's chocolate orange.

This cook hasn't a clue whether the strainer he uses is actually a sieve or a chinois. I only know that it gets the lumps out of my sauce. Neither do I know whether it is correct to use a sauté pan to fry my bacon, or if it is acceptable to boil rather than steam rice for a Chinese meal. Neither, frankly, do I care. The only thing I know is when something feels right, when it rings my bell, and when it works for me. Cooking and eating are intensely personal things. Misplaced pedantry and culinary bigotry have no place in my kitchen.

My favourite cooking has always been sound, everyday sort of stuff, understated, do-able and as comfortable and 'feelgood as a favourite old sweater. I dislike fussy, fiddly cooking. That doesn't mean that little things don't matter. It is an attention to detail that often makes the difference between something being good and being utterly sublime. What really matters is that we concentrate on those few details that do matter and relax totally about that which makes little difference.

It is, I think, necessary to be specific and meticulous about the details of a classic recipe, for instance. While I believe a recipe can often be a straitjacket for the cook, I do think it matters that recipes for traditional dishes are not watered down by slapdash methods and short cuts. To do so is to lose the history, the authenticity and therefore the point of the dish. How many times have I eaten crème brlée or bread and butter pudding whose soul has been lost because of the sloth or maniacal meddling of a creative cook? It is good to let a recipe relax and breathe, but don't, please, present it to me as a classic when it plainly is not.

The buzz words this year are provenance, integrity and authenticity. Who, may I ask, is now going to eat a piece of beef whose origin and source they do not know? (This could be a bad year for those polystyrene trays of bargain mince.) I for one will be demanding the how, why and wherefore of everything I put in my mouth. Well, almost.

Could this be the year I become the cook I aspire to be; the year in which I get overexcited about food rather than gently enthusiastic; when I produce creative and jaw-droppingly original recipes; the one in which I agonise fashionably over which way to fold my new Donna Karan caramel-coloured napkins? Or could this be the year I replace David Beckham at Manchester United?

Noodles with oyster sauce

You will, I assume, have worked out what you are going to eat for this New Year's Eve. I offer this simple but tantalising noodle dish for New Year's Day, which, if nothing else, will clear your head in the morning. If you cannot face chillies on New Year's Day (and well you might not), then leave them out. The result will simply soothe rather than invigorate. Enough for 2.

250g thin noodles

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 large clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

a piece of ginger about the size of your thumb, peeled and cut into fine matchsticks

2 small, hot chillies, seeded and finely shredded

2 large handfuls (about 300g) of greens, such as spinach, pak choi or spring greens, shredded

1 tsp nam pla

2 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tbsp dark soy sauce

Prepare all the ingredients, seeding and chopping and shredding before you start. Once the oil is hot, you will need to work quickly if this is to be truly good.

Put on a big pot of water for the noodles and bring it to the boil. Add salt and drop in the noodles, cooking them for the length of time it says on the packet - each type will differ slightly - tasting them from time to time to check for tenderness.

Meanwhile, get a wok hot over your highest flame. When it starts to smoke, pour in the oil and shake the pan around so that the oil gets hot quickly. Now add the chopped garlic and the shredded ginger - it will brown in seconds - then add the chilli and the greens. Keep the food moving around the pan and the heat up high (I use chopsticks to move it round).

Add the drained noodles then add the liquid seasonings. Toss and stir, and when the greens are wilted and bright in colour and all is sizzling hot, serve.

Zaafraani chawal

I am not suggesting that anyone should overdo things tonight, but I must admit I include the calming and gently restorative recipe that follows from Madhur Jaffrey's new Step-by-Step Cookery (£19.99, Ebury) because it is soothing and gentle and just might be what you want to eat tomorrow. It is really a side dish, but I have eaten it by the large white bowlful when I need it. Although this recipe calls for basmati, any long-grain, fine-quality rice can be used instead. Serves 6 as side dish.

1 tsp saffron threads

2 tbsp warm milk

350g basmati or long-grain rice


2 tbsp vegetable oil

5 cardamom pods

2 x 7.5cm cinnamon sticks

Dry roast the saffron in a cast-iron frying pan, cool slightly, then crumble into the warm milk and leave to soak for about 30 minutes.

Put the rice in a bowl and wash well in several changes of cold water. Fill the bowl with 1.1 litres of fresh water, add tsp salt and leave to soak for 30 minutes. Drain.

Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan or cooking pot over a medium heat. Put in the cardamom and cinnamon sticks and stir over the heat a few times. Add the rice and fry, stirring, for one minute.

Add 550ml water and tsp salt. Bring to the boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to very low and cook for 20 minutes.

Gently but quickly fork through the rice to separate the grains. Drizzle the saffron-infused milk over the rice to form streaks of colour. Re-cover and cook for a further 10 minutes or until the rice is done. Serve at once.

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