"Where are you off to?" said my wife. "Turin," I said. "It's in the diary."
"What am I going to do?"
"But they want your food."
What cook could resist that? Not me. I am a sucker for flattery. My wife had three old friends to feed and water the very evening I was going to be away. And, for once, it wasn't my fault. Still, how the devil could I cook dinner when I was going to be in Turin, having a good time at Slow Food's Salone del Gusto (all in the line of duty, of course)?
The trouble is, I am a thoroughly selfish cook. It pains me to say this, but my wife and I cook together very rarely. In fact, I rarely cook with anyone. To tell anyone else what to do means that I have to stop whatever I am doing, think about some other stage of the process, give instructions, make sure what they're doing is what I want them to do and then pick up the threads of what I was getting on with. And, frankly, there are simply not enough fully functioning brain cells left in my head to do that kind of thing. So I end up doing it all myself.
Obviously on this occasion I would have to leave something up to my wife. So each dish had to be pre-prepared and/or pre-cooked, with a certain amount of finishing-up to be done. Even if you don't find yourself in a cooking-by-remote-control-type situation, these dishes could easily be done the night before when you don't have time for any serious work in the kitchen on the day. They may not be up to Masterchef fancy display, but they taste all right. It all went off like clockwork. They ate up every scrap.
Recipes serve six.
Lentils with poached egg
This is something I dreamed up on another occasion when I had suddenly to come up with a first course because I had forgotten to buy the ingredients for the one I had planned. It makes a good light supper. If you're vegetarian, make it with vegetable stock. The optional flavourings are there to add oomph to the lentil mass.
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
1 leek, finely chopped
115ml olive oil
250g Puy, Castelluccio or similar slate-green lentils (red and brown will not do)
750ml stock (chicken or vegetable)
1 tsp Thai fish sauce (optional)
1 dsp red wine vinegar (optional)
1 tsp Dijon mustard (optional)
Salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a saucepan, and when mazy with heat, add the vegetables, stirring to coat them in oil. Cook over medium heat for five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are well wilted and the onion transparent. Rinse the lentils under cold water and add them to the vegetables, stirring them around. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer until the cooking liquid has evaporated and the lentils are tender but have not disintegrated. This could take anywhere between 15 and 25 minutes, so try the lentils from time to time. Cool slightly and add the flavourings of your choice. This part of the dish can be made a day in advance, then gently reheated.
I serve this by putting a table spoon or two into a ramekin, plonking a poached egg on top and eating it with a teaspoon. But there's no need to be so refined. On a plate with the egg on top is just fine. I am not going to tell you how to poach an egg.
Hake and chorizo fishcakes
If you can't get hake, use cod or haddock. Chorizo, like capers, anchovies, pimentón and chilli, is one of life's dish enhancers. If you think a dish is going to be a bit anaemic, add chorizo. It works wonders.
400g hake (or cod or haddock)
400g floury potatoes
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley
Matzo meal (or breadcrumbs)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 5. Wrap the fish in foil, having seasoned it lightly with salt and pepper, and bake for 10 minutes. If you have any fish already cooked, so much the better.
Boil the potatoes until cooked. Remove from the water and peel as soon as you can. Put into a bowl and mash with a fork. Add the fish, liquid and all, and break up with the fork, but not too much. I like chunky bits in my cakes.
Whizz the parsley and chorizo in a food processor, but not too much. You want nuggets of chorizo, not paste. Add to the fish/potato combo, along with one egg, and mix well. Form into fishcakes as thick and as large as you like. Take the other egg and beat well. Pour it on to a plate. Pour a couple of tablespoons of matzo meal on to a second plate.
When you are ready to cook the fishcakes, heat the butter and oil in a frying pan. Dip the fishcakes first in the egg, then in the meal/breadcrumbs, taking care that they don't fall apart. Slip them gently into the foaming fat, and fry until crisp and brown on both sides. Serve with the leek and pea purée below.
Leek and pea purée
When I cooked the leeks, they didn't have enough colour for my liking, so I added some frozen peas and whizzed them up together. I was as pleased by the flavour combination as by the brilliant green of the sludge. The lemon peel adds a curious, distinctive note. It's a bit of a talking (ie, boasting) point, this dish.
2 strips lemon peel
250g frozen peas
Salt and pepper
Slice the leeks, green tops and all, and wash thoroughly to make sure there's no grit or mud lurking around. Melt the butter in a pan. Put the leeks into the foaming butter, add the lemon peel and a little water - perhaps 100ml - bring to a simmer, clap the lid on the pan, turn down the heat and leave to cook for about 10 minutes. Add the peas and cook for a further two minutes. Purée in a food processor - if you want it smooth, purée it a lot; if you like it rough, less so. Season to your taste. If prepared in advance, reheat gently before serving.
Pears poached in apple juice
A rather holistic dish, I like to think. There is a natural connection between pears and apples, and the juice turns the pears a delicious pale gold. Don't use really good, single-variety apple juice for this. It's a silly waste.
6 pears (Comice, Williams or Conference) 1 star anise 4 allspice berries 1 carton or bottle apple juice
Peel the pears, slice in half, and remove the pithy bits in the middle. Place in a saucepan with the spices. Pour in enough apple juice to cover - you may not need to use the whole carton or bottle. Bring gently to a simmer and cook until the pears can be easily pierced with a knife. How long this takes will depend on how ripe your pears are - the riper, the shorter. Let the pears cool in the juice.
You could serve this with the rest of the apple juice, which you can boil down with the same spices to a potent syrup, and cream, or with blackberries and cream, or on their own with cream - cream is obligatory