It's a commonplace that the pace of life is increasing, presumably something to do with the new speedy technologies tea leaves become tea bags, the letter becomes the email, the cooker becomes the microwave - and something to do with our aspirations for a fuller and busier life now it's almost a badge of honour to be running around like a headless chicken (should I be using this phrase in a food blog?).
Cookbooks are working towards zero preparation time: thirty minute meals, fifteen minute meals..soon, thirty second meals (open a can of sardines and find a fork), five second meals (reach for an apple), nanosecond meals (eat your own arm). And that's if you can be bothered to prepare your own food. There's always the ready meal and the microwave. Or the phone call to the takeaway. Just eat! Faster and faster food!
How fast is fast food? Well, it's fast if you're the one who's buying it, but that's true of all readymade food. It's usually fast to cook, so that it can potentially (if not actually) be cooked while you wait. But it's certainly not fast to prepare. A pizza: labour-intensive. Think of the preparation of the dough. A hamburger: labour-intensive. That bun! Fish and chips: that haddock! (Curiously, the very shortness of the cooking time undermines their quality as takeaway foods. They have no staying power. They're knackered, congealing and leaden, after a minute or two. Much better a stew.)
In our household we're very keen on crab linguine, wonderfully simple and delicious. It takes about ten minutes to cook, fifteen tops. Get your dressed crab, put the meat in a bowl, add garlic, chilli, lemon juice, olive oil, chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Cook the linguine (why always linguine? it's a mystery), and stir in your mixture. Bing bang bosh.
But last time I cooked this dish I realised that the speed of preparation depends entirely on other people's labour. It includes two items the dressed crab and the pasta which in our household we have managed to prepare from scratch precisely once each; and there's a good reason for that. The crab preparation was a nightmare, partly because it was alarmingly alive and likely to take revenge on us, and partly because we lacked the necessary skill to extract the meat, so we ended up with a chaotic pile of half-empty crab limbs and a piffling pile of meat. The pasta event was admittedly complicated by the fact that we had also bought a ravioli-making attachment, so that the sheer hell of the basic pasta-making collided with the sheer hell of introducing the inevitable spinach-ricotta mixture into the pasta. I can only remember a kitchen completely covered in flour and for some reason polenta. It was like the final scene in a brilliant Lithuanian production of Romeo and Juliet I once saw (Oskaras Korsunovas genius) set in a pizza restaurant, in which flour symbolised death the whole stage and most of the cast enveloped in white. In our case it symbolised nothing more than the death of our deluded pasta-making hopes.
Conversely slow food is often very quick to prepare. The best example of this is surely kiviaq, the Inuit delicacy. Several hundred auks are stuffed into a sealskin bag, the bag is sewn up, rocks are piled on top, to keep the air content low, and the birds are left to ferment for at least three months, waiting for the cold season. (The cold season surely that's all the time?) At the end of this process you can apparently eat the whole bird, bones and all. So ingenious, so ecological, so disgusting.
The fish equivalent of this is the Icelandic Hrkarl, shark which has been fermented and dried. In his encyclopaedic Nordic Cook Book Magnus Nilsson describes eating (for the camera) pieces of the daunting, ammoniac hrkarl, feeling increasingly queasy as the director demands more and more takes, while being plied with a ferociously alcoholic drink by a perky man who claims that it's the perfect foil for the hrkarl, and that it's made of a special secret berry picked high up on the volcanic slopes of the island. Nilsson realises immediately it's actually made of a diet cordial called Fun Light.
For my father all cooking was slow cooking. He spent hours plucking pheasants, he roasted all meat, even chicken, at very low temperatures, cooked ham by wrapping it in blankets, and made marmalade, bread and wine, patiently, patiently.
Try his method, slightly adapted by me, of roasting a chicken (very Heston, actually):
Heat the oven to 100C. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper, rub it with butter and put it in a roasting tin. Roughly chop a large carrot and a large onion, cut a bulb of garlic in half crossways, cut a lemon in half and put them all in with the chicken. Cook for 45 minutes per 500g of chicken. Yes, really. (If you have an oven thermometer, plunge it into the thickest part of the thigh the temperature should be 60C.)
Put the chicken aside, wrapped in foil, to rest for 20 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 230C. Make the gravy: fry the vegetables for a few minutes on a medium heat till they're caramelising nicely; add 200ml white wine and 200ml of chicken stock (or water), and simmer for 20 minutes, reducing until you have a concentrated gravy. Strain. Meanwhile put the chicken back in the oven until the skin has browned should take about 10 minutes.
Serve with a hundred-year-old egg (or not).
My father used to cook a chicken in this way (without making the gravy) and keep the entire bird to serve cold.
PS The crab linguine: one dressed crab serves two people. Add a chopped garlic clove, a small chopped red chilli, the juice of half a lemon, 4 tbsp olive oil, 3 tbsp chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly. Stir into the cooked linguine.
Words by Orlando Gough
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