Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 1

In which the writer writes about writing about food, and then writes about food

Welcome to Commonplace! I think I’ve written that about five times in different text boxes in the last hour. Substack is way more complicated to set up than Tinyletter. I’m putting Commonplace over here because I have a deep dislike of having all my eggs in one basket, and also I like knowing what the different technologies for something as simple as sending an email newsletter are like.

Commonplace exists because my other option to write regularly about food is to create a blog (again), and I kind of don’t want to do that right now. I used to blog a lot, on several different topics, sometimes more than once a day, and that suited then and doesn’t now. Newsletters feel more like my medium at the moment. And I think about food a lot, and not always in the what’s-for-dinner mode as most of this issue is, so writing about it seems useful.

It should also be noted that I’m starting Commonplace about two weeks into Ireland’s (first?) COVID-19 lockdown, while I am unemployed, and I’m finding a lot of comfort in cooking at the moment. The tone of the newsletter is likely to reflect that, and then shift again when the lockdown lifts and I have a job again.

So. Yesterday I cooked several things. The first one was a freezer soup; our small chest freezer is in need of defrosting, and I’m retrieving stuff from it and cooking it so as to enable that. After a while, once you’ve eaten the obvious stuff, you tend to be left with some ambiguous frozen meats, opened-but-not-finished peas and sweetcorn, and so forth. The eventual solution to this is to chuck them all in a pot and call it “soup”. My approach to soup is informed by the medieval pottage, and also by stew, and it’s often too thick and chunky for anyone else to think of it as soup. I don’t much hold with the use of blenders, either.

For this, I had a pack of pork belly strips, a pack of beef mince, and then frozen chopped leeks (a substitution for fresh leeks from a supermarket delivery, back in the Before Times when deliveries weren’t for the completely housebound), broccoli, spinach, and sweetcorn. I added a fresh onion, because that is how food works - you start with an onion.

I chopped the pork belly into small bits while still frozen, and fried it in a very little butter. Mostly, my approach to butter is that of the great British chefs, which is that if it doesn’t thump when it hits the pan, you didn’t use enough. But in this case, I wanted just enough to make the frozen pork chunks not attempt to stick to the floor of the pot, one of the oval Le Creuset pots, definitely the best we own. What I was looking for here was to render some of the fat, and then take out the pork. It worked moderately well; I had enough fat to gently fry the chopped onion in, and the pork got set aside for later.

So, onion, leeks, broccoli, spinach, and then sweetcorn, in that order. Salt and black pepper as seasoning, nothing fancy. Because they were going in frozen, there was enough liquid to make up a cooking broth of sorts (is it still broth with no meat in?), which I bulked out with some chicken stock. Some of what’s in the very bottom of the freezer are containers of home-made stock, but I don’t know what they are, and the gods only know how long they’ve been there, assuming the gods were paying attention when I wasn’t. So they may be for the bin rather than use.

The beef got defrosted in a frying pan, not quite dry-frying, fried up, and then spiced with chili powder and paprika (and salt and pepper) before it got added back into the soup. The pork, once removed from the pot, I dusted with seasoning and some stuff from the spice rack (more paprika and chili and some rosemary), and then put in the oven on a low heat. Once it had been in there for about an hour, I put the heat up for about twenty minutes, and then dumped the sizzle-ish chunks of meat and a whole load more rendered fat out onto kitchen paper, and covered them in some more, to absorb the oil. The idea is to use them like croutons, scattering them on top of the soup. They are individually good enough that I had to hide them away so we wouldn’t just eat them like crisps.

Since the soup wasn’t actually yesterday’s main meal (or indeed for eating yesterday at all), it got decanted into Tupperware (I needed the pot again), and left to cool. The main meal was hashweh (rice with spiced beef) topped with fried chicken, khiyar bi laban (yogurt with cucumber), all from May Bsisu’s The Arab Table, and a very simple salad of mild red onions and tomatoes. I’ve been cooking historical Arabic food from al-Warraq for a while, and reckoned that getting to grips with modern Arabic food would help. Bsisu’s book passes the grandmother test, so I bought it a couple of years ago, although I’m only now getting around to trying stuff from it.

The khiyar bi laban is just what it says, cucumber in yoghurt, with a bit of garlic, and garnished with dried mint (ideally spearmint, Bsisu says, which is handy, because that’s what I had), so it was easy to do, if a bit finicky in the peeling and de-seeding of the cucumber. At this point in the cooking, I had set up a Zoom call for our SCA household, so people could “drop in” while I was cooking. Having people to chat to makes finicky work much more bearable. The recipe calls for one clove of garlic, so I used four.

The hashweh is a simple idea, but Bsisu passes on a lot of the complexity of getting it just right. First you cook the beef, adding four or five spices plus the Lebanese Seven Spice Mix (which I had on the shelf, for a wonder), and then you add the cleaned and soaked rice, and make sure it’s thoroughly coated with oil and meat juices (sort of like a risotto) before you put in the already hot water and then cover it over. It continues on low heat settings for a while, being stirred exactly once in 25 minutes, and then comes off and the whole pot is wrapped in a fleece blanket for “at least an hour” until you’re ready to serve it.

One of the complexities here is that an instruction is “until the water is gone”, which is hard to estimate when you’re not stirring, and your pot (with lid on) is not transparent. A Persian friend once showed me how to estimate this, by licking your thumb and sticking it against the side of the pot. If the saliva hisses off, there’s steam behind that spot, and you try again lower down until you find the water level, or lack thereof, at which there is no hiss. He has a sort of callus or pad on his thumb from doing this, and even with my notoriously asbestos hands, I am unwilling to try it. For Persian rice, you want it to cook down to zero liquid, and then remain there for a few crucial seconds, so that the rice on the bottom of the pot becomes crispy, but not burnt. This is by way of being a dark art, and some cooks never master it, I am told, while others seem to do so on instinct. I cheated, and lifted the lid and used a wooden spatula down the side of the pot to see the bottom.

The chicken to put on top was very simple - fried with salt, pepper, and more of the Lebanese Seven Spice. It was overall deemed good, although I might reduce the spices a little bit next time - the allspice in particular seems to have been a bit overpowering.

Lunch today consisted of some of the soup cooked yesterday, which I think I’ll call a pottage if I need to refer to it again. It’s wholly acceptable, and also pretty unremarkable, but it does what it was supposed to do, which was turn freezer-stuff into food on the table. I had some of the hashbeh as well, and it’s as good reheated, although the spices definitely need to be pulled back a little. As Nina said, it’s a little like eating gingerbread dough as is.

As I ate, I poked through The Arab Table, looking for something else to cook from it. I think khoubez, the “Arab Flatbread” referenced throughout the book, will be the next thing to try. It isn’t a flatbread in terms of not rising, like the Neolithic-simple flour-and-water ones I make on a frying pan, as it has yeast, but it looks like a pleasing sort of bread to accompany the remainder of the pottage and the khiyar bi laban. I made far too much of the latter, but the plain yoghurt came in a 500ml tub, and I wasn’t about to leave any behind.

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been planning meals more than usual, and shopping to that end. So I know what’s going to be on plates, pretty much, between now and next Tuesday. We’re going to cook some more than usual on Sunday, in sort of vague cultural recognition of Easter, and rather more so that there is some rhythm to the week. I did a roast last Sunday, with various vegetables and a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Among the vegetables, roast cauliflower (tossed in salt, pepper and a little turmeric and roasted alongside the pudding) turned out to be absolutely stellar, such that I am not cooking cauliflower any other way again.

Meal planning is something I find pleasing, once I get over the initial organisational hump, and the decision paralysis of “well, what do I want to cook?” (usually with both a blank mind and a hundred cookery books within a few metres of me). The point at which the actual decisions have been made, and I am compiling a shopping list is a particular pleasure, as is the thoroughly stuffed fridge when we come back from the shopping trip. Cee notes that her sister-in-law dislikes a full fridge (“all that stuff to get rid of”), and I cannot help but wonder when the alien began its inhabitation; as far as I’m concerned, pleasure in the full storehouse is a basic human trait, and there’s probably a word in Sumerian for it.

As anyone who reads Gentle Decline knows, I often think about food supply chains. This is only more so in an era of lockdown, when certain products are not on the shelves. First there was the Great Toilet Paper Shortage, which seems to have started in Japan, spread to Australia, and then gone global via social media. Indeed, on the day that the closing of schools was announced in Ireland, there were fights in the aisles of Lidl over toilet paper, even as more was brought out from the warehouse-y bit at the back. There was never any shortage, per se, just the retail end wasn’t set up to replenish the shelves at quite the speed necessary - it’s normally a very predictable level of usage. And since toilet paper is bulky and takes a lot of warehouse and transport space in proportion to its shelf price, nobody normally gives it much priority, so it took a while to catch up.

Then flour vanished from the shelves worldwide. The issue here was the supply, sort of - there is plenty of flour in the world, but most of it is in big sacks which are supplied to bakeries. It’s not in the small retail-shelf bags, and again, nobody expected the whole world to decide to make bread all at once. So while the mills can repackage, it’s not a thing they can do instantly. We ordered a 16kg bag direct from a mill, which turns out to be great. Again, social media pictures of empty shelves made many people realise that if they wanted to make bread, now was the time, and they went out and bought anything that was left there. Supplies are now coming back in, although there was still on Monday evening a blank spot in our local Tesco where flour should be.

Next up was yeast - possibly it vanished at the same time as the flour, but news of it only came through later - which for a short while could not be got. Fresh yeast can’t be supplied in greater quantities quickly; it essentially needs to be grown, and that takes 90 days. Dried, on the other hand, is in warehouses all over the place, and sells from most supermarkets at the rate of two packs a day, on a busy day, so nobody was prepared to have it suddenly disappear. It’s now reappearing as well.

Some other things have not been in good supply, but they’re a little random. A lot more people are cooking at home now, rather than eating out for one or two meals a day, and much like me, they’re willing to go for more complex meals than they otherwise would. So cauliflower was nearly gone on Monday in Tesco, and I got the last bunch of scallions. Tesco’s vegetable supply seems borderline at best though, at least around here - at the time of the Big Snow of 2018, it took them nearly two weeks to fully replenish their stock. And it’s evident that some people are sitting around to watch TV more; the supply of Cool Original flavour Doritos disappeared for a while too (I know because I wanted Cool Original Doritos to chomp on while playing Wurm Online).

By and large, though, the actual supply chains are working fine. What may be running into some issues, unfortunately, is actual food production. Since most agricultural work - particularly picking - is done by immigrant labour, and often seasonal immigrant labour, the stay-at-home rules being imposed in many parts of the world are going to impact that. There will be some readjustment, as this does mean that there are jobs available, even if they’re manual labour, just as other people are out of work due to the virus. It’s debatable as to whether some of those people could do the work, and also whether they would do the work, since it’s literally field work, but there will be some degree of meeting in the middle. That means that food prices will go up, though, both on a basis of limited supply, and especially if people who previously worked in the service industry manage to wrangle higher wages than would have been paid to the immigrants. And of course, this needs to be resolved quickly, since sowing of fields needs to be happening right now.

Ireland produces enough food to feed its own people; it is among the most food-secure countries in the world (second after Singapore in 2019’s Global Food Security Index), so I’m not terribly concerned on the local level. Elsewhere in the world I’m not so sure about, but I’ll do some more research.

Looking forward in the shorter term, actual plans for Easter cookery here include some stuffed beef rolls (or adaptations thereof) from a recipe in Peter Brears’ Cooking and Dining in Medieval England, a potato recipe from Bsisu called batata ma icuzbaram, potatoes with cilantro (or coriander, as we’d know it, and I must remember to go and get the coriander, having reckoned that it would not survive from Monday’s shopping to Sunday’s cooking), beans yfryed, also technically from Brears, although it’s not exactly complex enough not to be from memory, and more of the roast cauliflower. Nom, cauliflower. This time we’re going to add some flaked almonds to it, because it seems like it’d go well. And I have no doubt there will be some other additions, depending on what’s not used up or discovered in the cupboard between now and then.

This first issue has been brought to you by decent coffee (delivered in person to the doorstep by Niall of Proper Order), three lazy cats draped across the bed, sufficient time to cook lengthy dishes, and a healthy degree of keeping away from other people. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.