Logistically doing the July Challenge was a bit of a, well, challenge for me. Still living with two communally oriented housemates, less formally known as parents, cooking an entire meal for myself and not sharing it with them seemed a bit selfish and unreasonable to do while they were in the house. I took my chance on one night they were both out of the house until late but still I had mixed feelings about what I was planning to do. Was it selfish? Shouldn't I just cook extra for them? They'd be hungry when they got home...
But no. The point to this challenge is to lavish attention on yourself, to see what it's like to make all that effort and you be the only receiver of the end result. It may seem unreasonable, but it's worth doing at least once in your many years of life. It's worth the risk, even of having one selfish, stupid, unreasonable, wasted evening, to try it out. In the end it did slightly cheat, and I cooked not only for myself, but also 'Future Me' who would get a pre-made packed lunch. But essentially of course, that is also cooking for myself.
When I was talking with my Dad about this challenge - about how you had to cook food you'd also serve to other people - he suggested cooking a 3 course meal. Which of course I would for other people, so completely fell into the bracket, yet still felt a bit mad just for yourself. In the end I made a two course meal because with all my snacking along the way I didn't want a dessert, and I'm glad I did. The extra complication means you have to work a bit harder so there's never a dull moment, and it does feel more of a treat.
Once I got going, as with so many things, I was fine. I enjoyed it. It was challenging enough to keep my brain engaged so I was never bored, but also a good time to think, and I ended up with some great food.
I started, unusually for me, with a recipe book. While at work I was gently planning this meal, as you do when cooking for others, and kept dreaming of a Gazpacho I'd seen in this book but never tried. It turned out the be a 'Bloody Mary Soup' and we had tomatoes in, so that's what I made.
The main course is, in retrospect, much less planned than a dinner party meal. I dipped into my comfort zone with some roasted veg. We had lots of sweet potatoes in so that was the base and I branched out a bit by including celery. The pie I just wanted to do because it seems so extreme to make pastry from scratch at almost any moment, never mind what it's just for yourself. It was a statement I wanted to make. I MAKE PASTY FROM SCRATCH FOR MYSELF. That's how awesome I am.
The tomatoes needed to marinade so I did them once the vegetables were in the oven. Weigh, slice, add. Thanks so the well-stocked fridge, get out the spring onions, slice, add. Wonder whether to bother adding lemon zest, do it anyway, scrape, add. Remember to stir the veg in the oven, worry it will be ready before anything else, turn it down. Try to work out what 150ml is in tablespoons and conclude 'a good glug'. Don't even bother calculating for the balsamic, add. Decide it's not even worth getting the garlic crusher out for one clove of garlic, so do three instead. Snack, on what is turning into a lovely tomato salad. Add the Worcester sauce and weirdly some sugar. Try to find the tabasco, give up, and add powdered chilly instead. Snack some more. Remember to stir the veg again.
Done! Ready to marinade and move on to the pie.
Pastry, of course, means Delia. I remember my Mum sitting me down and making me read Delia Smith's intro to pasty, including pastry psychology 'you must be bold and self-assertive' before the first time I ever made pastry. My main practice has been making a big batch of pastry for communal mince pies every year so it was nice to just make it for a random evening and I even got a bit inventive and added some mixed spice to the mixture. Can't say I tasted it much in the final product, but it felt good dashing it in.
Pastry resting the the fridge, I could turn my attention to the filling and my snacking needs. This is, incase your wondering, the kind of sustainatarian I am. Essentially veg meals, but when Italian salami is on offer, I say yes.
I had an image in my head of really good looking open red paper pies, where the pepper was arranged in a kind of fan shape on top, but somehow in the end this happened. Rather more rustic...
Pies in the oven, and after seeing what google had to say on the subject of cooking times and temperatures (~30mins, Gas Mark 5) I could take a bit of a break. Continuing to snack on salami, I made an Augustura and tonic, sat down and relaxed. I actually did. I was nice.
The fist and only unpleasant shock of the evening was when I wizzed this soup. It kind of turned into a jelly weirdly enough and then separated out a bit into pulp and juice. Also, it was orange not luscious red like in the recipe book. I'm not sure why except I used Passata not tomato juice and I didn't add the Vodka so somehow it wasn't liquidly enough? Tasted great though. Really quite like liquidised spicy tomato salad, but none the worse for that.
And here it is! (Half) the products of my roughly 2 hours pootling away in the kitchen. It all doesn't look like much and for a dinner party I'd probably go with a big green salad instead to roast veg to get a bit of freshness in there. But hey, I enjoyed cooking it, and there wasn't even that much washing up. And the snacking was superb. Butter and flour mixture. YUM!
Because the challenge was only to cook without distractions, and clearly I'm addicted to being distracted, I decided to eat this meal while watching a film on my iPad. I chose 'Think Like a Man' which I actually found fantastic, and it's on Netflix. I watched about half of it at the dining table while eating and the rest in bed with a cup of coffee and a Bendicks Bittermint. Fantastic evening. Looking forward to the next one.
My key insight is this: cooking is a process and an activity. It's hard to explain but after this experience I feel it's more a space you can occupy, you can step into. Planning is important because you're much more likely to do it if you decide ahead, and it gives you a goal. Once you have a goal, a meal plan, you just need to give yourself the time to do it and let the process unravel. There's much less stress than an actually dinner party, you can take your time and like mine, it doesn't have to long fantastic (although of course it can!).
In a way it's a completely different way of preparing food. We're mainly focused on other stuff and food is the fuel needed to keep us going. Normally, time really matters because we want to get back to doing whatever we were doing. But you can also make cooking your main activity, and then there isn't that time pressure. Just like when watching TV or reading or going for a walk, we may vaguely aim to stop at a particular hour, or only do it for so long, but it's normally okay if that slips a bit, it's flexible. The same can happen with cooking. It's is a lovely pastime but an entirely different beast from preparing food for fuel.
Do you cook food as a pastime? Do you know what I mean? What is your experience of it? How did you get into it? Comment below or send a longer article to email@example.com.