Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Spice-Rack
I hardly ever buy the Sunday Papers. This is because the colour supplements terrify me. They have articles telling me things like which narcissus bulbs I should be planting this month to ensure my garden stays on-trend next spring, or how to choose the right tutor for my children over the summer break, or which Greek islands are worth adding to my six-week summer tour given the current Euro-zone crisis. Even the advice columns (“I’m going to my friend’s wedding at Claridges in June and I can’t decide which designer I should be wearing. I’m bored with Armani, but Stella McCartney is so girly this season and I wore Marc Jacobs to her hen weekend in Bath six weeks ago. I’m five foot nine and a size eight and my budget is £2500”) scare the shit out of me.
But, in the same way I occasionally stay up till 2am on a Monday night drinking gin and drawing moustaches on my friends when they pass out on the sofa, every now and then I give in to the siren call of the Sunday paper. And I torture myself with the supplements. And to try and prove I could be a Sunday-Supplement yummy-mummy if I wanted to, but I just don’t want to, I choose and then cook one of the inexplicably faffy recipes from the Food section.
I don’t know why I do this to myself. It always requires me to go off and buy a whole lot of odd new ingredients, which I inevitably don’t know where to find, and which always ends with me going to at least three different supermarkets and sobbing in frustration in front of the herbs and spices. This time, it was fennel seeds, two different kinds of mustard, and…something else that I can’t even remember. Calves livers in aspic, possibly. Peacock brains. Unicorn spit. I also remember a stern injunction about the sausages that went something like “while you may want to invest in some speciality recipes, this will also work perfectly well with a good butcher’s sausage”. (I simply love the inherent judginess implied by “a good butcher’s sausage”. I’m guessing Walls are off the table, then.)
But the part that really tipped me over the edge was the Two Kinds Of Mustard. You had to add your Two Kinds Of Mustard in two stages. Stage One was just as you started to simmer everything. And Stage Two was near the end. Not right at the end, but near the end…only not too near. Because the final line of the recipe read: “…bearing in mind that mustard will lose its interest if it is cooked for too long.”
This one line epitomises everything I dislike about Sunday Supplements. It’s enigmatic, but terrifying. It makes me feel patronised, but it also makes me feel like I deserve it. If you deviate from these instructions, your dinner will become unspeakably dull. But we will not give you enough information to accurately interpret what we mean. If you don’t know already, you don’t deserve to know. We are going to our villa on a Greek island now. Goodbye.
I made this recipe a lot of times, following the instructions to the letter and agonising over each step. But I never really enjoyed it. I was always miserably convinced I’d cooked it for too long and made it boring, or added the wrong quantity of fennel, or got the mustard ratio wrong, or forgotten to add the unicorn spit. And then a couple of months ago, I had a revelation.
Hang on, I thought. Sausages are peasant food.
Sausages are glorious. They’re the unexpectedly delicious consequence of using up all the nasty bits of the pig you’d rather not think about. They are the poster-children for the kind of achievably good cooking we can all do, because if we couldn’t we would have been extinct by now. Peasant cooking isn’t about hunting down exquisite pinches of the rarest ingredients. It’s about brilliantly improvising with what you happen to have available.
So I threw away the Unicorn Spit recipe, and I improvised. And it was delicious. Then I did it again, a bit differently. That was also delicious. And again. See above. Also, I was happy while doing it, because making it up as you go along is fun. This isn’t a recipe, it’s more of a guideline. Feel free to ignore it entirely. The only thing I forbid you to do is to burst into tears in the Herbs and Spices fixture in Sainsbury’s because you can’t find the fennel seeds.
Six sausages, any variety as long as you know you like ’em
One big onion. I tried it with a red onion once and it was lovely, but any onion is fine
A tin of tomatoes. Alternatively, some actual tomatoes, chopped up
A tin of butterbeans, kidney beans, chick-peas, black-eyed peas, baked beans…whatever you happen to find lurking in the back of the cupboard. If you have some tinned potatoes (oh come on, we’ve all done it), they’re good too
A splash of oil for frying
A splash of whatever alcohol you happen to have open (optional)
Some garlic (optional. Although if you don’t like garlic then I’m afraid we can no longer be friends)
Some herbs (a selection)
Some spices (optional)
Anything else you like the look of (optional)
A nice big casserole or saucepan
1. Chop your onion. I like to leave the pieces quite big and chunky, but just go for whatever shape and size you’re happy with.
2. Soften the onion (and garlic if you want it) in the casserole. The original recipe had dire warnings about getting it soft but not brown. Hell with that. Soften, brown, whatever. Just don’t burn it. Unless you like burned onions. In which case, knock yourself out.
3. As an optional step, you might want to get a frying-pan and slightly brown your sausages. This is really only an aesthetic decision. The sausages will cook perfectly in the casserole and will taste delicious – they just won’t actually turn brown. If brown sausages are important to you, now’s the time to achieve this. If you’re cool with your sausages looking all pale and emo, save yourself some washing up and give this step a miss.
4. Add your sausages to the casserole.
5. Pour over the tomatoes.
6. Add in your tin of beans / peas / potatoes.
7. Add in a nice slosh from whichever wine, beer or cider you happen to have open. If you don’t have one, go and open a bottle of beer, wine or cider. Now you have a bottle open, add in a nice slosh from whichever wine, beer or cider you happen to have open.
8. Go through your herb and spice rack and pick out some things you think might be nice. This is a surprisingly wide category. My favourite is rosemary, bay leaves and maybe a bit of chilli powder, but I’ve also used marjoram, mixed herbs, thyme, basil and ginger. Add them in small quantities, though. You can always add more, but once it’s in, you’re stuck with it.
9. Add some salt and pepper (or not. But all recipes seem to include this, so I thought mine ought to as well) plus a slosh of water for luck.
10. Pop a lid on and leave it to simmer for a bit. It will take about fifteen to twenty minutes for the sausages to cook through. After that, it’s done when you say it’s done.
You might like to serve this with crusty bread and a green salad. Or you might not. Maybe you are the kind of person who always has salad and crusty bread available, and maybe you’re not. Maybe you remembered to throw some in the trolley while you were buying sausages this afternoon. Or maybe you got those sausages out of the freezer because you’ve been glued to your keyboard all day and only just realised you were starving to death. It’s all good.
If you’ve got a great new riff on this improvised recipe, why not share it in the comments?