Raising one’s kitchen game – turns out the key is what you’re Wareing

I’ve always enjoyed cooking – it’s how I was able to negotiate my first tentative movement out of Mum & Dad’s house, through lodging at my cousin’s place in her spare room in exchange for being her live-in chef (primarily on the strength of the mashed potatoes I made during the “interview”). Exotic stirfries on hikes were my stock-in-trade for a while, which evolved into becoming the leaders’ cook on scout camps (T-Bones, chicken parmi’s, and soforth) – and then I moved to London and either couldn’t afford to eat anything, or lived in flats with no kitchen to speak of for about the next 10 years.

Bristol saw me reacquainted with the practice, although initially the necessity of budget gave a certain restraint, and then the dearth of available time meant pragmatically opting for services like HelloFresh – which deliver good variety, but aren’t going to *really* change anyones lives. Sure I’d dabbled with the odd thing here/there (like the most amazing flavoursome roast chicken ever), but primarily all the quality cuisine was left to my amazing wife, my culinarily impressive brother-in-law, and the Great Patron of the Complicated Meal: Adrian.

But then 2 things happened.

  1. Corona lockdown
  2. Being introduced by the McJingleses to Marcus Wareing, through the glorious tome – Marcus Everyday

The former being interesting because it changed the nature of “available time”, even with both of us being lucky enough to still be working full-time. And it also changed the nature of “available funds”, what with socialising, entertainment and holidays being completely changed in scope. Access & availability of food meant at one point having to plan 14 days of meals in advance in order to get everything on the one shopping delivery slot you were able to secure (though we’re back to a more manageable weekly slot now).

And the latter was like being shown a whole new world behind the curtain.

At this point one can’t talk Lockdown and Cooking without a nod to the other lockdown cooking superstar, comedian-cum-cooking instructor “Nat’s What I Reckon“, which his fairly blunt and down-to-earth yet utterly wonderful instructional videos designed to awaken people to the joy and ease of cooking, in a sort of quest to rid the world of the scourge of “packet food” and pre-made jar sauce. Sublime.

Marcus Wareing is a Michelin-starred chef who specialises in fancy-arsed cuisine at his central London restaurants to massive acclaim, and it transpires he ALSO puts out awesome books of wonderful recipes to make at home, and it’s difficult to pinpoint why they’re so wonderful – but I’d say that it’s the combination of texture and flavour, leaning towards healthy & balanced dishes, with mostly non-fussy steps. Marcus Everyday covers a real gamut from simple meals for one, through to the civilised & impressive “Entertaining” recipes (such as the Confit Duck Ravioli with Cucumber + Peanut, Sesame & Chilli Dressing, which took me 3 days to make).

Maximum-fuss ravioli

Almost everything we’ve made from this book has been an absolute joy to eat, and it bats well above its average in dishes where we find ourselves sitting there looking at each other and mouthing the words “Game changer”. In the Weekday Suppers chapter alone it drops such gems as the Roasted Cauliflower & Walnut Tagliatelle, Green Chilli Salsa Cod with Roast Potato & Almond Salad, the amazing Thai Chicken Salad (which we’ve made 3 times now), the decadent Hasselback Potatoes with Red Wine & Pork Ragu, Baked Haddock with Lentils, Basil & Marscapone, and the utterly breathtaking Pancetta & Mushroom Pasta Bake. I still can’t believe I’ve been so affected by a pasta bake. But, it’s out there.

This was a main course made entirely of carrots

We’ve had a lot of time on our hands. So, I bought some more of Marcus’s books.

Now we also have Marcus At Home, New Classics, One Perfect Ingredient: three ways to cook it, and, very recently, his first book – How to Cook the Perfect…

Fresh herbs are very much a central fixture in many of these recipes, and we’ve been going through an uncharacteristically high number of these – once our kitchen extension’s done I think the next project will be establishing a slug-resistant herb patch. Toasted nuts are also a frequently-used element, to delicious effect – be it all sorts of nut-butters to complement various veg, to just toasted & chopped like in the simple and sublime salad of cubed cucumber, finely sliced gherkin, simple wholegrain/cider vinaigrette and toasted chopped cashews.

The dish I think of as the delicious pumpkin one, despite the massive slab of tasty salmon taking up half the plate

I can work this out now, because of the way we plan meals – in the last 15 weeks there’s been around 25 meals we’ve made from a cookbook other than Marcus, so our last 80 meals have all been from these books!

A brief list of my favourites to-date:

  • Roast & Pickled Cauliflower salad & almond & chive – (Everyday Marcus p18)
    Total GAME CHANGER for me, because it’s literally a main course made of cauliflower. I never would have thought it plausible, let alone to be blown away by the flavours.
  • May Day Spring Salad – (Everyday Marcus p210)
    An asparagus, fennel, pea, pea shoot and strawberry salad sat on a smear of whipped goats’ cheese. Light, flavoursome, sublime.
  • Thai Green Chicken Curry – (One Perfect Ingredient p109)
    Though this book’s produced fewer bankers, I feel this one recipe is good enough to justify the whole book’s presence in our shelf. Green curry from scratch. Leftovers is not a concept.
  • Barnsley Chop & Roasted Fennel – (Everyday Marcus p128)
    This recipe in the book also calls for an olive tapenade, but fuck olives – it introduced me to the idea of brining meat, and WHAT a result! So basically, a dish with 6 ingredients.
  • Chorizo Chicken + polenta chips – (Marcus At Home p34)
    Baked chicken supreme (skin-on breast) where the pocket is stuffed with a chorizo/onion/herb mixture. Nothing like what I expected, but utterly wonderful.
  • Curry spiced salmon with seeded pumpkin salad – (Marcus At Home p58)
    I started including fish dishes in the rotation as a nod to healthy eating, but Marcus has shown me the error of my ways and that fish can be a thing of absolute beauty: to the point where our plans now always include at least one fish meal a week.
  • Summer Vegetable Lasagne – (New Classics p60)
    We’ve tried a few vegetable lasagne recipes over the years, but this one cements its place as awesome due to its mix of flavour and texture. It did, however, mean using every frigging bowl and pot we own. As is the correct way when men make lasagna, I’m told.
  • Pancetta & Mushroom Pasta Bake – (Everyday Marcus p80)
    As a notorious non-giver-of-any-shits about mushrooms it’s curious I’d be so drawn to a dish which calls for essentially a sauce that’s sauteed mushrooms in a mushroom sauce, however it’s changed my life and I can’t stop thinking about it.
  • Super Green Soup + Ricotta Dumplings – (New Classics p20)
    A delicious and light soup with tenderstem broccoli, peas, and a healthy lean on the magic of tarragon. Haven’t nailed the lemony ricotta dumplings yet, but always keen to go back and try it again.
  • Thai Vegetable Curry – (New Classics p53)
    As well as including fish in the meal rotation, initially I was making a token nod to vegetarian food as well – because there’s only so much hedonism one can cope with in a week. And yet again, this dish has me counting the days til I can sneak it back in for another menu rotation.
  • Rare Roast Beef Salad + Asparagus & Yuzu – (Marcus At Home p201)
    No sneaking required on this one – beef roasted so rare it’s practically carpaccio, which is sliced as thin as can be and then dressed with an umami-led dressing, and the tangy salad. The recipe just says “750g sirloin”, so the first time around I bought a sirloin roast – however further reading of the recipe suggests it’s asking for a steak. But, the rolled roast works amazingly provided you’ve got good temperature control.
  • Prawn, Tomato & Chilli Linguine – (Everyday Marcus p122)
    One of the simplest meals in the whole collection – but when teamed up with some nice big prawns (again, formerly an item I gave zero fucks about) this crosses over into a sort of healthy decadence which makes you wonder why you’ve bothered going out for dinner all this time.
Rare roast beef… Mmmm….

So probably the primary challenge we’re wondering about is – when normal life resumes and we’re all allowed out again – how we’re going to find ourselves when we go out to pubs & restaurants. Is it going to be enjoyable? Meals at home now have become pretty damn special…