Ed Smith on making the most of the limbo between Christmas and New Year by taking on a cooking project
There are very few moments in a year when you can truly stop, switch off from daily tasks and current affairs and cook. You know, take a day or two to just potter in, out and around the kitchen, without thinking (or worrying) that there’s something else you should be doing, or that someone’s waiting on you for a response.
In fact, that time between Christmas and New Year is probably the only time that enough people lose count of what day of the week it is. Certainly, it’s the only time that most other people are on holiday too (and those who’ve gone to work are not about to start chasing old leads or generating new tasks for themselves). Assuming you’re lucky enough to not have to travel around the country catching up with relatives, these feel like bonus days, a free hit, and provide an opportunity and the time to take on a project.
And so, during this year’s twixt Christmas and New Year period, I encourage you to do just that. Set a day aside to do very little, other than cook something new—by which I mean crack on with something that takes time and involves multiple stages. Make use of some speciality produce you bought over the last 12 months but haven’t really touched. Turn your hand to that gadget that’s been sitting mostly unused at the back of a cupboard for the best part of a decade.
Dig a hole, build a fire
There are some really serious cooking projects out there: build your own smoker; learn about and start fermenting; dig a hole, build a fire, then cook up a feast in the warm embers. Those are all admirable, but I was thinking about something a little calmer and kitchen-based, like suet pastry topped pies and puddings, sweet pastry tarts, long braises and ragus, and fresh pasta, of course.
Perhaps it’s a strange thing to suggest in something that will be published on the internet, but I would encourage you to start the process by sitting down with a handful of cookbooks, rather than entering ‘suet pastry topped pie recipe’ into Google. It feels oddly luxurious to take 30 minutes or more to flick through a few trusted tomes for inspiration and instruction, rather than tap away at a keyboard, but I really think the process adds another level of reward and satisfaction.
Is this striking a chord? There are some other things I suggest building into your day. Ensure you’ve good coffee, tea or other infusions to hand for the time you spend immersed in the cookbooks (the Market’s an excellent place to source those things…), plus some good wine to sup as the project’s coming to an end (again, the Market’s a one-stop-shop). Put on an apron; you’ll feel like a craftsperson. And download a podcast or four to play while your hands are covered in flour, peeling vegetables, or picking tender flesh from the braising pot. I enjoyed listening to Rachel Roddy talk to Sheila Dillon about chestnuts on The Food Programme while embarking on my trial project day, and if you’re into food, or people talking about their lives in food, then the podcasts of Honey & Co and Dessert Island Dishes feature gentle foodie conversations to eavesdrop.
Christmas wish list
The project should be personal to you. What is it that you can’t normally set aside the time to make? If it’s a sweet or savoury tart involving homemade pastry, a suet pie or pudding, might I be so brazen to suggest that one of the books you look through is The Borough Market Cookbook, published just a few months ago and hopefully on your Christmas wish list? Things like the rhubarb, ginger and orange free-form tart; swede and stilton pie; pheasant, leek and chestnut pie; and beef cheek and lamb heart suet puddings tick many of the project cooking boxes.
I’ve made those dishes often enough, though (not least during the testing and writing phase of the cookbook). Fresh pasta, on the other hand, always escapes me. The good intention is often there, yet the pasta machine remains remarkably clean. Silly, really, because while pasta making is deliberate, methodical and pleasingly tactile, it’s not actually a particularly time-consuming process. It does involve some decision-making, though (which shape shall I make?), and once decisions are reached, is multi-staged and often requires a gentle ragu to be made in tandem.
I had a practice run while writing this piece (so as to ensure my head was in the right place, you know?) and while it wasn’t a day without interruption or life grind, I revelled in the time I took to sit down with Anna Del Conte on Pasta, Rachel Roddy’s Five Quarters, Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta and Tim Siadatan’s Trullo. From those reads I decided to go with Kenedy’s three yolks, one egg, 200g tipo 00 flour enriched pasta dough, and roll out lengths and lengths of pappardelle (plus a few trial farfalle bows). Alongside I braised a large turkey leg until it fell apart like slow-cooked lamb shoulder, and picked that into a celery, vermouth, thyme, orange zest and chestnut-fuelled ragu (though not normally keen on white poultry pasta sauces, this was gamey as well as seasonal).
The result? Immensely tasty, immeasurably satisfying and thoroughly rewarding. In two weeks’ time I’ll don apron, put on some podcasts, pop open a bottle of wine, and do it all again.