Sybil Kapoor is an award-winning food writer and broadcaster, author of eight cookbooks, and regularly writes for the Borough’s website and Market Life magazine. She has also contributed to the forthcoming Borough Market cookbook—in the run up to its official publication in October, each month Sybil will take a look at what’s in season, and explore how cooking can be enhanced through colour, forms, textures and aromas
People rarely talk about the creative process of cooking, but we all carry an idea of what it is we want to make and how it should taste before we even enter our kitchens.
Even the simplest culinary task, such as making toast, begins with the thought of eating the final product. In my mind, my toast will be thickly sliced white bread, toasted until it is a deep golden brown then spread with unsalted butter that melts into its centre.
The same is true of cooking anything. Everyone imagines the sensation of eating the finished dish before embarking on the preparation. It’s like painting a picture: you start by envisaging the final work before you put brush to canvas, but it may change and evolve as you paint.
Chewy pistachio meringue
Initially, cooks have to focus on culinary techniques and the quality of their ingredients. It's pointless imagining eating a chewy pistachio meringue if you don’t know how to bake the meringue in the first place. Similarly, a dish can be ruined by a poor ingredient, regardless of whether it is a woolly water-logged strawberry or a bland, blended industrially produced honey.
However, once the structure of cooking is understood, the desire to develop recipes further begins. For me, this leads directly to a need to express the world around me in my food. I want to capture the very essence of the moment.
Is it possible to translate the scent of country lanes at this time of year into my recipes? How can I capture the luminosity of the late evening light in June or the strange amplification of city sounds on a hot day in my cooking?
First, I must look to what is in season. The leafy green notes of spinach, watercress and cucumber conjure up dew-laden grass, while the hot dry earth of allotments can be detected in radishes, green garlic and broad beans.
Duck and chicken, once traditional summer foods, still hint at rural smallholdings, while the scent of elderflowers, borage and roses evoke cottage gardens, as do gooseberries and strawberries. And who cannot taste the sea when eating crab, sea bass or mackerel?
It is easy to construct a meal that evokes a rural feeling by using ingredients that are associated with that world. Perhaps a pretty starter of roasted young carrots served with herb-flecked yoghurt, followed by tarragon and lemon roast chicken with tarragon mayonnaise, potato crisps and peppery green salad with radishes. And who will not dream of cottage gardens as they dip into a gooseberry elderflower fool?
Brilliant darker shades
Look to the colours in your food and match them with the month. For me, June slips from soft pinks, greens and creams into the brilliant darker shades of cherry red, spinach green and apricot. Add drama with dark-toned plates and coolness with glass and metal.
Serve dishes that are warm, tepid or chilled rather than hot and try to balance your textures, so that the eater is constantly stimulated, such as from crunchy vegetable to unctuous pudding.
It is harder to capture a sense of the city in cooking. Take time to walk around and analyse everything you sense from the exotic smells to the sound of a busy street before sitting down to create a menu.
Noise and excitement
In a bid to capture the noise and excitement of London I might start with crab tostadas, topping crisp corn tortillas with white crab meat seasoned with lime, chilli, coriander and red pepper and finished with a slice or two of avocado.
Or to express the radiating heat of urban pavements, I might serve the lightest, creamiest green garlic soup made with a chicken stock velouté. The former dish might be followed by a crisp-skinned roast duck and morello cherries with minted spinach or peas; the latter by mackerel teriyaki, rice and pickled cucumber.
As for the pudding, I would try to convey the cool, fragrant and transitory nature of early morning in London in a strawberry and elderflower granita, or chamomile and cherry jelly.