Thursday, 15 October 2009

All you need is love

Of all the cliches, adages and tautologies on Masterchef, the word that turns my stomach again and again is 'passion'. Everything is about 'passion', it seems - passion for cooking, passion for food, passion for ingredients, passion for experimentation etc etc. It's terribly perfunctory. It has become a punctuation mark, a sentence filler for when the judges can't think of anything more insightful to say about a contestant. As Tony Naylor writes on the Guardian Word of Mouth blog, Masterchef has stripped the word of any meaning through 'flagrant overuse'.It is also, more often than not, a euphemism. The cooking equivalent to the schoolmaster's "Ramsden tries hard" (i.e. Ramsden is thick as mud soup but I've got to wrestle some positive out of this car crash of a term).

For me it is not only overused, misused and abused, but it is a notion that is revered far beyond the measure it should be. This passion for food - what does it really mean? Passion is an ephemeral emotion, an intense, uncontrollable reflex. Passion doesn't sustain. It is the lusty throe of ecstasy, the impulsive stab of desire. Passion glints fleetingly in the glossy covers of food porn, or explodes magnificently in the climax of a meal. Passion does not last, and food cooked with passion and passion alone will most likely be inconsistent. There will be flashes of brilliance, sure, but in those moments when the spark is gone, what is left to support the cook?

For without love, there is nothing. Love and everything that comes with it - care, attention, nurture, devotion, and - yes - passion. Take Monday night. I had been working all day (a rarity), and returned late and hungry. Sunday's chicken had been made into stock, while any leftover meat had been stripped from the carcass and awaited my greedy advances. Against my better judgement (and due to a fairly empty fridge) I landed on making a risotto. I have never been convinced that chicken risotto works. I just don't feel that chicken's texture works well amidst the starchy grains, despite it being a leftovers staple. I'd rather prod it into a sandwich with a generous spoonful of mayonnaise, or, even better, toss it through crisp salad leaves with croutons and a piquant dressing.

But fate seemed to have decreed otherwise - the rice winked at me from the front of the cupboard, the stock was there, waiting, on the hob, the chicken already diced. There was even a bag of peas in the freezer to add bite and freshness. But because I was not convinced by the risotto's validity, I cooked it half-heartedly, one eye on the pot, one eye on the television. The result was a perfectly edible risotto, but one that did not come even close to inspiring any kind of passion in me whatsoever. The cooking had lacked care, and it tasted like it.

Two night's later I return in similar circumstances. This time there are two of us, and this time I have thought carefully about what I want to eat. I cook with all due care, attention, and love. The soup, while simplicity defined, is soothing and delicious. It is also quick and cheap.

Chilli beef noodle soup

Serves 2

4 spring onions, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and chopped into matchsticks
2 birds eye chillies, sliced
A handful of coriander, roughly chopped
300ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Half a Chinese cabbage, sliced
100g oyster mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 rump steak
A handful of rice noodles
1 red chilli, halved, deseeded and sliced
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a saucepan and add the spring onions, garlic, ginger and chillies. Stir constantly for 30 seconds, then add the coriander (reserving a little for the end), chicken stock and fish sauce. Bring to the boil, then add the mushrooms and cabbage. Turn the heat right down and simmer while you prepare the rest of the soup.

Boil the kettle and pour the water over the rice noodles in a bowl. Leave to soak for five minutes.

Meanwhile, season the steak with salt and pepper and rub with olive oil. Get a frying pan very hot (so that holding your hand 6 inches above it is unbearable for more than a second or two) and fry the steak for two minutes on each side. Remove to a plate to rest.

Drain the noodles and divide between serving bowls. Spoon over the soup making sure you get plenty of cabbage and mushrooms. Slice the steak thickly and arrange over the bowls. Garnish with slices of red chilli and a handful of coriander.


  1. They say anyone can cook but it takes a passion to cook well and I'd agree with that. To produce excellent food you have to love what you do.

    I'd also have to say that dining in company is better than eating alone :)

  2. Oh and I forgot to say that duck dish looks fabulous :)

  3. Definitely agree.

    I may sauté with the style of a Michelin starred celebrity, or bake with the ingredients of angels, but if I have not love, I am but a clanging saucepan lid or an empty wineglass.

    Cooking for just me I really struggle to come up with anything more imaginative than a leftovers re-heat or (batchelor food confession time) a Fray Bentos steak and kidney (simultaneously gross and gorgeous) in its tin.

    But cooking for my better half is another story.
    I rustled up dinner for the two of us on Monday evening - and although it was improvised with just the available goodies from fridge and garden - it was a delicious colourful plateful of warming comfort.

    The curious coincidence (which seems to prove your point perfectly) it was a risotto, made using Sunday's leftover roast chicken. And to my delight - she loved it.

  4. Another super post that leaves me feeling hungry (and rifling through my cupboards for fish sauce) but it also leaves me curious to know who this second person was that supped up all that larder lout love? Is there love in the air as well as in the soup? Do tell. Nougs : )

  5. Written like a true romantic James. You are so right of course, the times when I have baked without gusto or luuurve the result has always been a bit meh :(

    The beef noodle looks so moreish, will have to make that as these cooler nights draw in

  6. Enjoyed your raw vegan posts immensely. Though I'm not into eating hunks of meat, I think it's very cool that you gave another way of life a try... I'm all for eating vegan, but it's a brave soul who will go raw.

  7. by the way, The Secret History is one of my favorite books! nice one!

  8. My lips are ever sealed Nougat. They call me Jimmy the Enigma.

  9. I agree as well, though it's tempting to over-romanticise this sort of thing. Unrestrained 'passion' in the kitchen can be just as bad as a total absence of it. But definitely, passion is very handy for cooking brilliant food.

  10. Is that so, Mr Larder Lout. They call me Poirot.

  11. I agree. When I have leftovers that I don't really want but feel duty-bound to eat, the end result is never very satisfying.

    A tip, especially for beef noodles - if you chuck a star anise into the simmering stock it adds a really nice dimension to it.

  12. YES! Passion is just a subset of Love...Love is so much more...

    BTW I adore chicken risotto made with overnight chicken stock and leftover meat from the roast. One of my very favourite things... :)