I have suspected for some time that cooking and fascination for food may be genetic. This is based entirely on the fact that my mother is undoubtedly the best cook I have ever known. Her intuitive understanding of what goes together, an encyclopaedic knowledge of food writing and an infectious need to explore into the furthest realms of the best ingredients, are things I aspire to.
Bearing a liquescent and imperiously pungent Soumaintrain cheese and a bottle of Faugeres, the Belgian and I turned up at the weekend, to be greeted with lunch in the garden. Roasted asparagus with fried eggs and parmesan. Asparagus alla Milanese.
The genius is cooking the eggs in brown butter. It cements the whole in a kind of unexpected nuttiness that gives the eggs an oddly chocolatey taste. Followed by the cheese, with freshly picked leaves from the garden. Then a nap in a nook. Thus was June fully embraced; goldfinches chattering above.
For me, this is the alchemy of great cooking. Not zealous displays. From the simplest concoctions emerge the most compelling experiences. This is what makes cooks like my mother such rareties. The ability to recognise the inexorable entwining of delicateness and complexity with a commonsense aplomb.
She and I talk a lot. We met when I was twenty-eight, so for the last two decades we’ve been making up for lost time. And we talk a great deal about food. With the accompanying wine, incensory smells waft from whatever preparatory activity she is undertaking. For me it is always revelatory. And the conversation drifts enticingly too. This time it was in praise of sorrel.
I love sorrel. It’s wincing sourness crumples your nose like an old lady at a bus stop. I remember, crouching in the kitchen garden of my childhood, sucking the lemony stalks, one eye half closed.
It is an unsuspecting herb but handled with care it is a refreshingly sharp addition to salad, particularly in a clinch with rocket. And in a sauce it brings fish to life. As now is the season for wild sea trout it would be a good time to attempt something of the kind. But proceed with caution. Cooking it successfully has always rather eluded me. Something turns at the crucial moment. If you leave it in too long, all that verdant grassy tartness reduces to pond slime. The trick is to add it to the buttery, creamy reduction at the very last moment before it is served and hardly heat it at all.
Wild sorrel is around at the moment too. If you are lucky enough to walk at woody riversides, where wild garlic grows, you’ll find it hiding in the grass, like large clover. And for the multicultural city dweller, it’s a staple in most of the wonderful Turkish shops.
I mentioned sorrel soup, which I had once had in France with oysters and immediately my mother brilliantly referenced the best known recipe. It was from the Sunday Times columnist Margaret Costa. I duly noted it down from the scrawl on the back of a 1970s notebook. On returning home, armed with a bag of sorrel from the garden. I had a go. My own version. It’s one of the reasons I love cooking. Now and again, taking a leap into the unknown. I guess it must be in my genes.
Sweat an onion, add some stock and a peeled, diced potato. When soft, allow to cool. Strip the stalks from 2 large handfuls of sorrel and add it to the soup. Costa blends, I didn’t, preferring to keep the leaves. Serve with croutons and gruyere.
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