Memories, in a pot.

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Everyone has that dish, that thing that someone used to make for them – whether it was mom or granny or whoever. And however good it actually was, there’s always a fair amount of rhapsodizing that goes on about how no-one’s ever going to make it the same, and it just brings back the memories of whatever-the-fuck.

The funny thing is that I’ve recently started finding out that it’s not only the eaters whose memories get tickled by specific bits of cooking. It’s the cookers as well.

It would be impossible for me to not think of the circumstances around which I first made a specific thing and for the memories of those circumstances to be brought up the next time I make it. It happens with everything; songs, smells, sounds, pictures, tv shows we remember, movies, books – whatever. And for me I’m quickly beginning to realize that cooking is perhaps one of the most powerful of them all.

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I had a couple of people around for Sunday lunch recently, and the things I chose to make were all to remind me of something specific, things I wanted to remember, and cooked to do so.

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Those memories are just for me, but if I’ve got a unusually stupid look on my face (more than normal I mean) when you’re eating something I’ve made, then maybe just don’t make any loud noises around me for a little bit. And if I’m trying something new, then best you pull out all the stops, because a new memory is busy being made.

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Champagne Risotto (for 4 as a main meal, 6 as a light starter)

This is dead easy, and the simplicity of the flavors makes it a wonderfully clean autumn dish. I love how risotto doesn’t actually need a lot done to it to be an excellent and satisfying experience.

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1 cup of arborio rice
2 cups of champagne/method cap classic/sparkling wine (semi-sweet)
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 handful grated Parmesan
1 handful gated mozzarella
1 generous handful of asparagus tips
About a liter of water, on standby
Juice of half a lemon
Salt
Pepper
a splash of olive oil

What to do

In a large pan, heat the olive oil, then add the chopped onion and garlic. Stir over the heat until softened and fragrant, then add the rice to the pan. Carry on stirring so that the rice is coated in the juices of the onion and olive oil, then add a cup of the champagne. Riding the heat, stir the rice until the champagne has been absorbed.

Now the trick is to just add water, one cup at a time – stirring all the while – so that whenever the rice looks like its getting dry it gets more water to absorb.

After about twenty minutes of stirring and adding water, you should have a pan of plump, juicy rice with a thickish sauce. At this point, give it a taste, and add salt and pepper accordingly. I like using slightly sweeter champagne for this recipe, which means having to season quite generously to balance it out, so just make sure you taste it and work accordingly.

In a separate pan, heat another splash of olive oil, add the asparagus tips, season them salt and pepper and squeeze over the lemon juice. Let them roll around in the heat for about five minutes.

As a final step for the risotto, add the second cup of champagne, the cheese and stir until all absorbed until nice and cheesy and thick but not pasty. Check the seasoning again, and adjust if necessary. Top it with the asparagus, and serve straight from the pan.

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thanks to the always Instagram-ready Candice-Reney for these

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my cat is not mad, I promise

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Life at the Feeding Trough

I can’t queue for food. I just won’t do it.

Which is a problem, because it means that at any party where there are two or more people even near the potato salad, it means that I have to go somewhere and wait until they decide to drift off and stand somewhere else. This never happens. People will insist on hovering near the fucking food table and talking about whatever juice-cleanse they’re about to do, of course with a mouth full of mini chicken sosatie, which means getting to the chicken sosaties yourself becomes like some ridiculous game of Deathmatch Twister, where the loser is forced to starve and die in the corner.

Which is why at these parties my plate usually only ever has an olive on it and the funny zig zaggy carrot thing that was actually meant to be a decoration.

It’s not that I’m a snob, or don’t want to be touched, or find the idea beneath me – the answer is much simpler: boarding school.

Like a couple of other things in my life (churches with ghosts in them, but that’s another story), boarding school is to blame for the fact that I find being smooshed together with a bunch of other people so that we can collectively pick things off the same plate, about as appealing as licking flies. And by flies, I mean the zipper in the crotch of a stranger’s pants.

Standing in a sweaty queue with hundreds of other kids every day for 10 years with a greasy, warm tray that smelled of armpit, to be given a plate with something grey on it, has cured me of any remote desire to ever do that again in my life. Which means a lunchtime that looks like this, is literally my worst nightmare:

Milling and uncertain, little did they know that they were about to become Cornish Pasties.

This is tricky, because that’s what I spent all of last week doing. Three times a day.

Conferences are inescapably weird. Mostly because you spend the entire time in a big lecture hall watching people saying things at you for a couple of hours, after which you file into another hall to feed, then back into the auditorium for more people with European accents to say things like ‘modular’, ‘user-generated content’ and ‘flat-pack’. As an aside, it’s a staggering insight into how battery animals are fattened up and turned into wieners or whatever.

Sit, feed, sit, coffee, sit, donut, sit, marshmellows-on-a-stick, sit, French guy.

And the funny thing is that it’s got very little to do with the food, which at this year’s Design Indaba (which is where I was) was actually very good. It’s more that the primordial oddness of humanity’s baked-in competitive spirit, and also that thing we have where we don’t want it if everyone else also has one – don’t really mix when you’ve got 2000 people all figuring out if they want a slice of quiche or that other thing.

It basically means that no matter how well-planned something like this might be, it’s always a mad scramble where most of the time people end up with giant plates of things they a) didn’t really want but just didn’t want to the next guy to have, and b) things that make them look like they avoided falling into the bourgeois trap of just loading up with bacon sandwiches.

So herewith the All You Can Eat For Free conference eating rules:

1)    If you think it could be chicken, but you’re not quite sure – it means it’s almost always fish and will be a nasty surprise in about 30 second’s time when you put it in your mouth.

2)   The tools with which you will be supplied to get the thing off the serving plate and onto your plate, will never actually work and will usually be supremely inappropriate for whatever it is that you’re meant to be serving. There is no feeling worse than being watched by an impatient line of strangers as you try and separate, then lift an appropriate amount of nachos onto your plate, using a small fork, and not your fingers (because apparently people are soooo judgy about that sort of thing). Because unless you’re the first to have done it and the cheese is still all melty and stuff, then inevitably all you’re going to get is a giant cold cheese slab that you couldn’t break off properly without touching it, and then whatever miserable soggy nachos were clinging on at the bottom. This will not be delicious and will only fill you with awful self-loathing later on.

3)   Always consider whatever food you choose through the filter of, ‘Can I eat this on the floor?’ Anything that actually has to be cut into pieces before eating will inevitably end in an accidental stabbing, so avoid and move on.

Trixie put on a brave face, but her silent scream was deafening.

4)   Controversial, but always avoid the delicious-looking saucy chicken wings. These can inevitably only be eaten with your fingers (see rule 3), and will always make your fingers smell of whatever insane BBQ-sauce they’ve been doused with – which in twenty minute’s time is going to make life tricksy when the hot girl you’ve been furiously ignoring sits next to you, and it will now seem like you literally sluiced smoked chicken all over yourself just before you came in and sat down. Repeat after me, BBQ-sauce is not a gateway drug to hot conference sex.

5)     He who waits, wins. I know this runs counter to our Great Depression era-of-austerity trained lizard-brains, but these shindigs are usually always very well catered. And (this is the important bit) there is always a second round, where more of everything is dutifully trundled out. So, take a breath, and when everyone else is biting and scratching and running to be the first person to get to the falafels, just wait. Get a coffee. Make a phonecall. Retain your dignity. And then when the death-match has subsided and the second wave is brought out, saunter over and pick over at your leisure. Be the person everyone else wishes they were.

As a final note, the cure to all to all of this, always looks like this, which is the first thing I did when I got home:

Hardened arteries. Come to me.

What To Do

Throw everything you like to eat for breakfast into a hot pan. Fry. Serve. Remember life before queues.