Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking
A couple of years ago my wife and I were living on a small island in the Caribbean where there was a transient population of expats. A few days before Christmas we met an American couple who had just arrived, didn’t know anyone and were living in a holiday apartment. We already had a few people coming for Christmas lunch but there was a nice big turkey in the freezer, so we invited them too.
I’m the designated Christmas lunch cook, purely because I’m British and therefore am assumed to be an expert in the art of roasting a bird and some potatoes, not to mention making some stuffing and a nice gravy. My wife is Venezuelan and an excellent cook, but roast turkey – and even more so roast potatoes – are outside her sphere of expertise.
I was given the role several years ago and have successfully pulled it off for a houseful of South Americans several times. It’s actually an absurdly simple meal to prepare, but, to adapt an old saying, there really are no difficult questions – just questions we don’t know the answer to. Whatever; as they say in the playground, “I ain’t scared”.
This new couple were one of those classic combinations: friendly, chatty woman with rather intense, serious, businessman husband. They arrived on time with two bottles of wine: so far so good. Caribbean people are not famous for their punctuality, and two of our other guests wouldn’t turn up until four o’clock although they knew we were eating at 1pm. That’s their problem.
The others arrived nice and early too, and the aperitifs flowed and everyone was relaxed. When I announced that I was going to check on the turkey, Mr Intense suddenly piped up. “I’m vegetarian.”
Resisting the temptation to pin him up against the wall and ask why he hadn’t ****ing told me this in advance, I frantically tried to think of options.
“It’s no problem” he said. “I’ll just have the vegetables.”
He may have been trying to do the right thing and stop me feeling that one of my guests was going to be let down, but even if I did just give him vegetables, there would have to be some gravy, and I couldn’t make it with the juices from the roasting pan.
So I knocked something up with a spoonful of Marmite and some tomato puree. A splash of red wine. Worcestershire sauce. And some black pepper and a sprinkling of cumin powder. Nothing worked. It was edible but it wasn’t good.
I gave the man a big plate of roast potatoes, broccoli, carrots and the butternut squash I had cooked as usual along with the turkey – peel it, slice it, put it in the pan with about 90 minutes to go and forget about it. So the vegetables were pretty good, and I had something hot and brown to pour over them. I served it up and he ate some of it, but it was probably the worst Christmas lunch he had ever had; it was certainly the worst I have ever inflicted on someone.
If I had known in advance I would probably have tried to get some giant mushrooms and treated them like meat, frying them in butter with some crushed garlic. I’ve done that before for veggies and it went down well.
But that is the mistake we carnivores make: we try to use non-meat items in a meaty way.
Non-meat mince, usually made with soya, is better now than it was a few years back, so you can do your Bolognese or your chilli or shepherds pie, but sometimes using something as a meat substitute just doesn’t work.
My advice if you have a vegetarian in the family is to get them involved. They have experience of this and you don’t. So get them to come up with some ideas – things they have eaten in restaurants or at other people’s houses. You’ll get the hang of it in the end, but at first you’re a guitarist being asked to play the piano. So stand up for yourself. Do your best and do it with love, but don’t pretend you’re suddenly an expert.
And don’t be made to feel bad. Like it or not, vegetarians are very much in the minority, and to expect the rest of the world to have lot of tricks up their sleeve especially for them is at best unrealistic and at worst arrogant.
If they will eat fish, that’s not so much of a problem. There’s plenty you can do with a can of tuna (fish cakes, salads with rice or pasta) or some prawns and other seafood (curry, paella, Italian stuff with a can of tomatoes and some herbs).
But if you’ve got someone who tells you he or she doesn’t eat anything with a face, or one of those other remarks that make you feel like some bloodthirsty caveman, you’ve got some learning to do. And you are entitled to take the time to do it.