If I can’t feed myself, well, whom can I feed?
By Deborah Reid Photos by James Essex and Deborah Reid
My grandmother, a spectacular cook, needed an audience for her culinary creations. Her greatest pleasure was gleaned from the presence of six hungry children. When my grandfather passed she laid her cooking skills to rest. My uncle, a chef, started packaging single-serving meals for her after she required iron injections to solve substantial health problems related to poor diet.
I’ve never had anyone but myself to cook for and so never suffered hardships like my grandmother’s that resulted from her need to feed a crowd. How is it that self-nourishment can be so unnatural? Is it too indulgent to fully care for one’s well being or to rattle all the pots and pans with this aim? Are there some arcane vestiges of Puritanism that still advocate for mortification of the flesh as the price to be paid for being alone at mealtime? Cooking for oneself can certainly create a lot of free-floating anxiety.
Some qualification is required here since, for a long period of time, I cooked professionally for many people, hundreds a day. Despite catering to their discerning palates, my own nourishment didn’t concern me. I began my career in establishments where there was no time for such trivial matters; apprentice cooks, like supermodels, were pacified by their reverence for the work of the master. Hunger was weakness or a necessary condition for creativity. Often the kitchen staff would subsist on cigarettes.
With irritating frequency I would face a monster Saturday night service unfed. If a staff meal did appear it was the product of a colleague torn between the pressures of service and the need for a cigarette break; and what gastronomic brilliance those conditions create. None of this flustered the chef, culinary genius that he was. He often satisfied his own hunger after a 12- to 14-hour day with a bag of Lay’s ripple chips and Sleeman’s beer. Countless times I felt like I was on the wrong end of the dish—and when you’re hungry, that resentment is powerful. How was it possible that I could prepare such critically celebrated food and remain unfed myself?
It was only when I matured as a cook and began working with Bryan Steele at The Old Prune (now called The Prune) in Stratford, Ontario that I began to take my own nourishment seriously. Bryan had some Escoffier-like ideas concerning the well-being of his team and refused to suffer some of the more inane depravations often associated with the professional kitchen. The first order of every working day for Bryan and me was staff lunch. Our choices were well considered and never a product of limited time, funds or imagination. This simultaneously amused and annoyed Marion Isherwood, co-owner of the restaurant. It must have seemed to her almost sacrilegious to put our needs before those of the client, but it was our priority and we all knew that the customer could only stand to benefit. All of this was a big drink of cold water for me, who up to this point professionally had subsisted on large helpings of hero worship.
All the kitchen staff (or those of us not nourished by self-sacrifice) would sit down at 2:30 under the lush canopy of the old gnarly Manitoba maple tree in the restaurant’s small and glorious back garden. I had many favourite meals, including the triumph of fall lunches—rabbit braised with olives and served with soft polenta. Kudos to the Prunes, as the two owners were fondly referred to, for putting their own stamp of approval on this activity. It was not uncommon for one or both of them to join us in the back garden.
Under this influence I developed a philosophy that continues to this day: If I can’t feed myself, well, whom can I feed? It’s the culinary equivalent of putting your oxygen mask on first if there’s airplane trouble. My commitment hasn’t waned even at some distance from the ridiculously exhilarating environment of the professional kitchen. An appreciative audience is wonderful but unnecessary. My own pleasure remains undiminished.
All of this points to the simple necessity of giving importance to our own meals no matter the number of knees under the table. Doing so drastically alters the way those meals are cooked. I, too, feel the time pressures of the modern world but I refuse to be bullied into a commercially packaged diet. (So as not to seem superhuman, there are a few brands of frozen pizza that I do occasionally turn too.) Often I arrive home late and famished, either from work or the gym, with a need to eat something delicious and quick. I want a meal in less than thirty minutes, sometimes ten or fifteen at the most. To head off the profound disappointment that is the empty fridge (and the ensuing licentious eating), I have a system of cooking that usually sees me from Sunday through to Thursday. Friday and Saturday are for going out or, as a retort to the week’s hurriedness, for cooking in a leisurely yet more complex manner. Sunday is the day reserved for filling the proverbial pantry.
In preparation, I pore over my cookbooks through the week and pick a few recipes, generally two or three, to try. This activity is a lighter, looser version of my mother’s system of weekly menu planning that I recall from childhood. I relish this activity because it lets me use, not just look at, my cookbooks. There are many cooks and books I find well suited to this way of cooking—Patricia Wells, Deborah Madison, Yotam Ottolenghi, Alice Waters, Sarah Foster; their cookbooks are the day-to-day workhorses on my bookshelves.
My recipe choices are mainly vegetable-based. Two or three vegetable side dishes in my fridge make for wonderful variety. They can be served alone or collectively as an entirely vegetarian offering, composed in a French vegetable hors d’oeuvres manner. They can be tossed into pastas or salads, adding substance and variation to each. In cooler weather I like to have a soup on hand. Even proteins can be made in advance. A roast chicken can feature into several meals, and braised meats gain in deliciousness as the days progress. I even think ahead for breakfast, making a batch of steel cut oatmeal for reheating on cold mornings or soaking oats in juice and yogurt for Bircher muesli on sweltering days. And I’m never without a mise en place of greens so that salad can easily be put together from a bag of homemade mix that’s been blended according to seasonal freshness.
Right now as I write this, I have in my fridge all the fixings for a salade Lyonnaise—eggs for poaching, bacon, homemade croutons (hate store bought), a batch of Thomas Keller’s mustard vinaigrette recipe, homemade lettuce mix—which I can sit down to eat in under thirty minutes. A ploughman’s lunch can always be assembled—cold meats, cheeses, good bread and homemade chutneys are at hand.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my young, starved apprentice self. All that denial proved fertile ground for the rigour with which I seek, and provide for, my own sustenance. I can no longer skip or skimp on meals, for beyond getting seriously grumpy and unproductive, it seems an affront to the kind of intelligence that should mark the march of time in my well-worn kitchen shoes.
BRAISED BORLOTTI BEANS
The recipe owes much to one I adore in the River Café Cookbook, although I have taken quite a bit of creative license here and there. Like any braised dish, these beans are best the day after they are cooked. They can be kept covered in the refrigerator for over a week and freeze well, and can be transformed in a number of ways. I’ll often puree them for dips or puree half, keep the rest whole, and add cooked pasta for pasta fagioli soup, or serve them on their own as part of an antipasti platter or simply tossed in a salad. Do not skimp on the extra virgin olive oil as it gives the beans a wonderful, and essential, richness.
Makes 8 to 12 servings
3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
2 sprigs basil
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1 1/2 lbs fresh borlotti beans, shelled, or 3/4-lb dried (soaked overnight if dried, and then drained and rinsed)
1 large onion, peeled and cut in half through the root
1 carrot, cut in half
1 stalk celery, cut in half
1 head of garlic, cut in half horizontally
1 large ripe tomato, cored and cut in half
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup (approximately) extra virgin olive oil Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Using a short length of kitchen twine, tie together the parsley, basil, thyme and rosemary; set aside. In a Dutch oven or large pot, add the borlotti beans. Bury the herb bundle, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, tomato and bay leaves among the beans.
Add enough broth to just cover the bean mixture. Pour over enough of the oil to cover the beans by about 1/2-inch. Cover the pot with a lid. Bake in a 325° F oven until the beans are very tender, 90 minutes to 2 hours. Remove and discard the herb bundle, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, tomato and bay leaves. (Or, if desired, you can puree the cooked onion, garlic and tomato, removing the skin from the garlic and tomato first, and stir this back into the pot, which adds extra deliciousness to the finished beans.) Season the beans liberally with salt and pepper, as required, while still warm.