When I hear or overhear people enthusiastically call themselves ‘creative’ cooks, I
confess that, unless the person in question is young (under sixteen) I tend to shudder inwardly and, outwardly, try to change the subject of conversation if need be. I know what will happen next and that is that, very often, all things ‘creative’ will now veer towards, or become equated with, ‘fusion’ — for an amusing and cautionary article on fusion food, read the following:
At the risk of being labelled ‘somewhat conservative’ at best, or a downright stick-in-the-mud gastronomic dinosaur at worst, I have to admit that change for the sake of change is, in my opinion, best left to chefs who know what they are doing, who have had a suitable amount of hands-on experience and who have travelled and tasted dishes as they are supposed to taste in the country of their origin.
When cooking, and often with the benefit of a glass of wine infusing our veins, we all indulge in adding a bit of this, adding a bit of that, and making things up a little as we go along – and that is to be welcomed and absolutely fine ! It is a breath of fresh air in the kitchen and keeps our batteries going. (It also explains why someone like me will never amount to much as a baker. Baking is a serious profession and allows for no ‘tweaking’ – baking rules exist for a reason and they cannot be breached.)
So what am I trying to say … ?
I think what I am trying to say is that, much though home cooking should and often does entail a lot of fun, a person is not going to become an adequately good home cook unless he or she practises cooking regularly and develops his or her palate by tasting good food either at other people’s homes or in good restaurants.
It’s a bit like going to school, you need to learn you ABC before you can spell properly. Reliable magazines can be bought and relied upon, too, naturally, and if expense is an issue … the internet is full of recipes that can be referenced. Trying out recipes can be fun in and of itself! So I think that sometimes those people who gush and pride themselves on being ‘creative’ cooks are … enthusiastic, yes …. inventive and spontaneous … that too … but … a little lazy. And presumptuous also as regards all those other cooks who have put in hours and hours of practice to get a recipe just right. Put it this way, you’ll rarely hear a good cook (an adequately good cook that is, and not necessarily the best !) define themselves as being ‘creative’. The act of cooking itself is … creative per se.
Fusion cooking? Mmmm … very dangerous ground and mostly a disappointment to my mind. I’ve not had the opportunity to taste the excellence of fusion food as invented by the three Michelin starred superchef and master of fusion, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. To date, the best I have been able to taste was in Boston, at Myers and Chang (www.myersandchang.com). Last year, I had the most gorgeous mussels experience of my life there … they came with lemongrass, ginger, spring onions and goodness knows what else without them somehow tasting exclusively Thai. They were Thai … and more ! The waiter, bless him, did give me a rough account of the recipe but I had drunk too many celebratory cocktails that evening to remember it the day after. This year I thought I would repeat the pleasure but was told it had been struck off their menu. When asking for something similar on their new menu … I was served a fusion version of what I daresay was a take on an Italian mussel dish called ‘impepata di cozze’ or else on French moules.
Here is the photo. It looked nice enough, it tasted … okay. But the bread to be dunked in a soup made up of oriental spices, to me, just didn’t work … and the dish was neither here nor there. The balance of ‘oiliness was missing’. Olive oil in Italian mussels, butter and cream in French mussels. Boo hoo. (I am one of those people who can cry if they are served disappointing food. And by the way, rest assured, I did NOT cry … everything else we ate that evening was truly delicious and I was having fun in lovely company.) I am just making a point: a fusion = confusion point. Which brings me to today’s recipe and my foray into this gastronomic minefield.
Don’t ask me what prompted me want to make a Near-East/North African version of the very Roman oxtail dish known as ‘coda alla vaccinara’. Number one. Number two … to want to accompany the oxtail with cus cus cooked in the oxtail’s stock. It all sounded so logical, so different, so nice, so new, so … ‘creative’ dare I say! So very Yottam Ottolenghi of me, tee hee ! I don’t know whether you can be bothered to follow me at this point, after such a long preamble to the recipe. So … because I don’t like wasting time either … all I can confide, recipe wise, is that I don’t think I shall bother making this recipe again. Just like the mussels dish mentioned above, it tasted okay.
A few tomatoes. A good pinch of salt. And that was it. Oh .. and probably some peppercorns … I always put peppercorns in a stew.
And here was the oxtail, fully cooked in its stock, about 40 minutes later. Set aside. Spices … coriander, a cus cus mix of spices, and a single clove (I didn’t want to overdo it with the cloves). And here is the first ‘surprising’ and ‘creative’ ingredient vis-à-vis any traditional cous cous (how dow you spell it? is it ‘cus cus’ or is it ‘cous cous’ ? Oh never mind …). Meaning, that cus cus is enjoyed by both moslem and jewish populations who naturally shun pork – in this case, guanciale or cured jowl – as a taboo food. In a heavy casserole saucepan, I began by stewing some lovely red onion in plenty of olive oil. I then added the guanciale, cut into small strips. And after the guanciale had rendered its fat, I added the spice mix. Remember our pressure cooker and its contents? I transferred the oxtail meat and bone from the pressure cooker to the casserole. I turned the heat up so that the oxtail would brown a little. I opened a can of plum tomatoes … And added them to the oxtail stew. In some respects, one could call this an …. oxtail amatriciana sauce ! Except that I also added whole cloves of garlic (you are not supposed to put garlic in an amatriciana sauce so you, dear reader, can see how adventurous I was getting, breaking all kinds of rules, huh!).
And this is how I served the oxtail stew eventually … with an addition of fresh herbs – oregano by the looks of it.
Okay … and now back to the cus cus. Remember the stock? I strained it. I put the cus cus in the same casserole saucepan that had just finished cooking the oxtail. I added the stock … mixed it in, covered it with a lid and basically followed the cooking instructions on the cus cus packet. While the cus cus was plumping up, I ventured to cut a celery stick into chunky sizes. To add freshness. And here was the cus cus, containing some raw celery within it, and sporting some celery leaves on its surface.
Oh … and what I didn’t mention was that I had to make polenta for favourite son because he couldn’t hack the hot spiciness of the cus cus. Now … yet ANOTHER breaking of boundaries on my part. Oxtail all’amatriciana served with either spicy cus cus or plain polenta. Creative anyone?