A Foggy Morning and Comfort Cooking
This morning, I woke to the first of the autumnal morning fog.
This happens around this time every year, but I was still a little confused. When I glanced at the gently undulating surface of the bathroom window, there were no shapes, no colours. Usually, through the blurred glass, I can just make out the red bricks of the houses on the other side of the road and the slopes of the rooftops, or the yellow light from the streetlight a little further down the road. But instead, this morning, nothing: just monotone grey. Then, finally understanding, I ran through to the study and opened the curtains.
The days have been damp, the garden sodden – actually swampy in places – and the cold wet air feels like it has been slipping into the house, the insides of the windows steaming-up in the mornings. It feels like the arrival of the fog has taken longer than expected, but now that it is here, I rejoice.
Fog – unlike snow – isn’t ruined by other people (children, dog walkers, early morning commuters) having been out in it before you.
Far from depressing me, foggy mornings herald the arrival of my favourite time of year. Autumn feels like it is finally underway. Fog is like autumnal snow: the exciting moment at the window, followed by an urge to wrap-up in a coat and scarf, and get outside. And fog – unlike snow – isn’t ruined by other people (children, dog walkers, early morning commuters) having been out in it before you.
The fog slowly dissipates, of course, but leaves a feeling of warm cosy comfort that translates inside the house as candles burning in the evenings, fewer lamps lit, and thicker jumpers worn. And – of course – my favourite food: earthier flavours, cooked slowly for longer, with the smells from the kitchen enveloping the house like a warm duvet.
Autumn cooking really begins at the end of Summer, as the gardens, allotments and orchards begin to deliver the rewards of a year of hard work, and even the hedgerows, woodlands and parks seem to be bursting with natural, abundant bounty. Apples, pears, quinces and plums sit alongside their wild ancestors: crab-apples, damsons, gages, sloes. The last of the tomatoes and figs, the first of the parsnips and swede, and the best of the kale, leeks and celeriac.
Both squashes and mushrooms, displaying an almost endless variety of bold colours and contorted shapes, spring-up everywhere. It is also the beginning of the game season, and quite suddenly my interest in meat turns away from cuts that are grilled, poached or sautéed, towards the tougher, fattier joints that require low temperatures, long cooking times, and – ideally – a bottle of red wine, some of which might be used in the food.
There is something more wholesome about this type of food. Making the most of the most basic ingredients.
Slow-cooking is my favourite reason to the in the kitchen. Aside from the practical benefits – longer cooking times usually mean fewer, cheaper ingredients, lower stress-levels, and more time to get washing-up done between stages – there is also something more wholesome about this type of food. Making the most of the most basic ingredients. Squash roasted with fat cloves of garlic and a handful of sage until it is sweet as honey, and soft enough to spread with the back of your spoon. Lamb breast, slowly pot-roasted in light red wine, shallots and rosemary, shredded unto tender morsels, and piled onto fluffy mounds of mashed potato.
There is also a meditative, hypnotic quality to long periods spend in the kitchen, with perhaps just music, a radio drama or an audiobook for company. Slow cooking often requires lengthy initial preparation: soaking, washing, peeling, chopping, or mixing. Time spent alone, engaged in careful, simple, repetitive activities, with a mind free to contemplate life's mysteries, daydream or plan tomorrow's shopping list. Comfort cooking, as well as comfort food. I sometimes find myself spending longer on these initial stages to make the most of this calm, quiet time: a temporary escape from the more complicated aspects of modernity.
And then, with all that preparation work done, you just slide the pot into the oven, or turn the heat down to a simmer, and the rest of the evening is yours. You can do anything (or better yet, nothing), while the house slowly fills with rich, savoury aromas. You enjoy that warm satisfaction when loved ones comment that "something smells delicious": slow cooking almost invariably smells delicious, regardless of the final results!
This is not to say slow cooking always has to be a frugal, rustic affair: some of my favourite dishes are rather decadent. There is an indulgent, gout-inducing recipe for lasagne in Tana Ramsay's Home Made – the page now three-dimensional from eight years' of accumulated spillages – that has become something of a ritual for us. Originally used to mark our first Valentine's Day together, the recipe is now brought down to celebrate something a couple of times a year: this year, it formed the centrepiece when we invited family around for one last meal together before going back into lockdown.
The recipe says it takes three-and-a-half hours, but I like to spend an afternoon over it. Chopping the vegetables and the first stages of frying and sweating can take more than an hour; enough time to listen to a record or radio drama. By making your own lasagne sheets, you can add an extra hour of quiet concentration. The meat sauce then gently splutters away on hob for almost two hours, before being layered up with your pasta and a béchamel sauce, and going into the oven for another 45 minutes.
You hang-up your apron and retire, while the house slowly fills with deeply savoury smell of minced beef, tomato puree and red wine. Bliss.