Monday, September 01, 2008

A perfect pantry practice

This article appeared in the Weekend Australian a few weeks ago. I think it is a lovely and remarkably level-headed look at what young people living on their own need to put in their pantries to live a civilised life. A far cry from instant noodles, cask and bottled pasta sauce.

A perfect pantry practice

Christopher Pearson August 16, 2008

THERE are rites of passage that mark young people's preparations to move out of home. Now is the time, around the end of winter, when parents, godparents and real or notional uncles and aunts begin to plan and caucus, divvying up the responsibilities.
Until quite recently, transmitting survival skills to girls was markedly different from the basic program for boys. But girls' domestic skills these days are generally so underdeveloped that most extended families just to try and give everybody the fundamentals.

Some adult should ensure that, by the time their particular fledgling leaves the nest, there are a couple of pots to hand planted with herbs. Even people with negligible experience in the kitchen should know a little about the uses of parsley, chives and mint. Either (or both) of the first two improve egg dishes, salads, tinned soups and much else besides. If the need for mint is less obvious to the intended recipient, you should point out its usefulness in enlivening frozen peas - the most effortlessly prepared of vegetables - along with pea and ham soup and all the exotic cocktails they may like to try out in summer.

I've sometimes been accused of going overboard on the question of coffee and tea. Even so, it seems to me that most teenagers appreciate the difference between plunger coffee and the kind of espresso you can make with a stove-top aluminium pot, and enjoy both at different times of the day. As long as you impress on them the need to buy vacuum-sealed Arabica, they can't go too far wrong and are likely to save vast sums by fixing their own rather than going to coffee shops all the time.

While most young people know that instant coffee's not worth drinking, it's a different story with tea-bags. No one who's grown up in a household of jigglers - without proper tea leaves, a pot to brew them in or boiling water - will have any idea of tea's restorative and stimulating properties or why the best of it was worth its weight in gold in the 18th century.
Introducing the young to those delights and persuading them of the need for not one but two teapots may take a certain amount of avuncular diplomacy. Earl grey is a blend that will be new and appealing to the uninitiated. If you are dealing with a delicate palate, the distinctive flavour of oil of Bergamot can be subdued by mixing it with an equal measure of orange pekoe.

It's important that learning about tea be understood as an ordinary pleasure rather than an exercise in snobbery. There was nothing wrong with the strong Indian teas that everyone used to drink until the 1980s. It's just that you wouldn't want to brew them or most blends designed for the European market in the same pot as jasmine or green tea. Boys who might perhaps be inclined to baulk at the idea of the more refined blends can usually be won over through sampling them, as well as wine, with Chinese or Japanese food.

Most mothers keep a few pots and pans that are surplus to requirements, with a view to handing them on to children when they move out. It's the same with cutlery and third-best china.
Where a non-parental presence can make a real difference is in finding a few items that aren't hand-me-downs and can't give other siblings reasonable grounds to complain of special treatment. For an inexperienced young host, it's a great boost to morale to be able to serve friends a meal on matching plates. A heavy, handsome iron pot with a lid can encourage quite unexpected baking and stewing experiments. I've even seen the gift of a blender turn a barely house-trained accountancy student into someone who makes all his own soups.

Whether in pride of place on the dining table or, in shared quarters, in the bedroom, everyone starting an independent existence needs a decent fruit bowl. Sometimes just the sight of oranges, lemons and limes is a comfort. Bananas, nature's junk food, can be pretty comforting too. An avocado, preferably black rather than green, makes a healthy instant meal or an entree for two. Mashed into hot, unbuttered toast with salt and a squeeze of lemon, it's a good savoury option at breakfast-time.

Nashi pears, which, unlike all other varieties, stay crisp and juicy for weeks on end and never go to waste, are fine on their own and even better when combined with a little peccorino cheese, to finish a meal.

You'd expect children brought up in households where the mother takes pains over the preparation of food to have absorbed the basics on the question of condiments. More often than not, you'd be wrong and the girls are often more wilfully ignorant and disdainful than the boys. Short of turning meals into tutorials, the best approach is probably - in cahoots with the parents - to put together a survival kit and supplement it with seasonal bits and pieces. It's usually more effective if you take the person for whose benefit the package is being organised with you while you shop. If at all fond of you, he or she will remember some of the tips you're trying to pass on.
No home should be without a pepper mill, wine vinegar and a bottle of good olive oil. Saxa salt is perfectly adequate but Maldon sea salt is a very cheap treat. Mustard pickles do wonders for corned beef sandwiches and crackers with cheddar cheese. There are three necessary categories of mustard: full grain, Dijon and Keen's hot English. A pot planted with a chilli pepper or, out of season, a bunch of dried chillies from an Italian grocery threaded on a string, looks good in the kitchen and never goes amiss. Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce are necessary for bloody maries and to cheer up sausages and grilled beef or lamb. Tomato sauce is addictive and conceals a multitude of shortcomings; buy a special version such as Beerenburg, as well as something mass-produced that suffers in the comparison.

On a separate outing, try the same trick with jams and conserves. Who, once exposed to Frank Cooper's Oxford marmalade with coarse-chopped Seville oranges and Cointreau, an inexpensive five-star treat, could forget the experience? Produce markets and parish fetes are an even cheaper way of getting the staples: strawberry, raspberry, cherry, apricot and gingered fig jam, along with quince or crab-apple jelly and capers, pickled onions, gherkins and walnuts. From an Indian smallgoods store you might start with mango chutney, onion jam, hot brinjal pickle and preserved lemon.

Of course a leisurely preparation for leaving the nest would include forays to David Jones's sales, a first-rate butcher's shop, a fruit and vegetable market and advice on buying second-hand cars and furniture. But, in the limited space available, I want to cut to the chase on two even more vexed questions: getting value for money when buying tinned fish in supermarkets and establishing a liquor cabinet.

Tinned fish is one of the best sources of protein for youngsters on limited budgets. It's convenient and generally needs no other accompaniment than toast or biscuits and lemon juice. A short list of dos and don'ts may suffice.

Tinned anchovies in oil, with or without capers, are usually a safe bet, although the big glass jars are much better value. The only salmon worth the bother is John West's or similar up-market brands labelled as red salmon. Fancy pink is coarser-textured and generally lacking in flavour. Most Australian tuna is OK for cooking, but Sirena is the one brand I'd serve in a cold salad. Big sardines (three to a tin) are a mistake and so is anything that comes in spring water, tomato or barbecue sauce. Look for little sardines, 10 or so to a tin, in oil. At major markets you can usually find black-labelled smoky Baltic sprats, which are even nicer. Another option often overlooked is smoked oysters, nothing like the fresh version but more plausible than tinned mussels.

Moving right along, establishing a liquor cabinet is a very important rite of passage to adulthood but it can be a terrible trap for young players. The temptation is usually to go for conspicuous consumption. For example, while Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire gin is fine in a martini with Noilly Prat vermouth, if you're planning to mix it with tonic water aren't you better off buying Gordon's and spending the difference on little bottles of Schweppes?

Very expensive blended scotches are lavishly promoted in glossy magazines, but can they really compare with a 10-year old single malt such as Laphroaig?

Good domestic brandy and sherry are generally a better buy than their French or Spanish counterparts, although I grant you that it's very agreeable to have a grand cognac to hand and imported fino sherry, Pedro Ximinez black sherry and real madeira aren't terribly dear.
Another trap is the diversity of similar spirits. No ordinary cabinet needs more than one orange, coffee, cherry or chocolate-based liqueur, and can very well do without green or purple aberrations such as creme de menthe, Parfait Amour or anything dreamed up after 1890. A bottle of Campari is a summertime must and for winter fortification a classic monastic spirit: Benedictine or one of the chartreuses.

No self-respecting host should be without a Cuban rum, along with a couple of Havana cigars for those ladies and gentlemen who enjoy a smoke occasionally.
And, at the ready, safely stored in the freezer there should be a bottle of Polish bison-grass vodka.

1 comment:

Helen said...

That is such a delightful post, which I wish I read in print now. As someone who moved out of home a few months ago, I can attest to the truth in this :D so saving it.