If this is your first time visiting the blog, learn about the project here.
One of my favorite parts of this project is going to the library. The one near me is brand new. It doesn’t have the lived-in feel of the libraries I really love—it’s big and modern with a lot of glass—but I like it here. The cookbooks are back in a corner. Geographically, you’d only be here if you wanted to; the popular books are on a different floor entirely. There’s noise from kids but it doesn’t carry this far, and the cookbooks are left in silence. This is my little spot. I sit on the ground cross legged like it’s mine, and I think it is. No one’s ever walked by.
Here is where the colors are. Each book proudly hued and patterened, none too concerned who its neighbors may be. Power clashing. It’s a visual of humanity like no other. There are flowers and line drawings of plants and fruits, next to blue scrawling script, next to a yellow gingham background. Gold foil, cloth spine, dust jacket or in the nude. Each cookbook grouped with its clan, organized mostly true to geography, although some of it’s questionable: Chinese leaning on Peruvian, for instance.
It’s exciting to see all these recipes in person, they’re a whole other beast off-screen. It endears them to me like the author’s own handwriting, and I want to be in their kitchen. I read more patiently and notice how the design, the colors, the font, each serve the dish. The bound book, unlike its electronic counterpart, creates an entire experience from the same bit of text. It helps me out of my own way. It gains my trust.
On one of these library afternoons, I found Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain cookbook. Up until then, I’d put off even looking at recipes for English dishes. I’d pushed them to the back of my mind to be done later, even though I knew that “later” was a way of categorizing this food as less exotic → bland → unimportant. But this project is about earnest exploration, not value judgments. It’s a matter of food, not hierarchy, and in its most reduced state, it’s about opening the damn book.
So I opened the damn book. Of course, I was glad I did. The recipes covered British dishes both classic and updated, and all more interesting than I thought. I found my way to a shepherd’s pie. More of a fisherman’s pie, actually. The language was familiar and sometimes funny, like a friend in the kitchen with you: “get a nice casserole-type pan”; “grate in a good few swipes of lemon zest”; “rough it up”; “serve with fresh lovely things”. The pie itself was wonderful, faithfully layered with filling below, creamy mash on top. I used salmon because it looked good at the store. The leeks, which perfume anything the moment they hit fire, were especially good with the fish.
Even the next day, having dissolved to a pleasant mush, this pie was spot on. It was warm in many ways, and I opened myself up to English cooking.
The following is the recipe I used, as seen in Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain cookbook.
Serves 6 to 8
2 large leeks
2 large carrots
2 sticks of celery
2 knobs of butter
2 rashers of quality bacon, roughly chopped
sea salt and white pepper
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
2 lbs russet potatoes
1 whole nutmeg, for grating
1 1/4 cups light cream
2 teaspoons English mustard
2 handfuls grated mild cheddar cheese
2 lbs fish fillets, skinned and fin-boned (tilapia, pollack, whiting, trout would be a lovely mixture)
Strip the tough outer leaves of the leeks back, then halve, wash well and finely slice the rest. Roughly chop the carrots and celery. Get a nice casserole-type pan that’s not too high-sided (roughly 8x11 inches) and add a knob of butter and the chopped bacon. When it starts looking crisp and golden, add all the herbs and prepared vegetables to the pan. Season, then put the lid on, turn the heat down a touch and cook for around 15 minutes, stirring every now and again until sweet and tender.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. While the vegetables cook, peel the potatoes (or leave the skins on if you like), cut into 1-in chunks and boil in salted water for around 12 to 15 minutes, or until just cooked. Drain, then leave them to steam dry for a few minutes before returning them to the empty pan. Mash with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous knob of butter. I don’t like to mash too much because it can make the potato gluey rather than light and insanely crisp. Season with care and add a nice grating of nutmeg.
When the leeks are sweet, add the cream and mustard, simmer for a few seconds, then turn the heat off and sprinkle in half the grated cheddar. Stir and season to taste, then grate in a few good swipes of lemon zest, squeeze in the juice and stir again. Cut the fish into 1-in chunks and dot them evenly around the sauce. Jiggle the dish gently so the fish gets slightly submerged in the beautiful thick sauce. Sprinkle the rest of the cheddar on top. Put forkfuls of mash all over until the surface of the pie is evenly covered. Use a fork to pat, poof and rough it up, leaving a few little gaps for the sauce to bubble through. Put the dish at the top of the oven for 30 minutes, or until golden crisp, bubbling and delicious. Serve with fresh lovely things like peas, beans or spinach.