Friday, January 21, 2011

Cooking the books

Until I moved out of home, I didn’t know how to cook. Could barely boil water, to be honest. I mean, in theory, I knew how to cook, but I never had the nerve to actually turn on the gas and start stirring.

It’s kind of like if you’ve seen someone like Spiderman leap across gaps in tall buildings a million times, you kind of know how it’s done, but that doesn’t mean if a gap ever presented itself, you’d have the nerve to actually jump it.

But then the day after I moved out – basically, moved countries to Singapore to be precise – I found myself standing alone in my brightly lit, new but empty kitchen and looked at my lonely pan and the tin of tomatoes next to it. I’d gone to Cold Storage, looked at the rows and rows of food and panicked. I grabbed the nearest thing to the checkout – in this case, the tin of organic tomatoes – and made a run for it.

And now, in that quiet kitchen, I had no idea what to do next.

Years later, when I recounted the story to my best friend Karl, he said the exact same thing happened to him on his first visit to a porn shop when he went to London to study, but in his case, he grabbed something that he later discovered only worked if he was a woman.

That’s the first thing you did when you went to London?” I asked. “You went to a porn shop?”

“That’s what happens when you grow up in a strict family! You do crazy things.”
That was some time ago. These days, I’m a reasonably competent cook. The other day, I even surprised myself and made a soufflĂ© omelette.

My two flatmates, on the other hand, are like stunted tadpoles in the kitchen. Saffy once nearly burnt our kitchen down because it was a complete surprise to her that you needed to put water into the rice cooker. Amanda, who is a lawyer and therefore makes more money than most small African nations, operates under the assumption that money can buy not just Prada, but also a three-course dinner, so why bother even stepping foot into a kitchen unless it’s to say hello (and goodnight) to the chef?

And then a few days ago, during a very boring telephone conference call in the office, Amanda was idly surfing the net when she came across Jamie Oliver’s TV programme on YouTube.

As she later told us, she put the conference call on mute and spent the next hour and half glued to “30 Minute Meals”.

“It’s insane! The man makes a three-course dinner in thirty minutes! It’s all done in real time, too! I know, because I didn’t believe it, curse of a lawyer, and I set the timer on to test it, and it was bang on thirty. Incredible. Not that I would ever do it myself,” she added.

“I used to think he was super cute, but he’s put on so much weight!” Saffy said, managing to derail yet another conversation. “No, it’s true! Why are you two looking at me like that?”

None of which prepared Amanda and me when we came home last night to find the kitchen in a state of pandemonium. Every single pot we own was on the stove or in the sink. A colander had spewed half its pasta onto the floor while something was burning in the oven.

And in the middle of it all was an increasingly hysterical Saffy shouting at her laptop. From the kitchen door, I could just see the small YouTube image of Jamie Oliver scuttling about the kitchen yakking on about how beautiful the smell of balsamic vinegar was. “No, no, no, no!” Saffy yelled. “You said to put the heat on ‘full whack’! Those were your exact words and…and…then you said I had to put the tarts in the oven, but you didn’t say I had to keep an eye on the sauce…and…sniff!…everything is burnt now!”

“What are you doing?” Amanda said, somewhat unnecessarily.

“Cooking one of Jamie Oliver’s freaking 30 minute meals!” Saffy screamed. “I started two hours ago and the sauce is burnt to charcoal and the dessert is disintegrating in the oven and I still haven’t got to the salad!”

We pulled Saffy out of the kitchen and sat her down on the sofa with a super strong gin and tonic. It took us an hour to clean up the mess and in the background, Saffy kept muttering, “It’s a good thing I never bought his stupid cookbook! I’d be at Borders right now demanding a full refund!”

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