Welcome to the sunlit uplands which, for me, contain small plastic tubs of stock, which is just the opening to the year I wished for. Even local restaurants are closed for takeaway now and I cannot face my husband’s excellent British cooking (roasts, stews, pies, like a speaking Regency cookbook). When each day is Christmas Day its lustre declines; it is like being bored and rich. I should not have ordered two ribs of beef for three people. Even Virgil Dog is off beef now, and that is disgraceful.
So I subscribe to Simply Cook, a bestselling meal kit that is delivered by post. We are in danger of existing by post, and I am taken in with a pretty website and the promise of that which is lost: spurious variety. They suggest Bombay Biryani and Chicken Makhani in pictures; Crispy Chilli Beef and Nasi Goreng. I usually know to ignore restaurants with pictures of food outside but, drugged with the rural middle-class experience of pandemic, which is shameful and soporific, because all I have to do is get dressed and not move, I forget this and order six boxes of food.
I obviously do not read the blurb, because I am expecting food. Instead I receive recipe cards with pretty pictures of food, homilies, and plastic tubs of stock. So I go to the Co-op, which is both boring and frightening, including existential crises as it does, to buy the rest of the food demanded by the recipe cards. I return home and stare at tubs of stock. I already have a spice cupboard and my husband made beef stock from the ashes of the Christmas beef. It is in the fridge waiting to become onion soup. I despise myself. Perhaps Simply Cook is exploiting that neurosis.
We attempt Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles, ‘a classic dish on the streets of Chengdu for decades’. The recipe card is quite talkative: ‘The noodles are named after the pole that the walking street vendors carried (dan dan) when selling this dish with two baskets of noodles and sauce attached at either end.’ The tubs contain chilli oil mix, Dan Dan stock and Sichuan paste. According to Simply Cook, it is supposed to be made with Quorn mince, but my instinct is that pork should be used and according to the Woks of Life website I am right. I use beef instead, as we are the only Jews in the village. That was my first mistake.
I burn the chilli in oil because the Aga doesn’t understand why I persist in using it to cook when it is something more important: a heating system. I fry the beef, which should be Quorn, or rather pork, with the Dan Dan paste, Sichuan paste and honey. It smells odd. I boil the noodles and the broccoli and, following the recipe card, ‘mix it all up’. It doesn’t look like, or taste like, the picture. It is very salty: a sub-supermarket ready meal. I eat what feels like a punishment dish while honouring, by and in their absence, the restaurants I desire.
Perhaps masochism is addictive, because I can actually cook Beef Stroganoff — which is, according to Simply Cook, ‘tender strips of beef sauteed [sic] mushrooms in a creamy, smoked paprika and mushroom sauce’. Or perhaps I enjoy cooking in homage to The Krypton Factor. I fry the beef in ‘the stroganoff seasoning’, add an onion, mushrooms, tomato paste and ‘mushroom stock pot’. Then to ‘make it my own’ (isn’t it already, as I paid for it?) I add ‘a handful of parsley’. At the end I have, again, a sub-ready-meal of salt and tears which I had to cook myself. Even in pandemic, who is this for?
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