One of the most important goals I set myself at the start of this period of self discovery was to define my cooking style and culinary USP. After all, in this day and age, in order to carve out an identity in the food writing world, it seems necessary to home in on what makes me different and sets me apart from everyone else; ultimately, what the hell is it about my cooking and writing that I can sell?
I'm a white, Jewish, gay man who had a comfortable upbringing in North West London. I grew up in a family that enjoyed eating; mum was (and still is) a good cook, but probably cooked more out of necessity than enjoyment. Dad certainly enjoyed eating, although in his latter years food became less of a treat for him, I think. Growing up, food was seen as something to wipe away the cobwebs with and being greedy certainly wasn't scorned upon. Indeed, before I was old enough to realise how delicious this was, Dad could usually be found at the end of a Friday night roast chicken or beef dinner, eagerly mopping up pan juices with a great hunk of white bread (got to be white).
However, I don't have stories of a family whose life revolved around food and the kitchen table or that cooked recipes passed down through the generations; I'd love to wax lyrical about a grandmother who showed me how to cook traditional Hungarian goulash, using peppers that her family dried themselves on the blistering summer days of Hungary in the early 20th century, or a babka recipe learnt from her mother; but I can't. My grandmother was vegetarian and (sadly) not accustomed to sharing something meaningful like that with her grandson. She wasn't a warm woman. She spent the most important years of her adolescence separated from her family, in hiding, focusing on staying alive before eventually moving to the UK in 1946. These experiences shaped the woman she became, someone very private, who rarely showed signs of warmth and certainly not someone to share and cook age old family recipes.
Family on my Dad's side was tough in other ways; his mother dying of MS at a relatively young age (before I ever met her) and internal family fueds meant the chances of much culinary influence coming from his side were ruled out.
So, I'm very much a cook whose heritage doesn't directly define his cooking style. I cook all sorts of food originating from all parts of the world. Yet despite this, I'm distinctly aware of how I cook quite instinctively when it comes to southern Mediteranean, North Africa, middle East and Eastern European flavours, parts of the world that my family originated in. Of course I love to cook South East Asian, Indian and Mexican food too - but I'm less fluid with those gastronomies. There's something fascinating in there for me and I think this is something I need to explore further in the coming months.
In the meantime, here's a delicious warm salad of celeriac
- 1/4 celeriac
- 20g walnuts
- 1/2 tsp crushed fennel seed
- 2 heads red chicory, cut lengthways into quarters (keep the base intact to prevent the leaves from separating)
- orange segments from 1 orange, juice and zest from a second.
- 1-2 tbsp Champagne or white balsamic vinegar
- 3-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 tbsp chopped basil or tarragon
- A handful of rocket
- 15g Parmesan shavings
Preheat your oven to 175°C
Peel the celeriac and cut into wedges, no more than 1.5cm thick at the edge. Toss in extra virgin olive oil, salt and black pepper and roast on a baking sheet lined with non stick paper for about 30 minutes, until starting to caramleise. Add the walnuts to a separate baking sheet and roast for 10-15 minutes until toasted.
Heat 1.5 tbsp olvie oil in a non stick pan. Add the chicory to the pan, allowing each cut side to caramelise fully before turning over. When all the cut sides are nicely browned, reserve on a plate.
Add the crushed fennel seed to the remaining oil in the pan that you used for the chicory. Give it a minute to cook out a little before adding the orange juice to the pan. Turn up the temperature and boil until the juice has turned syrupy. Transfer to a bowl and make into a dressing with the extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, orange zest, basil, or tarragon and some salt and black pepper.
Once the celeriac has caramelised, remove from the oven, Toss the rocket in a little of the dressing and then build on a plate with the celeriac, orange segments, chicory and walnuts. Drizzle the remaining dressing over the salad and top with the Parmesan shavings. This would work equally well with blue cheese or an alternative salty hard cheese.