I remember some friends coming around to my flat in Wood Green in North London for dinner back in the early 1990s, and they were astonished at the food I served them. They’d eaten at my flat many times before, but suddenly, they claimed, the standard had shot up dramatically, and they were intrigued. What had changed?
It was music to my ears, of course (what cook doesn’t want to be showered with praise?), but the improvement was all down to my new plan. It involved going to the restaurants of great chefs (Marco Pierre White’s Chez Nico, for example), and then going back to my flat with their cookbook and working out how to cook the dishes I had eaten.
I reasoned that cookbooks can tell you many things – the list of ingredients, what a dish looks like, and maybe the story behind it – but they can’t convey what a dish tastes like. However, if you go to the restaurant, eat the dish and then cook it at home, you hold the memory of how the dish should taste in your head. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to cook when you know what it is you are aiming for.
A few years ago I was at my favourite restaurant in the world, L’Arpège in Paris, when I ate a seemingly simple dish called a gratin of onions. It came in an individual gratin dish, and it absolutely floored me.
The onions tasted so intense and sweet. They were meltingly soft and had texture but offered little resistance when bitten into. The crust of grilled Parmesan was like glass that shattered as my fork went in, and some little halved blackcurrants that were scattered on top offered welcome bursts of freshness.
When I got home, I tried to make this simple gratin. I cooked my onions for a long time, but they never attained the texture of the ones in Paris.
I put the grated Parmesan on top, grilled it and ate it. It was delicious but it wasn’t in the same league as the one at L’Arpège. The onions were soft, but they didn’t melt in the same way, and because I’d had to cook them for so long, they had developed a different taste – less fresh – to the ones in Paris. I tried again, but the results were the same.
Fast forward to this year, and during lockdown the garden at The Sportsman produced a huge amount of vegetables. In one of the polytunnels, we had a lot of onions, and one lunchtime I picked a few and took them back to the kitchen.
I had never really thought much about onions before then, but the vast majority get picked and are then cured (left to dry in a controlled environment) until their outer skin goes brown. They are then ready to be stored and sold in those orange net bags or even plaited by their papery stems.
The ones from the Sportsman’s garden were different because they had not gone through the curing/drying process. They cooked so quickly and were soft to the bite within a few minutes. When I put the grated cheese on top, I was hopeful, and after just a brief time under the grill, I knew that I had cracked it.
I felt a bit stupid because the chef at L’Arpège, Alain Passard, is renowned for having vegetables from his garden arrive at the kitchen door after being picked at his farms that same morning. I should have realised that this was the difference between my first attempts and the successful one.
Although this week’s recipe is delicious with normal cured onions, if you make it, I would urge you to keep an eye out at farmer’s markets for the ones that haven’t been cured, or maybe you grow your own.
I only knew to persist with my attempts because I had eaten the dish at L’Arpège and had an idea of how it should be in my head.
Which sounds to me like a good excuse for a trip to Paris.