Of the things for which I’m grateful, learning to cook during my decade in the UK is up there on the list. I had access to such a wide range of interesting produce and influences, and threw myself into full experimental mode. Because the biggest part of learning to cook is eating a varied diet, this meant eating things I otherwise would have shunned – which led to cooking things I’d never have dreamed up myself.
I relied upon two main authors to help me feel my way through this phase, which started in the late 1990s: Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater. Indeed, I started with Nigella’s How to Eat, which then informed the way that I would cook, and continued on with her subsequent books and all of Nigel’s – including his brilliant food memoirs, and with Real Fast Food, Real Good Food ($950 for a used copy!), and Appetite (a more reasonable $310) being particularly inspiring. When people ask me how I learned to cook well, I give these two all the credit. Their books are an absolute pleasure to curl up with and read like novels.
I’m often homesick for a certain sort of British cooking that, while being thoroughly modern, incorporates more traditional ingredients. These are dishes that I would never dream of making for my American friends and family, but that most (if not all) of my peeps in London would eat with gusto. These recipes also happen to look like absolute dog food in even the most flattering photographs.
Case in point: Nigel Slater’s coarse pork and fruit terrine. This is a recipe that calls for a mix of minced pork, pig’s liver, and prunes. When I mentioned it to my best friend in Ohio, her eloquent response was: “BARF!” As I told her: That’s okay, more for me!
One of the reasons I love the way I learned to cook from Nigella and Nigel is that they gave me the confidence to play around with recipes and make them my own. Rare is the recipe that I make exactly as stipulated. I don’t worry about messing it up, and I enjoy the creative process of trying to make something that suits me best. With few exceptions, I view recipes as suggestions rather than orders.
So I was very comfortable adapting the pork terrine recipe to suit me. There’s a lot of room to play around with a dish like this – even with, say, the ratio of liver to mince. Here’s what I changed:
1) I didn’t use brandy. I never have liked the taste of booze in food.
2) I used organic chicken liver instead of pig’s liver, because that’s what Whole Foods has.
3) I skipped the vine leaves, because…vine leaves.
4) I substituted ground nutmeg for the mace.
5) I caramelized the onions but good, adding a shot of balsamic vinegar while they did their thing.
I absolutely loved the results. Throw together salty pork with savory liver, add the sweet softness of prunes and the welcome bite of hazelnuts and it’s probably impossible to mess this up. I did make a dressing to go with it and a bed of mixed greens – whisk together whole grain Dijon mustard, a bit of macadamia oil, and a little lemon juice with salt and pepper – and next time I will try a chunky homemade applesauce to accompany. I think I’ll also be sure to add more prunes and hazelnuts, because they really lift each bite. (To be fair, I didn’t measure any ingredients, just used as many handfuls as seemed right.)
This makes a LOT of food, so I froze individual servings for the future – since I’m pretty sure none of my New York friends would want to try this. Like I said, more for me.