inspired by Pollen Street Social
Stress. Undeniably something that most of us have experienced over the past few months. It affects us in so many ways. How we feel, how we sleep. And crucially, how we eat.
I for one am guilty of stress eating. On a busy work day there are more snacks involved then I would like to admit. You don’t need to conduct a scientific study to realise that my daily stress levels and my daily biscuit consumption are interlinked. When one goes up so does the other. If I get through a whole pack of bourbons it’s fair to say my day is not going well.
Yes, I’ve long been aware of how stress affects how I eat.
But until recently I have never considered how it affects how I cook.
Normally a stressful week at work would nearly always involve running around like a headless chicken, eating sandwiches on the tube in between meetings or living off a diet of junk food from whichever takeaway was closest to the theatre where I was working.
But since working from home is still the norm, it means that there are whole new ways for me to link stress with food. It’s reflected in my kitchen activity and my daily cooking habits.
Last week, for example, was stressful. A problem on Monday took until the end of Friday to solve. Here’s how this played out.
At the beginning of the week I spent an entire evening in my kitchen. Yep, on Tuesday evening I make a three course dinner. For myself. Yes. You did read that right. Three courses…. for one.
Why? This, put simply, is called denial. Or a stress induced bout of procrastination. Either way I was hiding from my work problem. I realise not everyone would try and emulate Michelin starred cooking to avoid getting work done, but everybody is different (or at least I am I guess).
By the middle of the week my cooking habits had shifted.
No more faffing around with intricate food. Now I have fully accepted my work problem and was trying hard to fix it. This was the time for comfort food. Some leftover slow cooked beef came out of the freezer, I make a quick rough puff pastry and there was a pie ready for the oven. Is anything in the world more comforting that pie? It helped with my stress levels. Unfortunately it couldn’t solve the work problem too.
Friday night around 9pm. I think I’ve finally cracked it. Still more to do next week but work is finally under control. What am I cooking to celebrate? Absolutely nothing. I go to the corner shop, buy a beer and a packet of chicken flavoured super noodles. That is my dinner.
I am too tired to cook. To exhausted to even be hungry. I don’t even bother with biscuits.
As I sit there with my bowl of instant noodles it makes me think of the Nightcap Podcast, where Paul Foster, Simon Alexander and weekly guest chefs talk about life in professional kitchens. One chef (I can’t remember who) admitted to making super noodle sandwiches for late night snacks after work. When a leaving a stressful kitchen after a hectic dinner service, it’s no wonder that chefs unwind with something that couldn’t be further from fine dining.
Back to earlier in the week, when I was in full cooking mode. It was now or never to make tomato tartare.
This dish has been on my radar for a while. It uses San Marzano tomatoes, which we have grown in the garden for the first time this year. There’s just a couple of tomatoes remaining. The last of the season.
So after going outdoors to rescue the final stragglers of our small tomato harvest I set about making tomato tartare.
Pollen Street Social is Jason Atherton’s restaurant in Soho that currently holds a Michelin star. I’ve never eaten there, although I would love to. He has also published a cookbook for the restaurant. Which I haven’t read. Sorry Jason, I’m not doing very well here am I?
But this recipe comes from the cookbook, and has been put online by Richard Jones at Form Nutrition. He writes that the lack of commuting and social plans right now means it is the perfect time to try and cook grander meals at home. I would add it’s also good for avoiding work and general procrastination…
The recipe says it’s vegan, but also uses Worcestershire sauce (which is made from anchovies) so I guess it depends how strictly you take you meat free diet. Thankfully as a meat eater, I don’t need to worry here.
However that’s not where the confusion in the recipe ends.
After plunging the tomatoes first into boiling and then into iced water I remove the skins. If I’m honest I hardly ever bother to do this when I cook with tomatoes normally. I actually like tomato skin. But since I’m trying to be fancy, and it will keep me from my laptop a little longer, I gently peel away the skin before finely dicing the tomato.
I love how the recipe asks you to “roughly dice into 5mm squares”. To me these are two very different concepts. “Roughly dice” means pummel randomly with a knife until sort of small enough. 5mm squares means, well, 5mm squares.
Have you ever tried to cut a tomato, a spherical(ish) object into 5mm squares? I can tell you it is not easy. But it does take up a lot of time for someone with only amateur knife skills. Which right now is excellent. More time in the kitchen and less time working. This is perhaps the neatest dice I have ever, or will ever, do.
Sadly it seems these miniature tomato squares will not remain that way for long.
“Gently cook for about 15 minutes”
Now unless “gently cook” means put them in a pan but don’t turn your hob on, I genuinely have no idea how anyone can expect these tomatoes to retain their diced shape after being cooked for 15 minutes. If I was making a tomato sauce I would cook big chunks of tomatoes for this long, and end up with a pulpy sauce.
I put the heat on really low, and try not to stir too much. Sadly it’s no use. My beautiful 5mm tomato squares are now tomato mush.
At least my equally finely diced shallots have held together. I’m meant to scoop them (and the none existant tomato squares) out of the pan and let the juices reduce. But seeing as my tomato is almost completely juice now, I just let it tick over on a high heat for a little longer.
Once I remove the tomato mix from the heat I cheat a little. Finally chopping a couple of small cherry tomatoes and mixing them in raw with the cooked tomato. To give a nod to the diced texture that I have completely eradicated through cooking.
Next step… the dressing
OK this I can get on board with. Not only does the dressing have the decidedly non-vegan Worcestershire sauce in it but it also has tomato ketchup. Michelin starred food with tomato ketchup! Brilliant!
The dressing is simple. Simply mix together. As I’m only making enough for one (in the end I am going to need 1 or 2 teaspoons of dressing) the tricky bit is the scaling down. Whereas I might measure out 10g of mustard for a bigger batch, and I really going to get the scales out to measure 2g? Definitely not. My measurements turn into a simpler quantity. A bit. Or if being very accurate, a little bit. Basically put some of everything in a bowl and taste it.
Tastes good to me.
Next up – verjus granita. This step is very simple. I skip it. Anything that needs 4-6 hours to set in the freezer should really be at the start of the recipe. Plus what on earth is verjus? I have a horrible sense of deja vu as I think this might be the second time I’ve skipped over a garnish for a dish because of this ingredient.
After making a mental note to find out more about, and purchase, some verjus for next time I come across it randomly in a recipe, I move on.
Sourdough croutons are up next.
If I was making the sourdough from scratch I should have started that yesterday. But thankfully I have some slices from a previous homemade loaf in the freezer. In a moment of fate or wonderful chance, for the recipe I actually need to freeze the bread in order to slice it super thin. So if anything I am ahead of the game. Winner.
Once the bread has thawed slightly I slice off some super fine slivers of sourdough and pop them on an oven tray. Into a low oven with a drizzle of olive oil to crisp up for about 10 minutes.
Now to plate up. Or as the recipe calls it – “assembly”.
I have tahini, I have more small tomatoes from the garden cut into quarters. I do not however have any black olive crumb.
Black olive crumb?? Why isn’t there a recipe step for this? Surely you don’t just buy black olive crumb???
So next question. How to crumb (can crumb be a verb I wonder?) olives?
Thankfully I have a jar of black olives in the cupboard. Turns out to make an olive crumb you are meant to dry out olives in a low oven for 2-3hours before blitzing in a food processor. If you want a very dry crumb (I’m not sure how appetising that sounds…) you then spread the blitzed olives back out onto a baking sheet and put them back in the oven to dry out even more.
Right. I cut the olives in half, in a hope that this halves the drying time. Into the oven they go.
So now I have an hour or so to kill.
Before I know it I’m roasting squash, making spinach pasta from scratch, making a fruit coulis out of some leftovers in the fruit bowl. Yes in the time it takes to make an olive crumb it seems I can also prep a main course and a dessert for myself too.
I’ve also eaten half a pack of biscuits.
Finally, a little later than planned, I’m ready to assemble.
It goes without saying that I do not have any edible flowers.
I mix a teaspoon of dressing with my tomato mush, which looks about 3 tablespoons worth. Then I put it in a pastry ring to make it look as neat as I possibly can.
I arrange the fresh tomatoes on top.
Damn. After making the olive crumb I’ve now forgotten it.
I take my tiny tomatoes back off the plate, and individually wipe any tomato mush off them.
Now I sprinkle the olive crumb onto the tartare and then gently replace my mini tomato segments. I pick some tiny parsley and oregano leaves from the herb plants outside and arrange as daintily as I can. In my months of recreating restaurant food at home, this is the first time I have appreciated why chefs use tweezers.
I’ve finally finished. A beautiful plate. A circle of tomato about the size of a coaster. This could well be the prettiest thing I have ever made.
The downside of a dinner for one is there is no one there to appreciate my efforts. Especially as it doesn’t last long. It takes little over a minute to polish off the plate.
Which tastes lovely. A really amazing way to showcase tomatoes at their best. However was it worth the hours of prep? I’m not sure…
I think next time I’ll just make a tomato salad. Unless I’m avoiding a work again. Then it’s back to the kitchen to see what else I can chop into 5mm squares.