Her face flicks through a range of expressions – some involuntary, some manufactured. Hopeful Grimacing. Thoughtful. Puzzled. And then back to Optimistic as she continues the tasting.
“Ptsep-Ptsep-Ptsep – it’s nice…em… maybe it needs more salt.”
If the soup had any more added salt, it would get its own special rate of VAT in the budget. But I think my wife is just being kind. She doesn’t want to be too discouraging. She sees my initial attempts at cooking as being like the first few episodes of many light entertainment programmes on Irish television – ill-conceived and bland but at least deserves a chance to improve.
Normally my help with the cooking involves a number of ‘back-office’ functions: clearing away the carrot skins, the tops of tomatoes, some garlic crushing. It’s an important role but not mission-critical. I wasn’t always so cackhanded. During my single days, I had built up a small list of old reliable recipes that I would turn to. It was simple, but impressive cooking done usually to woo a woman. Wooking, I called it.
After getting married, there was a merger of two companies who both had departments that performed similar functions. I unilaterally disbanded the lunch and dinner divisions leaving only a skeleton crew in place to take care of the smoothie, the Flahavans and the boiled eggs.
Recently, there has been a strategy review at CEO level and I have been reassigned, unwillingly, to a role with more ‘ownership’. My first project is the vegetable soup. It started out promisingly. Make no bones about it (unless you’re creating your own chicken stock), preparing soup is dull. It’s not like a barbecue where there is much flaming and swearing and waving about of one’s arms. There is no opportunity to order anyone around while carrying a skewer. Vegetable soup is mainly about a lot of peeling. During this particular peel session, I was reunited with a no-nonsense figure from the past – the turnip.
Along with 60% tax rates, the Phonics Copy and Theresa Lowe’s Where in the World, the turnip was one of the things that made this country great. And then we turned our back on it. In many homes up and down the country, mashed turnip, potatoes and processed peas formed a protective culinary tricolor which kept many a family from the workhouse until they reached the safety of the fry at the weekend.
We grew a field of turnips. After picking, they were stored in a pile in the shed. Over the course of the winter, this pile was whittled away as each humble mud-covered turnip was converted into mashy orangey loveliness. But I’d never prepared one. And even though peeling a turnip was like trying to shear some roundy vegetabular sheep, I couldn’t help feeling an affinity with it.
Turnips never got the glory afforded to more glamorous colleagues. There are no hand-cooked kettle crisps made out of turnips. They do have a slight BO problem. “Boil a turnip and the whole world knows about it…”
The poor turnip was cast aside by the Celtic Tiger generation in favour of the celeriac. If ever a vegetable was promoted beyond its ability it’s the celeriac. You can’t move for the stuff now. It’s very name sounds like it has a food intolerance to itself.
The peeling is done. Despite advice, I am not using a recipe, so this soup is quite free-form. I do know the vegetables need to be sweated. So far so good – I think. Half an hour later I’m sweating. The vegetables are stuck to the bottom of the pot. I took my eye off the boil when I was distracted by a phonecall during which I spent too long telling the person on the other side that I was making soup.
Now I’m in trouble. I look around for a cookery book. The first I look at is ‘Practical Cookery’ – a second-hand purchase from the days of ‘Operation Metrosexual’. It’s not really suitable for me as it’s very much from the old school of cookery books. Instructions seem to be delivered in the brusque manner of a matronly woman who is cross to find a man in her kitchen.
The Wagamamma cookbook isn’t much help either. The recipes contain hidden snags. “Add a touch of ‘?mugi no shushi’( See page 35)” Then you turn to page 35 and in order to get one of the ingredients to ‘Omugi no shushi’, you have to answer a riddle posed by a wise man sitting under a tree.
This isn’t how they make it look on the cookery show. They’re always so damn prepared. For once I want to see a TV chef nipping down to Spar to get a back-up pizza or roaring into the space under the sink:
“Is there a clean saucepan at all in this house? IS THERE?”
My wife is back by my side doing more tasting. “Ptsep-Ptsep” and she ponders my efforts. “I’ll chop some more celery” she says. Soon she is making everything okay and a passable soup – that does not require any more seasoning – is salvaged from the situation.
I briefly hope that this episode will result in my new responsibilities being scaled back. No such luck. This is not the Department of Finance – there is no reward for failure.
“You’re a natural” she proclaims. “You can do stew next week.”
Pass the salt.