Inventing Cookstrips, by Len Deighton

I was delighted when the Observer decided to mark the anniversary of the cookstrips by publishing some new ones. Over the years many people – some of them professional chefs – have told me that trying cookstrip recipes was the start of their serious interest in food and cooking.

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My mother was an accomplished cook and she encouraged my efforts from an early age. One of my first successes was a Pork Pie. My father found it difficult to believe that I had made it unaided. His scepticism was understandable. I would still class a faultless Pork Pie – perfect crust, meaty filling that is not too fatty, and clear and flavourful jelly – as one of the most challenging products of a cook’s skill.

As a student I bought the cookery books of the great French chefs, and I later chose one of these to take to Roy Plomley’s mythical ‘Desert Island’. During my student days I shared a ramshackle basement flat with a fellow student – Adrian Bailey – who had also come from a family where cooking was high on the list of priorities. (He became a highly-esteemed writer, on food, wine and much else.) Between the two of us we spent lots of time and money on cooking.

Our flat became an open house where the local G.P., our college professors, the Russian military attaché, fellow art students (pretty girls especially welcome) and occasionally such celebrities as painters John Minton, or the greatly admired Stanley Spencer, might be sitting side by side with future famous painters, such as Peter Blake and Joe Tilson. Such appreciative guests spurred us to ever more ambitious feats of cooking. It has always been my policy to put food on the table and urge the guests to pass it around and serve each other. This is the quickest way to get strangers talking to each other and is the WD-40 of enjoyable dinner parties.

Not wishing to expose Action Cookbookmy expensive cookbooks to the splashy hazards of the kitchen, I would scribble the recipes on scraps of paper. Since I was an art student it was quicker to draw eggs and saucepans than to write the words ‘faultless Pork Pie’ and so a curious pictogram evolved.

It was a fellow student Ray Hawkey who suggested that, with a grid and professional lettering, they could become a newspaper feature. And so they did. I was an illustrator and delivering a cookstrip to the Observer offices was a highlight of my week. It was a congenial gathering with everyone, from foreign correspondents to theatre reviewers, drinking coffee and exchanging gossip.

Now the cookstrips are published as The Action Cookbook and French Cooking for Men. I regularly get requests for my other book ABC of French Food, which remains out of print. It is a comprehensive summary of the food notebooks I have kept over many years. Hints, tips, definitions, anecdotes and recipes; I am rather proud of this book and I’m currently planning to make it available as an e-book.

My wife, Ysabele, is a very fine and precise cook. My two sons have professional skills and regularly make their own bacon and pastrami – and a pannacotta that Ann Willan admired. They experiment with sous-vide cooking and produce Asian and Latin American dishes.French Strips

There is no doubt in my mind that French cooking, with its logic and terminology, is the way to start. Even many top-ranking Japanese chefs have started their careers with French cooking methods. I am not narrow-minded; some traditional English dishes are superb. By request of my friend Michael Caine, I served him a steak and kidney pudding, which is one of my favourite dishes. He said it was better than his mother’s. It was the finest compliment I could think of; I hope it didn’t get him into trouble at home. When Paul McCartney came to dinner we were going through an Indian phase. We served him a vast curry meal that covered the whole table in dishes.

I still enjoy cooking; I bake wholemeal bread a few times a week and spend many happy hours in the kitchen. My wife refuses to cook eggs for me as she says I am far too touchy about soft yolks and firm whites. I am interested in caramelization, especially in meat (the Maillard reaction), and that leads me to cook such items as shoulder of pork or lamb. I’ve done a new cookstrip about lamb cooked to release the delicious collagen.

There is of course a great temptation to prepare dinner party food a day in advance but I avoid that. Steam is the elixir that distinguishes almost all hot food from that which is warmed up. Preserving steam in dishes brought to the table must be the cook’s major task, although meat needs a few minutes ‘resting’. Standing at the head of the table, slicing a perfectly cooked joint of meat or poultry, and serving it to family and guests, is one of my greatest pleasures.

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– Len Deighton

Len Deighton discusses his Action Cookbook and French Cooking for Men.

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