It’s no secret I’ve always been my grandpappy’s child. We were cut from the same cloth him and I. Dreamy and contemplative, often lost to our thoughts. And with a mom working the occasional evening shift, I was often fobbed off on her folks, my maternal grandparents. Without fail, it was my Papa who tucked me into bed at night and read to me. If I was lucky, a sleepover would fall on a Friday and the next morning, after a syrupy flapjack or two, off he and I would go on our obligatory saunter down to the main town library. There he’d find a chair and wait patiently while I perused my options. Finally, happy with the five books I’d cherry-picked, we’d make our way to the librarian’s desk and be home in time for lunch.
But if it was Papa who read to me before the sandman came, it was my Nana who’d made sure that the sheets were crisp and the bed warmed by a hot water bottle. You see, that’s her. The matriarchal glue of our family, never skipping a beat when it comes to what we need. She’s simply not one for dilly-dallying. And who could blame her? My great grandmother passed away when my Nana was only 11 years old, leaving little room for the frivolity of childhood. And as were the times, she married and settled into life with my Papa as a good woman in the prime of her youth should do. Suddenly the wife of a Catholic, she took to her new role with gusto and popped out five babies before you could sneeze. So if you want a woman who gets things done, she’s your girl! While Papa and I have often pondered the meaning of life, it’s my Nana who taught me some invaluable lessons on the subject. And when it comes to food, ‘Waste not, want not’ would have to be one that has stood the test of time.
My Nana is steadfast when it comes to frugality. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not cheap. It’s just that extravagance errs too close on the side of wasteful in her world. Lunches at my grandparents’ meant just enough for everybody. Stretch a pack of pork bangers as far as you can. No more than one per plate, with a smattering of peas and mash, and hopefully there would be some to spare for cold sausage sarmies at dinnertime later.
Then there’s the matter of her freezer, truly a site to behold, packed to the hilt as it is with labelled tupperwares. Even a spoonful of gravy after a Sunday roast chicken won’t see its way down the drain. Into the smallest of tupperwares it goes, ready for the dog’s dinner the next day. I have to confess, this has left me in my later years with the compulsive habit of freezing all the left over egg whites after an evening of spaghetti carbonara. Tragically, I can’t face the prospect of an egg white omelette and lack the willpower to whip up a batch of meringues. So there the egg whites sit, unloved and unused in the freezer, while I find myself unable to send them to a more forgiving fate in the kitchen sink. As for expiration dates, they’re superfluous in that woman’s pantry.
But be that as it may, my Nana used to make me one thing for breakfast as a child that to this day remains my favourite meal. Of all things, to my mind, and getting well into my dirty thirties, nothing beats a soft boiled egg with buttery toast ‘soldiers’ for dunking. Give me death row, and a final meal, that’s it. No doubt about it.
On the most gruelling or emotional of days, when I do not have anyone else to feed except my cats and myself, this is what comforts me when I don my fleecy pyjamas and put the telly on. Morning, noon or night! I even use the exact same egg cup from all those years ago. My Nana gifted it to me. It has a picture of a cat (how fitting for a self-professed crazy cat lady!) about to indulge as a little chick has hatched from the egg and escaped the spoon. It is chipped. A flaw that I love it all the more for, because it tells a story, the story of a little girl who became a woman but is still so very much a child at heart when it comes to retreating from the tediousness of adulthood. It goes almost without saying that, I buy nothing but the best eggs, and revel in the liquid centre as it oozes out and over on the egg shell dunk after dunk. This is messy eating for me (as most of my eating is!), my fingers wiping the sides clean and licking each and every morsel of the meal.
Of course, in his beloved memory, I am still my grandpappy’s child. As such, amidst the uncertainty of these most unsettling times, I have clung to a cherry-picking of bookish saving graces in the coveted form of Nigel Slater’s Appetite, Nigella’s How to Eat, and, when the fancy for armchair travelling strikes, Mina Holland’s The Edible Atlas. All are dog-eared and have been poured over with the umpteenth mug of black coffee or glass of wine most intimately when the doom and gloom of the outdoors have proven too much to bear. In them, I find my centre again. My whimsy… My humour… My taste for a flavour-filled life… All restored and nourished. And yet, there are another two culinary custodians that have saved me during this pandemic, namely Harumi’s Japanese Cooking and Everyday Harumi by Harumi Kurihara.
You see, there is another way my Nana rubbed off on me, although not quite in the manner either of us could have predicted. A kind of rebellion in me. While I might sense that Kurihara and her approach to simplicity in dining might have endeared her to my Nana, plating is another matter altogether. When I turn to Harumi’s ways of cooking and eating, I’m met with an approach that is nothing if not reverent. Instead of building towers of meat and chips and cheese sauce (or the ever reproachful ‘two sides’) on a veritable smorgasbord of a plate, Harumi proposes Japanese plating where each ‘accompaniment’ is considered a prized dish. It is placed in an individual bowl where it can be equally individually appreciated as well as for its contribution to the larger ensemble. Breaking out all the good China, as it were, while in my grandmother’s house of precious antiques, it had all but warranted a visit from the Pope on high himself.
Contrast and diversity instead emerge as key ingredients when it comes to the Japanese table, as Harumi advocates the importance of balance. This is apparent not only in her food, but also in the presentation. Shoots of bamboo add a freshness in flavour during the warm summer months, while glass bowls and bamboo wood surfaces create an equally ‘cooling’ aesthetic. In the colder months, the earthy comfort of mushrooms replaces the bamboo in cooking, with lacquered dishes becoming the winter-serving staple. Because of this, Harumi remarks that Japanese women are unlikely to go out and buy dinner-sets for their homes. Rather, they will slowly acquire small and unique items for their dinner tables over a lifetime.
Again and again, Harumi returns readers to the principles of contrast, diversity and an unmistaken reverence for life’s simpler bounties.So I take this to heart when shopping for individual wineglasses, or teacups, or silver cutlery, and beyond this, with my particular affliction in adding to an ever extensive collection of antique egg cups over the years. As every day fare for an ‘any and every day’ occasion. And when I dine, Covid or no, I find it’s best done elegantly for one at the very least, or not at all. For want of proof, here is a most delicious sprucing up of a traditional favourite, boiled egg and toast, and one that I hope you will only serve on your most outlandishly decadent and devilishly good China!
Oefs en cocotte (or “Egg in a pot”)
There are few things as decadent to my mind as a soft, golden yolked egg and this dish is a treasure for me, as I have loved it since Nigella first introduced me to it. So evocative of the boiled eggs and toast of my youth, sometimes nostalgia makes a dish all the more sumptuous. That said, if you are a newcomer to this simple but luxurious treat, I hope it will charm you as it has me and mine over the years.
It demands so very little… Salted butter for greasing. A tablespoon of cream for the egg. A pinch of salt. And of course, the eggs. Grease a small bowl or ramekin for each egg and the spoon of cream, brushing the inside with the butter and cracking an egg ever so carefully into it. Then add your spoonful of cream per ramekin. Sprinkle the salt over the egg and pop it into the oven for a couple of minutes. A slice of hot buttered toast on the side and you’re ready to feast!
Featured image by Hege Greenall-Scholtz