21 Jul 2017

That Thing We Used to Make

This evening I knew I wanted to cook something -- I mean really cook, not just assemble some food out of necessity. I wasn't sure what, but I had a nagging half-craving for something, something with rice and vegetables and creaminess but not-a-risotto, because it definitely had some spices in it somewhere around the onion, and risottos generally don't.

It took me a while to realise that what I was craving was That Thing We Used to Make. I shouldn't have been craving it, because That Thing We Used to Make wasn't that nice, really. It was exactly as I say: an onion, fried, a bunch of whatever other vegetables were available in whoever's student kitchen, also fried, and then a big pile of rice and stock and some whim-selected, sometimes even unknown spices added (which was incorrect, as the spices should have been fried, and was probably part of why it wasn't that nice) and sometimes some equally unstandardised herbs too, and the whole lot cooked up until the rice was soft and it could be served up in goopy globs. It never quite tasted cohesive.

Sarah and I started making it in her shared kitchen on campus after a band rehearsal one evening and had some wine with it. Somehow this process came to be repeated with more and more people on what became a weekly basis so that it evolved into a first-year undergraduate version of a dinner party. Everyone who came to them brought a bottle of wine; there was never any wine left at the end. Then we usually went to the bar. And this is probably part of why the exact recipe and preferred herbs and spices were never consolidated.

I almost put it down to the idea that I was just craving those kitchens and those people and those days in some kind of tiny nostalgia hiccup -- but: not really. I don't miss those aesthetically hostile glarey-strip-light hall-of-residence kitchens much. Most of the people who came to the dinner-parties have since become adults with lives that diverged from mine significantly enough that we've mostly lost touch. (They probably have real dinner parties now.) As kitchens and food-gatherings go, I'm rather more attached to the memories of some of the later ones when we'd started mostly eating chickpeas, in our lovely dingy, cramped and shabbily cushioned living rooms in the student houses of second and third year and all the subsequent years during which I continued to pretend to myself that I was still a student. I miss my sprightly nineteen-year-old liver that could apparently process a bottle of wine's worth of acetaldehyde overnight with barely a whimper, of course, but that's about it.

And anyway, if I was to nostalgia-trip on York uni campus aesthetics from 1999-2000, it would be so many other things instead. Like slightly dry vegeburgers and chips (with plenty of compensatory mayo) from Derwent College bar, which tasted entirely and uniformly of the smell of Derwent College bar. Watching three films back-to-back on Derwent film night and getting an extra vegeburger for sustenance after the second one (and forever after not quite remembering which characters and which scenes were from which film). The loud, sticky Langwith bar quiz nights, back when the decor was properly, respectably scuzzy, and when student bar quizzes were about real things like Greek mythology and Bob Dylan, not the price of the cheapest spaghetti at different supermarkets like they are these days. Vanbrugh when it was all dusty pink threadbare velour and full of music students being kept awake mid-lecture by machine-coffee and chocolate tiffin, or cramming in as much post-rehearsal booze as possible before closing time.

And there was the comfortable old smell of wet-washing mixed with stale cooking in the corridors of David's block in Langwith, and leaving it at 1.09am to walk through the bit outside the bar where you never noticed how loud the mains hum from the vending machines was during the day, and then along the covered way in the strange quiet and night-cold with no-one else there, hearing every footstep, with automatic doors opening just for me, and all the different machine-hums in the different bits of Vanbrugh foyer, tapping in the doorcode next to the Porters' lodge, and then the subtly different wet-washing-stale-cooking smell of my block and my floor, and then my tiny room with all the batik hangings and postcards and photos covering the walls because that's how I could find comfort and sleep in this strange blank boxy new place.

That Thing We Used to Make wasn't so specifically attached to being a first year living on campus. It came camping with us via a little gas stove when the band made our album while staying in a tent near the recording studio for four days and got sunburnt and had an argument; and I made a huge vat of it at Whitby festival which we ate heated-up for several nights after getting back from the ceilidh; sometimes I even amused my parents by making it at their house. But at some point, after a few years, I stopped making it. The reason was that I had learned to make risotto properly. I think it was because of a passing comment of Jane's, that making food with fewer ingredients often rendered better results. So now I just use brown rice, onion, garlic, mushrooms, maybe some courgette, with stock and white wine, basil, oregano, bay and thyme, a bit of cheese at the end. I usually require a friend present to help quality-test the wine throughout the long cooking process. I'm quite confidently good at risotto now. But this evening I didn't want that sort of risotto.

I took to the internet, and looked for "mixed vegetable risotto" and then "+spices" and eventually the internet turned up the secret. What I wanted was paella. That Thing We Used to Make, I realised, was a bastardised and incorrectly constructed risotto-paella that didn't know its own ancestry. I'd traced the risotto side of the family back several generations (not to any real degree of purity, though; my risotto is decidedly not Correct, I'm sure) but remained entirely ignorant of the other side.

So I did a bit of Wikipedia - Felicity Cloake - Jamie Oliver (his was apparently scandalous) triangulation, and made a definitely inauthentic paella (yes, I replaced the seafood with red lentils. Deal with it.) but I think along the right seasoning-and-technique lines, because it tasted like a real one I had a bit of once. It was pretty good, actually.

And it was a bit like the episode of Voyager in which B'Elanna Torres is split into her human and Klingon halves as two whole separate people, but in this case it was the positive resolution, rather than the terrible accident at the beginning of the plot. (Also it was with rice and vegetables rather than a person, which is always less stressful.) And whereas B'Elanna, re-united in one body by the end, came to sit more comfortably with herself through the experience, That Thing We Used to Make - though we learned a lot from it and it got us through some times and soaked up a lot of cheap wine - was never meant to be itself forever. Now it is separated into its constituent identities, it is free, and at peace. And there's some of one of them left in the fridge.

tl;dr I made paella.