At my mum or dad’s house, I love sitting at the table or leaning against the worktop, chatting away while they’re preparing dinner using a new recipe. As well as providing the company and conversation I assume they want, I stick around to help chop the garlic (the best thing to chop), to stir a pan and help tidy as they cook. We always plan what to eat together before meeting up, eating is always a focus. As the part-time sous-chef in this scenario, I have the idyllic impression that we’re working together to create a meal to share, a rewarding process for us both. I manage not to notice when they’re not as engaged in conversation, or that their backs are toward me as they busily manage several pans of hot food, checking new recipe books as they go.
In my small London kitchen, there’s no space to linger and any distraction of conversation flusters me to the point that my boyfriend often thinks I’m a stressful cook. Even in my parents’ larger kitchens, two cooks is too many. It was only after a few stressful days in the small kitchen, when I sat down to write about how I prefer to cook alone that I realised my parents often prefer to cook without distraction too.
There are some foods which can be slowly, calmly made together over a few hours and a glass of wine: fresh pasta or gnocchi with a simple sauce, a curry with fresh flatbreads can be made in stages, a risotto can be stirred mindlessly while catching up with a friend, or something so familiar that no thought goes into the process.
There’s a particular recipe for comfort cooking: it involves time and space. It’s better when it’s daylight, when I’m not hungry as I start cooking, when a familiar podcast is playing on the tiny bluetooth speaker that is far from beeping every minute to tell me it needs charging.
Pre-lockdown, trialing new recipes is crammed into short evenings or in between watching football on a Sunday; I leave pots boiling over and almost burn garlic and onions as I attempt to multitask and end up enjoying eating the food but resenting the process of making it. Lockdown meant more time and less distraction.
If we forget the small tantrums I’ve had over things like some under-boiled potatoes and some pizza dough which seemed too sticky, cooking has been a more gentle process. I have time to watch: on a sullen Sunday, I cooked the tomato pasta I’ve made countless times late in the evening. I wasn’t hungry, but I craved my most comforting food. I watched the garlic dance in hot oil, the tomato puree sizzle with the garlic. I watched the sauce bubble and spit over the hob, and the way the boiling water rolled as it cooked rigatoni.