Sometimes you need to break your own rules in order to remind yourself why you have them in the first place...
There are a few that I will never, ever breach. For example, rule no. 7: Don't squash simmering whole cherry tomatoes with the back of a spoon — unless you enjoy a visit to your local ICU. But, sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I just forget.
And so recently I found myself trying out a recipe for a dinner party that — what you are about to hear is a true story ladies and gentlemen — I had never tried before. It's just one of those rules I have, because it simply N.E.V.E.R fails to end in disaster.
On this particular occasion, friends had invited me and the Guinea Pig over for dinner. Takeout pizza, in fact, at their place, because they are new parents and were just too worn out to bother with the cooking and cleaning that goes with a dinner party.
But I wouldn't hear of it. No, no, I absolutely insisted on coming over and cooking dinner for them — and if they raised so much as one word of protest, I would consider it a personal affront.
So that was that. Now... what was I going to cook? Then it hit me: of course. I'll make a dish I've only ever looked at in recipes books and thought, 'That seems easy enough...'.
When I arrived at said friends' house and began to extrude the ingredients for grilled sole with leeks and potato gratin from the shopping bags, I got an inkling that I hadn't quite thought this through. For starters, I don't know how their oven works — I'm used to my oven, treacherous, schizophrenic time bomb that it is — and my tools and my pots and pans.
It was a disaster. The potato slices did not cook through, even though I added an hour to the cooking time (during which the top charred to the appealing consistency of tar), and the sole and leeks melted into watery, tasteless mush
My friends, of course, were unfailingly polite, which made the whole ordeal much, much worse.
'Under-cooked?' one of them said, pushing a piece of glassy, too-solid potato around her plate. 'Not at all! This is the way we normally eat, uh... What did you say this was called?'
'Look, I'm sorry,' I said, 'this really isn't one of my best meals... Pizza would've been a much better idea!'
'Nonsense!' they cooed. 'We love it!'
But, of course, at the end of the evening, a plate of cold food that's only been nibbled at never lies.
'Who could possibly screw up a gratin?' you might be thinking — I know, I know, it's up there with botching 2-minute noodles.
That is why we all have our little rules (which need to be broken now and then, so we are reminded why we have them in the first place).
The following is a dish I should have made that evening. It's quick, fool-proof and just delicious, winter or summer. God bless Jamie. I added two chopped celery stalks because I like the crunch...
Jamie Oliver's summer chickpea salad
1 small red onion, peeled
1–2 fresh red chillies, deseeded
2 handfuls of ripe red or yellow tomatoes
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 x 410g jar or tin of chickpeas, drained, or around 4 large handfuls of soaked and cooked chickpeas
a handful of fresh mint, chopped
a handful of fresh green or purple basil, finely ripped
200g feta cheese
First of all, finely slice your red onion. Once that's done, finely slice your chillies then roughly chop your tomatoes, mixing them in with the onion and chillies. Scrape all of this, and the juice, into a bowl and dress with the juice of 1½ lemons and about 3 times as much good extra virgin olive oil. Season to taste. Heat the chickpeas in a pan, then add 90 per cent of them to the bowl. Mush up the remaining chickpeas and add these as well – they will give a nice creamy consistency. Allow to marinate for a little while and serve at room temperature.
Just as you're ready to serve, give the salad a final dress with the fresh mint and basil. Taste one last time for seasoning – you may want to add the juice from your remaining lemon half at this point. Place on a nice serving dish and crumble over the feta cheese.