Like myself, my father-in-law is from the North of England and therefore prone to speaking his mind and he sometimes say things that others (in this politically correct world of ours) may find a little offensive but it’s really just the Northern way of ‘telling it as it is’.
During conversations, if he can’t think of anything to say he will say, “Well I.” He stretches the ‘I’ out at the end so that it sounds like “Well I-I-I-I-I-I-I,” and he is, I’m fairly sure, unaware of what he is saying. He uses it in the same way as someone who unconsciously drops ‘errrs’ and ‘umms’ and ‘okays’ in their conversations when they’re not sure what to say next.
He is also one of the most interesting, surprising and funniest men I have ever met and his best moments (that I was present at) have all been associated with food. Here are four recipes involving my father-in-law that drove my wife Jackie almost to the edge of insanity.
RECIPE 1: Gnocchi.
We were living in Winchester at the time and my father-in-law had come to stay with us for a fortnight. On the night he arrived I left him sleeping on the couch in the lounge and went into the kitchen to give Jackie a hand. We were having gnocchi that evening, which we both liked and as it was rich in carbohydrates it would be good for keeping my father-in-law’s diabetes under control.
Gnocchi is a fairly easy dish to put together once you’ve got over the scary part of actually making it yourself. To serve four people all you need is 2 potatoes, 9oz (250g) of plain flour and 1 egg. You start by boiling the peeled potatoes in a large saucepan of water until they are firm (about 15 minutes). Then you drain them, cool them and mash them. Then you mix together the mashed potatoes, flour and egg in a large bowl and knead it until it forms a ball of dough. Next you shape small portions of this dough into long snakes and then cut them into 1.5cm (½ in) pieces. Finally you bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, drop in the gnocchi and cook them for about 3 to 5 minutes or until the gnocchi has risen to the top. Drain it and serve it with pesto, or any sauce that takes your fancy.
“Why aren’t you keeping dad company?” she asked.
“He’s asleep,” I told her.
“How long’s he been asleep?
“About half an hour.”
Jackie stopped what she was doing. “He’s not asleep – he’s slipping into a diabetic coma. You finish the gnocchi and I’ll wake him up. We need to feed him now.”
She woke her dad up while I drained the gnocchi, mixed in the pesto and piled it into a bowl. By the time I had taken it into the dining room my father-in-law was already at the table looking confused and shaken.
He looked at the bowl of food in front of him and said, “What’s this?”
“It’s good for you – just eat it,” said Jackie.
“But what is it?”
“It doesn’t matter – just eat it.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s called gnocchi, dad – so just eat it.”
“What’s gnocchi when it’s at home?”
“It’s an Italian pasta made from potatoes – just eat it.”
“Look, dad – we’re not trying to poison you – just eat it!”
He picked up his fork and began eating and after a few mouthfuls he began to become visibly better, but he still looked tired. He went to bed almost as soon as he’d finished his meal.
When he came downstairs the next morning he looked much better.
“Are you alright, dad?” Jackie asked him.
“Aye. I can’t remember much from last night.”
“That’s because you went into a diabetic coma.”
“Oh. Well I. I remember eating something.”
“Gnocchi. You had some gnocchi.”
“I don’t know what it was, but it was bloody horrible.”
Jackie has never made gnocchi since.
RECIPE 2: Watercress Soup.
A few days into my father-in-law’s stay with us Jackie decided to make watercress soup. This was our family’s favourite soup when we were living in the UK – but it did take a bit of preparation.
To make it you need 3 large bunches of watercress (about 8 oz (225g) after they’ve been destalked), 4 oz of butter, the white part of 5 leeks that have been washed and chopped, 4 medium sized potatoes that have been peeled and chopped, 3 pints of vegetable stock, 4 heaped tablespoons of crème fraîche and salt and pepper.
It was during the destalking and chopping phase that my father-in-law first entered the kitchen.
“By ‘eck,” he said to his daughter. “What are you making?”
“Watercress soup, dad.”
“Oh, well I,” he said and then wandered off to read his newspaper.
Once she’d prepared all the ingredients, Jackie melted the butter in a big, thick-based pan – then she added the leeks, potatoes and most of the watercress, stirring them around so that they were coated in the butter. After sprinkling the vegetables with salt she covered the pan with a lid and let them sweat over a gentle heat for about 20 minutes.
As she was giving the mixture a good stir halfway through this phase, my father-in-law came back into the kitchen.
“By ‘eck, that smells nice – what are you making?”
“I’m making watercress soup, dad – like I was fifteen minutes ago – remember?”
“Oh right. Well I,” he said and then wandered off to start the Daily Telegraph crossword.
After 10 minutes my wife added the stock, covered the pan and simmered it for 15 minutes. She then took the pan off the heat, cooled it a little and then began to whizz it up with an electric whizzer.
It was while she was whizzing up the soup that my father-in-law re-entered the kitchen.
"By ‘eck, that’s bloody noisy – what are you making?”
Jackie stopped the whizzer. “I’m making watercress soup, dad – watercress soup. You remember? I was making watercress soup when you came in earlier. You’ve asked me twice now what I’m making. Its watercress soup that I’m making, dad – watercress soup. That’s what I’m making! Watercress soup!”
“Oh right. Well I,” he said and then wandered off to complete his crossword.
Jackie finished the soup off by swirling in 3 tablespoons of crème fraîche and seasoning it with salt and pepper. She reheated it gently and then served it into warmed bowls and garnished each one with some extra crème fraîche and the remaining watercress leaves. “It’s ready!” she called.
My father-in-law sat down at the table and looked down at the contents of his bowl. “By ‘eck, Jackie,” he said. “What’s this then?”
RECIPE 3: Cheese Soufflé.
Cheese Soufflé is not the easiest dish to make, but Jackie decided that it would be a nice treat for her dad in the last couple of days of his stay with us. Despite the difficulty, she was very good at making it, but getting it to rise and then not deflate as soon as it is taken out of the oven is a tricky process that often leads to failure.
Just to make it clear how complicated and difficult it is to make Cheese Soufflé here’s an “easy” recipe that’s on the BBC Good Food website:
50g butter, plus extra for greasing
50g plain flour
1 tsp mustard powder
100g grated extra-strong cheddar, (blue cheese, goat's cheese and smoked cheeses also work well)
EQUIPMENT: 15cm soufflé dish, saucepan, 2 large mixing bowls, wooden spoon, spatula, baking sheet, large metal spoon, measuring jug, grater, electric whisk, cutlery knife.
Preparing the soufflé dish: Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6 and place a baking sheet on the middle shelf. Butter a 15cm soufflé dish generously, then sprinkle in the breadcrumbs and rotate the dish to ensure the butter is evenly coated. Tip out any excess breadcrumbs.
Making a thick white sauce: In a pan, melt the butter over a medium heat; stir in the flour and mustard. Cook, stirring, for 1 min. Take off the heat and gradually stir in the milk, mixing it in thoroughly before adding more. Return to the heat and stir continuously until very thick (around 10 mins). Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool. Crack the eggs, placing the whites into a clean bowl and stirring the yolks into the sauce. Stir in cheddar and season well.
Adding the egg whites: Use a clean whisk to beat the egg whites until peaks form that just hold their shape (electric is best as it will make the job much quicker). Then take a metal spoon and gently stir the whipped whites into the white sauce in a figure of eight.
Top-hatting: Spoon the mixture into the dish. Run a cutlery knife around the edge to create a ‘top hat’ effect; this ensures the soufflé rises above the rim and doesn’t stick. Place on the baking sheet and bake for 25-30 mins until the top is golden and risen and has a slight wobble. Serve immediately.
As you can see, it’s not that easy.
I’d just returned home from work when she’d started making it and was, as I usually am at the end of the working day, starving.
That’s not starving as in famine beleaguered Third World African country starving – I’d never want to be that hungry. But I was a little peckish and decided to cook myself a burger to dispel the pangs of hunger that were starting to grumble in my stomach. I only had Value Burgers in the freezer and so I popped one of them under the grill and waited for the heat to reduce it to half its original size. Fortunately the top quality chefs who had created these gourmet lumps of whatever was left on the cow after all the meat had been removed had devised a secret but scientific way for the burgers to retain all their additives once all the water and fat had been deposited into bottom of the grill pan.
Value Burgers are unique in that, through this secret but scientific method, they have about as much nutritional value as a sheet of corrugated cardboard, and instead of providing the body with the necessary nutrients for it to function properly you actually end up with less nutrients in your body than before you started eating them.
But when you’re starving they do fill a hole.
RECIPE 4: Value Burger with added anger.
When I was tucking into my Value Burger my father-in-law appeared at my shoulder and asked, “Ee, can I have one of those, Steve?”
“OK,” I said. “But they’re just Value Burgers.”
“I don’t mind.”
VALUE BURGER IN A BUN
1 Value Burger
Tomato Ketchup (optional)
Remove box of Value Burgers from freezer and take out one burger. Place remaining burgers and box (if there are burgers still in box) back into the freezer and close freezer door. Remove the wax discs from either side of burger before placing under grill (this is very important if you don’t want your burger to taste of burnt paper). Turn on grill. Leave under grill until burger is approximately half its original size, turning once halfway through cooking time. Take burger off grill (remember it will be hot, so it might be useful to use a pair of tongs – a fork will do if you are poor and do not possess such luxury items as tongs). Cut bun in half with a knife (a saw will do if you do not have a knife), ensuring that you cut it horizontally and not vertically as some amateur cooks have been known to do (modern pre-cut burger buns instead of traditional ones will prevent this from happening as well as reducing the risk of amputated fingers – especially if all you have to hand is a band saw or a Stanley knife). Place burger on one half of the bun and place the other half on top of that. Ketchup can be added to give the Value Burger some flavour – ensuring, of course it is added before the other half of the bun is put in place.
I handed my father-in-law his burger and he ate it in less than a minute. About an hour later the Cheese Soufflé came out of the oven – and it was perfect. We all sat down at the table and Jackie served it up for us. It looked and smelled divine and it tasted like heaven. My father-in-law put one forkful in his mouth and said, “Mmmm.”
Now, that would have been fine had he not continued to speak, because what he said next has been a dark and depressing talking point in our house ever since. If he’d just stopped at “Mmmm,” everything would have been all right, and Jackie could have avoided spending years in counselling and lived her life secure in the knowledge that the Cheese Soufflé she had served up to us that evening was the best she had ever made.
But he didn’t.
After he had said, “Mmmm,” my father-in-law turned to me and qualified his lip-smacking expression of delight with, “by ‘eck Steve, that burger you cooked for me were gorgeous.”
I can think of only one thing that may have been more terrifying than Jackie’s reaction to what he had just said – and that would be being present when the Enola Gay delivered Little Boy to the unsuspecting civilians of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945.
There was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence before I heard a muffled Boom, which signalled the detonation of the neutron bomb that was in Jackie’s head. “WHAAAAAAAT?!” she screamed. “THAT WAS A SHITTY, TASTELESS VALUE BURGER THAT HE COOKED FROM FROZEN IN UNDER FIVE MINUTES AND YOU THINK IT’S BETTER THAN THE CHEESE SOUFFLÉ I’VE JUST SPENT HOURS SLAVING OVER JUST TO MAKE IT PERFECT – FOR YOU!”
My father-in-law sat there with his fork in hand wondering at first what he had said that was so wrong. And then the penny dropped and a look of guilt and shame replaced the broad smile that had been there only a few seconds before. He was probably thinking that he should apologise for what he had said and maybe make amends for complimenting the wrong person for their exceptional culinary skills. But he could find no words that could ever convey how he felt at that particular moment and so, instead of expressing his regret and his overwhelming desire to beg forgiveness for his actions, he said the only thing he could think of that could possibly defuse the desperate (and potentially dangerous) situation he was in.
He said, “Well I-I-I-I-I-I-I.”