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The dishes I cook that will never let me down

Jay Rayner, guardian.co.uk, Modified: April 19, 2013 14:03 IST

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The dishes I cook that will never let me down We all have a classic repertoire - and mine includes that chilli I've been knocking out since university.


In the corner of my kitchen is a set of shelves, crammed with recipe books. None of these is for show. Every single one is dog-eared and sauce-stained, as if they were once collateral damage in a passata factory gas explosion.

I'm sure this doesn't surprise you. After all, I am known for living my life mouth first and accordingly I can't bear to put the same damn thing in there night after night. Every evening is a quest for novelty, for invention, for the shock of the new. If it's a wild mushroom risotto one night, you can be certain nothing involving rice or fungus will go near me for months to follow. I leap gaily from Thai fusion one night, to French classicism the next; from handmade dhosas, to Peruvian staples to the sort of fermented fishy offcuts that your average Icelander would regard as a seriously good night out.

Or not as the case may be. I really do have shelves of cookbooks. I am lucky enough to get sent them and they are often very pretty. There's page after page of glossy, red hot cooking action. But almost all the time they remain just that, a classic kind of gastro porn to be examined and fantasised over rather than acted upon.

Meanwhile, in my real kitchen, I return night after night to my compact repertoire, my culinary missionary position. For me it's the chicken thighs roasted with lots of fennel seed, garlic and lemon juice. It's the garlic-free spag bol made to the four-hour recipe which I picked up from some bloke I met near Cardiff. It's braised peas and lettuce, whole pot-roasted cauliflower, sausages with soupy white beans, that chilli con carne, a version of which I've been knocking out since university.

It is all of these things. In rotation. Of course, there will be some show cooking for dinner parties, a braised shoulder of lamb here, a big Thai fish soup there. But then it's back to the favourites. I imagine I'm expected to be embarrassed about this, but I'm not.

Because it is this repetition that roots us and reminds us exactly who we are. It's especially true now, in the depths of February, when winter has become stubborn and brooding and you begin to wonder whether it will ever give way to spring. This is when we nest, and when we return to the dishes that we know will never let us down.

A while back I received a call from the then editor of my restaurant column. Apparently I'd ordered grilled sardines in three of the four previous restaurants I'd reviewed. I made an impassioned speech about how the grilled sardine was a brilliant test of a kitchen's suppleness and subtlety; that it took real skill to grill a sardine well. This was cobblers. In truth I was simply really into grilled sardines. I liked the way the crisp skin gave way to the oily flesh beneath and the slight bitter tang of left-behind gut.

If you have a proper appetite once is not enough. Once is never enough. You need to come back and back. Just to check. Just to be sure. You need to know you haven't lost your religion. All those jokes I make about wanting to get chin-deep in pork belly, scratchings and chorizo? They would only really be jokes if they were in some way an exaggeration, but they aren't. There really is quite a lot of rendered pig in my life. I imagine there always will be. It's just who I am. Don't judge me.

Chilli con carne with kidney beans and bay leaves. Photograph: Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

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