Dishes to make together
As you read foodie blogs, Web sites, and magazines and watch FoodTV, never forget that James Barber did it all first. Long before there was callow young Jamie, there was well-seasoned James cooking on TV in The Urban Peasant (still showing somewhere around the world). Isn't urban peasant–hood what we're all striving for these days, with our heirloom-tomato plants and farmers markets?
And while most '80s cookbooks now look plain silly (did chefs really weave strips of salmon and spinach leaves into poachable "mats"?), Barber's are still bang up to date, though he's never been trendy and that's one of his strengths. Nothing fussy, just basic, simple, tasty, imaginative cooking. First published in 1999, though you'd never know it, Cooking for Two (Harbour Publishing, $21.95) is a fine introduction for those who have never cooked with him or, as he explains in his book, with someone they love. Cooking, he writes, "ought to be a shared courtship, a foreplay to the intimacy of a shared dinner".
Where cookbook covers usually show a dish or, if they're famous, the writer, Barber's features a pair of affectionately entwined carrots: "The nicest cover I've ever had," he says in an interview. "People say, 'How do you stop hitting one another [when you cook together]?'" Barber says. "You learn to accommodate one another. Maybe people shouldn't get married until they've cooked together." Amen. Ladymags (a term I stole off the reprehensible but addictive www.jezebel.com/) are strong on telling you how to judge a man's, er, character by what he wears, or the car he drives, or his iPod songs. I say watch how he cooks.
While we're getting personal, we have at least 500 cookbooks but, barring a one-time flirtation with the Two Fat Ladies, the only recipes my husband makes with any frequency are Barber's, especially his Portuguese pork and clams, which is gob-smackingly good, amazingly easy, and reason enough to buy Cooking for Two. And two is how many most recipes serve, sometimes with leftovers, often in under 30 minutes in a frying pan on top of the stove. Barber calls it: "One of those nice books you read for the joy of food. It's not mom-and-pop food, it's proper food, it's nice food." It's also practical food that doesn't take a large bite out of your paycheque. "This is not a book for Barbara Amiel”¦" says Barber. "I teach people that in the winter you eat a lot of cabbage because it's cheap." Cabbage, as you learn in the book, can be cooked, or cut up in a salad, or made into a comfortable bed for lusty sausages (another specialty of ours). There are recipes for carrots such as Fatima's Carrot Salad ("Fatima was a beautiful, bright-eyed vegetarian," reads the sidebar) and Cold Carrot, Ginger, and Lime Soup. There are also recipes for oranges: Orange and Onion Salad, Orange and Radish Salad, Oranges with Grated Chocolate. Carrots? Oranges? "The things that people have got," says Barber. "It's all corner-store stuff."
These days, he's far from corner-store country, living on 12 acres in Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island, where he grows potatoes, beans, arugula, lots of garlic–"600 heads of garlic"–and winter kale. A book on winter food might be next, he hints. He gets beef, pork, and eggs from his neighbours. This summer, he was eating his own strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. He chronicles some of his adventures at www.theurbanhub.com/, but, he stresses, his recipes are not prescriptions. "This is how to cook. A lot of recipes are paint by numbers. This teaches you how to improvise." And to improvise together. But remember that when he stipulates two, as he writes in his introduction, "They don't have to be lovers–there's nothing more rewarding than cooking with a three-year-old, unless it's skating around the back end of an 80-year-old gran, watching how she makes the recipe she somehow can't write down for you." He does workshops in schools that show kids how to make bread, butter, and jam in half an hour. "There's only one rule teaching kids to cook. Tell them it's the best thing they've ever had in their lives. They'll eat it and they'll try anything else afterwards."
Final words on Cooking for Two. "Nothing's different [compared to the last edition] but everything's good. It's serious but not solemn. It's seduction food," says Barber. "All good food is seduction."