In praise of The Pauper’s Cookbook

I often tell people that I can cook because my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t. She was far more interested in studying, writing, teaching and taking us to museums and bookshops, on walks along the riverbank in Durham and, importantly, instilling in my brother and me a love of whiling away afternoons in cafés. All of these are very important life skills.

But she did sometimes cook more than the usual, hasty beans on toast or egg and chips, and when she did, it was from Jocasta Innes’s The Pauper’s Cookbook.

I was just writing something about 70s food, which made me pick up my old, yellowing copy for the first time in years. Flipping through it, I can see it through my mother’s young eyes and understand why it must have been so appealing.

This book is about as far away from the 70s housewife world of perfect garnishes and dainty hors d’oeuvres as it’s possible to get. It’s crammed with recipes for the hurried, harried and skint. It has a let’s-get-on-with-it tone and a spirit of adventure, with recipes such as brandade of tuna fish, tortilla, and Suleiman’s Pilaff (bits of leftover cooked lamb, mixed with garlic, patna rice, tinned tomatoes and ‘a pinch of thyme or rosemary’ – the ‘pinch’ makes me think that the assumption is they’re inevitably dried, not fresh).

Welcome to the 70s, so many beans, so much brown earthenware.

I love the cover photograph, with its earthenware dish which would look quite at home in many of today’s faux-rustic East London restaurants. I love the trickle of burnt-on sauce from the pork and beans, and I love, love, love the blurb on the back cover:

‘So leave it to the affluent to court indigestion at the Waldorf-Ritz: here’s how to live it up in your own squalid tenement without recourse to poaching, rustling, guddling, scrumping or shop-lifting.’ How could you possibly resist? And now I need to go and find out what the hell ‘guddling’ is.


French onion soup

I wanted to make something from the book without having to run out to the shops (too cold, too lazy), so my eyes fell on Jocasta’s recipe for French onion soup. Her recipe was much simpler than the one I create here. Its ingredients are 1 quart basic stock, 4 large or 6 small onions, knob of butter, 1/4lb grated Cheddar, 4 slices toast, salt and pepper. But with my Twenty-First-Century fancy London ways, I have at my disposal wine and brandy, Gruyère cheese and an end of slightly stale baguette. But it is absolutely in the spirit of Jocasta, if not to the letter.

SERVES 4-6

80g butter
4 large yellow or white onions, about 1kg prepared weight, halved and thinly sliced
100ml white wine
1 litre beef stock
1 tbsp brandy
About ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4-6 slices of baguette, about 1cm thick
100g Gruyère cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the butter over a medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan
 or casserole. When it stops foaming, add the onions and a good pinch of salt.  Fry gently, stirring often, until they are just beginning to turn golden – they shouldn’t caramelise at all. This could take at least 30 minutes, up to 45 minutes.

The raw sliced onions…
…transform into these soft, golden ones.
 

Pour in the wine and stir again for a couple of minutes until almost completely evaporated. Next add the stock and some salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Grate in the nutmeg, pour in the brandy and season with more salt and pepper if necessary. 

Heat up the grill.

Ladle the soup into heatproof bowls. Place a slice of bread on top and scatter the cheese over the top. Grill until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately. 

I love the way Gruyère melts into delicious stringiness.