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Cooking For Strangers

By Lucy Christopher

One morning in March I woke up feeling terrible, achy and exhausted, and began a week of shielding. The frozen pizzas and instant noodles I had stored away came into their own, and I overcame my aversion to online delivery apps. There was one particularly grim evening where I spent £22.11 on having a dry, chewy bacon bap, a large packet of crisps, four Peroni and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc delivered from a BP Garage. Thankfully, on the day the Prime Minister announced we were going into lockdown, a friend cycled over with a bag stuffed full of provisions and packets of Paracetamol, like a pioneering nurse in a BBC period drama.

Once I was feeling better, I thought about older people shielding without Deliveroo or packages from pals and got in touch with a local community centre. I was promptly added to a Whatapp group where with minimal fuss a group of strangers worked together to take cooked meals to people, drop off prescriptions, sort folk with IT equipment and help with requests for everything from pet food to sewing kits.

Soon enough, I had my first challenge; ten meals for a family of five comprised of two adults and three children. I checked with the Project Coordinator to be sure – five containers of one meal, and five of another? Or ten of the same she had offered. My bourgeois instincts kicked in – why, a national crisis was bad enough without having to eat the same meal twice in a row!

But what to cook? The only information I had given was that the dishes could have meat in, and that the family were Scottish. I inferred what imagined I was supposed to infer; cook something simple, stodgy, nothing too exotic or fancy. I quickly settled on Macaroni Cheese as dish number one – who didn’t like a lovely, carby, melty mac and cheese? For dish number two I decided to cook sweet and sour chicken after my brother recommended Gok Wan’s recipe.

"My bourgeois instincts kicked in – why, a national crisis was bad enough without having to eat the same meal twice in a row!"

Some more info came through by text message; the children liked simple things like macaroni cheese (of course they did!) but didn’t like ‘things like chicken in fancy sauce.’ On the phone, my brother said, ‘What does that mean - they don’t like Coq Au Van?!’ He insisted this wasn’t a description which any instruction could be taken from, but I countered that I think I maybe knew what they meant – nothing sort of creamy or mustardy or with mushrooms in, y know? Chicken in fancy sauce is more of a vibe than anything else maaaan, and it was a vibe I recognised.

I am a cook rather than a baker, preferring the freedom of adding a pinch of this or a slosh of that as I go along rather than stick rigidly to the exacting science of a cake recipe. With its base of roux sauce, good mac and cheese is also a bit of a science. When I realised I had no flour I had to run to Tescos and witness for myself the flour shortage I had until then only heard about. Substituting cornflour for plain flour, I ended up whisking lumps out of a large pan of cheesy sauce way past my bedtime. The resulting dish was passable with a breadcrumb and bacon topping but drier than I would have liked.

Gok’s sweet and sour chicken however was a triumph. Its simple and fresh while still satisfying that take away craving. I also already had the majority of ingredients required; brown sugar, ketchup, vinegar, soy sauce and tinned pineapple. You can get the recipe online here, and there is even a video of him cooking it with Holly and Phil, though do be warned that the trio spend the first few minutes pissing themselves at some sort of half inuendo, like seemingly every cooking segment on This Morning.

The next week I was tasked with preparing nine meals for individuals and bought an extra-large pan for a sausage stew. You can use lots of different veg, a choice of beans and almost any type of sausage. I opted for onion, carrot and red peppers to make a rich hearty base when combined with paprika and a little rosemary and garlic. I went for Cannelli beans and Asda own brand Lincolnshire sausages – you needn’t buy anything fancy. Add a couple of cans of chopped tomatoes to cook your ingredients in and always add some stock too. Cook on a low heat for an hour max, adding some sugar to bring out flavour in the tomatoes. A scattering of fresh parsley will finish it off nicely if you have it to hand. When my containers of sausage stew with sweet potato mash were stacked up on the kitchen worktop, I felt I could send them off having done my best. However, once out in the world, I had no control over what the reaction might be. I imagined a recipient opening that container, curling their nose and and exclaiming “Ugh, yuck – beans!” And I say that with the knowledge that a few years ago that person would have been me.

Photograph courtesy of Unsplash

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