Meeting My Maker: A Final Plate of Beans
10th June 2016
In 1986 Antonio Carluccios’ first book, “An Invitation to Italian Cooking” was released to the world; at around the same time, so was I.
From that year on, no Christmas or birthday in our family, seemingly went by without someone receiving one of the “Godfather” of Italian cooking in the UK’s venerable culinary tomes. His grandfather like countenance and familiarity, combined with his child like enthusiasm for quite literally anything edible, fostered in a new era of Italian food for the UK. Olive oil became something people would pour on salads rather than in their ear, parmesan was freed from its yellow cans and arrived in its full block-like splendor, while frascati was relegated to the toilet pan of history.
Without beating about the bush, signor Antonio Carluccio (OBE, OMRI) was one of the major forces of change for Italian food in the UK, and in less than 12 hours I would be cooking pasta and beans for him live and in front of 3 million people.
The idea of final meals and last suppers have always fascinated me. I was never going to escape the idea of that final dish before you meet your maker growing up in an Anglo-Italian family. The hand stitched, almost standard issue depiction of Christ’s last supper was in every family and friends home, while the gory details of that last big blow out, culminating in Simon-Peter shanking a Roman fuzz’s ear off fascinated me.
Of course, that meal in The Garden of Gethsemane was nothing too fancy, just some bread and a bit of wine. But can you imagine the responsibility foisted onto the cook that had to sort out the food for the last supper, the last supper of the son of God?!
Simon-Peter: “We will need some bread and wine, that’s his favourite.”
Andrew: “I am categorically not sorting that out, it’s too big a responsibility. I am not cooking for the son of man.”
Simon-Peter: “I hear you, get Philip of Bethsaida to do it, he’s young and keen to impress, plus he has this bang tidy no-knead rag bread recipe from his new Paulus of Holy-wood book.”
In a recent blog, one of my newly acquired Saturday Kitchen family members shared his “last meal” in anticipation of hosting the show, and it got me thinking of how little occasion, but weirdly how apt, my “final meal” was the night before.
To put that show in context, I was cooking for Carluccio, Contaldo and Oliver (not to mention the lovely Anna Jones who’s book I currently have my nose parked in).
Three people who had, outside my own immediate family and friends, made the biggest impact on my cooking style.
If the pressure wasn’t too much, it would be in front of the UK, a fair portion of the world that can get BBC on demand and also my old crew from The Munchbox; a crew that get to see and taste food from the best chefs in the world weekly.
Friday had been the best day of my life up until this point. It was surreal.
I stepped into my traditional role of backstage pot washer after assembling my first dish when Gennaro bounded up to me, taking me in his arms whilst I tried to keep my soap sodden hands from touching his clean, crisp pink shirt.
I found myself chuckling like a child doing the opening links, hearing Gennaro introduce me. I got pretty humble talking to Antonio about sugo finto and meeting Anna, a woman who has kind of made the dullest, gnarly old veg cool again.
I got back home on a total high, and then as the Yale clinked into its bolt behind me, it hit me like a freight train.
The next time my sweaty palm would touch the rickety old lock would be to cook for the big three. This is like Frank, Dean and Sammy big three, not Rod, Jane and Freddie. This would be the most important 8-minute cook of my life.
What on earth would I make for my own dinner? I hadn’t eaten all day.
It was plain and simple, the way I have always approached my life at important moments; I dusted occasion under the carpet and got my old frying pan out.
I’d eat the food I had ate everyday since I arrived in London, the food that had sustained me when I was sleeping on couches in Crouch End, or through those long days in the kitchens before heading back to a seemingly short night in my Bethnal Green bedsit.
Conversely, it would be what I was cooking for the three kings (and one queen) the following morning. Id’ have Beans.
What I said on Saturday Kitchen was the truth.
I love beans; I eat them everyday. I love that in Italian they’re known as “il Carne di poveri” (the meat of the poor) and that during the Second World War, Italian soldiers would be accompanied into battle by a little tin of borlotti. There had been many battles these last three years; this was the right meal for what was to come.
In the gloom of my little kitchen, under the watchful gun-toting gazes of the Technicolor movie poster cowboys on my wall, I sliced 4 cloves of garlic dead fine.
I broke out my one kitchen luxury – the Eleusi olive oil from Calabria my friend and mentor, Francesco Mazzei, had given me for summer. The expensive, rare one I once found our kid cooking his eggs with on a Saturday morning and went crazy at.
I cook the garlic really slowly, watching it like a hawk. If my career is going to crash and burn tomorrow, I don’t want burnt garlic on my conscience.
I toss in a few parsley stalks like Marcello does, just for a slight anise tang. Next comes a very, finely diced soffrito of carrot and celery. Only wimp’s use a food processor for this – it must be by hand, this is what I learned at L’anima.
I cook this down until its soft and sweet. Season well. Carbs this late at night make me feel bloated, so its Pasta Fazool, without the pasta (a phrase my mum got used to when she’d ask what I’d be eating for dinner during my impoverished first few years in London).
I add a tin of steamed borlotti beans that Nikki bought me from Makro.
Coat well in the soffrito. There is some chicken stock I made from the Sunday bones of a bird, so like grandpa would do, that goes in to give the dish depth and a meaty subtlety.
Bring to the boil. At this point I could stop, add a handful of parsley and a little vinegar to acidulate, but I keep going.
Tomatoes from my pal Alessio in Abruzzio that I exchanged for M&S shortbread in 2015 get used sparingly. A deviation from the North of Italy to the South all of sudden – more familiar roads. Tomatoes mean I can use the last of my dying Sainsbury basil, a noble end for the king of the herbs.
Regulate the acidity of the tomatoes. Add a little salt. Pepper.
Reduce the heat and add more basil, more olive oil and serve: for one hungry single Northern poppet who in 6 hours time will be stepping into a taxi to go to Saturday Kitchen.
I have got carried away, its 21:00 hrs. Jamie Oliver is tweeting and he’s mentioned me, my phone flashes up 78 twitter notifications. That beats the record (12). I respond. The Executive producer tweets me and tells me to go to bed.
I finish my beans, brush my teeth, sling a quick prayer out to the Virgin Mary asking her to stop me swearing on Live TV, and try to get some sleep whilst the flat above me begins their all night rave.