Now, recipes that demand the use of special equipment present a whole different set of challenges. I tend to avoid anything that requires a mandolin, potato ricer or piping bag (to name but a few), but I feel perfectly content using a bain-marie.
Every time I see a recipe that involves the chopping of herbs I think of using the rather elegant mezzalune that somebody gave me as a present, but when the moment comes I tend to chop with whatever knife I happen to have in my hand at the time. Much the same applies to the mortar and pestle. I do own one, and whenever I’m in a high-end cookware store I think of upgrading to one those rough, chunky granite types. But I don’t do it, because the fact is I rarely use the one I’ve got and, call me a philistine, I have yet to find a recipe where a whiz in a food processor can’t achieve much the same result as a mortar and pestle.
It would be even worse if I owned a duck press. They’re wonderful looking things and I do covet them, but even a modest one can cost a thousand bucks, and let’s face it, there are comparatively few recipes that say, “take a duck press.”
There are some recipes that require infinitely more forethought and organization than I will ever be capable of. One of Norman Douglas’s recipes for snails, from Venus in the Kitchen, begins “feed your snails for a fortnight on milk,” which only makes me think that snail-rearing is best left to experts.
The early Martha Stewart was the queen of this kind of thing. Her book Hors d’Oeuvres is an absolute masterwork when it comes to making the aspiring cook feel like an inept trifler. Her instructions for a “Tea Party in the Library” include the words, “Prepare several types of home made mayonnaise the day before.” She might just as well say, “first build your library.”
And you know things aren’t going to get any easier when it comes to Martha’s “Grand and Elegant Dinner Party.” Here you’re told to begin by cutting a pound of tuna into precise, uniform strips, and then to cut pieces of seaweed to a precisely different size that’s big enough to wrap around them. Now, I might just about be tempted to take this on as an interesting challenge, if only the same dinner party menu didn’t require me to deal with 70 littleneck clams and 100 oysters that have to be opened “no sooner than half an hour before serving.” This is beyond my wildest dreams. It may also be a way of telling me that I don’t have enough staff.
The lady has clearly softened over the years. Her website now features a section of “quick dinner in front of the TV” recipes. The one for bean burritos starts, “Cook rice according to package instructions.”
Since I collect old and quirky cook books, I often get glimpses into alien or lost worlds. A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes of 1861, written by Charles Elmé Francatelli, tells us that “a sheep’s pluck, properly cooked, will furnish a meat dinner for twelve persons.” I can’t absolutely swear that’s true, but I’m happy to take the author’s word for it.
I’m also fond of The Cook’s Oracle by William Kitchner (various editions from 1829 onwards) which is a wealth of useful instruction about the cooking of swan, calf’s head, mock turtle and “Suet Pudding, Wiggie’s Way.” The recipe for lark seems straightforward enough to begin with: “When they are picked, gutted, and cleaned, truss them; brush them with the yelk (sic) of an egg, and then roll them in bread-crumbs” all of which seems doable, but then suddenly, “spit them on a lark-spit, and tie that on to a larger spit.” My local Williams-Sonoma seems to be right out of lark spits.
The North American Hunting Association’s Wild Game Cookbook of 1992 (yes 1992) has several beaver recipes that require the cook to “first remove all fat, being careful not to cut into the musk glands.” Now that’s quite a deterrent if you’re like me and aren’t completely sure what a beaver’s musk gland looks like. I’d feel safer cooking porcupine which, the book tells me, simply has to be soaked overnight in salted water, then next day brought to the boil, and the process repeated with fresh water. “Your porcupine is then ready for any preparation,” says the Association.