It was the week before Christmas when I found myself crying in to a bowl of chickpeas. I was prepping for a party, narrating merrily in my head as though I was on camera. I’d always start out as Nigella, decending into Keith Floyd, then the Spitting Image version of Keith Floyd, and then the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. In this voiceover I was chatting about the provenance of the chickpea, the role of the legume in Middle Eastern cookery, the row over which of the Semitic peoples invented hummus. My hands were plunged into a vat of cold water, as I lovingly shucked each individual pea of its seedcoat, so the resulting hummus would be slick and silky as gelato. Better than gelato. Garlicky gelato.
I was studying horticulture at the time - which is another story - and checked off the parts of the seed, none of which sounded appetising. Testa, micropile, radicle. Gently squeeze the pea, nudging it off-centre without crushing it, and it breaks easily in two revealing the endosperm, replete with enough protein and fat to get the embryonic plant through a long, dark winter under the ground. For the benefit of my friends, however, I would also be adding a bucket of olive oil and tahini, and rather more cumin, garlic and lemon juice than is traditional. Certainly enough salt and fat and spice and sharpness to get them through a boozy night. On Radio 4 Sheila Dillon was interviewing Diana Henry about her early career and her favourite food writers.
The programme finished and I played it again. And again. Food writing was A Thing. It was a thing that People did. There were People who Cooked Things and Wrote About it. Some of them even did so For Money.
When my partner came through door he met a cacophony. Falafel deep frying. The power-blender on full jet-engine mode, next to the crappy old blender rattling like a Kalashnikov. The radio on full volume. And me, howling, howling, howling.
He was used to a certain level of histrionics before a party. I would plan 20 different dishes and inevitably run out of time, or thyme. I would cut a finger badly on a mandolin and have to prepare the food single handed. I’d cause a small house fire trying to smoke meat in a domestic fan oven. I’d push the blender beyond its capability and end up breaking or fusing or jamming it. And I’d be cursing J. I’d expect him to develop all kinds of new skills and faculties: psychic abilities, a boss who would let him take the afternoon off, a sense of urgency, table-setting flair, a knowledge of wines, and ideally some knife skills. I’d also expect him to clear up the destruction I had wrought in our kitchen before the guests arrived, and again after they had left and I had passed out drunk and footsore on the sofa.
The destruction was something. At best, the kitchen would resemble a Jackson Pollock, but often it was more like a Goya or a Bosch. Once there was a whole pig's head snarling from a stock pot. Another time five kilograms of coleslaw needed to be destroyed as it was no longer kosher or suitable for vegetarians thanks to the amount of my blood in it. Once he arrived at what seemed to be a crime scene but what was in fact a very good romesco sauce splattered up the walls by a malfunctioning Vitamix. A dirty protest turned out to be a similar issue with the same appliance and a chocolate mousse.
And as my skills developed, and my friends' enthusiasm for my cookery grew, so my ambitions and expectations would inflate. The amount of people we could fit in our tiny flat. The amount of food these people could consume. How late they were prepared to eat, and how unfamiliar an ingredient they would put in their mouths. I would plan and sketch out menus and recipes in great detail, after weeks of thought. I wanted to show people I loved them by what I put before them on the table. But I also wanted to challenge and confront them. I wanted my table to be a place of ideas and debate. I wanted passions to be stirred, arms to be flung emphatically, voices raised in argument, laughter and song. I wanted people to be as surprised by what came out of their mouths as what they put in to them.
That was the idea, anyway. More often, the only disagreements would be between me and my partner and be purely administrative. There would be some good natured scoffing, followed by some drunken singing and dancing in our tiny living room. He would break the back of the washing up and go to bed, and I’d open one last bottle with the last remaining guest at 3am.
But all this cooking and feeding and experimenting and scribbling seemed to be going somewhere. It needed to be going somewhere, because I really felt that I was going nowhere. It had been a tough time. A couple of bad moves and a lot of bad luck had driven my career into a muddy ditch. My dad had been very sick and in hospital more than out. My sisters had both had babies. I had been alternately battling and ignoring a severe stomach condition which left me wracked with chronic pain. It had played such havoc with my nervous system that my entire body ached and stabbed, and destroyed my digestive system to the extent that a mystery ingredient in a nice restaurant would send me writhing on the bathroom floor in agony. I had lost and gained mountains of weight. Repeated surgeries left me weak and and angry and phobic. I was stuck, angrily spinning my wheels and gesticulating furiously at bystanders. I felt defensive, hyper-alert, braced, vigilant, triggered. In the days before the hummus incident, there had been more bad news, devastating news, from another specialist. But for all the world I was just another 30-something freelancer home-making hummus accompanied by Radio 4 in an Islington kitchen, fairy lights twinkling and the tiny flat smelling of Christmas tree and oranges, cinnamon and ras al hanout.
Something had to give. On this occasion, it was the hummus.
A Sort-of Recipe for Hummus
To be served on the bare wood floor amid shards of a very broken and once very beautiful Persian bowl.
I’ll do more on hummus another time, as my recent Israel trip showed me that this is really just the tip of the hummus iceberg. For future recipes, I’ll do a proper home economics job, but for now, I’ve bean vague on quantities, as I do it all by taste and touch, and recommend you do the same. These quantities should feed 6 people, and can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, or frozen. Or, you know, thrown on the floor as you weep for your lost youth, vitality, dreams etc.
1 can of chickpeas (you could use dried, but you have to soak them overnight then boil them and cool them, so it takes a bit more planning)
Lemon juice - to taste, but I use about 3 lemons
Ground cumin - to taste, but start with use three-quarters of tsp. Make sure you use ground cumin, or you can roast and grind the whole seeds yourself
Tahini (sesame paste, available from most big supermarkets in the ethnic/kosher/Middle Eastern section - to taste, but at least 2 tablespoons, and you could use loads if you like the flavour
Salt - to taste, but "more than you think you need" is a good place to start.
Garlic - I tend to go for "too much", so just add a clove at a time. I use about half a bulb for 1 tin of chickpeas
Olive oil - a surprisingly large amount
Other ingredients you can use one or two of, if you're feeling fancy:
Freshly ground black pepper
Preserved lemons - blitz the whole thing and use instead of the lemon and salt
Sumac - ground purple dried berry, tastes like lemon
Lemon salt - er, lemony salt
Toasted pine nuts
Black and white sesame seed
Drizzle of strongly flavoured oil - lemon infused rapeseed oil, sesame oil, good quality extra virgin olive oil
Ras al hanout - Moroccan spice blend with rose petals in
Za’atar - Middle Eastern herb and spice mix with hyssop and sesame.
Pomegranate molasses - sharp and sweet
Soy sauce - savoury and culturally incongruous yum.
Loving peel your chickpeas. Add everything together (except the oil) and blend or mash. Add in the oil (and the odd tiny splash of cold water) until the texture is right. It’s more olive oil than you expect: I use a similar quantity of oil as chickpeas. Taste and adjust flavours, by adding more lemon and salt, and any fancy bits you choose.
Also on the menu:
Chicken soup with matzo balls
Lamb sharwarma, made porchetta-style with a swirl of ras al hanout, fruit and mint stuffing
Falatkes! Half way between a latke (potato pancake) and a falafel, made with sweet and regular potato, and served with a green tahini sauce
Fennel and winter veg slaw with pomegranates
Spicy devils on horseback (dates stuffed with blanched almonds and harrissa, wrapped in bacon and panfried
Flatbreads and naan from Ararat bakery
And, as a last minute substitution, shop-bought hummus.
Serve with the love of a good man, dear friends, and about 24 bottles of Cava.