You know how they say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? Well, I'm more of a subscriber to the theory that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a wonky fan belt, half a tank of fuel and a cell phone battery that's about to die.
"They" also say that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, I say that necessity pales into insignificance next to the prospect of going away for two weeks and having to find creative ways of cookign for one that will run down your stocks of perishables to nil or nearly nil. Then I'll show you invention!
Yes, it's true: Mr Cooksister himself Nick is already in Chicago on business, hence the cooking for one. And this Saturday I will be joining him for two blissful weeks.
But before we get to the boarding gates, I need to get rid of the bits and pieces lurking in my fridge. Anything that can't be frozen had better get eaten, so Monday night I killed two birds with one stone and made Nigel Slater's wonderful sauteed chicken with fennel, cream and spices, polishing off a bulb of fennel and the last of the double cream in one fell swoop. Result! I had bought a block of Sainsbury's organic Greek feta to sprinkle on salads all of this week, but the block I got was way too tangy for my liking. (And while we're on the topic, what's up with this country's supermarkets only selling bloody vac packed feta? In South Africa the chiller cabinets are lined with tubs of feta in brine that lasts much longer in the fridge… but not here. What gives?). So after one salad on Monday it got shunted to the back of the fridge in disgrace.
But come Tuesday, that little voice of my no-food-wastage conscience was saying "find a way to use the feta cheese, and find it fast!". A quick survey of the fridge revealed a large and solitary courgette needing eating, some mushrooms, and some absolutely perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes on the vine (as pictured!). Hmmmmm, let's think… what could that become? Ratatouille, of course! Well, the version I grew up on, anyway. Aubergine was not big in our house and mushrooms were usually a perfectly good substitute – any ratatouille purists out there, feel free to keep your outrage to yourselves
But one nagging doubt remained – what the hell was I going to do with the too-tangy feta? And then it came to me: make the ratatouille, then top it with feta and breadcrumbs and pop it under the grill, killing many birds with one stone.
And would you know, the feta that was too overwhelming on a salad took on a whole new dimension once it was warm and melty. It had something of the shapness of a mature cheddar and it was absolutely perfect with the vegetables, and the breadcrumbs gave a nice crispiness. This makes a great vegetable side dish, but would work equally well as a vegetarian main course or light lunch with some crusty bread and a salad.
So it seems that when I need a burst of culinary inspiration, all I need to do is book a long holiday, fill my fridge with random food and wait for nature to take its course
RATATOUILLE BAKE WITH FETA CHEESE (serves 2)
2 large ripe tomatoes (or 8-10 cherry tomatoes), chopped
1 large courgette, sliced into half moons
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
4 big closed cup mushrooms, sliced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried thyme
salt and pepper
a large chunk of feta cheese, crumbled
a handful of breadcrumbs
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in an oven-proof skillet. Add the garlic and onions and fry for a few minutes until the onions start to soften.
Add the courgette and sautee until it starts to soften, then add the mushrooms and chopped tomatoes. Allow to simmer until almost all the liquid has been absorbed.
Pre-heat the grill. Season with the oregano, thyme, salt and pepper. Sprinkle the crumbled feta over the top, followed by the breadcrumbs. Pop the skillet under the grill until the cheese is melting and the breadcrumbs are golden.