What sets us apart? We cook!

HAVING a party can be such a pleasure but it can be stressful: it ruins the whole point of entertaining your friends if you are fretting that something will go wrong.

What led me to think about welcoming friends and neighbours to my place to eat is the recent indication that cooking may be the very clue to human evolution. The discovery in Africa of a one-million-year old fireplace may enable us to identify when we humans first began using fire to cook our food. It is one of the most noticeable things that differentiate us from our fellow beings on the planet – we cook.

Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, argues that cooking is universally carried out by humans.

The advantage of cooking food is clear in his view: it makes food easier to digest, more enticing, and makes the extraction of energy from raw ingredients quicker and more efficient than having to spend all our time foraging and chewing.

All these things are useful to power our large, energy-hungry brains and free up our time. ‘It gave extra energy, used for evolutionary success; reduced feeding time, freeing men to hunt; lowered weaning time, so creating bigger families; allowing brain size to increase,’ said Wrangham. ‘It was so important that it likely drove the evolution of our genus, Homo. Basically, if the cooking hypothesis is right it turned us from advanced ape to early human.’

Cooking, for me (though not everyone I know), is a real relaxation; to please family and friends with good food and the company of others.

Rachel Allen says: ‘Entertaining at home should be great fun, not just for the guests, but also for the hosts. But it can be a challenge, too. It’s not just about cooking; it’s also about knowing what’s appropriate for the occasion. And it’s those special touches that make a party.’

Whether it is an anniversary or birthday celebration, a lazy summer meal in the garden, a ‘girls’ night in’ or a big family lunch, here are a few hints from the experts.

1. ‘Cooking ahead is the only way to keep sane when you are cooking for a lot of people,’ says Nigella Lawson.

‘Thick soups and chowders will do, as you don’t need to add too much to fill people up: just provide good bread, good cheese and have a good wine on the table. The less last-minute preparation you have to do on the day the more enjoyable it will be for you as you won’t want to be sweating in the kitchen while your guests are relaxing.’

 2. You can even bribe your children with promises of chocolate if they pass round plates of nibbles you prepared earlier and clear away the empty plates when people have finished, which leaves you free to enjoy the company.

3. It is important that your food looks good and appetising. We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths so the appearance of food is worth thinking about – pretty bowls, a knob of melting butter or a sprinkling of chopped herbs can make all the difference to people’s appreciation and enjoyment.

4. Don’t bother with trying to impress. People will remember good times and convivial conversations, not exotic and difficult to tackle dishes.

We are so lucky in West Cork with lovely basic ingredients – fish, meat, dairy and vegetables – so make simple easy dishes like mackerel pate, beef or bean casserole, bread and butter pudding or baked apples and people will be happy.

Chickpea and pasta chowder

Recipe for cooking in advance: Chickpea and pasta chowder for eight.

Ingredients

400g dried chickpeas

2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

2 tablespoons flour

3 litres vegetable stock or white wine and water

3 sprigs of rosemary

8 cloves garlic, peeled and bruised

120ml olive oil

400g tinned tomatoes

270g small tubular pasta

Salt and pepper

Grated Parmesan cheese, chilli oil and parsley, to put in pretty bowls on the table for people to add themselves.

Method

Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with plenty of water. Mix together the bicarbonate of soda, flour and add enough water to make a thin paste.

Stir this mixture into the bowl with the chickpeas and leave to soak for at least 12 hours.

Drain and rinse them, put in a large saucepan and add the stock.

Tie the rosemary sprigs in a muslin bag or tea infuser and add to the pot (this means you can remove it without bitter leaves falling into the chowder). Add the garlic.

Pour in half the oil. Cover the pan tightly and bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for two to four hours until chickpeas are tender.

Remove the rosemary and garlic.

Tip in the tomatoes and cook for a further ten minutes, then taste to adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Now you can store this away. It improves so you can keep it for several days in the fridge.

Fifteen minutes before you want to serve it, heat up the chowder and boil the pasta for ten minutes, add to the chowder and pour it all into a large bowl.

Serve at the table with the Parmesan, parsley and some chilli oil for those who want to add a bit of fire to the taste.

Smoked mackerel pâté

Recipe for cooking in advance: Smoked mackerel pâté

Ingredients

2 plain fillets smoked mackerel

250g soft cream cheese

2 tablespoons double cream

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons horseradish sauce (optional)

To garnish:

Sprinkling of cayenne pepper

Slices of lemon or lime

Method

Remove the skins from mackerel fillets. Put the mackerel, cream cheese, cream, lemon juice, horseradish sauce in a food mixer and blend. 

Garnish with cayenne pepper and slices of lemon or lime and serve with toast or crackers.

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