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Olly Mann: Food For Thought

BY Olly Mann

12th Jun 2023 Life

Olly Mann: Food For Thought

Olly Mann uses what's in the fridge and the cupboards to break out of a food rut with a new outlook and some inspired new meals

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a food loop?  

I have, and it’s very dispiriting. I realise there are worse things in life to be stuck in—elevators, tenancies, sewage—but, if you take plenty of pleasure in food, as I do, then coming to terms with the fact that you are often only eating what you are eating thanks to sheer lack of imagination can be really quite sobering. 

"Have you ever found yourself stuck in a food loop? I have, and it’s very dispiriting"

Let’s turn a blind eye to breakfast. I mean, I’m busy: I’ve got two young kids to get uniformed up, teeth brushed, stuffed with cornflakes and out the door; a puppy, cat, chickens and goldfish to feed; news bulletins to catch up on, showers to take, caffeine to imbibe. It’s a wonder I manage to consume anything at all in the mornings—so I’m content enough to rotate through my ingrained repertoire: granola, eggs on toast, crumpets, smashed avocado, blueberry smoothie; croissants and waffles at the weekend. Variety, convenience, pleasing familiarity. 

Getting stuck in a loop

However, I recently realised that my lunch and dinner menus had become similarly rigid, and, really, there’s no excuse, is there? I work from home; I’m surrounded by a large selection of supermarkets, farm shops, and street markets; and I cook from scratch most days. The only reason I wasn’t varying up my menu was because I couldn’t be bothered to put the work in. Like someone who wears the same clothes every day. Or watches soap operas. I don’t want to be that person!

These were the dinner staples: A homemade pesto I do in the blender (secret: too much garlic). Fajitas with roasted veg (secret: fresh guacamole, never from a pot). Chicken nuggets and sweet potato fries (secret: air fryer. Obviously.) A few recipes yanked from magazines over the years, now smeared with turmeric-yellow stains—a Honey & Co aubergine shawarma, a Lussman’s seared seabream, a Nigel Slater risotto.  

Olly Man food rut article

And then there’s "Special Pasta"—a dish I invented when I was a student, which in its first incarnation was literally formed from a tin of tuna and half a tin of sundried tomatoes dumped on to some spaghetti and swirled around in a glass of cheap red wine. Once it became a favourite of my wife, it evolved, over the decades, into ever-fancier versions, and now encompasses capers, sliced olives, and parmesan. Posh!

"And then there’s 'Special Pasta'—a dish I invented when I was a student"

My lunch choices had become even more locked-down: I was alternating only between a prawn dumpling miso soup bought in bulk from Costco, an egg mayo sandwich, and crudites sprinkled with salt and dipped in hummus.

You’re probably thinking: stop whingeing, that all sounds perfectly decent, it’s hardly beans on toast each night. But, as I said, I like my food. I’m the kind of person who takes detours to farm shops when I see the signposts. I watch Saturday Kitchen. I intentionally try something new each time I go to a restaurant, rather than just ordering the steak and chips or whatever (a policy that served me well, right up until that time I ordered andouillette without knowing what it was, and nearly barfed up all over the brasserie).

Breaking out of a rut

So, time for action! Step one? Use up the random tins at the back of the cupboard that I’d enthusiastically purchased, then never bothered to cook with. What would happen if I insisted on them being the central ingredient for a dish? Jackfruit tacos, that’s what. Plus a mackerel pâté, a Thai red curry, and an orzotto. A good start.

Step two was to actively unearth recipes that revolved around the ingredients in my fridge, because my bookshelves heave with Jamie, Delia and Nigella, but I don’t always have the elements of their recipes ready to play (it’s all very well substituting yoghurt for crème fraiche, but once you start adding cucumber instead of courgette, you know you’re in trouble). So, I subscribed to a couple of apps that enable you to search for recipes based on what you actually have in-hand, like "cod, leeks and mushroom", or "lamb, chilli and kohlrabi". Suddenly, I found myself making spice mixes, and stirring up sauces, and generally challenging myself in the kitchen again. 

"Suddenly, I found myself challenging myself in the kitchen again"

Step three, and I can’t emphasise this enough, was to work on my prep. You know those little bowls of ingredients that celebrity chefs have, ready-measured, so they can just casually chuck them in to a stew whilst they’re in the middle of presenting a link and sexily throwing their hair? Presumably, those little bowls are actually measured out on-set by home economists, so the recipe looks unfussy on the telly: nobody wants to see Mary Berry frantically grating garlic whilst simultaneously basting a chicken. But, guess what: you can do this at home, too.  

This was a revelation to me. Now, I prepare all the quantities first, stick them in little ramekins saved over from Gü puddings, and then, when the time comes, confidently sprinkle them into the saucepan, stress averted

I know these efforts won’t last forever. But at least the variety should make Special Pasta taste more special again, next time I make it!

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