Rice and onions
October 1996, almost 23 years ago, I went to university in the beautiful city of Durham.
For the first year I stayed in catered accommodation, but the next year, like most students, I stayed in a shared house. And that meant cooking.
Whilst my culinary skills at that point were not amazing, I could follow a recipe and make some passable meals. This meant I was one up from some people I knew who basically took a pie from the freezer, put it in the oven, and boiled some potatoes and veg. Although those people were, it must be said, a step up from those who lived off pizza.
And like many students of that era who could cook, my culinary bible was Cas Clarke’s seminal Grub of a Grant.
First published in 1986, and revised in 1991, it was the definitive student cookbook. It knew that what students wanted were recipes that were simple, cheap and easy to make in kitchens that weren’t equipped with only limited ingredients. You didn’t need a cupboard full of hundreds of spices you’d only use once.
Oh and it specialised in meals for one. We didn’t do shared meals in our house. I don’t think I met any students who did. We all ate at different times, so a meal for one was what was needed.
There were elements of the book that were very much of their time. One chapter was about crash dieting, a notion that makes me cringe now, even if the book wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it. But one chapter perhaps is far more relevant now than it ever was then. It was about really dirt cheap meals for those situations where you have absolutely no money. No, nothing at all. All you’ve got are some bits in your stock cupboard. And nothing else.
One of those ultra cheap recipes was rice and onions. And every time I looked at it I knew I would do my damndest to never to be in such a desperate position that all I could afford to eat was rice with onions. I would manage my budget properly. I would always have enough cash to do more than that.
I managed it. I never cooked Cas Clarke’s rice and onions.
Skip forward a few years to 2017. I’m in Toppings Book Shop in St Andrews, and I notice Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a new book out called Much More Veg. It’s a follow-up to his River Cottage Veg book.
I love River Cottage Veg. It’s full of cracking recipes. Beautiful, tasty food. Almost all of them absolutely brilliant. There’s no extensive chapters containing fancy starters, and delicate deserts. No whizzy, over the top dinner party meals. Just 400 pages of everyday meals. Stuff you’ll do time and time again. We have lots of cookbooks, and the reality is that for most of them, I’ve only ever cooked a handful of recipes. With River Cottage Veg, I’ve done loads. At least a third of the book. I’ve done half of the first chapter alone.
There’s a reason River Cottage Veg became my recipe bible almost as soon as I got it. It’s because it’s a cookbook that fits into my life perfectly. So when I saw Much More Veg, I knew it had to get it.
Unlike his first book, Much More Veg doesn’t contain any recipes involving bread, or pasta. And some of the recipes feel less friendly for the small children that life in our house. So I don’t use it quite as much, but it’s become my second favourite go-to cook book.
Much More Veg is a world away from Grub of a Grant. But there is one similarity. Much More Veg has a recipe for rice with onions.
And you know what? It’s one of the tastiest rice dishes I know. In the last seven days, I’ve made it three times.
Hugh’s version basically is this:
- Slice onion
- Fry onion in oil with a bit of salt and pepper. When sizzling, turn down low and cover for 30 minutes until caramelised.
- Cook rice according to instructions.
- Stir rice and onions together.
That’s it! That’s all there is to it. Nothing more. I could happily eat that just on its own for tea, it’s so tasty.
It’s true that Caz Clarke’s version is simpler. Unlike Hugh, she doesn’t specify brown rice. And neither does she tell you to cook your onions for quite as long. Nor put a lid on them whilst cooking. And it’s probably not quite as tasty. But it’s still rice and onions at it’s heart.
Ultimately Hugh has done something Caz Clarke never could do. He made me eat rice and onions, and want to eat it. Perhaps Caz Clarke rather undersold the recipe by putting it in her “I’m broke, bugger, what am I going to do” chapter. And perhaps I was too determined that I’d never need to use that chapter in the first place.
But then maybe too, if I’d just tried that recipe, I would have found a great way to cook rice 20 years earlier than I actually did.