How to Make A Happy Meal

I wrote this for photographer Sophie Davidson‘s Tinyletter Women Cook Food For Me
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“these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures” — Virginia Woolf 

We struggled to find the right time to eat together for a few weeks because both of us do shift work at variable hours that do not always coincide. A home-cooked meal takes time and a place with a cooker. What can be guaranteed is that I wake up in the same place on most mornings and that it will still be the morning. As the day continues, especially in London, whereabouts become less clear. When and how the day ends can vary, even more so my mood. What certainty can there be about lunch and dinner? Breakfast is a time before bad news has sunk in – perhaps it hasn’t even arrived. Expectations are not expected to have been met. 

The greatest labour of hosting is emotional, feeling up and open and capable of dealing with the needs of those around the table, even dear friends. I admit that sometimes I have used the serving of food as a substitute for talking. You know, when the day of a long-arranged dinner arrives and suddenly, with the exception of serving up something edible or even delicious, you don’t feel able to host, not just at that moment.

A text message about eating together with zero anticipation of success has most often resulted in the best meals of my life. Miraculous occasions when an unforeseen chance opens up to eat and talk talk talk to people who you really need to see are my favourite. I may not have thought about the food in the first instance and rarely remember what it was unless I recorded it. And so it was with Sophie.

After several attempts to organise in advance, both mornings that we shared breakfast were the result of last minute messaging replete with exclamation marks. Breakfast was the time before we both had to be elsewhere. During Sophie’s first visit we talked and ate so lustily that we forgot to pay much attention to the purpose of the breakfast, or perhaps its correct unfolding was beyond our power. Sophie didn’t take many pictures. For both of Sophie’s visits I had also forgotten to buy any special ingredients apart from eggs, which are rarely missing from the scene. 

Eggs are truly my own and eggs made me my own. 

Or, casting off the notion that a genealogy of enduring predilections can only begin at the family table, wonderful though my own was, I only began eating eggs at the age of 21. First I had them mean and hardboiled (they’d have bounced) much like me at that age. I carved them up on slices of tough, chewy rye bread toasted to cardboard bought from Lidl across the road in Berlin and covered them in table salt and black pepper. Over time my eggs turned softer until they are just set and I cannot overstate the role that eggs have played in opening up the kitchen to me. In particular, eggs have been instrumental to my developing a tender way with vegetables and feeling that I have a kind of voice when I cook. When I started to record moments of pleasure at the table a few years ago (with sets of instructions included), I intermittently sub-headed my blog ‘Eggs and things’. There are many iterations of egg with tomatoes in my early recipes and subsequently most vegetables within my reach have met with an egg, especially novel ones. 

So it was nothing out of the ordinary when I made eggs cooked in tomato sauce for Sophie and it was also everything I knew about cooking. Before I found eggs, there was the Marcella Hazan tomato sauce I read in the Guardian in 2006, relayed by one of the founders of the River Café. That recipe had taught me to pay attention to things, each thing.

Eggs baked in tomato sauce

2 fat garlic cloves, sliced as finely as you can manage
1 tin of tomatoes
1 pinch of chilli flakes
as many tablespoons of olive oil as you’ll allow yourself (up to 8)
several eggs (up to 2 each)
a small pan
bread you like, and butter
Turn on the oven to a medium-high heat.Place the olive oil in a smallish frying pan with the sliced garlic, then turn on the heat. When the garlic is aromatic and frying, beginning to turn golden but not browning, add in the tomatoes. Allow this to simmer, just bubbling for 15-20 minutes. Taste and add salt to taste, perhaps a pinch of sugar if it’s a little bitter, perhaps half a teaspoon of vinegar if it’s a little flat. When satisfied, make a little space for each egg and break it in. Place the dish in the oven until the eggs are just set – or how you like to eat them. While they are baking, toast some bread and cover with butter.

____________________________Poached eggs with monk’s beard (agretti)

I had some monk’s beard left from an impulse purchase at the greengrocer and its season is coming to an end now, but chard would be a very good substitute. I really love monk’s beard with hollandaise sauce and poached eggs, but didn’t have enough butter or eggs to make it for Sophie! I had a little pancetta and some cream in the fridge so made this and it was still good and we ate it all, though in my opinion the pancetta slightly overwhelmed the delicate flavour of the monk’s beard.
some monk’s beard, tough roots removed and washed
100ml double cream
a few tablespoons of pancetta or bacon cut into cubes or smallish pieces
parmesan to finish
Boil the monk’s beard in salted water and drain, around 3 minutes.Fry the pancetta in no fat, until turning a little crispy, then turn the heat off and take it out. Wipe out the pan with kitchen roll. Pour in the cream and turn the heat on, add in the bacon and stir. Taste for salt and season if it needs it, and a little black pepper. Turn off the heat. Poach the eggs by gently dropping each egg in enough water just to cover them and that is NOT boiling, just barely simmering. Do not allow the water to boil fiercely. Make the toast and butter. Check the eggs after around 2 minutes by lifting them gently out with a spoon to see how firm they are. Remove when cooked. Toss the monk’s beard in the warm cream sauce and place on the toast – warm it through on a low heat if required. Put an egg on top and grate some parmesan on top if you wish. 

Text by Rebecca May Johnson @rebeccamjohnson /

Photography by Sophie Davidson @sophieedavidson / 


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