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18 August 2021

In the kitchen, my ingredients do as I command. If only life came with a recipe I could follow too

For 30 minutes, there are no decisions to be made as every movement is comfortingly laid out in the recipe before me.

By Pippa Bailey

While others’ lives are divided into before corona and after corona, “BC” and “AC”, mine is now split between before A— and after A—, “BA” and “AA” – which I hope is not a sign of things to come. BA, I had an appetite of the kind a well-meaning grandparent might euphemistically call “healthy”. I could imagine nothing sadder than being someone who ate to live, rather than lived to eat. AA, I eat only because I know I must, or because someone else has placed food before me. Even my once incorrigibly sweet tooth appears to have rotted away entirely.

In the attempt to rediscover my lost love of food, I spend hours with my numerous and long-neglected cookbooks, writing lists of the things that tempt me. Dishes that I would once have deemed too elaborate or expensive to attempt on an average weeknight are now not only allowed but encouraged. Meera Sodha’s black venus rice congee; Lucy Carr-Ellison and Jemima Jones’s roast tomato and harissa tart; Simon Bajada’s courgette, goat’s cheese and ymerdrys. If the recipe calls for ingredients that have to be sourced online or ferreted out at Asian supermarkets – deggi mirch, kecap manis, dashi kombu – all the better.

[See also: It’s been a month since my break-up, and I thought my heart would have started to heal by now – but it hasn’t]

I pickle ribbons of heritage carrots, boil pans of sticky chilli jam and ferment jars of kimchi until my whole flat smells of cabbage. I make labneh – strained in a coffee filter because I do not own a cheesecloth – topped with blackened red peppers and cherry tomatoes, and scooped up with pitta. I crank out fresh pappardelle and twirl it through slow-roast tomato sauce heavy with red wine and butter. I eat eggs baked with parmesan and thyme for breakfast, and sweet-and-sour caponata for lunch. Even a quiet Thursday night G&T is accompanied by pineapple with salt, sugar and kashmiri chilli powder; there is no space for crisps here.

I go to the posh local grocers and buy vegetables in unusual colours – purple carrots, yellow courgettes, beetroot with spirals of pink and white – simply to make my plate look a little different. One Sunday afternoon I go to Waitrose with £20 and the sole mission of buying absolutely nothing useful. I leave with Granini apricot juice, its furry sweetness reminding me of poolside heat; fat, juicy gordal olives in a can; £4 “sleepy” tea, because I need all the help I can get; and crumbly, tangy Lancashire cheese – though it cannot compare with the hunks my grandmother brings home from Booths. (My ex, incidentally, does not like cheese unless it is both mild and melted – I should have known we were never going to work.)

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[See also: In my new single life, music, TV, films and books have become a ghost train of lurking frights]

I reclaim our former favourite London date-night spots by visiting them with friends – a project that has become rather expensive rather quickly. We eat bowls of creamy black dhal, and crunchy greens spiked with lime and chaat masala at Dishoom. Sesame bagels dunked in baba ganoush, and tahini-laden deep-fried cauliflower at The Barbary. Crispy samphire pakora, and Delica pumpkin with warming makhani sauce at Kricket. For brunch it’s shakshuka with crispy chunks of halloumi at The Good Egg, and cornbread with black beans and fried eggs at Caravan. Every time I am in the vicinity of Soho’s Archer Street I stop at Gelupo for the best ice cream in London, regardless of the time of day. Pad Thai from Rosa’s, with its sweet tofu puffs, is, I find, best eaten alone – in the bath. I am really quite good at being single, I think, as I fish stray noodles from the water.

Cooking has long soothed and excited me, and I find it still does the former, at least. For 30 minutes, an hour, there are no decisions to be made; every movement is laid out in the recipe before me. “If you do what I tell you, everything will be OK,” my cookbooks seem to say. Ingredients do as I command them – and on the rare occasion they do not, I know how to correct them. I enjoy the meditative precision of measuring, the world lost in fractions of teaspoons; the steps that are familiar and predictable. All of it is controlled, expected – and then, at the end, some small, unknowable magic that causes bread to rise, or salt to pair with sugar. It’s comfort, and also hope.

[See also: The man I have loved for four years is gone. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I write]