Some people never get to grips with eating alone in restaurants. Me, I’ve always been perfectly happy on my own; eating alone, drinking alone, you get the picture. When I was 18 I found myself living in Darwin not knowing a soul. I was staying in a youth hostel living off measly packets of dried noodles flavoured with MSG powder – the kind you just pour boiling water on and cost only 5 cents a bag. Pretty soon though I found myself a job as a waitress in The Atrium hotel and a week or so later it was pay-day. Instead of thinking of using that money for a rental deposit, a train ticket out of there, or some other such useful item, I went straight to a little bistro that I’d had my eye on – a small place with a cute, cosy raised area and tables covered in crisp white linen – and bought myself lunch. Lunch for 1. I took my book and nervously settled in, self-conscious but determined that what I wanted to spend my cash on more than anything, was lunch. I can remember having a bowl of orange soup, I guess it was carrot or butternut with a swirl of cream on the top, and I quickly forgot myself and relaxed – pretending to be reading my book or gazing into space thoughtfully, but actually immersed in watching everything around me; taking in the bustle of the staff rushing about and the general action in the restaurant, but mainly observing the other guests. Intently people-watching. And the funny thing is that far from being the target of that (as a lone diner), the complete opposite is true. It could be because others feel sorry for you or don’t want to embarrass you but they really do go to great lengths to not even so much as glance in your direction. Maybe they’re embarrassed on your behalf? This is great because it means you can really stare at them! And you can’t be accused of eavesdropping because you’ve obviously got no-one to talk to so you can listen in on anything that takes your fancy!
Since that first day when I realised the joy of eating alone is that far from sticking out like a sore thumb it’s actually like wearing an invisibility cloak, I have gone on to enjoy myself, on my own, in all sorts of restaurants, cafes and bars in many different corners of the world. And it is still one of my favourite pastimes (obviously coming second to eating out with my friends, family and loved ones of course!).
Back in my Oxford waitressing days at Browns was a customer we used to fight over. She was an American pilot; beautiful, exotic, fabulous, who always dined alone. We would clamour to serve her not just for her stateside tipping habits but because, somehow, she made you feel like you were the most special person in the world and we were all a little bit in love with her. Not only that but also in awe; she would always order not 1 but 2 hot chicken salads and they were not small. She was not small either – tall and statuesque but completely gorgeous and not in any way chubby. She told me she always went for a run first thing in the morning, every day no matter what. She would also, often, have a second bottle of wine all to herself, and I never once saw her so much as stumble when she left. I have always prided myself on being able to ‘put it away’ but this chick? she put me to shame and made me look like an amateur!
Eventually she stopped coming into the restaurant and soon afterwards one of the girls spotted her glamorous wedding in the society pages of Tatler. She’d married a millionaire and buggered off to live the life of Riley in the US which was actually totally fitting, but it left us all a little bit blue for a while, like a light had gone out.
Not that I modeled myself on her (in my dreams!) but I would always think about her when I found myself on my own in a restaurant, and in fact I first has this squid stew when dining alone in St Petroc’s Bistro in Padstow. My wonderful bosses at Mecco has sent me on the 2-day residential cookery course at Rick Stein’s Seafood School where I spent 3 wonderful nights staying in a beautiful room just behind the harbour in Padstow, 2 brilliant days cooking gorgeous fish dishes at the school, and 3 evenings dining alone in different Stein establishments. My meal at The Seafood Restaurant was the most entertaining; it’s not often I’ve eaten somewhere like that on my own – it was a voyeur’s playground, packed with all sorts of swanky guests to marvel at, and plenty of theatre with the huge stands of fruits de mer, or giant platters of incredible steaming hot shellfish dripping in garlic oil piling out of the kitchen in quick succession. That was quite a night. The second was spent in the Middle Street Cafe, a casual affair. I sat in a corner and ordered just a small bistro dish (I was fairly fooded out from my day at the school) and listened to a local guitarist singing good old songs from my youth.
It was on my last night at St Petroc’s, served by the gorgeous Colin (who went on to manage Rick’s pub, The Cornish Arms in St Merryn, but back then was just a wet-behind-the-ears waiter) that I first had this stunning Basque squid stew and have never forgotten it. Colin was so sweet and charming and made me feel so special, and the meal was so delicious, the squid so divine, that the evening sticks in my memory like a little bit of magic. That was February 11 years ago, and I still make this dish. It’s great in the summer, eaten outside in the sunshine, the sweet taste of seafood enhanced by a warm summer breeze and a glass of chilled white wine. But it is even better in the winter, when the luscious smell seeps from the oven and fills the house with its sweet rich scent. Last night I didn’t eat it alone, but it was just as good for 2.
The recipe is originally by Rick Stein that I scribbled down a very long time ago when I saw him cooking it on the telly, and have kept the piece of paper I wrote it on for over a decade that is now splattered with splodges of oil and tomatoes, crinkled and soft – the texture of tissue. The recipe below is written from memory as I seem to have mis-placed the scribbled version, so it almost certainly varies a bit from Rick’s but works gorgeously all the same.
Basque Squid Stew
Ingredients (for 2 or 3)
- About a kilo of fresh squid – it really must be fresh and not previously frozen to get the sweetness and texture
- 1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- I tin chopped tomatoes (400 g)
- 450 ml liquid – a little more than half red wine to water
- A few fat, bushy sprigs of fresh thyme
- Olive oil, salt and pepper
- To serve: fresh, crusty bread and butter, and some parsley if you’ve got it
Turn the oven on to 150 o.
If your fishmonger hasn’t, then clean the squid. Remove it’s back bone, belly contents, and take off the wings and outer layer of pink skin. Keep the tentacles and body pouches and chuck the rest. Cut the pouches into rings and if the tentacles are quite big, cut them in half lengthways so their long tendrils are still intact.
In a large, deep, heavy casserole dish heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil then throw in the squid and over a high heat fry for a couple of minutes to try to get a bit of colour on it.
Then add the onion and garlic, turn down the heat and cook for another minute or 2, stirring, to slightly soften the vegetables.
Next add the tomatoes, wine and water. Season with a little salt and lots of pepper and strip the thyme leaves from their stalks and throw those in the pot.
Give it a stir, add a lid, and cook in the oven for 2 hours. Check after 15 minutes that it’s not bubbling too much, it should just be cooking at a very slow simmer. Check again after another hour to make sure it’s not drying out, but you do want the liquid to reduce down nicely to a rich, deep purple, thickish sauce.
Serve in warm bowls with a bit of chopped parsley and lots of bread and butter. The squid should be completely succulent and tender, and the sauce amazingly sweet and delicious.