Mustard mash at home, eating in pubs not restaurants – this has been my year of ‘easy-fancy’

<span>Photograph: Matt Russell</span>
Photograph: Matt Russell

I know some people regard saltimbocca as somewhat infra dig; I suppose it makes them picture giant pepper grinders and candles in bottles (alas, I love both those things). But I think it’s a good – even a grand – dish, at once vaguely unexpected and exotic, and extremely simple. Take some veal, wrap it in prosciutto with a sage leaf or two, and fry quickly. Finish with a glossy sauce of butter and marsala. Eat with roast potatoes and green beans, enjoying as you do the way the bitterness of the herb cuts the sweetness of the wine. On the plate it feels like such a treat: less expensive than steak, but also a bit more fancy and put together.

For me, this has been the year of saltimbocca, or what I’m going to call easy-fancy (I know: it sounds like a slightly boring magazine from the back end of the 1990s). Flipping through my diary, I see that in 2023 I’ve eaten out a lot less often, the cost of restaurant-going having become prohibitively expensive – and this has brought with it various knock-on effects, one of which is that I now spend a bit more on shopping for weekend dinners, on the grounds that the outlay is still going to be a lot less than if I’d outsourced them altogether. And this is where easy-fancy comes in. Fresh tuna from the fishmonger; that tahini bread and butter pudding I just couldn’t resist once I was inside the new Honey & Co deli. Like homemade saltimbocca, these small indulgences are compensation for the fact that restaurants must be swerved just lately, the better to avoid palpitations.

At home, easy-fancy means pimping your potatoes – I’ve brought back that 2000s classic, mustard mash – and detouring to a certain special shop for one big slice of serious cheese (I’m mad about a Scottish goat’s milk cheese called tinto, which I eke out in thin slices so it lasts all week). When – if – you do eat out, it means serious risk aversion, playing it safe with an excellent pub rather than a middling restaurant, and choosing familiar, trusted places rather than new ones (however talked about the latter are, the danger is that they will involve disappointment). In 2023, my best meals have all been eaten at the Baring, a pub not far from our house, where Rob Tecwyn and his cooks serve the most brilliant things (I always have the quail kebabs).

What loiters unused in your cupboards, your fridge, your – I’m envious – pantry? You may find unexpected riches

It also means flirting with pop-ups, on the grounds that they usually want to impress with a generously proportioned set menu. I loved Sami Tamimi’s Palestinian supper club when it was at 180 Strand, in the West End, in September. Wine bars are, I note, on the rise again, probably because they’re an affordable halfway house between a drink and the full three courses. As you would expect, I’m all in favour of this, and strongly recommend 22 Yards, a cosy but very chic place close to York Minster, where you can eat Haxby Bakehouse bread (the best!) with dressed crab from Whitby, while drinking something crisp and delicious by the glass to the sound of pealing bells.

Easy-fancy does not, I should emphasise, completely preclude innovation. If anything, it can help to stimulate a certain ascetic experimentation. Out and about, maybe you should try that tiny dumpling place with the steamed-up windows by the roundabout, and when you get home, why not truffle about a bit? What loiters unused in your cupboards, your fridge, your – I’m envious – pantry? You may find unexpected riches. Although the jury of one was far from unanimous on this, I think my favourite TV supper of 2023 might be gochujang carrots with fried spring onions and silken tofu, the recipe for which can be found in Bee Wilson’s The Secret of Cooking. As she says, this is cooking for when you have little more than a bag of carrots in the house (in my experience, they don’t even need to be very fresh carrots).

Home alone, I would follow such fiery goodness with a single scoop of good ice-cream, which I’ve lately taken to ordering six cartons at a time from a Kent-based company called, rather boringly, Simply Ice Cream. The flavours – brown bread, Kentish cobnut, lemon curd – are all lovely. Eat slowly, with a teaspoon and a dollop of gratitude.

Kitchen Person by Rachel Cooke is published by W&N, £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, buy your copy at Delivery charges may apply