Lately, a few people have started asking me how to cook. To be honest I find that question difficult to answer. I think that’s because, in most cases, what they’re really asking me is how to eat.
First things first, you need the basic equipment. I have a friend who requested a post like this who, 6 months into her tenancy, didn’t own a kettle or a toaster. Kitchen fail. That kind of behaviour won’t get you anywhere. You don’t need to spend the earth to eat well, and you don’t need every gadget under the sun to prepare decent meals. Just a few items will suffice and they’ll pay you back in spades. I’m going to do a full post on my own kitchen essentials in the next week or so, but a good knife, a decent sized sauce and frying pan, a wooden spoon and a baking sheet should get you going. Get thee to Wilko*.
For me, good food is about the ingredients you use. You can have all the skill and equipment on offer, but you’ll only ever be as good as the ingredients you use. Knowing which flavours work together is a big plus, and is a knack you’ll no doubt pick up on the more recipes you read and the more time you spend at the hob. For a foolproof guide, I think The Flavour Thesaurus is a resource well worth its salt. Priceless for beginners and experienced cooks alike, it lists herbs, vegetables, meats and more alongside their perfect pairings. Great if you find yourself in a pickle or if you’re just trying something new in the kitchen.
Again on the ingredients kick, find shops and stalls you trust. It may sound silly to the tech-savvy youth of 2014 but your local butcher, baker or greengrocer will look after you. Get to know them and you’ll benefit from their experience and they may even do you a favour every now and again. Few home cooks become great by staring woefully at Co-op’s withered spinach offering. Having said that, I have nothing against supermarkets. If that’s where you shop, no worries. The man on the meat counter at Morrison’s should know his saddle from his rump so use that knowledge. Just think ahead – 7pm on a Friday night might not be the right time to buy your veg for the week. Time it right and buy the good stuff.
Nigel Slater (no big deal but he’s my hero) has a food philosophy that works well for me. He buys local, he buys day by day and he eats what’s in his fridge and what’s in season. The weekly shop is no doubt inevitable, especially for those of us with tight work schedules or kids, but try to use it mainly for cupboard staples and dried goods. Weekly shops make it easy to fall into ruts. Getting home late after work is the ultimate recipe for a fall-back spaghetti dish or, god forbid**, a take-away. That’s fine every now and again, but cooking the same dishes week on week can soon have you feeling frustrated. Buy a little of the fresh stuff everyday and you can have a little of what you fancy when you fancy it. Even if it’s just some plump little tomatoes to go with your pasta, or a sprig of tarragon for a béarnaise sauce. The Kitchen Diaries is the best example of eating this way and it changed the way I think about food. It’s proper food writing, not just a list of ingredients plus a method, and it taught me that eating ingredients when they’re fresh and ripe leads to a varied and exciting diet. Sure you can get strawberries in December, but for me, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should eat them. At the very least, it’s nice to have something to look forward to eating in the summer sunshine. Buy this book and Nigel will walk you through his everyday meals. They’re simple, they’re delicious. Sometimes he even eats a take-away pizza.
I’d also suggest getting it wrong every now and again. I like cooking, I like trying new things, that’s why some of my meals are fails of epic proportion. If none of your meals come out looking like a brown splodge splattered inelegantly onto a plate, I think you’re probably doing it wrong. Too many nervous cooks in my everyday life think that if they mess something up then it’s because they don’t know what they’re doing. Very few of us do. Just give something a go. If it’s gross, don’t worry about it. Try something different. Expand your palate, go on. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you pick things up, and at the very worst, you’ll know what not to do in the future.
Over the next couple of months I’ll have a few more posts for you on similar topics, including my must-have kitchen equipment, what I consider to be the best books for your kitchen library and lots more. If you like these kind of posts please do let me know. Please leave any thoughts or feedback in the comments below or head over to Twitter for a chat @whipuntifluffy.
* Not for the knife. Splash out, it’s worth it.