Slow-Food Is Good Food
0 comment Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |
One might have been able to tell I've been on a bit of a cooking kick lately; last night I had a Wilde Haire and, taking some chicken legs and thighs, roasted them, made a cream/white wine/comte-cheese/porcini-mushroom sauce and constructed some filo parcels with said chicken/mushroom sauce, half of which I froze, the other half which became lunch with rocket salad. It was amazingly good - and better still, tasted just as good (if not better) than a similar dish I'd purchased once at Tesco's for triple the cost I spent making it at home. I've made sundried tomato-and-cheese scones, spelt-and-kamut-flour bread, and this week will probably embark on raspberry-and-white-chocolate muffins.
I've been cooking for years - pretty much started when I was about four. Mum would let us slop things in a pan and "cook". Yes, it made a mess - and her own mum was part of the Valium-And-Pearls generation where how your house looked defined who you were, so she would never have allowed any of her children in the kitchen. My mum couldn't cook hardly a thing, but thankfully she let me and my sister muck about as much as we liked, and so we were creating breakfast and dinner meals well before our teens. So, for me, cooking is intuitive. I never measure anything, and only do so if I'm trying out a new recipe - even so, most of the time I adapt those as I go, if I think something sounds like it might be a better combination.
I guess I don't understand why cooking mystifies people - why people feel it's incredibly difficult, takes too much time, or isn't as good as buying food in a carton. I know someone who never knew that pancakes came in anything other than a packet until her late teens. She turns down homemade soup for canned, homecooked bread for sliced white loaf . I'm sort of baffled, but I guess it's a testament to how much we're affected by how we're raised, like it or not. Real food is going to taste strange if you're used to MSG and preservatives. It requires retraining your palate, and that takes time.
However, it's worth giving yourself a bit of a challenge - stepping outside what you think you're capable of doing, and trying new foods. You're not going to just somehow know how to cook food you like - you're going to have to actively find a way to make it. You need to learn your ingredients, find out what's good and what isn't. Cookbooks are a good start, but they aren't the be all and end all. I know most of Britain swears by Delia Smith, but I'll confess something here and say I'm not a huge fan of Delia - the times for cooking in her recipes is twice as long as it should be, and the food can be quite dull - still, she's a good starting point, just cut the cooking times in half, and learn that there are more spices and herbs in the world than salt and pepper. I wouldn't have known that if I didn't have recipes under my belt and bothered to experiment, however. There's a bit of Julia Child (I grew up watching and adoring her), a bit of the Frugal Gourmet (pre-shocking-expose on his personal life - not a brilliant man, but he was still a brilliant cook), a bit of posh French cuisine, and a fair smattering of soul-food from a dozen different cultures thrown in. Eventually, you will find your own style, get those tried and true recipes and make them uniquely your own.
Sometimes, it won't seem like it's any cheaper or easier, and you may wonder why you're even bothering. But there are great rewards in making your own food, both as far as health is concerned, but also financially. I save loads of money making my own homecooking; muffins I'd pay several pounds for in a trendy coffee shop cost me pence at home. Fancy meals like the filo-dough concoction are comparable as well, and I get double the amount of food out of it. I'm convinced my son's great physical health, his better concentration, and the fact he only has one cavity in his teeth (compared to many kids I know who already have several) is testament to our eating habits. My health isn't fantastic, but I know for a fact if I eat processed, cheap food I feel ten times worse.
I've had people ask me how in the world I learned how to cook, and while you're going to find tonnes of information on the internet, it probably all looks rather daunting, so here's a few things I've learned which many of the cookbooks and websites probably won't tell you:
1) Don't bother cooking anything you don't enjoy. You may have found a great recipe for liver which Delia Smith has been raving about, but if you can't stand liver, why cook it? Choose something simple; maybe you like scones, or spagbol, or curry. Chances are you'll find hundreds of recipes for that one thing, and you can then try and experiment until you find your favourite recipes. But if you're not a fan of broccoli, there's no point in putting it into a broccoli fritatta. Put in something else instead. With that said, understand that just because you are not a fan of box mac-n-cheese doesn't necessarily mean you'd not like the homemade version, unless you're not a fan of cheese sauce or pasta.
2) Utilise your freezer. Freezers are so underused, seriously - and there's so much you can use it for other than keeping oven chips; cook large batches of baked goods and freeze a fair portion. Then you can take it out as needed, thaw and serve and it will taste just as delicious as if you baked it that day. Cook larger batches and store meals in the freezer to be heated up on days you lack the energy to make from-scratch meals. If anything, freezers save you money in the long run by keeping you from wasting time, energy, and money from always having to go to the store for fresh meat and produce. You can just "shop your freezer" instead.
3) Buy the best you can afford: There is no margarine in my kitchen. I cook with butter or olive oil. I use Nielsen-Massey vanilla extract, and my larder is stocked with organic, high quality flours, sugars, nuts and dried fruits. I save money by making things from scratch, which means I can turn round and buy better ingredients. The difference between a vanilla-tasting additive and real vanilla extract is huge, and I don't see the point of creating homecooked food with synthetic ingredients.
4) Give a recipe three tries before you throw in the towel. Recipes fail for several reasons; measurement errors, substituting ingredients when you don't really know what the substitutions will do, overmixing or undermixing, or even the weather. Even the greatest chefs create recipes that don't quite work, so botching up a recipe doesn't mean you're a complete failure as a cook. Recently I made some cornbread muffins which baked like bricks, due to one substitution too many (I forgot wholewheat flour makes a much heavier dough). So, I'll be baking those again, with the proper flour quantities. Give yourself another chance at a recipe - however, if you just can't get it right, stop wasting time and ingredients, and put it away.
5) Cooking well isn't about cooking fancy. You may have your eye on an incredibly complicated ravioli recipe, but don't forget that cooking doesn't have to constitute recipes which take days and days to prepare. I started cooking by making breakfast - eggs were the first things I was allowed to cook, and so I started with rather simple scrambled eggs, and then expanded into omelets, frittatas, poaching, boiling, adding different ingredients and experimenting with different flavours. All it required was eggs and a trusty cast-iron skillet - and contrary to what the cooking shops will tell you, you don't need a bunch of kitchen gadgetry to cook. To me, cooking is about using what you have, especially if you don't have the cash to rush out and get a bunch of stuff to eat.
6) Don't automatically chase your kids out of the kitchen. I get that you want to just "get on with it", don't "want to clean up extra mess", and so on. But kids learn skills by watching you, and therefore this means a little bit of patience and being willing to accept a less than 100% perfect result. At Uni, my ex was stunned that he had two room-mates who didn't know how to do laundry, wash dishes, or cook (when told to heat something in the oven, one of them put it on a plate, and then put the plate in the oven). IMO, "taking care" of your children does not equal doing everything for them so they don't have to. Eventually, they need to be able to take care of themselves, and that means sometimes, they're going to botch it up, make messes, and double the time it takes for you to get something done on your own. But, eventually, they will learn, if you let them.
There's certainly more to learn out there than six wee tips, but it is worth a start. Your best bet is just to grab a spoon, find a recipe you like the sound of, and get to it!

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