I am unashamed to say that as someone who suffers with stress and anxiety related illness I find home cooking a very therapeutic pursuit. I take enormous pleasure in reading cookery books, experimenting with recipes and cooking for friends and family. In everyday life, following a simple set of instructions that leads you to a particular outcome enables you to organise and order your activity and in most instances, learn new skills that can be applied to more complex situations. Likewise during some of my darkest days, following a recipe for a particular dish has always been a calming and comforting process that soothes my thoughts, lifts my mood and manifests in delicious plate of food to be enjoyed and talked about by my nearest and dearest.
I always feel disheartened when people say that they don’t like cooking or can’t cook. I have often speculated why this should be the case and have found moreover that time is a factor. People lead such busy lives; it is unsurprising that work and family commitments prevent them finding value from time spent in the kitchen preparing and cooking food from scratch. Lack of basic cooking skills seems to be another issue with many.
I consider myself lucky to have had experience of basic cookery from catering college and of course, I cannot continue this piece without an affectionate acknowledgement of my cooking passion to my mother – who herself is a very accomplished and confident home cook and one who has tirelessly cooked her way through many a celebration buffet and dinner party to boot. Nevertheless, many of us have missed out on those home cooked ‘hand-me-down’ skills and forgot the simple recipes taught in the Home Economics kitchens of our youth to have true confidence in our own abilities to master the basics of cookery in our own kitchens.
Understanding the principles of cookery allows you to cook with confidence.
The celebrity chef phenomenon – recipe books, magazine articles, paper columns, blogs, and television programmes. Even Supermarkets and petrol stations have gotten in on the action and stock food range products and ingredients from our most popular celebrity chefs. This is because they add a personality to their respective recipes and appeal to like-minded audiences. We want to cook like them and in turn, they aim to show with much alacrity that being a great chef is achievable for anyone and that producing restaurant quality food from your own home kitchen is as easy as riding a bike. Yet riding a bike is not that easy until you have learnt and mastered the skills and techniques that allow you to keep balanced, upright and ride with confidence.
Learning to be a good home cook is no different and I sometimes feel that these celebrities forget that learning the principles of basic cookery is essential if you want to practice and become accomplished. Their books look amazing on the shelf but some really don't provide the unsure cook with enough guidance. Thus, there have been many a flour-flinging, potato-throwing, pan-thumping strops and fatal cookery incidents going on in home kitchens across the nation because the recipe given omits to explain WHY you have to boil, fry, steam, poach etc. and often HOW you have to do it. It can sometimes feel that the recipe is against you too. The quantities seem too little or too much and the end result looks nothing like the photo! If I had a pound for every time I have heard someone miserably exclaim ‘…but I followed the recipe to the letter and it still turned out wrong.’ I would be very rich. Instead, I feel sad that the person has more likely been unable to troubleshoot the instructions at a certain point to rescue the dish because the method was not clear enough and the recipe did not explain what could potentially go wrong.
The first rule of home cooking: the rules can be bent.
The principles and practices of basic cookery as taught in any general catering college has largely derived from scientific research and culturally derived cooking techniques that make up particular dishes. The student is introduced to the equipment and foundation techniques of measuring and preparing ingredients for a master recipe and then let loose on the method and variations that make up a particular dish within a commercial kitchen environment.
Learning to be a good home cook should start with a bit of homework too. You must still have a good understanding of the WHY & HOW of ingredients, food preparation and cooking but you don’t have to worry too much about the journey from pan to plate as you are often having to adlib techniques and ingredients in terms of your equipment and store cupboard availability and what is more, no one is going to criticise you if you can’t flip your sauté pan like they do on the telly.
A good home cook rarely measures ingredients either. Some of the best meals are the ‘one pot wonders’ where you can literally ‘chuck it all in and hope for the best’ without using every single pan and bowl you have to hand. The end flavour of food is hugely important but often less is more and sticking to simple but classic ingredients is key to achieving a great dish that you can adapt yourself according to your rules as you become more confident.
In my series Mastering The Basics of Home Cooking I am going to attempt to unpack some of the everyday understanding of cooking methods, kitchen terminology, store cupboard and fridge/freezer essentials. The intention is to provide a go-to guide for menu planning and shopping with some tasty step by step recipes that will enable the inexperienced or nervous cook to eventually navigate their way through their mountain of celebrity recipe books with confidence. More importantly though, the aim of the series is to pass on knowledge that has been so useful to me over the years - allowing me to successfully produce classic home-style dishes for my family and friends to enjoy.