Learn to cook : you know you want to, but where do you start?

Many people don’t get the chance to learn how to cook when they’re young, and find that they end up living on a diet of takeaway/convenience food. As well as containing hidden dangers (would you like some obesity with your high fructose corn syrup?), convenience food is quite expensive. Cooking meals from scratch works out a lot cheaper, healthier and tastier but I know from talking to avowed “non-cooks” that it’s extremely daunting to abandon the takeaways and take a leap into the culinary unknown.
I have always enjoyed cooking my own food and I was lucky to have learned the basics from my mother, who was herself an extremely good cook. It’s just as well she taught me, because the only two things I can remember learning to make in my school home economics classes were (a) Victoria sponge and (b) cheese straws. This was fine as far as it went, but it would have left me woefully unprepared for the task of cooking a decent meal every day.
So if you don’t get taught when you’re young, to whom do you turn if you want to learn to cook later on in life? One answer is the celebrity chef. Never on British TV have there been so many chefs with so much enthusiasm for food and cooking: Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, the Hairy Bikers, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Delia Smith to name but a few. Delia even made a brave attempt to reach out to cooking-phobics in her series How To Cook, which aired on British television a few years back. She even started right at the very beginning, with how to boil an egg.
Delia’s TV programme was (inevitably) followed by the book of the same name. I’m not knocking recipe books – they’re a vital tool for anyone who’s interested in cooking, but IMO they’re not the whole story. In any case, many people find recipes off-putting… something to do with the rigid list of ingredients, followed by what can seem like an equally rigid set of instructions. You take all the ingredients out of the cupboard, you put them together in the exact sequence described in the recipe, and find yourself getting stressed and forgetful, and have to refer to the instructions every few seconds, so that the book becomes covered in greasy thumbprints – or, as happened to one friend of mine, you turn two pages over at once and find that your dish morphs into some monstrous hybrid.
Amazon.co.uk: How To Cook Part One by Delia Smith
In writing this article, I’ve dispensed with recipes as you know them, and tried to come up with an alternative approach – a global overview if you like – of how to get started on the road to being confident in the kitchen.
Don’t learn recipes, learn techniques
More specifically, learn some useful techniques. By “useful” I mean techniques that you will actually employ on an almost daily basis, rather than every couple of months or so. So I’m not going to talk about how to make the perfect birthday cake. And there’s not much point in learning how to make pastry, for example – you can buy ready-made pastry which once cooked, is indistinguishable from the home-made variety. Here are what I consider to be the most useful techniques:
1. Making your own tomato sauce – it will form the basis of pasta dishes, chilli con carne, pastichio (a Greek dish) and even some curries. You’ll never reach for the Dolmio again.
2. Cooking a roast dinner. If it’s roast chicken, turkey, partridge or pheasant, you can boil the bones up to make stock once you’ve picked them clean of meat. The stock can be frozen and will be invaluable for making items (3), (4), (5) and (8) in this list.
3. Making stews.
4. Making soups.
5. Making stir fries with leftover meat and fresh veg.
6. Making white sauce from a roux. Add some grated cheese and you’re well on the way to macaroni or cauliflower cheese, or – if you combine it with (1) above – lasagna.
7. Making proper gravy – without the intervention of Bisto or other ready-made gravy mixes – from the juices of the meat you roast in (2).
8. Making risotto.
To finish, I’ve compiled a list of some of the items in my kitchen cupboard. For me at any rate, these are staple, can’t-do-without foodstuffs:
1. Dried pasta – spaghetti and some kind of pasta shape like penne or macaroni. Tagliatelle and papardelle are good too
Rice. Up to you whether you go for white or brown. Personally I prefer white, easy-cook rice. Brown rice is better for you, but IMO is rather hard work to eat!
2. Tomato puree and tinned tomatoes
3. Tinned kidney beans
4. Baked beans (for those “I can’t be bothered/haven’t got time to cook” moments)
5. Onions
6. Garlic
7. Cheddar cheese (in the fridge)
8. Parmesan cheese (an optional extra, but great for pasta dishes. Parmigiano Reggiano is the best)
9. Soy sauce
10. Milk
11. Sugar
12. Salt and pepper
13. Cornflour for thickening gravy
14. Home made stock (in the freezer). Stock cubes are a reasonable substitute though
15. Plain white flour or strong white bread flour for making roux-based sauce
16. Cooking oil. Can be olive oil or another vegetable oil – entirely up to you
17. Butter. By which I mean the stuff that comes from a cow, not some trans fat- and dye-laden substitute with a stupid name like I Can’t Believe People Would Fork Out For Something That Tastes This Cr*p.
So there you have it. Hope this article will help you start to enjoy your time in the kitchen – watch this space for the recipes for items (1) – (8) above!
© Empress Felicity October 2009