Sunday, 2 April 2017

Newbie cooking

When I began to blog, I also started photographing simpler dishes, for friends who weren't taught to cook at home and didn't spend swathes of their childhood sitting on the kitchen counter chatting to Mum and co-incidentally witnessing dozens of techniques and orders-of-cooking.  "It's like computers," I explained to one friend, who was frustrated by his own ignorance. "If you just grow up doing it, like we did, then it's simple and easy, but actually there are all these little things you learnt along the way. And if you didn't, it feels like there's so much to learn, and you're just expected to know, and no-one's teaching you." No-one should be left out. Cooking is a joy.

So first off, some reassurance. First, you shouldn't "know this already", no-one is born knowing, everyone learns a little at a time and gradually builds up. Second, you don't need to know anything at all, to start with - this is where you start learning from, right here. I've chosen some of the simpler recipes on the blog - some super-easy ones for instant gratification, and some where you're learning a core technique (soup, frittata) so once you've made it once, you can start playing around with different ingredients, which is one of the really fun parts of cooking. And as you go along, you start picking up some of those tips and tricks, like clever ways to cut things. And third, it is absolutely fine, and totally normal, to make some monumental cock-ups along the way, and makes for some really good anecdotes later.

Making it fun (and calm) 

The point in cooking isn't to hurry and get it over with. It's a pleasant thing to do in itself. Peaceful, mulling, pottering time. Select a chatty person to pop on the kitchen counter for company or shoo everyone out the kitchen and choose your playlist or radio. I plan my cooking around the BBC Radio 4 schedule. Then start by getting everything ready.

Clean the kitchen first and get the surfaces as clear as possible. It makes it all more peaceful.

Wash your hands - even if you think they're clean. You're not washing dirt off your hands, necessarily, you're washing your actual skin, cos some kinds of bacteria live on skin. They're fine on your skin but can cause problems if they get into the food, especially if you're keeping the food in the fridge or freezer. And if you don't have a handtowel in the kitchen (I don't), dry them with a clean teatowel, not one that's been bobbing about and drying surfaces for a week. This is extra important if you're cooking for small, elderly, or unwell people.

Set up your space. If you want to feel cheffy about it, you can call this your "prep station". Clean counters, clean board, clean sharp knife, and a bowl for peelings. Some monsters, naming no names of anyone I live with, push their peelings directly onto the counter. This is against the will of God. (If your board slips when you're chopping, you can put a wet teatowel or some wet kitchen towel underneath it.)

Chop everything in advance, especially if it's the first time you're cooking a dish. That way you don't get rushed or panicky. As you go on, you get much faster at chopping and you can prep and cook at the same time for some stuff. Don't worry if the chopping takes a long time - enjoy the radio or the chatter or let your mind float, this is part of the cooking, not a chore to be done first. And it generally is the most time-consuming part of it - even if you're slow-cooking a stew for 3 hours, it doesn't need much attention in those 3 hours, it's the chopping bit that takes your time. Cookbooks estimate "prep time" (chopping) and in my early cookbooks, I have incredulous scribbles next to these "15 mins prep - more like 45?!!" Now I can go a lot faster but often don't, because I'm relaxing, planning my novel, or shouting at Hemingway on the radio. It's great thinking time.

Wash up as you go along. It keeps your space nicer and you don't end up with a mass of dishes at the end. Most things are easier to wash up immediately, especially the grater and the garlic crusher. And of course, wash the chopping board and your hands after handling meat.

First recipes: Easy winners

Hummus and tapenade aren't meals in themselves, but are brilliant starter-recipes as they're so easy and so impressive, which is fantastically empowering. You don't even need to cook anything - just blend up the raw ingredients. And once you've tasted your own hummus, you'll never eat the shop-kind again. If you have no idea how to cook yet, and want to feel super impressed with yourself, start here.


Perfect starter recipe: no cooking, no fancy blending techniques, just chuck everything in a jar or a jug and blend it to a puree. You will need to track down tahini, but Jack Monroe says if you can't find that, peanut butter will also do! I can't vouch for that, but I do trust Jack.

Black tapenade

This one's almost exactly as easy, but you play around a bit with the blending. You don't want it to be a total puree, so you hold half the olives back, and then add them at the end and blend them a bit more roughly. (A few short sharp bursts, stir and check, play it by ear.)

Green tapenade

This is the exact same principle as the black tapenade, but swapping in some variations - green olives instead of black, orange instead of lemon, almonds instead of walnuts, and no garlic.

So with this, you start to get a feel for how much you can just play around with ingredients - try one citrus fruit instead of another, try one kind of nuts instead of another, use more less or no garlic, and so on. Once you've made the black and the green tapenade, you can go tapenade-freestyle and start trying out whatever combinations you like. Maybe try with smaller quantities, in case it turns out you don't like a particular combo after all, but this is basically how all recipes are invented: try it and see.

Any / all of these are great to bring along to a summer barbecue or Big Lunch or picnic, with some bread or biscuits. To make hummus or tapenade into a light meal, smear it on toast or put a little pot of it in the centre of a board with some bread or savoury biscuits and chopped raw veg - celery, peppers, carrots, cucumber, pickles, whatever you fancy.

How to peel garlic

Use the bash-em-with-the-side-of-the-knife trick for this, as you only need a few.

Starter recipes / techniques

Most recipes are actually techniques, just specifying a particular combo of ingredients that someone found works nicely. Soup is a technique. So is my slap-dash frittata. So is stew. Once you've tried out a recipe, you have a technique, and you get to play around with different ingredients and combinations, make up your own stuff, sniff things or nibble them to wonder if they'll go together - that's where it gets creative. Each of these recipes comes with a useful chef trick / tip underneath, to build your repertoire, as well as teaching you a recipe-technique.

Cottage soup

This is the first soup recipe I learnt, which taught me the absolute basic principles of soup:
  • fry the veg gently first, in the pot
  • add water / stock and simmer it till the veg is soft
The basic ingredients are equal quantities of onion, potato, carrots, and tomatoes, but you can start playing around with those as soon as you like. Instead of onions, you could use any other alium (leeks, shallots, spring onions) or celery. Instead of potato or carrot, you could use any other root vegetable (parsnip, sweet potato, turnip, swede, celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke, etc). You can keep the tomatoes or leave them out. You can try different liquids (water, veg or beef or chicken stock, a splash of beer or wine). You can add garlic, sliced chillis, a dash of mustard. You can start bulking it out by adding barley or lentils, and some extra water for them to absorb. (If you don't know how much water to add, a ratio of 1:3 lentils:water is a good rule of thumb, but you can also just keep an eye on it - add more water if it needs it, simmer it longer if it's too wet.) The world is your soup pot.

Once you start playing around, you realise you can make soup out of almost anything. (Seriously, even lettuce!) It's also great for veg that isn't crisp enough to eat raw, or fresh enough to eat on its own. Tired broccoli and bendy carrots can still do perfectly well in soup. An end-of-week fridge-clear-out can turn out a beautiful soup. (Or, if you add the beetroot to all the leftover greens, as I once did, a mauve soup. It tasted fine, but neither of us felt terribly comfortable eating mauve soup.) And then it turns out pretty much all soup recipes follow the basic principles, and are really just "Here's the combo of ingredients that I found works well." Like this combo of butternut and apple.

How to chop an onion


This is another nice starter-technique because you can use almost any veg (or meat for that matter) in it. My favourite combo is spinach and blue cheese, but I also frequently use any combo of onions, chilli, peppers, mange tout, peas, sweetcorn, leftover potatoes, courgettes (that's baby marrow, to South Africans) and any cheese available - blue cheese, cheddar, feta, etc. It's not remotely Authentic Spanish Frittata, but so what, it's delicious. It's also very tasty cold.

"Any veg available" isn't a helpful quantity for beginners, so here are the quantities I'd use with 4 eggs (to make 2 servings). Each bullet point is for its own frittata - don't use the whole lot together! The general principle is "about two handfuls of veg".
  • 200g spinach (it looks like masses but quickly fries down to almost nothing), optional half-onion
  • 1 pepper and 1 courgette, optional half-onion
  • 1 onion and 1 pepper
  • 2 courgettes, optional half an onion
  • 1/2 cup of peas and 50-100g mangetout
Once you've fried the veg and poured the egg over, you need to cook it quite gently, so the heat has time to move up through the egg and cook it all through. I pop it under the grill for the last bit. Every frying pan and stove is a bit different, so don't worry if you need to play around a bit to find the right temperature for yours; you can't go too wrong. If it smells like it's burning underneath, just take it off the stove and pop it under the grill.

How to chop a pepper 

Because I can't be the only one who was initially baffled at how to disassemble a pepper. Or maybe I am, because I'm also the sort of person who thinks in terms like "disassemble" so I might actually be a robot.

Spontaneous pasta

(Apologies for the one-eyed-monster look of the thing, I was careless with my olive placement!)

This is a brilliantly easy quick pasta dish, with far more flavour than anything so easy deserves to have. I know it's easy, because I invented and made it while absolutely hammered, and unlike most drunken-cook food, it also tastes brilliant when you're perfectly sober. Most of the ingredients for the sauce just get blended up, and you don't cook them - just put them in the pot with the drained pasta to warm the sauce through. It's also an extremely flexible recipe. You can follow the ingredients list exactly the first time, if you want, or start going off-piste as soon as you like. You can also experiment with hot-frying different veg, to mix in with it. (The recipe shows peppers being fried very hot, so you can see them go all lovely and scorchy.)

Once you've had a play around, the next time you make this (or the first time, hell, it's your kitchen!), make at least twice the amount you need, so you can turn the leftovers into a pasta bake.

Pasta bake

A pasta bake is the perfect way to use leftover pasta-and-sauce and the cosiest, most comforting, most luxurious meal. Lasagne and canneloni are really just pasta bakes with the pasta arranged in fancy ways. Macaroni cheese is a pasta bake without the sauce and with extra cheese. If you're using leftover pasta-and-sauce, all you need to make is a white sauce - bechamel sauce, if you're being fancy. I don't have a post specifically for pasta bake, just for white sauce, so here's what you do for pasta bake:
  1. Heat the oven to 180 degreees C
  2. Grease a casserole dish (smear butter all over the inside)
  3. Put your pasta-and-sauce in the dish
  4. Pour the white sauce all over it
  5. Top it with grated cheese
  6. Bake it in the oven for 30-40 minutes
Easy! So all you need to learn is how to make white sauce, a cooking staple you'll use for all sorts of dishes - as well as pasta bakes, there's pies, sauces, soups, moussaka, and Welsh rarebit. And you'll use the same technique to make any thick gravy or roux. White sauce is alternately regarded as an absolutely basic cooking skill, or a rare and arcane form of magic. It's just butter, flour, and milk, but to keep it easy, not complicated and mysterious, you need to do two things. One, add the milk when the pot is off the stove. People who add the milk while the pot is on the heat are asking for trouble / wizards. Two, have patience. Keep adding the milk dribble by dribble by dribble, stirring it in well after every dribble. It's better to add too little at a time, and take longer, than add too much, and suddenly end up with lumps that won't stir in. So if you take the pot off the stove, and you have patience, it's an easy basic cooking skill.

For the pasta bake, you want about 300ml of white sauce to pour over an average size casserole dish (ie you use 300ml of milk), but halve that if you're making a small bake. Add pepper and salt to taste (I'd use about 1/4 teaspoon of salt), and if you want, you can grate some cheese and stir that into the sauce when it's ready and still hot. A pinch of mustard can also bring out the cheese flavour beautifully. If you want bay leaf, for that Italian flavour, throw in a bay leaf after you've added all the milk and before you put the sauce back on the stove to stir and thicken. You could also grate in some nutmeg, if you fancy. Once you've made your white sauce, you can play around with seasoning and flavouring it however you want.

Magnificent bolognese


So you're a newbie cook and I'm giving you a recipe which will take most of a weekend afternoon to cook and will apparently feed the five thousand? YES! Cos you're learning cooking Megan-style! Which means you're cooking for the joy of it, and with the quiet awareness that a hungry army may descend any time. And in the event they don't, you'll freeze loads and your vat of bolognese will turn into chile con carne, lasagne, nachos, tortillas, and cottage pie. This is one of the secrets of enjoying cooking: cook loads when you feel like it, so when you don't feel like it, you don't have to. All that said, check the size of your pot first. If it can't hold at least three litres easily (use a measuring jug and water to check), halve the recipe.

Go shopping for the ingredients, set aside a peaceful weekend afternoon, and enjoy. And once you've made it, you can have spaghetti bolognese that night, and peruse the vat of bolognese meal cascade for all the things you can turn the rest into.

String bouquet garni

(which is Fancy for "herbs tied up with string")

Want more suggestions?

As with the cooking-for-one meal plans, I'm entirely motivated by other people's enthusiasm, so if you jump up and down and get all excited and ask for more ideas, and I know real people are really trying this all out and having fun, then I'll gleefully add lots more!

Cooking tools

I'm assuming you have access to a kitchen with the basic equipment already. (If you don't, and need advice for setting up, give me a shout in the comments and I'll speed up the basic-equipment post.) Don't rush out and buy fancy cooking tools - it's much better to very gradually build up a collection of really lovely equipment - it's much better to spend on that than kitchen gadgets. A fantastic knife, copper-bottomed stainless steel pots, a good sharp grater, etc. You don't have to get everything overnight, but each piece that is just right makes everything lovelier. I spent 5 years finding the perfect balloon whisk! The ordinary one did okay, but this one is a delight.

For now, if you want to buy anything, buy yourself a really good sharp knife and knife-sharpener. That will make a bigger difference than almost anything else. About 15cm is a good length for an all-purpose knife. Smooth blade, not serrated, so you can sharpen it. Curved blade, if possible. The Global GS-89 is ideal, but yes, £100 is a lot. It's worth it if you can; if you can't, get the best you can afford. Don't be tricked into buying a full knife-set for much cheaper though - you're better off dropping the full amount on a single, really good all-purpose knife. And then never, ever, ever use it to cut cheese - that blunts knives in the blink of an eye.

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