How good are sequels? Unnecessarily adding to a seemingly complete story is so hot right now. With that in mind, I present you a sequel to my previous post “Top 10 Cooking Tips.” While I can’t promise “Five more cooking tips” will be as amazing as “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” or “Speed 2: Cruise Control”, I hope it is a sequel that helps you on your journey to culinary super-stardom.
1. Use a recipe
Let’s get straight to it. Use a recipe. I left this out of the last post as it seemed too ludicrously obvious to include. However in the past few months I have had far too many conversations resembling the below:
Friend: “I made this thing for dinner last night and it wasn’t very good.”
Me: “Oh really, what were you trying to make?”
Friend: “Well I wanted a Thai style fish in coconut broth.”
Me: “Yum, that sounds great. Did you use a recipe?”
Me: “Oh well that’s alright. As long as you had limes, fish sauce, coriander, chilli and coconut milk it would still have had a nice balance of flavours?”
Friend: “Ahh. No I didn’t have any of those things. I had coconut milk and sweet chilli sauce and parmesan cheese. But it tasted horrible.”
Me: “We can’t be friends anymore but I wish you the best with your future endeavours.”
Sure, it’s fairly heartbreaking losing friends over minor cooking mishaps, but life is too short to stand by and watch people you care about constantly eat bad food. The message is simple: use a recipe.
One of my first jobs was working with a brilliant food stylist and helping her with recipe testing. You see, a recipe that appears in a food magazine or cookbook has been tested by trained professionals at least five times. Quantities and ratios are constantly evaluated and revised until the recipe is deemed correct and easy enough for readers to understand and replicate. In refusing to use a recipe, you’re basically saying you know more than these trained professionals. That’s quite arrogant, (insert your name here).
Being able to cook is ultimately about to your ability to read, decipher and reproduce a recipe. It’s not about putting on a blindfold, spinning around your kitchen, making something with the first three ingredients you see and expecting it to taste sensational. So whether it’s a Jamie, Nigella or an old tatty piece of paper with tried and tested instructions from your grandma – follow the recipe. These people know what they’re doing.
My recreation of a favourite burger recipe by food guru Valli Little. Find it here.
2. Cook with salt and oil
Again, this may seem obvious to some of the more experienced cooks amongst you, but it’s surprising how often this comes up. Last month I was getting my hair “did” and the hairdresser told me that she likes cooking but nothing she makes “tastes nice.” Despite wishing she would stop talking so I could concentrate on the Syrian war article I was reading (okay, it was “celebrities without make-up”) – I took the bait. When I asked a few short questions about her cooking approach, the problem was quickly revealed. “Well, I like to be healthy so I don’t add any salt, and I don’t use any butter or oil when I cook.”
Sigh. At least she knew how to do subtle highlights. You see, when food doesn’t taste good it is usually because it has been over or undercooked, or the produce itself was not fresh. The rest of the time it’s because it is under seasoned. Seasoning in cooking is not an optional addition, like upsizing your movie popcorn from a small to medium for an extra dollar (bringing the total to $11). Seasoning generously is a must.
During my time at cooking school, no matter how much salt I added to a dish, it was never enough in the eyes (or palettes) of the chefs. Furthermore, everything we made was cooked in reasonable quantities of butter and oil. This was also non-negotiable. Because, no matter what you might be trying from a nutritional perspective, this is simply how you get food to taste good. So, if you want to sauté your veggies in water as I have seen recommended on healthy food blogs, go for it. But it will taste a lot better if you use a little oil and finish it with some salt flakes.
As our chefs used to say “don’t be afraid of butter and salt – these aren’t the things that will kill you. Frozen foods, ready-meals, packaged foods and chemicals are what you should be worried about.” At the end of the day, Julia Child lived to be 91, so I tend to agree.
3. Get a signature dish
Last time I espoused the value of learning cooking methods as opposed to specific dishes. I still wholeheartedly endorse this approach. However, if you haven’t had time to master braising or roasting, I’ve got an easier option for you. Get a signature dish. Doesn’t matter what it is, just something you feel confident whipping up that will please a crowd. Perhaps you’ll become amazing at making fish tacos, master the art of fresh pasta, or learn how to make killer meatballs. There could be worse things in life than being known as “the meatball guy.” I’d definitely want to hang with him.
My go-to recipe is pasta carbonara made the traditional way – with fresh eggs and no cream. I have made it so many times that I could make it on a submarine with one hand tied behind my back. Or, just under challenging circumstances of some kind, you get the idea. Either way, it’s great to have a meal you’re confident with so you can relax and enjoy the company of your guests. Who knows? You might become famous for your baked eggs and end up winning My Kitchen Rules because you only know how to make one thing semi-well and apparently that’s all it takes. Or whatever.
Creamless carbonara ftw. Here’s Stephen Manfredi’s recipe if you want to give it a go yourself.
4. A slower cooker is a novice’s best friend
Can’t cook? Have been putting off having your friends/family/colleagues/barber over for dinner since you moved into your “new” place five years ago? Well, never fear. The solution is easy and affordable. Get a slow cooker.
A slow cooker, for those of you playing at home, is a countertop electrical cooking appliance that is used for simmering at a low temperature. This allows for unattended cooking for many hours and most importantly, for completely inept cooks to look like professional chefs. The slow cooker is probably the only kitchen appliance that genuinely does not want your participation. In fact, like me, it prefers to be left alone in the kitchen. This means the likelihood of f*%#ing up the dinner is almost nil.
The best thing is you don’t just have to make soups and stews in your slow-cooker. Curries, casseroles, pie fillings, ragus and more will all taste restaurant-quality if you just throw a few basic ingredients into the slow cooker and leave it for the day. Think of it as being the Stephen Bradbury of the kitchen: winning gold purely by getting out of the way and making an appearance at the last minute.
Slow-cooked beef ragu: a moderate hassle in a regular pot, a breeze in a slow cooker.
5. Know when to outsource
Mistakes happen. That’s why pencils have erasers, and why Apple needs to invent an “urgently withdraw sent SMS” function. Every chef has had at least one colossal stuff up in the kitchen. Some of my not-so-proud moments include a separated panna cotta, grainy white chocolate mousse, and a braised lamb shoulder that never fell apart. Mmm, dry grey lamb meat.
My tip here is not to never make a mistake and cook perfectly every time. Rather, what I want to impart is the reassurance that it is ok to outsource. Bridget Jones served blue soup to her guests, you shouldn’t. If in doubt, do not dish up. If dessert isn’t your forte and you’re almost certain you overbeat the egg whites into oblivion, it’s fine to go out and buy some sweet goodies from a bakery or an addictive substance from Gelato Messina. Your guests won’t be offended that you’ve phoned it in, they’ll be grateful they’re eating something delicious instead of pretending that the chocolate pot de crème you accidentally made with 90% cocoa cooking chocolate (and no sugar) is utterly delicious and not so bitter they want to cry.*
*Totally a hypothetical situation and definitely not something I actually did at an important dinner party.