For Nigella Lawson, and less thrillingly, myself, cooking is a means of relaxation, verging on a meditative state. Stirring is calming, chopping is therapeutic and feeding people is joyous. Trust me, it is, even if you have yet to discover it. So many friends come to dinner and lament that they can never achieve my culinary levels – wrong! Anyone can become a good cook, it’s not hard at all, the main secret is to chill out.
Disclaimer: I dally from the domestic goddess’ party line when I say that this is NOT the case for baking. The reason is simple: when baking, measurements need to be exact, or it won’t turn out right — a cake will not rise without the correct amount of baking powder, will not be fluffy without the correct amount of eggs, etc. Cooking is not like this, there is so much room to mess up, and usually mistakes are undetectable to anyone but the cook themselves. Don’t shake your head at me, it’s true. Cooking is not an exact science and it is hard to mess up. In spite of sounding like a self-help book, I will say: the only thing preventing you from becoming a good cook is your own fear. Muse on that.
Where To Start
I always steer nervous first-timers towards a couple of dishes:
Each a fairly simple dish with plenty of room for variation and incredibly useful for daily life. Please note that the following recipes are merely guidelines and if you go wrong there is no need to begin again*, just work the spontaneity.
*Unless you’ve added too much salt, then it gets a little trickier.
Soups are great for using up any leftover veggies or herbs that you have sitting around your fridge. They can be frozen in portions, all ready for you to pull out on a rainy day, and last for a good 5 days in the fridge, meaning you can dig into them for days. Plus, they are really cheap to make and super easy.
The main components are: water or stock, vegetables and seasonings.
The ratio of water or stock to vegetables should be around 4/3:1, but don’t get worked up about it.
You may either leave the soup chunky, or puree it with a hand blender or regular blender to get a creamy texture.
Step 1: Choose your veggie combo.
My favourite soup is what my mum calls ‘Kitchen Sink Soup’, as in it has everything but the kitchen sink inside of it. It’s basically every veggie in your fridge without mould on made into a soup, so it’s super hard to go wrong.
Some of my favourite combos are ‘Green Veggies’ (broccoli, leek and pea), ‘Orange Veggies’ (carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash/pumpkin and/or swede) and ‘Leek and Potato’ (fabulous). Don’t worry about ratios too much, but just to give you a guideline, try 2 leeks to every 4 potatoes, or 2 carrots to every 1 sweet potato and half a swede.
Step 2: Prepare your produce.
If you plan to leave the soup chunky, cut veggies up into small cubes, if you plan to puree then bigger chunks are fine.
Step 3: Cooking
To get a deeper flavour, melt some butter over a medium heat (olive oil would work too) and place the harder veggies into the pan to sauté. Basically, the potatoes before the leeks – potatoes are denser and therefore take longer to cook. Stir the veggies every so often until then begin to soften a little.
If you can’t be bothered for this first step, the chuck all the veggies in along with the water or, preferably stock (usually chicken). Simply dissolve a stock cube in boiling water and add into the pan, along with salt to taste, some black pepper if you are into it, and herbs such as a sprig of rosemary or thyme, or a bay leaf (these will always work in soups).
Boil the soup for around 15 mins until the veggies are fork-tender, then turn down the heat to a simmer for at least another 15 minutes to intensify the flavour.
Blend, or don’t.
Chicken is magical, it sucks up flavours and works with basically anything, and is delicious.
Chicken is most easily prepared in the oven, cooked at around 180-200 degrees. The bigger the piece of chicken, the longer it will take to cook, but you are looking for anything from 45 minutes to 2 hours. Stab the chicken at its thickest point with a sharp knife, and if the juices that run out are clear, it is cooked!
The easiest portions to work with are with the bones inside and the skin on (this makes for juicy chick). If you’re out to impress, ask your butcher to butterfly a chicken for you, it looks great and stays moist.
To cook, grab a roasting pan and roughly chop an onion or two for the base. You can add some herbs, root veggies and whole garlic cloves for extra flavour, too. Then place the chicken on top and season it with salt and pepper. Then, add a sauce.
I love: half a glass of white wine, 2 sprigs of thyme and a little honey rubbed on the skin in the last 20 minutes of cooking to crisp it up.
OR, mix equal parts of ketchup, mayonnaise and apricot jam and smother it over the chicken before you place it in the oven.
OR, just grab a bottled sauce and pour it over – done
To cook pasta, follow the instructions on the packet. Make sure the water you boil it in is very salty, it should be like the sea, and run cold water over the colander whilst draining your pasta to stop it from cooking any further. Grated parmesan makes any dish taste better.
There are almost unlimited sauce options for pasta, so here is one of my favourites. This works with either sweet potato (though if using, pre-boil for about 5 minutes before until beginning to soften) and mushrooms.
Mince or grate a couple of garlic cloves, then cook those in a pan with a knob of melted butter on a medium heat along with a couple of handfuls of sliced mushrooms (mix up a couple of kinds to be fancy) or sweet potato, in small chunks. Once softened, add salt and pepper and a few gratings of nutmeg, along with a couple of tablespoons of tomato puree and double that amount of cream. Turn onto a low heat and keep the sauce cooking slowly for 10 mins or so to allow the flavors to merge, then finish up with a sprinkle of parmesan.
Life is far too short to be afraid of the kitchen, so just go for it. Make sure to keep an eye on the food, add salt slowly and taste along the way. Master the simple recipes and once you feel comfortable, start experimenting with different spices or ingredients and always have a glass of wine on hand, just in case times get tough!