Dear Mr Lid…

Like most people, I get my share of spam email, most of which I ignore. But sometimes, the product on offer is so absurd that it just demands a reply.

This was one of those occasions.

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FROM: The No Recipe Man

TO: “Mr Lid” [webmaster@digitaltargetmarketing.com]

SENT: 20 November 2013, 11.26am

SUBJECT: RE: Stop losing the lids to your food storage containers

Dear Mr Lid

Thank you for your email of 11 November, entitled “Stop losing the lids to your food storage containers”. I apologise for taking so long to reply.

I must admit, I was a little sceptical when I first saw your message. You see, Mr Lid, I’ve been having a spot of trouble with unwanted emails lately, and for a while I was concerned that yours was just another piece of spam – especially when it caused a red warning message to pop up on my browser, and when my initial reply to your address (the one beginning “bounce-66667730”, just for your records) was returned undelivered.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I discovered that nothing could have been further from the truth.

Having done a little research, and eventually found a working email address for you (I hope!), I’ve come to realise that you’re simply an honest tradesman trying to make ends meet, just like the rest of us.

And like anyone else, you don’t have the time to waste reading spam.

But I understand now that you keep your contact details hidden in order to avoid receiving unwelcome messages yourself; and on this, you certainly have my sympathies, particularly with such an instantly memorable name as yours.

In fact, would it be presumptuous of me to suggest that you may have been teased at school about your surname? I’m guessing the other kids used to call you “Dustbin Lid”, or “Inva-lid” – or even “Euc-lid”, in the admittedly unlikely event they were familiar with the work of the Ancient Greek “Father of Geometry”.

If so, I just wanted to let you know you’re not alone. As a child, I suffered from the same issues. I was born and raised as “The No Recipe Man” – that’s the trouble with having hippy parents – and as you can imagine, my classmates used to have great fun taking the mickey out of me. For a while, I tried to reinvent myself as “Tom” – I can’t remember exactly why I chose that, but I suppose it was just the first “normal” name that came to mind. But of course, it made no difference, and “The No Recipe Man” stuck.

Kids can be so cruel, can’t they?

But even as an adult, things got little better. I tried my hand at various jobs – barista, male escort, paleontologist – but continued to find that my name was the butt of near-constant jokes from colleagues, customers and clients alike.

Eventually, I elected to take the same view that you seem to have adopted yourself: “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. I decided to treat my name as a blessing rather than a curse, and began blogging on the subject of no-recipe cooking. Looking back, it seems such an obvious career move that I’m amazed I didn’t think of it before.

And as no-recipe cooking was to me, so (I presume) lids were to you.

And if I may say, what a wise choice you made. Lids play such a vital part in all our lives. Without them, peanut butter would spoil, bins would be infested by rats, and pressure cookers would be next to useless. But such matters worry us not, thanks to that simplest but most beautiful of accessories: the lid.

Moreover, I’m always losing things. Coins, pen tops, children (childminding was another of my short-lived occupations): you name it, I’ll lose it. Admittedly, the lids of storage containers are among the few items I’ve never actually lost, being relatively large and easy to spot; but as your email implies, it can only be a matter of time until I do.

For all that, though, I regret to say I will be unable to take advantage of your generous offer. My finances are somewhat tight at the moment, and I fear the cost of posting 20 lidded plastic boxes from Milwaukee to Scotland would be prohibitive.

With that in mind, might I suggest that you target future emails at people living closer to your HQ, so others do not suffer the same bitter disappointment I have – momentarily glimpsing a solution to all those box-lid woes, only to be thwarted by the grim reality of international shipping rates.

Nonetheless, I would hate to end this correspondence on a negative note. Your passion for lids is powerful and heartfelt: that much is clear from your thoughtful email. And while I must continue to walk in darkness, condemned to struggle on with detachably-crowned kitchenware, it cheers me to know that countless others will reap the many benefits of your imagination, dedication and craft.

That thought will be a source of comfort and strength as I try to come to terms with an inadequately-lidded future.

Lastly, do please give my regards to Mrs Lid. (I trust the two of you remain securely attached.)

Wishing you every success in this and all your future endeavours.

Sincerely yours,

The No Recipe Man

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10 things you’ll never learn from a recipe – part 2

A quizzical sheepThe first part of this article covered the first five things that cooking from recipes will never teach you.

Logically enough – and much like a Space Shuttle countdown, but in reverse and without the suspense – here are numbers 6-10.

6. You can cook a million different things

As I said in the first part of this article, you already know how to cook. What’s more, you can apply the knowledge you currently possess to produce an enormous range of different dishes.

That’s not the same as saying you can cook any given dish. You probably can’t. I certainly can’t. But with the dishes you do know how to cook, it’s well within your powers to produce endless variations on existing themes.

To do so, however, you may have to reverse your perspective.

If you normally cook from recipes, it can seem virtually impossible to know when it’s safe to depart from them. By their nature, recipes carry the implication that they represent the optimal arrangement – or at least, a tried and trusted one – of their constituent parts. Working through the long list of ingredients, and with no other points of reference, you’ll struggle to say for certain whether that half-teaspoon of ground coriander is fundamental to the flavour of the meal, or whether it could be freely omitted or substituted for something else.

Conversely, if you’ve got some carrots you need to use up, but the recipe doesn’t demand them, would it be OK to throw them in anyway or would that transform the whole thing into an excessively carroty disaster?

The reality is that we make similar decisions quickly and easily all the time; just not necessarily when we’re cooking for ourselves. We’ll cheerfully invent our own sets of pizza toppings on the hoof (or on the phone), unconsciously making relatively complex judgements on (1) what we fancy eating and (2) what ingredients will go together well. But to invent a meal based on what’s in the fridge, for some reason, remains oddly daunting.

Bring the pizza shop mentality into your kitchen, and everything suddenly seems a lot simpler.

Instead of the pizza base, choose a simple starch: pasta, rice, couscous, whatever. Your other ingredients represent your “toppings”.

The first could be almost anything you fancy: it’s almost certain to sit reasonably well with the bland, starchy “base”. Then with every other ingredient that follows, ask yourself before you add it: does it go with what’s already there?

Spaghetti, chorizo…broccoli? Yeah, that sounds good. The flavours and textures should complement each other nicely in that combination; and it’ll be colourful too. Now, how about some fresh ginger? Hmm, probably not – I don’t think I’ve ever had ginger in a pasta dish before, and I reckon it’d overwhelm the other flavours and just be a bit, well, weird. But garlic and chilli? Yes, they’ll go fine.

Answering the “does it go” question doesn’t require any great cooking expertise: your experiences of choosing, ordering and eating restaurant and takeaway food are far more relevant.

In this particular example – and, in fact, most other examples – a “sauce” might well turn out to be superfluous. Looking at your happy jumble of pasta and a well-judged selection of more flavourful ingredients, you might well decide that a splosh of olive oil will deliver the required lubrication. Alternatively, you might choose to throw in a chopped tomato or two, or a dash of cream; as long as it passes the “does it go” test, it’s really up to you.

In short, if something works in your head, it’ll work just as well on the plate. And with the limitless potential for variation that this approach brings, it really isn’t an exaggeration to say you can cook a million different things. But you’ll only discover this when you get into the habit of stepping away from the recipe and making the necessary judgements, regularly and systematically, for yourself.

7. Most cooking terminology is irrelevant

There are two factors that, more than any others, make cooking seem more mysterious and difficult than it really is.

The first is around terminology: the dozens and dozens of words and phrases, often in French, that we read in books or menus or hear on the TV in reference to cooking methods. To the outsider, these can make it seem as if good cooking depends on learning and mastering each of these techniques individually: a daunting task.

The reality is much more straightforward.

Terminology is only useful when it makes things easier to comprehend. We’ve come to use the term “steering wheel” because it’s clear, descriptive and more convenient than saying “the round thing that makes the car change direction when you turn it”.

But in some fields – cooking and senior management spring to mind – terminology has come to be used as a tool of non-comprehension, used to separate the haves from the have-nots; or, more accurately, the knows from the know-nots. It’s the password or secret knock without which you can’t enter the room, or be in the gang.

It’s also a load of old balls.

In any aspect of life, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the motivation of the person addressing you. If a restaurant menu includes the words “pan-seared”, it’s probably because the proprietors believe it will help them sell more meals, at a higher price, than if they described the same dish as “shallow-fried”.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having multiple terms to describe the same basic process, or that the phrase used on the menu carries no additional meaning. To me, “pan-searing” implies a slight variation on the shallow-frying theme, using high temperatures and minimal added fat to produce a deliberately scorched exterior and slightly rare centre. But the dish that ultimately appears may well exhibit none of those qualities; and the main reason the words are used on the menu is to aid sales, not understanding.

And from a cook’s point of view, the variation in terminology is irrelevant. If you can shallow-fry something, you can pan-sear it. You can vary the effect by using more or less oil, and higher or lower temperatures. The fundamental task, though, is the same.

Break any cooking process down into what’s actually going on in the pan or oven, and you come to realise you’re perfectly capable of taking on most kitchen tasks.

All you’re ever doing when you cook is using one or more of four hot things – water, metal (or alternative hot surface), air and fat – to impart heat to food. Having decided which medium(s) to use, it only falls to you to decide how much heat to apply, and for how long. And virtually any piece of cooking jargon you’ll ever hear simply refers to a particular variation within these parameters.

Think of your cooking methods not as self-standing techniques but as variations on simple, familiar themes, and you gain a new level of control over what you’re doing.

Granted, if your chosen method relies on a significant transformation of the ingredients – into dough and then into bread, say – then there’s an added element of difficulty, and some appropriate guidance from a good book is probably called for. But for the majority of meals you cook, there’s no such mystery.

Put a joint of beef in the oven and you’re said to be roasting it: in other words, cooking it in hot air, with a hint of a “hot metal” effect where beef meets roasting tin. Pour some liquid (wine, for instance) around the beef so it’s part-covered, and it gets a whole new name – a pot-roast or a braise – but all you’re really doing is combining the effects of hot water (below the level of the liquid) and hot air (above it). And if you know roughly what these effects are – the dry heat of the oven will enable browning to occur, while the liquid will lubricate and exchange flavours with the meat – well, it turns out you know what you’re doing, whether or not you know what to call it.

The “four hot things” theme will come up frequently on the blog, and in the book that will ultimately accompany it. But for now, the principle is probably enough: it doesn’t matter what name you attach to your method, or indeed to the finished dish, just as long as you know what you’re looking to achieve.

8. Most “rules” of cooking are really just conventions. You can ignore them, and you should.

If terminology is the first factor that makes cooking seem unnecessarily complicated, the second is, if anything, even more annoying and misleading.

Whether you’re watching a chef on telly or talking food with your mates in the pub, you’re almost certain to hear the dirtiest of all cooking-related words: “secret”.

Everyone, it seems, knows the secret of cooking a certain dish successfully. (Ignore, for now, the fact that their insistence on banging on about it would seem to compromise its secretive qualities.)

Such a “secret” normally relates to a supposed key ingredient that people often omit, either through ignorance or choice: milk or chicken livers in a Bolognese sauce, for instance. Alternatively, it may be to do with a quirk of technique, often directly contradictory to the next person’s so-called secret. (“Scrambled eggs must be stirred constantly.” “Scrambled eggs mustn’t be stirred at all until they’re almost done.”)

These are not secrets at all; merely approaches with which the person who’s talking happens to have had some success.

A well-made ragù alla bolognese, simmered slowly and seasoned judiciously, won’t be rendered worthless by the omission of one “secret” ingredient. It might (or might not) be rendered less authentic: but to quote Pete Postlethwaite at the end of Brassed Off, “what the f**k does that matter?” As I’ve written before – in the context of food texture, of which more shortly – the one thing that connects the most celebrated dishes of every region is that no two people can agree on how best to make them. So the chances that the person you’re talking to happens to be in possession of the one true secret – if indeed it exists – must logically be very small indeed.

True “secrets” of cooking are rarely, if ever, about one particular ingredient, or even several. If they exist at all, they’re about much more fundamental aspects of food behaviour: for instance, the critical effect of the rate of boiling on slow-cooked dishes. And it goes without saying that such secrets should not be kept. This isn’t – or shouldn’t be – the Magic Circle.

And as for all the other secrets-that-aren’t-really-secrets: well, by all means follow the proffered advice sometime, and see if you like the results. If you do, you might decide to adopt the same approach again. But don’t pretend for a moment that there’s a single way to create good food, or a single magic ingredient without which a dish is instantly rendered unpalatable.

Because – and there’s no secret at all about this – that’s just cack.

9. It’s easier to cook boeuf bourguignon than boiled eggs

(Though it’s much harder to spell.)

I discussed in the first part of this article how natural variations in ingredients, interpretation and method can make a nonsense of the one-size-fits-all instructions in a recipe book or on food packaging.

An extension of this is that it’s unwise to equate “easy” with “measurable”. We might think that an egg takes three minutes to soft-boil and six to hard-boil, or whatever; but that’s reckoning without a number of factors – notably the size, shape and temperature of the egg – that will affect the end result. We perceive the task as simple because we can time it, based on a rough estimate rounded to the nearest minute. But of course, we only find out how good an estimate it was when we crack the egg open, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it.

Boeuf bourguignon might take a lot longer to cook than boiled eggs, but to me, it’s much easier to get right. At every stage of the process, you have an opportunity that egg-boiling will never afford: you can allow your senses to guide you.

As you brown the beef, you can see and smell how it’s going and adjust the heat accordingly. While it stews, your eyes will confirm that the desired ultra-slow simmer is being maintained. Towards the end of cooking, the appearance of the sauce, and how it feels in the mouth, will tell you whether it needs to be reduced or thickened. And in the final sampling, your sense of touch, transmitted in this case through the teeth, will confirm that the meat is tender – and if it’s not, you can carry on cooking it, unlike the pesky egg – and your taste buds will let you know whether you need to adjust the seasoning.

Where your senses are able to play their part, cooking becomes a far less stressful business. You’d be extremely lucky to cook a steak to your (or anyone else’s) liking based on a set number of minutes per side. But that’s OK; you don’t need to keep time, because a firm prod with a finger will tell you all you need to know.

So, while I’m not the world’s biggest Delia fan, I can appreciate why she famously spent half an hour explaining to viewers how to boil an egg. Because, without the assistance of the senses, cooking really can be a right bugger.

10. Creative cooking is child’s play

There are all sorts of good reasons why I generally choose not to follow recipes, many of which I’ve discussed in these articles or elsewhere. It’s easier, it’s cheaper, it’s more satisfying and less wasteful; and in explaining why it’s all of these things, I’ve done my best to argue my case as logically and objectively as possible.

So, for the last of these “ten things”, I hope you’ll forgive me if I indulge in a spot of unashamed subjectivity.

Perhaps the greatest reason why I became an avowed non-recipe cook is this: cooking from recipes just feels so bloody grown-up.

By the time we reach adulthood, most of us are a mass of contradictions. We hark back to the idyllic childhoods we remember (and have, to a large extent, invented). “Remember when we didn’t have to worry about mortgages, or insurance, or performance reviews?” We get nostalgic and misty-eyed when we recall a time of invention, play and freedom from responsibilities; yet when we’re presented with the opportunity to indulge in such behaviours again, we politely decline.

For me, cooking from recipes evokes many of the dullest aspects of adult life: planning; measuring; clock-watching. It’s about obedience and obligation, and it makes a chore of something that doesn’t have to be.

But I can understand why this happens. As children, much of our learning happens through trial and error, usually under the watchful eye of a parent or teacher. Our mistakes are of relatively little consequence: literally as well as figuratively, we don’t have to pay for them. And we don’t have to eat the results (though we might well try to).

In my “research” for the book and blog – that’s to say, chatting to people – the most common reason given for cooking from recipes was reassurance: the belief that, through following instructions to the letter, the potential for total food disasters would be greatly reduced.

In the very short term, that might just about hold true. But the payoff is too great for my liking. To subject yourself to a way of cooking that virtually rules out learning, improvement and fun, almost every day for the rest of your life, seems borderline masochistic.

And in any case, I firmly believe that in this case, you really can have your cake and eat it.

All you need is a responsible adult to keep an eye on you while you play, and where necessary, guide you gently in the right direction. And, somewhat scarily for anyone who’s met me, I’m proposing to play the role of the responsible adult.

There’ll be more on all of this in future pieces, but for now, let’s look at those two staples of the ’80s child’s bedroom: Play-Doh and the Chemistry set.

I loved my Chemistry set: the apparently limitless potential of the various brightly coloured powders and vials, ripe for safe(ish) experimentation. Happily, their equivalents are available in any Asian supermarket: shelves of powdered spices of various hues; jars and bottles of sauces, preserves and vinegars.

If you’ve only ever dealt with these within pre-made sauces and blends, the key to playing safely lies in another popular childhood pursuit: copying. Look at a packet of decent curry powder, and you’ll see the ingredients, in descending order of quantity. You don’t have to replicate the list exactly, of course, nor use every last thing that’s on there; but you’ll know at least that the spices at the top of the list (often coriander and cumin) can be thrown in relatively freely, while some of the others will demand a little more caution.

Or if you’d rather experiment with liquids than powders, by all means do so; just remember the sweet-sour-salt balance discussed in the first part of this article. Happily, if you’re playing around with strong, pungent flavours, you’ve got a lot more leeway with the sugar and vinegar than if you were making a plain stew. Overdo one and you can balance with the other, and you’ll have to add an awful lot of each before the whole thing becomes overpowering.

As for the Play-Doh? Well, I said before that the texture of food is as important as flavour. It follows that, by working your ingredients into different shapes and sizes, you can create a whole new range of effects.

Any food with equivalent mouldable, squishable qualities is ripe for the purpose. Minced meat is an obvious example, but cooked vegetables and pulses will work too if you’re armed with a food processor or potato masher, plus binding agents if necessary (eggs if the mix is too dry, breadcrumbs if it’s too wet). Roll it into balls, squash it into patties, shape it into sausages, whatever you like. (If you’ve still got your old Play-Doh Fun Factory, you could even run it through that if you fancied; though you might do well to give it a wipe first.)

When you come to fry your creations, the effect will vary noticeably depending on the sizes and shapes you’ve gone for, as a result of the different degrees of surface-to-surface contact between food and pan. A thin patty, once cooked, will consist almost entirely of crispy, browned crust; a fat ball or sausage will be all about the tender middle.

I’ll even give you free rein to do what I was never allowed to as a kid: combine the contents of your Chemistry set with your Play-Doh. Throw your chosen spices and seasonings into the mince or veggie mix before moulding, and an even greater range of flavour/texture combinations opens up to you.

It’s almost enough to make me revise my “million things” estimate up to a billion.

10 things you’ll never learn from a recipe – part 1

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I swore I’d never do one of those “ten things” things. That determination has lasted for all of seven posts.

In the end, it turned out I couldn’t think of a better way to bring together the concepts behind this blog. Taken together, I hope these “ten things” will give a coherent sense of how you might go about moving to a predominantly recipe-free existence, and the benefits of making that shift.

For reasons of digestibility, I’ve broken the article into two. Part 2 will follow before long; but for the time being, here are the first five things you’ll never learn from a recipe. I hope you find it useful.

1. You can cook creatively

Yes, you.

(More to the point, you can invent and cook a near-infinite number of different dishes, but more of that in part 2 of this article.)

How do I know this? Well, firstly, you already know how to cook something, irrespective of how simple or how “cheaty” it is. It might be something you don’t even class as cooking: making a salad or sandwich, or a stir-fry consisting of pre-chopped meat, a pack of prepared veg and a bought sachet of sauce. It doesn’t matter. It’s enough.

Secondly, you know what you like to eat. Not in the sense of “I like sausages”, though you may well do. But whenever you eat something – new or familiar, Michelin-starred dining or a dirty burger – you know whether you enjoy it. And if you do, it’s a short step to work out what you enjoy about it, and to apply those lessons to the things you were planning to cook anyway.

Take an example that’s familiar to most of us: fish and chips. Most of us love it; but why?

For me, it’s all about the contrasts of flavour and texture: the moist flesh of the fish counterbalanced by the brittle crunch of the batter; salt, vinegar and ketchup delivering a sweet-sour-salt balance. Collectively, these contrasts give a welcome lift to a meal that could otherwise tend towards blandness.

If these are roughly the same qualities that appeal to you, the next step is not to attempt to recreate the dish, but to work out how to create equivalent effects in the meals you were planning to cook anyway.

A pinch of sugar and a dash apiece of soy sauce and rice vinegar will bring the sweet-sour-salt contrasts into a stir-fry; a handful of crisp fried breadcrumbs, sprinkled over a bowl of spaghetti, will provide welcome textural variety.

Neither of these adjustments demand any additional skill on your part; just a little imagination, allied to an appreciation of what you enjoy eating and why.

By all means, stick with the styles of cooking you already know and feel comfortable with; but apply a little lateral thought, informed more by your experience as an eater than as a cook, and you’ll instantly elevate your meals to a higher and more creative level.

A good recipe, devised by someone with a keen appreciation of flavour and texture, might well produce similar effects; but if you’re simply following a set of step-by-step instructions, you’re unlikely to have cause to consider where these desirable qualities are coming from. And the next time you go into the kitchen, you’ll have no better understanding of food and cooking than you did the last time, or the time before that.

This seems something of a waste.

2. You can’t rely on a recipe

Recipes, self-evidently, are designed to be followed. You will need 100ml of this, 250g of that and a teaspoon of the other.

The unstated principle underlying this method of cooking is that the writer has gone to great lengths to conceive, fine-tune and test the recipe so you don’t have to.

This may or may not be true. Many a recipe, even from the most esteemed of sources, has been subject to little of this presumed diligence. But even if it has been painstakingly road-tested, the principle remains flawed.

The recipe writer is obliged to work to a standard set of assumptions around the ingredients, equipment, skills and judgements of the person cooking the dish. A casserole that specifies the use of “stewing steak” will vary significantly in outcome, depending on the size, shape, water content and fat distribution of the meat. An instruction to “brown the meat over a high heat” will produce quite different results based on the quality of the hob and cookware involved, as well as the cook’s interpretation of the word “brown”. And crucially, as I’ll discuss in more detail shortly, one person’s gentle simmer is another’s jaunty boil.

These, along with countless other variables, combine to ensure that no two people, following the same recipe from beginning to end, will create quite the same meal.

In other words, a recipe doesn’t bring about reliability or consistency, just a comforting illusion of both.

And if the primary justification for cooking from recipes turns out to be false, surely it must be worth looking for a better way.

3. Salt and pepper are not the only seasonings

With the ingredients, quantities & method largely prescribed by the writer, most recipes afford the cook only one opportunity to adjust the flavour of the dish: “Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.”

This is more than a little restrictive. It gives the cook no more creative scope – and often less – than the eaters at the table, who will also be armed with salt and pepper, but perhaps mustard, mayonnaise or cranberry sauce as well.

When you cook a stew to a recipe, and it lacks a certain something – due to the inadequacy of the recipe, natural variations in the ingredients or method (see above), or some combination of the two – you can end up at a loss as to what to do.

Keep adding salt and/or pepper? Well, it might work up to a point, but it won’t make a dull stew interesting; and at some stage it’ll become unpalatably salty, or have its base flavours obliterated by peppery heat.

Instead, think back to those fish and chips, and their sweet, sour and salty seasonings. Add salt in moderation; and a twist or two of pepper if you like; then, with appropriate caution – bearing in mind that it’s far easier to add than to take away – adjust the flavour with sweet and/or sour additions.

What you elect to use will depend on what you’re cooking and what you have in your cupboards. Redcurrant jelly works well with red meats and rich, dark sauces; and it seems logical to enhance a wine or cider-based sauce with its equivalent vinegar. But really, what you use is up to you: as long as it doesn’t seem completely bonkers in principle, it’ll almost certainly work in practice.

Gradually add and balance the sweet, sour and salty seasonings, tasting at every stage, until you’re happy with the overall effect. To reiterate, you don’t want to overdo the sweet and sour additions, and there will be times when only one or the other is needed, or neither; but if you ever find yourself faced with an insipid meal and feeling powerless to do anything about it, you’d do well to remember the sugar bowl and the vinegar bottle.

This doesn’t just apply to stews but to curries, stir-fries, pasta sauces, gravies, salad dressings: pretty much anything, in fact. If you’ve never tried it before, I’m willing to bet that you’ll be pleasantly amazed at the difference it makes. And if you are, you’ll never look back.

There are plenty of other ways to perk up a meal just before serving; and while I won’t cover them in any detail here, one further “rule” to bear in mind is that if something works as a condiment, it’s likely to work just as well as an ingredient. (More on that, as well as the importance of the sweet-sour balance, in this article.)

An enlightened approach to seasoning will be of benefit whether your meal is recipe-based or not. But having established your ability to improve on a recipe by departing from it, why not take things a step further and work towards doing without recipes more generally?

4. Texture is as important as flavour

This statement probably needs to be qualified slightly in that, if something tastes absolutely disgusting, you won’t be able to rescue it by tinkering with the texture

But texture is often the making of a great meal. To return to the fish and chips example, if the batter is soggy or absent, the eating experience is completely altered, and much diminished, even if it doesn’t actually taste any different.

If you think about the foods you like to eat (not necessarily the ones you like to cook), you’ll find examples of textural contrasts wherever you look: the croutons on a bowl of soup, the crispy batter on southern fried chicken, even the crunchy salad on a late night kebab.

And as I’ve discussed before – albeit in the context of chocolate – you can introduce a new element of variation and creativity to your cooking simply by playing around with the shapes, sizes and arrangements of your ingredients.

But when I talk about texture, I’m not just referring to the solid ingredients. The consistency of a liquid can be varied to produce all kinds of effects: a thin but flavourful broth; a comforting, flour-thickened gravy; a syrupy glaze.

There are various ways in which to give your sauces the texture you’re after, none of them complex in themselves, but each deserving of a fuller exploration than I’ve space for here. So these will be the subject of a future article; but in the meantime, my piece on the art of stopping might help take the stress out of one of the most straightforward and useful techniques: reducing a sauce.

As it happens, it also leads me neatly on to the next of the “ten things”, and the last for now.

5. “Slow cooking” isn’t just a figure of speech

For a long time, I took slow cooking simply to mean “things that take a long time to cook”. It isn’t.

Actually, I suppose it sort of is. But it’s far more than that.

What happens to your food while it cooks is as important as how long it cooks. Two casseroles, cooked for the same amount of time at almost exactly the same temperature, will turn out completely differently. One will be a triumph, the other little short of a disaster.

This is why.

When you use boiling liquid to cook solid ingredients, the cooking will take place at 100°C, give or take a degree or two, whether that liquid is bubbling wildly or simmering almost imperceptibly. But in the first case, the solid chunks will be thrown around by the fast-moving liquid, crashing into the surfaces of the pan and each other. It’s hardly surprising that this should break them down, turning the meat into strings and the vegetables into sludge. In fact, it would be bizarre if it didn’t.

A very, very gentle simmer, where only the tiniest bubbles rise to the surface of the liquid, and then only rarely, will impart almost exactly the same amount of heat to the meat and veg. But in their relaxing bath – as opposed to invigorating jacuzzi – they’ll retain their shape and structure even after several hours in the pot.

The sauce may not reduce to your liking using this gentler method, but that’s easily remedied without harming the solid ingredients. On this, may I refer you back to the previous item, and to the Art of Stopping piece.

While the minimal simmer is what you should be aiming for, don’t worry about the occasional moment of inattention; a few minutes of faster boiling, while best avoided, shouldn’t punish you too severely. But if your idea of a simmer is something altogether more lively, I’d urge you to try the ultra-slow approach. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference.

Slow-cooking doesn’t have to take place on the hob, of course. Some of the nicest and easiest meals I’ve made have been of the slow-roasted variety: cuts of meat that can be shoved in a low oven and left alone for hours while a magical transformation takes place.

But that, I think, is for another day, and another article.

Continue to part 2

Everybody Loves Srira-cha-cha

This morning’s Word of Mouth blog alerted me to a possibility that I don’t much like to imagine: a potential world shortage of sriracha chilli sauce.

I’m one of a growing number who have come to be mildly addicted to the lurid red stuff, though I’m not quite at the point of putting it on everything I eat – a stage I reached with sweet chilli sauce around a decade ago, before the excitement wore off as rapidly as it had developed.

Still, I don’t much like to find myself sriracha-less. As Sue Quinn observes in the article, “a dash of sriracha, with its rich combination of chilli, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, can hide a multitude of culinary sins.”

True enough; though I’d offer a more positive assessment than that. As an ingredient as much as a condiment, it’s a relatively cheap and convenient pathway to a multitude of virtues. And while the rise of sriracha might be perceived as a prime example of our collective chilli addiction, I don’t believe it’s all about the heat.

Sugar and vinegar are, for me, the unsung seasonings. Most of our table sauces, spicy or otherwise, rely on their capacity to offset one another. But in much of our cooking, we tend to forget about them.

Much of our passion for sriracha arises from the fact that it achieves the sweet-sour balance that best suits our tastes. Sweet chilli sauce is too sickly, the sharpness of the vinegar obliterated by an excess of sugar. With Tabasco, it’s the other way round. But sriracha gets it just right. It’s the chilli sauce Goldilocks would go for.

To my mind, appreciating the power of the sweet-sour balance is a fundamental part of cooking, whether or not chillies are involved. But if you always cook from recipes, it’s an appreciation that you may never gain.

Most recipes will invite the reader, almost as an afterthought, to “season to taste with salt and black pepper”. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a recipe that directs the cook to season a meal the way I normally do: with salt and pepper, yes, but also with something sweet and something sour, judiciously added and counterbalanced to lift the flavours of the dish at the last moment.

But the dutiful recipe-follower, obeying the writer’s instructions to the letter, is left somewhat hamstrung. He or she may possess the tools to enhance the dish, but without the explicit authorisation of the recipe’s creator, is reluctant to use them. The role of enhancing and balancing the flavours is handed over to the eaters, armed with ketchup, mustard or, these days, sriracha. And the shared perception at the end of the meal is that the cook has produced something rather dull, only rendered interesting by the welcome presence of various types of magic dust on the table.

Get the balance of flavours right before you serve the meal, and it will have a quite different impact. If a finished stew fails to inspire and you’re not sure what to do, think sweet and sour, not just salt and pepper. And if a further flavour boost is required, bear in mind that if something works as a condiment, it will work just as well as an ingredient (perhaps with the exception of mayonnaise).

That last observation is central to my favourite post-pub meal, ideally suited to those times when knife work is too hazardous to contemplate.

Fill a shallow oven dish with a single layer of spare ribs and douse with sriracha, a little soy sauce and enough water to (just about) cover the ribs. Cover with foil and cook in a medium oven for an hour or so, or a low oven for just about as long as you like, then remove the foil and turn up the heat, allowing the ribs to brown while the sauce reduces.

Accompanied by a pile of lovingly microwaved rice – 2 parts rice to 3 parts water, covered and microwaved on medium until the water has been absorbed – it’s a meal that suits both my tastes and my capabilities after a night on the sauce (and for once, I don’t mean sriracha).

It works because sriracha does. The sweet-sour balance is already just about right, and the chilli and garlic I crave are present and correct, saving me a chopping job I’m ill-suited to undertake. Nothing else is needed, other than a little extra salt (from the soy sauce) to suit my tipsy tastes.

A big bottle of sriracha, costing as little as a couple of quid depending on where you look, will be enough for dozens of meals along these lines, with plenty to spare for table use. Compare that to the price of almost any jar or sachet of sauce in the supermarket, and the prospect of a sriracha drought becomes as much of a worry for the pocket as the palate.

Fortunately, the immediate threat to sriracha production in California has abated, though a further hearing is due to take place later this month. And there are plenty of other producers around the world, so we’re unlikely to be issued with sriracha ration books (sriration books?) just yet.

But I’m not taking any chances. A global wine shortage I can just about handle; a sriracha shortage I can’t. I’m off to the Chinese supermarket.

Why I won’t be entering the Nigel Slater food photo competition

What are you going to cook tonight?

Working out the answer to this question is one of the things I look forward to each day, whether I’m planning to shop for the ingredients (I don’t yet know what, of course), improvise a meal from what’s already in my fridge and cupboards, or some combination of the two.

What I’m assuredly not going to do is go shopping for a prescribed combination of ingredients, assemble them to somebody else’s specification, then take a photograph of the results and send it to a national paper on the off-chance of winning a cookbook.

But plenty of people are, courtesy of this competition from the Guardian. Cook your favourite Nigel Slater dish, send in your photo, and you might just win a signed copy of his new book.

Looking purely at the ratio of required effort to potential rewards, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket (and I’m not going to do that either).

But this competition has next to nothing to do with what the entrants might win, and almost everything to do with the kudos of seeing their “creations” appearing in the pages of the Guardian, Observer Food Monthly or wherever.

It’s designed to appeal to the people who habitually photograph their meals and post the pictures on Facebook or Instagram, most probably accompanied by the caption “NOM NOM!”.

The fundamental pointlessness of this is generally well understood, at least by the silent majority who don’t do it. I suppose it’s just about forgivable – apart from the “nom nom” bit, obviously – if you’re posting a snap of a meal you’ve created yourself, perhaps accompanied by some insight into how you made it.

But when the height of your ambition is dutiful emulation, the act of photographing your dinner reaches a new level of ridiculousness. Undertake a household task, take a photo of the results and send it off into the ether. You might as well post a picture of your completed washing up.

In fact, I think I will.

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(My washing up. Today.)

Or, if replication is now perceived as an art form in itself, why not have a competition to find the reader who can produce the most accurate reproduction of the Mona Lisa? It would be utterly futile, of course. But is it really that much dafter than the contest they’re running at the moment?

None of this is intended as a dig at Nigel Slater himself. I like his writing, and I’ve no idea whether he had anything to do with devising this spectacularly silly competition. But what it represents – a perfect storm of obedience and vanity – sums up the flawed relationship we’ve developed with food and cooking.

Years of watching cookery programmes on telly – and, in particular, shows such as Masterchef or The Great British Bake-Off, where cooking meets reality TV – have fundamentally affected our perceptions and priorities.

It’s an inevitable consequence of a visual medium: we can’t taste the food that the chefs or contestants produce, so we become obsessed with its appearance. Even where actual sampling is involved, we can never be the ones to do it, so the analysis of the food becomes secondary to what we can see; except perhaps when things go hideously wrong, and Gregg Wallace and friends get the enjoyable opportunity to dust off some of their more colourful figures of speech. In other words, what food programming isn’t about, and arguably can never be about, is the most important thing of all: the taste.

And yet, rather than allow our own palates, judgements and preferences to guide us, we persist in trying to replicate other people’s creations, whether we’ve Sky-plussed them from the TV or, more likely, read them from a cookbook, newspaper or website. We’ve never tasted these people’s cooking, and we never will; yet we follow them nonetheless, in what amounts to an act of blind faith. And if the end result fails to inspire, we don’t question the merits of the recipe; instead, we presume we must have done something wrong, and vow to do a better copying job the next time. As behaviours go, it’s bizarre to the point of masochistic.

Add to this the many other factors that militate against a recipe-driven approach to cooking – the drudgery, the inherent deference, the potential for wastefulness – and the arguments for an alternative methodology become compelling.

Elsewhere in the Guardian’s pages, you can read the work of a different kind of food writer: the newly ubiquitous Jack Monroe, whose rapid journey from impoverished single mother to successful blogger and Labour Party campaigner has earned her the coveted accolade of being smeared by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. (I can’t bring myself to link to the odious Littlejohn’s original piece, but Monroe’s eloquently indignant riposte is well worth a read.)

Her articles include recipes, naturally – newspaper food editors aren’t ready to let go of that particular comfort blanket just yet – but they also explore more interesting and relevant issues around resourcefulness, inventiveness and cost. In short, she writes about a subject that’s long since gone out of fashion, but remains as relevant as it has ever been: home economics.

While the term itself isn’t exactly alluring, taking your lead from home economics doesn’t mean that cooking becomes boring: quite the reverse. Even if you’re relatively well off, there’s immense satisfaction to be gained from finding value, making use of what you have, avoiding waste and turning the proverbial sow’s ear into an equally proverbial silk purse. And as with any creative process, the act of invention can bring enormous pleasure in itself.

The end results may or may not be worth photographing. That doesn’t matter – and anyway, you don’t want your dinner to go cold while you’re getting that perfect shot. What matters is that the food is nourishing, satisfying and tasty.

Mind you, if the Guardian were to run an alternative competition, inviting readers to photograph and describe the best meals they’ve ever made for a quid a head, that would be a hell of a lot more interesting, and infinitely more meaningful.

In fact, I might even enter it myself.