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.

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