The State I Am In

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With the near-inevitability of drunken late-night attempts at cooking and/or the need for a restorative New Year breakfast, it seems as good a time as any to post this – a guide to cooking for the pissed, hung over or otherwise damaged.

It’s the second edited extract from my book, The No Recipe Manifesto, which will finally see the light of day in 2014. (In case you missed it, here’s the first extract).

Lastly for 2013, thanks for following the blog, and for the likes, shares, retweets and comments – they mean a lot.

Have a good, and well-fed, New Year.

Drunk Plate

It’s perfectly possible that much of this advice will be of little relevance to you, because you’ve never been in the position of needing to feed yourself, and potentially others, while dealing with the immediate or residual effects of the demon drink.

But if you have, I suspect that my experience – depressingly extensive as it is – may be of some use. And even if you haven’t, you may yet be able to find a point of reference, if ever you find yourself afflicted by a lack of motivation, coordination or both.

Floyd

I can’t be certain who was the first TV chef I ever saw – not because I was drunk, I should point out, but because I was young – but since we’re talking about the mid-1980s here, I can be reasonably confident that it was either Delia Smith or Keith Floyd.

In case you didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing the great man in action, I’d better provide a bit of context. Keith Floyd was a fine cook, a funny and charismatic communicator – and, on the telly at least, permanently pissed.

I can’t recall ever seeing him cook without a large glass of wine within easy reach, which he would slug merrily in between tasks (and, I’m quite sure, in between takes as well). I’ve certainly followed his estimable example as regards wine consumption; so it would make sense that I would also take his lead when it comes to drunken cooking too. But, oddly enough, I don’t.

The thing is, Floyd would guzzle wine as the rest of us might drink tea. It wasn’t that the food he was making was somehow appropriate for the inebriated; just that he happened to be so. In fact, many of the tasks he undertook while under the influence were among the last things you’d want to replicate if you found yourself in a similar state: chopping, slicing, sautéing and flambéing.

Without the presence of a well-prepared camera crew, no doubt armed with first aid kits and fire extinguishers, I’d have worried for his well-being. If I tried anything similar myself, I’d be even more worried for my own.

As a consequence, my advice on alcohol-influenced cooking is quite unlike Floyd’s, with rather more emphasis on personal capability and safety.

(I’m pretty sure this is the sort of thing they mean when they talk about “responsible drinking”.)

Soaked cuisine

The first question to ask yourself when drunk and hungry is the same one you’d ask yourself when sober and hungry: “What sort of thing would I like to eat?” (Admittedly, it may sound more like “whassorrhing waaaaliyyaeeee?”, but let’s not split hairs.)

The pissed answer to that question, though, is likely to be different from the non-pissed one, and not just in its pronunciation. All five senses are impaired as a result of drinking alcohol; so a meal that would smell and taste just fine to your sober self may well seem rather bland once you’ve had a few jars. As a consequence, you’re likely to seek out, and be able to cope with, more potent flavours than you normally would.

You’re also more likely to crave fatty foods. Scientific opinion is divided as to the primary cause of this: some believe that it is caused by an alcohol-induced change in the balance of brain chemicals; others argue that we are naturally programmed to seek out the highest energy (i.e. fattiest) foods, but that our rational minds are capable of overriding this instinct when we’re sober. From the drinker’s point of view, it hardly matters which theory is nearer the mark, because the outcome is the same.

And lastly, you’re likely to want – or rather need – some starchy ballast to soak up some of the booze.

Now, having decided roughly what you’d like to eat, it’s time to ask yourself a further question: “What am I capable of doing?”

This is a trickier one, because the answer you produce will most likely be optimistic going on ludicrous. Mercifully, though, such optimism will rapidly dissipate once you work out what you can actually be arsed to do, so you should be reasonably content to rein in your initial ambitions.

Nonetheless, it’s probably worth drawing up a few house rules. Anything requiring elaborate knife skills, precision timing or significant quantities of hot fat is best avoided. (As is flambéing – sorry Keith.)

Put all those criteria together, and you may well find yourself being led in the direction of rice and spice.

Rice and spice

Unless you’re in a desperate hurry – in which case you’d probably have stopped for chips on the way home anyway – rice is a near-guaranteed winner. Whether you use the microwave or stove-top absorption method, it takes a matter of moments to assemble.

My microwave rice prescription, incidentally, is this: Put three parts water to two parts rice – unrinsed, and not the easy-cook kind, which is the rice equivalent of UHT milk – into a microwaveable thingy, cover it with cling film, pierce the film a couple of times and microwave until all the water has been absorbed. Even if you’ve overdone the bevvy quite severely, it ought to be within your powers. If it isn’t, I’d respectfully suggest you rethink your cooking plans.

How you accompany your rice will probably depend on what you have in your fridge, because you’re unlikely to have planned your food shopping with drunken cookery in mind. But on the off-chance that you have, the ideal ingredients are those that require no chopping, no frying and next to no attention.

Chicken thighs or drumsticks (bone and skin on), duck legs (ditto) and pork ribs will all satisfy your meaty cravings, and can simply be coated in your chosen sauce or spices, covered in foil and bunged in a low to medium oven for an hour or so. If you feel confident in your capacity to pay sufficient attention, you can always remove the foil and turn up the heat at the end for a spot of browning.

Some of my favourite drunken combos include: sweet chilli and soy (good for ribs); curry powder, honey and soy (particularly with chicken); and five spice, chilli powder, salt and a pinch of sugar (ideal for duck legs, as the absence of added liquid allows the skin to crisp up).

Accompany any of these combinations with a pile of lovingly microwaved rice and you’ve got a hefty and powerfully-flavoured meal on the table – or, far more likely, on your knees in front of the telly – in about an hour, without using a single hob, knife or chopping board.

Tasty though these simple, spicy dishes are, they’re conspicuously vegetable-free. You may not care about this in the slightest; but if you do, and if you reckon you can cope with a small amount of chopping, some sliced onion and peppers, and perhaps some fresh chilli, can be scattered over your saucy meat before it goes into the oven.

Alternatively, if you feel more confident about using a hob than a knife, one of those handy supermarket packs of stir-fry vegetables (fresh or – whisper it – frozen) will allow you to introduce a modest dose of vitamins to your meal without having to handle any sharp implements.

Lastly, the benefits of textural contrasts in a meal are, if anything, increased after a few drinks – think of the salad on your late-night burger or kebab – so a healthy stash of peanuts or cashews is worth maintaining for garnishing as well as snacking purposes.

Or, with a little lateral thinking, you might be able to find a less obvious source of crunch in your fridge or freezer. I’ve had surprising success with breadcrumbed scampi, cooked in the oven as directed, and mixed into a spicy, saucy concoction at the very last minute. It might be a rather low-rent version of the crispy chilli dishes I frequently order from Chinese takeaways; but I don’t see anything too much the matter with that.

Pasta

It takes quite a lot to persuade me away from the rice and spice route after a night out. If it happens, the compelling reason is normally a lack of suitable ingredients: plain rice and curry sauce doesn’t quite do it for me these days.

But if I’m out of fresh meat, I try to make sure I haven’t exhausted my stash of the cured stuff. Bacon is a reliable staple – and can, of course, be turned into save-the-day sandwiches to render all “what to eat” discussions redundant – but if I’m craving something more varied and substantial than a bacon sarnie, they’ll find their way into a dead simple tomato sauce.

If I feel capable of using a knife, some onion and garlic will never go amiss. Nor, especially in a post-pub state, will a good dose of chilli (fresh, dried or powdered). But if I conclude that I shouldn’t be messing around with sharp implements, a pair of scissors will suffice for snipping the rashers into the oiled pan. With the addition of a tin of chopped tomatoes, followed by some enthusiastic bubbling and stirring to conduct a controlled evaporation on the excess liquid, it should be done by the time the pasta is. I’ll normally finish it off with an extra swirl of oil, just for luck.

Potential variations are pretty much endless. Replace the bacon with fat slices of chorizo, salami or other spicy sausage. Or, if the fridge is looking bare, it’s always worth scanning the shelves for suitable tins and jars. I’m not a fan of tuna in tomato sauces – it always seems to degenerate into a pink, visually and texturally unappealing sludge. But olives, anchovies and capers are all favourites of mine; used all together, along with tomato and chilli, they form a puttanesca sauce that veers remarkably close to southern Italian authenticity.

One further thing: in your weakened, fat-craving state, you’ll probably want to top your meal with cheese. Lots of cheese. All the cheese. Parmesan is all well and good, but I’ve a none-too-guilty fondness for cheap, plastic cheese strewn all over my 2am pasta. I’m usually too drunk to remember the ensuing nightmares anyway.

Oh, and one further further thing: if any wine (red or white) has survived the evening thus far, use it to enliven the sauce. You might thank yourself in the morning.

Bread

As well as the ever-welcome bacon, there are plenty of late night candidates for slapping between two slices of bread. Leftover roast meat – refried if you like, and can be arsed – is an ideal candidate if you happen to have some in the fridge. Failing that, if you can’t squish some mince into a vaguely burger-like shape, it’s a poor show indeed. And if you feel like jazzing it up with some cumin, chilli or whatever else, that’s probably within your powers too; but remember to avoid any liquid additions, as they’ll take away the natural binding qualities of the minced meat.

With either of the above examples, there’s a good case for using your alcohol-fuelled creative streak to invent a fancy mayonnaise of some kind (and by “invent”, of course I mean stirring your preferred powders and unctions into a blob of bought mayo). Stick to what’s familiar by all means – tomato ketchup and mayo for a no-frills variation on thousand island dressing, or mayonnaise and curry powder for a basic Coronation-style sauce – but you’ll probably end up being rather more imaginative than that.

Fortunately, if the mixture turns out to be indescribably, inedibly awful, even in your less than discerning state, you can find this out from a quick taste before you slather it on your sarnie, so you shouldn’t be faced with that of “Christmas is cancelled” moment that occurs when you arse up the seasoning of a lovingly-cooked stew.

Best of all, as far as I’m concerned, is that an enhanced mayonnaise – or, for that matter, an unenhanced one – effectively removes the requirement to butter the bread. Much as I love butter, the task of spreading it, rock hard from the fridge, on to soft white bread is one I can rarely manage successfully at the best of times, so I’ve got no chance after a few bevvies.

And finally, my friend Emma’s excellent rule of thumb – that any sandwich is improved by the addition of crisps – becomes even more accurate, and more relevant, with respect to the drunken sarnie.

The morning after

For many of us, hung over eating means one thing: the fry-up.

I’m an avowed fan too; though I confess that its regenerative effects seem to be diminishing as I get older. These days, when I’m looking to extinguish the raging inferno in my head and body, I’m more likely to turn to a spicy, salty noodle soup.

Having sworn by this for some years, I was pleased but not too surprised to find that this approach appears to have some basis in science.

Dr. Alyson E. Mitchell, a professor of food chemistry at the University of California, recently presented research findings indicating that “Yak-a-mein” – a highly spiced beef and noodle broth from New Orleans, known to locals as “Old Sober” – is one of the best hangover remedies going. The soy sauce in the broth restores salts lost from the body as a result of alcohol’s diuretic properties. Vitamin B1, found in the beef, helps to prevent the buildup of glutarate, a substance thought to contribute to the headache part of the hangover.

The broth also contains sliced hard-boiled egg, which I’m not sure I could stomach when feeling queasy, but apparently I’d do well to: eggs are a good source of cysteine, which breaks down the toxic substance (acetaldehyde) produced when alcohol is broken down by the liver.

With or without the egg, I can certainly vouch for the overall feeling of well-being, or at least slightly-better-than-before-being, conferred by a salty, spicy soup. It’s also reassuringly easy to make: boiling water, noodles, a good beef stock cube, seasonings (including plenty of soy) and some fresh chilli, and you’re just about there, though some chopped spring onions and fresh coriander will never go amiss either. Should I wish to add meat – and let’s be honest, I probably will – I’ll try to stop my hands shaking for long enough to slice it finely, so that a couple of minutes’ poaching in the stock will be enough to cook it through.

If I decide to go breakfasty instead, this will take one of two forms: a full-on fry-up; or a ridiculously proportioned “Scooby snack” style sandwich, with a slice of toast in the middle as part of a token, doomed attempt to hold the thing together.

When it comes to fried breakfasts, there are only three pieces of advice I can usefully give. The first – which is dependent on having sufficient patience – is that good sausages respond wonderfully well to a very slow fry, over up to an hour if you can bear to wait that long. Any fat and gristle lurking within, which will have been broken down to some degree by the mincer, will become more tender still during a long, slow cook.

Secondly, it’s worth yet another reminder that a low oven provides a more than handy store for anything that’s ready ahead of time. My policy these days is to get the meaty parts of the meal ready first, so that the last few minutes can be spent on the more time-critical tasks of cooking eggs and making toast.

Thirdly and finally, if you’re as hopeless at frying eggs as I am, may I recommend what an old university friend of mine called “flat egg”. This is basically a thin omelette; or, if you prefer, fried beaten egg. You don’t have to worry about breaking the egg yolk, because you’ve done this on purpose at the outset. And for sandwiches in particular, I find it works at least as well as a regular fried egg. You’ll miss out on the arguable joys of runny egg yolk running down your chin and on to your jumper; but you’ll probably find you can live with that.

Sober uselessness

Even if you’ve never had a drink in your life, some of the above advice may yet prove useful.

The qualities that make these meals appropriate for stumbling drunks – minimum hassle, little or no chopping, forgiving ingredients – also make them suitable for the sober but listless. After all, being unable to face the washing up is by no means the sole preserve of the hung over.

Without the effects of alcohol, the cravings for fat, spice and stodge may not apply; but on the other hand, a number of “easy” ingredients that are a little too worthy for the intoxicated eater can come back into the mix.

For instance, if you want an even simpler equivalent to the pasta dishes described in this chapter, make the sauce in the same way but add a drained tin of pulses – white beans or chickpeas, say – at the end. The pulses take the place of the pasta, allowing you to create a genuine one-pot meal – a handy thing when you really can’t be arsed to wash up. For an added touch of piousness, not to mention crispness, you might even choose to accompany it with a green salad.

On the very odd occasion, I’ve been known to whip up such noble and healthy meals myself.

The trouble is, I always seem to want a pint afterwards.

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Calling All Curmudgeons

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Kiss me

Christmas is a time of joy, peace and goodwill to all men.

If you agree unreservedly with that statement, you might not want to bother reading on.

If, on the other hand, your spirits sink on that day in mid-September when all the shops simultaneously fill their shelves with all manner of Christmas tat, and only really recover on Twelfth Night when the tree finally comes down – leaving in its wake a deadly sprinkling of pine needles and shards of shattered bauble – I’d like to suggest a way to inject just a tiny bit of joy into your otherwise dismal festive period.

Get cooking.

Why? Well, I can give you three extremely good reasons.

Avoiding relatives

You’ll recognise the scene. It’s late morning on Christmas Day. Auntie Hilda, who’s been on the sweet sherry since 9.30, is already slurring her words and has taken to hanging around in disconcerting proximity to the mistletoe. Little Eddie, high on a cocktail of Irn Bru and a whole bag of chocolate coins, is in the living room, flailing away wildly with the light sabre his parents so prudently bought him for Christmas. If the telly survives the onslaught, it’ll count as a bonus. And Grandpa’s flatulence is already so noxious that you shudder at what might happen once sprouts are introduced to the equation.

Given a free choice in proceedings, what you’d really like to do is retire to your room with a good book and an enormous whisky, and stay there until sometime on Boxing Day when everyone’s finally buggered off. But you can’t do that, or you’ll be roundly decried for being the miserable git you so obviously are. So you have to grin – or at least grimace – and bear it.

Unless…unless…

Take on the role of Christmas chef and you can guiltlessly avoid all this. Better still, you’ll amass a load of brownie points as you selflessly toil away, magnanimously refusing all offers of help (but graciously accepting all offers of drinks). Your family and guests will be universally grateful for your efforts – and they don’t have to know that peeling three pounds of spuds represents unimaginable bliss by comparison with having to sit through another microsecond of Uncle Derek’s golfing anecdotes.

Music

I really can’t emphasise this one enough.

I don’t mind a Christmas carol or two. Very occasionally, I might even catch myself singing along to one. On the scale of festive assaults on the ears, they rank right at the bottom.

Worse – much, much worse – are the Christmas “hits”. These are the songs that have tormented you every time you’ve made the mistake of turning on the radio or setting foot in a shop over the past six weeks: Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, Mariah sodding Carey. And worst of all (apart from Cliff, obviously): Paul McCartney and Wings.

(N.B. The above link will take you directly to the offending song. You should only click it if you utterly despise yourself – or if you have some sort of aural S&M fetish, with a particular focus on the “M”.)

It beggars belief that the man responsible for some of the finest pop songs of all time could have vomited up this particular festive “classic”. Despite your most determined efforts to avoid it, sheer repetition causes its hideously jaunty melody to burrow its way into your brain, until you wake up screaming on Christmas morning, incapable of thinking of anything else. The Frog Chorus would be better than this, or even – and I don’t say this lightly – Mull of Kintyre.

Simply having a wonderful Christmas time? My arse.

So this Christmas, my playlist will comprise the likes of the Phantom Band, Camera Obscura and Withered Hand, performing songs that have precisely naff all to do with Christmas. And if someone swans in and tries to put on “The Most Depressingly Generic Christmas Album in the World…Ever!”, I shall hack the CD to pieces with a meat cleaver, take out the offending relative with my patented Sprout Cannon, and put Leonard Cohen‘s Famous Blue Raincoat on repeat until dinner’s ready.

(I do appreciate that there are some honourable exceptions to the horrors of Christmas music – but even Fairytale of New York begins to grate after the 237th listen. So the only Christmas songs permitted under my watch come from Slow Club – but to be honest, they could write songs about management accounting and still sound bloody fantastic.)

Control

Finally, being the Christmas Day chef gives you one further vital benefit: control. You can make the meal exactly as you’d like it.

Granted, there might not seem to be all that much room for originality in the Christmas meal, given all the compulsory elements.

But even if the core ingredients don’t leave you much room for manoeuvre, there’s still a surprising amount of scope for innovation, and for catering to your own tastes. So if you’ve a particular distaste for massively overboiled sprouts – and to be honest, why wouldn’t you – you can shred them and stir-fry them with pancetta and chestnuts until crisp and glorious.

And if the turkey normally turns out dry and miserable, and you’re left munching through its depressing leftovers, in the form of sandwiches and curries, for days afterwards, why not try a variation on Chicken à la Gran.

Cut the crown (the breasts and breastbone) away from the rest of the carcass and just cook that for Christmas Day. This spares you the conundrum of trying to keep the breasts moist while the legs cook through. And you’re bound to have ordered far too big a turkey, just as you do every year, so nobody’s going to go hungry.

The legs and other sundry bits can then be put to whatever use you like, making a far nicer Boxing Day meal than the usual Leftover Surprise. I’ve had particular success in the past by jointing the bird (don’t worry if this is somewhat haphazard) and using the pieces, backbone and all, to make a turkey equivalent of coq au vin.

Lastly, since we’re on the subject of control, may I remind you about the art of stopping. If everything seems to be happening too fast, and you’re losing track of the various pans, just turn off the heat for a moment and replan. The turkey (or other roast dead thing of choice) will sit very happily on the worktop, lightly covered in foil, for as long as you need to finish off the veg and gravy and get those f***ing roast potatoes to crisp up. And even if the meat ends up a little cooler than planned – that’s to say, stone cold – some hot gravy, strategically poured, will ensure that nobody’s any the wiser.

Ho ho ho

Lastly, a confession.

It might not be obvious from what I’ve written here, but I really enjoy Christmas.

That doesn’t mean that everything I’ve said so far is a lie – simply that it can be read with either a positive or negative spin. And as I’ve given you the negative spin at some length, here’s the positive one. An opportunity to cook Christmas dinner to your exact specifications, and to the delight of your friends or family, while enjoying many a festive eggnog and listening to all your favourite music, – well, what’s not to like?

Merry Christmas!

Kiss me happy

(N.B. Photographs are the copyright of Don Wheeler Enterprises. The No Recipe Man takes no responsibility for the extent to which they may frighten small children.)

Chicken à la Gran

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Gwen Lees

At what point would you begin to describe yourself as a good cook?

Is there a particular rite of passage involved? Does it happen when you first cook something that wouldn’t be out of place at a half-decent restaurant? When you host a successful dinner party? The first time you make a proper pie from scratch?

In the absence of an agreed definition, here’s my take on the subject.

I started to believe I was a decent cook when I realised that, instead of thinking “how do I make this dish?”, I found myself thinking, “what shall I make with these ingredients?”

As with most life changes, I’d struggle to pinpoint exactly when this shift of perspective took place. But at a conservative estimate, I’d say it took me ten years of regular cooking, and quite possibly more. And if I’m honest, I’m still learning.

Looking back, this probably isn’t surprising. Learning my cooking skills in the 1990s through reading books, watching TV and following recipes, I was in thrall to the celebrity chefs who were just beginning to take over our tellies. I’d go round to my Gran’s house and watch Ready Steady Cook with her; and as the likes of James Martin came up with fabulous-looking meals on the hoof, I’d wonder aloud how exactly they managed to do that.

As I recall, my Gran didn’t say much, if anything, in response. But on reflection, I’m sure she must have been smiling to herself. She knew exactly how they did it, because she used to do the same thing herself, every day.

By my definition of “good” cooking, my generation are indisputably lesser cooks than our grandparents – or, in most cases, our grandmothers – were. We might be able to produce pleasant enough meals. But because we’ve grown up in a time of plenty – plenty of choice, at least, if not necessarily plenty of money – we simply haven’t learned to innovate.

In the cases of my grandmother and her contemporaries, innovation was born of necessity. Bringing up four children during post-war rationing, the ability to conjur a meal from whatever happened to be around was an essential survival skill, not a lifestyle choice.

Moreover, it was a skill she had to develop swiftly. By her own admission, when she got married, she couldn’t even boil an egg. (Though as I’ve mentioned before, I have some sympathy with that.)

When I came to sample her cooking, some forty years on, it reflected the good habits she’d taught herself as a young mother. She had a seemingly miraculous ability to expand a meal to serve twice the number, or deal with an excess of a particular ingredient without wastage or over-repetition.

(That last point, incidentally, is more fundamental than it might seem. As the ever-excellent Amy Fleming explains in the Guardian this week, the urge to avoid eating the same thing over and over again is more than mere fussiness: it’s hard-wired into us for our own survival and well-being.)

So my interest in – OK then, obsession with – creative, resourceful cooking can be traced directly back to my Gran. In fact, I can see her influence in almost all of the principles I’ve discussed on this blog.

For instance, she had a tremendous appreciation of flavour and texture; and in particular, how to create contrasts of flavour and texture in order to enhance a meal. She saw any foodstuff as a potential ingredient, if the circumstances were right; to the point that various unlikely foods – crisps, biscuits, breakfast cereals – found their way into her creations, to remarkably good effect.

And while she enjoyed cooking, she saw no point in toiling away for hours for the sake of it – especially when the wine was flowing freely in the other room. So she would happily use tinned or otherwise prepared ingredients when it made sense to do so. Some might see this as cheating; to her, it was merely common sense.

These traits were captured in one particularly memorable meal – a spicy, creamy chicken casserole containing, among many other things: a tin of Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup; tinned artichoke hearts (why go through the palaver of preparing fresh ones if they’re going to spend an hour or more in a stew?); and a crunchy topping made from…Phileas Fogg corn chips.

Memorable it may have been – to the point that my sister and I still talk about it in awed tones – but like anything she cooked, it was never to be repeated in exactly the same form. There was no point asking her to recreate a dish, because she wouldn’t be able to tell you how she’d made it. In any case, the contents of the fridge and cupboards would never be exactly the same as the previous time; so the resulting meal would be different too.

As you’ll gather from the Ready Steady Cook example, I didn’t give all this a lot of thought at the time. Only in her later years, when she was too unwell to cook and I could no longer enjoy her creations, did I realise that one of my greatest ambitions – in fact, one of my only clear ambitions – was to be able to cook like my Gran.

It was, and remains, a worthy ambition, if a relatively uncommon one. Her skills, if not altogether lost, are far rarer these days, because we have so much more choice in what and how to eat than she did when she was feeding her family.

To reiterate, I’m not ignoring or denying the fact that millions of people are living below the poverty line. But in 2013, we’re presented with a huge selection of available ingredients, as well as countless cheap if not exactly nutritious alternatives to resourceful home cooking.

Under such circumstances, how do we get people cooking as my Gran did? And do we really need to?

To answer the second question first: yes we do. Even if we accept regular food scares as an inevitable by-product of our pursuit of cheap food, there’s a limit to how far costs can be trimmed. Food prices are rising overall, and will continue to do so, with the consequence that even the nastiest reformed-meat horror shows will take an increasing chunk from already tight household incomes. And if we continue to throw away the best part of half the food we produce, rather than teaching ourselves the skills and thought processes that will allow us to make use of it, the problem will only get worse.

Back to the first question, then. How do we learn – or relearn – to cook?

I don’t believe it has to be a massive undertaking. A collective lack of confidence, combined with a bewildering array of cooking and eating options, might have led us to fall out of the habit of thinking creatively; but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capacity to do so.

As I’ve written before, we all know more about food and cooking than we realise. Everything we’ve ever eaten has the potential to teach us something about cooking, if we only stop to think about it.

My Gran certainly understood this. Her wartime service in Italy introduced her to a range of ingredients and flavours she’d never have encountered at home. She didn’t actually do any cooking while she was there; but years later, when the relevant ingredients became available in Britain, she was able to introduce them to her meals. (On reflection, this would explain why much of what she cooked was so magnificently garlicky.)

As you’ve probably gathered, I could talk all day about my Gran and her cooking. But it wouldn’t get us all that far; and she certainly wouldn’t have appreciated an extended public tribute. So instead, here’s a real life, practical example of how cooking like my Gran – or, more specifically, thinking like her – remains as useful and relevant as ever.

Cooking “Gran-style” – a case study

Recently, I bought a chicken.

My decision to buy it was a relatively straightforward one. First of all, I wanted to eat some chicken. Second of all, the choice of free range chicken in the supermarket was typically depressing: a few whole birds for about 7 quid apiece, or countless twin packs of breast fillets for a fiver. The bits I really wanted to buy – whole legs or thighs – were nowhere to be seen. Not for the first time, looking across shelf after shelf of identical breast fillets, I found myself wondering where all the chicken legs actually go.

Anyway, I worked out that if two breasts cost £5 on their own, and if the whole chickens would almost certainly boast two breasts apiece, all I needed to work out was whether the remainder of the bird – comprising (to my mind) all the best meat, plus the skin and bones that would make a fabulous stock – was worth two quid of my money. Not a difficult decision.

So I bought a whole free range bird. As chickens go, this one wasn’t huge. But it was still more than my flatmate and I would be able to manage in a single sitting.

This left me with a few options. The first, and the simplest, was to roast the chicken whole, eat what we wanted, then think of a way to use up the leftovers.

Contrary to popular cliché, however, the simplest ideas aren’t always the best. Had I taken this option, I know exactly what would have happened. We’d both have gorged on our favourite bits – the legs, the wings, the little nuggets of juicy meat next to the backbone – and left the dry, pale breasts untouched, condemned to a future of distinctly unappetising chicken sarnies. Once we’d worked our joyless way through those, hopefully I’d have found time to make the carcass into stock before it began to smell a bit iffy. But I have to confess, my record on that is some way short of 100%.

An alternative possibility was to take the meat off the chicken before cooking. On the face of it, this had several advantages. It would have provided enough meat for two separate meals – one made with the breasts, the other with the rest – thus reducing the scope for unappealing leftovers, as well as sidestepping the problem of cooking the breast and leg meat together, when the former requires much less time to cook. It would have allowed me to make the stock that same day, and to use some of it to make tasty sauces for the two dishes. And best of all, it would have given me the opportunity to announce, “I’m just off to bone the chicken”, before bursting into fits of schoolboy giggles.

So this plan had quite a lot going for it, and only one downside: I really, really couldn’t be arsed.

I’m sure an expert butcher could bone out a chicken in a couple of minutes. Well, I can’t. Experience has shown me that it takes me at least fifteen minutes, and sometimes more, to get a significant majority of the meat from a raw chicken. It’s a messy, fiddly job, and the kitchen always ends up looking like a Hammer horror set by the time I’ve finished.

So I’d ruled out one option because I didn’t much fancy the likely outcome, and another because it failed the all-important “arsedness test”. What to do?

Fortunately, there was a third option – a method I’d come up with a couple of years back, using my very best Gran logic.

Removing the meat from a whole chicken is messy and laborious; but removing the breast fillets is an absolute doddle. (If you’ve never done it before, there’s many a YouTube clip to show you how, such as this one.)

With the breast meat removed and set aside for a future stir-fry, all I do is cut away the breastbone with scissors, so that the chicken lies flat when placed upside down, and I’m left with an ideally proportioned two-person roast.

Cooked this way, what would have been the soggy underside of the bird instead crisps up nicely in the oven. And without the breast meat to worry about, it’s far easier to cook – or should I say, far more difficult to overcook – than a whole bird. Finally, the bones – both the roasted carcass and the raw breastbone – get turned into stock, either the next day or (my preference) overnight in the slow cooker.

So. I had my chicken. I had my plan. All was well with the world, and I imagined my Gran giving an approving nod at my resourcefulness. I got home, thoroughly pleased with myself, before remembering something rather important.

My flatmate was in Portugal.

Some swift replanning was required. A chicken that would comfortably have served four – or, as I’d originally envisaged, two people twice over – now had to serve one person. Repeatedly.

All of a sudden, many of the parameters had changed – but not quite all of them. I still couldn’t be bothered to bone the chicken – especially with no flatmate with whom to share my smutty jokes. But the roasting option, with its now-inevitable excess of leftovers, had to be ruled out. And with no freezer space going spare, my primary challenge was to find a way to get through the whole bird on my own, with enough variety to minimise the risk of chicken fatigue.

There was only one question to be asked at this point: “What Would Granny Do?”

After a moment’s reflection, I decided she’d probably have done this.

I cut away the breasts as usual, bunged the rest into a large saucepan along with a couple of onions, a carrot and a few peppercorns, and brought the pan to the gentlest possible simmer.

After an hour’s simmering, the chicken was cooked and the stock, enhanced by the presence of lean meat as well as the skin and bones, was starting to look and smell very tempting indeed. But I knew that, while the meat itself was cooked through, the skin and bones had plenty left to give.

I lifted the chicken out of its hot bath and left it on the worktop to cool for fifteen minutes or so. Once it had cooled enough to handle, I picked the just-cooked meat – easily two meals’ worth of it – away from the bones, which went back into the stock for another couple of hours, enhancing its colour and flavour even further.

Here, incidentally, is demonstrated the value of the “arsedness test” – which is firmly grounded in my Gran’s principles, even if the terminology is very much my own. Removing the meat from a raw chicken, as I’ve indicated, demands a lot of skilled knife work and even more patience. Removing it from a cooked, cold chicken is easier, but still requires a fair bit of cutting, prising and tugging as the cooled-down meat clings determinedly to the carcass. But with a moist, still-warm bird, the meat comes away in the fingers with minimal persuasion. In other words, it passes the arsedness test with flying colours.

Over the course of three hours – but only a few minutes’ actual work – my single whole chicken had turned into three ingredients, each of them full of potential: breast meat (raw); the meat from the legs and body (cooked, but not overcooked, and ripe for reuse in any number of dishes); and rich, tasty stock. Yes, I’d be eating chicken for a few days to come. But importantly, I wouldn’t have to eat the same thing twice.

So I turned half the stock into a broccoli and potato soup, using the veg I’d originally earmarked for the two person roast, and topped this off with a few shreds of the cooked meat. Over the following three days, I made a stir-fry that used up both breasts (a touch excessive to feed one, perhaps, but sod it) and two meals (a curry and a pasta sauce, as I recall) from the remaining meat. Each of these was enhanced with a little of the remaining stock. And all that – four quite different meals, one of them preposterously large – from a single free range chicken.

Of the tasks I’ve just described, there’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself, whether you’re an experienced cook or a novice. I had all the skills needed to do it myself while I was still in my teens. But it had simply never occurred to me to do it

In other words, it’s taken me twenty-odd years to think like my Gran – that is, to think in terms of resources rather than process, and to respond creatively to changes of circumstances. And most importantly of all, to understand there’s more than one way to skin a cat – or, in this case, divide up a chicken.

How to Boil an Egg

This is an edited extract from the book, The No Recipe Manifesto, to be published in 2014.

It will not tell you how to boil an egg. Sorry.

How long does it take to boil an egg? 3 minutes for soft-boiled, 4 minutes for “normal”? How long for hard-boiled?

The correct but boring answer is that I haven’t given you enough information to answer the question. Whether you’re aiming for soft-boiled, hard-boiled or something in between, the optimum timing will depend on the size, shape and temperature of the egg, the relative size of the yolk (which, of course, the cook has no realistic way of knowing), the starting temperature of the water and so on.

The differences might be relatively small in most cases, but nonetheless, the “perfect” timing will vary by a few seconds from egg to egg. The reason we’ve settled on round numbers for the task is that they provide a decent approximation of the time required for a cooking task that otherwise offers no useful information about how it’s progressing.

This is why I’ve always found it curious that boiling an egg is widely perceived as one of the most basic cooking skills, to the point that Delia was roundly and famously mocked for devoting an entire half-hour programme to the subject. I suppose it’s an important skill – especially if you like eating boiled eggsbut I certainly wouldn’t call it basic. How can it be, when there are multiple variables to consider, when no two cooks can agree on the best method, and when you can only judge the success of the operation by cracking the egg open? If that’s a basic skill, it’s little wonder so many people give up on cooking altogether.

When you cook, you normally have several sources of information on things are progressing. The clock is among them, but so are your eyes, ears, nose and fingers. However doubtful you are about your own cooking skills, you’ll be used to using at least some of these. If you see a saucepan about to boil over, that prompts you to turn it down. The sound and smell of a frying burger helps you to judge when to flip it over. And a jab with the tip of a knife will let you know whether boiled potatoes have softened enough to eat.

The boiling egg offers no such evidence. It will turn from underdone to overdone in the space of a minute or two; but all the information about its progress is hidden within the shell. (Unless you accidentally break it, in which case it’s ruined anyway.)

The only comparable ingredients I know are the lobster and the crab: each has that same combination of delicate contents concealed by an exoskeleton. Yet not many people would include boiling lobsters on their lists of cooking “basics”.

Fortunately, most foods are rather less secretive than eggs and crustacea, and offer plenty of clues to the cook, as well as a good deal of flexibility. The need for egg timers or their modern equivalents is much reduced, because your senses will inform you how the cooking process is going. This in turn allows you to vary the heat you apply in order to achieve the desired effects. And unlike boiling an egg, you don’t have to await the grand unveiling to establish whether you’ve overseen a triumph or a disaster.

Of course, if you’re going to remain in control of the cooking process, you’ll need a reasonably clear idea of what you’re looking to achieve. In most cases, one of your main aims will be to bring the food to eating temperature – normally around 70-75°C. If you manage to do that, you can at least be reasonably confident that you won’t poison yourself.

But bringing your ingredients up to temperature may only be part of the story. If you fry a slice of pork fillet over a high heat, it will be ready to eat by the time it‘s hot through to the centre. But a piece of shoulder meat from the same animal, given identical treatment, will still be unpalatably tough, and will need additional time to break down its tough sinews.

And if you’re cooking dried grains or pulses, getting them to eating temperature won’t be your focus; you need them to absorb sufficient liquid to be tender and palatable.

Alternatively, you might be looking for a more dramatic effect in your quest for “doneness”. If you’re frying a steak, you’ll want a certain amount of searing or burning at the surface of the meat. And roast potatoes aren’t really worthy of the name until they’ve crisped up on the outside.

So there’s a huge difference between bringing your ingredients gradually to eating temperature and ushering them there at a gallop. It’s a difference that you can see, hear and smell as the food cooks, and it’ll be just as apparent when you sample the finished dish.

If you’re not convinced, consider how a sliced carrot, boiled quickly to serve as a side vegetable, will be ready in a few minutes and horribly soggy in a few more; yet the same slices in a beef casserole will still be good to eat after two or three hours’ gentle simmering.

All of which begs the obvious question: how do you decide which approach to take?

As ever, the genuinely inquisitive question (“what do I want to happen here?”) is much preferable to the subservient one (“how long should I cook this for?”).

If you want to transform the food at its surface, as in the steak or roast potato examples, or when boiling pasta, then you’ll need to apply plenty of heat. If you want the ingredients to retain their shape and structure as far as possible, you’ll need to take things far more gently, allowing your ingredients to transform gradually, as if from the inside out.

And if you’re not sure what you want, go for a medium heat throughout – and prepare to be punished for your indecision.

Cutting out the middle man

The advantage of thinking in polarised terms is that it makes your chosen subject much easier to comprehend. Once you’ve determined that “x is good, y is bad”, it becomes straightforward to evaluate almost anything: all you have to do is decide whether it’s an x or a y. Right or wrong, City or United, Republican or Democrat: whatever the subject might be, if you can reduce it to a 50/50 choice, it becomes a whole lot simpler.

The disadvantage of this binary thinking, of course, is that it’s usually nonsense. Think about your topic for a little longer, and you soon realise that the options aren’t twofold, or even threefold, but infinite. At this point, you might feel reassured that you’ve developed a more realistic perspective on the subject, but you’re left with the knottier problem of working out what on earth to think.

In practice, what we often end up doing is using binary thinking at first, in order to get our heads round a topic, then developing our understanding into something less straightforward but altogether more meaningful.

If you’re trying to get to grips with intuitive cooking, this binary-first approach turns out to be a particularly useful one. When you’re deciding how to cook something, don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the apparently huge range of possibilities. Narrow down your options: think “fast” or “slow”.

On reflection, I’m not even sure that this particular piece of binary thinking is all that simplistic. In fact, if I was asked to offer a single sentence of cooking advice that would bring the most benefit to the largest number of people, it would be this:

Cook fast food faster and slow food slower.

As I’ve hinted already, we go wrong most often by feeling our way tentatively towards the middle ground. If we go to check on a stew and see that it’s virtually motionless on the surface, it’s understandable that we should presume there’s not much going on under the surface either. So we turn the heat up – not all the way up, but enough for it to look like it’s actually cooking.

Understandable it may be, but this increase in the boiling rate from “negligible” to “moderate” can be enough to turn a potentially superb stew into a disappointing one.

Remember that your target temperature is eating temperature, usually around the 70-75°C mark. Even the gentlest, trembling simmer will be close to 100°C; so even if the contents of the pan are looking worryingly inactive, they’re still heading in the right direction.

It’s difficult to resist the instinct to turn up the heat and accelerate the process. Difficult it may be, but it’s also vital. Subjected to even a slightly more aggressive boil, both the meat and the vegetables in the stew will be broken down much more rapidly. After a couple of hours of this, the vegetables are likely to end up pale and soggy, and the chunks of meat will initially toughen, then eventually disintegrate into thousands of wispy strings.

The search for moderation can be equally damaging when we perceive that something is cooking too fast. Alarmed by the intensity of the sizzle when steaks first meet frying pan, our natural instinct is to turn the heat down. But the pan will also be cooled down significantly by the cold steaks themselves. This double cooling effect can end up halting the caramelising process almost entirely; the steaks take longer to lose the appearance of rawness and appear “ready”, and we end up with well-done but scarcely browned steaks.

To my mind at least, that represents the worst of both worlds.

Eschewing the elusive and largely meaningless “medium” heat actually gives you far more control over what you’re doing, because it increases the range of effects that you are able to create.

For instance, if you buy a whole chicken for roasting, the instructions on the packaging might direct you to roast it at 180°C for 90 minutes. This will certainly cook the chicken through, but the delicate breast meat is likely to end up horribly dry. But if you roast it at a high heat (say 210°C) for the first 20 minutes, then at a much gentler one (around 140°C) for the remaining cooking time, you’ll reach a much happier conclusion. The initial blast of heat will deliver the golden, crispy skin you’re after; then, by lowering the oven temperature significantly, you slow down the rate at which moisture is driven from the meat. The outcome is a chicken that is crisp on the outside but moist within, all thanks to a single twist of the temperature dial.

How fast is fast?

Or for that matter, how slow is slow?

Clearly, some basic parameters are needed here, and The No Recipe Manifesto has been designed to help you define and understand these.

For starters, though, you’ll need to consider the characteristics of the individual ingredients, as well as their sizes and shapes. After all, you don’t want to cook your “fast” food so rapidly that the outside burns to a bitter, blackened crisp before the centre is cooked to your liking. And an oven set to 80°C will bring its contents up to that temperature eventually, but it’ll probably take all day.

That said, if you happen to have the whole day to spare, it’s not necessarily something to rule out – but that, I think, is a topic for another time.

6Music Miscellany

(As you probably won’t have noticed, this site, like the rest of my life, is elaborately categorised into two: No Recipe Stuff and Other Stuff. The following definitely belongs in the latter category.)

 

What do writers do in their spare time?

Based on my own experience, they listen to the radio. And they write – also to the radio (or rather, to its presenters).

BBC 6Music is a wonderful thing. It soundtracks almost all of my work time and much of my non-work time as well. The thought that it came so close to extinction still makes me shudder. In a parallel universe, I might be sitting here listening to Radio 2 right now. Or, more realistically, I’d never listen to the radio at all (except for Test Match Special, obviously).

What’s so good about it? Well, it’s introduced me to a number of superb bands I might never otherwise have come across, such as Unknown Mortal Orchestra and the much-missed Pete and the Pirates. It seamlessly blends the old with the new and the (relatively) mainstream with the utterly obscure.

And its DJs interact brilliantly with their listeners, giving the station’s output a community feel that means it rarely feels like a one-way conversation – even though any radio broadcast (other than the hideousness that is the phone-in) essentially is.

Actually, that last sentence could be more briefly paraphrased as follows: “If they’ve got time, they’ll read out any old guff.”

A recent email clearout caused me to stumble upon some of my contributions that presenters have surprised me by reading out to the nation, or at least the more discerning part of it.

More for my entertainment than yours, here are three of them.

 

To: The Radcliffe & Maconie Show, 12 February 2013

At this time, Mark Radcliffe was particularly exercised by some of the more ridiculous, sub-Alan Partridge concepts that Channel 5 had commissioned as series or one-off documentaries, including Extreme Fishing with Robson Green and, rather brilliantly, McFly on the Wall.

Fortunately, my fictitious academic background left me ideally placed to provide some additional context. Mark was most grateful for the input of such an “esteemed academic from an august academic institution”.

 

Mark

As a qualified Channel 5-ologist, I’m currently undertaking a major research project to work out the formula used by the channel for creating its never-ending stream of generic fly-on-the-wall docu-dramas.

Most common is the “attack” formula, in which an ostensibly non-threatening animal or household item is used as the subject of a suspense-filled hour-long documentary. Examples include “When Moles Attack”, “When Toothbrushes Attack” and “When Bluebottles Attack”.

Almost as popular is the formula that places common household pets in military or correctional institutions, in such hit shows as “Puppy Prison”, “Hamster Barracks” and “Goldfish Borstal”.

The “rescue” theme is highly popular at present, but is unlikely to last much longer, as Channel 5 is rapidly running out of places or situations for people to be rescued from. Next month’s series of “Climbing Frame Rescue” and “Out Of Town Shopping Centre Rescue” may well be the last ever examples of the genre.

And as you correctly observed, the “uninspiring tranformations” category has recently risen to prominence. As a case in point, next Thursday’s entire schedule is being devoted to a programme called “Breathing Live”, in which members of the public attempt to convert oxygen into carbon dioxide using only their noses, mouths and lungs.

Should my future research uncover any further genres, I’ll be pleased to share them with you.

Best wishes

Professor Tom Wheeler

University of Leith

 

To: The Gideon Coe Show, 30 October 2012

This email was sent in relation to an upcoming food and drink special on Gideon’s show. A listener had previously suggested Frank Zappa‘s “WPLJ” (White Port and Lemon Juice), but Gideon was doubtful whether it could be aired due to a particularly filthy burst of Spanish language swearing at the end. Despite not speaking any Spanish, I nonetheless took it upon myself to do some research.

 

Gideon

Intrigued by your mention last night of the Spanish language profanity in Zappa’s “WPLJ”, I decided to do a spot of research on the subject today, and the combination of a popular online translation tool and some keen lateral thinking has led me to the following conclusions.

1) I agree that you probably should think twice before broadcasting it to the nation, although I’ve a feeling there’s a live version without the fruity Spanish bit.

2) While I don’t speak any Spanish, I’m not convinced that the final line really does translate as “Puncture, alas!”

Anyway, if it doesn’t make the cut for the food and drink special, you could always throw caution to the wind and theme a three hour programme around foreign language profanity in song?

Thanks

Tommo in Leith

(He didn’t take up my last suggestion. Or at least, he hasn’t yet.)

 

To: The Marc Riley Show, 1 February 2012

This one is largely self-explanatory. Marc introduced it with the observation that “there’s always one, isn’t there?”, and concluded by saying that he’d checked with the relevant bands, and the second of the three singles did indeed have two backs. So there.

 

Evening Marc

Was listening to yesterday’s show on the old Aye-Player, and I heard you introduce a run of three songs “back to back”.

Now, I don’t want to go all Mike the Pedant [regular Marc Riley correspondent] here, but if you put two songs back to back, it’s logically impossible for the third one to go back to back with either of them, because they’re already back to back with each other, leaving only their fronts exposed.

Unless, of course, one of the songs has two backs rather than a back and a front – like The Man With Two Brains, say, but with backs. But I have to say I find that scenario a bit unlikely.

Therefore the third song would instead have to go front to back with one of the others – or even front to front if you preferred. And thus the songs might be better described as “back to back to front” – though even that would not fully convey the true complexity of the situation.

Anyway I’ll stop there, because it’s not noy-noy Radio 4, is it? Any Phantom Band on the hard drive tonight? [There wasn’t.]

Toodle pip!

Tommo in Leith

The Hunger Games

There’s a significant danger I won’t come out of this article with my credibility enhanced.

Not to worry. I was a geek before I was old enough to know what the word meant, so I shouldn’t really fret too much about flaunting my continued geekery on the web. So here goes.

It’s my strong belief that cooking should fit around the rest of your life, not the other way round. And if you agree with that mantra, it follows that what and how you cook will change depending on what else you’re up to.

This is hardly a ground-breaking observation, of course. Plenty of writers and TV chefs have offered cooking advice to suit particular situations: for instance, dinner party dishes that can be prepared in advance and require the minimum of last-minute activity from the host.

But what about all those times when you’re not hosting a dinner party? Shouldn’t cooking always be situation-specific, even when the occasion isn’t all that special?

Of course it should. But when it comes to everyday meals, there’s only so much assistance a cookbook can provide.

The dinner party example is a familiar one to most of us. Even if we don’t play host all that often, it’s useful to get some advice and reassurance when we do. But our daily cooking routines are less well suited to “catch-all” advice. We cook different things, at different times, on different budgets, for different numbers of people. So we’re never likely to find a “how-to” book that quite matches our particular situation.

If such bespoke cookbooks did exist, mine would be quite an unusual read.

Why? Because I’m a gamer.

I’ve been playing computer games since long before I knew how to cook. And my gaming preferences, established on a BBC Micro and green-screen Amstrad CPC, are the product of a different era. Not for us your snatched 2-minute game of Angry Birds. The computer games I played as a kid could take ten minutes or more to load from tape, if they decided to load at all. Having stared at the screen for most of that time, desperately willing the title screen to appear rather than yet another error message, I’d need to play it for at least an hour, and probably several, in order to justify the time and nervous energy I’d expended getting the bloody thing started in the first place.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem. Back then, if I could have played games all day, every day, I would have. Even now that I’m a grown-up – legally, at least – the urge hasn’t entirely left me. And while the demands of adult life aren’t really conducive to near-constant gaming, I still like to devote the occasional evening (or, exceptionally, an entire weekend) to the indulgent pleasures of my computer or console.

When I do, my cooking requirements are very specific. I still need to eat; and while it’s sometimes tempting to exercise the time-honoured gamer’s opt-out (phoning for a pizza), I’ve neither the money nor the inclination to do this every time I decide to have a Playstation session. But equally, I’ve no intention of putting a thrilling Mexican World Cup campaign on hold to peel a pound of spuds. And if my meticulously planned Polynesian invasion of Denmark reaches a pivotal stage just as the oven timer tells me that dinner’s ready, it’s the meal that will have to wait, not the march of the troops.

So my circumstances – or rather, my wishes – effectively lead me towards a certain way of cooking.

I want a meal that can be assembled in short bursts away from the screen, not in a single extended stint in the kitchen. It needs to be something I can safely put on hold – for an hour or more, potentially – when “urgent” matters intervene. And as I’ve no intention whatsoever of leaving the flat, it’s going to have to correspond with whatever I happen to have in the fridge and cupboards.

On the face of it, this is quite a restrictive set of requirements. But that suits me perfectly; because it prompts me to cook in a way that doesn’t just accommodate my gaming, but that I can approach as I would a video game.

Many of the games that have become enduring classics – the Grand Theft Auto series, say, or any number of strategy and exploration games from Elite to Skyrim – owe their longevity to a carefully judged balance of linear and non-linear activity. In other words, the ultimate goal of the game never changes, but the player can employ any number of routes to get there, and much of the stimulation and fun can be found in the journey, not the outcome.

Take away that overall aim, though, and a lazy but frequently heard criticism of computer games – that they’re fundamentally pointless – takes on a ring of truth, even to an unashamed gamer like me.

When you cook, the aim of the game should be self-evident: you’d really quite like to have something to eat. But how you go about achieving that – which individual missions you take on, and in what order – is up to you.

The other night, I had some chicken thighs that needed using up, and a range of other ingredients including pancetta and tinned tomatoes. In other circumstances, I might have taken time to remove the skin and bone from the chicken pieces, dice up the meat, brown it along with the pancetta, soften some onions and garlic, then allow the whole thing to simmer away while I cooked the accompanying pasta.

But this time, my flatmate and I had an important, evening-long appointment with Civilization V. Time, then, for a spot of gamer logic.

I declared the onions to be “optional” (that’s to say, fiddly) and decided to leave them out. The chicken went – skin, bones and all – into a medium-low oven, along with salt, pepper, a healthy splash of olive oil and a couple of crushed fat garlic cloves. A tin of tomatoes was emptied into a saucepan and placed on a very low hob to reduce. Two minutes. Back to the game.

Some time later – I’d guess around forty minutes, but I’ve no real idea – a trip to get a beer from the fridge afforded the opportunity for a quick check on proceedings. The tomatoes were beginning to thicken and darken nicely, to the point that they needed a spot of lubrication as well as flavour. So the seasoned, chickeny, garlicky oil went from the oven dish into the tomatoes, which immediately took on an alluring gloss, and the diced pancetta went in with the chicken. One minute. Back to the game.

The need for another beer prompted a further progress update. The skin of the chicken had crisped up nicely, as had the pancetta. The tomato sauce had, if anything, overreduced slightly, but that was easily rectified with the addition of a little white wine (red wine or water would have done different but perfectly good jobs). A quick taste, followed by an appropriate adjustment of the seasonings (in this case, a little sugar and the tiniest dash of white wine vinegar), and the sauce was done. Two minutes (at the most).

Five minutes’ work, spread across a thoroughly leisurely evening, and dinner was a pan of pasta away. But frankly, I was having far too much fun for that. Time to turn the oven into the trusty “holding pen”.

So I turned the oven down to 70°C, put a lid on the sauce and a loose foil covering on the chicken, put them both in the oven and carried on with my game. Only when the need to eat finally overcame the urge to keep playing did I take the final step of putting some macaroni on. And even then, once that was bubbling away cheerfully, I still managed to fit in a further few minutes’ world conquest before draining the pasta, tossing it in the sauce (itself given a final boost by the addition of the cooked pancetta), and topping it with the crispy chicken, haphazardly torn from the bones.

It was delicious – made all the more so by the self-imposed wait, and by the satisfaction that comes from making a tasty meal with minimal effort. With a lowish oven temperature, plus the protection afforded by its skin and bones, there was never any realistic chance that the chicken would end up overcooked and dry. And the tasks that would have required the most time – the chopping and the browning – were largely sidestepped, because my gamer’s instinct allowed me to find a suitable way round them.

If you’re not a gamer yourself, is all this actually of any relevance?

I’d argue that it is. The precise circumstances might be gamer-specific; but the broader situation is a relatively common one. There will always be times when you need to create a meal from what you happen to have in the house, or when you’re obliged to start cooking before you know exactly when mealtime will be. And even if you’ve never played a computer game in your life, and have no intention of starting now, there’ll be occasions when you have to cook but you’d much rather be doing something else.

Take a rigid approach to your cooking, with strict adherence to prescribed ingredients, timings and processes, and you’ll struggle to do any of these things successfully. What you decide to cook will determine what else you’re able to do, and when you’re able to do it.

But think creatively and laterally – in other words, like a gamer – and you come to realise what some of us have known for years: the game itself may never change; but there are infinite ways to complete it.