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.

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.

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.