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.

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

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

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

6. You can cook a million different things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Most cooking terminology is irrelevant

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

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

The reality is much more straightforward.

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

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

It’s also a load of old balls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Though it’s much harder to spell.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Creative cooking is child’s play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. You can cook creatively

Yes, you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This seems something of a waste.

2. You can’t rely on a recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Salt and pepper are not the only seasonings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Texture is as important as flavour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue to part 2

Wispa it quietly – it’s all about the texture

I was going to write a piece on texture for the blog, then I remembered I’d already written one and published it to my personal blog a few weeks back.

In the likely event you missed it, I’ve reproduced it here. Hope you enjoy.

 

Originally published on 1 October 2013

AUTHOR’S NOTE: On the Guardian website today is a piece by Amy Fleming on the changing shape of the Dairy Milk bar. I admit that this particular furore had passed me by; but as it happened, I’d just finished a piece on a connected subject, but with the emphasis on what the shape and texture of our chocolate can teach us about cooking creatively. Here it is.

A couple of connected questions for you.

Firstly, how many dishes do you know how to cook? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? Enough to keep you and yours from staring sadly at your plates while thinking “oh, not spag bol again”?

Secondly, what’s your favourite chocolate bar?

The link between the two questions may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me. If you’re able to answer the first question with an exact figure, you might do well to spend some time thinking about the second.

Same old, same old

Recently, a report by Morrisons indicated that the average Briton remains stuck in a “repeat meal rut”, maintaining a rotation of as few as five different meals. And apparently, more than half of us are still eating exactly the same meals we were ten years ago.

These results aren’t exactly surprising. What is even less surprising is the fact that the supermarket is using the findings to promote its range of pre-prepared meals. The message is unambiguous: if you don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again, look no further than the ever-expanding ready meals section.

Well, here’s an alternative idea. If you’re about to cook the same meal for the 521st week running, don’t just admit defeat and reach for the convenience food. Instead, borrow a little trick from the chocolate-makers: take those familiar old ingredients, and look for a new way to put them together.

And if you doubt whether that will make any significant difference to your meal, may I refer you back to the chocolate question.

Wispa campaign

Do you remember the outcry when Cadbury withdrew the Wispa from sale in 2003? Attempts to rebrand it as a variant on Dairy Milk were unsuccessful, and the bar was finally restored permanently to our shelves in 2008, following a coordinated protest on social media – a Wispa campaign, if you will.

I can certainly recall being one of the outraged many when the Wispa disappeared; but why? Why didn’t I just shrug my shoulders and buy a Flake, a Twirl, a Spira – itself discontinued in 2005, prompting a Facebook campaign of its own – or any of the other milk chocolate bars made from exactly the same ingredients?

The answer, of course, is in the texture. The ingredients might be the same, but the eating experience is quite different in each case, solely as a result of the relative distribution of chocolate and air.

Whether we realise it or not, we have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the power of texture, at least as far as confectionery is concerned. As a nation of eaters, we know our Twirls from our Wispas. But when we cook, it tends to be the forgotten factor. We’re forever looking for new and exciting flavour combinations; but we’re oblivious to the textural possibilities of the ingredients we buy every week.

Where flavour meets texture

Writing in the Scotsman, Tom Kitchin discusses the years he spent as a trainee chef, learning different ways to chop and prepare ingredients to produce a range of effects. And he makes the crucial point that “cooking isn’t just about recipes. It’s about taking ingredients and making them taste as good as you possibly can.”

This is a sentiment I’d wholeheartedly endorse – to the extent that I’ve just written an entire book about the benefits of cooking without recipes – but I have a slight problem with the terminology. To return briefly to matters chocolatey, is there actually any difference in taste between a Dairy Milk and a Flake? I’d argue not; but their contrasting textures lead us to perceive them differently.

So why wouldn’t the same apply to savoury ingredients? Our eating experience is determined by the combination of flavour and texture. The two factors might not quite be equally weighted – in that no amount of textural magnificence can rescue a meal that tastes repulsive – but they are as fundamental as they are inseparable. A gelatinous, mouth-coating, lip-smacking sauce is a world away from a watery broth, even if they “taste” about the same. And the coleslaw in your sandwich would be an altogether cruder – and, let’s face it, weirder – experience, if the vegetables were roughly chopped rather than finely grated.

Safe experimentation

When I’m encouraging people to get creative with their home cooking, I invite them to think of their kitchens as their own personal research and development departments. The potential problem with this, of course, is that few of us can afford the time or expense of a failed experiment when we’ve got a family to feed.

But this is exactly where textural innovation comes into its own. Experimenting with flavour can be a fraught business. Attempt to pair lamb with banana, and you might just create something wonderful, but there’s every chance that it’ll be disgusting to the point of inedible. Focus on the texture, however, and you run none of the same risks. The ingredients are all familiar, you already know you like them, and you know they work well together. So you can get as creative as you like, secure in the knowledge that there’s not an awful lot that can go wrong.

So when you’re next faced with the ingredients for that over-familiar spag bol, why not try putting them together in a different way? Roll the minced beef into balls – you won’t need any additional binding agent, as the tackiness of the meat will be enough on its own – rather than using loose mince. Try putting the garlic in the meatball mix rather than the sauce, so that each morsel carries a distinct garlicky hit. If you’re in the habit of leaving the vegetables as chunky dice, try chopping them as finely as you can, then frying them gently so that they melt away into the sauce. Experiment with solid cuts of meat instead of mince, and with how finely you chop them.

Alternatively, why not play around with how the constituent parts (pasta and sauce) are divided? Leave the bacon out of the Bolognese and the Parmesan off the table, and instead, toss the spaghetti with Parmesan and fried pancetta before serving alongside the sauce. And feel free to take your pick from the dozens of shapes of pasta on the supermarket shelves, knowing that each will produce a slightly different effect.

It’s true that several of these examples would fail to meet any accepted definition of spaghetti Bolognese. But to put it bluntly: so what? If it turns out that I prefer it, then give me “bucatini al Tom” any day.

The fallacy of authenticity

Here’s one final question. If it’s so straightforward, why aren’t we all in the habit of experimenting with texture every time we cook?

In my view, there are two reasons. I’ve mentioned the first already: we tend to underestimate the significance of texture in our meals. The solution to this is straightforward: think back to the chocolate bar question, and remind yourself that the same principles apply to everything you cook and eat.

It’s not just that we underestimate the significance of texture when we cook (though most of us undoubtedly do). It’s also that we’re all too bloody obedient for our own good. We follow recipes dutifully, rarely bothering to ask why. And we have an unhealthy obsession with authenticity, as if there were some omniscient spaghetti God watching our every move, ready to strike us down at the first sign of non-compliance.

Well, I’ll risk an eternity of pasta damnation by saying to you now: there isn’t.

Food, like language, evolves constantly. Moreover, there are only two characteristics shared by all of the world’s most celebrated dishes, from paella to haggis. The first is they were invented not by design, but by happy quirks of necessity and circumstance. And the second is that no two cooks can agree on the “right” ways to make them. So our quest for authenticity is doomed to failure, because the holy grail we seek simply doesn’t exist.

So, with all that in mind, might I nudge you gently in the direction of a little textural experimentation? Take the meals you know only too well and reassemble them in a way you don’t. You never know: you might just stumble upon your own savoury equivalent of the Wispa bar.

And best of all, the next time anyone asks how many dishes you know how to cook, you’ll be able to answer honestly and with pride: “I have absolutely no idea.”

What do you mean, no recipes?

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I launched this blog in something of a hurry, and with something of a rant.

It occurs to me that I should probably explain a little more of what the blog is about, why I’m writing it, and who I’m writing it for.

So, in the “first things second” spirit in which I seem to have approached this blog, here’s the closest I’m likely to come to a mission statement.

First of all, when I say “no recipes”, I’m not denying that recipes can be useful, or that I never refer to them when I cook at home.

There’s a whole category of cooking that depends on weights, measures, precision timing and often dramatic chemical reactions. You’d struggle to make decent soufflés, pastry or bread, particularly the first few times, without the assistance of a recipe. To varying degrees, the same applies to pâtés and terrines, jams and jellies, and all sorts of other foods.

But for the vast majority of the meals I cook, I have neither the need nor the inclination to follow a recipe. If I can do without the kitchen scales, the measuring spoons and the timer on my phone, and instead rely on my senses and imagination, I will. It’s less hassle and much more fun.

Nonetheless, the majority – the huge majority – of food writing is in the form of recipes. I often enjoy reading (as distinct from following) them, and I’m always interested to see a combination of ingredients, or a way of cooking a particular foodstuff, that I’ve never considered before.

But actually following them from start to finish? Not so much.

I don’t think cooking should feel like a chore. But when I cook from recipes, it does. The prospect of noting down the required ingredients, trudging round the shops to buy them, measuring them out meticulously, then following the chef’s instructions to the letter, seems a thoroughly miserable way to spend my time.

And if for some reason I do decide to do all this, and the finished dish turns out to be an unqualified triumph, it still leaves me feeling hollow somehow. Because what have I really achieved, other than demonstrating that (1) somebody I don’t know has devised a nice recipe, and (2) I am capable of following basic instructions? As my eight year old self might have put it: “big wow”.

I seem to be in a minority, though, because as a society we’re consuming more and more food writing, almost all of it in the form of recipes. Sales of recipe books continue to grow; and of course, there’s the small matter of the Internet, through which we can obtain any number of recipes, instantly and for free, for any dish it might occur to us to cook.

That cookbooks continue to sell in their millions in the Internet age is little short of extraordinary, when their reasons for existing have, on the face of it, disappeared. The equivalent recipes, by the same authors and thousands of others, are a Google search away; and the more technical elements – how to fillet a flatfish, say – are demonstrated more clearly and informatively on YouTube than through the static diagrams and photos in a cookbook.

This paradox is explored by Claire Strickett in her brilliant piece, The Tyranny of the Recipe. She argues that “the same kind of behaviour that drives millions to buy gym memberships they’ll barely use drives people to buy cookbooks. The act of purchasing itself feels like a commitment – an achievement, even. Googling a recipe can’t give you that comforting illusion.”

I don’t mean to tell you how to live; but if you have the slightest interest in cooking, and you don’t read Strickett’s article, you’re making a colossal error. It’s the best deconstruction I’ve ever read of the essential pointlessness, and indeed unhelpfulness, of the “recipe first” approach, and of how the ubiquity of the recipe is making us worse, not better, cooks.

Her conclusion is as compelling as it is inescapable, and also does me the helpful service of capturing exactly what this blog is for:

“Freedom from lists and instructions should be the end goal of the home cook – it is more satisfying, much easier, and less time-consuming. A lot more liberating, too. We need to put cooking back in a wider context, not just of other directly food-related issues but questions of economy, health and the environment, for it is always connected to those broader issues, whether we think about it or not.”

Quite so. And in fairness, several of our more celebrated food writers have been trying to do exactly that – in amongst the obligatory recipes, obviously. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall merits particular recognition on that front: whether or not you agree with his point of view (and I usually do), you couldn’t accuse him of ignoring the wider context. And more than most, he encourages readers to think, improvise and invent for themselves.

But if he were to leave the recipes out of his weekly Guardian piece, there’d be uproar. Where we see food writing, we’re conditioned to expect recipes. And if we don’t find them, we tend to presume it’s some sort of ultra-highbrow piece, relevant only to the cooking-obsessed few.

Have a search around the web for “no recipe cooking”, or similar, and the Internet cupboard is unusually bare. There are a handful of books available on the subject – Glynn Christian’s How to Cook Without Recipes and Philip Dundas’s Cooking Without Recipes are both worth exploring – and there are a few discussion threads on specialist food websites and forums. But by comparison with the volume of recipes available online, there’s very little to be found.

Most tellingly – and amusingly, to me at least – there’s a very successful (and very good) US website called norecipes.com. Have a look at the homepage, and one thing is likely to strike you before anything else: there are hundreds and hundreds of recipes on there.

To give due credit to site author Marc Matsumoto, he does acknowledge this point in the site FAQs:

“I can see how this might be confusing, but to clear it up, I make almost everything I post without a recipe. I think cooking is most fun and innovative when you just wing it. I do recognize that not everyone is as adventurous as me, so I post the ingredients and method to give you a starting point. It’s my hope that by telling the backstory of a dish and teaching you basic techniques, I’ll arm you with the know-how and give you the inspiration and confidence to come up with your own dishes sans recipe.”

Fair enough, I suppose. And Matsumoto’s recipes are much fuller and more informative than most, offering plenty of contextual information and explanation among the directions.

But something still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Are we so completely inured to working from recipes that even a site called “no recipes” is chock-bloody-full of them?

Perhaps we are. And if so, it’s possible that I’m wasting my time and yours. But I’d like to think there’s a bit of room in this recipe-stuffed world for a different kind of food writing.

I’m talking about words intended to be read at leisure, between meals; not in the kitchen, next to a dangerously hot frying pan, while desperately trying to remember whether you’re supposed to add the mushrooms or the onions first.

I’m talking about ideas and principles that encourage you to approach your cooking in a different, more liberated and creative way; and that, once you’ve read and absorbed them, will leave you feeling a little more confident and capable next time you set foot in the kitchen, and every time after that.

I’m talking about advice that enables you to cook with a degree of flexibility that a recipe never will, so you can adjust your approach to suit your circumstances, and those of your fellow eaters: ingredients, time, equipment, finances, numbers, preferences, allergies and so on.

And I’m talking about writing that will help you to discover, if you haven’t already, that cooking needn’t just be another domestic task, to be fitted around the washing, ironing and hoovering, but a genuine source of pleasure and fulfilment.

Is that too much to ask?

Well, we’ll soon find out, won’t we?