The State I Am In

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

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

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

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

Drunk Plate

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

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

Floyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soaked cuisine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rice and spice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bread

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

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

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

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

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

The morning after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sober uselessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.