At what point would you begin to describe yourself as a good cook?
Is there a particular rite of passage involved? Does it happen when you first cook something that wouldn’t be out of place at a half-decent restaurant? When you host a successful dinner party? The first time you make a proper pie from scratch?
In the absence of an agreed definition, here’s my take on the subject.
I started to believe I was a decent cook when I realised that, instead of thinking “how do I make this dish?”, I found myself thinking, “what shall I make with these ingredients?”
As with most life changes, I’d struggle to pinpoint exactly when this shift of perspective took place. But at a conservative estimate, I’d say it took me ten years of regular cooking, and quite possibly more. And if I’m honest, I’m still learning.
Looking back, this probably isn’t surprising. Learning my cooking skills in the 1990s through reading books, watching TV and following recipes, I was in thrall to the celebrity chefs who were just beginning to take over our tellies. I’d go round to my Gran’s house and watch Ready Steady Cook with her; and as the likes of James Martin came up with fabulous-looking meals on the hoof, I’d wonder aloud how exactly they managed to do that.
As I recall, my Gran didn’t say much, if anything, in response. But on reflection, I’m sure she must have been smiling to herself. She knew exactly how they did it, because she used to do the same thing herself, every day.
By my definition of “good” cooking, my generation are indisputably lesser cooks than our grandparents – or, in most cases, our grandmothers – were. We might be able to produce pleasant enough meals. But because we’ve grown up in a time of plenty – plenty of choice, at least, if not necessarily plenty of money – we simply haven’t learned to innovate.
In the cases of my grandmother and her contemporaries, innovation was born of necessity. Bringing up four children during post-war rationing, the ability to conjur a meal from whatever happened to be around was an essential survival skill, not a lifestyle choice.
Moreover, it was a skill she had to develop swiftly. By her own admission, when she got married, she couldn’t even boil an egg. (Though as I’ve mentioned before, I have some sympathy with that.)
When I came to sample her cooking, some forty years on, it reflected the good habits she’d taught herself as a young mother. She had a seemingly miraculous ability to expand a meal to serve twice the number, or deal with an excess of a particular ingredient without wastage or over-repetition.
(That last point, incidentally, is more fundamental than it might seem. As the ever-excellent Amy Fleming explains in the Guardian this week, the urge to avoid eating the same thing over and over again is more than mere fussiness: it’s hard-wired into us for our own survival and well-being.)
So my interest in – OK then, obsession with – creative, resourceful cooking can be traced directly back to my Gran. In fact, I can see her influence in almost all of the principles I’ve discussed on this blog.
For instance, she had a tremendous appreciation of flavour and texture; and in particular, how to create contrasts of flavour and texture in order to enhance a meal. She saw any foodstuff as a potential ingredient, if the circumstances were right; to the point that various unlikely foods – crisps, biscuits, breakfast cereals – found their way into her creations, to remarkably good effect.
And while she enjoyed cooking, she saw no point in toiling away for hours for the sake of it – especially when the wine was flowing freely in the other room. So she would happily use tinned or otherwise prepared ingredients when it made sense to do so. Some might see this as cheating; to her, it was merely common sense.
These traits were captured in one particularly memorable meal – a spicy, creamy chicken casserole containing, among many other things: a tin of Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup; tinned artichoke hearts (why go through the palaver of preparing fresh ones if they’re going to spend an hour or more in a stew?); and a crunchy topping made from…Phileas Fogg corn chips.
Memorable it may have been – to the point that my sister and I still talk about it in awed tones – but like anything she cooked, it was never to be repeated in exactly the same form. There was no point asking her to recreate a dish, because she wouldn’t be able to tell you how she’d made it. In any case, the contents of the fridge and cupboards would never be exactly the same as the previous time; so the resulting meal would be different too.
As you’ll gather from the Ready Steady Cook example, I didn’t give all this a lot of thought at the time. Only in her later years, when she was too unwell to cook and I could no longer enjoy her creations, did I realise that one of my greatest ambitions – in fact, one of my only clear ambitions – was to be able to cook like my Gran.
It was, and remains, a worthy ambition, if a relatively uncommon one. Her skills, if not altogether lost, are far rarer these days, because we have so much more choice in what and how to eat than she did when she was feeding her family.
To reiterate, I’m not ignoring or denying the fact that millions of people are living below the poverty line. But in 2013, we’re presented with a huge selection of available ingredients, as well as countless cheap if not exactly nutritious alternatives to resourceful home cooking.
Under such circumstances, how do we get people cooking as my Gran did? And do we really need to?
To answer the second question first: yes we do. Even if we accept regular food scares as an inevitable by-product of our pursuit of cheap food, there’s a limit to how far costs can be trimmed. Food prices are rising overall, and will continue to do so, with the consequence that even the nastiest reformed-meat horror shows will take an increasing chunk from already tight household incomes. And if we continue to throw away the best part of half the food we produce, rather than teaching ourselves the skills and thought processes that will allow us to make use of it, the problem will only get worse.
Back to the first question, then. How do we learn – or relearn – to cook?
I don’t believe it has to be a massive undertaking. A collective lack of confidence, combined with a bewildering array of cooking and eating options, might have led us to fall out of the habit of thinking creatively; but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capacity to do so.
As I’ve written before, we all know more about food and cooking than we realise. Everything we’ve ever eaten has the potential to teach us something about cooking, if we only stop to think about it.
My Gran certainly understood this. Her wartime service in Italy introduced her to a range of ingredients and flavours she’d never have encountered at home. She didn’t actually do any cooking while she was there; but years later, when the relevant ingredients became available in Britain, she was able to introduce them to her meals. (On reflection, this would explain why much of what she cooked was so magnificently garlicky.)
As you’ve probably gathered, I could talk all day about my Gran and her cooking. But it wouldn’t get us all that far; and she certainly wouldn’t have appreciated an extended public tribute. So instead, here’s a real life, practical example of how cooking like my Gran – or, more specifically, thinking like her – remains as useful and relevant as ever.
Cooking “Gran-style” – a case study
Recently, I bought a chicken.
My decision to buy it was a relatively straightforward one. First of all, I wanted to eat some chicken. Second of all, the choice of free range chicken in the supermarket was typically depressing: a few whole birds for about 7 quid apiece, or countless twin packs of breast fillets for a fiver. The bits I really wanted to buy – whole legs or thighs – were nowhere to be seen. Not for the first time, looking across shelf after shelf of identical breast fillets, I found myself wondering where all the chicken legs actually go.
Anyway, I worked out that if two breasts cost £5 on their own, and if the whole chickens would almost certainly boast two breasts apiece, all I needed to work out was whether the remainder of the bird – comprising (to my mind) all the best meat, plus the skin and bones that would make a fabulous stock – was worth two quid of my money. Not a difficult decision.
So I bought a whole free range bird. As chickens go, this one wasn’t huge. But it was still more than my flatmate and I would be able to manage in a single sitting.
This left me with a few options. The first, and the simplest, was to roast the chicken whole, eat what we wanted, then think of a way to use up the leftovers.
Contrary to popular cliché, however, the simplest ideas aren’t always the best. Had I taken this option, I know exactly what would have happened. We’d both have gorged on our favourite bits – the legs, the wings, the little nuggets of juicy meat next to the backbone – and left the dry, pale breasts untouched, condemned to a future of distinctly unappetising chicken sarnies. Once we’d worked our joyless way through those, hopefully I’d have found time to make the carcass into stock before it began to smell a bit iffy. But I have to confess, my record on that is some way short of 100%.
An alternative possibility was to take the meat off the chicken before cooking. On the face of it, this had several advantages. It would have provided enough meat for two separate meals – one made with the breasts, the other with the rest – thus reducing the scope for unappealing leftovers, as well as sidestepping the problem of cooking the breast and leg meat together, when the former requires much less time to cook. It would have allowed me to make the stock that same day, and to use some of it to make tasty sauces for the two dishes. And best of all, it would have given me the opportunity to announce, “I’m just off to bone the chicken”, before bursting into fits of schoolboy giggles.
So this plan had quite a lot going for it, and only one downside: I really, really couldn’t be arsed.
I’m sure an expert butcher could bone out a chicken in a couple of minutes. Well, I can’t. Experience has shown me that it takes me at least fifteen minutes, and sometimes more, to get a significant majority of the meat from a raw chicken. It’s a messy, fiddly job, and the kitchen always ends up looking like a Hammer horror set by the time I’ve finished.
So I’d ruled out one option because I didn’t much fancy the likely outcome, and another because it failed the all-important “arsedness test”. What to do?
Fortunately, there was a third option – a method I’d come up with a couple of years back, using my very best Gran logic.
Removing the meat from a whole chicken is messy and laborious; but removing the breast fillets is an absolute doddle. (If you’ve never done it before, there’s many a YouTube clip to show you how, such as this one.)
With the breast meat removed and set aside for a future stir-fry, all I do is cut away the breastbone with scissors, so that the chicken lies flat when placed upside down, and I’m left with an ideally proportioned two-person roast.
Cooked this way, what would have been the soggy underside of the bird instead crisps up nicely in the oven. And without the breast meat to worry about, it’s far easier to cook – or should I say, far more difficult to overcook – than a whole bird. Finally, the bones – both the roasted carcass and the raw breastbone – get turned into stock, either the next day or (my preference) overnight in the slow cooker.
So. I had my chicken. I had my plan. All was well with the world, and I imagined my Gran giving an approving nod at my resourcefulness. I got home, thoroughly pleased with myself, before remembering something rather important.
My flatmate was in Portugal.
Some swift replanning was required. A chicken that would comfortably have served four – or, as I’d originally envisaged, two people twice over – now had to serve one person. Repeatedly.
All of a sudden, many of the parameters had changed – but not quite all of them. I still couldn’t be bothered to bone the chicken – especially with no flatmate with whom to share my smutty jokes. But the roasting option, with its now-inevitable excess of leftovers, had to be ruled out. And with no freezer space going spare, my primary challenge was to find a way to get through the whole bird on my own, with enough variety to minimise the risk of chicken fatigue.
There was only one question to be asked at this point: “What Would Granny Do?”
After a moment’s reflection, I decided she’d probably have done this.
I cut away the breasts as usual, bunged the rest into a large saucepan along with a couple of onions, a carrot and a few peppercorns, and brought the pan to the gentlest possible simmer.
After an hour’s simmering, the chicken was cooked and the stock, enhanced by the presence of lean meat as well as the skin and bones, was starting to look and smell very tempting indeed. But I knew that, while the meat itself was cooked through, the skin and bones had plenty left to give.
I lifted the chicken out of its hot bath and left it on the worktop to cool for fifteen minutes or so. Once it had cooled enough to handle, I picked the just-cooked meat – easily two meals’ worth of it – away from the bones, which went back into the stock for another couple of hours, enhancing its colour and flavour even further.
Here, incidentally, is demonstrated the value of the “arsedness test” – which is firmly grounded in my Gran’s principles, even if the terminology is very much my own. Removing the meat from a raw chicken, as I’ve indicated, demands a lot of skilled knife work and even more patience. Removing it from a cooked, cold chicken is easier, but still requires a fair bit of cutting, prising and tugging as the cooled-down meat clings determinedly to the carcass. But with a moist, still-warm bird, the meat comes away in the fingers with minimal persuasion. In other words, it passes the arsedness test with flying colours.
Over the course of three hours – but only a few minutes’ actual work – my single whole chicken had turned into three ingredients, each of them full of potential: breast meat (raw); the meat from the legs and body (cooked, but not overcooked, and ripe for reuse in any number of dishes); and rich, tasty stock. Yes, I’d be eating chicken for a few days to come. But importantly, I wouldn’t have to eat the same thing twice.
So I turned half the stock into a broccoli and potato soup, using the veg I’d originally earmarked for the two person roast, and topped this off with a few shreds of the cooked meat. Over the following three days, I made a stir-fry that used up both breasts (a touch excessive to feed one, perhaps, but sod it) and two meals (a curry and a pasta sauce, as I recall) from the remaining meat. Each of these was enhanced with a little of the remaining stock. And all that – four quite different meals, one of them preposterously large – from a single free range chicken.
Of the tasks I’ve just described, there’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself, whether you’re an experienced cook or a novice. I had all the skills needed to do it myself while I was still in my teens. But it had simply never occurred to me to do it
In other words, it’s taken me twenty-odd years to think like my Gran – that is, to think in terms of resources rather than process, and to respond creatively to changes of circumstances. And most importantly of all, to understand there’s more than one way to skin a cat – or, in this case, divide up a chicken.