The new basics


"Modern cooking is about taste, about flavour - whether robust or delicate, sweet or earthy, pungent or aromatic. There is a new simplicity which we might almost call minimalist, a postmodern cooking style that does away with disguises, complex sauces and elaborate combinations of ingredients and lets the essential qualities of the food shine through. And, as a result, our cooking is lighter, fresher, more immediate, and healthier too." Robert Carrier


He should also have said 'easier'.


I caught up with another of Jamie Oliver's Carry on programs last night in which one of the dishes was breadcrumbed salmon fillets with sweet potato chips. The picture is not actually of his version, it is Donna Hay's, which sort of illustrates the point really. The point being that today the most common dishes that we cook, besides meeting Robert Carrier's criteria above, are totally different to what we ate back in the days when I was young. I guess, in some ways the above dish is a sort of modern day fish and chips. Back then the fish was coated in batter - loaded with cholesterol, and both the fish and the chips were then deep fried. In the case of the chips - in my house at least - they were cooked twice in the oil. Not healthy, and actually somewhat more complicated than the above dish in which you simply coat the fish with breadcrumbs - the flavouring options for which are pretty boundless - coat the chips with a tiny bit of oil and salt and pepper - Jamie's were much thicker than Donna Hay's, and then bung it all in the oven to cook and that's it. So, so easy.


Anyway it got me to thinking about how today the basic foods that we eat and cook are just so different from what we were cooking back in the post war years. Which got me to thinking about what modern basic foods actually might be as opposed to what they were for my mother. For my mother it was stews, roasts, soups, the occasional pie or pasty and sausages and baked beans. Not really very exciting, but I loved most of it. She was a good cook. For a mother today she would have to know how to cook, including cheating shortcuts, a very different variety of dishes. Here are a few:


A 'new basics' list might include all of the above - toasted cheese sandwich, stir fry, pasta, pizza, dips, sushi, curry, smoothies and smashed avocado. Then there are quiches, risottos, Mexican things, kebabs and satés, traybakes, not to mention, cookies and cupcakes. And the interesting thing about all of these is their variability. They are all open to endless variations, tweaks and changes according to your skills, what's in your pantry, fridge and freezer, and just what you feel like doing. And of course, you can cheat with all of them. You can either just buy them ready made - like the dips and the sushi, or buy a flavour base like a curry paste, buy a pizza base, or pitta bread for you pizza, and you can even buy the veggies already cut up for you. Plus today you have a whole range of gadgets to help out that were just not invented back then.


You don't even have to stick to the smashed avocado and smoothie thing for breakfast or the sushi for lunch. Improvise, experiment, innovate, play. This is the new mantra. And it's one of the major things to come out of this crisis. The shops are better stocked now, although you still can't get a wide variety of pasta or much flour at a time, but mostly everything is back to normal on the food front. Nevertheless for a time there we had to make do with what we had in our home kitchens. In the same program as the crumbed salmon, Jamie made a birthday cake for his 11 year old daughter, and he only had a little bit of caster sugar. So he used icing sugar instead. Now I might have thought of using other sugars, but not icing sugar. Seemed to work OK though. And when his cake sank in the middle he just filled the hollow with raspberries.


Increasingly I have noticed in cookbooks and magazines, every recipe that is written has notes at the bottom suggesting ways you could tweak the recipe - additions, subtractions, substitutions, different methods of cooking. You could fry that salmon for example rather than baking it, or barbecue it too. And not only are there shortcut ingredients in the supermarket, but also increasingly, we are making our own pasta, our own pizza bases, our own bread. It's not a coincidence that these were some of the first things that Jamie picked to demonstrate in his carry on program. That's why it's so hard to get flour in the supermarket.


So maybe the COVID19 virus has been a wonderful thing for how we cook and eat. I do hope so.


"This is the big revolution: if we want to cook really well there is almost nothing to stop us." Robert Carrier


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