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They say I'm a good cook - but ...

"You have to eat to cook. You can't be a good cook and be a noneater. I think eating is the secret to good cooking." Julia Child

Although I say it myself we did have a pretty tasty meal with the family on Easter Saturday. One of my granddaughters who actually loves cooking told me I should teach Food Tech - that's what they call cooking at her high school. I think she was just being nice but it obviously left me feeling just a little bit chuffed. I was also told by lots of them how good it all was. But honestly - any one of them could have done it. Well maybe not all of it at once. I guess that took a bit of enthusiasm, that they may lack, pre-planning and pre-cooking and dancing in the kitchen as it were, and even then I certainly did not get it all right. I spent far too much time in the kitchen on the day. Plus you also need the desire to do it for that kind of thing (cooking for a crowd) - let's not forget that. Nevertheless each of the individual dishes could have been cooked by any of them. I suppose all my life people have told me that I'm a good cook, and indeed I do love to cook, - as my co-mother-in-law said - 'it's my happy place'. But honestly I have never understood anyone who says they can't cook. Moreover, as I said, the other day, I also think the praise is undeserved because most of it was just down to reading a recipe. So today I thought I would look at some of the reasons why anyone can cook.

I suppose the primary thing is that you should want to cook. So I also understand that indeed this could be the main thing against being a good cook. Well any kind of cook really.

"The secret of good cooking is, first, having a love of it." James Beard

And you really can't start too young. Cooking is super fun and it doesn't have to be just cooking cookies either. Kids generally love it and I have to confess I was not a good teacher here. I was not good with the ineptitude and the mess and the slowness, so I would dive in and do it myself. I castigate myself on this from time to time. Fortunately my children and their partners have been much better at this than I - and those Zoom cooking classes during lockdown were also good.

Even as adults though, cooking can be fun. And rewarding. If you cook something that people eat with pleasure then you have done something amazing. Amazing but it doesn't have to be difficult. I love this picture of Julia Child, who is obviously having the time of her life and also the quote that goes with it:

"The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken.”

I know I've used it before and the point about bashing the chicken for me is probably not the same as for Julia Child. And incidentally, when do you bash a chicken? Maybe when you are making some kind of escalope of chicken? But that's beside the point. We all love bashing things - and bashing food is harmless and tension releasing. And yes, fun.

Also incidentally I came across this other quote from Whistler - the 19th century artist - talking about employing cooks, which adds to the need to actually like eating. He thinks you need to like drinking too:

"I always ask at once, 'Do you drink?' and if she says 'No,' I bow politely and say I am sorry but I fear she will not suit. All good cooks drink." James Whistler

Which is a statement with a small grain of truth in it, but probably a bit of a generalisation, and also a bit discriminatory. I don't think it's a generalisation to say that you can't be a good cook if you don't want to cook though. Well not unless you can persuade said person that cooking can actually be satisfying, creative and fun.

However, I recognise that many people do not enjoy cooking. Never mind all the psychological stuff, they just are too tired and they don't have time. It's all very well for example to say that you can cook many delicious things in less than half an hour, but you have to have shopped well so that you have things you can use, and you have to have thought about what you might cook, maybe even taken the time to find a recipe. Not to mention the preparation of the ingredients. That always take me much longer than the recipes suggest. So you resort to pre-marinated or pre-cooked stuff or takeaway. And I confess that there was a period when I did this too - far too often. Takeaway that is. I kidded myself that chicken and chips from the chicken shop was healthy somehow. But it gets boring after a while, as well as being unhealthy, in all manner of ways.

"Anyone who can read, can cook" say several different chefs and cooks or words to that effect. Because really you only need a recipe. It's true. And these days it's even easier because there are endless recipes online, so you don't even need a cookbook - or you can use those free supermarket magazines - which are aimed at the time poor and the unenthusiastic. Plus of course there are endless videos online to actually show you how to do it - with varying degrees of detail. So in a way you don't even have to know how to read.

Read your recipe carefully though and before you begin. And by begin I mean before you decide what to cook in case you have to go shopping. And even I have messed up the reading carefully bit - quite a lot of late.

So yes a recipe helps enormously, particularly for a beginner so it's good to have the odd cookbook or two. Although I didn't entirely learn from cookbooks, I certainly expanded my repertoire from them. Hugely. So much so that it has become a bit of an obsession. Those shown on the left below plus Jane Grigson who is a couple of shelves higher are my foundation cookbooks. These days I am still expanding my horizons and collecting boos and the ones on the right are my most used go-tos as you will have realised by now. Because:

"What's more important than recipes is how we think about food, and a good cookbook should open up a new way of doing just that." Michael Symon

Finding a recipe though, is perhaps just a step too far for those who are fundamentally not interested, or who don't have the time. Although, that said, Instagram and TikTok must surely have become the default source for something new, snappy and quick - as well as impressive - for the young at least.

Ideally the best starting place for a novice cook might be Delia's three volume How to Cook or something similar, but I can see that this might appear both daunting and old-fashioned, (it really isn't) so perhaps these days you need to start with something more enticing and not so teacherly. I had a look for suggestions, but was not impressed. So from my own limited knowledge I might suggest a Jamie tome - maybe 7 Ways which is based on the most shopped items in the UK - much the same as here I think; an Ottolenghi - either of the two OTK books or maybe Simple; Alice Zaslavsky's The Joy of Better Cooking and if Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food was not just a simple paperback I would suggest that, because honestly it has an amazing and interesting range of recipes that are super, super simple. Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Companion is the equivalent of Delia - but it's even more daunting and has no pictures. No pictures these days is a real hard sell.

Before I leave recipes - I found this quote, which is probably just the sort of thing that would put any everyday cook off of cooking, even if, when I'm feeling philosophical I can see the point. But I also think it's about making up recipes, not following them, and plenty of modern day cooks pour their soul into their recipe books for you. You don't need to pour in yours as well. Just do as they say.

"A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe." Thomas Keller

I now see that there are different categories of reluctant cooks but I won't go into that now - young old, male/female, working, single, disabled, mothers/fathers ... - another time.

So what else do you need to be a good cook? Well I guess you need to know a few techniques - or at least what they mean. Of course, Delia's book would do that for you but lots of books these days will show you how as well. Or just watch a video.

You also need to know what goes with what. You will find lists online - just ask the question 'what goes with ...' but I guess this is really something that comes with experience. That said, maybe no experience is a good thing. Maybe then you might just have a go and pair up something unusual that turns out to be wonderful.

Last thing - a few comments on the things I made on Easter Saturday:

  • The starter - Ixta Belfrage's Giant cheese on toast with spring onion and urfa - to which I dedicated an entire post. This was a recipe dish. I just did as I was told and wow. Anyone could have made it because it was dead simple. But you would have to have the recipe, although once made once, if you were inventive you could vary it.

  • Chicken Everest - also commented on and another recipe, but also so, so easy. Just make the marinade, rub it in and cook. Anyone can make it and the recipe is online. You don't need the original book.

  • Ottolenghi's green bean salad - Nagi of Recipe Tin Eats features this one from Ottolenghi's book Jerusalem. Slightly more complicated but only because of chopping things up. Again anyone could do it.

  • Ditto for Christine Manfield's Aloo bhaji which is really just boiled potatoes tossed and stir-fried a bit in a spicy mix of tomatoes and onions. Yum.

  • Some vegetable patties - which I do confess I made up and which were not that popular because they looked a bit unprepossessing I think. But they are tasty - I am eating the leftovers for my lunch. It was just a mix of mashed potatoes, cheese and veggies. Just mix what you like together, form into patties, roll in polenta and fry.

  • Tomato sauce - anyone can do that can't they? Fry a bit of onion, add tinned tomatoes, garlic, herb and whatever else you fancy and cook.

  • Sausages - just grilled. Anyone can do that. Just don't burn them.

  • Apple crumble. I learnt this from my mum and have never used a recipe. Sliced apples with spices, sugar, orange and lemon juice, topped with crumble - flour, butter, sugar, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon and orange zest. Cook until done.

"A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness." says Elsa Schiaparelli and this is by far and away the greatest reward that any cook can give. Yes, they can provide food that will sustain, or even buy food from elsewhere that will sustain - even may - in the case of Asian takeaway food - be wonderful, but they won't get the glow of making people happy, or the satisfaction of doing something creative. It won't give you joy:

And by the way - Food tech - how soulless is that? I suppose they thing it's making it sound scientific and worthy, but maybe if they emphasised the fun rather than the technique (i.e. work) wouldn't more students pick it as a subject?


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