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Tips and tricks

Updated: May 1, 2020

"It's the little things ..."

I guess I have been cooking for a very long time now and I also guess that I'm a reasonably good cook. But I'm not a chef, and I have never been formally taught. Well I guess when I was at high school, until we were into the GCE thing, we had cooking classes, which I loved. Sewing too. I think cooking is coming back into schools but not sewing. Why not? All useful skills - also how to run a household. But I digress.

The point is that I learnt from watching other people - my mother, my grandmother, my aunt Freda, all those wonderful French ladies, and the occasional program on the television. Not that there were many in my youth. I remember Fanny Cradock dressed to the nines and cooking elaborate things with her docile husband being bossed around and doing all the chores. But I don't remember any others. I suppose I also learnt from cookbooks and magazines, but mostly I have just muddled along. I can't slice onions like the professionals for example. Indeed one of my foodie friends, watching me slice some onions, remarked that I wasn't very speedy. I lack technique in short.

So it is an enormous pleasure to me to watch people like Jamie, or Nigella or Delia demonstrating a dish, because along the way you not only learn how to make that particular dish but you learn little tips and tricks along the way. I have no idea what Jamie Oliver is doing in that photo at the top of the page, as I have not watched this particular program, but it's obviously some unconventional trick. An improvisation. He is definitely a 'try this at home person' not the opposite - which perhaps is Master Chef.

Here are a few tips and tricks that I have learnt recently and a couple I learnt a little while back.

Flaky pastry from Delia's cookery school. The things that I learnt here were to freeze the butter slightly before you then grate it into the flour. And you dip the butter in the flour so that it doesn't stick to the grater. Simple but so easy. I have tried this recipe by the way and it is indeed very simple and very quick. The other thing I learnt was how to keep the pastry as a rectangle as you rolled it out, by constantly knocking the sides back into shape. Very obvious you might think but I had never thought to do this. Oh - and she used it to make sausage rolls - snipping the rolls with scissors rather than poking them with a knife, which gave a rather prettier effect. And then I guess the real thing that I learnt was that it's just as easy to make her flaky pastry as it is to take some frozen puff pastry out of the freezer - indeed it's better. And you can't get puff pastry for love or money at the moment anyway.

Green pasta - from Michela Chiappa. I watched this bright and bouncy young lady make a green lasagne recently on SBS. I knew most of what she was saying but again a tiny thing I learnt was that she puréed the egg with the spinach in a blender before adding it to the flour, which gave the pasta a much smoother green colour. Pretty obvious you might say, but I had stupidly never thought of doing that. You could of course do it with a stick blender if you didn't want to do the washing up of the blender afterwards. You could use the same trick with other flavourings too of course.

Chocolate croissants from Nigella. So very, very simple. Cut your butter puff pastry into squares and then triangles. Place a square of dark chocolate at the long end of the triangle and roll up, and curl around. Place on a baking tray and cook for 15 mins in high heat. Done. I have done this and it works.

And then, of course there is Jamie. I watched another Carry on program last night whilst David was eating his dinner. I was fasting. Jamie cooked three dishes and I learnt something new from two of them and some ideas from the other. And I don't mean a new recipe I mean a new little trick that could be applied to other things as well as the dish that he was actually demonstrating at the time.

'Bendy' is the word he uses.

First of all there was a Quick green pasta, made by frying a whole lot of green vegetables until soft - including some frozen spinach which he seems to love and just chucks in straight from the freezer. Broccolini tops were cooked with the pasta for the last few minutes of its cooking time and left whole with the pasta. I learnt about cooking the broccoli with the pasta some time ago from Beverley Sutherland Smith - and obviously you can apply it to other vegetables. Anyway the thing that I really learnt was to purée the vegetables and then toss them with the pasta - sort of like a pesto. By the way he added a whole lot of the pasta cooking water (and cheese) to the vegetables. Now I knew already that pasta water is really good to add to sauces - it's a crucial element in pasta caccio e pepe for example, but others maybe wouldn't. It's another little cheffy trick. The reason he puréed the vegetables was so that the kids wouldn't know what they were eating basically. Neat. And anyway it would taste good. Of course there was cheese in there too. The recipe will give you all the detail. And then as he says, you could bake it in the oven too with some more cheese on top.

When I found the recipe on his website I also found a similar thing - a dish he calls Super green spaghetti, in which the green comes from blanched kale (cavil nero), garlic and cheese. At first I thought it was his version of Michela Chiappa's green lasagne, but no it's even simpler really - just a sauce to mix through the spaghetti. Dead easy though.

Then he made a vegetable tray bake roesti topped with poached eggs. I don't think I learnt anything particularly new here but it was an interesting assembly job and a different sort of roesti. I mean they are usually small sort of potato cakes, so making them as a base for something else was interesting.

Finally there was a Chicken pot pie. So what did I learn here - after all it's just a chicken sauté really with a puff pastry top. Well he had six chicken thighs, four of which he chopped roughly into chunks, but the other two he chopped much more finely, which he said added texture. Very interesting. Then he dry fried his mushrooms - no fat at all, which, as he showed when he held them up, almost dried them, thus adding a richness of flavour to the mix. The mushrooms had been sliced fairly thickly and he did cook them in batches so that they didn't knock against each other, so they didn't ooze any liquid. Again, interesting. And to save on the washing up the chicken mix was cooked in a pan that could be put in the oven. Very little washing up.

I'm sure that there are other cooking programs that are equally good at showing you these little things that give you ideas and show you easier ways of doing things. So forgive me for banging on about Jamie Oliver. He and others like him are the ones I like to watch. Some tv chefs don't really teach you much at all. I don't actually watch a lot, though I would love to, as my husband doesn't like them and I refuse to sit and watch tv in the daytime. So I just catch one every now and then.

I do think it's a trend though that the most well-known celebrity chefs, these days, often add variations and tips to the end of their published recipes. My newest cookbook Falastin, for example has such things at the end of every recipe. The message these days seems to be to take this recipe and then make it your own by doing some of the things suggested at the end.

If you just want tips and tricks though - feed cooking tips and tricks into Google and you will be inundated.


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