Thursday, 10 November 2011

Thoughts on learning to cook

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

I honestly believe that our food cultures offer us the biggest opportunity to improve our health and to reduce our impact on the planet. Food also makes up a large part of the monthly expenditure of many households. Knowing your way around a kitchen, a spice drawer and a produce aisle or box are therefore essential if you are going to cook frugally and sustainably. The aim is to not be a slave to ingredients lists and recipes, but to be able to make the most of what is available to you. Kitchen skills are hugely important and I know that many of you will have the basics and beyond. But equally, I know that many of you won't, or at least won't have confidence in  the kitchen. So how do you learn?

Necessity is the mother of all invention. At the age of 15 I began my five year vegetarian experiment - and was swiftly told by my mother that I would be cooking and buying my own food if I was going to be 'awkward'. I lived in a fairly rural part of Britain and new fangled frozen bean burgers and Quorn hadn't made it to the shelves of our local supermarket. I had to learn to cook. We don't have home economics lessons in schools here - rather, we have 'Food Technology' - which basically teaches you to design a ready meal to be sold to supermarkets - wholesome, I know. Armed with a cheap illustrated vegetarian recipe book, I made a start that very night trying to recreate the dishes as pictured. The first thing I cooked was a bolognese with TVP in place of the expensive (and as yet unheard of in my part of the world) exotic mushrooms the book called for. It was...revolting. The onions were diced too coarse, in spite of the 5 minutes I took to chop them carefully with a blunt knife, the carrots were still hard, the pasta mushy. 

Now, my mother did actually start to accommodate me again a few weeks later and cooked us both vegetarian food. But for a month I had to persevere and I made a lot of mistakes. I ate them all and many still linger in my memory. But I ate them with a critical palate - what had gone wrong? (everything). What could I add? (exotic mushrooms, probably). What could I take away? (TVP, for sure). Making mistakes is the best way to learn just about anything. Fear of failure will hold you back in the kitchen - and you will make plenty of them. Oven temperatures vary, ingredients vary, pots and pans vary, your attention span varies. It is a long road to confidently balance all these variables, recognize your own limitations and find solutions for them.

There are a few solid skills worth learning, either from a real life cook or from a google video search. Knife skills are perhaps the most important - from sharpening (a sharp knife is safer and faster than a blunt one) to chopping onions in seconds rather than minutes, to jointing a chicken, to slicing vegetables and filleting fish. All of these basic skills remove your dependence on a food supply chain that charges a premium for doing this simple (when you know how) work for you. Once you have these under your belt, the rest of the techniques - grilling, frying, baking and roasting can be built with each and every dish you make.

Technical skills are only one aspect of cooking, the easier part to acquire. A greater part of it is intuition - what flavours go together? What texture am I aiming for? How best to cut the carrots for the stir fry? These are things again learnt over time, with every dish you make and once again fear will hold you back. Be bold with sniffing and sampling the spices and condiments and add them liberally. Pay attention when things go wrong and write and make a note of what worked and what didn't. If you can cook together with others occasionally, you will expand your horizons. As a student I cooked with and for others a lot - and discovered in the process quite a few foods, spices and new techniques that improved my confidence.

Cookbooks can be useful inspiration - they can teach you basic flavour combinations from various culinary traditions, but again they are just a starting point. I always tended to veer away from the glossy tomes of celebrity chefs - if you are just starting out, the expensive, complicated showpieces they proffer are probably best avoided. Cooking shows (thanks to the internet,you can find shows from any tradition and dietary preference from anywhere in the world) can be helpful if you lack inspiration to get up and cook.

The most important thing is to really appreciate what food is, how it got to you and how it can enrich your life. If you have ever grown even a pot of herbs, you will appreciate the effort and resources that go into producing our food. Don't live to eat, but eat to live fully - take a little time to savour the flavours and the aromas and the textures and appreciate the chain of events that brought your food to you. Find a diet that you are passionate about, too, that fits with your ideals - you may want to cook as frugally as you possibly can, you may source pasture raised meat, you may be vegetarian or vegan, you may have special dietary requirements. When you are comfortable with your food choices, the rest will follow.