I love cooking – but even after years of practice I am prone to disasters which leave me in a sulk. I’m the reckless type – the bloke who guesses everything, mixes this with that and makes a big mess. For sheer effort I am probably a peg or two above the average bloke who sticks to 2 or 3 dishes. Let’s put it this way, I reckon I would just about survive on school dinner duty….as long as spotted dick wasn’t on the menu.
Yes, I’ve learnt a few things in the kitchen after making a basinful of mistakes, so for those who may be interested, here’s a few of my observations.
For me, the 3 most important things in the kitchen are sharp knives, butter and imagination. If you visit a friend and notice their cutlery drawer contains no decent knives, you can be sure they are not bucking for Cordon Bleu. As for butter, I remember Evelyn Waugh recounting a story about the French chef who would walk around the kitchen tasting soups and sauces and shouting “More butter!” Imagination is probably the most important; it’s what you need every day when you open the fridge and see all those sad-looking leftovers.
Most people can cook a few things well. With blokes it tends to be spaghetti Bolognese. But if you want to find out how serious somebody is about cooking, ask them how often they use flour. Flour is the great divider. Making pastry and baking bread and cakes is a sign that you’ve reached the next grade. Pizza is easy if you buy the base, but it’s the base that makes a good pizza. You have to get your hands sticky with flour, water and yeast. Five years it has taken me to get my pizza base right: that’s 5 years of eating dodgy pizza. I can laugh now, but what a lot of suffering for my art! I almost cut my ear off.
The jump from plain “spag bog” man to decent cook probably starts when you find yourself delving into cook books. One of my first influences was the late Clement Freud whose gem of a book Freud on Food I found in a second-hand shop. A witty, down-to-earth chef, Freud has a pantry-full of tips to help you solve the daily problems of feeding your family. Here’s an example: season two or three fresh chicken breasts, douse them in flour, then sear them on both sides in a frying pan with a splash of hot oil. Then turn the heat down very low and throw in a nice knob of butter. Cover the pan with a lid and let it simmer very gently for 15 minutes or so. What you get is succulent poached chicken that melts in your mouth and a butter sauce you can dribble over the breasts when serving.
Cooking a good breakfast is another thing most blokes claim to be good at. It usually means a fry-up with lots of frazzle and grease. My favourite breakfast is crispy bacon and pancakes. My pancakes used to be thin and rubbery, but now I try and make them thick and fluffy – the way they serve them in the USA. I use baking powder and yoghurt (buttermilk is better) and keep the batter quite thick, spooning it onto the hot melted butter in the frying pan. Maple syrup costs as much as uranium in Brazil, so I sometimes squeeze a couple of oranges and a dash of lemon into a little pan with a big spoonful of sugar and reduce it down to a syrup. Pancakes and orange sauce – my version of Crêpes Suzette, I suppose. Yummee!
As a Yorkshireman, you’d think I was a dab hand at Yorkshire Puddings. Well, I used to think mine were OK, until I told my mother they didn’t always rise. “You’re using too much flour, and it’s got to be plain flour”, she said. “But how do they rise if it’s not self-raising flour?”, I naively asked. “I don’t know”, she said. Then my brother chipped in with, “you need more fat in the tray as well”. Now my Yorkshires usually perform, but not always.
In the old days, I used to keep my fingers crossed after putting something in the oven. But that didn’t work. So now I say a little prayer. I think somebody up there likes me. Sometimes.