Thursday, January 13, 2011

How to cook

How do I start cooking?

This was the plaintive cry for culinary help that came from a friend who visited over Christmas. It was a cry I couldn’t ignore so I told her I’d come up with tips I thought might help.
Now, I could obviously advise her to invest in a cookbook or two, especially ones by the likes of Jamie Oliver who has based his entire career on enticing novice cooks into the kitchen. (Ireland’s own Donal Skehan also appears to be following a similar path.)
But I wanted my advice to be a little more inspiring (and useful) than that...

So, I ditched the cookbooks (figuratively speaking of course) and set to thinking.

My first thought was that my friend should think about what she and her partner like to eat. Are they traditionalists who prefer their dinners to consist of meat/fish with vegetables and potatoes? Do they love pasta and Italian food? Or do they hanker after the sharp and spicy flavours of Asian cooking?

Once she's made a list (on paper or in her head) of the dishes she likes to eat, I would then encourage her to try cooking some. She could look the recipes up in cookbooks or on websites. I often do this and would particularly recommend the BBC website for ease of use and the sheer range of its recipes (find it here )

My second suggestion would be for her to focus on some basic dishes that include elements she'll end up using again and again. For example, if she learns how to make a lasagne, she'll learn how to make a simple white/cheese sauce - something she'll definitely be cooking again.

This is obviously a subjective list but I think everyone should know how to make:
- A white sauce
- A tomato sauce
- Mashed potato
- Fluffy rice
- Roast chicken
- A good salad dressing (but this, I mean one you like)

What would you add to this list?

Number three: don’t expect to become an expert immediately. You’re bound to make mistakes at the beginning (and even after you’ve been cooking for years, there will still be the occasional disaster!). There is sure to be a certain amount of hit and miss. You’ll probably even burn some things. But don’t worry. It’s all part of the learning process.
Food and cooking is about learning what you like and how you like to cook it. Mistakes are part of that. And sometimes they can even lead to chance discoveries.
(I once made a chocolate cake for a friend’s birthday that failed to rise. Instead of panicking, I iced it with chocolate fudge icing and decorated it with raspberries. Everyone loved it and one person even said it was the best cake they’d ever eaten!)

Number four: Give yourself time to cook. During the week, you probably won’t have much time or energy to make food after coming home from work, so cook something simple. Pasta Puttanesca. Mashed potatoes with pork chops and green beans. Macaroni cheese. Leek and potato soup. Niceoise salad.

All of these are far nicer than any ready meals you might buy in the shops. They are easy and quick to make. And if you live with someone, presenting them with dishes like these to eat midweek will win you lots of brownie points!

At the weekend, you might decide to experiment with something a little more complicated and time consuming. Invite friends over to share a roasted chicken (it might seem like a huge challenge up but a roast is actually more a question of timing than of elaborate culinary skills IMO). Bake a cake (even if it goes wrong, it’ll probably still be yummy. See above!)

Here are some recipes to start you off.
Pasta Puttanesca – who better than the inimitable Nigel Slater to guide you in making this classic?

Pork chops with mangetout and potatoes – I can’t remember where I found this recipe but it’s very popular with the people in my house.

1 pork chop per person
3 tbsp of breadcrumbs per person
1/4 tsp sea salt per person (I use maldon sea salt)
1/2 tsp ground coriander per person
1 tbsp vegetable/groundnut oil
1. Mix the breadcrumbs, sea salt and ground coriander together and spread out on a plate.
2. Turn the pork chop in the breadcrumb mix, pressing it into the mix so that as much as possible of it sticks to the meat.
3. Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry the breaded pork chops for four minutes on either side.
4. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes and some of Nigella Lawson's lemony green beans or mangetout (see here)

Leek and potato soup – you'll find a recipe for this in my winter warmer's post of November 25th.

Niceoise salad: this is more a question of assembling quality ingredients than anything else
Salad greens
200g green beans *
2 handfuls of black olives, stoned
8 Anchovy fillets
1 green pepper, chopped into bite-sized chunks
1 tin of tuna (I prefer mine in oil instead of brine but that’s a question of taste)
2 boiled eggs (I boil mine for 8 mins from cold so that the yolk is still a little gooey)

*All of the quantities in this recipe can be adjusted to taste.

1. Boil the beans until they are tender but still retain a bite (3 to 4 mins). Cool.
2. Strain the tuna and mix with the green beans, salad greens, stoned black olives and chopped pepper.
3. Peel and quarter the eggs and place on top of the salad along with the anchovy fillets.
4. Eat with the dressing of your choice, some baby potatoes or some crusty bread. Yum!

Over to you, fellow cooks. What other advice would you have for someone who is wary of cooking but really wants to learn?

(Karen, I hope this helps!)


  1. Great advice Sharon. I totally agree with cooking when you have time - when I am rushed things never turn out the same. I agree on keeping it simple - if it doesn't work then you feel annoyed at the waste of time and money on lots of fancy ingredients. Another good thing to remember is that it might not be you that can't get it right but it may well be the recipe! They don't all work for everyone - that's why there are so many out there for each dish! One book I would really recommend for reliable recipes with great variations is Nigel Slater's Appetite.
    Three basic veg like onions, celery, carrots provide the base for a ragu, cottage/shepherds pie, stew etc by just changing the type of meat and adding a few little extras.

  2. Thanks, Glutton!
    Simple and stress-free is the way to go. And I agree about the recipes. I find that Delia Smith's recipes for sweet things never work for me (I actually have a conspiracy theory that they aren't supposed to!).
    And Nigel Slater's book is a great recommendation as is the idea of using onions, celery and carrots as a basis for lots of great dishes.
    Thanks for the tips!

  3. Wonderful advice Sharon. The only thing I'd add is an egg (or 6)!! If you can cook eggs, particularly omlettes, you are never far from a really good meal.

    Oh and I'd add a bit of Delia!!

  4. Hey Sharon, great post. I'd probably add a stew to the list of basic things to learn to cook, as it's a good one pot meal for beginners and difficult to get wrong. Also I like to ask the butcher what he/she thinks is a good way to cook the meat you get from them, they alwas have great suggestions.

  5. Great post, Sharon! I think a great recipe for beginners is Jamie Oliver's meatballs and tomato and basil sauce. It's a really straight forward recipe which really delivers on taste. I made it quite early on in my journey towards becoming a more confident cook and it really gave me a boost.

    Here's a link:

  6. Brownieville Girl,
    You're so right about the eggs. I've often thought that I had nothing to cook for dinner only to discover that an egg plus some mushrooms made a great omlette or an egg plus potatoes added up to a Spanish omlette. Yum!

    Stew is obviously one of the great beginner dishes as you can modify it to suit lots of different ingredients. And asking your local butcher/fishmonger/etc for tips is a really good idea too. Our local fishmonger is great for that kind of thing...

    And Aoife, thanks for the Jamie Oliver recipe. I might just cook it myself!