10 dishes for incompetent cooks

Following my post on the BBC Dish Up campaign, I was having one of those idle discussions you (well, I) have in the car when I’m mainly thinking about driving, but need an easy topic to chat about so I don’t fall asleep with the sheer boredom of a lengthy motorway. My other half was a non-cook when I met him. He was 20, a vegetarian who wasn’t very keen on vegetables, and loved all things involving highly processed carb more than anything in the world. As you might imagine, most of that is not longer the case (put him near unattended pasta or roast potatoes and you can forget leftovers), so, as the other person in the car, he was quite a good person to be having that discussion with. To be fair, despite my current culinary habits, I lived on microwave meals as a teenager, only really discovering the joys of food and cooking when my Dad and I moved to France for 3 years when I was 16. Up to that point, I’d enjoyed the cooking I did, but it was certainly not the overarching interest (obsession?) it is now. The aforementioned car discussion wasn’t, therefore, completely uninformed.

Our major preoccupation, apart from me steering, not speeding and going in the right general direction, was to come up with a list of basic recipes which would be a) useful, b) easy, c) reasonably cheap, and d) versatile, for anyone coming to cooking from scratch for the first time. I argued my case based on firm historic principles and a love of eggs. M came at it from having to fathom out my scrawled instructions when left alone after I’d vaguely taught him something and then waved my hands about airily and told him it was well easy. Anyway. This is the list we eventually came up with.

1. Omelette: eating what became my version, which involves a LOT of butter, was the moment I realised food was more than just fuel. It was 1996, and it had been thrown together by a Frenchwoman with whom I was boarding. Seriously. You are never alone with a (good) omelette.

2. Batter pudding: the batter mix can also be used for pancakes, and pancakes piled up with jam and cream to make an impressive and stupidly easy dessert. Plus, batter puddings can have absolutely anything put in them. Sausages, obviously, as toad-in-the-hole, but I like leftover roast beef, pork etc. And if you stick apples in them and sprinkle with sugar, you’ve got a cheap and filling sweet. Oh, and stoned fruit and sugar makes clafoutis.

3. Suet crust pudding: because a pudding basin and a cloth are easier to store than a slow cooker, and suet crust is divine. Basin-cooked steak and kidney, or pork and apple, or pigeon and parsnip are all dead easy, and you can then branch out into sausage or bacon and onion or jam roly poly. Getting the hang of using a pudding cloth only appears daunting, and any leftovers can be baked the next day, at which point the pastry crisps up and it’s a whole new dish.

4. French meat: it’s always called that in our house, but it’s the age old principle of take meat, fry it in butter with a bit of flour, add booze (cider, wine, beer, whatever), turn right down and simmer til tender, remove meat, pimp sauce with thick cream. These days I often chuck in a tin of beans or something as well.

5. Maître d’hôtel sauce: lemon juice, parsley, butter or olive oil, plus seasonings. Can add garlic, can add cayenne pepper. This is my go-to sauce for everything. It’s amazing in haricot beans (and butter beans etc), fabulous on thinly sliced kidneys fried in the butter (in which case, add lots of salt too), zings up green veg, and actually, root veg like artichokes and potatoes (can also add olives), and it’s pretty good as a dressing for chicken and veal and – well, you get the picture.

6. Soup: historic recipe books are full of soups, though it’s clear that they are regarded as a fundamental precursor to dinner by the upper classes, optional by the middle classes, and foisted upon the working classes (to somewhat paraphrase Charles Herman Senn in 1901 – New Century Cookbook). Soup is great. You can have light lunchtime soup based on delicate stocks, clarified to the point of beauty, or a thick, sustaining winter soup in which the spoon stands up. Essentially though, they are mainly based on the principle of fry stuff – add stock or water – simmer for ages – purée, taste, season, and thicken if required. Stock pretty much falls into the same category.

7. Fried fish: this is M’s big one. We do fish skin on, very crispy, mainly with the aforementioned maître d’hôtel sauce and veg or other stuff. Cracking fish cooking was a big thing in our house.

8. Roast meat: I can take it or leave it (unless it’s been properly roasted, i.e. on a spit), but it is a thing for many people. In a modern kitchen, the key is a meat thermometer and resting time. This category could and probably should be extended to include decent roast potatoes (parboiled, at least double roasted, ensure there are leftovers to refry to go with marmite the next day), and gravy.

9. Stuff to do with leftover bread: this isn’t a recipe, it’s a category. According to various reports (there’s a short BBC article here), we waste about a third of the bread we buy. Now, ok, white sliced makes dreadful breadcrumbs, stinks when you try and bake off the moisture in the oven, and is generally fit for nothing, but it still appalls me that we waste so much, when there are so many things which can be done with stale bread. Bread and butter pudding, breadcrumbs for thickening, breadcrumbs and fruit purée baked pudding, crumble, topping for gratin…argh! Etc.

10. Bread dough: why? Because you can roll it out thinly and top with tomato purée and cheese etc and it’s a pizza (and the etc means literally anything you like), and you can smear it with lard and dried fruit and fold it and roll it and it’s a lardy cake, and you can shape it into rolls and fill them with sausagemeat and it’s a perfect picnic. M says having learnt to make pizza as one of the first things he did, when it came to wanting to make bread later on, he was never scared (and now he has a sourdough starter with a name – and offspring, and is bread making fiend). Plus, cold pizza for lunch, mmmmm. And most of the above take less than 90mn start to finish, with very little actual contact time.

Anyway, that was the fruit of an hour or so on the road. What about you? Top easy recipes for the novice cook?

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One thought on “10 dishes for incompetent cooks

  1. Really interesting list, all the things Fanny Cradock was so obsessed with getting us to make – she said if you had an egg you had a meal, and encouraged us to make batter at the drop of a hat to use pancakes for all sorts of things… I do think maybe we’ve lost some of these ‘basic’ principles of food (I’m even sounding like Fanny now) as new cooks jump straight into trendy, celeb chef based books. I do draw the line at Fannys obsession with sweet omelettes for pudding though – I’ve just made a chocolate one. Bleurgh. So maybe not everything from the past should be revived? Thanks for this, loved it…

    Liked by 1 person

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