Thursday, December 13, 2007

Kitchen Talk

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and where would we be now if things had stayed always the same? So it can take hard times for someone to be inspired enough to think up ways to improve things, and from several of your comments it seems you are doing just that. Enjoying it too.

Think about it. When we have a need to penny-pinch, not only do we start doing more home-cooking, but surely ending up with more enjoyable and nutritious meals. We have discovered ways of inventing new dishes using left-overs, instead of throwing the oddments in the bin. Small-scale inventing it may be, but the sense of achievement makes up for any lack of interest that would come from the Dragon's Den.

You may say this is retro-speak because home-cooking was something our mothers and grandmothers did as a matter of course, (and who wants to go back to those good/bad old days) but with the 'invention' of packaged ready-meals, pizza parlours, burger bars and so forth, one might ask whether these are truly an improvement, and it does seem that it has taken only one generation for many to rely more on manufacturers than on their own abilities. It can get really silly, for not so long ago, ready cracked eggs could be bought in small bottles, amd only last year I saw advertised small packets of fresh breadcrumbs for sale (each costing more than one plain loaf). Recently I was given a small bottle of a liquid (extravagantly packaged) which was to be diluted with water and used for washing fruit and vegetables. And there is always someone who will buy these things.

Now and again we need to stand back and discover what we can do without, rather than what we think we need. The more cooking we do, the more we rely on electrical tools (and I am all for some of them - where would I be without my electric mixer, my food processor, my toaster and kettle?), but they are mainly labour and time-saving. More often than not I grate my cheese using my mother's old grater instead of using the processor, and whip cream with a balloon whisk by hand instead of the electric beaters. The end result is the same, and often slightly better. If anyone whimpers they cannot cook without gadgets, then a wimp is what they are. One day I may suggest we all have a go at preparing and cooking a main meal from scratch without using anything more than a fork, spoon, and knife. I'll allow the use of a hob or oven, but a barbeque would be even better, being more 'natural'.

When it comes to writing up recipes, today they are far more complicated than a hundred years ago when it was "take four tablespoons of flour, two of sugar, a good knob of butter, one egg, mix them together, place in a buttered pan and cook in a moderate oven". In older times, the heat of the oven was often gauged by counting the seconds you could hold your hand in the oven before shrieking. This was later modified to placing a slice of bread in the oven to see how long it took to go brown. No temperature gauges in those days. You knew when something was cooked when you could smell it. Even to this day I use this as a guide.
Recipes can sometimes seem very complicated, as the approach these days is to write them up as though no-one could understand what to do unless all directions are given in great detail. If you find a recipe that seems too daunting, and you have a modicum of experience, then read through and rewrite it in short-form in a way that you will understand.

Don't be afraid of trying new methods. Here I am reminded of the omelette challenge, each week on Saturday Kitchen. All chefs seem to make them the same way, stirring the eggs around so that they are almost scrambled, yet somewhere, years ago, I learned one way to do it was pour the beaten eggs in the heated (and oiled) pan, let them set a little around the edges, then draw one edge into the middle, tipping the pan to let raw egg from the top flow to fill the gap, and continue until the top was lightly set. Then fold over and plate up. This method has always worked perfectly for me, so why change. One day I will time myself and see how long it takes.

Back to cookery (my mind is wandering a bit this morning as am still a bit miserable due to my cold)- we now have the advantage of being able to cook with foods from all around the world and also experience eating traditional dishes from every continent, which can be very beneficial to our budget as almost every country other than ours seems to have had a lot more experience in cooking local produce in a very tasty way. Here I'm not talking about French haute cuisine, but peasant cookery. The great meals made with the simplest and cheapest of ingredients, and enjoyed for centuries. Of course it helps to have a warmer climate where herbs grow wild in the fields and you go out and help yourself, and fruit and vegetables grow in abundance in the back yard (but who knows, with global warming, this may happen here within our lifetime). Then maybe perhaps haring a cow, and a local baker where you can make use of his cooling down oven to bake your savoury pies. Doesn't that sound bliss?

It has to be said that for centuries, our cooking lacked a lot. Overcooked greens for a start. So always worth watching cookery programmes set in other countries. Rick Stein has done some good French/Mediterannean series, and not all to do with fish. The Hairy Bikers is another cross-countries experience. Adapt dishes to suit what you have, people around the world have been doing this since the year dot.
Every country has its own version of bread, be it made with yeast or flatbread. Apart from East Asia, all that springs to mind is rice. Or maybe they make something with rice flour. But you get the idea. Every country has its own version of omelette (and this time this includes the Far East). All you have to do is take one dish from one country and marry it to another (the posh name for this is Fusion Food), and you can make up your own very tasty and very cheap meal.

Get down to that library, hunt out cultural cook books and get reading. Believe in yourself, and you will work miracles. Teach your children/grandchildren how to cook. Whether in college or chosing a more domestic life, they will thank you for that.