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Back June 24th, 2018 Forward
On Cooking and Learning

I've been cooking pretty much since I could see over the stove. My mother started teaching me how to bake when my age was still in single digits - making Queen Cakes and Cornflour Cakes from the recipes in her "Golden Wattle" cookbook, and learning how to measure in ounces and pounds on the fly (an ounce was roughly a tablespoon; an ounce of sugar occupied less space than an ounce of flour). By the time I was about ten, I was cooking meals for my family, at first on the weekends (and sometimes there were some rather spectacular mishaps there) and then during the week. By the time I was in high school, cooking dinner for the family was one of my expected chores.

One thing I've learned about cooking is you never really stop learning how to cook.

I enjoy cooking. It's fun, taking all these raw ingredients, combining them, mixing things together, adding heat and motion and bits of this and that, and creating something delicious at the other end. Even the occasional flops are fun, because the interesting bit then is sitting down and figuring out what went wrong. Cooking, as the saying goes, is science for hungry people. It's an art, and it's a craft at the same time.

So, in the interests of sharing with the class, a few tips I've discovered along the way.

1) The first time you prepare a recipe, it's a fifty-fifty chance you'll get a horrendous mess, even if you do your best and read all the instructions.

2) The photos in cookbooks are carefully staged. Real food is messy, and more or less brown.

3) To cream butter and sugar for cakes successfully, it helps to have the butter at room temperature. Chop it small, and if all else fails, run some hot water into the sink and sit the bowl in that until the butter softens enough to be malleable.

4) Getting a recipe to the point where everything is effortless is something which requires practice. It isn't going to happen the first time you cook something, or even the second. Instead, you're going to need to cook it at least four or five times, and learn from the mistakes you make along the way each time.

5) TV cooks start with everything carefully measured, everything carefully laid out, and with at least two off-siders preparing things around the edges as well as doing the washing up afterwards. Then they do everything multiple times, with multiple takes, in order to produce one photogenic version of the dish in question.

Restaurant chefs have a huge supply of off-siders doing preparation, and being delegated the more basic steps in the preparation and also monitoring the clean-up. Plus, of course, they produce a very limited menu, which is often focussed on being entirely too photogenic for its own good.

Home cooks, by contrast, get one try to produce something edible, and the vast majority of household kitchens aren't designed to have more than one person at a time in there. Plus it's very much "rinse as you go" as far as the washing up side of things goes. Learn to live with the fact you're not going to get TV or Restaurant results on a regular basis, and figure out a couple of dishes which don't require much effort to look fancy. Pasta bakes and lasagnes do pretty well in this department, as far as I'm concerned, because a decent layer of melted grated cheese and/or white sauce covers a multitude of sins. My mother's go-to "fancy" dish was salmon mornay baked up with cornflake crumbs on top, decorated with tomato slices and cheese, and served with pasta.

6) There are some dishes which quite literally cannot be prepared without getting the stove messy. Fried rice is one of these for me.

7) Meat stews default to brown. Tomato dishes default to red. Curries tend to go either brown or yellow, depending on the degree of turmeric in the mix.

8) The more you read recipe books, and the longer you spend cooking, the more adept you get at being able to tell what can be dropped from the recipe, what can be substituted for something cheaper or more readily available, and which bits of the recipe are the essential bits.

9) Every experienced cook will have at least one or two recipes in their repertoire which are basically about using up bits and pieces of left over this and that, and where consequently the "recipe" consists mainly of two or three things which are essential, and a long list of things which can be added and subtracted as available.

10) Soups and casseroles are very forgiving and basically consist of variations around a single core formula. (Soups start with a stock, then you add vegetables and/or meat, and cook until done. Puree if it's supposed to be a smooth soup, otherwise pass the ladle. Casseroles start by browning the meat, adding the slow-to-cook vegetables and appropriate seasoning, adding a liquid component, and then cooking slowly until everything has cooked through). Once you know the core formula, and a few basic flavour combinations, you can start coming up with a lot of variations on a theme.

11) The best accessory for any kitchen is someone who will eat what you produce, preferably with every evidence of enjoyment.

12) You don't need all the fancy gizmos and gadgets most of the time. You can get away with a couple of saucepans, a decent frying pan, a couple of good knives and some serving spoons. If you're going to be using a gizmo or gadget more than once or twice a year, it's possibly an investment, but if not, take time out to go through your gadget drawer every so often, and weed out the ones which aren't paying their way. (To be honest, the only one I've found even vaguely irreplaceable is a citrus zester - and even there, the small side of the grater will do as a substitute, even if it is more fiddly to clean).

13) This one isn't necessarily confined to the kitchen, but the kitchen is where I learned it, so I'll put it here: if you wind up throwing it out without using it, you threw your money into the bin. (This is testament to years of learning the sad truth of "economising" by buying bulk quantities of things I use very rarely, if at all).

Anyone got anything else to add to the list?

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