By Paul Lewis, Professional Chef
Cooking has provided me with a living for almost twenty years. More importantly, being able to cook for myself, friends and loved ones has seen me survive these years.
Never has this tasty asset been more useful. Being stuck at home this last year has reminded me that although my trade may be that of a chef, in my heart, I am a cook. Nothing beats cooking, eating and sharing at home. With each day, each loaf or dish, I am learning and refining.
There is nothing to being a cook. We are all cooks. Cooking is living. It’s friendship and romance. Cooking is convening with the world around us. Cooking is our bodies. Cooking is economy. From every good intention and action in the kitchen, something beautiful and unique is created. I have eaten many bad meals out and about; everything prepared for me in someone’s home, with love and conversation, has been delicious. Have you ever boiled pasta in salted water, after a night out, drained it, added cheese and pepper? You are a cook. Have you buttered toast and brewed coffee to bring to someone asleep in your bed? You are a cook.
As all good cooks are generous, in this column I would like to share with you some things that will make life in your kitchen and home easier and more fruitful and pleasurable. I want, for the good of your stomach, your health, and your bank balance, to exhort you to delete that delivery app on your device and to see that you can, without trouble or expense and too much greater enjoyment, cook whatever you like for yourself.
First you will need a knife, nothing special, just one you like. Preferably not the one in the drawer that came with the house you rent. A decent small knife, a bread knife and Y-shaped peeler are handy too. A wooden chopping board will help. Along the way a tongs, a wooden spoon, a scissors, a whisk and a metal spatula will all become trusty and indispensable attachments to your arm. A heavy frying pan and a big pot would be convenient, but any pots and pans will do. A stainless steel mixing bowl is essential. All of these things can be picked up affordably around the town – in ethnic stores, discount shops, charity shops and supermarkets. Everything spent is an investment. Nothing needs to be fancy. The best cooks will manage with what they can find. Look after your tools. Pick one thing up every so often. Maybe buy a few plates and bowls that take your fancy.
Get to know your locality. Go to the market of a Saturday and pick up some doughnuts, cheese and local vegetables. Check out the Asian and Polish supermarkets where you’ll find the likes of sticky dates, worlds of spices and condiments, dark rye bread, fresh greens, yoghurts, tofu and big bags of rice and couscous. Go to a butcher or fishmonger and don’t be intimidated or feel under pressure. Just ask questions about what’s on offer. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with the supermarkets either. Don’t overload yourself with shopping – just buy what you can cook and something for the pantry. Money spent on food is money well spent, if it’s going to a local supplier, even better.
Clean and organise before you start cooking. Have all the things you need lined up, a place for preparation and a spot for washing up and for finished things. Keep things moving around. Clean as you as go. In this way, very little can go wrong. Please don’t chop with a dirty board or knife. Stand straight at your chopping block, arse and elbows tucked in, legs slightly apart, hold vegetables in a claw-like grip, with your thumb protected by your knuckles, and carefully get chopping. Think about how you want to cut things before your start. Cooking is about practice and instinct, but it helps to have a plan, or some idea of what you want to achieve. Cook according to time available – instant ramen with vegetables and egg in a hurry, full roast on a lazy Sunday. Get elaborate dinners going early, starting with the longest job and working backwards, one task at a time. Recipes are guidelines. Instead of scrolling on your phone and making the screen all dirty, write out and pin up the basic list of ingredients and method. Turn up the music.
There are no rules in cookery, but there are building blocks, ways to approach things and wells of knowledge to dip into. In the next instalment of our journey into cookery and eating, we will dip our toes into soup. Oh, there is one rule – Never. Throw. Anything. Out.
So long, fellow cooks!