A former chef shares what she learned over three decades, from how to keep your pans good as new to the virtue of storing ginger in the freezer
Holed up at home, many of us are doing way more cooking than usual. Maybe you are enjoying it – or maybe you are trying to put in a working day at a corner of the kitchen table, dreading the preparation of the next meal.
I worked as a chef for almost 30 years. Although I am now a full-time writer, I haven’t managed to escape the kitchen: I am currently feeding four strapping adults. I don’t always enjoy cooking, but I have had so much practice that I can get a reasonable meal on the table without much fuss. Here are some of the things I have learned that might make your lives a bit easier.
1 If you think your food isn’t tasty, it may be because many home cooks don’t use enough salt and pepper. Season as you go, taste, season again. You can’t get flavour into a shepherd’s pie by sprinkling a bit on at the table. You need to sort that before you assemble it.
2 If a recipe says: “Cook the onions until they are translucent, about three minutes,” it is lying. It takes 10 to 15 minutes to achieve this. Meanwhile, it is likely they will start to colour, which leads me on to the next thing.
3 Water is your friend. A splash will stop your onions from burning, thin that sauce, make that pastry rollable.
4 When you cut an onion, it releases a vapour that reacts with the first wet thing it finds. If that happens to be your eyeballs, you will cry. If your knife is wet and you have rinsed the onion, you will cry less. I am not sure of the science, but I know that it helps.
5 If you are going to roast or bake something for dinner, add a tray of veg for lunch the next day, or a cake. Cheaper and better for the planet.
6 You may be baking with kids. Do not begin with scones. Like pastry, scones need the gentlest touch. Make bread, fairy cakes or a Victoria sandwich that will survive the assault.
7 We are getting hardly any exercise and this could go on for weeks or months. Baking a cake with your kids every other day isn’t sustainable. Get them to help with actual meals. Small ones can roll meatballs or falafels, pick herbs, mash avocados.
8 Older ones can use knives, peelers, graters. It is up to you to decide what age or which child; my daughter was handy with a knife at seven or eight, but there are adults I wouldn’t like to see wielding a blade. If you have teenagers, tell them to get out of bed and make lunch.
9 It is good to look in your fridge and come up with new dishes, but some combinations just don’t work. I was once served sardines with strawberry puree. It was muck. Mackerel with pickled rhubarb, on the other hand, was sublime. Think about what you are doing.
10 Maldon is my favourite salt, but it is not cheap. Use any old salt for boiling pasta etc and use the good stuff when you will notice the difference.
11 Don’t be afraid of heat. Most domestic stoves can’t reach the temperatures an industrial one can. As soon as you throw a steak, a chicken breast, a chop or a bag of mince on a pan, the temperature will plummet. You will be left with a pale, simmering stew rather than a burnished prime cut.
12 When frying steaks, oil the meat, not the pan. This goes for cooking anything on a ridged grill pan, from halloumi to asparagus. And season after oiling or the salt will eat into the food.
13 To clean a cast-iron pan, rub on salt with a piece of old tinfoil. When the food residue is gone, wipe a wee bit of oil on the pan to keep it from rusting. This is my father’s tip. He says reusing the foil “will keep that nice wee Swedish girl happy”. He means Greta Thunberg. He isn’t great with names.
14 “From scratch” doesn’t mean you can’t take shortcuts. I can’t be bothered to roast and skinpeppers for romesco or muhammara. Lidl sells them in jars; if you rinse them well, they work a treat.
15 You are not cooking in a restaurant. Some dishes are impossible to recreate perfectly at home. Commercial pizza ovens are set at two temperatures: very hot on the bottom for a crispy base and cooler on top so as not to burn the cheese. Accept this or get a takeaway.
16 Most restaurant cookbooks are for the coffee table. You are cooking your way through a lockdown. For the purposes of this exercise, foams and gels are for the bathroom. Getting an omelette and chips to the table is no mean feat.
17 I worked in some decent kitchens, but never in one where we made vegetable or chicken stock. (The bubbling pot of what is known as “jus” is another story.) It is OK to buy them, although they vary quite a bit. Some taste too strongly of celery; some contain gluten or MSG. Try them out.
18 That said, I make chicken stock most weeks. I roast two chickens and serve one for dinner. The other I strip down for coronation chicken or a pie. I put both carcasses in a slow cooker overnight with water and aromatics then use the stock for soup, risotto, etc.
19 Which aromatics? Onion, leek, carrot, celery, bay, thyme, parsley, black peppercorns. The trimmings of spring onions, fresh tomatoes, mushrooms. I rarely have all these at once and often make it with just onion and a bay leaf. A big no to garlic, starchy stuff like spuds or anything resembling cabbage. And I always add a single clove.
20 Dress pasta, rice, potatoes and noodle salads when they are warm. Hot, they will absorb all the dressing. Cold, they will absorb none of it.
21 I love my food processor, but I loathe cleaning it. I do dry stuff in it first – making breadcrumbs, chopping nuts – then wipe it with kitchen paper. Then I do any grating, chopping or slicing and rinse it before liquidising or pureeing.
22 I keep root ginger in the freezer and leave it out for five minutes before grating. Then I freeze it again.
23 Most chefs use chopped tinned tomatoes for cooking because the whole ones take so long to break down or need to be chopped or liquidised. They always need to be sweetened. Do it to taste, but go easy or there will be a ketchupy vibe.
24 Use a serrated knife to slice fresh tomatoes. I have a small one that I use for lemons, too, or you can use a steak knife or the bread knife. Tomatoes will wreck your straight blade – blunt it almost immediately. I don’t know why, but they will.
25 Chefs have this thing called mise en place, where all their ingredients are prepped and laid out in front of them before they begin. I am not recommending that you buy a set of identical glass dishes, but maybe consider getting all your chopping out of the way before you start and laying it in separate little piles on one big plate or tray.
26 Some pastry chefs use crème pâtissière in desserts such as trifle. It contains a little flour and is easier and quicker to make – and less likely to burn than crème anglaise (runny custard).
27 If you can find everything you want in the shops these days, you are doing better than me. Besides, supermarkets are traumatising now, with their bogging trolley handles and pandemic-yellow floor stickers. Make substitutions. I made a reasonable sort of hummus with butter beans. Rocket works instead of parsley. Cashews and walnuts are OK in pesto.
28 You can switch ingredients when baking, but be careful. Baking is chemistry. The other day, I made brown bread, adding oat bran and milled chia seeds instead of the wheatgerm and wheat bran the recipe called for. It needed extra liquid, possibly because chia seeds are thirsty.
29 At the end of each shift, chefs clean down every surface. Out of habit, I do this and have never had to use steel wool or strong chemicals on my hob. It is 13 years old and could pass for new. I am otherwise a slattern, by the way.
30 Salt is controversial. So is sugar. If you are supposed to avoid them for medical reasons, then do so. Obviously. If you like your own cooking, keep doing what you are doing. These are not commandments, just the musings of a virus-freaked oldie.