I’ve been thinking about how I learned to cook. Yes, I trained as a chef, which helped to elevate my cooking and helped me to hone my skills. But to cook delicious food, you don’t need to be a chef, you just need a good understanding of food–the basics ingredients you need to create a dish, as well as an understand of flavour. And you need practice.
I used to think that if you could read a recipe, you could cook. No, you can follow someone else’s instructions on how to produce an perfectly adequate plate of food. But cooking is more than reading a set of instructions, following them to the letter and then being lost should you have to recreate the dish without that set of instructions. Cooking should and needs to be more intuitive.
If cooking in the Times of Corona (I joke that this is going to be the next post-corona best selling cookbook title, maybe I’ll write it, who knows), has taught me one thing, to produce a delicious and satisfying meal, you need to know how to cook, not simply follow a recipe because chances are you won’t have or can’t get out to buy half of the ingredents in the recipe, in which case you have failed before you have even started.
So here are my 5 tips for Cooking Intuitively in the Time of Corona. These tips will help you cook more intuitively, without a recipe, boost your kitchen confidence and deliver delicious results.
1. Balance flavours. You can counter salty or acidic with a bit of sweetness–this doesn’t have to be sugar, it could be a naturally sweet veg (e.g. beetroot and balsamic vinegar). If your flavours are a bit flat and need a bit of a lift, use lemon (juice, zest or even preserved lemon), pinch of chilli or a pinch of sea salt (you’ll be surprised that a pinch of salt can work wonders for lifitng the flavour of an unsalted dish). If it’s roundedness or umami you’re after–this is when the flavour just sings, think about adding specific things like cheese, anchovies, miso, brines from ferments or another fermented foods to do the trick. If it’s too spicy, cool it down with a bit of sweet or something creamy.
2. Swot up on your food groups, particularly when it comes to pulses, legumes, grains and veg. Knowing the basic properties of your raw ingredients in terms of their flavour, consistency, cooking times, etc can really help when you need to make a substitution or are building a meal completely from scratch. For example, if you need to replace a soft leafy green in a recipe, what do you choose? Chard or kale? CHARD. The answer is chard. Or soft herbs (but no in the same quantities). Or maybe even lettuce. Yes, you can cook lettuce and it is delicious.
3. Work out how flavour works. Start with classic flavour pairings first and work out why they work before going all Heston. Take leeks and butter for example, the combination is simple, but delicious. It’s the sweetness of the butter that compliments the sharp allium flavour, which then mellows when cooked slowly until soft. The creaminess of the butter meet the creaminess of the slowly cooked leeks, and then my friends, you find yourself uncontrollably scoffing spoonfuls of leek straight from the pan. So, once you understand how and why these classic pairings work you can then start analysing how and why other flavours work together.
4. Buy as good quality ingredients as you can afford. This feels a bit like a cheat when I’m talking about cooking and flavouring, but if you buy good quality ingredients they pack more flavour, which means you have to do very little to get a delicious end result. The rule of thumb I live by when working with anything that’s beautifully fresh and often seasonal is, beautfiul and simple. Repeat, ‘beautiful and simple.’
5. Use your senses. Your eyes, nose and mouth are perfect for judging what looks, smells and tastes nice, so do not be afraid to use them! Providing you manage to rustle up a meal, do not panic if you haven’t nailed it on the first tasting. Taste, adjust, taste, adjust and taste again. And make any adjustments gradually. You can always add more, but you can’t take out half a packet of chilli flakes. And again, if you’re not sure what the dish needs, refer back to #1.
And remember that bit about practice, yes it does require practice. Not every meal will be a success, but each meal you create will give you the confidence and skill to keep at it.