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A Key Life Skill - Cooking
I guess I’m a bit of a ‘foodie’; I enjoy food, have few dislikes and I am interested in the process of cooking. I guess it’s part of my imaginative streak which manifests itself in several creative areas, such as photography, sketching, writing, and cooking. Cooking however, surpasses most art forms by stimulating several senses at once, such as taste and smell and touch, as it relies heavily on texture, aroma, consistency, temperature and feel as a crucial part of the eating experience. Radical modern chefs, such as Heston Blumenthal, have sought to interpret these facts in strange and exciting ways. My skills are far less ambitious as I seem to be able to create acceptable meals without resorting to liquid nitrogen, the vacuum-pack or water bath – although I’d love to have a dabble with all of these given half a chance!
I have no idea where my fascination with cooking came from. I entered married life with no talent at all, although at home my mum sometimes surrendered her kitchen to my dad who occasionally created fantastic Indian cuisine based on his upbringing in British colonial India. Dad’s curries were legendary and, for a husband and father to have any culinary skills in the 1950s, was rare gift indeed.
I can trace the beginning of my interest in cooking to the time when my wife was pregnant with our second child. She suffered severe ‘morning’ sickness, which, inconveniently and distressingly persisted all day for some months. Largely unable to contemplate eating, let alone cooking during this period, sheleft it to me to feed the family which then consisted of my five-year-old daughter, my wife and myself. We had been married nearly ten years and my daughter and I, had come to rely on home catering of a very high order indeed. To have this fundamental provision snatched away was alarming as I had zero ability in the kitchen.
However, needs must and I started with simplicity – toast! I soon discovered that the addition of baked beans extended my repertoire, and then of course cheese, the contents of assorted tins and ready-meals extended my repertoire. Eggs were boiled, fried, poached or scrambled, often with less than appetising results, as the humble egg, I was later to discover, is both simplicity itself, but more commonly ruined by so many apparently competent cooks. In the 1970s, takeaways were far less prolific than they are today, so after a while fish and chips or MSG-rich Chinese meals, began to lose their appeal. A couple of weeks later disparaging comments and comparisons between her mother’s fare, and her father’s increasingly tedious efforts with proprietary products and bought-in offerings became a feature of my daughter’s conversation.
It was then that I discovered the Cook Book. Having pored over a recipe for a proper Sunday roast for some considerable time, I determined, (with advice from my somewhat bilious wife), to attempt roast beef, roast potatoes, carrots and broccoli. An ambitious objective I thought. I did consider Yorkshire puddings, but this seemed ‘a bridge too far’ in my novice state! The project required the purchase of fresh produce and I set off to buy the necessary ingredients at the village shops. Here I solicited the assistance of the butcher, grocer and greengrocer in advising on cuts and quantities and armed with the resulting shopping I returned home to prepare the feast. Cutting a long story short; it wasn’t bad at all. The meat possibly a little well done, the gravy slightly bitter, but all-in-all not a bad effort, and thus was born an enthusiasm which over the succeeding 30 years has given me, and I like to think the many guests who have graced my table, a great deal of pleasure and many fine meals.
Today I also enjoy eating out at establishments with a reputation for excellence. We are well served in our local area and can enjoy everything from simple pub food, through many ethnic cuisines to top class Michelin star gastronomy, all within a 10-mile radius. Another bonus are local takeaways which could be classified as ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, but today’s fast-food diners are savvy and only ‘the good’ will survive the highly competitive food marketplace, where reputation and consistent quality are key to long-term success.
One of the most striking phenomena of the last 20 years has been the rise and rise of British food – both in the production of top quality ingredients to the explosion of innovation in British kitchens. The world has rediscovered the UK's ability to grow, cook and present some of the finest food to be found anywhere. Key to this renaissance has been our embrace of ethnic cooking from the former British Empire where Chinese, Indian, African and West Indian techniques, recipes and ingredients, have been studied, respected and sometimes fused into innovative dishes which are opening whole new and exciting areas of culinary experience. These combined with classic European cuisine have uniquely given Great Britain a culinary diversity in which it should be justly proud. The aforementioned Heston Blumenthal has almost single-handedly applied his quirky lateral thinking to ingredients, techniques and presentation, sending tidal waves through the formerly stuffy portals of many an 'established' eatery. His influence has been radical and largely positive having been picked up by many new young chefs. The evidence for his success is unassailable as at his restaurant, 'The Fat Duck' in Bray, you'll have a six months wait for a table!
It is interesting to note just how many cookery programmes flood our televisions. Chefs have become celebrities, and their restaurants have prospered on the back of their TV appearances. I must admit to being something of a fan to many of them, and I will often try out their recipes after watching them being produced on TV. But it’s also interesting, and rather sad to note that the march of ready-meals from our all-too-powerful supermarkets seem also to accelerate every year. These expensive ‘convenience’ foods seem to offer a thought-free answer to many a harassed housewife or stressed businessperson – but do they?
One of the most important lessons I learned in my enforced tuition in the culinary arts 30 years ago, was that it usually takes just as long to do things badly as it does to do things right. With few basic skills and the simplest of ingredients it's easy to create delicious meals at a fraction of the cost of the ready-meal or takeaway, and the personal satisfaction achieved and the delight of those we feed is reward beyond price. Someone once said that food is an expression of love and I can relate to that. Of course, I enjoy food myself, but there is nothing quite like producing a fine meal and having the satisfaction and unspoken approval of a stack of clean plates at the end of it! Both my wife and I love to feed our extended family and friends, and by all accounts we seem to do it quite well. The simple human interaction of eating, drinking, conversation and laughter are fundamental to our meals and I would urge anyone who lacks the basics of the kitchen to learn them as a vital life skill which you will never regret, always enjoy and never lose.
Happy New Year to all our readers!
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