It’s great to come up with creative and imaginative ideas when it comes to food, but if you can’t turn them into edible dishes it won’t be much good. I know only too well, from painful experience! So, here are some lessons I’ve learnt in my quest to produce interesting yet tasty meals. Maybe I should add that it’s an ongoing process, but a very enjoyable one! With each new nugget of precious knowledge or experience, a whole new realm of possibility opens up.
Tip 1: Learn how to make sauces
Somewhere, once upon a time, I heard someone say that the mark of a true chef and master lies in the sauce. What is for sure, is that a good sauce can lift the simplest of ingredients to new levels. Even if you only knew how to make a cheese sauce pretty well, you can improve a range of everyday dishes across the board. Think macaroni cheese, lasagne, cauliflower cheese or baked potato, to name a few. Yes, you can buy bottles of the stuff, but that does not make you a better cook. Most of the time you pay for all sorts of other ingredients you didn’t bargain on: preservatives, loads of sugar and salt, MSO and other chemicals. I understand that not all these extras are necessarily evil, but I prefer to know what goes into my sauce.
That the sauce makes the food can be proven with the fact that every great cuisine has at least one famous sauce that defines its uniqueness. The French have their vinaigrettes and mother sauces; one of the most famous must be béchamel. The Italians can work magic with tomatoes. It’s next to impossible not to say spaghetti and bolognaise in the same breath. Acquaint yourself with the wonderful pesto, and the marinara. Don’t forget the Greek tzatziki, the Mediterranean tahini, the Spanish romesco, and the Portuguese piri-piri. The Mexicans have the mole and a myriad of salsas. The United States own the BBQ and tabasco sauces. Meet chimichurri from Uruguay and Argentina. From all over Africa we have a wealth of sauciness such as: harissa, chermoula, chakalaka, egusi, pili-pili, monkey gland, and the peanut sauces. Asian sauces include soy, hoisin, sweet-and-sour, sriracha, satay, sambal and teriyaki. Here in Britain we can’t operate without our chutneys, and Worcester, Shrewsbury, horseradish, piccalilli and mustard sauces.
Really, there’s no comparison between a GOOD home-made sauce and a store-bought one.
The effort is so worth the while, and making your own is a really cool chef-like thing to do. As a matter of fact, one could make a sauce out of just about anything, but before you go and re-invent the wheel, have a look at all the good stuff that’s already out there.
Tip 2: Know your herbs and spices
Instead of throwing ketchup or mayonnaise at everything, a creative cook knows something about the million, trillion, zillion other ways to flavour a dish. The bulk of these flavours come from herbs and spices, besides the usual suspects of plain table salt and pepper.
Close to the kitchen would be the herb garden, or pots full of them. Each cook has her own favourite collection of choice herbs for the bouquet. Similarly, an expert Indian or North African cook knows how to put together her own mix of spices. Often it is a closely guarded family secret. To me, that’s evidence that they really know their spices. They don’t rely on a store-bought bottle to do it for them. Interestingly, one maddening thing (for LEFT brains) about the recipes for spice mixes out there is that not two are the same!
Go look up the recipe for Baharat spice mix, for example. It’s an all-purpose seasoning widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine that varies from one cook and region to another. You’ll find the same core of ingredients in all of them, but the quantities will differ. Some include paprika, some sumac, others saffron. Sometimes you find mint, or oregano. I found another with black lime in the recipe.
More than anything, herbs and spices can give your food a signature flavour. One reason for that is that if you use those available to you where you are, and that you know well, it’s bound to be unique to your own taste and spot. Far-flung influences can enhance and colour it, with sometimes delightful and surprising results.
‘I must have Saffron
To colour the Warden Pies.’
– From Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Sc. 3
Herbs and spices are poetry in the world of cooking. It has so many stories and intrigue woven into its history! Once you enter the Aladdin’s Cave of Spices, or the Fragrant Herb Garden, cooking becomes very exciting and magical.
Tip 3: Get to know the BASICS.
Nobody would expect to just pick up a paintbrush and start painting a masterpiece. Learning about the essentials such as mixing colours and what to thin the paint with, matters. The same is true for cooking, of course.
What’s the point of trying to create a modernist carrot foam if you don’t even know how to peel and slice the carrot?
Acquiring some knife skills will make you a more efficient cook. You might try some new ways of slicing and cutting your vegetables. At LEAST learn how to properly boil an egg – surprisingly, for many of us it’s still a hit-or-miss affair. I know it sounds boring, and it’s so much more fun to dive into all the exotic sounding recipes. Trust me.
This kind of knowledge is very useful when a novice like me wants to try out some fancy recipes. Not all of us know what a ‘bain-marie’ or ‘mirepoix’ is – I didn’t (despite my school French), and had to look it up. For instance, what on earth does ‘sweating’ your onions mean? How is that different from ‘sautéed’ or ‘caramelized’? What’s the deal with ‘basting’ things, as opposed to ‘glazing’ them? Why, oh WHY do recipes give me butter quantities in millimetres when it clearly says on the butter pack the weight in grams? How the HECK am I supposed to measure that?? Oh, don’t get me started. It’s a wilderness out there.
I have a vague memory of being taught how to make a white sauce, but I’m not a trained chef (surprise, surprise). I rely on some excellent tutors and websites out there in cyber space to teach me. Here are some good sources I return to again and again:
https://www.seriouseats.com/techniques Serious Eats also has an ‘Essentials’ section in here.
https://www.deliaonline.com/how-to-cook Start with the basics, and work your way up.
https://www.bhg.com/recipes/how-to/ Lots of brilliant pro tips!
Tip 4: Go BARE, then invest in some equipment
Right Brain Cooks are tactile, hands-on people. We like to feel our food.
I’ll never forget the day I saw the Naked Chef (Jamie Oliver) on television for the first time. No silly little glass bowls with pre-chopped, pre-measured ingredients, no. He grabbed handfuls of herbs off the bush. He crushed it between his fingers and sniffed it with obvious pleasure. The camera zoomed in so we could actually SEE what fresh marjoram looks like. He tried to tell us what it SMELLED like. He took fat cloves of garlic and crushed them under the flat blade of his knife, so the skins came right off! Chop-chop-chop, scoop up in the hand and chuck it in the pot.
That was a revelation to me. I walked straight to my kitchen drawer and pulled out that tiny instrument of torture called a garlic crusher. In the bin it went. I was FREE!!! Never again would I search for the parts that got lost in the deep recesses of the drawer; never again would I have to attack it with an old toothbrush to try and rid it of hardened pieces of garlic that refuse to let go. If I wanted my garlic really fine, there’s always the grater.
I say: bin it all! Chuck all those gadgets that have gathered dust… even if just temporary.
See how well you get along without, and enjoy using your hands. You will be able to identify where you definitely have a need for a tool to make life easier.
One of our favourite meals is an omelette, yet I consistently have trouble getting the golden fluffy eggy-ness from the pan onto the plate in one piece. I get impatient and too forceful. Then one day ALDI was displaying a range of cook ware, and there I spotted this flat pan thingy. It had a heavy enough, solid base, but there was barely a rim around it. One could simply slip the contents onto a plate straight from the pan – think pancakes, and omelettes! I haven’t looked back since. It WORKS.
Similarly, I find a good electric hand blender the best aid in the kitchen since sliced bread. I’ve used mine so persistently that is has given up the ghost in its gallant efforts to do my will. Now that it’s gone, I miss it terribly. Whipping up egg whites to stiff peaks without some supernatural help is very tiresome. That said, I adore my mortar and pestle. I love grinding and smelling all those lovely spices.
For a Right Brain Cook the right equipment can be a fantastic ticket to creations that otherwise might have been too tedious for our impatient natures. Just remember that every tool has to be cleaned as well. In my book that makes a terrific filter when choosing what to spend money on. Which makes me wonder… why I haven’t invested in a good electronic scale yet! Definitely on my list.
Working in a clean, uncluttered space with equipment you know and use well, is priceless.
Tip 5: OWN some basic recipes
A while back I made it my mission to learn how to cook pasta properly. I wanted to understand what makes a good pasta, so that I can try out various sauces, types of pasta and fillings. It started when a friend gushed about his favourite meal, delicious in its simplicity and honesty:
Cook and toss through with a really top brass olive oil.
Add chopped parsley, garlic, freshly ground black pepper and sea salt…
Dish up with grated Parmesan cheese.
Now THAT is a basic recipe, one you can build on with intelligence and creativity. You might decide to explore different olive oils, for a start. With a dish like this the flavour and texture of the olive oil would be pronounced and focused. You would have the opportunity to properly taste the differences. Pasta is a simple example, but it illustrates my point beautifully. The same would be true for scrambled eggs or an omelette, or your own home-made pizza.
Pasta and omelette might be really basic dishes, but my point is that when made with care and skill, they can be fantastic. Both can easily be adapted and elevated to top notch dishes.
In the same vein it would be smart to have a good curry in your toolbox that can be adjusted and tweaked according to the ingredients available.
On your culinary travels you are bound to come across a recipe or two that is just so brilliant and versatile, you HAVE to make it part of your arsenal. These gems give you a foundation on which to experiment with all sorts of different applications, fillings, flavours, twists and presentations. If by any chance such an experiment fails, it would be easy to see why and what went wrong, building your knowledge and experience.