As our feeds are bombarded with ways to spend these unprecedented times (in the words of every email received from Oxford these past weeks), it is hard to decide where to start. It often feels overwhelming, as productivity comparisons build with every refreshing of our Facebook pages. Cooking can be the easiest way to be productive and it is rarely a competition. For any first-time cooks, here are my top five tips.
1) Start slow and low
Sometimes when I look at a recipe, I skim over it like I’m reading a hefty novel and end up missing the crucial word or changing the order of tasks which then leaves my mushrooms soggy. It is better to read carefully and act slowly. Your fingers favour this approach when chopping. Let’s take an onion, the foundation for a number of dishes. Don’t completely chop off the root; it keeps the onion together and stops it from slipping around. When chopping, make sure to curl the non-knife hand so that your nails are resting on the onion at a right-angle formation; this guides the (preferably sharp) knife and avoids losing any fingertips. Stick to a low or medium heat. The onions, once chopped, can be placed into oil/ butter, and, by taking your time for them to become translucent or golden brown (depending on the recipe), this stops them from tasting raw despite looking cooked once you have finished. Cooking things slowly and on a semi-low heat generally lets flavours combine and makes things tastier without anything burning.
2) Pretend you’re a vegetarian
This tip is simply to avoid any uncooked meat incidents. Whilst uncooked or soggy vegetables may be gross, it won’t leave you bed-ridden. It also helps that a lot of easier dishes are vegetarian, take a classic Pasta al Pomodoro (tomato pasta) or a Saag Aloo (spinach and potato).
3) Building a meal
In order of most importance: a carbohydrate, a sauce and a filler (a filler being something accompanying the carb and the sauce like meat or a vegetable). It is not always necessary to have a filler. One of the great things about cooking is that you can experiment more freely without everything ending in disaster, unlike baking, another quarantine favourite. The carbohydrate is the best thing to experiment with as it won’t change the foundations of the dish too much – for example, a mushroom/beef stroganoff (sauce with cream, mustard and paprika) can be put with rice, pasta or potatoes. If the carb is potatoes or rice, try and have a thicker or fuller sauce (more veg or meat) so the sauce doesn’t spill everywhere. Soups are great for beginners as, though they are less exciting, there are fewer components involved.
4) Season up your life
Salt is your best friend when cooking: you should salt the water for the pasta and salt your food when it is almost finished cooking to avoid it evaporating in the sauce. I once read that salt enhances the taste of what is in your food, so I try to add a pinch at a time until I taste the main flavours of the meal, and to stop it from being too salty. Beware if you’re using fish or cheese as that tends to be quite salty already. There are some spice groups which make something taste like certain cuisines. To match some spices to cuisine: cumin, turmeric and coriander often features in Indian food. Equally: oregano, basil and sage are included in many Italian dishes. Additionally, random condiments such as ketchup (lowkey sweet), mustard (sharp), citrus (tart/ acidic) and soya sauce (umami; salty/sweet), can be used to add depth to dishes. A ‘less is more’ approach is best at first.
5) Saving a dish
If things go wrong, there are ways of saving a dish. My friend and I once made a moussaka (an aubergine or potato-based dish, sometimes using ground meat) with sweetened vanilla soy milk; another time, with a slip of the hand I tipped half a small pepper container into my pasta sauce, and, on a date, my partner once broke the salt grinder, spilling a large amount of salt into my curry. All these incidents have led to a series of googling which I will now share with you, reader. Salt can be balanced out with sugar (of course) but more helpfully with some cream or by dunking a thick carbohydrate like bread or a cooked potato to absorb the salt. If things are sugary, an acid like vinegar or lemon is good to balance it out as well as something spicy. Pepper can be diluted with cream or sugar. An all-encompassing trick is to double the recipe amount in the hopes that the second batch evens it out. If things are burnt (unless to a crisp, whoops), you can scrape off the burnt bits or chop them off.
Image Credit: Vee Satayamas, Flickr Creative Commons