wooden spoon

Merry 2016! And many apologies for the lengthy silence. I’d hoped to keep this blog going through my first term at Leiths but was caught off guard by the workload. 

It’s always been really important to me that the recipes here are my own. Of course they’re often inspired by other writers’s work or things I’ve eaten in restaurants but I’ll always give credit when that’s the case and the dishes, in the form they appear here, are my own inventions.

I don’t post anything here until it’s been tested and tweaked. It was never my intention to put up already-published recipes and write about my experience of cooking them (not least because it infringes copyright!) and during term time I didn’t have time to do a lot that wasn’t from How To Cook.

I've loved Leiths - having initially only signed up for the Foundation Certificate, I decided to stay on for the full Diploma - but it's definitely been strange having 20 years of experience and confidence in the kitchen dismantled and learning new (and very particular) ways of doing things.

For a while I felt a bit split personality-ish, the creative (if occasionally slapdash) home cook I saw myself as, at odds with the rigorously specific professional-level skills I was learning. But over the Christmas break the two halves seemed to come together into a more self-assured whole.

Term starts next week. I'm looking forward to it but have got a few things in the bag so should be able to return to regular updates here.

Coming very soon are some ideas for any Christmas leftovers that might be still hanging around and others for good-intentioned healthy New Year type stuff.

First though I wanted to try and distill some of what I've learned. Not the very technical stuff but things that will, hopefully, be useful to anyone who likes cooking and wants to raise their game a bit. 

1) Knife Skills

Rolling Chop and Clawhand are my new favourite superhero-and-sidekick duo. I knew about them before but, when not paying attention (most of the time), always reverted to cutting away from myself. This is much better. Smoother and easier as well as quicker. There are lots of tutorials online. This is a good one.

2) When In Doubt, Sieve

Not just flour for cakes and pastry, but beaten eggs prior to turning them into quiche or baked custards. Also creme Anglaise-style custards, soups, sauces and gravies after cooking to get a smoother texture. And boiled potatoes pushed through a sieve makes the best mash: way fluffier than you get with a ricer and easier to wash up too.

3) Blanche And Refresh

You know that bit just before you serve a roast dinner when you have to get the veg on and make the gravy but the meat needs carving, you're worried about the spuds burning and no one’s helping to lay the table? Well it all becomes much less stressful if you did all the veg was blanched and refreshed earlier.

Prep the carrots, beans, cabbage or whatever (almost anything except broccoli), cook them to al dente in boiling water then plunge into a bowl of cold water which stops the cooking and helps the colours stay fresh. Drain them and set aside covered with a damp piece of kitchen paper. Then they just need heating in boiling water right at the last minute. 

4) It's Open Season(ing)

I suppose I knew the difference between flavouring and seasoning before but I'd never really heard it articulated. If flavours have their own personalities, lending something of themselves to a dish, then seasonings are there to enhance the flavours that are already there. And its not just salt and pepper that fulfil this role. 

When thinking about this piece I was very struck by line from Rachel Roddy’s column in Saturday’s Guardian Cook section: “It’s the equivalent of a sound engineer, adjusting the balance, lifting deepening, sharpening, brightening, filling out, making things taste more like themselves.”

She’s talking about lemons but really could be referring to any seasoning. Salt, pepper, sugar, vinegar and so on. Anything that supports what’s there but doesn’t steal the limelight. Taste as you go and see what's needed. 

5) Plan Ahead

This doesn't have to be a minute-by-minute job as required at School. If cooking more than one thing, even a few lines scribbled on a Post-it with the order things need doing, oven temperatures and times etc. will be far easier than leafing backwards and forwards through recipe books or jabbing marinade-covered fingers at your smartphone.