I don’t remember ever being taught to cook. We had Home Economics in school until third year, when It Was Decided that I should do Business Studies, rather than Home Ec for GCSE – a fact I am still actually rather irritated about, despite working in business. Until fourth year, then, we were taught sewing in the classroom under the stage or cooking in the huge kitchen under the art room by two sisters one skinny, one plump, and my entire memories of our cooking class was making bran muffins (a disaster) and making a dish from home (I made Chinese salad, which is essentially prawns, red peppers, chopped tinned pineapple and celery stirred into Philadelphia cheese and served with rice. Quite what made it “Chinese” is beyond me). I do not recall my mother ever teaching me anything at the stove, nor my grandmother. They must have though. My mother spent YEARS teaching me to iron tea towels before I was allowed to graduate to any other garment. I still have never quite managed to iron trousers properly and I find shirts a pain.
If I Were In Charge, the school curriculum or the lessons at home would have taught me how to deal with basic ingredients, create meals from them and work out how to feed a family. As it is, I left home with the ability to cook spaghetti bolognaise (but including mushrooms and peppers) for five (wherein the entire 500g bag of pasta is cooked regardless of how many people there are or how hungry they are) and make sandwiches out of chicken Supernoodles.
As it was, I left home and went to catered halls in Oxford, where I skipped breakfast for a year, had a Boots Meal deal for lunch and had hall food for dinner. Supper was the occasional Medhi’s kebab (“no chilli sauce, no chilli sauce!”). Then I went back home for a year to lick my wounds and worked in a coffee-shop-cum-restaurant and learnt how to make salads (the dressing is important. I still never dress a salad) and a good cappuccino. Then I went to Nottingham, where one of my housemates microwaved bacon and I apparently lived off tuna pasta bake and couscous for a good few years. In my final year it stuck me that I could eat whatever I actually liked, so mainly survived on microwaved frozen raspberries on soured cream, Coco Pops, chocolate Angel Delight (for the calcium! I was very concerned about osteoporosis that year, for some unfounded reason) and the aforementioned spaghetti bolognaise.
When I lived with my ex, he cooked and I cleaned. He didn’t like either mushrooms or sweetcorn, so that was every dish I had gone out the window. At one point, late in the dying days of our relationship, he complained that I never cooked and I was furious because I felt he never let me. He was very much a MEAT man and I felt, and still feel, quite uncomfortable around meat. It’s expensive and it seems to easy to ruin. I don’t want to ruin food. I like something with a good amount of wiggle room.
Now that I’ve lived on my own for three years, I do have a bit of a repertoire (obviously still quite mushroom heavy, because they are delicious) and, while I would never have starved, I do have some “dishes” under my belt.
Baking has never been a problem for me. Baking is chemistry. Follow the instructions, correct for discrepancies, job’s a good’un. Cooking? Cooking’s an art. Cooking’s like an interpretive dance. You have to FEEL cooking and that is not what I am good at.
That being said, I have picked up enough tips (I’m not calling them “life hacks” because that is bullshit) to make it a bit easier on myself.
They would include:
– You can freeze cheese. I don’t know how GOOD an idea this is, but it’s doable. Grate it, freeze it in a zip lock bag and scatter when necessary. This cuts down on mouldy cheese waste and it defrosts fairly quickly.
– You can also freeze chopped onions. This is ideal for me because I hate onions and am angry about having to go out and purchase an onion for one particular thing, when really I only want to use a third of an onion.
– You can generally substitute cream for Greek yoghurt, but you have to be very very careful about it splitting when it’s over heated.
– Sundried tomatoes improve everything.
– When baking a sheet of puff pastry, the baking tray needs to be hot before you put the pastry on it, or else you will have a sad soggy bottom.
– Garlic salt works if you don’t have actual garlic to hand.
– Using three times the amount of tomato paste stipulated doesn’t seem to do any harm.
– If you have a loaf of fresh crusty bread, you can slice and freeze it, then bring out one or two slices as required to defrost for twenty minutes – good as new!
– Popping mushrooms in a baking tray works a lot better than popping them in a pan for making a mushroomy sauce. They don’t turn watery and split the sauce, but you do need to watch they don’t frizzle away. If they do, you can reconstitute them with a tiny bit of water but you have to be careful not to overdo it.
– When you microwave potatoes, you have to turn them half way through the time slot otherwise they become a hardened rock of carbon. And there is nothing sadder than a ruined potato.
– You can microwave baking potatoes for ten minutes and then pop them in the oven to crisp them up, halving the cooking time.
– Chorizo takes a battering, but take the weird papery skin off it first.
– The oil from sundried tomatoes in oil is excellent for cooking with.
– The jars of sundried of tomatoes in oil cannot be topped up with any old olive oil. I have no idea what oil it is, but I tried this and it basically turned into sludge. Yes, it’s fine for roasting vegetables in, but is somewhat terrifying to look at.
– You really do need to pay attention when you’re in the kitchen and not try and do four things at once.
Granted, these are not earth shattering tips, but they are things that have helped me make fewer mistakes. Paying attention is the main one. My mum never follows a recipe (which is how tuna and sweetcorn pasta bake became salmon and pasta mush) and is always trying to do the ironing, talk on the phone, re-tile the roof, wash her hair and re-pot some begonias while boiling rice. The rice always loses.
I need to dedicate myself to one thing at a time and put FOOD at the top of the priority list rather than putting on a wash, cleansing my face, making my lunch AND boiling some pasta. Because soggy pasta is too sad, even if you do have a clean face.