Appetite for Destruction; or, How I Learned to Cook

With the rise and rise of Dry January, Veganuary, and added to that the spectre of Blue Monday, the Christmas credit card bill, all the while eking out five weeks until payday, it’s not surprising that people begin to think about lifestyle changes at the start of a new year, with the number of news outlets telling you to diet after, not one week before, encouraging every boozy, foody excess possible. Turning the calendar to 1 January either transforms perfectly balanced people into “You don’t need to detox if your liver and kidneys work” evangelists or; into celery chomping, quinoa-weighing, fitness obsessed specimens. The chorus of “I’ll just have a soda water thanks” arising from those who, two weeks earlier, were buying a trayful of tequila shots and wondering if it was too early (or they were too old) to do a Strawpedo is enough to bring down the walls of Jericho. That’s why this post isn’t about wine, but about cooking.

Healthy lifestyle choices are absolutely paramount to enjoying food, wine and life itself – boozing the house dry, stacking fast food boxes, and waking up with a thick head every day is grim. However, unless they are absolutely dedicated to being proved right, chances are people who make a complete 180-degree turn on the 1st will get to the 15 January hating themselves, their choices, and giving up entirely to revert to previous habits.

If you want to do Dry January and Veganuary, then fair play and chapeau to you. Personally, I cannot (and do not feel the need to) cut out everything I enjoy entirely. My own credo is to make small changes that add up to a large change in the future. So, my “resolutions” are:

  • Eat less meat, and more fish (three times a week max);
  • Drink three days a week max;
  • Read 20 books (up from 18 last year);
  • Don’t throw away any food waste (I barely do this at the moment, but I despise it and know I can cut it entirely); and,
  • Don’t buy any plastic carrier bags this year.

These are all things I’ve been doing generally, but now I need something quantifiable with a focus. If people want to make a small lifestyle change, the number one recommendation I can possibly give is to learn how to cook. Until I lived on my own seven years ago, I could not cook. AT ALL.  Heating up soup and making a sandwich was the extent of my culinary repertoire. Unfortunately, the stress of moving gave me a rather awful gluten intolerance, meaning the usual out of pasta and pesto was elusive. I decided that woman could not live on rice or oats alone, and hence decided I needed to acquire the skill.

Christ I ate some dud meals. Underwhelming flavours, but at least not poisonous.  When you’re on your own, you end up eating them four days on the trot – the daily punishment forming a basic training equivalent of culinary education. It’s bland, you resolve to improve next time, and things end up getting better.

It’s the most basic of human needs, the need to eat, and mastering something – anything – in the kitchen is a real achievement. You don’t need thousands of pounds worth of equipment – a cutting board, couple of saucepans, a dish that goes on the hob and in the oven, and a good chef’s knife is the most you need to start. In the interests of promoting a simple lifestyle change, here are my tips on learning how to cook:

1. What would you like to eat?

This is key. If you don’t want to eat a five bean chilli with charred aubergine, then for crying out loud, don’t make one. You will end up with ten portions of the stuff, a recycling bin full of tins, and a toxic atmosphere in every room. You don’t need to cook a Vietnamese pho with clear broth that needs to be stewed and refined continuously for 48 hours beforehand. You will get there (if that’s what you want). So pick something relatively simple but that you know you will enjoy. Maybe you want a bolognese – great! Let’s get cracking.

2. Find a reputable (preferably free) source.

Even now it’s the first site I go to, but particularly when I started cooking, BBC Good Food was a site of wonders. Almost anything you can imagine is published there, and most often three versions of it. All come with ratings and comments, so you can pick the one that looks fairly foolproof. Read the comments too – if someone mentions it needs double the herbs, and others agree, that will help you produce something flavourful. I also love Felicity Cloake’s “How to cook the perfect…” series in the Guardian. One of my most consulted cookbooks is Ruby Tandoh’s Flavour – brilliant, simple but hearty recipes that leap out from every page.

Once your confidence increases, move onto cookbooks from favourite chefs or writers – the charity shop is a great source of cut price books.

3. Make a list and shop.

Lists, lists, lists. Take a quick look in the cupboards, write down the ingredients and anything else you need, and get to the supermarket. I’d also recommend some Tupperware to freeze a portion if you can’t face five days of the same meal…

Then you can get back home and get cooking.

4. Follow the recipe the first time.

I always do this to make sure I know what the recipe tastes like. Then, I can think about what I’d change next time. Maybe a bit more red wine, maybe add some mushrooms or herbs. But you’ve done it! Well done. Pour a glass of red for yourself. Have a leftover chocolate.

5. Try something with similar ingredients, but new.

Okay, the dragon’s been faced, you’ve not had to call the porcelain telephone, so it’s time to make progress. One of the biggest things that used to put me off cooking was the fact that you seemed to need a Narnia-deep armoire of dried herbs and spices to make ANYTHING. So, at the start, I sought out recipes that used similar herbs or just needed one extra pot. Italian cuisine is one of the best for this – some basil, mint, and oregano can go a long way. One of my 2018 discoveries were frozen herbs (and garlic) – honestly, they smell and taste fantastic, and you don’t end up with a sprouting, face-hugger style garlic bulb when you find it knocking about in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

6. Try it again. And again.

Don’t stop there. Have a browse on a blog or your preferred website during the week to find something that sounds  good. Then, branch out to something new – but follow the same steps.

I am here to tell you that if you can read, have access to a bank account, and a kitchen, you can cook. The photo at the top of this page shows my kitchen preparations for Christmas dinner this year. A ham was cooking, vegetables being prepared, something was on the hob and I was about to make stuffing. Perhaps next December I’ll give some tips on that epic… But essentially, I had a list, a shopping trip, a book and BBC Good Food for help – so the fundamental principles ring true almost ten years later.

Finally, here are a few of my favourite recipes that I use most months:

Chilli con carne

Vegan Mushroom Pasta (from Simple Vegan Blog)

Lamb, squash and apricot tagine

As I mentioned it above, for a bolognese sauce, I use this Gordon Ramsay recipe (and usually make a double batch, freeze half, and make the lasagne later with gluten free pasta sheets:

Lasagne al forno / Bolognese (from Death and Peaches)

Bonne année, bon appétit, et bon chance!

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