Basic cooking for beginners; what skills will you need to learn? Read on to find out how to cook delicious meals for your friends and family.
In these hectic modern times, we are busier than ever, rushing from place to place – business meetings, the school run, work, shopping, and dropping off the dry cleaning. We never stop. This could explain why only one in eight people cook from scratch more than twice a week. And even those who enjoy home cooking tend to stick to the same basic recipes and rotate them.
Apparently, this is because many home cooks feel anxious about trying something new. They are firmly lodged in their culinary comfort zone (or stuck in a rut, as a colleague of mine admitted.) Some can put together a spaghetti bolognese or sausages and mash but feel unable to cook a steak. Others will attempt a roast dinner on a Sunday but are scared to cook fish.
It doesn’t have to be this way! If you can cook spaghetti bolognese or a roast dinner then you certainly have the skills to try new recipes. Home cooking is all about being adventurous without going too far out of your comfort zone.
How Do I Get Out Of A Rut?
The only way to dig yourself out of a rut is to take action. How about trying a new recipe using one new ingredient a week? Start small as your aim is to build your confidence, and doing too much too soon will be overwhelming. You might give up before you’ve really started.
If, for example, the idea of cooking a steak makes you nervous then see my post on perfect pan fried steak. There are lots of helpful hints and tips to ensure the perfect steak every time.
Where Can I Find Some Inspiration?
If you want to do more home cooking but don’t know where to start, I can show you some quick and easy recipes for things like roast dinners, soup, pies (sweet and savoury) and stews and casseroles. Some of these recipes take longer to cook but most of that time is spent with the food in the oven.
Stews and casseroles, for example, need little preparation, then you can go off and do something else for a while, leaving dinner to cook itself. You could go for a walk or pop to the pub and come home to a delicious meal, ready and waiting for you to enjoy.
I Can’t Make Pastry
Relax – you don’t have to. These days you don’t have to spend hours making puff pastry or shortcrust (unless you really want to) as there are all kinds of ready-made pastry available in the shops, from shortcrust to puff, filo to dessert pastry. You can even buy your pastry ready rolled. What could be simpler?
A home cooked pie is a thing of beauty, whether it’s sweet or savoury. It’s also wonderful comfort food. Just the smell of a chicken pie gently cooking in the oven takes me back to my childhood. My mum would often make a pie with the leftovers from our Sunday roast and it was something to look forward to when I came home from school. For some easy recipes go to easy homemade pie recipes
A British Tradition
If there is one home cooked dish that stands out as a great British tradition it’s our Sunday roasts. Succulent meat, crispy roast potatoes, a variety of vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. Not forgetting a thick gravy to pour over everything.
Every Sunday lunchtime, we would sit down to my mum’s roast beef, chicken or lamb. Sometimes we would be joined by our grandparents but mostly it was just the four of us. My brother and I would often argue over who got the last few drops of gravy (it was usually me as I was the eldest) and mum would warn us that we wouldn’t get any dessert if we carried on arguing. Happy days!
The threat of going without dessert was usually enough to put us on our best behaviour. We all had a sweet tooth and my mum’s desserts were to die for; steamed sponge puddings covered in raspberry jam or golden syrup, fruit trifle, apple pie and custard. Absolutely delicious. We could always find room for second helpings too.
How to Cook A Roast
A roast can seem time-consuming and complicated; so many different elements, all requiring different cooking times and temperatures – and all needing to be ready to serve at the same time. No wonder some home cooks are reluctant to try it for themselves. But if you keep a cool head and follow a simple time plan you will be absolutely fine.
The first thing you need to do is to prepare the main ingredient – the joint of meat or whole bird that you want to serve. First of all, remember to take the meat or poultry out of the fridge at least an hour before you want to cook it.
Here are the most popular joints for roasting.
The ideal joints for roasting are as follows; silverside, topside and rib of beef. All have plenty of flavour but try to find joints with a good layer of natural fat on them. Some joints, especially those prepared by supermarkets, have all the natural fat trimmed off then a layer of basting fat, as it’s known, is added.
This makes no sense to me. Why go to all the trouble of removing the natural fat and then adding more fat before wrapping?
I buy my beef joints from a butcher. But if you haven’t got a butcher near you then the fresh meat counter at the supermarket is the next best thing.
Cooking times and temperatures vary according to what type of meat or poultry you’re using.
Cooking times for beef are 30 minutes per kilo plus 15 minutes extra for rare beef, 40 minutes per kilo plus 20 minutes for medium and 50 minutes per kilo plus 30 minutes for well done. Beef joints should be seasoned well with salt and pepper, placed in a roasting tin and cooked at gas mark 4/180C/350F for the required time.
Allow the joint to rest, covered with foil, for 30 minutes after removing it from the oven. This allows the juices to seep back into the meat and makes it easier to carve, not to mention juicier.
A whole joint can hold its heat for over an hour so it can sit covered over while you make the potatoes and vegetables to go with the meat. It won’t go cold so don’t worry.
The most popular joints of lamb for roasting are leg, half leg and shoulder. The shoulder tends to be fattier but has a good flavour. Both leg and shoulder have a bone in them, but meat is better cooked on the bone so don’t try to remove it before cooking. The bone acts as a natural conductor of heat so it helps the joint to cook evenly. It will come out easily when the meat is done.
Cook lamb as for roast beef (see above) following either the medium or well done timings. As with beef, allow the meat to rest before carving. Herbs like rosemary and mint have an affinity with lamb so feel free to use some to flavour the meat as it cooks.
Pork is a versatile meat, naturally tender and with a good flavour. It tends to have more fat than beef, resulting in moist and flavoursome meat. Popular cuts include leg, loin and shoulder.
Before cooking pork, dry the rind well with kitchen paper then score (cut) it with a sharp knife, making a criss-cross pattern all over. Now rub it with salt, working it well into the cuts. Salt helps to draw out moisture so you get a crisp rind and fat, known as crackling. (This is much sought after and fights have been known to break out over who gets the last piece.)
Season the joint with some pepper and add herbs like sage or rosemary for extra flavour. Roast in a fairly hot oven gas mark 5/190C/375F for 70 minutes per kilo plus 35 minutes extra. It’s very important to cook pork thoroughly to remove the risk of salmonella, E. Coli and other nasty bacteria. Rest as for beef and lamb.
Roast chicken is one of my favourites. You can get plenty of meat from it to serve as your Sunday roast, but there are also lots of leftovers which can be made into all kinds of delicious dishes. Buy the best chicken you can afford, free range or organic. It costs more but the taste will be much nicer. If you can’t afford that then don’t worry, it will still be moist and tasty.
To prepare a whole chicken for roasting, season it with salt and pepper then spread some softened butter over the breast and legs. You can also lay some strips of bacon across the breast. These add both moisture and flavour.
I also like to put a couple of lemon halves or a bunch of herbs like thyme or bay inside the body cavity. It’s not very dignified (for the chicken) but it adds a subtle flavour and your kitchen will smell wonderful!
Roast the chicken at gas mark 5/190C/375F for 1 hour and 40 minutes for a chicken weighing around 1.6kg. After about 45 minutes, use a tablespoon to scoop up the juices in the bottom of the roasting tin and pour them over the chicken. This is known as basting and will keep it moist. Do this at least once more during cooking. Set a timer to remind you if necessary.
To check if the chicken is thoroughly cooked, insert a skewer or the tip of a sharp knife into the thickest part of the leg. Press down and the juices will seep out. If they’re clear, the chicken is done. If any trace of red or pink remains then give the chicken another 15 – 20 minutes and test it again. As with pork, it’s important to cook the chicken all the way through.
Rest the chicken, covered with a sheet of foil, for 30 minutes before carving.
Lessons in Carving
Carving is a skill and it takes practise. The first rule of carving is to use a good, sharp knife with a straight-edged blade. A serrated knife will shred and tear the meat so you don’t get the nice, even slices you want.
A set of good quality knives is an investment as these will last a lifetime and ensure you get great results every time. And not just for carving meat. For more information on the best knives see kitchen tools and gadgets.
I use Sabatier knives but look around and find a brand which is suitable for you. It should feel comfortable in your hand and well balanced.
Remember to always rest the meat when it comes out of the oven; don’t attempt to carve it straight away as you won’t get neat slices. Also, it might be a bit chewy. The juices need time to seep back down into the meat and make it tender and juicy all the way through to the last slice.
For boneless joints like beef or pork, cut straight down from top to bottom with a gentle side-to-side sawing motion, rather like slicing a loaf of bread. Cut the slices as thin as you can but not too thin; you want some substance in each slice. Put the meat onto a warm plate as you carve it. If the meat starts to go cold, don’t worry – you can give it a quick zap in the microwave to bring it back up to temperature.
Carving is a skill like any other but once you’ve done it a few times it becomes much quicker and easier. If you make a hash of it the first few times it’s okay. The meat will still be edible.
For boned joints such as lamb, cut from the end furthest away from the bone, gradually working inwards. Because of the position of the bone, the slices will get smaller as you carve but that doesn’t matter. Shoulder of lamb has a large, flat bone so you may get smaller slices all over. Leg of lamb, or half leg, has a long bone running through the centre of it. Just keep slicing and practice makes perfect in the end.
To carve a chicken, first remove the legs and wings. You should be able to pull them off easily but be careful not to burn your fingers. Next, start on one side and cut slices from the breast. Once you get near the carcass you will only be able to cut off smaller pieces but you can still use these.
Cut the meat from the legs and thighs, holding the leg by the bone and slicing downwards. For the wings, you’ll probably have to use your fingers as there’s not much meat there. Or you can eat them as a reward for being the carver…
All joints will have lots of meat left over and these leftovers can make some very satisfying meals. We always had a shepherd’s pie on Mondays, made with leftover meat, carrots and onions and topped with mashed potato. Chicken was made into a curry and cold roast beef was great in a sandwich with a dollop of pickle. Delicious!
Stews and Casseroles
There is much debate about the difference between a stew and a casserole; to simplify, a stew is cooked on the hob and a casserole is cooked in the oven. A casserole is also the name for the dish that the food is cooked in.
Whatever you want to call them, stews and casseroles are the ultimate winter comfort food.
Almost anything can be made into a casserole; meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, vegetables. Casseroles are economical as you can use the cheaper cuts of beef, the ones that need long, slow cooking like shin of beef or brisket. You can also supplement the meat with different vegetables and as it’s all cooked together in one pot, it saves washing up afterwards too.
Also, cooking a stew or casserole is pretty simple. You just chop your ingredients, fry them, add stock and cover with a lid. Whether you cook it in the oven or on the hob it can be left to simmer away while you go and do something else, so there is hardly any work involved.
Cooking the meat is a two-step process; first, you have to brown the meat. This gives it a crust which really enhances the flavour. Cook a few pieces at a time. If you add all the meat in one go it will steam rather than brown. Use a flavourless oil, get the pan very hot and carefully add a few pieces of meat. Lower the heat slightly and use tongs or a fork and spoon to turn the meat occasionally until it’s a nice brown colour on the outside.
*The meat is not actually cooked at this point, it will finish cooking in the oven or on the hob.
Remove the meat from the pan and put it on a plate while you cook the next batch.
Fry the vegetables in the same pan, then once softened tip in the meat and any juices, add the stock, season and put a lid on the pan. Cook on the hob over a low heat, or if cooking in the oven, set the temperature to low – gas mark 3/130C/300F. All you need to do is check on it a couple of times during cooking to make sure it hasn’t started drying out. If you’ve used the right amount of stock then that shouldn’t happen.
A stew or casserole is a meal in itself but you can serve it with potatoes, extra veg or just some good bread.
Breakfast – The Most Important Meal of the Day?
What can I have for breakfast? Do you ask yourself this question every morning or do you just open a box of cereal and shake some into a bowl? It’s better than no breakfast at all, right?
For most of us, breakfast is the one meal where we can get stuck in a very deep rut and end up eating the same thing day after day. Even at weekends, when we have more time and don’t have to rush out the door to catch a train or start the car, we tend to have the same old toast or cereal.
Why is this? Well, I think most of us just go for the quickest and easiest option; if your eyes are half shut and your brain is still mostly asleep, the last thing you want to do is sit and think about food. So the bread goes in the toaster or the cornflakes go in the bowl, and the kettle is boiled for tea or coffee. Simple and quick. But maybe a bit boring?
So how about some ideas for breakfast that don’t take forever to make, taste great and keep you fuller for longer. Here are a few ideas.
- Scrambled eggs on toast
- Bacon and eggs
- Home made granola or muesli
- Filled croissants
- Pancakes with fruit or syrup
- Overnight oats
- Breakfast muffins (sweet or savoury)
Admittedly, some of these take more than a few minutes to make. But once made, they will take very little time to put together in the morning. It will just take a bit of planning and maybe some batch cooking then you have the items all ready for when you want them. Granola, for example, will keep for up to 14 days in an airtight tin or a jar with a lid. Muffins can be made in advance and just warmed up. Or taken to work in a plastic lunch box if you’re not hungry first thing in the morning.
For more inspiration see easy unique breakfast ideas
(By muffins, I don’t mean the blueberry kind that’s more like a cake. These muffins are made from eggs with cheese and other flavourings.)
Overnight oats are the latest trend here in the UK; people are going crazy for them. You only need a few minutes the night before to assemble all the ingredients then you just leave it in the fridge, and in the morning it’s ready and waiting for you to dig in and enjoy.
But first you need to stock up your kitchen cupboards with the essentials. See this post for your store cupboard essentials list
I hope that this has given you some inspiration and you’ll enjoy trying something new and different. Please leave any comments or questions below and in the meantime, happy cooking!
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