Some Kitchen ‘Rules’

The best thing I did in the early days of cooking was to learn to make perfect pastry cream. I learned something else as well: always read new recipes right through before trying them on.

It was the usual story. I was halfway through a first-time attempt at making the pastry cream when the phone rang. The cream was bubbling and I was stirring furiously. What to do? I glanced at the instructions: ‘Boil for one minute.’ So I left it to boil and answered the phone. It was an old mate. We exchanged a few one-liners and I returned to the battle to find my labours stuck to the bottom of the saucepan. It took a week to clean. I cursed and swore, naturally blaming the fool who wrote the book.

Then I looked again. ‘Boil for a minute.’ There it was. Aaaah, but there was more on the next line: ’stirring constantly so the mixture does not stick.’ The moral to the story: read all the instructions before you start something new. And never answer the phone during the delicate moments of your life. My kitchen rules are amended daily. Try these on for size.

  1. Try anything in the microwave just to see what happens. Since the first day I bought one, I went at this routine with a gusto and have achieved marvellous results with jam, sauce, pumpkin, eggplant, polenta and more.Take jam. Before the microwave, I had considered jam making the sackcloth and ashes job of the kitchen. Not any more. It is simply a matter of thinking of something that will make nice jam, tossing it into the microwave, adding some sugar, and dancing. Give it a try.
  2. No matter what a recipe says, taste before you deliver. This is the sign of a cook who cares. Taste, taste, taste. This dictum is especially important with seasonal fruits like gooseberries, like apples all through the year, like mangoes, pears, plums, apricots. And always taste before serving sauces or creams. Your tongue is a far better barometer than the lines in the recipe before you.
  3. Think seasonal. The benefits extend from the plate to the pocket. So, if your latest glossy cook book or magazine asks for red capsicums, and it’sJuly, think of something different. Don’t decide what’s for that special dinner before you think about what’s fresh. So, for instance, if it’s February, forget about asparagus for another year and start practising tomato recipes. Pull out all your apple pie specials and go for broke. And whenever you see something new, try it, unless it’s a pomegranate. They look lovely, taste awful.
  4. Don’t be adventurous when it’s dinner-party time. Cook the dishes you cook best and think about dishes you can prepare well ahead. Nobody enjoys a host who spends most of the time in the kitchen.
  5. Whenever you see a recipe you like, and decide to cook it, don’t cook it from the book. Sit down at the table and write down the details yourself, in the style in which you cook. Think it through, list the ingredients in the blocks in which they come in the recipe, and then get yourself organised. Make it part of your life to get all your ingredients weighed and in bowls, and all your necessary equipment in front of you, before you light a jet or chop a chive. In this case, do as I say, not as I do.
  6. You obviously don’t need any machines other than tender hands and well-muscled forearms, but then you don’t need a swimsuit to have fun at the beach either. I have more machines than you would find in Myer but these represent more my need for the latest gadget than a group of ‘I’d die without it’ whizzers and woofers. There are a few things you must have if you really want to create marvels. A microwave is not a toy for heating coffee, it’s an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. Mine is a cheapie, at 500 watts, and is more than suitable. I bought a cheapie because I didn’t have a clue what it could do, and neither did anyone else at the time. If then was now, I’d go for a large, full-powered number. A whizzer is a food processor with guts – you can’t leave your lounge chair without one; a Kenwood or Kitchen-Aid food mixer means you can have bread every day; an ice cream machine is a luxury which I can’t do without; an extra coffee grinder is a must for creating fresh, simply put together spice mixes; a sugar thermometer is needed to ensure perfectly smooth custards; and a knife you love.
  7. Perfect at least one recipe in the next twelve months. It doesn’t sound much, but think about it. When I say perfect it, I mean know it backwards, know how to do it away from home, know how to do it with any peripheral ingredient missing, know how to do it in a state of drink and, most importantly, know how to vary it, so that from something simple comes something original, wonderful, yours. Try these recipes on for starters: custard, pasta, bread, risotto, steak, stews and cakes.
  8. Don’t be lazy in the kitchen. Everything you cook is special, so don’t take any short cuts. It’s fine to compromise – from compromise comes surprise, and from surprise comes creativity. But compromise is considered strategy; laziness is not.
  9. When things have gone really wrong, don’t send good money after bad in an effort to redeem the impossible. If you burn the bottom of the jam pan, take good note of the reasons that it happened. But don’t waste time believing the burned flavour won’t go through the entire batch. It will. Forget it, but never burn your jam again.
  10. Create a hearty repartee with your favourite butcher and fishmonger; better still, set up accounts with them. Then you’ll be encouraged to shop there regularly, and you’ll know that you are getting the best produce in the shop and the best service. And ask them for special favours. They spend most of their lives doing the same old thing, day in, day out. Ask them to stuff, or roll, or twist, or fillet, or hang, and they’ll be more than happy to do it for you, their special customer. And make sure you pay your account on time.
  11. Be a wise buyer. If the fish is cheap, you can be sure it’s fresh and running; know every which way with the cheap cuts of meat, and become expert at them. Remarkably, the cheaper the cut, the bolder the flavour. Learn well the more-meals-per-dollar routine – thus roasts begat bones begat stocks begat soups begat joy.
  12. You will note that chillies are very much part of my cooking. This is because of their marvellous talent for bringing out the essence of any sauce, particularly stocks and sauces based on tomatoes. Food would be dull without freshly ground pepper; so too without chilli. You can leave it out if you wish, if you must.
  13. Never be shy when it comes to asking for special recipes. In the kitchen, it is as delicious to give as to receive. This applies equally to restaurants as to friends. In my experience, restaurateurs are delighted to be asked. It is, I guess, the ultimate approval of their cooking.
  14. While I’m on this, and without getting gruesome, don’t let your old family favourites go to the grave. I received a lovely letter from a typical grandmother who was collecting her favourite recipes and putting them in a special book for her grandchildren – she wanted to make sure that her recipes didn’t disappear with her. Maintain your family traditions.
  15. And never forget the title of this book: Simple Flavours. Cooking is all about simple steps, followed with various amounts of regimented routine, aimed at bringing out essential flavours. Simple Flavours.