Back to basics

00:30, Feb 08 2013

When people are trying to tell you about recipes, and cooking, and how to eat, and what to eat, I reckon there are some things that get regularly glossed over. Basic things. Simple things. Thing so simple and basic that no-one wants to admit they don't know how to do them. Or, rather, to do them properly. And with a little care and attention, and love.

These are the simple tasks that you need to know how to do. That everyone assumes you will know how to do, and that everyone has their own "foolproof" way of doing. And, perversely, they are things that you may gain a disproportionate amount of satisfaction by doing. I like to think about them from time to time, and concentrate on doing them cleanly, effieciently and well. So, here are some of my favourite basics, in no particular order;

1. Soft boiling an egg

Very fresh eggs. No salt (or bloody vinegar!) in the water. Four minutes in boiling water - no more, no less. Remove from water and let them settle (without further cooking). Whammo! Egg cups (sawed off egg cartons will do in their absence), buttered "dippy soldiers" - awesome. Simple.

2. Separating an egg

Several schools of thought on this one - some people do it by breaking them into their hand, catching the yolk, and letting the white drop to a bowl below. I have even seen someone in a commercial kitchen breaking a whole bunch of them into a bowl whole, and scooping out the yolks with their hands...


3. Peeling and chopping onions

With a very, very sharp knife, I chop down the middle, then lop off both ends. I slice them fine, and then chop them the other way. I'm never sure why people then sometimes slice through on the horizontal - surely the onion layers kind of do this for you?

4. Peeling and chopping garlic

Smash the cloves with the flat blade of a big, sharp knife. Take off the stem tip end, peel, then slice as finely as you can, or "mash" them on a plastic board with a little salt - no need for a daft garlic peeler or mincer. These are super delicious if you then fry them in oil til they're crispy.

5. Making a béchamel sauce

Heat butter in a not too hot pan (olive oil is quite nice too), slowly add flour and stir. Adding heated milk is apparently the go, but I never do (cos I am lazy and corner-cutting), and mine always turns out fine, so long as you keep whisking, and mix it all in properly. SEASON IT! White pepper will prevent black specks, if you have issues about that. And cheese (or mornay) sauce in much, much better than plain white sauce. In fact, I'd go so far as to say unless you are going to put cheese in - it's a bit of a waste of time...

6. Making gravy

You can actually make gravy using much the same method as for cheese sauce, but do it with the juices from the meat, and use stock instead of milk, obviously. Chicken stock seems to work okay with most things, I reckon. And I will add sugar, lemon juice and/or soy sauce to taste - the soy sauce will also make it more brown (I often think about food in terms of colour or contrast - does it need to be "darker" or "brighter").

7. Making chicken stock
Take a chicken frame (or two - and pre-roasted chicken bones are especially tasty), add to a large stock pot, with a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, a coupla carrots, some celery, a halved, peeled onion, cover in water, and boil til it all infuses - when it cools, strain off the fat, and pass through a sieve. Great to keep on hand for a soup or risotto - it freezes well.

8. Frying onions

Crispy fried onions really are quite disproportionately delicious. I like to thinly slice a couple of onions (red or white work just as well), heat a generous amount of vegetable or canola oil in a pan, and fry the onions at a moderate heat until they are brown and crispy, adding salt before removing from the heat and placing on paper towels to absorb extra oil. They are delicious on almost anything savoury - in a burger, and the oil in which you have cooked them takes on a delicious savoury, onion-y tang, and is good for cooking meat or whatever in.

So there you go - just a few examples of very basic kitchen tasks I take great pleasure in accomplishing - tell me what else you think should be on the list? What other basic kitchen/ cooking skills do you enjoy?

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Egg photo by Ren West