7 easy steps to becoming a better cook
First, the bad news. When it comes to being a better cook, there is no pedagogy that will transform the kitchen novice into a bona fide culinary whiz. There's no magic bullet that makes beef bourguignon a breeze, no alchemy that turns grilled cheese into gougere.
Sorry, folks. For all the national obsession with food, the countless TV shows, the magazines, the white noise around what we eat, it seems people are losing their confidence in the kitchen. Going by the steady stream of plaintive inquiries to Good Food - the eternal question of ''how do I become a better cook?'' - we've become a nation of watchers, rather than do-ers; the victims of a culinary catch-22.
Never fear. We're here to help. It matters not a jot if you don't have the resources of Nigella Lawson, who took her gap year in Italy to hone her skills, or the time or, indeed, inclination to blog your way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Anyone can become a better cook - even if, like me, you were raised in a family that considered The Joy of Cooking humorously ironic.
For starters, let's whittle it down to seven guiding principles:
1. So you want to be a better cook?
Then cook. Nothing can compensate for hours spent in the kitchen. Make a shortlist of five dishes in which you'd like to become proficient. Your repertoire might include a trusty braise, such as lamb shanks, a pasta, roast chicken, a massaman curry and a Cantonese fried rice. Make each one so often you commit it to memory. Once you know it inside-out you'll see what makes it tick, whereupon you can start to experiment. Add things. Leave things out. Mix it up.
Just remember: rules are made for breaking. OK, perhaps not in the case of that 14-layer chocolate cake recipe, which requires precise measurements. But the secret to any good cook is the intuition that enables them to go off-script and follow their own tastebud muse. A pinch of this, a splash of that. Cook often enough and eventually you'll get the feel for it.
2. Stock your pantry with the essentials.
Good olive oil and salt, peppercorns, anchovies, stock, tinned tomatoes, tomato paste, basmati rice, cannoli rice, saffron, the list goes ever on ... And don't forget the fridge, where there should always be good-quality reggiano or grana padano (sorry to be unpatriotic, but always buy Italian), yoghurt, olives, free-range eggs, butter, butter and more butter. It's much easier - and much less daunting - to cook if you don't have to go out and source every single thing for a recipe.
Make sure you get an arsenal of sauces, from oyster to black bean, quality soy to fish sauce, that provide the backbone of Asian recipes. And step away from those horrible jars of additive-friendly ''sauces'' that claim to make bolognese or chicken curries a cinch. Seriously. You're better than that.
3. Get in your garden
It doesn't have to be a suburban plot. It can be an inner-city windowsill. But even something as simple as snipping your own herbs is ridiculously gratifying, plus you won't be resentful about wasting money on that bunch of coriander going limp in the fridge.
4. Tool up
There are plenty of tools in the chef world; some of them even have a pulse. You can forget those one-task gizmos like breadmakers - gimmicks all, destined to gather dust in a bottom drawer after three outings.
You'll need a blender, though. KitchenAids are pretty sexy, especially the ones in ''almond cream'' or ''apple green'', but my cheapskates' stick blender, used for all small food processing jobs, from pesto to mayonnaise, is the piece of equipment I use most often.
The bottom line is, you don't have to spend big to start off small - about $200 will get you an excellent Bamix version with an attachment that chops as well. That $2000 Thermomix, while a fabulous paean to German engineering, can wait.
It's worth spending a bit of cash on decent pots and pans, however. Cheap cookware doesn't heat evenly, burns easily, and causes great anguish.
Same goes for knives. And please make sure they're sharp. Get them professionally sharpened or invest - yes, invest - in whetstones and get professional advice on how to use them (or head to the internet - see point 7 below). Not only will it be a silken pleasure to use, a sharp knife is a safe knife.
5. Have a plan
Jill Dupleix says: ''Do your mise-en-place first, so that you're not wrestling with opening a new bottle of soy sauce while the stir-fry sits there going stewy. And try not to leave it too late, when you're hungry and in a hurry. Get home and start on the initial prep, then go off and do what you have to do, and at least when you come back to cook most of it is ready to go.''
6. Boredom, begone
Set yourself a challenge. Try something new once a week or every fortnight. My next-door neighbour's experimental Sunday night dinners are a brilliant idea.
And get out of your comfort zone. If a recipe doesn't work out exactly as you hoped (on which point, it's important to remember food stylists have a lot to answer for when it comes to unattainable ideals) then simply put it down to experience.
7. And finally, inspiration...
Take inspiration from newspaper recipes, magazines, cookbooks and food blogs. To cut through the dross - not to mention bypass a scorching case of information overload - the following, while no means exhaustive, can be considered invaluable resources that will help you on your way.
Can a cookbook be too basic? My brother-in-law, when first moving out of home in the 1990s, was given a CWA publication packed with exciting recipes such as ''Mixed grill (2 sausages, 2 chops, 1 packet of crisps: grill sausages and chops until done, serve with crisps arranged on the side'').
Yes, things can be too basic. But this is where Jamie Oliver comes in. Oliver, you may remember, started his media career as ''the Naked Chef'', the go-to guy for a generation of young fellows who didn't know one end of a Scanpan from the other. When he's not being the cooking world's most annoying geezer he's actually pretty great - with his unfancy yet tasty recipes, consider him the go-to guy for the kitchen neophyte. Try his first book, The Naked Chef, for starters.
Nor would any bookshelf be complete without Stephanie Alexander's inestimable Kitchen Companion. A brilliant, encyclopaedic resource, it takes an ingredient-first approach. So you've got a glut of zucchini in the garden or a bit of pork belly in the fridge? Stephanie will have plenty of suggestions.
When it comes to Chinese food, expert Tony Tan says ''the absolute bible is Yan-kit So'sClassic Food of China - it has a great feel for regional food as well as the history. It's back in print, although you may have to buy it on Amazon.''
Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home (pictured) is an absolute primer for the fundamentals of cooking, such as how to roast the perfect chook and understanding seasonings.
Other definitive titles include Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy: Food and Stories, which pretty much nails the Italian oeuvre.
Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty (a title you'll see namechecked by any self-respecting chef) is a brilliant collection that shows vegetarian recipes don't need to be second-best.
In addition, for some bedtime reading evoking the obsessions and wonders of food, you can't go past Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, and Bill Buford's immersive Heat (''an amateur's adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker and apprentice to a butcher in Tuscany'').
For the wannabe food nerds, an excellent addition to the bookshelf is Heston Blumenthal at Home. Not necessarily the sort of thing you'll cook from often, it nonetheless offers a fantastic grounding in the science of food.
It bothers with the whys as well as the hows - look at the chapter on potatoes to see how science has infiltrated the humble roast spud.
ON THE TELLY
OK, so you could sit yourself in front of the Food Network for a straight week, but no amount of Clockwork Orange-style forced immersion is going to do you much good. Cooking is about doing, not observing, but there are some TV chefs who rise above the crowd and luckily they're mostly on free-to-air.
Rick Stein is a standout: avuncular, knowledgeable, but not afraid to get in a mighty tizz when things don't work out. Look out on ABC for his adventures in France, Spain and India, both with and without his dear departed dog, Chalky.
Luke Nguyen's Vietnam saw the chef from Sydney's Red Lantern traverse the length and breadth of his homeland and unearthed a made-for-TV personality.
Food Safari - Enthusiastic host Maeve O'Mara is really the making of this long-running SBS series, which profiles home cooks and professional chefs in each nation-themed episode.
Nigella Bites - Nigella Lawson in original domestic goddess mode was as inspirational as she was seductive; to watch someone enjoy food so much was not quite G-rated. Her later TV efforts pale in comparison.
River Cottage - Ebullient Brit Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall does the whole self-sufficiency thing better than anyone. His fondness for alliteration might grate, but his enthusiasm (and love of the absurd) makes River Cottage a valuable window into what's possible in the simplest suburban plot.
The internet has become a rich resource for the novice and professional cook alike. Our top five sites are:
● eatyourbooks.com - a subscription service that indexes your own library of cookbooks, allowing you to search by ingredient, special diet, season and course. A brilliant time-saver.
● chefsteps.com - a comprehensive one-stop shop for recipes, videos and forums that envelop you in an online community.
● wholelarderlove.com - Rohan Anderson chronicles his huntin'-fishin'-growin' sustainable lifestyle on his Ballarat property.
● whatkatieate.com - no one does inspirational food and travel porn quite like Sydney-based cookbook author and photographer Katie Quinn Davies.
● deliaonline.com - Delia Smith, the famously no-nonsense British cooking doyenne, hits the web with excellent instructional videos for the novice (how to separate an egg white; how to skin and deseed tomatoes), as well as recipes and a smattering of product placement.
- Good Food