Home cooking

26 March 2018
March, week 4 in The Simple Home

This is the final week in our food and home cooking month. We've been discussing food shopping, storage, stockpiling, menu planning, cooking from scratch, batch cooking and preserving. In this final week, we'll be talking about food fads, food waste and home cooking, surely the best food there is.

Homemade chicken soup.

Food fads
There are fashions in foods as well as clothes. Recently some of the food fads have been kale, bone broth, any ‘new’ grain or seed such as quinoa, spelt or amaranth, kimchee and other ferments, and coconut oil. I’m sure there are others I’ve failed to notice. I’m not a follower of fashion. I think it cheats us. It makes us want something, then when we have it, it says we can’t like it any more. Throw out the old and buy this; it’s better. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ll realise that most things go in and out of fashion and you should just like what you like, regardless.


If you think I don’t care for any of the food fads I’ve mentioned, think again, because I think they’re all great foods. I just don’t see them as something new. Like most of our ancestors, yours included, I’ve been using all of them for many years and will continue to, even when they’ve gone out of fashion again. If you could phone your great-grandma right now and ask her about food, she may not know what Big Macs, Pop-Tarts or yoghurt tubes are but she would know most of today's fad foods. She might know kimchee or sauerkraut as fermented cabbage, but she’d know what it is and how to make it. She would also use bone broths and probably dig the bone marrow from the end of the lamb leg when the roast was cooked. I know we did in our house. So be confident with your food choices and don’t be bullied into or out of liking something.

The current estimate is that about 30 per cent of the food we buy is wasted. I think the main problems are buying too much, and a general lack of skill when it comes to selecting fresh food and storing it correctly at home. Luckily, these are skills anyone can learn. If food spoils before you’ve had a chance to eat it, it might be wise to rethink your food-buying and storage strategy. 

Tips to reduce food waste:
  • Plan your menus every week. There are many ways to menu plan so work out a system that suits you and stick with it.
  • Use the vegetables and fruit in the fridge before you buy a new batch.
  • Bring your shopping home as soon as you can. When you get home, put everything away immediately, starting with the cold products.
  • Before putting dried goods such as flour and grains in your pantry or stockpile, place them in the freezer for two days to kill any larvae present.
  • Use your freezer to prolong the life of food - milk freezes well, so do egg whites, egg yolks or whole eggs mixed together. Don't forget to date your freezer food.
  • Add new products to the back of the stockpile and move older food to the front.
  • Don’t store potatoes or onions in plastic bags as they’ll rot, particularly in hot and humid weather.
  • Wrap celery in aluminium foil – it will keep well for six weeks, still crisp.
  • Store most vegetables in air-tight plastic bags rather than just loose in the crisper.
  • Use your leftovers and add a leftovers day to your menu plan, or use leftovers from the evening meal for lunch the following day.

Building up your recipe collection
One of the great treasures you’ll develop during your years of cooking will be your recipe collection. Your family will grow up eating those recipes, and hopefully they’ll continue cooking the traditional family recipes when they have their choldren. You can start your collection with your childhood favourites and those you’ve collected over the years. I’ve written extra notes in a couple of my favourite cookbooks, and I hope my sons will treasure them, the food and the notes, when I’m no longer here.

These cook books, and The Country Kitchen (not pictured), along with the recipes I have stored in Paprika and in my brain, form the basis of my home cooking.
I sometimes add additional recipes to my favourite books.  Both my sons are chefs and I know when I'm gone, they'll be using my cook books. It's a simple way of handing on family recipes to them. 

One thing is for sure: you’ll need some way of storing your recipes so they can build into a treasure trove. You can do that by buying a beautiful book with blank pages, use a box with cards or an exercise book, or you could do what I’ve been doing for a few years now – collect digital recipes in a recipe manager. The one I use is called Paprika

Once you’ve worked out how you’ll store your recipes, it’s just a matter of collecting them. Ask your parents, grandparents and siblings for family recipes, ask your friends for favourites you may have eaten at their homes, and spend some time browsing online or through magazines to find some you like the look of and want to try. When you have a new recipe to try, add it to your menu plan.

If you enjoy cooking, you’ll never stop collecting and trying recipes. But make sure you’re organised from the start – set yourself up for success from day one and don’t create a mess of clippings and notes that you’ll hide in a drawer and never use.

Cooking and eating at home
There is more to good home cooking than following a recipe; you need to understand how flavours develop. There are ways of developing flavour in your home cooking that don't involve adding anything from a packet or opening a can of soup. Some of these ways are:

Caramelisation
The best way to add flavour to meat is to caramelise it. Many foods have natural sugars in them. When you cook meat on high heat it turns brown. That is caramelisation and it intensifies flavour by removing water from the meat's sugars.

You should add a small amount of oil to the surface of the meat or to the pan - I always use olive oil - heat the oil so it's quite hot and add the meat. Don't add too much meat at a time, if you have a large amount to cook, add it in batches and brown the meat a bit at a time. That allows the meat to caramelise. If you add too much meat at once, the juices in the meat will release and it will stew instead of dry fry. Once you've browned all the meat, you can carry on with your cooking, knowing that you've added much more natural flavour than you would have had if you'd just cooked the meat in a sauce.

Spicy pineapple relish.

Spice
Spices are the flowers, bark, roots, berries or seeds of various plants used to develop flavour in cooking. They are usually dried to a powdered form and added in small amounts. When you add spice to your cooking, you will release more flavour if you dry fry them in a pan before use. When you buy spice, only buy small amounts as they lose flavour when stored for a long time. Store your spice in a cool dark place in a sealed jar.

Spices are often used in long slow cooking - such as curry, or sprinkled on the top of food to add a quick burst of flavour, such as pepper. Other spices include chilli powder, cardamon, coriander seeds, paprika, and many many more.

Herbs
Herbs are similar to spices but they're usually fresh. Herbs are parsley, chives, sage, oregano, thyme and fresh coriander leaves.

When you add herbs to a recipe, you can add them at the beginning of a slow cook, and that will add flavour while cooking, but you can also add them at the end to add freshness to the dish. For instance, you might add garlic, parsley, oregano and thyme to a spaghetti sauce recipe - cook it for an hour, then add more parsley at the end so the meal is served with green parsley to give it a fresh taste.

Salt
A wide variety of salts are a big part of home cooking. It's used to season food and also to draw liquid out of food. Adding a pinch of salt to otherwise sweet food enhances the flavours you use in cakes, biscuits, bread etc.

Plum cake

Sugars
Sugar or honey can be added in very small amounts to bring out the flavour in certain foods. For instance, half a teaspoon of sugar in a tomato dish - such as pasta sauce, will make the tomato flavour more intense. A small amount (½ teaspoon) of sugar added to slow frying onions will help them caramelise. 

Evaporation
Add flavour by allowing water in the food to evaporate. Do that by simmering with the lid off the pot and it will concentrate flavour in the dish.

Dressings
You can add flavour to raw foods by dressing them. Salads are usually raw vegetables and fruits combined in various ways. Add flavour and bring a mix of raw vegetables together by making a simple dressing.

Stock
A general all purpose stock can be made whenever you have meat bones or spare vegetables. You can cook the bones with the vegetables in water and that will make stock. However, if you roast the bones and vegetables in the oven for an hour, you'll caramelise the flavours and make tastier stock. To make stock, roast bones/vegetables for an hour, then add to a stockpot and cover with water. Add bay leaves, pepper, a chopped onion, two sticks chopped celery and a chopped carrot. Bring to the boil, skim the scum from the top of the liquid and simmer for an hour with the lid on. When it's cold, it can be frozen or stored in the fridge for up to a week.

Simple quiche with bacon and parsley, made with store bought filo pastry - in the making (above) and in the oven (below).

As you can see, all these techniques involve good wholesome food, with no artificial flavours. Home cooking relies of developing natural flavours and that is done using the techniques above or by adding natural flavour like spice or herbs. Don't be afraid to experiment. Once you've mastered that skill, you're on your way to being a good home cook.