Recipe: How to cook

OK, hands in the air, this isn’t really it’s a recipe. It’s how to cook any recipe from any cook book. Anything.

Well, most of them anyway.

Look. I was a terrible cook who thought I was OK, but I wasn’t. You may be a great cook, I don’t know, but most people aren’t and know it. And many who think they are, aren’t, but won’t admit it.

The single most important lesson I learned becoming a professional cook was, “Everything you know is wrong.”

Everything.

That is not how you peel an onion.

That is not how you wash up.

That is, above all, NOT how you organise yourself.

And it’s that last one I’ll address here (peel onions quickly taking away the top layer; scrape and rinse everything first before putting it in the dishwasher – there, bonus!)

The real secret to working in a professional kitchen or giving a good dinner party is planning in advance – well in advance.

Say, for example, you want to give a dinner party this evening. You want nibbles, a cold starter (don’t torture yourself here), a hot main, cheese and a whimsical pudding. OK.

First, work out what time you’ll be sitting down to eat. Say, 8pm. Your cold starter needs to be ready, therefore, by 8pm. Your hot main course, say, 8.30pm, your cheese for 9pm and your whimsical pudding for 9.30 (we’re serving the courses in the civilised, French order today – not the heathen English version).

Let’s say your starter is a gazpacho of roast peppers and tomatoes, since it’s easy and I know how to do that. Your main course is poached fish in sauce bonne femme (see Chapter 7) with steamed new potatoes and French beans (topping and tailing details in Chapter 1…). Cheese is cheese, just remember to take it out of the fridge at about 6pm.

And your pudding is, I dunno, creme brulée.

So, first tip: start yesterday. Or early this morning at the latest. Yesterday is best. Make your gazpacho – roast the tomatoes and peppers with a little olive oil, peel the skins off, de-seed the peppers and, if you want, the tomatoes, blend together in your needlessly expensive blender (I recommend the €9.99 stick blenders from Lidl personally). Done. Slice up a baguette or two, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with herbes de Provence, bake at 180C for about a quarter of an hour, voila. Croutons.

If you did this yesterday you can think about your main course and pudding today. Well, make your creme brulées first. Get them baked this morning and pop them in the fridge, then all you have to do is brulée them with that expensive blowtorch you treated yourself to from that smart cookery shop. Lidl does them too, €9.99.

So now it’s 11am and you have all day left to do your main course. If you’re up to it, buy your fish whole and fillet them yourself; if not, buy them whole and get your fishmonger to fillet them and give you the bones. Most fishmongers will be happy to give you a few other bones lying around too, so get enough to make your fish stock and get that made – see the recipe after Chapter 6.

This, with a couple of finely diced carrots and onion, will be your fish poaching stock. You’ll need just enough to cover your fillets sitting in a shallow baking tray, a litre or so. You can add water if you don’t have enough.

And, if you’ve bought new potatoes all you have to do is top and tail your french beans and you’re good to go this evening.

So, 6pm. Take the cheese out of the fridge and put it where the cat can’t get at it. You could, if you’re a masochist, make your croutons at this point so the house smells like you’ve been working hard cooking all day, instead of lying in your garden hammock drinking rosé and reading the latest bonkbuster.

Set the table if your lazy, idle partner’s too lazy and idle to do it properly.

Have a glass of rosé.

Do your kitchen mise en place. This means, get everything out of the fridge you’re going to need to be warm, make sure you have all the utensils and pans prepared and the oven turned on.

7.30pm. Put your fish stock in a saucepan with your GA (garniture aromatique – carrots and onions) handy already in the poaching pan with the fish. Cover to keep the cat out of it. Boil the kettle and put your potatoes and beans in the steamer, ready.

In between welcoming your guests, turn on the oven so it’s nice and warm. When you pop into the kitchen to collect the gazpacho from the fridge, set the stock to boil, then cover the fish with it and pop it into the oven when you’re clearing the starter bowls. Put the boiling water in the steamer to cook the vegetables.

Depending on the thickness of your fillets they’ll take between 5 and 10 minutes to cook. Check after 3-7 – it’s easy to put them back in, not easy to un-cook them. You want them slightly underdone.

Take them out of the stock, put them in a warm place (NOT back in the oven!) and put the cooking juice into the original saucepan to boil it like mad – see the sauce bonne femme recipe after Chapter 7 for the details on making the sauce. You can flavour this sauce with, say, some chopped chives, dill or chervil – add the herbs at the very last moment just before napping the fish.

Whilst everything’s boiling and steaming you can spend another five minutes with your guests, just so they don’t get to finish off your rosé all to themselves.

Back in the kitchen spread the WARMED plates out (put them in the oven when you take the fish out), pop a fillet on each plate, nap on the sauce, add the strained vegetables attractively (towering displays are out this year, very 2007, as is smearing and foaming), serve.

Then the cheese.

Then brulée the puddings.

Planning and preparing in advance – write your timings down is a good piece of advice, I had to do it for my professional exam – is the way to go. Make sure you have everything to hand BEFORE starting any recipe or plating, too.

What could go wrong?

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