Get a feeling for your food
One of the most important traits of confident cooks is the ability to know good produce by its feel – ripe melons, ready-to-eat avocados, firm carrots. Confident cooks also develop a feeling for complimentary flavours, helping them to create dishes that taste good.
So, how do you develop this ability? Simply start by taking the time to spend time with food: Handle veggies, meats and fish and become familiar with the actual 'physicalness' of it. No point buying prepared, pre-peeled, and pre-cut carrots – you will never get to know the original. Prod, poke and feel. Look at what seasonal fresh produce you have in your larder and sort by textures on the plate, flavours and even colour matches. Meals will just fall into place!
So, what’s in season now? For those of you wishing to push the cooking boat out for seasonal produce, you can be thinking about trying minty marinated sardines with broad bean puree. Or crab croquettes with poached eggs and wilted spinach.
For us more regular cookers, here are two hopefully simple dishes that can be made with minimum fuss, look great, taste wonderful and are packed full of flavours.
Red’s risotto with grated courgette and charred leeks
Risotto is one of those dishes that can appear ‘special’, but infact there's no complicated secret to cooking it. It simply involves using a different rice grain, such as Arborio rice, and then instead of cooking it with water like rice, you start with it dry in a wok or big saucepan, adding stock juice slowly as it cooks out. This allows the stock and ingredient juices to cook with the rice right from the beginning to give you a textured and layered taste to the final dish. I cooked my first risotto last year, and it gets easier and easier each time I try it – once I got the ‘feel’ for it…
- 400g risotto rice
- 750ml veg stock
- 2 shallots/onions
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 courgette, grated
- 2 Leeks
- 4 knobs butter
- 2 handfuls grated parmesan cheese
- white wine
- olive oil
Heat the stock in a pan to boiling, then let sit. In a casserole or a heavy-base dish, melt two knobs of butter in the olive oil. Add the onions, garlic, courgette. Stir over a medium-high temperature – don’t allow to brown.
Add risotto rice, stirring continuously. When the rice goes slightly translucent, add white wine, simmer and reduce.
Now, into this flavour base, start adding ladles of stock, always stirring with a wooden spoon. The rice should cook around 15-20 minutes (it should be tender but firm to bite in the centre – risotto should be fairly wet and moist but not swimming in lake of liquid; add more water if too dry).
While the rice is cooking, slice the leeks lengthways in strips about one-inch wide. Brush with oil and char grill on a griddle pan or under a grill until they start to go brown. Add to the rice. Add last two knobs of butter and the parmesan to the dish, stir, and season.
Serve with sprig parsley or green herbs.
If cooking other strong flavours like mussels etc use less veg stock and more water. Try adding saffron for a subtle touch. Other variations include red wine risotto with chorizo (or ham) and peas; roasted butternut squash with sage with pine nuts. Smoked chicken and spring onion.