Vanilla Chef’s kitchen tips!
To be a better cook, the odd shortcut, tip or helpful hint is essential. The best tip we can give anyone is that you have to practise – pick a few recipes, and cook them over and over again. Like a piece of music, the more you practise, the better it will be. Soon you will be showing off with your best dish – and that’s what exciting and innovative cooking is all about – showing off.
Learn the basics, and from there the options are endless. I believe that you should learn to cook 5 things well, and then you will have the ability to refine, redesign, and perfect the basis of a good (soon-to-be) repertoire:
A great roast. Start with chicken, roast potatoes, gravy, stuffing, and vegetables. Learn every time you cook it, season, and taste. That humble roast, with a little work, can be a beautiful thing.
A great steamed sponge pudding and custard. That pudding starts as a basic thing, but add passion fruit to the bottom of the mould of something else – now you know how to make a pudding. Large or small, individual or to share, you choose. And proper custard: hot – delicious, flavoured – more delicious, cold – very delicious, frozen – amazing ice cream.
The best stew you can find a recipe for. It takes time, it’s slow cooking, and it’s not expensive. A stew is one thing, but with some dumplings it’s another, with great mash it’s amazing, with a pastry top it’s a pie, cooked a bit longer and ripped apart with a fork it’s a filling for cannelloni or ravioli.
A great tomato-based pasta sauce, with some olive oil and a little garlic, a few shallots, fresh tomatoes, left to melt. Serve with deli-bought ravioli, add some anchovies and olives. Cook some chorizo or spicy sausage and add a handful of clams – a real beauty. Just serve with spaghetti and grated Parmesan or pecorino – simplistic and elegant.
Basil bread dough, one rich in olive oil and quick rising. Great for focaccia, served hot from the oven, sliced and grilled for sandwiches, a simple pizza dough, or top with a scraping of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of smoked bacon and shaved shallots for a French tart.
Know your oils. Most of us who cook know we use olive oil for cooking and virgin olive oil for salad dressings. Even though millions of bottles are sold there a rarely anybody who knows what extra virgin and virgin olive oils are. Both are first press, only oil with less than 1% acidity can be called extra virgin.
Know your spuds. If you want quality potato results you have to find the spud to fit the job. For chips you need starchy, for mash you want floury, for a gratin you need waxy. Two decent all-rounders are the Maris Piper and our favourite, the King Edward. Secondly, a new potato is only new if you can rub the skin off with your thumb; if you can’t, it’s just a salad potato.
King vegetable. Asparagus is the undisputed luxury item of the vegetable world, but the stems are far sturdier than the heads. Tie the spears into a bunch with string and boil standing up with the heads out of the water. As the stems boil, the heads steam.
The right kit. Please, please, please use a sharp knife. It is blunt knives that slip – most bad kitchen related cuts come from blunt knives, not sharp ones.
Chocolate, the right way. The correct way to melt chocolate is in a glass bowl, on top of a pan of boiling water. This is creating a bain marie, ensuring the delicate chocolate isn’t subjected to fierce heat.
Get Fruity. The way to use soft fruit out of season is to preserve it in season. For perfect freezing, place each berry on a tray – don’t let them touch. Once they are frozen solid you can put them all in a bag together.
Travel with salad. Picnics are wonderful thing, but how do you keep your food fresh? You can make your own fridge. Take two plastic containers – a big one for your salad and a smaller one that will fit in the bottom of the big one. Fill the smaller one with water, seal it and freeze it, then put it back in the big bowl – you’ve got a fridge.
Well dressed. A salad is not a salad without dressing. A couple of things to remember: don’t put anything acidic (lemon or vinegar for example) onto delicate leaves before combing the acid with oil, otherwise it will cook the leaves. Season the dressing – never season the salad after you’ve dressed it as the salt and pepper will just stick to the first bit of dressing it finds