This piece was first commissioned and published on The Pool back in 2015. Now that The Pool is very sadly no more, and the entire site and its archive offline, I am running the food stories I wrote for them as a contributing food editor here on LibertyLondonGirl.
I first wrote this story because I have always loved the idea of people who were scared to cook mastering just one or two recipes that they could then adapt endlessly using the simple technique that they had learned first time around.
Writing about food on LibertyLondonGirl has been a real eye opener: I really had no idea how many people were properly intimidated by the kitchen but, at the same time also really, really wanted to be able to cook for themselves, their friends and their families.
The important thing, I think, is not to worry about being able to cook entire three course dinner parties, or mastering the entire works of Elizabeth David, but to get a few basic key recipes under your belt. A soup, a sauce, a stew, a pudding would all be good.
Because here’s the thing: Cooking is just like writing – once you know the rules, you can break them, taking the recipe you’ve mastered to turn it into any number of delicious meals.
One of my favourite recipes for customisation is a basic tomato sauce, which only has two ingredients: one chopped onion and two cans of tomatoes, plus oil, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. (Fry onions very slowly over a medium heat until soft, – at least fifteen minutes, probably twenty, add tomatoes and sugar, simmer very gently for forty minutes, season.)
Not only does it taste delicious straight up, it can be used as the base for lots of different recipes, and no one will ever work out that they all have the same starting point.
As I point out in my cookbook Friends, Food, Family, I’ve liquidised it with a little hot vegetable stock to make tomato soup, pushed it through a sieve to make it smooth for children who don’t like ‘bits’ in their spaghetti sauce, simply stirred in a little cream just before serving for a pretty pale pink rich pasta sauce, used it as the base sauce for a vegetarian lasagne, made it Moroccan-inspired by adding ras-en-hanout spice to the frying onions, and chick peas to the sauce, used it to poach skinless chicken breasts, spiked it with chilli and cumin for delicious enchiladas, used it in quick feed-me-now nachos instead of jarred salsa, poured it over fluffy baked potatoes and topped the lot with grated cheese and flashed it under a grill…it’s the sauce that just keep on giving. It also freezes beautifully.
Equally, I think it’s worth mastering a basic cake-type recipe. Then you always have the means to make a birthday cake and, as I have discovered, no one ever complained about being given cake for pudding.
There’s also no rule that says a cake mixture needs to go in a cake tin. It can be baked in a buttered dish and served as a mouthwatering hot pudding instead (which is very handy if your main worry about cake baking is that they won’t rise or that they will stick in the tin.) Try studding the batter with chunks of plain chocolate, or put sliced cooking apples (or nectarines) in the bottom and pour the cake batter over the top to make a classic Eve’s Pudding.
I often cook a Victoria sponge recipe in a buttered cast iron frying pan, mixing into the batter whatever fruit needs using up at the time: it could be little dice of apple, chopped apricot or peach or, best of all, raspberries or blackberries.
The very easiest batter of all to learn would be a chocolate brownie mix, the very simplest of cake-type recipes, and practically impossible to mess up. Using a cast-iron pan to cook and serve from instead of using a tradition rectangular metal baking tin will give a very delicious twist on a Chocolate Fondant, all molten in the middle and crispy on the outside.
Most, important of all, the magic secret I’ve learnt over the years is this: most people would prefer a simple bowl of pasta and a happy cook over a tortured plate of gourmet madness and a fractious hostess.