Writing about food on my blog 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 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 and turn it into any number of delicious meals.
One of my favourites 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, add tomatoes and sugar, cook 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.
Cooking is just like writing – once you know the rules, you can break them
I’ve liquidised it with hot stock to make tomato soup, pushed it through a sieve to make it smooth for children who don’t like ‘bits", simply added cream for a pretty pale pink rich pasta sauce, used it as the sauce in a veggie lasagne, made it Moroccan-inspired by adding ras-el-hanout spice to the frying onions, used it as a base in which to poach skinless chicken breasts, made enchiladas with it, used it in nachos instead of jarred salsa, poured it over baked potatoes and topped it with grated cheese… It’s the sauce that just keeps on giving. It also freezes beautifully.
Equally, I think it’s worth mastering a basic cake-type recipe, because there’s 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).
The easiest of all to learn would be a brownie mix, the very simplest of cake-type recipes, and impossible to mess up. Instead of using a rectangular metal baking tray, cook the mixture in a cast-iron frying pan, which gives 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.