At home, I cook under the same constraints as anyone else. Even though I have a food background, when I come home from a day at work, feeling sometimes jaded with food, the last thing I want to do is spend hours at the stove. I am impatient, usually hungry, and I relish the art of cooking quickly. And that’s what I want to share here – smart cheats and ways of working logically so you can have your dinner on the table in a friendly and achievable time. All of this can happen in a calm and well-choreographed manner that won’t leave your kitchen looking like a bombsite and having used every pan in the cupboard.
This way of cooking is all about simplifying the process, and to some of you that might sound really obvious. More often than not, when I ask people why a recipe hasn’t worked, they reply that they burnt the onions while they were digging out the coriander seeds from the back of the cupboard, or something along these lines. The only way to cook speedy dinners and stay calm is to be organised up front. I am sure all my friends will read this and laugh, as I have a reputation for being less than well- organised, but in the kitchen I am like a general. The kitchen is my realm and I know that the only way I can cook speedily is to be calm, ordered and organised and work through the flow of jobs.
I always think of cooking in this way. It’s not speedy, hectic, cheffy stuff. It’s just about getting things right, so that you can enjoy every brilliant moment of the alchemy that happens as you turn a pile of ingredients into an incredible offering for you and your family.
1. I find it really useful to have my ingredients organised, so that I can find them easily and so that getting ready to cook doesn’t mean half an hour emptying out the entire spice cupboard. I use little glass jars for my spices and keep them on a shelf within reach of the cooker, which makes things a lot simpler.
2. You’ll need a bit of space to cook in. My kitchen counters, like most other people’s, can get cluttered, so before I settle down to cook something, I make sure I clear enough space to comfortably cook in.
3. There are a few bits of equipment that can really help speed things up. The main barrier to cooking quickly is being a slow chopper – how good you are at chopping is directly related to how good and sharp your knives are. I use four main knives in the kitchen: a small chef’s knife (about 12cm), a small serrated paring knife (for tomatoes and fruit), a larger chef’s knife (about 21cm) for sturdy vegetables such as pumpkin or squash and a good serrated bread knife. Sometimes a food processor really helps speed things up too.
If you find things keep sticking or burning, maybe it’s time for some good new pans. I make a vat of soup, stock or a big pan of chickpeas every week and a large pot makes things much easier. It need not be expensive but it will allow you to cook batches big enough to last a week or fill the freezer. A heavy-bottom cast-iron pan would be my choice.
All this equipment is a massive investment in cooking from scratch, and that’s the best decision we can make for our happiness and our bodies.
4. When you are ready to cook, start by reading the recipe from top to bottom so that you know what happens when, and how things need to be chopped and cooked. Then put all the equipment you are going to need close by, and get all your ingredients together near your chopping board so that you have everything to hand before you start.
5. Other clever chef’s tricks that make my cooking more speedy are having a mixing bowl on the work surface for peelings and trimmings, so you don’t have to keep running back and forth to the bin, as well as making sure as much as possible that the area you are working in is close to the stove, so you can do a few jobs at once.
These steps are the key to quick, calm cooking and they may sound glaringly obvious, but I have to remind myself to do them every time I cook.
Smoky pepper and white bean quesadillas
Quesadillas, like a lot of Mexican food, get a bad write-up as being cheese- laden and lazy, but they are a truly quick meal, coming together in fifteen minutes. By filling them with not just cheese they become more nourishing and much more delicious. Here I have stepped away from the straight-up Mexican quesadillas and introduced some Spanish flavours. Roasted red peppers, smoky paprika and white beans – it makes me think of summer trips to Barcelona, and that can never be a bad thing. If you are vegan, leave the cheese out and double the white beans, which hold it all together; you may want to be more generous with the seasoning too. I mostly make these at lunchtime, but they are filling enough for a dinner – you might want some sherry-vinegar-dressed green salad on the side.
SERVES 2 (MAKES 1 DEEPLY FILLED QUESADILLA)
- 2 spring onions
- olive oil
- 1⁄2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 50g cooked white beans
- 100g jarred, roasted red peppers
- 1 unwaxed lemon
- 1⁄2 a bunch of fresh parsley
- 50g Manchego cheese (see note for vegans)
- 2 wholemeal or seeded tortillas or wraps
- a handful of cherry tomatoes
- Get all your ingredients together.
- Finely slice the spring onions. Put a frying pan on a medium heat, add a little olive oil, the spring onions and smoked paprika, and cook for a couple of minutes, until starting to brown.
- Meanwhile, put the white beans into a mixing bowl and mash them with a fork, then roughly chop your red peppers and add half of them to the beans. Grate over the zest of the lemon, then roughly chop the parsley and add half to the bowl. Grate in your Manchego. Once the spring onions are browned, add these too.
- Lay a tortilla or wrap on your work surface. Spoon the red pepper mixture all over it, spread it evenly, then top with the other tortilla. Heat a frying pan and toast the quesadilla for a couple of minutes on each side – I do this dry, but you can add a splash of oil if you like your quesadillas crispy. If you find it hard to flip, a plate on top might help.
- While the quesadilla is toasting, roughly chop the tomatoes, mix with the remaining peppers and parsley and squeeze in the juice of half the lemon.
- Once toasted on both sides, remove the quesadilla from the pan and cut into six pieces. Serve in the middle of the table, with the salsa for spooning over.
Recipe taken from Anna's second book, A Modern Way To Cook, published by Harper Collins, out now.