Friday, 10 April 2009

How to be a good cook

I've been thinking over the past couple of days about how easy it is to eat well in France. Not so much in restaurants any more - the standard overall is pretty poor these days - but in terms of the produce you have on your doorstep. The local greengrocer down the road from where we've been staying has seven or eight different kind of lettuces for example, most locally grown. In England you'd be lucky to find two or three.

Everything is really fresh too. You can smell the earth on the lettuces. Radishes have real crunch. Even the early strawberries smell of sweet, ripe fruit.

It makes you want to prepare food simply so you can enjoy those flavours - and that after all is what good cooking should be about. You can make a simple lunch out of a baguette, some radishes and a chunk of paté. Ripe tomatoes need no further elaboration than a glug of olive oil, salt and pepper and a trickle of vinegar. (If you slice them season them and anoint them with oil then leave them for 10 minutes they make their own delicious juice. The vinegar is just the final seasoning) You can add herbs like basil or parsley or scatter in some finely sliced white or green onions but you don't have to.

The art of good home cooking in my view lies not in being highly skilled but knowing what ingredients work together. Although you can become a perfectly competent cook by mastering a few basic recipes to be a great one you have to be a good eater, to really enjoy your food.

I get my best ideas these days not from complicated recipes but seeing what ingredients chefs put together and trying to reproduce what they do in a less expensive and time-consuming way. If you heighten your awareness of flavour and flavour combinations you're on the road to better eating!

What most inspires you to cook? Or do you regard it as a chore?


Wannabe Housewife said...

I've been following your blog for quite a while, and this is something I cannot keep my mouth (or rahter fingers) shut about. It is very difficult not to regard cooking as a chore here in Estonia. Good fresh ripe produce is rare and found mainly in the 2 months of summer. And it's mostly imported anyway. Whatever we get from supermarkets for the 10 month of autumn-slushy winter-autumn from-March-till-June is edible but, hell, it it expensive! And the things that are grown here in industrial quantitites just make me want to cry.

Signe said...

Agree with Thankvarra that it's hard to circumvent the supermarkets, and the array of imported food in northern Europe if there isn't a local alternative with fresh, seasonal produce. The summer months seem to be the only months when you can find genuine seasonal produce wherever you look, though the supermarkets have done a great job of hiking prices for seasonal produce!!

It's such a joy, as Fiona suggests, when you find radishes or tomatoes that are packed with flavour - and it really does make cooking less of a chore as minimum embellishment is required. Simple, fuss-free cooking can't be praised highly enough IMO, but it's disheartening to think how limited the availability of such delicious produce is for many of us. Turn the giant supermarkets into local farms, perhaps??

Gavin said...

I think things could be a lot better here in France but the situation is a lot better than Britain. It's the south of France and Spain where quality and price are almost unparalleled. Australia, too, is extremely lucky, particularly with respect to fruit. As always, though, Australia is 10 years behind the UK, and the supermarkets there are busily trying to control the entire food supply chain, the result of which is always shiny fruit with no taste, eventually costing 4 to 10 times more than they should.

James said...

Things always look better when you're on holiday.

It also depends where you live though. Living next to the vale of Evesham means we have produce unlimited. You just need to spend a little time on finding it. I know a retired couple who spend most of their time touring the area in search of new foods and food producers just so they can enjoy what they eat.

Because a lot of the growers also have poly tunnels it extends the growing seasons - so it's not just 2 months in the summer. Although you could spend those summer months blanching and freezing (which we did when I was young) so you have a store of the best fruit and vegetables all year round.

There's a great stall in the middle of nowhere (well between Ford and Snowshill, Gloucestershire) called Pauline's veg. It's a wooden stall on the side of the road and she puts her garden produce out and you leave your money. And we have a great market garden (Collis) just outside Evesham where they pull things out of the field and put them straight in the shop - you don't get much fresher than that. They also make their own jam and marmalade and collect other fruit/ veg from other local farms. Failing that there's Hayles Fruit Farm just outside Winchcombe - and they keep going all year round. There's things like this all around the country though - if you go around with an inquisitive mind. Some of the best ones are when you take a wrong road and find a great small producer by accident - when you see a sign go in. The big barn map helps too.

If shoppers got more demanding, the big shops would shake up their act to service the need, so who's to blame?

P.S. I find a daily diet of food blogs quite inspiring......

James said...

..... and of course, we have the Garden and Farm shop in Tewkesbury which is a small high street independant fruit and vegetable shop where if they don't grow it themselves they source it locally... from the garden or farm. You can really taste (and smell) the difference there, and you really want to buy everything in the shop. Maybe where other greengrocers should go for inspiration.

Fiona Beckett said...

I know, I know, Thankvarra and Sig - not everywhere has the quality of produce of southern France but I don't think that invalidates my argument that a good cook knows what to do with whatever ingredients she/he has access to. Even very basic ingredients like dried beans, onions and greens can be great if you know what to make with them. Some of the best cuisines in the world (Indian, for example) are based on a limited range of ingredients. (You do need spices, though!)

And not everything is great in France, I agree Gavin and James. Cheese for example is pretty poor down here in the Languedoc. I can buy better French cheese back home in Bristol - at a price.

James - you like I have the privilege of living in the West of England (if you call Gloucestershire the West) where there is some great produce but as you point out you have to track it down - and it's expensive. Even with the terrible £/euro exchange rate it's cheaper to buy food in France. Mackerel at 4.60€ a kilo this week to take just one example.

The reason radishes are so good here is that they're popular so it's worth growers growing them, They don't have to charge an excessive amount because they sell enough volume - which is also why they're so fresh. They don't hang around. Same with whole lettuces. Most people at home would rather buy bags of ready washed leaves which doesn't create much incentive for farm shops etc to sell them.

Signe said...

Oh no, I didn't mean that the lack of availability of good seasonal produce here in the UK invalidates your argument about how to be a good cook! Just lamenting the lack of access to affordable, seasonal produce, particularly in cities.

If you live in a region (say the West of England) then you arguably have much better access to good produce than we do in London - or at the least have access to affordable produce. When I was growing up in Norway I spent many a happy summer on my grandparents' farm making jam, cordials, and a range of preserves from all the summer fruit they had. These were kept and distributed as gifts or treats to family and friends so they could taste a bit of summer throughout winter - and we never missed strawberries in January as a result. I'd like to think many in this country did, and still do the same. But the likelihood of a twenty-something urbanite doing so is slim - many of my peers would rather spend their free time browsing stores for the latest handbag than for a gorgeous, juicy tomato. Many of us also lack the time, inclination and energy to be discerning food shoppers.

But some food shoppers have become more demanding, especially with regard to seasonal produce - what do the supermarkets do? Charge a premium for what's in season! So it's not as simple as demanding change from the supermarkets, they have a completely different set of priorities from those of us who care about food.

Anyway, savour those radishes and the fresh mackerel Fiona :-)

Carlo said...

I agree with all that's been said about produce, the situation isn't much better in the US. What seasonal produce you can find in shops carries a huge price premium. But there is growing interest in Farmers' Markets, where seasonal stuff is available, and often at really good prices.

Going to the one near me -- in Las Vegas, where most of the farmers drive in from California -- isn't a chore. It's nice to see what's fresh and in season, buy it without a recipe in mind, then take it home and figure out what to do with it!

PS -- Those tomatoes look amazing.

Anonymous said...

Fiona, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you have "to be good eater, to really enjoy your food", to be a good cook.
Is it me, or does it seem that picky eaters are often mediocre cooks? And in thinking about it, if you don't like food**, why would you enjoy handling it, preparing it, serving it, savoring it etc.?

Mary Eman
**Never a problem for me!

recipes2share said...

Living on the edge of Paris it is so easy to eat well - well stocked supermarkets (large & local) & markets yet when we travel to the distant SW to our holiday home things chance drastically. Yes, seasonal produce but often several days old and things such as fish is at a price. Oh how I enjoy stirring a discussion in Giant in Carcassonne about the price of fish there compared to Paris...the French ladies happily join in...I am lucky though that a friend in the village has a gite / B&B which is BIO & food orientated ( and happily passes on his amazing range of home grown,fresh veggies. Food is here and I agree whole-heartedly about restaurants ... we had the most awful entrecot frites today - so much of this industry survives on reputation rather than reality!

Fiona Beckett said...

Thanks for all these interesting thoughts! Supermarkets charging extra for seasonal food is mad, I agree Sig. It happened recently with rhubarb and purple sprouting broccoli and I'm sure will happen again with the new season's English asparagus
(And don't get me going on runner beans . . . )

Great to hear you have good produce near Vegas Carlo. Not what you'd imagine - I thought it was mainly desert (which probably shows how little I know)

Being picky doesn't necessarily make you a poor cook, Mary, but I agree it makes it harder to be a good one. Certainly if you're squeamish about handling food (and I don't just mean meat). It's people's unwillingness to handle dirty veg for example that results in all these pre-packed tasteless veg we have to put up with.

And your friends' B & B looks fabulous recipes2share - though I doubt it's as sunny as that there today. Tipping with rain here, north of Beziers!

Greenlady said...

I agree that you don't have to have wonderful fresh ingredients to be a good or inspired cook. Great meals can be made from storecupboard basics. It is down to a) knowing what ingredients need to be really good quality and what ones can forgive being mediocre if cooked decently b) knowing how food behaves when it is cooked and in what fashion. And all those come with time and practise :)

Also I think to be truly inspired cooking wise you need to have a good appetite ( not the same as being hungry ) and not exhausted or stressed. You will be inclined to produce better food if you are not in the " I'm so tired and fed up that I'm just going to shove a shop bought sandwich in my mouth because I can't even be bothered to make as much as beans on toast " mode :P

I could also go down the " almosr everyone has the room to grow a bit of fresh veg/fruit in pots " route here also but space does not permit ;)

Anna said...

Italian supermarkets are excellent for buying seasonal produce. I often come up with new recipes while walking around the aisles there. They always sell fresh local cheese, meat, fruit and vegetables. Simple quality ingredients come to life if you add a splash of good wine here, a squeeze of lemon juice there, a pinch of salt and pepper and a generous amount of passion for food.

recipes2share said...

..they work hard and it shines through. I like nothing better than visit the garden to take photographs then hear all about their new produce (animals a new addition!) and dishes...then sample a few!

Mal's Allotment said...

Rhubarb - over £7 per kilo last week. This week it's bogof. Even in Edinburgh it's growing like topsy now!

Fiona Beckett said...

Good points greenlady, especially about growing a few herbs or veg. Not difficult and fresh herbs make such a difference to a dish (though I've found you can also add shredded greens at the end of a recipe with similar effect. It's partly psychological. Just seeing something green makes you feel better about a dish)

Don't know much about Italian supermarkets, I'm afraid, savvy shopper. Certainly the one we went to last year in Venice wasn't that impressive but Venice is hardly typical of the rest of Italy.

£7 a kilo is mad for rhubarb, I agree Mal. And it drives me nuts when supermarkets overcharge for an ingredient then claim they've made a huge reduction when they drop the price to a reasonable level.

Unknown said...

Yeah cooking in France is a piece of piss compared with the UK. If only I had access to French food markets for my Underground Restaurant.
When I lived in Paris I used to go to the Avenue Belgrand market on Saturday mornings...fabulous.

Anonymous said...

I think the change in season is really inspiring, particularly just now when we're going from months of root vegetables to something new and exciting. I find it much easier to go out with an open mind and see what's available at the start of the season than I do midway through when everything is so familiar and dull.

Fiona Beckett said...

Must come along to your restaurant MsMarmitelover. Have heard so much about it!

And Ginger, yes spring is probably THE best time of year for a cook. Not only because of what's available but what's to come. I love it!

Alex said...

Never a chore! I was initially inspired to cook by the very base urge of wanting to provide food for my husband but now I'm inspired by putting together menus for the forthcoming week - making sure we have lots of interesting and varied dishes.

Also, coming back from the market on saturday morning and filling my fridge with gorgeous produce (and having a well stocked freezer) makes me happy and means I can't wait to start cooking! There's nothing more inspiring than a basket of good raw ingredients to play with!

Fiona Beckett said...

Which neatly brings me back to my original point, Alex. That's exactly what makes you a good cook!

Carlo said...

Your impression is right, Fiona, it is all desert here in Las Vegas :)

But we are fortunate in that we're relatively close to big produce-growing areas in inland California and Arizona.