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Kitchen Notes: A little bag of garnish, layered meals, no chop, no peel

By John ~ Wednesday, 03 December 2014

Perhaps the second most difficult thing about setting off on a purposeful mission to write more about cookery is knowing exactly where to begin and over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to come up with a few objectives to try and give it some shape. The first, in case you were wondering, is developing a habit of sitting down and writing at all, so here goes.

No chop, No peel

One complaint I’ve heard on more than one occasion is recipes that claim to be quick, or ready in 15 minutes, can often take a lot longer. After a potato peeling race with Mrs OK, in which I peeled and chopped roughly two and a half potatoes to her one, I concluded that this is one of the main flaws in recipes making these claims. Inevitably if, as I have, you’ve spent many many hours of your life chopping and peeling stuff you are going to be able to go at a pace that people who have found more interesting things to do with their time are going to struggle to match.

The quick and obvious answer is buy ready chopped onions, herbs etc. and we do, frequently, but where is the challenge in that? I thought it might be quite interesting to see what can be teased out of the kitchen if there’s a regular rule for no chopping and no peeling in the preparation of dinner from completely unprepared ingredients. Importantly, for me, this raises a question about how the people who you share your cooking efforts with participate in the meal you’ve prepared. I am reminded of a time I ate at Bidendum many years ago when I was working there. I dared to order my quail off the bone which, on my arrival at work the next day, brimming with enthusiasm for my meal the night before, led to Simon Hopkinson giving me a good telling off for being a lazy eater. This as a focus is going to be tough but I’m intrigued.

Layered meals

One hint that came out of a recent survey I ran was that parents like to have a separate, special meal, when the kids go to bed. Whilst I understand there are reasons to do this other than eating something different it struck a chord. Simple meals for children with a bit of added complexity and excitement for adults all at the same time. I do believe quite strongly, and have had many quite heated arguments on the subject, that a lot of extremely good food comes about by letting an ingredient taste of what it’s supposed to and that the layering up of a good combination of simply cooked ingredients can result in something more than the sum of its parts. I’m also keen on presenting my children with new things to try. One simple example of this was a rushed dinner I made quite recently that consisted of some hastily pot roasted root veggies thrown in the oven with some chicken breasts and a bit of boiled broccoli on the side. The children were happy to eat it as it was but I remembered I’d made some Salsa Verde, which I’d sealed in mini Kilner jars and chucked to the back of the fridge. A good dollop of that added that little bit of excitement to the meal. I must say though, unlike the children mentioned in the Guardian recipe I’ve linked to, the children hated it but, as with everything, we’ll keeping trying until one day it clicks.

A little bag of garnish

Somewhat still on the subject of layered meals but also noticing a habit I have when in a rush to get a home cooked meal ready is the subject of garnish. I’m not really sure garnish is the correct word but I don’t mean half-rotten lettuce and some badly chopped yellow pepper on the side of the plate. Quite often if it’s looking like a lack of time means pasta, or chicken and veg again I’ll roughly chop up some bacon (if there’s not ready chopped lardons to hand of course!), a red onion, a red pepper or two, some tomatoes and a red onion and maybe even a few slices of chorizo and fry/stew it quickly in some olive oil, often with a decent slug of soy sauce, resulting in a tasty mush which can be plopped on top of what would otherwise require a litre of gravy to add flavour and comfort. A recent macaroni cheese benefited greatly from such an approach. This stuff can of course be frozen with little impact and it’s an experiment I want to expand on, having little bags of garnish ready to go in the freezer to add a little glamour without reaching for a ready meal.

So what is my focus?

Most definitely it’s about good, interesting, main meals for families when time is tight by trying to reduce the preparation time to cook good food but also looking at ways to get ahead, by using the freezer as an extension of the fridge, when it makes sense to cook a little bit extra. I suppose if I get a bit Jamie Oliver about it, my focus is also less about cooking and more about the act of eating. It’s something I have forgotten to take the time to do as my career as a chef fades further and further into the past and something I want my children to learn well.

There are, slowly, a set of principals, perhaps even rules forming in the OK household and the first and most important is for the cook, a simple agreement. If it’s not burnt, it’s not a disaster, now let’s eat.