A good extra virgin olive oil is pretty expensive, so for cooking I use a lower grade, cheaper olive oil & keep my fancy expensive oil for salad dressings and for finishing and garnishing prepared foods. Vegetable oil is fine for cooking at home if you don’t have olive oil. Store in a pantry or somewhere out of direct sunlight.
I can’t rave more about homemade stock – it’s a great thrifty way to get rid of leftover bones and vegetables, and adds a whole heap of flavour to your soups and stews. Using homemade stocks also massively reduces the amount of salt going into your food and you’ll never have to worry about it containing wheat or gluten. You can tub up your stock, cool it down and freeze until you need it.
Lots of my recipes use big handfuls of fresh herbs. At the Mountain Cafe we have a huge tray of fresh herbs we get delivered everyday as I can’t cook without them. I hope you’re inspired to get some herb pots and have them on hand at all times. It will change your cooking and life for the better, I promise!
If you don’t grow your own herbs, you can buy them, chop them up, put them in wee tubs and keep in the freezer. They will not look as appealing, but you will still get the amazing flavours. Dried herbs are handy, but the downside is they lose flavour over time and need to be used fairly quickly.
Always wash your herbs, spinach, leeks etc before you use them so you don’t get a mouthful of soil.
Salt and Pepper
The best advice I can give is to taste often and season a little at a time as you go: it’s all about tasting and tweaking to bring out the flavour in your food.
Butter and Cream
Don’t scrimp on the butter and cream ever! As a chef, butter and cream are the porn stars of the kitchen. I know they’re full of fat, but they taste really damn good and they are a natural food – I detest margarine and pretend butter. If you want sexy food, go all the way with double cream and salted butter. I’m not saying chuck it in everything, but when you are making mash, scrambled eggs, fish chowder and porridge it makes all the difference. When a recipe says butter, assume it’s salted unless stated otherwise.
I always use large, free-range eggs at room temperature – it’s better for baking and safer when cracking into a hot pan of oil.
Nuts and Seeds
Toast nuts and seeds to put in salads, potato rosti and slices: it brings out the natural oils and increases the flavours. Spread them on a baking sheet and toast for 6 minutes in a preheated oven at 180ºC (160ºC fan). You can also flash them in a dry pan over a medium heat for a few minutes; you don’t want to brown them.
I can’t bang on enough about how important it is to have a good knife that you keep sharp. Get yourself a knife sharpener and make sure you use it: knives scare people and often people think it’s safer for the knife to be blunt. It’s not! The more blunt the knife is, the more pressure you will put on it when chopping and that’s when you will cut yourself really badly. Don’t put knives in the dishwasher, it ruins the handle and makes them blunt quicker.
Get a decent board that is really solid. I use a big wooden one at home and I love it. Put a wet jay cloth underneath the board to stop it moving around while you are chopping.
The world of ovens
Most ovens have two electric coils, one at the top and one on the bottom, with the oven tending to be hotter at the top, so for baking a cake you’re best to put the tin nearer the bottom of the oven. If you have a fan oven your food will cook quicker than in a standard electric oven: you would normally drop the cooking temperature by 20ºC.
Gas ovens are notorious for having hot spots – you can avoid these by rotating your trays, tins or dishes every so often. There is no fan to even out the heat, so you need to plan where you are going to put your foods. If you’re baking a cake you’ll put it in the middle or higher in the oven to prevent the bottom burning. If you want nice crispy roast spuds you will put them lower in the oven, where the main heat is coming from.
As well an electric oven I have a Rayburn at home and it used to scare the hell out of me for baking. I bought an internal thermometer so I could adjust the dial until it was at the correct temperature. Once you’re sure about the temperature, they are amazing for providing a consistent heat that doesn’t seem to fluctuate much: the heat comes from the sides and the bottom of the oven, so you can open the oven door without worrying about cakes flopping, as the built up heat remains in the oven. Bread is awesome and I cook pizzas and focaccia straight onto the bottom of the hot part of the oven, giving a crispy base and a quick rise.
My number one piece of advice for cooking at home is to get rid of all the clutter you don’t use off your worktops. It will improve your workflow and reduce your stress. Trying to prepare food while moving ornaments and pieces of kit you haven’t used in months is a pain in the bum. I always keep my worktops as clear as possible. All the appliances and equipment I don’t use often goes in cupboards or on top of the fridge, stored away until needed.
My other top tip is clean as you go; wash your dishes as you go, keep tiding as you go and by the time you sit down most of the hard work is done and you can enjoy your meal without that horrible feeling of… “Uh oh, I have a huge mess to clean up after this!”