What Stephen Bush has learnt
As Stephen’s year-long mission to cook his way through Delia Smith’s How to Cook draws to a close, her lessons have finally taken hold – and the result is a more confident cook
Delia and I are seeing other people these days, but like all important relationships, I’ve changed, for the good, and hopefully forever. Apart from the changes to my figure, which I hope to have reversed by the autumn.
The biggest change is in bread. I am, now, both very aware of the taste of preservatives in supermarket-bought bread and its absence from my life, as my breakfast is ruined once every fortnight or so by the discovery that the bread has gone from fresh to blue seemingly in just 24 hours.
Those are the pages of How to Cook that I like to think of as the most wellloved, but others might call scruffy: the patches spotted with water and the odd trace of flour. Delia’s wholemeal loaf really is something you can make fairly painlessly on a weekend without it eating up the best part of a day, and I can almost compete with the fancy bakery down the road. White bread is all well and good, but it’s very much something to make when you are waiting in for someone to fix the boiler – or complete some other odd task that ought to be, but somehow isn’t, compatible with sitting down and working from home.
I’ve even, as Delia would put it, “invested” in a machine to cut my loaves into even slices for me, for ease of freezing. Yes, I have taken her rules into my life. When I roast meat, I weigh it and time it exactly instead of eyeballing it and guessing. I have strong feelings about the size of a roasting dish and the correct use of Pyrex. I have learnt to love Big Brother.
I’ve done more than that, though, as became clear to me when I was making bread the other day. It became horribly clear that I had added too much water, with the resulting mixture looking closer to porridge than dough. But I didn’t panic, and instead started adding small amounts of wholemeal flour until it turned out okay.
How did I know to do it? There isn’t a page in How to Cook that tells you how to rescue a watery loaf mixture, but, somewhere between boiling eggs and making souffles, I picked up what I think of as “cook’s grammar” – the ability to improvise when a recipe goes wrong or is badly written, to know what vegetable will substitute most effectively when my first choice is out of stock, and the confidence to have a thorough prune of my spice rack. (The
word “spice rack” here means “the top of the fridge-freezer”.)
As for Delia, she’s moved on: back to her online cookery school, her range of kitchen equipment and a million other chefs.
I’m still looking for something to fill the void. My year of following her lessons has either, depending on who you believe, made me antsy and full of a desire to try new recipes, or made my partner demanding and unwilling to accept the same old grub day in, day out. But who could replace Delia?
I’m very much enjoying Antonio Carluccio’s Pasta, the first half of which is a series of delicious and easy recipes you’ll cook every day, while the second half is a series of recipes involving homemade pasta that no-one will ever use, but will cause arguments up and down the country about whose idea it was to buy that bloody pasta maker.
But the recipes can’t be said to present much of a learning curve, unless “why, oh why, did I buy a pasta maker?” can be said to be a learning curve. I am also dipping in and out of Pushpesh Pant’s India Cookbook, which has hundreds of great recipes and very few photographs, which allows you to banish that sense of inadequacy and self-loathing that cooking from a recipe book can often bring.
I am increasingly suspicious of anything promising a 15-minute meal or a one-pot-recipe, because they seem to all take longer than a quarter of an hour and to generate rather more washing up than one pot. What I need is someone who, like Delia, will enforce a series of rigid rules on my cooking, which I will resent, but ultimately internalise.
The good news is that I think I’ve found the answer: a small paperback with tiny writing, a bossy chef and good food. I’ve opted for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which the author Julia Child describes as: “A book for the servantless cook who can be unconcerned with budgets, waistlines, timetables, children’s meals, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment.”
I love it already.
My hope is that, while I won’t be as disciplined as I was with Delia, I might, in my own time, continue to work my way through it. My waistline is probably doomed, though.
Somewhere between boiling eggs and making souffles I picked up a cook’s grammar – the ability to improvise