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

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Stephen Bush Stephen Bush was cook­ing his way through Delia’s Com­plete How To Cook (BBC Books, £40) in a year. You can watch Delia Smith’s free On­line Cook­ery School videos at deliaon­line.com; @deliaon­line. Stephen Bush is a writer and colum­nist for the N

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

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