I wish I could reach back a few years to tell myself to stop trying so damn hard with the food. Cooking was an Olympian event in early years. The idea of a meal being nourishing to mind, body and spirit was nothing compared to the promise of being pant-wettingly impressive. Fuck impressive, actually. If I could make my food communicate that I was witty, sexy and smart, that would be ideal. This was the goal.
It meant over-reaching in my ambition for meals and setting out on recipes considerably past my skill level. The result, of course, would rarely be anything above average and would thereby discourage me from cooking for another few days. That was, of course, until my other methods of trying to impress people by actually socialising with them caused me enough anxiety to drive me back to the kitchen. But these gargantuan attempts would leave me exhausted and lazy the rest of the time. So my home cooking was either a failed banquet with Pharaoh like indulgence, or pasta or curry out of a preservative packed jar. Middle ground was sorely lacking.
There’s a joy in setting aside an afternoon to cook something challenging. This should not be, under any circumstances, a stressful experience. Stakes should be low. Cooking for fun, not for the food. But most of the time the vast majority of your eating habits are going to be constrained by time and money. So it’s only been a relatively recent epiphany to focus on not extending the top end of my skill higher, but instead to raise the bottom. So even on my laziest, cheapest evening when I don’t feel like cooking at all, I’m still making something that’s nicer than average.
The domino effects are big on this. My stress levels around cooking have gone down. I can make all of the following recipes without looking them up, or breaking a sweat. So when I do set myself the task of making something challenging, I’m less daunted. And you’ll be pleased to know that no one who’s received these meals have found them unpleasant. While I can’t say recipients of my cooking these recipes like me more, I’m comfortable to say they don’t like me less. You take your wins where you can get them.
Don’t laugh at the humble soup. It can certainly be boring, but there are plenty of ways to tart it up. It’s also extremely forgiving on the beginner cook. Providing you don’t burn anything, it’s difficult to come out with anything intolerable. (I had a memorable evening a long time ago where I turned chilli and garlic to crispy, cancer-ridden pieces. I persisted on making the soup, which tasted like a pub floor.) Crap chopping skills? No worries, it all gets blended in the end anyway. Soup’s are cheap, and can pack a nutritious punch. They’re also blissfully easy to re-heat and consume over the following days lunch. And you can freeze them too. And once you’ve made your own, I promise you won’t want to go back to a can. What more do you want?
My two go to’s are tomato and pumpkin.
I’m now convinced the only way to enjoy tomato soup is with a Mexican flavour base. Heat some oil, pop in some garlic, onion (red is tasty, but whatever you’ve got), coriander stalks, chilli (de-seeded or fiddled with as you please). Get that nice and soft. Don’t flinch on getting decent tomatoes - you’ll learn which ones you prefer through experience. (Nothing’s stopping you from using canned tomatoes either. Add a drop of tomato paste to deepen the flavour if you use canned.) Chop them roughly, removing the watery core. Pop them in. Salt, pepper, and then some stock. Just enough to touch the top of the tomatoes. And let that simmer away for a bit. If you don’t mind your soup a bit watery, you don’t need to do anything else. For a thicker soup, add basmati rice. Or, going with the Mexican vibe, add some crushed tortilla chips. They’ll add saltiness and provide some texture.
Finishing a soup is where it gets sexy. Once you’ve whizzed it up, have a taste. If you’re used to canned soup you’ll now want to put in half a cup of salt. Go with just a pinch instead. Add some coriander leaves, some feta cheese, a trickle of lime juice. Fresh chilli if you’re brave. You may want to add a little dollop of sour cream. Eating with traditional toasted bread is fine, but some roasted sweet potato chips are divine for so little effort. (Chop up sweet potato into chip pieces, roast in a 180 oven for forty-five minutes. Done. Before baking you could dust with some spices: ground coriander, some paprika, whatever takes your fancy.)
Pumpkin soup is even easier. Add your aromatics: garlic, onion, chilli. Thyme works well here, but if you don’t have any herbs that’s okay. Chop up butternut pumpkin (this will be the most annoying bit, use a sharp knife and be careful), and whack it in. Just enough stock (chicken or vegetable is fine) to cover, and away you go. Once you’ve whizzed it a bit of yoghurt or cream gives you a nice depth. Don’t forget to season. Hard to beat buttered toast here. I’ve also added feta or goat’s cheese before, just because we’ve had it in the fridge. If you want to be super Masterchef-y (but not really) you could roast the butternut pieces before hand in a hot oven until they feel soft (forty five minutes or so). That’ll give you a slightly different, deeper flavour.
Seriously, this is at least once a week eating since we’ve discovered it. Cheap and easy. Makes you feel like you’ve had a roast without having leftovers and at a fraction of the price. First, grab some vegetables. Brussel sprouts, red onion, garlic, carrot and sweet potato are the regulars for us. But you could also do celeriac, turnips, fennel or anything that’s a hard vegetable. Cut them up so they’re all about the same size (bite-sized chunks, or if you’ve got Brussel sprouts, about the size of a Brussel sprout). The only compulsory additions to this are garlic and onion. If you haven’t eaten roasted garlic straight out of its paper, you haven’t lived. And a roasted red onion will seduce you and shock you with its slippery, violet tongue. I promise.
After chopping, put everything in a roasting tray. Don’t chop the garlic. Just break it into cloves and throw them in. No unwrapping or bruising necessary. Season up your vegetables, anoint them with some oil. Then, grab some chicken drumsticks. About three for each person will do (that’s a lie - no one’s going to complain if you put more on their plate). Just pop the chicken on top of the veggies. Season, splash some oil about and you’re done.
You could of course use any cut of chicken here, although anything that doesn’t have a bone in it is probably going to dry out. Drumsticks are cheap and easy to manhandle. The more skin on them, the more fat will end up in the bottom of the tray, roasting the veggies. This is yum, but may disturb the more health conscious. Please rest assured fat can be great, especially when eaten with vegetables, as the nutrients from the vegetables are more efficiently digested in the body. Nevertheless, if you want to snip some fat away, go for it. Or when serving, just leaving the fat (which you’ll be able to see as soft, white stuff), in the bottom of the pan.
Touch of fancy can come with the addition of some herbs: thyme or rosemary is lovely. A squeeze of lemon also helps here, and keep the juiced lemon in the tray for roasting. The fragrance will lightly imprint itself upon the chicken.
Bake in a 180 oven for fifty or so minutes, or until the chicken is done. (Just cut into one, if there’s no pink, you’re good to go. Check it at forty-five minutes.) Serve. Eat. Let the feeling of reassurance descend upon you. Drink white wine.
Yes. I know, right? Mega fancy. Sexy. Date night dinner. My wife’s favourite thing.
Simpler than a week old puppy. And more pleasant to eat.
First, go shopping for mussels or some kind of clam or shellfish. Do not be daunted. Many supermarkets now have Vongole clams ready to go. Or pre-packaged ‘ready to eat’ shellfish. Otherwise, grab any that look good to you and sit within your budget. About two hundred and fifty grams per person will do.
Cook spaghetti. Meanwhile, get a pan on heat and add oil, garlic, chilli and onion. Let that get soft and smelly. Get a nice heat going and add some canned tomatoes (half a can per person), and some white wine (quarter of a glass person). Once that’s reduced a bit (it’ll be thicker, not watery), add your mussels or clams. If they’re ‘ready to eat’ and open, you just need to pop the lid on wait for them to heat through. If they’re closed and you’ve bought them fresh, pop the lid on and wait for them to open. This won’t take long. If you’ve got a clear lid, I promise you, it’s one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever witness. (On a medium to high heat, this shouldn’t take any longer than ten minutes.)
Drain spaghetti. Once the majority of the shells open, you’re ready. Any shells that stay shut: chuck them. They’re no good. Serve spaghetti, top with the sexiness. Have a bowl to deposit shells in as you eat. Top with chopped parsley. I’ve found being slightly more adventurous with chilli here pays off. Parsley gives you pepperiness, and the tiniest pinch of cayenne pepper at the very start of it all (when you put in your garlic and onion) delivers. Lemon wedge on the side also recommended.
I’ve never really understood the desire to serve garlic bread with pasta (Carbs on carbs). Apart from the fact that it’s amazing. You’d be forgiven here for using frozen garlic bread. Although a baguette with some plain butter is more glamorous. And garlic butter isn’t that hard to make - if you’re making this for guests, I’d recommend it. Who knows, they may like you more at the end of the meal. We live in hope.