A Beginner's Guide to Cooking
Quick disclaimer: Like with everything we do, we are here to give advice and to help you lot talk to each other and meet others in the same boat as yourselves. All this stuff below is by me, others in the gap year team and further contributors. Everything you do is at your own risk and not our fault. If you decide to cook chips and burn the house down or make a chicken dish and watch as your family / mates spend the next three days understanding what it is like to 'pass acid', that's your choice! Nice one.
Welcome to our Kitchen
At the end of the day, like everything else in life, cooking boils down to practise. So... while you're in a safe environment with all the ingredients around you, have a go. Make a mess and burn everything. You will only get better by making mistakes and learning from them. Get some tuition from your mum, mates, Nigella or whoever is brave enough to teach you. Don't be shy about admitting that you are a bit inept in the cookery department - you will get better.
The recipes below are easy. It is just a matter of timing and putting it all together. You are going to need to learn sometime, so why not now? Word of warning though - if you are a bit of a donkey I wouldn't volunteer to cook for your folks or mates straight away, as the sight of vomit on the table can put off even the most diehard of novice chefs from continuing to the steaming and marinating stage. Negative feedback also doesn't do the confidence any good!
I love cooking, but more importantly, I love to experiment. I rarely follow cookbooks, normally because I don't have the cash to buy 12 slices of New Hampshire ham or six grammes of Lithuanian unsalted goat butter. When you have a tight budget you are forced to learn to cook with what you have or what you can afford. The problem is, making it tasty. This is where a few mixed herbs, pepper, chilli powder and other stuff, which costs sod all, can make any mince, tuna or even toasted bread and cheese - taste great!
Cooking on your travels
I always take pots of chilli and curry powder away with me, as they can take the edge off a bad meal and give all other food a little bit of 'je ne sais quoi!' Salt and pepper are always handy to have as well. The little sachets off the plane store quite well - as long as you keep them dry. Make sure the curry and chilli powder are stored in a tight container, 'cos if you spill them and your clothes smell spicier than a toddler's farts after a particularly meaty sausage, you'll may find it difficult to make friends and influence them! Some people use the little plastic camera film containers, as they are airtight and have a good seal. Me, I have a couple of little metal containers that I picked up with screw lids that do the job perfectly.
Let's start you off with the classic budget, easy-to-cook meal. The sausage casserole. Marvellous. If you are a complete novice have a few attempts at this one until you feel you are getting it right. Improve the recipe below as you get better with adding peppers, red wine, shallots, Martini, banana and cucumber. I was joking about the last three by the way... so don't.
- Sausages - of whatever meat and whatever size
- Gravy granules/stock cube
- Choice of rice, pasta, potato or those cheap quick-to-cook noodles.
Boil a full kettle of water. Leave to stand.
Chuck the sausages under a grill or in a frying pan. Either way, keep an eye on them and turn when they start to look black. This is called burning. It is accelerated by a really hot grill and the snags being too close, or by there being no oil, butter or lard in the frying pan (only enough to cover the surface needed - it doesn't need to swim lengths... it's dead!) thus causing a cooking term called 'stickingtothepan' and more of that burning I was talking about. This creates charcoal, or, more widely recognised - coal. This tastes shitty and will spread the taste throughout your dish.
When the sausages are nearly done, throw the diced (which means chopped up 'finely' or however you manage to cut them) onions and mushrooms into the frying pan and cook all together. When your sausages are cooked slice into little pieces i.e. 'rounds'. To test whether they are cooked take one out of the pan and cut in half - if the inside is still pink, or raw - continue to cook until done.
Now, take a stock cube and take it out of its wrapper (or a few gravy granules) and throw it in a mug. Pour in about half a mug of boiling water and stir - it will dissolve (disappear from sight). The water will turn brown as the flavour is released. Add to the sausages and onions in the pan. If you want to make it thicker, add flour (not flower - easy mistake to make) - not too much, just a little. It is best to add the flour when the gravy is in the mug so you can get rid of all the lumps by a bit of hectic stirring. If you want more gravy, add more water. If there is too much, boil it off.
Add salt and pepper and chilli powder if you are there. Leave to simmer (cook very slowly on a low heat).
Whilst the sausages are cooking, place either rice, pasta, potatoes or noodles into a pan of boiling water. Add salt to the water and boil. When the water is boiling like a mental bloke in a rampage, turn it down so that it 'simmers' (i.e. looks like a whirlpool as opposed to an out of control jacuzzi). Make sure you stir the rice or pasta as soon as it boils, especially round the bottom of the pan, as it could stick and burn (see above with sausages)
Watch out! When the water boils, it evaporates (turns into steam - the smoky stuff coming out of the top of the pan). If this happens too much and you aren't paying attention, all the water can disappear. The result is 'sticking & burning' - see above ('stickingtothepan') - followed by smoke, fire and fire brigade!
After about 15 minutes check the rice, pasta or potatoes. The noodles, if thin stringy ones, will be done in about five minutes, leave them any longer and you get soup. If the rice tastes like peanuts, or the pasta has the consistency of shoe-laces, keep it boiling. Potatoes generally feel like bricks until the knife can pass in easily. Once done, strain (in a strainer - the pan with loads of holes in it) to get all the water out and then add to the sausages and gravy or vice versa. Your call whether you want to mix them up. Salt and pepper to taste and enjoy.
Try different variations of potatoes i.e. mashed, boiled etc for variety
When I am on the road I usually cook everything in my travel saucepan and then eat out of that using my knife, fork and spoon set - usually saves wrestling with Klaus from Switzerland for a plate and Pjalobke from Poland for a fork. Also saves on washing up.
Time for another classic - 'stew'. Stew in my mind stands for 'Stuff That's Edible Within' as you can literally stick any leftovers you have (within reason) into it.
- Onions and mushrooms
- Stock cubes
One of the easiest things to do. Whatever meat you have, be it chicken, pork, beef, sausages etc. cut it up into cubes or 'slithers'. Then cut up the veggies (see 'points to note' about why you do it in this order) into manageable bits. Peel the potatoes and dice them into cubes. Throw them all into a pot that has a lid - preferably a 'casserole dish'. If you are unsure what one of these is, get your old Neighbours videos out and play the bits when Madge used to bring a casserole over to anyone new in Ramsey Street or those in trouble. Still unsure? Big ovenproof pot with a lid.
Get the stock cube and put it into a mug and add boiling water. Dissolve the sock cube in the water and add this water into the meat and veg. Add more water until it just covers the stuff inside. Add salt and pepper and any other herbs and spices you can find, and put it into a reasonably hot oven. Leave it to cook. Stews are like wine, they develop with time. The longer they take to cook or stand, the tastier they become as all the flavours intermingle and get involved. On the subject of wine - red wine will always flavour a beef stew, try some white wine for chicken, cider with pork, Guinness with beef and any beer or wine left over with any of them really! Just whack it in and let it simmer.
The stew is done when the potatoes are cooked through - i.e. when a knife passes easily through. Also take a bit of the meat out and cut it in half. You will know if it's done... if you think it is, taste it. In fact, taste the veggies and the sauce as well. If the sauce is too bland, add salt, pepper and any chilli powder or other things you see lying around. Whilst cooking, the meat should release its juices into the sauce to give it flavour.
To make it an even better dish...
- Add another stock cube, to make it really 'meaty'.
- Add a bit of cream to the sauce, which will lighten and thicken it.
- Chopped garlic always adds to the flavour.
- ...as does the red wine and beer mentioned above.
It is a stew, it is up to you... bung it all in and cook it up. They generally turn out really well. If you are around for a bit, why not cook a load up and then keep what you don't eat for reheating and eating later. This sort of food, if refrigerated properly, can be kept for up to three days.
If you are on your travels or even out camping at home, stews are great to cook up on the fire. Get the fire hot, get the pot over the heat and let it merrily bubble away, stirring every now and then. Hot, wholesome and good for you.
The biggest problem with barbecues is that everyone thinks they are easy and we also miss the point. We've all been to them, we've all eaten the food and we've all had to whack the food back onto the flames 'for a couple of minutes' to stop the damn thing walking out of the garden by itself, if you catch my drift! For me, there is nothing nicer on a hot day than a plate full of barbie cooked burgers, snags, a chicken leg and a cold bottle of beer. However, if the closest you ever been to a barbie is when you nicked your sister's doll when you were about eight, holding it ransom for a pile of sweets and some money, then you are going to be in for a surprise when you come to do your own.
On TV, you will probably have seen people, armed with a roaring flame, hot charcoal and a pile of raw meat, chuck the stuff on and create amazing food that, according to the people there at the time, tastes amazing. The thing is, when you try it, all you seem to get is a pile of frazzled meat, burnt in all the best places, black to taste and to touch, but raw in the middle. Why? Well, it goes back to this burning thing. If you put food on a flame, it burns. If you put it over heat, it cooks...and the barbecue taste we all love comes naturally.
Let's repeat that. If you put food on a flame, it burns. If you put it over heat, it cooks. The taste we love from a barbecue will come after only 30 seconds over the flames...
So, what's the Secret?
Defrost all the meat first. If you want to make it tasty, dip it in a barbecue sauce or some kind of prepared sauce (which you could always make yourself), or simply cover/season it with salt and pepper (and even a bit of chilli powder, garlic salt, mixed herbs etc.). If you are marinating the meat, leave it marinating for a few hours/all day for the best effect.
If you are going to use veggie sausages, beware, as quite often they will crumble and disintegrate into the fire. Vegetables can be barbecued by either wrapping them in silver foil and seasoning, or by putting them on a skewer (made even nicer by dipping them in a mixture of honey and mustard and seasoning first). Again, be careful not to burn.
Bread of some kind is essential, and rolls are usually the easiest thing to use. If you want to get a bit fancier, get a long french loaf or several baguettes, cut one inch slices (stopping before cutting all the way through) and butter on the inside of each slice with a dab of butter and garlic mix. Wrap in tinfoil, and cook carefully over low to medium heat, and 'voila'! (literally, 'you smell of garlic').
Potato salad is easy and tasty - boil up some potatoes (check out our potato guide for more) and dice into cubes. Mix with some mayonnaise, herbs and if you want to get a bit fancier, bacon pieces and slices of hard boiled egg. Yum!
Other salads - whatever takes your fancy. Coleslaw is good, usually prepared with carrots/lettuce/raisins etc.
If the barbecue is based on the idea that wood and coal burn to produce flame and heat, make sure you prepare it properly. Stack the wood up once lit and let it burn for about half an hour, so that it gets really hot. It doesn't matter if you have a small inferno happening, just make sure that you don't set fire to anything! When you feel it is hot enough, level out the coals and ashes so that you have red embers facing up and damp all flames down. Remember: If you put food on a flame, it burns. If you put it over heat, it cooks. You are now ready to cook. If you are using a gas or electric one, make sure you heat it up for a while so that it is hot enough.
The secret is to do everything slowly and part-cook (in an oven) all the large stuff or the things with meat around a bone in e.g. chicken legs. Burgers and sausages can be cooked from frozen, steaks etc should always be defrosted, and in my mind, marinated.
On the barbecue: find our which is the really hot area, the hot area, and the warm area. That way you can use the barbecue to cook everything properly and all at the same time. If you can't pre-cook the chicken, get it on first and stick it in the coolest area (warm enough to cook, but cool enough not to burn). Turn it every now and then and give it loads of time to cook. Always check it before you hand it out/eat it by cutting into it by the bone and looking for signs of red/raw meat and the thing flinching when the knife goes in!
Now simply use the three sections of the barbecue to cook the food. Medium heat to get them started, warm when they are nearly done and then hot to finish it off just before serving. Be aware that the fat that will drip off the snags and burgers may catch light in the fire creating flames not witnessed since Windsor Castle, except this time the Queen won't be on hand to put out the flames! Don't panic. If the food is getting too burnt, put it to the side, or take it off the barbecue. If you cook it all slowly, or to be sure part cook the food first, then you will have a great barbie.
Keep in mind that chicken (possibly the best barbecue food!) takes a while to cook thoroughly, which you definitely want to do in order to avoid salmonella, which is a potentially fatal form of food poisoning. Chicken also burns easily, so in general you will want to put chicken on before everything else in a medium-heat area and take it off last, turning regularly. Drumsticks and wings are best for barbecue purposes.
Whilst cooking, always remain near the food - things like sausages tend to drip fat with a low flash point onto the coals, the result of which is singed snags and large flames. It's best to always have a beer in hand (needless to say) when supervising cooking - don't panic, just pour a little beer onto the flames (anything that falls on the meat will add to the flavour). Make sure you only use what is required to put the flames out, as in some countries wasting beer is more of a crime than mugging grannies.
Other barbecue ideas?
- Wrap fish up in strong cooking foil (the thin, cheap stuff will burn) seasoned with salt, pepper, herbs, lemon, olive oil etc and slowly cook it on the warm section. Or carefully cook it, seasoned, over the flames. Beware of it making everything taste 'fishy' and it breaking up and falling into the fire, and make sure it is as fresh as possible - frozen fish is not good and will be tough eatin'.
- Sweet corn - again, cook slowly and watch for burning. Season well.
- If travelling, why not try something local on the fire? Almost all cultures have some kind of traditional 'burned delicacy', and you never know - you could be surprised! Just be sure to cook all dubious food well - there is no such thing as 'rare' chicken!
- Open cup mushrooms (don't EVER eat mushrooms you pick yourself, unless you really are an expert - many of them look highly edible and are deadly poisonous) of a decent size barbecue very well if you do them the right way - fill the gills with whatever leftover marinade you have, or cover with blue cheese and roast upside-down on the grill.
On your travels...
In campsites all over the world - in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America in particular, you have the use of barbecues. Simply stick 50c in and away you go. A lot of fun, can be very social, is cheap and a great laugh.
Mess these up and you're an idiot. Always worth putting a bit of salt in to the water whilst cooking.
Slice the potatoes into thin 'rounds' as they will boil quicker. Really boil them hard. Once they are completely soft, to the point that they fall apart when the knife goes in, strain them. If you have a 'masher' all the better - mash away with a little bit of milk, butter and pepper. If there is no masher, get a knife and stir the potatoes rapidly with it, therefore cutting the potato up into little pieces. Then get a wooden spoon and stir as hard as possible. Add a little milk and butter and continue to beat the potatoes until creamed to your liking. Two points to note:
- Mashing with metal knives, forks and spoons can scratch and destroy pans
- Adding cheese or herbs during the mashing process can make it 'well tasty'!
Cut into the sizes you want from peeling and put in boiling water. Bring to the boil and boil for about five minutes. Pre heat the oven to 'as hot as possible', find an oven dish and put enough oil in it to cover the bottom. Put this into the oven to heat up. When the oil is heated, put the potatoes in, spoon oil over the tops and put into the oven as high as possible. Give them about an hour to cook, turning occasionally, if you like them really crispy. Basically, keep an eye on them, in particular the side on the bottom of the pan which will cook quicker as it is in oil and can easily stick to the dish and break when you try to take them out. These should be one of the first things to go in if you are cooking loads of food as they take longer, and once nearly cooked, can always be put at the bottom of the oven to be kept warm.
Peel potatoes and cut into desired chip shape i.e. big fat ones, little 'french fry' jobs or, even cooler, small cubes. Make sure they are as dry as possible (note the point below about putting water into hot oil/fat). Heat a pan half full of oil - vegetable oil is fine. To test whether it is hot enough, grab a chip and dunk the end in to see what happens. If it is ready it will fizz and start to cook. CAREFULLY place the chips in, best done with a big spoon. Keep them moving and watch for colour change. Taste test to see when done and then take out with a spoon with hole in the bottom to cut down on the grease on the plate. Putting them onto kitchen roll will help suck up excess grease.
Chip pan fires are great for burning the house down. If you don't have a deep fat fryer and intend on making your own in oil, please be careful. I had a chip pan fire once when I was trying to be a smart arse cooking my own chips. If you add water to the boiling fat/oil to put it out it will explode and spread the flames everywhere. If there is a fire, keep calm, dampen a towel and put it over the pan. This stops the oxygen from fuelling the flames and puts the flames out. Keep an eye on the chips to see when they're done. Failing that, get oven chips, place on a tray and bake in the oven. Much less hassle.
Not sure if this is how it's spelt. Want to be flash? Slice the potatoes really thinly. In a jug, make up a mixture of milk, butter, diced onions, mushrooms, salt, pepper, garlic and mixed herbs (cream, as always, optional - as is white wine to be really really flash!!) In an oven-proof dish, melt some butter on the bottom of the dish to prevent 'stickage'. Place a layer of potato slices on the bottom and then cover with a bit of the milky mixture and a bit of grated cheese. Then another layer of potato, mixture and cheese. Repeat until you get to the top. Cover with grated cheese, pepper and a few mixed herbs. Then stick it in the bottom of the oven for an hour and a half - cooking really slowly on a medium heat. When you are about to serve, whack some grated cheese on the top and some more mixed herbs and then grill until the cheese goes golden brown. It should, by that time, be really soft inside and, also, 'tasty as hell'.
(a variation of this is to use tomatoes, bacon, peppers etc in the mixture inside, and then, just before serving, break a couple of eggs on the top of the whole lot and stick it back in the oven. When the eggs are done - serve. This is a French dish, god knows what it is called. All I know is that when you serve it, everyone will be dead impressed.)
Other Food Suggestions
Cooking with cream
Cream or crème fraiche is great to cook with - cream is the less healthy option of course. You can make ordinary dishes quite simply superb and it is dead simple to use. Got a saucepan full of tomatoes, onions, lentils, mushrooms, peppers etc looking a bit boring? Add a touch of cream to make a lovely pink, smooth, sauce. Once you have nearly made your meal, just add a bit of cream. I don't know how much I use, probably about three or four tablespoons... it depends on the dish. It is always best to add a bit, stir it in and taste. If it needs more, keep adding it. The secret is not to add too much, as all you will taste is cream! If you don't have cream, you can add a bit of milk. Coconut milk is also great to add for texture and flavour... especially with curries.
Get a chicken breast, cut it into chunks. Throw it in a frying pan with a small bit of olive oil (preference), some diced garlic, a small diced chilli, finely chopped peppers and then 'sear' the meat i.e. cook the outside. Once 'seared' add crème fraiche, a couple of teaspoons of mustard, some mixed herbs and maybe some tarragon. Turn the heat down, cover (if possible) and cook slowly. Take pieces out and cut open to see when it is cooked [make sure it is cooked guys otherwise enjoy a ring of fire - if you catch my drift!] Serve either straight onto salad, with pasta or with veggies and potatoes.
Want to do something simple, tasty and special? Fry the steak as you want it cooked. When just about there add crème fraiche, mustard and a few peppercorns to the frying pan and let it finish cooking on a very low heat, turning the steak to let the juices out and mix with the sauce. Place steak on the plate and then either pour the sauce over the top or serve on the side.
Want to go a bit further? Feeling confident?
Marinade steak first, which means prepare a 'wet mixture' in a bowl which you soak the steak in for as long as you can - minimum of one hour. The steak then takes all the flavour in. A basic marinade could be a bit of red wine, worcester sauce, garlic, pepper, balsamic vinegar, chilli. Don't worry if you don't have these things - experiment! Heat the frying pan up, put only a small amount of oil in it and then whack the steak on. It will cook very quickly, especially if thin, so watch it if you want it rare/medium rare. Cut it open to see how it is doing. Nearly done? Take it out of the frying pan. Get some red wine and pour in enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Boil it up to burn off the alcohol and also to help it lift the flavours off the pan from the steak. Bring down to a low heat, add a small bit of water, some gravy granules (only a few), some pepper and mix it up. Stick the steak back in and turn it a few times to let the gravy/sauce soak in. Let it all simmer, cover if you can, and then serve. Unless you really stuff it up, it will be gorgeous. Then experiment from there.
Fish is good for you for all sorts of reasons. Tuna, in cans, is normally cheap and great to make assorted meals with. Stick it with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers and seasoning (and a little bit of cream) - mix with pasta and cover with grated cheese...lovely! Mix with mayonnaise, pepper and sweet corn for a great filling for sandwiches. This can also be mixed in with pasta, hot or cold, for a meal that can be made in minutes. Tinned salmon can also be used, although I'm a bit dodgy when it comes to bones and quite often you can open up the tins to find more bones than a Saxon burial site!
It's not difficult to do, but then so many people cock it up it makes you wonder what they do wrong. The art of cooking is that it's all about timing. The veggies should be one of the last things to go on. If you put them on too early and you are left waiting for the other things to cook, they can often spoil [usually by going yellow and tasting like an old pair of manky pants]. The best way to cook them is to steam them. If you have or can find/borrow a steamer, all the better. If not, get a metal strainer, put your veggies in it and then put it over a pan of boiling water - placing a lid over the top of the vegetables. This ensures that when you cook them that they keep all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals in them, which are often lost when boiled hard in water. They are done when a sharp knife can be passed through fairly easily. As mentioned already, if your 'greens' turn yellow, you've gone too far.
Points to Note:
- Knives are sharp. They hurt when not used properly and cause blood flow.
- Pans are hot when they've been sitting on a stove/flame for half an hour.
- You can get food poisoning from undercooked meat, but will struggle to be ill from a mis-boiled carrot.
- Salad - if not washed properly, can make you very ill (occasionally washed in muddy puddles out the back of the hotel!)
- Vegetables can be added to most dishes - peas being easier, broccoli a little bit harder as you have to watch not to overcook.
- Always cut your veggies up first, before the meat. Never cut anything on a surface that has had raw meat on as this is how you pick up 'e coli', Salmonella and other things like that. Avoid it by washing the board, turning it over or cutting the meat last.
- Left-over beans - can be added to anything - seriously! They add bulk and texture to your meal.
Essentials to have in the kitchen (or to take on your travels):
- Stock cubes - come in all sorts of flavours. Chicken, beef and vegetable flavours are best to take.
- Chilli powder
- Curry powder
- Pepper (+ peppercorns) - a few peppercorns thrown into a meal can do wonders if left to cook.
- Mixed herbs - go fantastically in everything. If travelling why not take a big bag with you... beware of border crossings with it, as could get mistaken for something else! (doubtful)
- Garlic powder - great for food and wards off colds and unwanted snogs!!