Food, cooking and other thoughts

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that I enjoy cooking. I actually like doing it. This after years of saying that I like baking but dislike cooking.

I’ve been trying to think why I’m enjoying it or, perhaps more importantly, why I had stopped enjoying it all those years ago. The only good reason that I can come up with is the one that’s also responsible for my dislike of Charles Dickens (except when adapated by the BBC, apparently).

School.


At one time, I do genuinely remember enjoying cooking. And I was actually not too bad at it. Hey, I liked cooking enough to voluntarily take food technology at GCSE. After a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that this is the point where I stopped enjoying cooking.

When I chose that GCSE, I made the naive assumption that it would largely be a practical GCSE about cooking, menu planning and the like. That’s certainly what the previous two years of cookery at school had been: learning techniques and cooking things. Apparently this is quite unusual in modern schools, but I got lucky. So naturally I assumed that we’d be getting to do trickier things and learning more about the planning and arrangement of meals at GCSE-level. I’d assumed that my course work would be a combination of paper-based work and ‘can you cook what you’ve planned?’ style stuff.

Er, not so much.

As soon as I started my GCSE it was all about menu planning, nutrition and, well, that was it. Being allowed in the kitchen with actual ingredients? Turned into an occassional treat. In fact, I learned nothing useful about food and menu planning because most of it was about unlikely scenarios. My course work? I had to plan a menu for a children’s ward at a hospital. Not cook any of it, but twenty pages of work on a proposed menu that took into account the nutritional needs of sick children and the practicality of cooking said menu in a hospital kitchen en mass.

I turned from loving cooking to really quite hating it during those two years. There wasn’t much opportunity for me to do any cooking at home during A-level years and my cooking at uni was largely about staying within my weekly food budget and being easy to cook in a kitchen where five other people are also attempting to cook. Not much chance for creativity.

By the time I moved back home, I was out of practise and intimidated by the prospect of cooking for my mother, who is an excellent cook. So I let myself get into the habit of rarely cooking and definitely never cooking for anyone other than myself.

Moving here and living on my own again was always going to force me to dust off the cooking memory muscles and I was determined that I wouldn’t get sucked into the habits of slamming ready made stuff into the oven or microwave all the time. What I didn’t expect was that I would enjoy cooking again and actually want to experiment and get creative with it. Partially it’s because I enjoy the finished product (when it goes well!) but I’m also enjoying the process of planning, doing and learning each time I cook something.

For the first time, I actually feel confident that I can cook things for other people without disaster and I look forward to cooking for my aunt on Saturdays because I can try out new things, take a bit more time with it and get some feedback.

I’m relying less on ready made stuff than I was when I first got here. In fact, if I’m trying to prepare something really quick because I’m going out, I’m far more likely to cook from scratch (omlette, carbonara) or pull something out of the freezer that I’ve made in the slow cooker (chilli, bolognese, stroganoff, stew) than to use a ready made thing. Those freezer portions are also the easiest things I have for lazy nights because they’re so quick to do.

That’s not to say that I never use ready made stuff – I have frankfurters, shrimp cakes and coconut shrimp in my freezer for the days when I really fancy something like that. But looking at my menus for the last four weeks, I’ve delved into that source three times in 28 meals. Compared to using those short-cuts two or three times a week, as I assumed that I would, I think that’s pretty good.

I’m not sure that it’s made my weekly shop any cheaper. Although I’m not buying a huge amount of ready made stuff, I’m wanting better quality ingredients instead. I try to make sure that I have several cheap meals each week to make up for the meals where I need a couple of expensive ingredients so I think that I’m averaging out. My fresh produce and eggs are all coming from the market or a speciality store now and, although I haven’t done an exact comparison, I suspect that they’re a smidge more expensive than what I could get at the superstore. On the other hand, what I buy is fresher and lasts much longer so I rarely have to throw anything out. My superstore veggies were often getting thrown out because they only sold large packages of stuff, the loose stuff looked even worse than the package and all of it was usually going bad by day 4 of the week. Half a dozen eggs doesn’t happen at the supermarket – you have to buy a dozen at least – and I’m wary of keeping eggs around for a long time even in the fridge. So I’m less wasteful now and planning menus ahead is helping with the weekly budget.

It is odd to realise that I’ve gone from disliking cooking and always looking for the easiest stuff in the supermarket to enjoying cooking and wanting to go that bit further afield for the right ingredients. I wish that I’d discovered this a few years ago (the family mocking would have been less noticeable, about that at least) and I think those years of GCSE food is a large part of what stopped me. There is a lot of debate in the media about how to get kids eating better and I know that one of the big problems now is that many kids don’t have anyone to learn from. I was lucky because my mum cooks really well and my pre-GCSE cookery at school was reasonably useful. A lot of parents can’t cook now and, if the quality of teaching is anything like my GCSE, the schools aren’t equipped to do the job now either.

Part of me wants schools to go back to teaching people how to cook, how to experiment, how to prepare menus and, possibly most importantly, how to shop for their kitchen. Another part of me is absolutely certain that this isn’t the way to go because that will put kids off just as badly as GCSE English put me off Dickens.

I’m not sure there is an easy answer. The good thing is that I like cookery now, I’m slowly growing to love it and I’m looking forward all the experimentation and creativity that I’ve got in my future.

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