Monday, 28 May 2012

Start with an onion

I treat recipes like I treat knitting patterns, like Jack Sparrow treats the Pirate's Code: as suggestions. Not prescriptions. Start with an onion, season well, chuck in representatives of all the major food groups and put some cheese on top, and you can't go far wrong.

Without wanting to get all me me I am so super special me, not to mention garr kids these days get off my lawn, it seems that this is not a common approach to cooking amongst the under 30s.

So many people revere recipes as The Only Way, and can't stomach the idea of the smallest deviation: oh, I can't make this, I don't like courgettes. No, but you like peppers, or aubergines, or mushrooms... I have to stop cooking it right now, the recipe specifically says four minutes and it's been four minutes and seven seconds! Yes, but if you use your actual eyes to actually look at it, or even your actual finger to actually touch it, you will observe that it is not yet browned or warmed all the way through. If I ask my gentleman friend to check on the carrots, he's thrown into a panic: how do I tell if they're cooked?

Cookery programs, special Jubilee recipe supplements, "Three meals which will drive your man WILD!", have managed to drum it into our heads that cooking - the proper kind of cooking, that starts with an onion and involves chopping vegetables and using your judgement, rather than reading the packet instructions and pressing Play on the microwave - is a desperately complicated endeavour, best left for special occasions. You're in a rush, or you're tired, and it's best to be safe and just heat up a frozen pizza.

For instance: last week I stumbled upon a recipe for parsnip and peanut loaf, and almost obeyed all its instructions (half a pint of double cream? Are you trying to kill me?). But I've made three variations on it since, and haven't checked the recipe once. The idea's in there now, and as long as I follow the general idea - a good pile of root veg, a handful of nuts, maybe some breadcrumbs for crunch and an egg to bind it together - dinner miraculously emerges.

It's not foolproof by any means - I might look at a recipe and think nah, that'd be much nicer with oregano and chilli, and I might be right, but I'm going to end up with something which tastes remarkably like everything I've cooked over the last week which was beefed up with oregano and chilli. And my surefire way to deliciousness, which is to stir in a knob of butter and melt some cheese on top, might turn up trumps every time, but it is also the reason I have high cholesterol at the age of twenty fucking five.

It's about confidence, I suppose. Confidence that you know the handful of basic techniques which turn raw materials into dinner, and don't need a guidebook to hold your hand every step of the way. Somewhere along the line we've lost that and become a nation of microwaved lasagna.

Be brave. Start with an onion.


  1. Hurrah for this! My friends are always awed by the fact that I only ever really use recipes for baking, and for pretty much everything else just start with an onion and make it up as I go along...sometimes with a vague memory of an initial recipe or the way my mum does it. And it usually works out juuuust fine. Recipes are overrated :) xx

  2. Teach your generation The Way Of The Onion, or we're doomed. DOOMED!