Coping in the kitchen

There have been two periods in my life when I’ve been the one in the family working from home, and I sort of fell into cooking the meals most of the time. What follows amounts to some of my (rather naive) coping strategies.

Cauliflower soup

At our local Probus club each June we have an annual midwinter ‘Soup & Buns’ lunch. I usually contribute a soup or two that I’ve made, and one that I’m often asked the recipe for is Cauliflower and Blue-vein Cheese. I don’t know where I got it from originally, but here’s my version. It fills a large saucepan, so you might need to cut the quantities down.

  • 1 brown onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 head of cauliflower (nearly a kilo), trimmed of any leafy bits and roughly chopped
  • 250 grams of potatoes, peeled and chopped (for thickening the soup; I used Agria)
  • 1.5 litres (6 cups) of chicken stock
  • 160 grams (or thereabouts) of blue-vein cheese (any blue-vein cheese will do).

Heat the onion and garlic in a bit of oil in a suitably sized saucepan for about 3 minutes. Add the cauliflower, the potatoes and the stock and bring to the boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes or until everything is tender. Add the cheese, adjust the taste with salt and pepper, then blend everything smooth with a stick blender.

If you don’t have a stick blender for blending by hand you could use a food processer, but it gets messy pouring from one thing to another and you end up with more things to wash. If you don’t have either I suppose you could use a potato masher — it doesn’t matter if there are little bits of cauliflower in the soup, but it might be difficult getting all the bits of potato.

Cheese puffs

I make a distinction between cooking and baking. Baking to me is cakes and stuff, and I really don’t do it. I’d always choose something savoury instead of something sweet. However, here is something which is baking, and savoury, and is dead simple and quick. It’s from a 1970s school cookbook, but I doubt if it originated there.

One cup of flour, one cup of grated cheese, and one cup of milk. Mix them all together with one egg and two teaspoons of baking powder. Place spoonfuls of this mixture on a greased tray or in a muffin pan. Bake for about 10–15 minutes in a fairly hot oven at 200°C. That’s all there is to it, and it makes about a dozen.

It’s the sort of thing you can knock up when you have to bring a plate, or when you have visitors for afternoon tea.

Ratatouille

Hard to spell, easier to say (ratatooey). Actually, it’s just a simple vegetable stew.

The most important ingredient is an eggplant (aubergine). Cut it lengthwise into quarters and then into chunks. Cut the next ingredient, zucchini (courgette) into similar-sized chunks. Probably use a capsicum (bell pepper) as well. That would do, but I sometimes like to add chunks of brown mushroom, because they’re quite meaty, and cauliflower florets, because they add a bit of crunch. You’ll also need an onion and a can of chopped tomatoes. Plus a wee pinch of chilli flakes; leave this out and it will all be a bit bland, put more than a small pinch and you’ll regret it also. Finally, the usual salt and pepper to taste.

Peel and slice the onion (and perhaps a clove of garlic) and fry it until it’s soft in a bit of oil in a frying pan deep enough to take all the ingredients. Then put the eggplant in to soften it up somewhat as well. Finally, put everything else in and simmer the mix until it’s all cooked — maybe 20 minutes, but it’s not critical. Put a bit more liquid in if looks like it needs it.

That’s all. It’s a meal by itself, but you could have it with meat. Serve it with something to soak up the juices, such as mashed potatoes or crusty bread.

Quick stir fry

This is a simple but tasty emergency meal — a stir fry. There four components: meat, vegetables, noodles and sauce.

  • The meat can be just about anything: pork, chicken, beef or even prawns. If necessary get it out of the freezer and microwave it until it’s nearly thawed; it’s easier to slice thinly if it’s still a bit stiff. Cut it up (except prawns) into thin strips.
  • For the vegetables, you can chop up anything suitable into bite-sized bits. That’s the best way, but for speed just grab a commercial packet of stir-fry vegies out of the freezer. They don’t need thawing.
  • Use a packet of precooked noodles, such as udon, singapore or hokkien — whatever you’ve got on hand.
  • The sauce can be made up in lots of ways, but one that I like is equal parts of soy sauce and sweet chilli sauce (perhaps less chilli). Add garlic and ginger, either cut up from fresh or more quickly from those sort of toothpaste tubes that you get in supermarkets.

Put some oil in the wok and cook the meat, then add the the vegetables. This takes the longest, particularly if they’re frozen, and especially the little bits of broccoli that they all seem to include. Next add the noodles and the sauce. This is the quickest bit, because it just needs heating through and stirring to get everything coated in sauce.

Done. Go to whoa in about 20 minutes. If you want to be fancy, slice a spring onion up thinly and sprinkle it on top.

Another quickie

There’s a quick meal I do sometimes that’s sort of a bit like a stir fry and a bit like a barbecue. It’s a kebab, which needs cutting up like a stir fry, and cooks like a barbecue.

The meat can be anything, but I use lamb cut into cubes. The vegetables can be just about anything — zucchini, capsicum, mushrooms and red onion work for me, but it depends on what’s on hand. For seasoning I sprinkle the meat with a bit of Moroccan seasoning, but you could use just salt and pepper. Intersperse everything on bamboo kebab skewers that you’ve had soaking in water while you did the cutting up, sprinkle with a little of oil, and cook under the grill, turning once. It doesn’t take long, so keep an eye on it.

At the beginning of all this, throw some rice in your $20 Warehouse rice cooker or put some 40-second rice in the microwave.

And that’s all.

The elusive poached egg

When I was growing up, the family always made poached eggs in a special pan by cooking the eggs in little aluminium dishes suspended in boiling water. They had a pre-determined hemispherical shape and somehow ended up with a sort of skin.

I cooked my own by breaking the eggs into a pan of simmering water, but it was always very messy and nothing like the perfect white poached eggs served in cafés. For years I’ve been trying to avoid the problem of egg white spreading everywhere while cooking.

Adding vinegar to the water helped, but only a bit. Breaking the egg into gladwrap and making a parcel was a disaster. Breaking the egg into a sieve didn’t help at all. Swirling the water just seemed to spread the mess.

Then I discovered something by accident. While on holiday, I got some eggs, and poached them. Bingo: nearer to the goal than I’ve ever managed before. They were free-range eggs. So — it seems that it actually does depend on having fresh eggs from happy hens.

(Stop press: I’ve found an easy way that works magic on ’ordinary‘ eggs — use the microwave. See below.)

The right sauce

When you look at enough recipes, you start to see what underlies many of them. And the basis of many dishes is a sauce, so it’s worth trying to get to grips with some of them. Two of the most important are a white sauce and pasta sauce.

  • A white sauce (or béchamel sauce) is just three ingredients: butter, flour and milk. Melt the butter and add an equal amount of flour, then cook it for a couple of minutes without letting it get brown. Next add milk gradually in small amounts, whisking the mixture to stop lumps forming. If you add cheese you get Mornay sauce, which is great over fish. If you add oysters (or mushrooms) and a few other things you have a soup. Or use it as the basis of a macaroni and cheese bake. And so on.
  • Pasta sauce is even simpler. Heat olive oil, cook chopped onions and garlic in it until they’re well softened, then add canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Cook it until it gets to the right degree of thickness. Dump the cooked pasta in it to coat it, then serve it up with some sort of meat (such as meatballs) or have it by itself with vegetables on the side.

Just nuke it

We have a microwave, and for years I’ve used it for defrosting frozen food. Lately, I’ve been discovering that it can be used for cooking some stuff more quickly and with less washing up. Here’s what I’ve worked out so far:

  • Corn on the cob is simple. Don’t husk it — put it all in and cook for 3 minutes on high. Then take it out with an oven mitt and cut off the stalk end. You’ll be able to just slide the cob out of the husk and leave all the whiskery bits behind. This actually works better than any other way of cooking corn on the cob.
  • Poached egg works too. I originally thought it wouldn’t, because I tried it a couple of times in a mug of water and ended up with an egg that was cooked very unevenly. Then I tried it in a bowl (Pyrex glass about 120 mm diameter). Put half a cup of cold water in it. Break the egg into it gently. Microwave for 45-60 seconds; it depends on how runny you prefer, and the size of the egg. You can leave it in the water a while to continue cooking if you want — the top sometimes looks less cooked if it has poked out of the water, so swirl the water about to make it go white. Remove the egg with a spoon and drain it on a paper towel.
  • Scrambled eggs can be made in a cup. Break an egg into a cup suitable for microwaving. Add salt and pepper and a splash of milk and a dab of butter and scramble it all up. Check it after 20–30 seconds on high and mix it again. Keep checking and mixing at short intervals until it’s cooked the way you like it. With my microwave and my eggs it takes about 50 seconds in total. Not quite the same as when it’s done on the stove.
  • Baked potatoes needn’t take an hour in the oven. After scrubbing the spud clean, the important thing is to prick it with a fork a couple of times in each side, otherwise you could end up with exploded potato. Cook on high for 5 minutes each side, depending on the size of the potato. It’s pretty easy, but not as good as oven-cooked potatoes. It does save time, but that’s really all it’s got going for it.

© 2017 Tony Pritchard