what to cook and how to cook it

by haywardhelen


My mother never taught me how to cook – any more than her mother taught her. Luckily for most of my life it hasn’t mattered that I haven’t known how to cook. My friends, who I often cooked for, have always assumed I could cook quite well. My family, once I had one, did too. However I myself felt that I was winging it. I felt that I was making things up as I went along. Often I’d cook the same dishes, week in and out, mainly so as not to have to think too hard and also so that I could combine it with looking at facebook and making school lunches and keeping an eye on the washing.


Two months ago I bought a cookbook called ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ by Jane Hornby. The afternoon I bought it, a chunky Phaidon hardback, I returned home flushed with the certainty that it would cajole my family into cooking. The visual presentation was so appealing that I felt confident that if anything could overcome my family’s resistance to cooking it was this book.


But it didn’t catch on – since when was anyone cajoled into cooking? Instead the book sat lonely on the kitchen windowsill for a good month. When I reopened ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ I realised straightaway why I had bought it, and why it really was different from my other cookbooks. It was a cookbook for people, just like me, who had been winging it in the kitchen. For people who, for however long, had just assumed that they knew how to stir fry beef and make a chicken pie, even though they’d never been shown how to do it.


On the shelf in the pantry I have nine cookbooks, many of which explain step by step how to make a multitude of family dishes. Now and again I look at these books. However really I refer to them to confirm my hunches, or to adapt a recipe, and not to follow the writer’s instructions.


Because you see I am someone who doesn’t like to follow recipes, any more than I like being told what to do in general. I already know how to cook a perfectly good bolognese sauce, I’ll say to myself on flicking through a cookbook. Why on earth do I need to be told how? I’d never guess ingredients when baking, but I’ll hardly ever consult a cookbook when cooking the evening meal.


Until that is I opened ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ and spent time reading the photos. There is text as well, very clear text, but it’s the photos which are gripping. Alongside the standard list of ingredients, in order of their use in a dish, what I particularly like is the large photo of all the ingredients, with everything from two leeks, a rolling pin and a pinch of salt.


Using ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ has been as close to having my hand held in the kitchen as I’ve ever felt. With each dish Jane Hornby shows me how to cook it in a way I’ve secretly hoped I would one day be shown. It makes all the difference being shown what to do visually, rather than being told what to do via text. Step-by-step photos alongside easy-to-follow instructions has the effect of forcing me to slow down – changing my usual practice of throwing everything in the pan, leaving the kitchen for whatever reason, and hoping for the best.


Dish after dish that I cook from this book peels the scales from my eyes. Drop the grated parmesan into the food processor at the end of making pesto sauce, Jane Hornby suggests, before pulsing it lightly. Rather than, as was my old practice, plonking all the ingredients into the food processor and whizzing the sauce into a paste. Mix a paste of flour and water into casseroles at the end of cooking, she instructs, not earlier on in the piece. And make sure to leave a gap between the pie filling and the pastry so that the pastry can fluff up and not sink in the middle.


Having this cookbook on the windowsill in the kitchen is encouraging me to look forward to meals, rather than wishing them away. Above all it has done something magical. It has turned round my resentment at having no choice but to cook for my family into an opportunity to try something new. Not least dish after dish that I cook from this book gains me compliments. I’ve had compliments before, but not consistently like this. It probably helps that my son is about to go on a long voyage and my daughter is convalescing, both of which makes me feel that it’s worth cooking well.


And then the best thing of all happened. My daughter, who looks on cooking as an imposition akin to school homework, has twice suggested that she and I might cook something from ‘that book’. My daughter knows about my struggles in the kitchen. She knows all about it when I burn a pan dry. She knows that I cut corners when supper is late. She knows that sometimes I resent cooking for three near grown ups who could perfectly well cook for themselves. Knowing all this she has understandably held back from joining me at the chopping board. She’ll help when it suits her – she is a keen baker – but she won’t muck in. Who knows? Perhaps now, thanks to Jane Hornby, she will. And even if she doesn’t, just the fact that she would like to, that I’ve shown her that cooking doesn’t have to be a chore, is something to be glad of.