you only have to know how to cook 12 dishes

IMG_9760 (1)

Hearing Yotam Ottolenghi speak, in our city concert hall, didn’t change the way I cook. I didn’t go home, his cookbook under one arm, and switch on my computer to buy his rose Harissa paste on-line. But I did go home thinking differently about my life in the kitchen.


Two middle-aged men, talking from low comfy chairs on a large stage, in front of a publicity screen of a yellow lemon, wasn’t jaw-dropping theatre. Yet, there we were, 1500 of us, mainly women, lapping up their words as the conversation meandered from the profit-and-loss-led restaurant world, to the pleasures of home cooking.


This was when, for me, the conversation got interesting. ‘When friends come to your place for a meal’, Yotam said, ‘they don’t want to be surprised by a new dish. They come to your place because they like you and enjoyed what they ate when they last came over. They don’t come to be impressed by some dish you’ve never cooked before. They came in the hope of talking in a relaxed way round your table.’


I sat up in my seat. This is what I’d left my own kitchen table, part way through supper, to hear. Not commercial restaurant gossip. I’d come to think through the perennial dilemma I feel in the kitchen, around wanting and not wanting to cook. I’d come to hear how I might make cooking into something that I looked forward to and liked doing, rather than a chore I had mixed feelings about it.


The people I know who love being in the kitchen are good cooks. Some of them are trained chefs. Others devoted themselves to cooking from a young age. All of them seem to thrive on cooking with an audience. They enjoy throwing a meal together, rarely consult recipes, and never appear to fuss. I also know quite a lot of people who, all thumbs in the kitchen, avoid cooking whenever possible. They delegate cooking to an able partner. They eat out. They warm up frozen meals or resort to a small stable of dishes with a minimum of pantry ingredients. They eat to live, rather than the other way round.


Yotam Ottolenghi was suggesting another approach to cooking that I hadn’t thought of. Something simpler and so glaringly obvious that I’d spent decades in the kitchen blind to.


Ottolenghi isn’t a trained chef. He learned to cook as a student at university on a tight budget. He learned to cook because he found himself starving. He missed his mother’s Middle Eastern cooking and his father’s Italian cooking. He worked out how to cook by experimenting, by trial and error. Possibly as a result of this, thirty years on, he still loves cooking.


Sitting in the audience, I felt a weight lift. I wasn’t being told to perfect my knife skills. I didn’t have to fork out for an expensive cooking course held at an inconvenient time and place. I didn’t have to start writing menu plans a week ahead or frequenting special shops to look out expensive ingredients (although, Yotam did keep returning to a rose Harissa paste only available on his on-line shop).


‘If you’re a home cook’, he said, ‘be a home a cook. Don’t expect to be a chef. And don’t be put off cooking by cooking shows on television. Home cooking is at an all-time low and the ratings of cooking shows are at an all-time high. Forget about expertise. Just cook the kind of dishes that you like yourself, and your family and friends will too.’


‘You don’t have to know how to cook everything. When friends come to your place, they come wanting more of the kind of food they enjoyed last time they came over. They don’t want a stressed out host who can’t relax until after the main course is served. There’s absolutely no rule about having different courses. A home kitchen isn’t a restaurant kitchen, with a sous chef to make sure courses go out on time. Don’t add to the pressure by trying to keep a dish hot in the oven without drying it out. Just get everything on to the middle of the table, and sit back and enjoy the feast.’


The two men on the stage nodded in agreement. ‘Besides, home cooking is often code for cooking for kids. And kids don’t like fancy food. But they do like good food. And they never fib about liking a dish. They either do, and say so, or don’t and make a face and push it away’. Laughing between themselves, as they soaked up the murmurs of the audience, Yotam went on to say something that completely changed my attitude to cooking.


‘If you’re a home cook’, he said, ‘and nearly all of us are home cooks, you really only need to know how to cook 12 dishes. Good cooking is about practice. Enjoying cooking is about confidence. So it makes sense to focus on a finite number of dishes, a repertoire of dishes, which you can expand on and adapt but always have in your mind to fall back on. You know what I mean. One great soup. One terrific cake. One risotto or rice dish. A vegetable dish that doesn’t have vegetarian stamped all over it and that anyone can tuck into. One amazing dessert. One meal-in-itself salad. One roast that can be barbecued in summer and will warm your kitchen in winter.’


‘This’, he said, ‘is all you have to do. If you get these core dishes right, that’s enough. Of course you can change them, but the main thing is to get up enough confidence that you feel able to express yourself in the kitchen. Because unless you get the timing right – cooking is all about timing – you will never feel truly competent. Timing comes down to practice, to doing the same thing over and over, until your brain knows what to do without you telling it.’


There was a hush in the auditorium as mobile phones dropped into laps. Did that mean, I wondered, that I didn’t have to buy Ottolenghi’s cookbook? Would I be better off slipping out of the concert hall, at the end of the talk, and scribbling down the 12 dishes I would like to be confident cooking, and stop intimidating myself with a level of expertise that will never be mine?


In the end I felt so grateful to Yotam Ottolenghi for saying what I needed him to say – yet till that second hadn’t known I needed him to say – that I bought his yellow cookbook.


The next morning at breakfast I sat down with my notebook and wrote down my list of 12 dishes. It felt ridiculously simple to do. There was barely any dithering. I wasn’t beset by the kind of indecision that usually preys on me when I sit down to plan meals. Instead I identified 12 dishes that I knew worked in my kitchen and worked back from that. When I was done I looked over my list. I knew I’d cheated a little, by extending each category. Still, it was a basic list.


I also felt pleased to admit that I didn’t want to be a great cook. That I love good food, but don’t always love cooking. The idea of being able to frame my relationship to cooking by identifying a set number of dishes that, like old friends, I can rely on, makes the world of difference to me. I can feel confident in the kitchen without having to master a huge number of recipes. I can be a minimalist cook and feel no shame in that.

I’ll never be a great cook, just as I’ll never be a great artist. But I can be a perfectly good home cook, and I can start right now.

Here is my list:

  1. Soup – chicken, stock, vegetable
  2. Salad – Greek, Tabbouleh, vinaigrette
  3. Roast – chicken/salmon
  4. Rice – risotto/fried
  5. Ragu/Bolognese
  6. Bread – sourdough, pizza
  7. Vegetarian – roasted veggies, soaked beans
  8. Sauces – humus, mayonnaise, guacamole
  9. Eggs – baked, scrambled etc
  10. Cake – carrot
  11. Tart – fruit
  12. Pie – shortcrust