OK, here we go again. Victoria is once again in lockdown and nobody even had time to get a sourdough starter together.
Maybe a year ago we wondered whether lockdowns would be a kind of turning point for our food. A time to look inward and transform our kitchens into some kind of rustic fantasy where freshly baked pies rested on windowsills while we tended abundant vegetable gardens and adorable woodland creatures came to our doors to wish us good morning.
It didn't, and now it's crunch time. Forget sourdough. Forget spending four hours making a single lasagne that you photograph and then eat in 30 minutes. Forget that the only thing coming to the door is a delivery driver and we just need to give him a moment to leave the bag there so we don't accidentally come into contact with another human being.
It's time to take a radical approach to making home cooking normal, and to do that we're going to have to unlearn a heck of a lot of so-called truths of home cooking that are getting in the way of being able to do it well.
You might have heard me discuss a few of these before, but that's because they are so important. Here are five radically normal tips for home cooking.
Stop trying to cram all of your "cooking" into the last minute. Use time to your advantage.
Chefs have dozens of ways to add umami to their foods. Fancy restaurants might use kombu powders, artisan tsuyu (a sauce made from dashi stock) and house-made garams. Some have stocks, and others use miso, soy and fish sauces. And some hit the jar of chicken powder, Vegeta or MSG. All of these serve the same purpose – to add satisfying savoury notes to the food.
We treat it like it's a dirty secret but if everyone's doing it, why are we pretending that adding umami is anything but a fundamental and important part of cooking?
For a long time chefs could make a career out of getting people to turn up their noses at crumbling a stock cube into stew like our parents and grandparents did. In traditional cooking the whole game was about building umami. People spent months fermenting sauces, curing meats and seafood, drying mushrooms, making stocks. And the fact is, if you want a tastier stew it's a pretty good option. These days we have the benefit of being able to pick these things off a shelf, and if you're not doing that, you're not cooking efficiently.
A dash of fish sauce (or a square of kombu) adds umami to these quick Japanese pickles (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Cooking feels like a chore because we try to do too much of it at once. Forget 15-minute meals. Cooking is actually three discrete tasks – prep, cooking, and cleaning – and if you lump them all together, cooking becomes more difficult than it needs to be. If you're at home anyway, there's no reason you can't get the prep you need for dinner done in the morning or afternoon, and then at dinner time just apply heat to it.
Meal preparation can sound soul-destroying for those of us who don't much like the idea of reheating every meal in a microwave. But there's no reason you can't prep in bulk and just cook later. I'll often cut vegetables for a few days' worth of cooking and then toss them in a pan or wok a la minute.
Stop blaming cooking
Cooking gets a bad rap when it comes to putting meals on the table, but it really is the smallest part of it. Making a meal involves gathering ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, then cleaning up. If you really want to make cooking easier, try shopping in larger blocks and cooking from what you have in the fridge (while reducing waste). Plan your menu. Clean as you go. Use fewer pans or use the barbecue to save on washing up.
We blame cooking because that's the part we're most insecure about it, but there are plenty of other areas where we can improve the process of getting food on the table.
Adam Liaw's slow-cooked Tunisian lamb with rosemary (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Give it time
By rushing our cooking, we remove our biggest advantage – time. And by that I don't mean time to do more; I mean time to do less. Almost every bolognese in Australia could be improved by cooking it a little (or a lot) longer. I cook mine for about two hours but some people go for three or four. We're in the season for slow cooking, and throwing a lamb shoulder in the oven for four hours is a lot easier than tending it on a stove for 30 minutes.
Your wintry stew or curry tastes better the next day because of time. Low-temperature Maillard reactions take place over hours (and also weeks, months and years), so letting your stew sit overnight actually does improve the flavour. Stop trying to cram all of your "cooking" into the last minute. Use time to your advantage. You'll find when you're not rushing your food, it turns out better.
Salmon and corn in the fridge? That'll be salmon with buttered garlic corn for dinner (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Stop leaning on recipes
As Australia's premier recipe resource, I should start by saying that Good Food is a wondrous place for all your recipe needs. You can find hundreds of mine right here ready for you to make a fabulous meal.
That now said, when it comes to normal home cooking, you don't really need recipes. If you look in your fridge and there's salmon and broccoli in there, you're having salmon and broccoli for dinner. Recipes can give you some great ideas but sometimes dinner can just be some fish and vegetables cooked well and seasoned with a bit of salt. Save the recipes for when you want to push yourself to learn something new.