Jamie Oliver's secrets for reinventing everyday ingredients

Megan Johnston
'Your freezer is probably your best friend,' Jamie Oliver says.
'Your freezer is probably your best friend,' Jamie Oliver says. Photo: Freddie Claire

For Jamie Oliver, there's no such thing as perfection in the kitchen. Developing confidence and ability, the British chef says, will always be a haphazard journey fraught with ups and downs.

Instead, progress comes from following your inner curiosity and "being nosy": reading recipes, watching cooking videos and talking to friends.

"No matter what part of the cooking landscape you're sitting at – whether you're beginner, medium or advanced – you can progress unbelievably fast if you allow yourself," he says on the phone from Essex.

And while it may be easy to believe Oliver's breezy style on screen is the result of innate skill and a lifetime of cooking in front of a camera, the reality is more complicated.

Actually, he says, being relaxed and confident in the kitchen is something anyone can achieve with a little organisation and experience. For starters, he suggests sitting down for five minutes once a week to sketch out a meal plan, even if you deviate from it later on.

"You will undoubtedly eat healthier, you will undoubtedly save money and ... be able to massage some of the curveballs that friends, families, birthdays throw at you," he says.

Keeping it real

Besides, the father of five keeps too busy to worry about getting everything right, having spent most of the pandemic juggling the release of his latest cookbook 7 Ways with three new cooking shows, the first partially shot on a mobile phone.

"My house is carnage seven times out of 10," he says. "Don't believe the Instagram feeds ... behind every beautiful picture is someone crying, someone throwing [dinner] on the floor or something smashed."

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Oliver's most recent TV show, Jamie's Easy Meals for Every Day, aims to elevate ordinary food using creative twists and a short list of ingredients. Pale ale and cheddar give spaghetti bolognese a British flavour, for example, while sausage-stuffed skin adds a new dimension to roast chicken.

In other words, it's the type of cooking many of us are craving right now after a marathon year of home-cooking.

"Cooking is not just one thing. It's just like gears in a car," he says. "Whether it's fun, whether it's fast, whether it's slow, whether it's more, dare I say, ritualistic or kind of like meditation, food can take care of all of that.

"I wanted to show people that one of those gears of cooking can be quite calm and relaxing and really enjoyable."

How to reinvent everyday ingredients

Quick affordable cooking doesn't have to rely on speedy recipes or shortcuts that compromise on flavour or nutrition, however.

Instead, Oliver argues "quick can also be slow" – for example, by making big batches of curry paste ahead of time, reheating pre-cooked portions of ragu and serving them with a freshly made side dish or slow-cooking cheaper cuts of meat throughout the day.

To reinvent familiar dishes and pantry staples, he suggests experimenting by combining different elements: "It's always nice to have a kind of butting of heads of sweet, sour, salty, savoury, crunchy, soft, hot, cold – you know, just to mix with the matrix."

And if you're lucky enough to live near a farmers' market, his advice is to visit at the end of the day when the ripest, most delicious tomatoes are often marked down in price.

Oliver is less interested in fancy gadgets, too, than an appliance many of us overlook. "Your freezer is probably your best friend", he says, when it comes to convenience, portion control, nutrients and minimising waste.

If you organise it properly, you can make weeknights run more smoothly and easily – for example, by freezing dinner portions flat in reusable storage bags, or in freezer cubes. Once they're frozen flat, you can stack them vertically to save more space.

"The technology of freezing always has been and still is genius," he says. "Our lives have become busier. And with kids and stuff thrown in, having nicer things you can grab from the freezer and quickly cook is still a completely underutilised area."

Jamie's Easy Meals for Every Day, on Thursday at 7.30pm on 10, and 10play.com.au