Over these past few months I've been making things.
I don't know if I'd call it cooking per se, but I've cured pancetta, dried bottarga and brewed rice wine. I've made pickles, jams and sauces, infused oils and aged vinegars. I spent two days making demi-glace (a classic French sauce), and I've sterilised more jars and bottles than I can count.
Much of modern cooking revolves around cooking meals. It makes some sense to do so because after all that's what we sit down to eat, but there's a problem. We focus on meals so much that anything that isn't a meal gets pushed off into the realm of hobby cooking.
Making a cake on the weekend is considered a project, not a necessity. Making jam is a luxury, and if I suggested curing your own Yunnan-style ham for an easy stir-fry, many of you would think I was mad.
The thing is, a focus on meals exposes a disconnect that goes to the heart of a lot of our problems in the kitchen. The things that we might see as hobbies and luxuries are actually a useful part of everyday cooking. Necessary, even.
Homemade teriyaki sauce makes this salmon a cinch (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Reclaiming your time
Focusing on meals places the bulk of our cooking at a time when time itself is most scarce. That frantic period after work and before dinner is a window that never seems big enough. In my house the "three hours of power" between finishing work and the kids' bedtime is chaotic on a good day.
Trying to fit all your cooking into that window is just asking for trouble. It's no wonder we're wanting recipes to be easier and faster. The thing is, no recipe will be easier and faster than having your own fridge or pantry stocked with things that can be turned into a simple meal in minutes.
I can turn my pancetta into any number of pasta dishes. The same goes for the bottarga (although my preference is to grate it over some scrambled eggs for breakfast in the mornings). Homemade teriyaki sauce is fast to make (less than five minutes) but will be a valuable weapon in the fight for evening tranquillity.
You make these things at any time – on a weekend, after dinner, in the morning before work – and every minute you spend on them will save you 10 later on.
Right now you're probably saying: "But I can just buy pancetta, or jam, or teriyaki sauce!"
Of course you can, but what processed foods save in bulk production they make back in mark-up.
To take pancetta as an example again, I can buy good quality pork belly from my butcher for around $20 a kilo. The last time I made pancetta I used a 4kg belly and my hands-on time commitment was probably no more than two hours spread over a month. My out of pocket expenses in making the pancetta were less than $100 but buying four kilos of pancetta at retail would cost me about $350.
The same goes for just about anything homemade. My bottarga (salted, cured fish roe) costs about a third of the retail price. Homemade teriyaki sauce about a quarter. My infused chilli oil is maybe a tenth of what it'd cost me in a shop.
I'd estimate that on average, making something yourself will save you about a two-thirds of the cost of buying the finished product, and often with very little effort.
Today’s project. Cured pork belly. Half of this will become pancetta and the other half is cured in a mix of southwestern Chinese spices (Sichuan peppercorn, fennel, black pepper, bay leaf etc.). This is most of a 6kg side of pork belly that’s been curing for a bit over a week now (I used a kilo or so to make Okinawan-style braised pork belly earlier in the week) so today I washed it in homemade apricot and tamarind liquor (made a few years ago) and hanging it to dry. I dry it in the sun during the day for a few days, then hang it in the fridge at night both to maintain humidity and to keep any animals away. After a few days of sun-drying it can probably stay in the fridge full time. I’ll probably only dry the Chinese-style one for a week or so but the pancetta I might leave for 3 weeks. This isn’t bunker-prep, this is just for fun. For heaven’s sake even in lockdown you can still just order takeaway every night if you want to - and you probably should if you can afford it. A lot of local restaurants could really use your support.
But what about the quality? Aren't these things best left to the professionals?
Here's something people won't often tell you: In almost every circumstance a reasonably proficient amateur will be able to produce a higher quality product than a mass-produced equivalent.
This is because while mass-production requires some expertise, there are dozens of economic factors that affect quality. Cost, government regulation, transportation, shelf-life, ingredient quality… the list is long.
You might not be able to produce perfect pickles the first time you try, but what about the second or third time?
I grew up in a family where homemade foods were the currency of the friendship economy. Almost daily a relative or family friend would drop over homemade chilli sauce, lemons from a backyard tree, jams, marmalades or homebrew beer. Our family returned in kind, too.
It's a practical kindness I continue to this day. I love getting a text from a friend saying that they're dropping off some smoked brisket or something else that they've made, and I'll reciprocate with a bottle of homemade soy sauce or some dumplings.
Dropping off half a cheesecake to a friend who could use a smile should never be considered a chore.
Many families with Italian heritage will gather every summer to bottle passata for the year. Kids shifting boxes of fruit, aunts and uncles on the press, mums and dads filling bottles and grandparents working the crown sealer.
These are the kinds of activities that bring friends and families together. A year's worth of pasta dishes is almost a happy by-product of a day living life together as a family.
A bottle of passata from the shops is certainly no substitute.
Have I convinced you yet?
- More Quarantine Cooking columns from Adam Liaw
- The DIY revolution: How to grow vegies and make your own yoghurt, oat milk, vinegar, pickles and more