I am always firm in describing myself as a “Home Cook” rather than a chef. There is a world of difference as the latter cooks to earn a living whilst the former cooks to nourish and cherish themselves and their family. Pre Covid-19 I had felt increasingly alone in the role cooking played in my life. It is, nowadays, considered a luxury to be at home full time with the time to cook. My husband works from home and I see the provision of three meals a day as my responsibility but also my pleasure. He does treat us to a restaurant meal once a week, a luxury that a previous generation of home cooks would almost certainly not have enjoyed. But aside from this, planning meals, shopping and cooking are things that I do day in day out.
We live in the country, so having a takeaway is not actually an easy option, nor is popping out for a forgotten ingredient. I make a weekly trip to the farmers market, and have several foods delivered, but a well-stocked larder and a productive vegetable garden are essential. Which stood me in good stead when the lockdown came, although garden wise it could not have come at a worse time of year – the period between last years crop running to seed and this year’s yet to be planted let alone ready to harvest.
Suddenly everyone found themselves in the role of home cook. The scale of the challenge was summed up in one tweet I read in which a mother reported her five-year old’s worried words “you do know that we have a pudding at school every day, don’t you?”. Not just three meals a day then, but a pudding and other treats to keep the spirits up, were now required of people who had perhaps previously cooked as an occasional form of relaxation. Another tweet commented on the tedium of the cooking/washing up treadmill when they were supposed to be working from home whilst home schooling as well!
In these first three weeks of lockdown I have posted only what I hope are seen as words of encouragement. No-one needs any more pressure at this time. However, I have been thrilled to see an increasing number of people taking up gardening and making bread – sourdough starters seem to be a particular preserve of men who apparently talk of little else!
Establishing a routine in cooking is the first thing that one needs to do to make things easier. I have already pre-ordered Nigella Lawson’s newest book, not out until October, because I love the title – “Cook, Eat, Repeat”, and its promise to discuss the rhythms that become the essence of a home cook’s life.
Of course, some people may already have vowed never to cook again once this pandemic is over, but I hope that many more will have seized the opportunity to get at least a week’s worth of dishes off pat so that they can confidently return to them whenever the need arises. In the past, when everyone cooked at home, many existed on a very limited repertoire. The following extract from Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England illustrates the point:
Hot on Sunday,
Cold on Monday,
Hashed on Tuesday,
Minced on Wednesday,
Curried on Thursday,
Broth on Friday,
Cottage Pie on Saturday.
Using the Sunday Roast as a starting point is very good practice indeed. Pretty much everyone in Britain loves the tradition of a Sunday Roast as evidenced by how heavily booked pubs are for this event. Bringing everyone together around the table is the essence of home cooking so how sad it is that this now more rarely happens at home. The central ingredient can be varied, and thus often the traditional accompaniments, but the Vicarage Mutton template can stand up to any meat.
Turning the bones into stock is the logical next step, then using this to make soup. Note that “cold on Monday” is a perfectly acceptable option. You don’t have to bust a gut for every meal and as putting a potato in the oven might be all that is required on this day, turning the bones into stock is then easily incorporated. Depending on the size of your joint of meat, and the number of people in your family, a selection of “reheated leftover” dishes could come next on the list of skills you add to your repertoire.
I rarely cook one dish without having a follow-on in mind. The follow-on is not always immediate because I have decent sized freezer which helps prevent things becoming too monotonous, and it is always comforting to know that there is something to hand in emergencies – the freezer rather than a take away would be my go-to when I am too busy to cook a meal from scratch. Any casserole would be a candidate for freezing, but a Bolognese sauce would be my top priority as it is so versatile. It may just be a sign of gluttony, but I always think about the next day’s meals the moment I have finished supper, because then you will remember to remove what you need from the freezer or to soak those beans, etc. Not planning what to eat until the family is screaming with hunger is a tough call for anyone!
Thus far, everything I have suggested has been based around meat. Our lunch is usually our meat-free, or meat-light, meal. One day is soup, usually the same day that I make bread. I make one batch of overnight risen dough a week and freeze some bread sliced for toast. This overnight dough is an essential routine, which once established becomes second nature, so use this time to work out how it would fit into your normal routine. Perhaps make the dough on a Friday night for baking for Saturday lunch? I also make sourdough, which is just as well now that I can’t get out to buy fresh yeast. I use the dough for Pizza, one of our lunchtime staples. Pasta is another lunch staple – quick and easy, with an infinite variety of sauces.
Once you have a week’s meals under your belt it is surprisingly easy to extend your repertoire. The fundamental techniques don’t change that much although the ingredients might. My inspiration has always been nature.
The rhythms of cooking echo the rhythms of the seasons. I learnt to cook this way (The Reader’s Digest Cookery Year was a much-loved early reference). Ever since, it has been instinctive to record recipes according to the time of year in which I might be likely to eat them. You will see that my Food Culture section of the Campaign for Real Farming website is organised in this way. By now, I have a massive database that exceeds the number of meals I could eat in a year, and there are a number of dishes that punctuate the seasons in such a way that life would not feel complete if they weren’t present when their season comes around.
Supermarkets have offered so much choice of what to eat, from all over the world, and catering to every different food intolerance, that it is no wonder that we can become too overwhelmed to decide what to cook. A period of quiet reflection, with just the ingredients that are to hand, could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Growing your own vegetables or foraging for food on your daily walk are both excellent ways to keep you in tune with nature.
I am largely a self-taught cook and nowadays if you are unsure about how to do something there is almost bound to be a video on YouTube that will show you how. I hope my seasonal recipe collection on this website will provide some inspiration and please do contact me either via the website of @RealFoodSuzie on Twitter if you have any questions. I hope that home cooking will become for you the pleasure that it is for me.