Like all myths, they're not quite true, yet they inform many of our attitudes about what happens (or should happen) in a home kitchen.
Somehow I grew up an intuitive cook: my mum's knack for throwing in this and that to produce amazing (yet simple) meals washed off on me. For most of my life I took my cooking for granted: I knew how to cook, and did so with pleasure without thinking much of it. It was only when life conspired and I ended up running a wholefood shop, and I started having conversations with people about their challenges with everyday cooking, that it occurred to me: Ease and joy with cooking is not a default setting. It is actually a valuable skill, something worth sharing. What if I could teach people to approach the daily chore of cooking from a different perspective, one that is light hearted, easy, creative and stress free? This is now the focus of this blog and the workshops I run.
In doing that, I found I am coming up against a handful of persistent myths about (home) cooking. Like all myths, they are not really true, yet they inform many of our attitudes and assumptions about what happens (or should be happening) in a home kitchen. Let's take a closer look at five of them:
This is inaccurate: What takes up most of the time (and head space) is not the actual act of cooking; it's all the planning and thinking around it: planning out meals for the week, making a shopping list, doing the shopping, going back for anything that's missing, fretting about following a recipe correctly, and all that. It can quickly get overwhelming; as a result many of us either default to the same few 'safe' dishes we know (and get bored of) or are put off cooking altogether and opt for something ready-made.
I know some will argue that picking up the phone for a delivery or putting something in the microwave does, for a fact, take less time than cooking something: that is true, but only marginally. You can rustle up something very tasty in 20 minutes. You can also cook bigger batches once and stock your freezer with home made meals for when you really just want the microwave.
Probably the biggest myth of them all. Making a meal with 3-5 ingredients may seem easier, but it still doesn't save you from having to plan for the specific recipe, shop the ingredients, fret about following the steps correctly, and worry about the leftovers. Plus using minimum ingredients exposes any shortcomings on the quality of each one a lot more: Great if you are using only the best produce, but, honestly, who can afford that in everyday cooking?
On the other hand, when you cook intuitively you improvise with ingredients: You can use whatever you have in your fridge and cupboards, in ever-changing combinations. Once you stock up your kitchen with a few staples you are ready to cook anytime! No planning, no thinking, no left over bits from recipes (And if you want to plan, you can do that too: Plan by pattern rather than by recipe, then improvise on that pattern with any ingredients to hand.)
Last but not least, each ingredient helps build more layers of flavour in your dish, making everything tastier!
Really? Herbs & spices are not specialist ingredients. The are not just for curries and special recipes. They are the easiest way to add flavour (and goodness!) to your food and I recommend you use them with joyful abandon, every time you cook! Somehow, the use of herbs & spices seems to be one of the biggest casualties of modern Western kitchen culture: most culinary traditions around the world do use them liberally, and it's often their specific combinations that make up the signature taste of iconic dishes or whole traditions (think Italy, Greece, Morocco, India or Thailand... and so many more!). Be bold and use some spices or herbs in everything you cook. Pay attention to what you like. Play with the endless combinations. Your taste buds will thank you!
Food photography and so called 'food porn' (wtf?) are ubiquitous these days, not only in cook books but everywhere else too, from supermarket leaflets to social media. We have gone from recipe books being collections of hand-scribbled notes passed down the generations to glossy photography as a 'must have' requirement to accompany almost every word written about food.
Inevitably, what creeps in, is a sense that somehow the food we cook at home should look like what we see on all these photos, and if it doesn't look that way, it can't be 'good enough'. And we completely forget that ALL of these delicious looking food photos, whether in a book or on a blog, have been styled and tweaked and edited to look just that way. No food put on the table would ever look like that for real.
I'm certainly not immune to this mindset: I feel really self-conscious about my amateurish food photography skills. I even took a 'food photography on your phone' workshop a few months back. It was great. But even with a stripped down approach taking cool looking photos still involves faffing around with the light, the plates, the backgrounds and the props. Not to mention editing the photos afterwards. Do I have time to do this in real life? No! (I mean, I've had a long day, I'm hungry and want to sit down to dinner now.) So my food photos remain rather basic, and pretty realistic (except when I use stock photos, of course, which I do sometimes, courtesy of Unsplash)
Despite everything, intuitive cooks aren't a rare species. Most of us know an intuitive cook: that person with that special knack for throwing things together for a delicious meal, barely ever needing a recipe. Still, we tend to think of this as a special gift, a genius talent this person was probably born with. I used to think that too.
But now that I spend a lot of time thinking about what and why and how I do it when I cook, I can see that is is neither random nor mysterious: I can recognise the patterns and principles that guide my confidence in the kitchen. And this is exactly what I share and teach in this blog and in my workshops.
Ease and creativity in the kitchen (aka intuitive cooking) is not a secret gift bestowed by birth: it is a practical skill everyone can learn. Let's get cooking!