Learn to cook – cuisine & shopping.

It’s all doom and gloom and the end of the world out there. I don’t feel like writing about that today. A while back I promised some regular readers that I would do a series on cooking. After all, the modern man knows how to cook; or at least he knows that he needs to learn. As I wrote in that post:

If you learn how to cook you’ll be learning your entire life. Which is wonderful; that’s what life is all about. Food is life. Food is conversation, family, shared experiences. Food is discovery. Food is knowledge. Cooking encompasses all of this and more. If you know how to cook you have personal power over what you consume. Once again, you are independent. There is nothing more important than that in the world of today.

So let’s start with cuisine. It’s no good attempting to cook without a clear idea of which cuisine you’re preparing. Whether it’s Thai, Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, whacky and strange Nordic cuisine, whatever it is, you need to be clear about your intended cuisine. This is critical because each cuisine has a set of routine ingredients that intermarry across many different dishes.

In other words, if you have a few dozen key ingredients of one cuisine, you can prepare quite a number of different dishes. It makes sense when you think about it. But if you attempt to cook a dish from a different and unrelated cuisine each night of the week, your pantry had better be on an industrial scale. There’s a reason that restaurants specialize in different cuisines or different styles. It makes their purchasing a whole lot simpler.

So now you need to choose a cuisine. Which one to pick? If you grew up with a cuisine in your home then this will be easy. Perhaps you have Hungarian parents and you regularly consumed that type of food. You will already have a background in that cuisine and you can also get help from who likes to cook in your family. I didn’t have this luxury. Growing up an Anglo-Saxon kid in Australia in the 70s and 80s was somewhat of a food Dark Ages. So no help for me there.

But I did spend 10 years in Italy. That’s my base cuisine. I know it, and I like it too. Thus 90% of the ingredients in my pantry are for Italian cuisine. On occasion I will also cook French or Spanish food. This isn’t too difficult as there is a good deal of crossover between these regional cuisines. For example, the only extra ingredients I require for French cuisine are cream, butter, and brandy.

There is nothing more daunting for the novice home cook than trying to do the shopping. All of those ingredients lined up in the shopping aisles. It’s overwhelming and confusing. You end up pulling random crap off the shelves that you have no idea what to do with which will lurk in the back of your pantry or fridge for months with no clear purpose. Which is what you’re lacking – clear purpose. As I said, first of all you need your base cuisine. Trying to do the shopping without a base cuisine is impossible.

Let’s look at my base ingredients for Italian cuisine.

Olive oil, flour, tinned tuna, anchovies, capers, tinned tomato, tomato paste, pasta, risotto rice, red and white vinegar, balsamic vinegar, tinned cannellini beans, speck or pancetta, Parmesan cheese, cooking white wine, bay leaf, basil, thyme, oregano, sage, Italian parsley, (all fresh in the garden), chili flakes, salt, pepper, fresh chicken stock, (made every week and kept in the freezer), garlic and eggs.

Those are my staples. Some need to be made or purchased on a weekly basis, others can sit in the pantry for months. Every few months I do a pantry shop for the long-life staples. So for example, I’ll buy 40 litres of olive oil and around 48 tins of crushed tomatoes. Then every week I’ll do a shop for fresh produce. This can be divided between the butcher and the fruit & veg shop.

potatoes, onions, carrots, celery – these are the four staples. Then it depends on what I’m planning to cook that week. Perhaps green beans, red peppers, radicchio, fresh tomatoes, leek, spring onion, lemons, limes, and then whatever fruit I require.

Then the butcher. It differs every week depending on what looks good and what I’m planning on cooking. This week I purchased – 2 chicken marylands for stock, 2kg of oxtail, 2 chicken breasts, 1kg of veal mince.

The oxtail was for an oxtail stew which is not an Italian dish but the ingredients crossover nicely:

  • 2.5 kg oxtail , chopped into 4cm chunks
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • olive oil
  • 2 medium leeks
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 4 medium carrots
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 4 fresh bay leaves
  • 4 cloves
  • 2 heaped tablespoons plain flour
  • 2 x 400 g tins of plum tomatoes
  • 275 ml porter or red wine

As you can see, apart from the red wine I already have all of it as part of my shopping routine. The stew was easy to make. It took 5 hours to cook, (lovely on a cold and lazy Sunday afternoon), and the leftovers will last for a few more meals during the week.

So there you have it. If you’re a novice or just really bad at this stuff you have your first task for the week. Pick a cuisine and do your shopping. Feel free to ask any questions if you’re stuck or lost.

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