My guide to improve how we use recipes

WHEN PEOPLE tell me they ‘can’t cook’, I look out a simple recipe and take them through the steps of the dish.  By helping them to understand these steps you give them the confidence to produce a dish and belief they can do it. Here is my guide on how to organise and interpret your recipes in order to get the most from them…

Think about it… what is a recipe? It’s a step by step instruction guide to allow you to produce something from the ingredients stated.  You see the principle everywhere in life, whether it be flat pack furniture, using a computer, reading instructions on cleaning products… the list is endless and we all use similar guides.

Understanding a recipe breeds the confidence to produce great dishes and break down that stigma that cooking is difficult. So… what can we do to help build confidence?

First of all, I like to read the recipe through a couple of times, just so I have a rough idea of the processes in my mind.  Then I’ll gather my ingredients or ‘mise en place’, as chefs call it, to see what I’m working with and form a rough idea of motions I’ll be going through, without needing the actual recipe.

Preparation is crucial when cooking.  I always take a saying I saw on a Police flyer once: ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail’.  Books like ‘Jamie’s 30 minute meals’ rely solely on the reader having everything prepared to start cooking.

By measuring out your ingredients and doing small jobs like chopping an onion in advance for example, you’re giving yourself the best start possible and reducing any stress that may come about.

I remember when I was a commis at the Seafood restaurant working with a chef called Greenie.  I worked the larder section across from his pastry area because it was cooler than the rest of the kitchen and we used to chat away between services.  Greenie was always happy to pass his knowledge onto me and correct me if something wasn’t right, which I really appreciated.

One day I asked his advice on cooking in competitions and he told me that you should just know every step and every process off by heart before you go in there, then get our head down and push.  That way you give yourself the best chance of winning, make the most of your time and do yourself justice.

So… Be organised; have your equipment laid out or close by and make a mental map of the processes in your head.  If you’re doing several dishes for a dinner party or large numbers, write down a brief plan of attack and tick it off as you go – remember get the jobs that take longest, braising meat or setting a dessert for example, done first.  Chances are they are the most important part of the respective dish.

Now some people will tell you a recipe is just a rough guide.  I’m not entirely in agreement with this.  I remember a lecturer of mine, Norman Bendex, at the Adam Smith college giving one of my classmates a bollocking because they tried to be smart and deviate from the recipe.

Norman was a proper old-school teacher who commanded respect.  He went nuts, shouting ‘do you think that person (the chef) just guessed what goes in a recipe and wrote down any old shite?’ he said. ‘No, they bloody didn’t.  Chances are they probably put a lot of work into that dish and you’ve disrespected it by thinking you’re Gordon Ramsay.’

For me he made a valid point that whoever came up with the recipe, whether it be Gordon Ramsay or your granny, probably cooked that dish several times to get it right.  I’m not saying don’t let your personality come out BUT I would say, especially if you’re a beginner, cook the dish by sticking to the recipe, at least for the first time.  If you’re happy with it, why change it?

Once you’ve gained confidence and experience, THEN by all means play about with the dish and put your own slant on it.  You never know, you might create a new dish or even better it!

One of the key factors to a recipe for me is breaking down the elements in the dish.  I learnt this skill by reading a cookbook (my favourite book actually) called ‘Essence’ by a two Michelin starred chef called David Everitt-Matthias. 

It taught me that just because a part of one dish is in a certain recipe, doesn’t mean it can’t be used in another dish.  As a result, I now look at elements of a dish almost as separate dishes and keep them in firmly in my repertoire when coming up with new concepts.

My cauliflower puree in my Scallops dish in my blog is a prime example; that puree could go with my pork belly dish or my roasted pigeon quite easily.  Food is versatile, so keep these separate elements in mind and READ through all the notes in your cookery books – knowledge is power.

I hope this has helped when it comes to interpreting and getting the most out of your recipes.  Whether a dish works out well or not, just remember – we all make mistakes but if you learn from them, that’s what’s important.  And don’t forget – cooking is fun!