The one basic skill you need to live a healthier life is pretty straightforward, and perhaps obvious, but often overlooked. It is the skill of knowing how to make a meal!
This skill includes lots of other little skills too, like reading a recipe, using a knife and knowing how to chop a whole range of vegetables, and also learning which flavours go well together so that you can cook or combine something quick, tasty and nutritious everyday without the need for a recipe at all.
When I look around, I see that this basic skill is missing and leading people to rely heavily on packaged and processed convenience food, in any form. It may be higher end supermarket fare, or quick and dirty fast food from a drive through. Takeaways, snacks, even salads in tubs – they are all stand ins for either time or skill, or both.
I don’t proclaim I’m much of a cook. In fact, the faster the food can get on the plate, the better and I’ve never made a lasagne or a shepard’s pie or many other traditional meals. But I learned to cook for myself quite early on, as my diet was different to the rest of the family, being a vegetarian at age 11. I soon had to create my own meals whilst the family ate their own food. This has given me the ability to put together a meal out of almost anything. Now this ‘meal’ won’t have a name, and you’ll never find it in a recipe book. Basically, my way of cooking is the complete reverse to other, more experienced cooks. They often think of a meal in their heads to start with. Something well known usually, and then they’ll set about gathering those ingredients, perhaps even a day or more ahead of that meal. Well, I rarely, if ever, set about cooking that way. Instead I simply open the fridge, look in the cupboard or go to the garden. Whatever I find there, I put together in any which way I see fit at the time. Perhaps a grated salad, perhaps roasting them, perhaps sauteed with onions or simply steamed. I’m sure many of us cook that way, but I suppose for me, it doesn’t have to resemble anything in particular for me to eat it! As long as the vegetable (as 99% of the time it’s plant based) can fit into my gob, has a good flavour on it, and more or less combines well with whatever other herb, spice, vegetable or dressing I’ve got going on, then that’s a meal to me!
Sure, now and again I’ll open a recipe book and be inspired to create something akin to what I’m reading. A chickpea burger, a particular style of soup, or a pudding – but I usually find that it’s more economical, more seasonal, and more efficient just to open to fridge and to make do with what’s there.
This is why I don’t often share recipes, or am able to teach others how to cook as I rarely have many transferable recipes in my head. But I do have a sense of flavour combinations, and that serves me very well. Because whether I’m making a salad, or roasting, or making a sauce, then flavours that go together do so in any of those forms.
Here are, in my mind, the flavours that go together really beautifully, and deliciously complement each other. The central vegetable or ingredient is in the circle, and surrounding it are all the flavours that go well with it, in whatever form – raw or cooked. Also, the surrounding flavours go well with each other, without the central ingredient to bind them.
This isn’t rigid at all, but it is the map I follow, more or less, when creating a new, random and unique dish every time I go to the garden, or pantry, to feed myself.
I think people are put off by cooking because they don’t know what they are doing, or they don’t have the time.
To remedy the lack of skill, I do think it’s important to learn some basic recipes. Ratatouille for example, is basically a marinara sauce with vegetables. Once you master that, you can make endless variations throughout all the seasons, making use of the cheaper and fresher produce available
Soup: follow one basic recipe, then you have the skill to make whatever flavour you fancy forever more.
Learn to make a pastry, and you can make a sweet, a savory pasty or pie and Bob’s your uncle!
And on it goes. Learning from someone else will show you essential methods that you won’t pick up just from a book. As many of our parents haven’t passed on the skill to us, then it’s up to us to find a class, or ask a gourmet friend to show up some basic things.
But see this as the start of your own cooking adventure. If you can then follow a recipe on your own, great, but if you can progress to making a meal out of a host of random ingredients, then you can play your own version of Ready, Steady, Cook for each meal and never be tied down to ‘meal thinking’ as I call it, but ingredient thinking instead, which is a lot more realistic for most of us.
Time on the other hand, requires skill, knowledge, and experience to overcome so that you can make yourself nourishing home cooked meals, without the fake ingredients and stale produce found in even the most expensive convenience foods.
I think, if you can be happy munching on some grated veg, with some leftovers from the night before with a random bit of sourdough bread on the side, just to fill a gap, then you could save yourself a huge amount of time, just by thinking outside of the box and well, just eating food as opposed to a ‘proper meal’!
You open the fridge, there’s nothing there to make a sandwich, nothing in there to make a curry, but you do have one questionably shaped carrot, half a courgette and some tahini – then you’ve got something to eat at least, and time – pah – no worries. Force yourself to use up those last bit of food before your next shop, and you might surprise yourself with a yogurt covered apple salad, or discover the delights of mixing cocoa with a nut butter when you don’t want to buy a chocolate spread.
I hope that I’ve conveyed that you don’t have to make a certain dish, just to eat well and be healthy, but that you do, right now, have the ability to experiment with creating strange, but amazingly yummy concoctions without being bogged down in thinking “this isn’t even a real dish!”
Learn some basic skills, if you must – and enjoy food in as many forms as you can think of from here on out, and experience your health and well-being grow and flourish with every meal.