Thursday, 30 October 2014

Food in Fantasy and Science Fiction

I was brought up on fantasy and SF fiction, my dad read Lord of the Rings to my mum while she was pregnant with me. Later he read a chapter every night to us kids whenever we went on holiday. He'd do all the voices and the songs too. This family tradition has continued; when the radio was broken on my car as we drove through France, my daughter kept me alert by reading aloud the short stories of Philip K Dick.
One of the useful tools for world building in fantasy and science fiction is food. Many of the novels contain elaborate descriptions of meals. Inspired by this, I've done a few literary themed meals: Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Doctor Who, the Mitford sisters, the seafaring novels of Patrick O'Brian. Back in August I gave a talk describing some of these meals at Nine Worlds conference in London, which appeals to fans of fantasy and Science Fiction TV, film, graphic novels and books.
Fantasy tends to treat food in a historical or fantastical way, with feasts as an integral part, while SF often neglects food or has strange, alien food often unappetising or disgusting. This slide show demonstrates how often Sci-Fi writers resort to worms or insects as a dish.
Futuristic apocalyptic works like The Walking Dead and The Road show 'food insecurity', where people resort to cannibalism in a post-scarcity society. In The Hunger Games, people in the districts have little to eat, while the citizens of the capital use roman-style vomitariums to throw up their opulently excessive dinners. In The Hobbit, trolls eat rocks, a very particular food culture. In Terry Pratchett's novels, dwarves eat bread and rats. The world of Harry Potter features gothic banquets with constantly replenishing platters of food apparating through the walls of the kitchens and, intelligently, J. K. Rowling spent time on creating enticing sweets for the Hogwarts Express train trolley. Nor is growing ignored, with herbs, roots and potions grown in the school gardens and greenhouse.
Alcohol is another popular component of realistic world-building in fantasy and Sci-Fi from the Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster of Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, to Romulan Ale in Star Trek, Butterbeer in Harry Potter and Ent-draught in Lord of the Rings. For non-alcoholic drinks there is blue milk in Star Trek and miruvor, an elven cordial in Lord of the Rings.

I remember visiting the space museum in Washington, where, as a souvenir, one could buy dehydrated 'ice cream'. This is what astronauts ate in space, we were told. The 'smash' advert (above), very popular in the 70s, featured robots who found it hilarious that people would peel, boil and mash a potato when it's so much easier to pour a little boiled water into a dry powder, which ingeniously fluffs up into mashed potato. Space travellers ate pills or meals in sachets, there is no flame in space, no browning, no Maillard reaction.
The original magic food, that which gives you knowledge, cited in the bible is the apple, but the term apple was used for many foods, for instance potatoes are pommes de terre, 'earth apples'. This article suggests that the apple of Adam and Eve was in fact wheat.
As a chef, it's difficult to genuinely reproduce magical foods. For the Harry Potter meal I used miraculin berry, which transforms anything sour into a sweet foodstuff and popping candy to make 'jumping' chocolate frogs. Dry ice can be employed to add atmosphere and mysticism to drinks and presentation. Chewing fresh Stevia leaf is another strange experience, a herb sweeter than sugar. I recently blogged about geoducks, giant long-necked clams that grow up to a metre long, reminiscent of the sandworms in Dune. When travelling through Peru, I often drank chicha, a refreshing soft drink fermented by local women chewing and spitting the fruit.
In Game of Thrones, there are plentiful descriptions of meals; there is even a website and cookbook devoted to the food from the books. Feasting is often the backdrop to something violent and the food doesn't get eaten. Are banquets inherently dangerous? (Just think of christmas with your family.)
Each part of G RR Martin's realm has a different cuisine: the Dothraki have a horse culture and eat horse; the capital, King's Landing have feast or famine (the poor eat 'bowls of brown', which could be anything); the southern region of Dorne has a more mediterranean style diet; the wildlings hunt what they can; on the wall food is plain and filling, often preserved including dried fruits, food you can carry to sustain you in war. Game of Thrones food is recognisably English for the most part, recipes often reminiscent of medieval times, apart from in Dorne and on the continent, 'across the narrow sea'.
For this Saturday's Game of Throne tea party here is a potential menu:

Mulled wine teapots
Mini stargazy pies
Anchovy or mushroom tartlets
Dragon eggs
Dolmades from Dorne
Cream Swans
Poached pears in lattice pastry
Lemon cakes
Blackberry pie
Iron throne cake

Tickets £40 book here. Starts at 4pm.

Can readers think of any other food and drink in fantasy/Sci-Fi fiction? Is there anything you'd love to taste?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

How to be a Portland hipster; 9 things to do, eat and drink

Keep Portland weird
What to do in Portland? This Pacific North West city has so much to do, it's hard to know where to start. If you are a food and drink fiend like myself, you will be in seventh heaven for it is virtually impossible to eat badly. At the same time the people are really friendly, laid back, humorous and helpful. Also Portland is probably the most bicycle friendly city in the USA. You could say that this city is the epitome of hipster, politically correct, right on attitudes; you could even say that the award winning satirical sketch show 'Portlandia' was not so much a comedy programme, but a documentary. And you know what? What the hell is wrong with that? It was a relief to be in a city where people think, eat, drink and live in a way that I aspire to live. Think of Portland as a bit like Britain with all the creativity, eccentricity, tolerance and culture but cheaper and with nicer weather. Portland is one of those places where you think 'I could live here'.
 Portland the city is divided into five quadrants (sic) and is fissured down the middle by the Willamette river. I had this division described to me as: the east side is where real people live, often in house shares, because the properties, typically American wooden houses with verandas, are so large. The west side is the business district, with posh hotels, big shops and the residences of the bourgeoisie. But, to my eyes, all of Portland is pretty casual, there is not the enormous gulf that there is between say, Kensington and Hackney in London. I spent nine days in Portland, livin' like a hipster. Here are nine things to do, one for each day, which hopefully will enable you to make some inroads into the culture.

1) Food Carts

The first thing that Portland has become famous for is Food Trucks. There are more than 700 food carts in the city, in 30 different pods. Most of the food trucks are not actually trucks as they don't have wheels and each 'gathering' of food carts, generally around the edge of parking lots, facing out, is called a 'pod'.
I dipped my toe into this world by doing a Sunday bike tour with Pedal Bike Tours, led by a long haired young man, Dan, by night a musician in a band called Dirty Whips, who gave us a stoner-style history of Portland along the lines of:
 "People came to Portland originally for the river, but people were a little more stoked on the land. Oregon City was further down the river, trappers were more into catching beavers and being lonely. This spawned the Oregon trail in the 1830s-40s."
While he is saying this, the air is filled with cannabis from passers by, most of whom had face furniture, dreaded hair and tats. In fact, pot has just been made legal in Oregon and will soon capitalise on the 'green rush' just like Washington State.
Dan continued:"By the 1860s Portland became bigger and flatter than Oregon City, the railroad was completed, had more space, man. The main business was agriculture and logging. They cut down trees along the river and the expression Skid Row came from this place, as timber workers used to skid the logs down the area now known as Chinatown, but it became like really 'sketchy' cos the workers and immigrants used to get ham sauced and there was a lot of prostitution."
Later I spoke to a real food cart expertBrett Burmeister, extravagantly whiskered author of the excellent foodcartsportland blog. It seems that the development of food cart culture in Portland parallels the underground restaurant/supper club movement in the UK. Although it started in 1985, the scene really took off as a post-crash endeavour (2008) for chefs who couldn't yet afford to open restaurants. Suddenly the game was raised in terms of ingredient quality, innovation and styles of food, it was no longer 'fair food', burgers and hot dogs. 
For seven or eight dollars, you get a freshly cooked, good size meal. Most of the food carts are closed in the evenings, especially downtown, and are used as lunch spots. Increasingly, the carts have become like restaurants, they often expect to be tipped, and you can pay with a credit card, using an iPad system. There are trends in food cart cuisine; one year it's waffles, the next it's Argentinan barbecue. At present the trend is leading more towards regional Eastern European: Romanian, Georgian, Russian. One business, Go Box, provides reusable plates/cups/cutlery with drop boxes to deposit the used containers all over  Portland, so food carts are also eco-conscious.
Every nationality is represented in terms of food carts, even Scottish fish n chips
Nong's Khao Man Gai , chicken food cart, one of the most famous
Outside the Downtown food carts, there were long queues. You wait at least ten minutes, so people order in advance, by phone. Working conditions are cramped, you'll have at least two people working in a small food cart, with no space. Some food carts have 'branches' all over the city. 
On the East side, food pods are more curated, catering to families and people on bikes, with carts facing inwards onto a lot. Each pod will have its own personality, often having names for the lot, marketing budgets, beer bars and communal tables. In winter their business drops off, they close up for winter for six weeks whereas Downtown will be open all year. The work is so exhausting during the season, they sleep for the first week of their break. For the parking lot owners, the food cart trend is a money maker, each unit will pay $600-700 dollars a month rental, however this is much cheaper for budding restaurateurs than investing in a bricks and mortar restaurant.
Beer taps on a food cart
I asked Brett: why did Portland become the centre for food carts?
"Mainly because there were no laws against it. Food trucks are constricted by the parking laws, the right of way laws. It's easier to open a food cart on a parking lot than a food truck, which is what they tend to have in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York."
Brett says the trend however is changing from carts to trucks, as you can do catering gigs, pop ups. He runs 'Intel tuesdays' for that corporation in which he curates 30 food trucks. 
The disadvantage however with food trucks as opposed to carts is that a) you can have the trucks stolen or as happened in one case, the kitchen equipment stripped out of it b) there can be engine problems. He thinks that the best compromise is a mobile food cart that can be attached to a vehicle, it costs only about 15k for a new cart. 
Brett is concerned that the scene is becoming cookie cutter and samey, with the original talents departing for fixed location restaurants. I personally heard many complaints from customers about the preponderance of 'gyro' outfits, which tend to dominate the cherished corner spots of each pod, they stay open later too. Gyro stands (pronounced 'euro' this is the American word for doner kebab, gyro is Greek and doner is Turkish and both refer to the turning spit on which the meat is cooked ) have identical menus and appear to be centrally run by two or three families; people fear that they are exploiting the scene and not respecting the quirky, DIY food ways of chef-led artisanal small businesses, in short - dumbing down the food cart experience.

Georgian food, Kargi Gogo, food cart, Portland 

Brett's top 10 food cart recommendations:

  • The Big Egg - Breakfast - Mississippi Marketplace
  • The Native Bowl - Vegan bowls and more - Mississippi Marketplace
  • Nong's Khao Man Gai - Thai Chicken and Rice - SW 10th and Washington. This lady has won TV chef competitions and now has a bricks and mortar restaurant. She does one dish, Thai chicken, very very well. She was serving the day I visited, she will circulate between her outlets, making sure that each of them gets her personal touch.
  • Kargi Gogo - Georgian Cuisine - SW 9th and Washington
  • Tabor - Czech - SW 5th and Stark
  • The Cheese Plate - cheese, crackers and more - NE 23rd and Alberta
  • Maine Street Lobster - lobster sandwiches - Cartlandia
  • Potato Champion - poutine and fries - Cartopia
  • Sugar Shop - sweets - NE 23rd and Alberta
  • Gabagool - Italian sandwiches - N Beech and Mississippi
  • Wolf and Bear's - Iraqi/Israeli street food - Pod28 - SE 28th and Ankeny. I was recommended the Middle Eastern style wraps here and the idea slightly bored me. But these falafel and wraps were stunning, with candied nuts and delicious sauces. Not boring at all. 
  • Grilled Cheese Grill - NE 11th and Alberta. Australian owned, stretchy cheese jaffles or toasties. 

2) Doughnuts

Another must-eat experience in Portland is a visit to Voodoo doughnuts. It originally started out as an underground after hours joint, selling Peptobismol iced doughnuts injected with Tylenol to help with a hangover. Eventually the FDA found out about them and they had to tone down some of their crazier offerings. Nonetheless, the selection of flavourings is still avant-garde; be prepared for a wait when you go here: even at 2am you'll stand in line for 45 minutes. But take that as part of the experience: chat to others in the queue, get one of their lurid pink boxes and buy some for breakfast the next day.

3) Beer

John Harris, brewmaster, Ecliptic

Portland is also known for two things: beer and bikes, brought together at the Velocult bike shop and pub, check out their tap list, and Hopworks bike barThe whole micro-brewery scene is big here, with soft water and local hops which comprise 25% of the world hop harvest. A brewers schedule is rather like a bakers schedule: they start early. I went on a beer tour with Brewvana which I can recommend. Although it was kinda weird when the woman who sat on the front seat of the tour bus confessed that she wouldn't be drinking because she was a full-blown AA-attending recovering alcoholic. And then we discovered this was the tour guide's mother. We were given 'pretzel necklaces' to wear as we toured around Portland visiting various breweries and bars. I learnt a bit of the beer tasters lingo: the froth at the top of the beer is prettily referred to as the 'lace'.
Check out the beer scene also at:
  • McMenamins: several branches all over Portland. The decor reminds me of Amsterdam brown cafés and Irish pubs, ornate and art deco influenced. Beautifully decorated brewing tanks also. Live music at most branches.
  • Ecliptic: astronomy fanatic and legendary microbrewer John Harris runs this place. Great food too. I enjoyed the malty Procyon Pale Ale and the caramelly Phobos extra red ale.
  • Old Town Brewing: clean tasting beers, you can see the brewing tanks too. I drank I'd like to buy the world a kolsch lager and the slightly cloudy but floral fresh hop pale ale Cents and Censability. These are known as 'wet hop' beers, made with new season hops. They are the alcoholic equivalent of juicing perhaps, using ingredients that are still 'live'. 
Painted brewing tank at McMenamins
Barley and tasting notes

4) Coffee

Stumptown cappuccino
Not quite sure why the North West Pacific has become the place for coffee geekdom but it has. Stumptown coffee is probably the mecca of them all, if we are talking about serious coffee appreciation rather than the bitter Seattle swill of Starbucks. The focus for Stumptown, which opened in 1990, is roasting and developing fair trade/direct trade relations with coffee growers rather than opening cafés. Stumptown is part of the third wave of coffee brewers; first wave was classic American filter coffee, second wave was Starbucks. Stumptown, a worker told me, is grateful to Starbucks for it is "the gateway to craft coffee. Before Starbucks, Americans didn't go to cafés at all for good coffee. If Starbucks didn't exist, we wouldn't exist. We have to sell lattes to continue." I confess that I mostly order a latte. "Being an enthusiast and being a snob are two different things." he assures me. So I get a quick run-down of coffee basics.
Coffee is inextricably linked with capitalism: it's a huge boon for productivity. Coffee is associated with blue collar work and fuels the American workplace. Even when you are on welfare in America, you get foodstamps for coffee, perhaps as a state directed prod out of  slothful unemployment. To appreciate different aspects, the culinary properties of coffee is new. It is good for your health: makes you live longer, studies have shown you are less likely to get Alzheimer's/prostate cancer/diabetes with a daily cup of coffee.
Coffee is divided into two types: Arabica and Robusta.
  • Robusta: tastes like burnt rubber and has twice the caffeine. It is of lower quality, but higher yield. Disease resistant. Most supermarket coffee is Robusta.
  • Arabica: half the caffeine and twice the genetic complexity.
I learn about the characteristic roasts
  • French roast: a style which is a smokey dark roast which goes well with cream and sugar.
  • Italian roast: has some robusta, which foams, delivers the 'crema' in Italian coffee.
  • North West Pacific style: they like fruity/sour coffee, this is a trademark style of Seattle. It's very consistent.
  • Starbucks: the caramel comes through
  • 7/11 coffee: only good when it's really hot.
  • The paper filter method is better for cholesterol
  • The French press method can give heartburn.
I went for one of the free daily 'cupping' sessions at the Annex branch of Stumptown, near the railway tracks, led by Marcus Lintner.
He set out five 'sets' of bowls of coffee beans, glasses of water, coffee spoons, small cups and a spittoon if "you don't want to be too caffeinated".  Coffee should be cooled off for tasting purposes, not Mcdonalds thigh-burning hot, in order to appreciate the different layers, flavours, sweet and citrus notes. This is the standard test that all coffee companies use to evaluate coffee. There are two couples as well as myself, one of them is a professional barista, on a busmans holiday. 

1) Smell. Fragrance is the term for the dry smell; when it is wet, the odour is referred to as 'aroma'. While we smell the different beans, the coffee steeps for four minutes in a French press (or cafetiere). For pour-over coffee, ideal steep time should be two minutes. We wait for the coffee to cool.
2) Breaking the crust. Taking off the scum with two spoons.
3) Slurping from the spoon: we were encouraged to make lots of noise, aerate, roll the coffee around the mouth and finally drink it. 

It was as if we were a line of devout monks taking communion, heads bowing and sniffing in succession, in prayer before the dark liquor. Professional tasters can taste all day unless they have a cold and eaten lots of garlic. Finally we are shown the different coffees that we have tasted, here are my notes, along with possible food matches.

1) Indonesian: root veg/ steak/ forest floor/earthy, mossy, leather, spice, pepper. Goes with beef stew or soup, broth, tomato soup.

2) Kenyan: bright, blackcurrant, tomato, lemon, peach, strawberry. Astringent.
3) Ethiopian: floral, cheesecake, afternoon, almonds.
4) Costa Rican: light, chocolaty, pancakes.
5) Guatemalan: bourbon, chocolaty, coconuts.

Other coffee roasters in Portland worth visiting:

Coava: nice space, roasting company
Sterling: a small cafe, that does an espresso flight. 
Barista: dark roast
Casestudy: also do tastings

5) Brunch

The whole toad at Tasty and Alder
Brunch is a Portland addiction, sometimes you have to queue for hours at the top spots for Sunday brunch. I checked out Tasty and Alder in the Downtown area which had an entire section of the menu devoted to 'Marys' ie. Bloody Marys, and also 'Grown Ass Milkshakes' which were more akin to milk based cocktails. I ordered the Tasty Mary: it was rimmed with salt and loaded up with pickle garnishes, virtually a side in itself. There are a selection of egg dishes but 'The Whole Toad', a kind of cheesy Yorkshire pudding, slips down like proper hangover-cure comfort food. Another thing to try is the fried egg and cheddar 'biscuit', the equivalent of our savoury scones.
Other brunch spots in Portland:
Mother's Bistro near the Skidmore Saturday market
Screen Door, Southern style brunch, egg scrambles with grits, savoury waffles etc.

Vegan wine at Portobello vegan restaurant 

6)Vegan food

Vegans are well catered for in Portland as they are in many major American cities. The vegan diet is taken seriously, rather than viewed as an irritation for chefs, and grocery stores have huge selections of vegan alternatives. I visited Portobello, a vegan trattoria, where they served vegan wines, a vegan 'cheese' platter, and high end food. There are also vegan food trucks and vegan bakeries. 
Recommended vegan places, courtesy of vegan cookbook author Terry Hope Romero:

7) Distillery row and cocktail culture:

There is a definite cocktail culture in Portland, even at the cinema you can sip on stunning cocktails while watching a movie. As well as beer and wine, Portland also has many artisanal businesses producing small scale spirits. I tasted rum, bourbon and cherry brandy at a bar made of copper pennies at Eastside Distilling. It's worth, if you have time, visiting some of the other distilleries mentioned on the Distillery Row website.

Places to taste spirits and order cocktails in Portland:

8) City farms, farmers markets

Like the right-on types that Portlandians are, there are urban farms, where you can volunteer for work parties and buy produce. I met supper club hostess Kusuma Rao who'd moved from Texas to Portland; I tasted her soft and more-ish coconut naans at the Bluehouse Green house farm stand, bought a punnet of heritage cherry tomatoes (don't you just love the turquoise boxes they use for fruit and vegetables in the USA?). Here is a map of other urban farms in Portland.
Saturday mornings it's worth taking a tram or bus to the farmer's market at Portland State University, which is held on the downtown Park Blocks at Southwest Montgomery Street. I bought great local cheeses, fantastic fruit and vegetables, cherry chipotle jam, fresh masa for tortillas, bread, flowers, while listening to live music.
Skidmore Saturday market, again, downtown, you can buy crafts, clothes, food and see street performers. 
Portland farmers market
Artisanal fire cider, Portland farmers market

9) Wine

Most people know that California has great wines, but go a little further north to the next state, Oregon, which also a burgeoning viticulture. In fact, with global warming affecting California wine, Oregon is a great future bet for wine, although at present they are producing only small artisanal batches. The most popular grapes are Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, with a bit of Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling. I went on a wine and waterfalls tour, to visit wineries around Portland, whilst viewing incredibly beautiful countryside, crossing the Colombia gorge and seeing Mount Hood. We also passed salmon fishing and incredibly, sturgeon farms where domestic caviar is produced. Unfortunately I broke my arm in a cycling accident just five minutes before boarding the bus. I thought I was ok, but as the six hour tour progressed I was increasingly in pain and by the end sobbing. They dropped me off at an Urgent Care centre, where the clinicians are so paranoid about drug users they carry no pain relief. I spent the night in agony in my hotel, and went to the hospital the next day where they gave me some lovely drugs, Oxycontin. It's times like these that, travelling on your own, that you can start to feel a little bit down. You have no one to buy you medication, nobody to carry your suitcase or help you take off your clothes. The worst was trying to pull my knickers up on both sides after going to the loo. I walked around for days with half-mast panties, yanked up on one side only, lopsided. It's not the sort of thing you can ask a stranger to help you with. I remembered travelling through Brazil and meeting a backpacking one-armed Frenchman, arm amputated at the shoulder. How did he do it? I pondered, two decades later. I didn't like him much at the time and now I felt guilty and ignorant, at last fully recognising his heroism.
During my recovery and plane journey home (fractures really hurt at altitude), I read 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed*, soon to be released as a movie with Reese Witherspoon. It is the journey of a lone woman trekker across the Pacific Crest Trail, from Nevada through to Oregon as she tries to recover from her mother's death, a divorce and drug addiction. 
Columbia gorge, Oregon

Wineries worth visiting near to Portland:

Additional information:


Hire one! This is a very bike friendly town, with special lanes, places to lock your bike, city buses that will allow you to load your bike onto the front if you are too tired to cycle home and careful, considerate motorists. The reason I had an accident was down to my own stupidity, but crucially, the car behind me stopped, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this blog post!


I stayed at the Ace hotel which I loved, like staying in a really cool Portland flat.
I stayed also at the friendly McMenamins Crystal hotel.  Good cheap hotel stay with salt water pool in the basement.
(One thing: American hotels do not have electric kettles or tea in their rooms. After a while, you get desperate for a cuppa. Bloody uncivilised it is.)


No sales tax in Portland. 10th and 12th streets downtown is a good place to shop.


Try the much loved Powers bookstore.

Free papers: 

These free newspapers, available in most cities in the United States, are well written, humorous, informative and tell you about local events and news stories.
Check out the Portland Mercury which has an unbelievably bitchy/funny gossip column by Ann Romero (you wonder if they ever get done for libel), the 'Cannabuzz' column, subtitled The week in Marijuana and sex columnist Dan Savage 'Savage Love' in which a gay man advises straight couples, amongst others, in a very direct and no nonsense way, on their sex life. One example, 'Sincerely Not A Pedophile' wrote to ask what to do about his wife who  flipped out because he watched adult porn when she was working away. Dan replied "go gather your things together-don't forget your balls-and move the hell out" and to DTMFA her. Tell us what you really think Dan!
Also Willamette Week.


Portland is also known as the 'city of roses'. One muggy Sunday I took the tram up to the International Test Rose garden. During the second world war, some of Kew Gardens rose stock was sent here for safe keeping. 

* Thanks to Laura Guimond of Travel Portland, for the gift of the book, for her good company and for her invaluable help while visiting Portland.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

10 most common cooking mistakes

I'm in the November edition of Glamour magazine (p.86) talking about the most common culinary mistakes. Here are some more pointers that may be helpful.
frying onions, garlic, bay leaves
1) Cooking at the right temperature
If you are frying onions, cook them low and slow. It's going to take longer than you think to caramelise them, up to 45 minutes. But this patient approach will be worth it.
If you are cooking or frying meat or fish, make sure the temperature of the pan and oil is high enough. You want your pan almost smoking before you add your protein. If you try to lift your meat/fish and the pan isn't hot enough, the bottom will stick to the pan.
2) Calibrate your oven.
This is easy. Just because your oven say it goes to a certain temperature, doesn't mean it actually does. Get to know your oven, where the hot patches are, if it heats evenly on both sides, left and right, especially if it is an old oven in a rental property. Improve your kitchen ability by buying a cheap temperature gage. Place it in your oven, on a middle shelf and whack your oven up to its highest temperature. Leave it for at least half an hour to get to the hottest point. If the top temperature of your oven is 280cº/550fº and the gage is 20º lower then you know when reading a recipe to adjust the temperature by 20º. (However, during the research for this piece, I noted that on shopping sites, the temperature of the oven is never mentioned! Surely the most important element?) Remember, if you think you are a bad baker, it may not be you, it might be your oven.
Ultimately it is worth investing good money in this essential bit of kitchen kit which you will be using for years.
3) Taste your food.
One of the biggest mistakes that home cooks make is not tasting their food regularly throughout the cooking and, crucially, under-seasoning. The reason why restaurant food tastes good is because they use plenty of salt. They salt a little bit at the beginning, some more in the middle, then top it up at the end. When they say in recipes, salt to taste, do precisely that. Taste. Salt it. Taste again later. Salt again.You want to salt it so that it doesn't actually need to be salted at the table. AND use good sea salt like Maldons then you will get all the essential minerals too. Restaurants also don't skimp on oil and butter.
4) Use the right amount of water.
Cooking pasta? Then make sure you have enough water, that the pan won't burn dry. Dried pasta needs plenty of hot salty water to cook properly. Always slightly undercook what it says on the packet. Buy dried pasta with the longest cooking times, this is generally better quality. NEVER buy quick cook pasta, it's horrible.
Cooking rice? This is much trickier. You need to put in just the right amount of water, not too much, not too little. The general rule is 1 cup rice to 1 1/2 cups water but brown rice needs more water than white rice. Other rice tips:
  • Most rice should be rinsed several times before cooking, until the water is almost clear.
  • Putting half a lemon in your rice cooking water will help it become fluffy
  • Buy fresh rice. Yes that's a thing. Look at best before dates and choose shops where they have a hig turnover of stock. Old rice can be soaked.
  • Rice finishes off by cooking in its own steam. Leave the rice to rest a while before serving so that the molecules can redistribute themselves, meaning it will be fluffy throughout.
  • Buy a saucepan with a tight-fighting lid in order to create a steamy environment in which to cook it.
  • Even better, buy a rice steamer. That's what Asians do. Then you will have non-sticky, separated rice every single time.
5) Resting food.
I mentioned leaving rice to rest before opening the lid of the pan and serving it. This rule goes for meat and firm fish like tuna too. If you are a cooking a tuna steak, leave it to rest for five or ten minutes before serving it. Don't believe me? Do an experiment then: cook two pieces of tuna, remove them from the pan and try to cut one immediately. It will be difficult and the cut will be rough and uneven. Wait five minutes and let the other piece rest. Try cutting it and you will see that the knife goes through it like butter.
Another thing: don't fiddle with food as it's cooking. Wait until it is time to turn that piece of fish. If you try to turn it too early, it will stick to the pan.
6) Use the right size receptacle.
This is similar to the cooking pasta issue. It's no point cooking your pasta in a teeny little pan, it needs room to expand. Make sure you also have a large sized colander to drain it in.
Ditto salad bowls. People try to make salad in a small bowl, leaving no room to toss it and no space for dressing it properly. So, use a large salad bowl, to allow air, texture and lift into the dish and not to crush or damage the delicate leaves. To make the dressing, use a jam jar with a lid and shake it until emulsified. Then, feel free to use your (clean) hands to thoroughly distribute the dressing around the salad leaves. Perfect salad.
Different kinds of tomatoes
7) Storing food correctly.
I never ever put my tomatoes in the fridge. Because I don't want them to taste mealy, I put them in the fruit bowl. Discipline yourself not to put them in the fridge if you want a good tasting tomato.
Store cheese in a cool, dry place. A contributing factor to how good a cheese tastes, is not so much making it but storing it, being the 'affineur' as they say in France. This is a whole skill in itself.
Rinse berries with diluted vinegar as soon as you buy them, this way they will stay fresh longer and won't go mouldy (this can sometimes happen within a day I've found, this useful trick really works).
aubergine curry with fresh herbs, fresh spices
8) Buying fresh food.
Beans and rice need to be fresh. Old beans take forever to cook.
Buy fresh eggs, ones that float in cold water are old. But with some recipes such as macarons, older egg whites are better.
Fresh herbs will make the world of difference to your food, there are very few cases where using dried herbs is as good, mint is an exception. Buy fresh lemons, always have lemons in your fridge rather than lemon juice from a bottle. Lemons can be used for so many things, to enliven fish, to squeeze in place of vinegar on salads, to grate onto rice or stews (really healthy too), to clean a bowl before making meringue, to add zest to a cocktail. I always have lemons in my kitchen.
Buying fresh spices is also important. An Indian housewife would never think of using some old dusty Schwartz jars at the back of her cupboard. She goes out every week and buys fresh spices. This is the difference between a lacklustre curry and one zinging with flavour.
If you can, shop small and often, like Parisian housewives. We are encouraged by huge supermarkets, delivery charges, declining small high street shops, to shop in bulk once a week or so. True, this may be convenient but it's not great for your cooking. Going to a real outdoor market or proper shops where you can touch and smell the produce, is far more inspirational.
chopping garlic, knife skills

9) Buying and using good sharp knives
I don't have great knife skills but they are markedly improved by good knives. When chopping, make sure you steady your chopping board by putting a tea towel/dishcloth underneath. Do not put your knives into the dishwasher, wash them by hand. But do not throw knives into a sudsy sink full of water, this way you can easily cut yourself when going to do the washing up.
Burnt food
 10) Cooking for the correct amount of time.
This goes for cooking long enough or cooking briefly. It requires looking at your food properly, using all of your senses, sight, touch, hearing and smell.
Have the courage to allow things to cook, to brown properly. Don't whip the bread out of the oven too early. With a tarte tatin, make sure you cook the apples in the sugar and butter for long enough so that it properly caramelises. When testing cakes, put in a skewer, and make sure it comes out dry and that the cake is golden, not pale.
For crisp vegetables, blanch them, don't drown them.

Do buy these things:
A timer
A digital thermometer
Rubber spatulas
A silpat or good silicone/baking parchment
Decent saucepans with heavy bottoms and lids that fit, one small, one medium, and one very large.
At least one great all purpose knife
Good sea salt
Don't buy low-fat anything or skimmed anything. It's bullshit.