Not everyone is blessed with culinary skills, and some just aren’t interested. But cooking for the family is inevitable once you’ve decided to to have children. For those who can’t cook, and those who won’t cook, Sophie Clowes goes back to basics with the help of some Wabi-sabi attitude.
Of the many competent adults I know, some can’t drive, some can’t run far, some can’t swim and some can’t sing in tune. Well, I can’t sing (not a note), but I also can’t cook. The skills required for making a main course elude me, which makes me feel embarrassed, nervous, flustered and, finally, frustrated. It became a barrier to having friends round, which is sad.
One day, after swim squad, I was listening to my fellow swimmers – a varied, successful bunch – who were talking about how bored they were of cooking, of food, of their lack of inspiration and of fussy children. Then, somebody suggested she might be able to help. That is how Louisa Chapman-Andrews came to my house to give me a cooking lesson.
What is Wabi-sabi?
Louisa is not a nutritionist, but a cook and writer. She runs her own food consultancy, helping people fall (back) in love with food and cooking. Her gentle understanding of my predicament was summed up in a book she recommended, called Wabi-Sabi Welcome. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept that honours the beauty of natural imperfection and a life of chosen simplicity. A review describes it as a ‘licence to slow down and host guests with humility, intention and contentment’. This was the culinary path I was seeking. We didn’t make sushi, I hadn’t managed to read the book and we didn’t even use it. Instead, one morning, Louisa, with a herbal bouquet fresh from her garden, taught me how, with a few basic skills and vision, I could make dishes that would feed my family for the best part of a week.
Back to Basics
Without a murmur of condescension, Louisa taught me how to make a classic tomato sauce. We also roasted a tray of root vegetables and, since I had a whole chicken and not the chicken thighs she had suggested, she taught me how to poach it. This method meant you got two cracks at stock, which is, in culinary terms, liquid gold. To the uninitiated (which, seemingly, is just me), this was nothing short of magic. Three very simple recipes could multiply and become a veritable menu of choice: soup, pasta sauce, health bowls, chilli, pasta bake, curry base.
Until recently, a main meal in this country constituted meat and two veg. Instead, Louisa suggested building a dish from the ground up, in pyramid fashion, starting with grains or pulses, then substantial vegetables such as roots, then softer vegetables such as leaves, then protein in the form of meat, fish or different vegetables, before adding a dressing and the texture (nuts and seeds, or even crispy salmon skin). You reap what you sow, or rather, eat what you cook, and so we sat down to a convivial lunch. First on the plate was a mixture of toothsome grains and pulses, then the roasted root vegetables, raw spinach leaves, shredded chicken breast, a simple dressing of yoghurt and lemon topped with some pumpkin and sunflower seeds toasted with Ras El Hanout – a versatile and forgiving springboard into the world of spices. We added chilli flakes too. It was delicious, filling, healthy and something a chump like me has since been able to replicate.
Louisa taught me the above but, in a sense, she also gave me permission to try without embarrassment or fear of failure. I’ve learnt that it’s alright to make a mess and that good cooks spill stuff (although, how Louisa got away with no apron and clean clothes at the end remains a mystery), that practice improves things and perfection is overrated. I realised that cooking for friends is one of the ultimate expressions of friendship. Later, Louisa sent me lesson notes, which included how to create a pantry and fridge toolkit, where to shop, what oil to use, what pulses should be soaked, how to make a dressing and a myriad of ingredient combination suggestions. I am indebted to her.
The late Julia Child, of French cooking fame, once said, “Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal”.
Food brings us together
Heartbreakingly, the day after Louisa’s lesson, a close member of our family died. Food became a form of familial glue and an expression of love. Friends cooked to give life to a family that had lost a life. It was comforting and therapeutic, as much for the cook as the eater: a form of solace. That week, and those that followed, I truly understood how food is a life-giving force that encourages conversation and laughter, that mops up the tears and quells the grief, as much as anything can.
Food is many things: it feeds our children’s brains and bodies, it nurtures and energises, it speaks of culture and geography, of comfort and celebration, of tradition and ritual, of family and friends and of love. It creates lasting memories and is a marker of the most important moments in life, as well as the backbone to every day.
I am no longer afraid to cook. I am free to make a mess of my kitchen, to flavour food, to waste next to nothing and to feed family and friends in a perfectly imperfect manner. It’s not easy, but I’m more at ease.
Next up, can any of you swimmers teach me how to sing?
WHERE TO LEARN TO COOK
firstname.lastname@example.org | 07796 264 734
The Ginger Whisk
gingerwhiskcookingschool.com | 07950 576767
Borough Kitchen Cook School
boroughkitchen.com | 020 7998 9970
leiths.com | 0208749 6400
The Jamie Oliver Cookery School
jamiescookeryschool.com | 020 3435 9900