Emma Cowing: Too many Masterchefs spoil appetite

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I HAVE a confession. I am still, after almost 20 years of cooking, a little bit hazy on how to boil an egg.

I mean, I understand that it only goes in the pan for a few minutes, and that the longer you leave it the harder the yolk will be, but I’m still not entirely sure as to whether you’re meant to put it in a pan of cold water or simmering water, and what you’re supposed to do when it starts to boil. If someone were to ask me to boil an egg right now, I’d flap about in a panic, spend ten minutes staring at the egg box with a furrowed brow then make up a story about the water having been switched off at the mains and anyway, all my eggcups were involved in a freak accident involving the dishwasher and a Le Creuset frying pan so shall we just go out for breakfast instead?

This is not to say that I don’t know how to cook. I do. My lemon and garlic chicken has been hailed a triumph. I do dauphinoise potatoes to die for. And I’m fairly sure that even if I couldn’t boil an egg, I could rustle up some home-baked bread for the toast soldiers.

Nonetheless, I thought about my lack of egg-based knowledge when I read that Delia Smith has been getting a bit steamed up over modern cookery shows. The likes of Masterchef, she says, are intimidating, and never show the basic things like how to make an omelette or indeed, boil an egg.

“Food isn’t theatre and to make it into theatre is wrong,” she told the Radio Times. “It can speak for itself and it’s wonderful and it’s beautiful and it’s art – it’s everything.”

She continued: “We’ve lost our grip on home cooking. I can see that by the way kitchen equipment shops are in decline. There are a lot of short cuts but the main problem is that people are afraid to cook.”

While I’m not so sure about the demise of kitchen equipment shops – which strikes me as the sort of thing that will always go into decline during a recession because when you’re trying to find money for the electricity bill that £200 hand-operated pasta maker suddenly doesn’t seem such a crucial purchase, I do think that Delia – who
I always like to think of as the head girl of cooking in this country – has a point here.

Those chaps on Masterchef are scary. Proud of my lemon and garlic chicken as I am, I can’t imagine serving it up to the ridicule and derision either of those two might pour on it.

Delia admitted that she had been asked herself if she would consider being a judge on the programme, but had decided that she felt her job was not to criticise, but encourage.

And yet a lot of the food-based programmes we see now are indeed food as theatre. There is Saturday Kitchen, which involves lots of famous folk and even more dull chat, or the likes of Rick Stein, Rachel Khoo, Nigella Lawson and Sophie Dahl, all of whom cook in impossibly glamorous locations and punt not just recipes, but a whole lifestyle that somehow seems to be a requisite part of rustling up the food that they cook.

When Delia appeared on the screen, her approach to cooking was simple, straightforward, and sometimes, yes, a little dull. It consisted of a woman in a kitchen, showing you how to do stuff. That was it. And, as someone who is a little old to be seduced by the likes of lifestyle as eating (sorry Ms Khoo, lovely as your bijou French kitchen is, I know fine well that I will never live in a Parisian apartment, shopping each morning for fresh baguettes while wearing flowery prom dresses), I rather miss it.

Somewhere down the line we got confused about cooking in this country. We started to attribute all sorts of false and misleading meaning to it, and forgetting that at the end of the day it’s cooking, plain and simple. It’s feeding yourself and your family in a way that is easy and accessible. The theatre and the frills should be for occasional treats only, not a daily obsession.

We all, in these recession-led times, struggle to find the time and the money to cook every day in a way that is practical. We need advice that is economical and simple, not a fluffy lifestyle package that requires we wear a certain frock and distress our kitchen cabinets in a certain way before we can turn on the oven.

Delia says she would consider coming back to the BBC if she could do quick five minute “how to” slots, which seems to me a brilliant and much-needed idea. Let’s hope that if she does, she starts with how to boil an egg.