WHEN it comes to cooking, recipes can inspire us. But it’s important to remember that cooking isn’t just about recipes. It’s about taking ingredients and making them taste as good as you possibly can.
I’m consistently asked for tips and advice on home cooking and I always say that the basics – like finding the right tools, learning simple skills and techniques, using the best local ingredients and getting to know the produce you work with – are vitally important.
When I was a young chef, I wanted to run before I could walk. But from my early days working in top restaurants for legendary chefs, I learnt that the foundations of cooking are absolutely essential to be a good chef, but also a good cook.
When I started working for Pierre Koffmann, I spent my time on the starter section at restaurant La Tante Claire for more than four months – I wasn’t allowed near the stoves. During those months, I always had my eyes on the veg section, where I would progress to next. Working with the vegetables, I learnt so much about new techniques, timing and produce. Mastering the perfect way to chop an onion might not seem as exciting as trying a new recipe, but if you learn these basics skills, it will be worth the investment of time in the long run.
In a professional kitchen, chefs will be expected to julienne, square off, brunoise or batonnet vegetables, and while not all of those techniques are needed at home, there are some basics that once learned, will become skills for life. This Vegetable à la Grecque may seem simple, but chopping techniques can make all the difference and make this dish stand out.
Chopping an onion is one of the most common kitchen tasks and can be one of the easiest if you learn the best way to do it. Start by finding the right knife. A good chef’s knife is a great utensil to have and given the amount of time you spend using it in your kitchen, it is worth investing a little bit if you can afford it. The best knives are forged from a single piece of steel that runs the entire length of the knife.
Over the past few years, my wife Michaela and I have been lucky enough to work with a product design company to come up with our own range of kitchen knives for the home cook. The result is a product we use at home. I really hope some of the products we have created, and advice to learn the basics, will give the aspiring home cook a whole new range of skills and products to help enjoy cooking, eating and sharing food.
Twitter: @Tom Kitchin
Vegetables À la grecque
À la Grecque stock
2 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tbsp fennel seeds
½ tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
1 large onion, chopped
1 leek, sliced
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 fennel bulb, sliced
125g button mushrooms sliced
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
½ head of garlic
zest and juice of 1 ½ lemons
1 litre white wine
1 litre water
50g rock salt
12 baby beetroot, washed and trimmed
2 garlic cloves
zest of ½ orange
2 sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tsp olive oil
12 florets of cauliflower
1 fennel bulb, cut into 6 wedges
6 artichoke hearts (tinned or fresh)
1 carrot, sliced into 12 ribbons
6 cooked chestnuts
1 small handful of chives
To make the à la Grecque stock
In a large heavy-bottomed stock pot, heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the fennel and crushed coriander seeds and cook for 4-5 minutes to release their flavour. Add the onion and good pinch of salt. Cover the pan and cook over a medium heat until the onions are very soft. Add the leek, celery and fennel and continue to cook for another six to eight minutes. Then add the mushrooms, thyme, bay leaf, garlic and lemon zest juice.
Cook a few minutes longer, allowing all the ingredients to mix together. Pour in the wine and a litre of water, making sure there is enough liquid to cover the vegetables. Cook over a medium to high heat for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Take the pan off the heat and leave the stock to infuse for 30 minutes. Pass through a fine sieve, pressing firmly to extract as much liquid as possible. Leave to cool at room temperature and store in a sealed plastic container. This stock freezes well.
To prepare the beetroot
Heat the oven to 150C/Gas mark 2. Lay out a sheet of aluminium foil (A4 size). Sprinkle the rock salt over the foil. Add the beetroot, garlic, orange zest and thyme and fold the foil to make an airtight parcel. Place this in a heavy-bottomed pan and bake for 1½ hours. Remove the parcel from the oven and check the beetroot with a sharp knife to see if they are cooked. If there is still any resistance, put them back in the oven for another 15 minutes. Leave to cool and then peel the beetroot by gently scraping the skin with a knife.
To prepare the garnish vegetables
In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add the cauliflower, fennel and artichokes. Season and add a ladle of grecque stock and cook over a medium to high heat until the stock is reduced by half. Add another ladle of stock, cook for 10-12 minutes, then add the chestnuts, cooked beetroot and ribbons of carrot.
Cook for a further three to four minutes until the stock has reduced and the vegetables have a sticky glaze. Keep the stock to use as a dressing for the vegetables. Once cooked, the vegetables and stock can be put into an airtight container and kept in the fridge for up to five days. Serves four.
Top tips for chopping an onion
1. If you have time, freeze the onions for 20 minutes before chopping, to stop your eyes from watering.
2. Cut the onion in half, slicing downwards through the root, then peel.
3. Cut five to six vertical slices into each half, leaving the root intact.
4. Lay the onion half flat, slicing horizontally, still keeping the root intact.
5. Slice downwards across these cuts to dice.
6. Once cut, an onion should be wrapped, refrigerated and used within four days.