Chips, proper potato chips.  Crispy, tasty and not as bad for you as they say…

Safety first:  Never leave a chip pan unattended.  Should the worst happen and the oil catches fire, use a damp tea towel to smother the flames.  So long as you use a big enough pan, this is unlikely to happen. But, just in case…

Image of chips here

You need the right potatoes.  Maris Piper, or King Edwards.  Maris are the best.

Peel them, one large potato per hungry person, slice into 1cm or less using the bridge method then lay the slices down on top of each other, square up one end and slice at right-angles to create the classic shape.  Lay out a tea towel next to your board, and put the chips on that.  Continue slicing until you have enough chips.  Then rub them dry in the towel.

In Scotland they make excellent chips.  Our Scottish grandad adds an extra stage by soaking the raw chips (before drying) in salted water.  If you’re planning ahead and have the time this makes a small improvement – maybe.  It keeps the chips white until you are ready to use them, anyway.

Some people swear by beef dripping or lard, I like sunflower oil.  You need half a litre per person or per large spud, with a minimum of 1 litre.  You need a pan that can hold three times as much oil as you plan to use, or your oil will boil over in the second high heat stage.

Now heat the oil in your 1/3 full pan until a chip dropped in has small lazy bubbles forming around it as it sits under the oil.  Add the rest of the chips, and away down goes the heat to low.  Cook until the chips are soft and still white.  Now fish them out with a slotted spoon or fish slice into your sieve that can sit across the top of the pan.

Whack up the heat.  Hot as it goes.  Get the oil hot enough so when you drop in a chip this time, it seethes with bubbles that push it right up to the surface.  Carefully put the rest of the chips in to join him.  The oil will bubble up high.  Now you know why you needed that big pan.  After a minute or two, gently lift and separate the chips, one from ‘tother.  At this point I would start cooking my eggs…

Give the occasional encouragement to the chips to float separate while they brown.

Lift them out into the sieve again, and shake off the drops of oil.  Dish up and eat.

Once the oil is cold, funnel it back into your bottle for next time.  Note how much you’ve lost.  Done right, chips use less oil than you’d expect – and there’s that film around the pan and on the sieve to account for too.

 

 

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Buying, storing and eating food

We have had it drummed into us that we need our five a day. And butter is bad – no, its good – oh, it might be bad if you eat too much – but definitely margarine is bad. Whatever. The media sound bites from those that are paid with our money, and think it is their job to tell us what to do, get irritating, and foolish sometimes.

Just to annoy you, I’m going to do it too! The food you eat is possibly the most important factor in defining your health and happiness, so it is worth a few words. I’ll try and put it in perspective.

Back before 1960, most people – men and women – achieved most of their work using their muscles. They travelled on horseback or shank’s pony. They needed calories. So the food they ate had to be high in calories, and the highest calorific value was found in fats. Suet Puddings, pastries, cakes and fries. If you are breaking rocks in the hot sun, or just getting your washing done (without the aid of a washing machine) you needed fuel, so they ate the fried breakfast, lunch and tea. Supper. They needed it. They still had room for their greens, and their apples.

Now most of us just push buttons to control machines, and get only optional recreational exercise. The diet that is healthy for this kind of lifestyle you know. It’s the one they bang us over the head with. Compared to former times, the calories need to be much reduced, but we still need the micro-nutrients, the good fats and the protein. We need the roughage even more because in our sedentary life the gut does not get the same physical stimulation.

You’ve heard of ‘good fats’ I expect. The stone age diet had a balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 of 1:2. Our diet now, of factory meat and bakery goods, gives a ratio of less than 1:20. This is why people go on about fish oil and oily fish, the best source of long-chain omega 3’s: the repair blocks for the brain. There are vegetable sources which provide the short chain version, which may be converted by the body, but in compromised health there is doubt as to how efficient this process is.

Omega 3 Oily fish, marine algae, linseed and other seeds, walnuts, egg yolks

Omega 6 Olive oil

Omega 9 Sunflower oil

Simple. Use olive and sunflower oil in your cooking (you would, anyway) and have some serious omega 3 foods two or three times a week. The Spanish drizzle olive oil on their bread, in the same way that we use butter.

Get a little freshness

As a full-time mum, I had a vegetable garden. For a few years I grew nearly all the fruit and veg that we ate, as a family of four. Maincrop spuds, oranges and bananas were a bridge too far, but onions were plaited together in late summer, and hung in the shed. Carrots were put into sandboxes (ditto) Parsnips, purple sprouting broccoli, curly kale, perpetual spinach – the kids ate the lot. The peas that I would grow the occasional short row of, just for stealing, were popular too.

When my life got busier, I had to bit by bit grass over the plot. Soon my girls were just like their little friends, only eating frozen peas and raw carrot sticks. They would not enjoy curly kale and spinach again until their early twenties.

I’m not saying that you have to grow your own. I just want you to know that local seasonal food is important for quality nutrition, as well as for environmental reasons, taste and price.

Anyone can grow a few herbs on a windowsill, and that is all I can do, these days.  Boy, do they make a difference, and they look pretty too.  See Growing Gems later in this site.

Vegetables die if they get too cold. Most supermarkets chill all their fruit and veg, and because of that fact they rot quickly if not kept in the fridge. This is an important fact to remember if you are provisioning for a long sea voyage and have limited refrigeration, or just would rather have better tasting stuff. Buy from greengrocers and markets for the real deal. It’s cheaper that way too. I’m not saying that unchilled stuff lasts forever, but it lasts longer out of the fridge than the pre-chilled stuff by a long way. Exceptions are mushrooms, carrots, and cucumbers. Contrariwise, avocados and bananas go woody and nasty if kept in the fridge, and if you buy an avocado that refuses to ripen, then it’s probably been over-chilled.

So much of our food is nutritionally compromised. Instead of picking a salad from the vegetable garden outside the kitchen door, food comes thousands of miles before we eat it, loosing vitamins and flavour all the way. The cheap pork joint comes from an animal that was even more sedentary than us, having lived in a cage too small to turn around in. The cheap chicken is fed, like the caged pig, as economically as possible. I find it hard to justify eating these poor creatures. I would rather eat beans for my protein, but I will certainly make full use of any free-range animal I buy. You can get eight meal portions from a 3.5 kilo chicken, and a lot of stock to improve stir-fries and soups.

Lamb is always free-range. Beef, however is often intensively reared, and there is some rubbish beef about. Beef needs to hang for several days before being cut for sale, and this is rarely done these days. Bright red beef is fresh (i.e. not tender) beef.

On a mixed farm, animals are necessary to the whole ecosystem. Sheep grazed steep, poor land, no good for growing crops, and provided us with wool and meat. Pigs root out weeds, fertilising as they go, and eat up waste food from the kitchen, giving us meat, bacon, black pudding and sausages. Free range chickens eat up insect pests, weeds and scraps, clean and improve the land. Their eggs taste so good, rich in omega 3 unlike their poor cousins from the concentration camp. Bring back the chicken tractor, but watch out for Mr Fox.

But most of us can’t grow and raise our own, so it’s off to the shops for us. Some people do recipe-led shopping. They will work out what to make, and then source the ingredients. I prefer to see what’s good in the shops, then devise a recipe to use it. Having said that, there is usually a piece of paper floating round my kitchen to note down when we’re running out of olive oil or loo roll, tea or tobacco… cheese or chutney. A rough framework to build the next few day’s food on. I guess I’m not too keen on planning exactly what is on the menu, preferring to see how we feel, what’s good in the shops, and what the weather’s like. But I would be lost without the list of basics that has been created over the past few days.

You can do a passable job with poor tools, but as it becomes possible to buy better kit, choose wisely. It is cheaper in the long run to buy a good knife, saucepan, etc. to start with that will last a lifetime than to economise on tools that never worked right to start with, were difficult to use, and had to be replaced in a year or two anyway. Tools can be bought from Harrods, from the pound shop, online or at the car boot. The key to getting the right stuff is to know what you are looking for.

Cooks’ knife

The first tool, and the most used, is a cook’s knife. You can spend anywhere from £2 to £150, the difference in price being in the quality of the steel, production values and kudos. Quality steel will keep it’s edge longer, but all cooks knives will need sharpening from time to time.

You want a knife with a 6 to 8″ (150 – 200mm) blade, and a riveted handle, or one that is one piece with the blade. The knife should not flex when you try to bend it, or it will annoyingly choose it’s own path when cutting harder things. It should feel good to hold.

Your knife needs to have a convex blade, so that you can rock it up and down through the food while applying pressure near the tip with the fingers of the other hand, in that manner that you see chefs on the tele doing at blinding speed. We go slower than that, but it’s the same principle, and that’s how to reduce herbs to dust. As you get more practice, you get faster.

There are two other basic knife techniques. With the bridge, you hold the food between your thumb and fingers, and cut down through the gap between them. Good for hard foods, like parsnips, squash, potatoes, chunking hard cheese…

In slicing fine the knife blade uses the knuckles and nails of the hand that is holding the food as a guide, and the hold shifts along the item as you slice on. Tuck your fingertips in.

The main thing with sharp knives is not to have any bit of you under the sharp edge. Decent knives need to be treated with respect. I remember yeas ago grabbing some cutlery out of the washing-up water, and coming up all red and bloody because I’d squeezed the sharp edge of my new knife. Since then, I store them separate from the general run of knives and forks, and they don’t go in the cutlery drainer either.

Paring knife

A smaller version of the cooks’ knife, with a blade around 3″ (75mm) long, for use where the larger one would be unwieldy.

Sharpeners

There’s no point having a good knife if you can’t keep it sharp. There are all sorts of patent sharpeners on the market, and if you buy one that you can keep stable on the worktop as you draw the blade through it, it will do a good job.

The classic tool for this job, however, is the steel – it looks like a long knife, except the ‘blade’ is a round file. The key to using a steel is to know the angle of the edge of your knife, and applying the steel to the blade at that same constant angle, drawing it firmly across the side of the blade from base to tip, first one side, then the other, and repeat. A steel must be made of good-quality steel. There are some aluminium ones on the market, cheap as chips, and about as much use.

The patent sharpener gives you no choice of angle, which can be a good thing, and has, usually, two sets of grinding wheels to sharpen both sides at once. Both methods require a steady hand.

Bread knife

This is the one you don’t sharpen. Get one that is reasonably stiff, and has scalloped serrations. Think of the bread knife as a small saw – it’s useful for cutting cardboard boxes too, but that won’t help its edge. Nothing else will cut even slices of fresh bread. Don’t try to sharpen it.

Boards

As an old-fashioned sort, I prefer wooden boards. Teak will last a lifetime, but beech will work too. If you cut onto glass or melamine, you will quickly blunt your knife. Worktops are the worst surface to chop on, they will get damaged, and there’s no way to fit them in the sink.

These days, people use plastic. I had my mother’s old teak board, and a plastic one, on the boat before we moved on board. Returning to the boat after a month or so, I discovered the plastic one with black mould in all the little grooves, next to the sweet-looking teak one. That put me off plastic, but hey, each to their own.

I’v got three boards right now, one dedicated to raw meat and fish, one for veg etc, and one which is never used for garlic or onions. I bought that after I got fed up with garlic flavoured fruit salad.

Thicker is better, an inch/25mm or more, as they are less likely to warp and split. About 12″ x 18″ (300 x 400mm) is a good size. Small boards are annoying, when the bits of food fall off them. Big ones are hard to keep clean.

Pans

Ideally, a frying pan and three saucepans. 2 litres to 5 litres (4 to 8 pints) in volume. An enormous pan (2 gallons (9 litres) or more) is good if you are brewing, preserving, or feeding the five thousand. If every pan has a lid, that will extend their usefulness. If everything including the handles can stand able to stand the heat of the oven it will save on washing up and ovenware.

Heavy based stainless steel is a good low maintenance every-day option. Cast iron makes a good griddle, skillet or casserole, if you keep it well seasoned, in this manner: heat the pan up, empty, till really hot, then rub with oil on a paper towel, allow to cool: and repeat 3 times to start with, once in a while thereafter, and after soaking and scouring. Enamel works, if of a reasonable quality. Cheap enamel chips easily. Quality enamel is expensive. Both of these options are heavy.

Aluminium was a popular material for cooking pans, being cheap, light, and a good conductor of heat. Then they found that aluminium salts that leached from the pan particularly when used to cook acid foods, tomatoes, fruits and such, were implicated in Senile Dementia, and since then it has understandably lost popularity. I wonder what the health implications of degrading non-stick coatings might turn out to be.

Personally, I don’t use aluminium or non-stick in my kitchen.

Copper pans and kettles were common in years gone by, and polished up they look lovely, hanging from a rack. But because verdigris – the green ‘rust’ of copper – is poisonous, they were always tinned inside. This coating wore out with use, and I’m glad I’m not a poor Victorian housewife, having to find the money to send the pans for re-tinning at the platers, or risk poisoning the family.

Bowls

for mixing, containing and serving. A big one, a middle-sized one and a small one. Think Goldilocks, and always have one that’s just right. Or use your saucepan…

Sieves

A big one for sifting, separating and draining, a small one for tea and to catch lemon pips. Stainless steel is best. As a young wife, my mother put her new plastic colander into the oven to keep the rice warm. She had a university degree, worked in political and economic planning, and rice with plastic sauce.

Measuring jug – I like the glass kind, that hold ½ a litre / 1 pint

Measuring spoons – I still haven’t got my set!

Scales – If you are getting serious about your cooking

Hand Blender – a simple one with a motor of over 250 watts will be used more than any other electrical gadget, and can cost as little as £10. They don’t take much space, either.  The top of the range ones have whisks and choppers.

Rotary whisk – If you haven’t got an electric one, then one of these may be retro, but it does the job. Two four-bladed interlinked beaters, run by gears which are turned by a dog-leg handle.  Look for good solid engineering.

Pepper grinder – with a ceramic grinding mechanism, which will last much longer. A few pounds will buy a black topped glass one from a certain Swedish furniture store, if you can stand the journey, and the long walk round. A good place for lots of other kitchen essentials, just such a mission to shop in.

  • Wooden Spoon – for stirring up sweet stuff.
  • Wooden Spatula – stirry stick for savouries. One of the most used minor tools
  • Rubber spatula – if you can find a flexible one, it will increase yields and ease washing up
  • Balloon whisk – mixing and whipping
  • Metal fish slice – a flexible blade is good
  • Rock and Roll potato peeler – sturdy handle, fine articulated blade – slung either way
  • Pastry brush – for gently anointing. A new paintbrush is just as good. Wash it first
  • Rolling pin – a cylinder, no handles, 30 – 45 cm (12 – 15″)of wood, glass or resin. Bear in mind your work space.
  • Ladle – for transferring liquids. Or use a mug ;
  • Slotted spoon – for fishing out solids, leaving the liquid behind
  • Potato masher – made of metal, an oval horizontal working part with wiggly holes is my preferred pattern
  • Tin opener – a good one will last longer.
  • Small funnel – to get the oil back in the bottle… oven chips just aren’t the same
  • Scissors – opening packets, trimming herbs
  • Box grater – stainless steel, sturdy and stable. Check the slicing side – can you flex it? If so don’t buy it
  • Baking sheet – cookies!
  • Cake tin – loose base, 20 – 26 cm (8 – 10″)
  • Bun tin – for fairy cakes, muffins, Yorkshire pud and tiny pies
  • Ceramic or stainless oven dishes – for baked and roast dishes and for serving.

Stuff is a trap, in this society where we have access to everything. If we’re not careful, random stuff that seemed like a good idea at the time, can take over our lives and living spaces, so we must use discretion.

  • Ask yourself three questions: Do I need it?
  • Can I afford it?
  • Have I got somewhere to keep it?

When we were living on a small sailing boat the only way I could justify buying a fantastic bargain that I really wanted was by working out what was to be binned in order to make space. That discipline has given me the freedom to follow my star with minimal encumbrances, making adventures easier.

Everything we own has to be housed and kept clean. Having the right kit makes life easier, but having surplus kit gets in the way of the life.

A few words about the layout of the kitchen. You may have heard of the ‘work triangle’ an imaginary line which connects the cooker, the fridge and the sink. It should be unobstructed, and not too large. Between 3 mtrs/12 feet and 6 mtrs/26 feet as a guide. There should be worktop either side of the cooker and of the sink. The absolute minimum for a useful bit of worktop is 40cm/15″wide. You need at least one stretch of worktop a metre/three feet wide. The less stuff that has to live on the worktop, the easier the cleaning.

If your worktop does not overlap the cupboards and drawers by at least 25mm/1″ debris will fall into them when you clear the tops. A kitchen table is well worth insisting on, for social space and extra work surface. Without one the kitchen is only a workshop for one, not the heart of the home. A clear worktop, free from gadgets and odds ‘n sods is easier to wipe clean.

Sink – Stainless steel is the only option, on a budget. Twin ceramic butler sinks are lovely, but they take a massive amount of space, they can cost a fortune, and they tend to be set too low for ergonomic use. It is bad for your back to have the bottom of the sink below the height of your dangling wrist.

Dishwasher – Six place tabletop, eight place slimline dishwasher, twelve place full size, they all cost about the same, and they all need a place to stay with plumbing and electrics. They all need enough crockery and cutlery and mugs to fill them up and have a full set over. It’s worth it if you have the space, the stuff and the cash, and if your household has four people or more, it’s a total godsend. One of the great benefits is, once the residents are trained, dirty crocks are stored away out of site until last thing at night, which is the best time to run the machine.

Cooker –If you live in a rented house, the cooker you have is the cooker you’ve got. No choices, except if you take the lease in the first place. I hope you’ve got a gas hob, and an oven with a grill. If the oven gets up to 5500 then you will be able to make your own light and crispy pizza.

Fridge and Freezer – A freezer makes a massive difference to your possibilities. You can make your own ready dinners for the days when you don’t want to cook. You can freeze bread, pizza, even milk if it is homogenized as nearly all milk is these days, stews, soups… Unless you have a veggie garden, a fridge freezer (fridge on top, natch) should see to your needs. Get one with a good energy rating. How noisy it is is important too, but impossible to check unless it’s secondhand (or even from freecycle). Secondhand is relatively good bet, but check everything works and that all the plastic fittings you need are there before taking it. See if the door deals are undamaged, and the doors unwarped. Don’t turn it on for 24 hours after moving it into place, or the little bubbles that may have been formed in the coolant in the move could get into the compressor pump and block it. This would be very bad news. Newer ones are supposed not to have this (easily dealt with) problem.

Most fridges allow you to swap the way the doors open. There will be little plastic covers over the holes where the screws and hinge pins should go in. Worth doing, to get it working right, when you get a round tuit. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Have you ever seen those souvenir plates from the West Country called Tuits? They are painted with the legend “At last! I have got a round tuit!”

Microwave – I’m not that keen on microwaves, but they do reheat stuff easily, speed up your baked potatoes and cook frozen peas nicely. They are cheaper on power than the big oven. I have a simple one I bought for £30. It’ll need a home though. On a shelf or on top of the fridge ideally, worktop space is precious.

The first skill is to be able to cook. If you make ready to eat food for profit, unless your unique selling point is high quality and your goods are high-priced, your bottom line depends on saving money in production and on ingredients.

The customer can only tell the quality when they eat the food long after they’ve bought the food. We therefore have a head start, knowing we are going to eat what we cook, simply by choosing ingredients that please our senses. And since we do not cost in our cooking time, we can use good stuff, save lots of money and have better health as well.

Why cook, when there are so many ready meals and takeaways out there? Well, it’s partly for the pleasure, which is greatly increased if you are not struggling with a bendy, blunt serrated knife, pans that always catch and burn, or using a fork when you really need a whisk.

And then, we are what we eat. Good food is one of the essential pleasures in life, along with sport, sex, setting the world to rights with good friends and working at something worthwhile that is enjoyable for at least some of the time.

Good food has a greater impact on health than possibly anything else. It is also much cheaper to do it for yourself. And a home made dinner doesn’t have to take any longer than nuking some plastic-wrapped orange goo.

I’m not saying cook every night, there are ways to have days off. Especially if you have a freezer – even a small one.