There appears to be very little correlation between intelligence demonstrated in exam results achieved and practical skills. As this year’s Freshers begin to get ready to start at universities and colleges up and down the country, there is still a little time to make sure they have the basics when it comes to cooking. In a perfect world all students would head off with a well-rehearsed repertoire of at least 5 core dishes encompassing the main cooking techniques and providing a balanced, economically viable, diet. In the real world many students seem to miss this learning opportunity. They will probably pick up the skills quite quickly, but over the years I have developed a few crucial cuisine tips that may be worth passing on in lieu of the full Masterchef workout.
In the spirit of simplicity I would like to suggest minimal tools: a sharp knife, a small saucepan, a frying pan, a bowl, a spoon and a mug will get most people started.
Firstly: EAT SOMETHING
Everything can get so frenzied and busy or, occasionally, so miserable that students can go for days without eating a proper meal. Say you wake up at 11.30ish, then go to a faculty activity to “meet the team”, then from 2.30pm wander around trying the find the people you met yesterday till 3.45pm then go and sign on for the library, then meet some people for an ad hoc kick around a 6ish, then have an early evening drink, then a bit of a kebab, then a bit of a dance, then it’s 2.30am and bed and… so it goes. No one can sustain this level of activity without fuel: so eat meals, preferably vaguely at mealtimes, preferably of a broadly healthy nature, and preferably in company.
Secondly: BOILING WATER
An unbelievably useful skill – not only can you boil water to make tea, coffee and hot chocolate (which, when you make them for someone else immediately makes you a lovely, friendly person people want to be with), but once you’ve got that pan of water rolling food options can evolve from pot-noodles to cup-a-soup, to noodles, to pasta, to eggs (at school a friend memorably boiled eggs in the 6th form kettle – somehow and miraculously they never exploded). Small caveat: boiling water can burn so be cautious.
Thirdly: FRY THINGS
Different technique to boiling requiring more heat control and different equipment (pan not pot) – but once you can fry 3 rashers of bacon and an egg anything will seem achievable including a much more protein-rich diet (steak, turkey steaks, salmon steaks – if you are a keen sports person “teins” will be high on your list of desirable food types and by frying with minimal oil you can be consuming them rapidly for a fraction of the cost of eating out or buying weird shakes.) Another caveat: hot oil burns, so watch out – and repeated frying without any wiping and cleaning of surfaces will result in grime and dirt around the cooker.
Fourthly: READ THE PACKET
Most food sold in supermarkets comes with cooking instructions and, even, recipes.
I know these tips may be considered very basic – but the tales of students struggling when they find themselves out of context are myriad. One of my favourite concerns two foreign gentlemen doing engineering in America. Put together as roommates, the Frenchman and Indian decided to alternate cooking chores. On the first evening the Indian wanted to cook dhal. But, having come from a fairly privileged background in Delhi, he had never actually cooked at all, ever. After a dozen long distance (and time zone challenged) calls to his mother and the lady who cooked for the family, he was able to produce a modest dhal dish. His French companion was most impressed and, as they had agreed did the washing up for the meal. The next night the French gentleman, after several similar calls to his mother, produced a magnificent chicken casserole. He then went to bed leaving my Indian friend with the washing up. Despite the battered nature of the pots, he set to with grim determination and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. It was only in the morning that he discovered that his efforts had resulted in a pan devoid of any Teflon coating – he had scrubbed the whole lot off.