• Nicki

Life in the Easy Lane - A Kitchen Guide

Updated: May 9, 2021



PURPOSE OF THE GUIDE


Over the years of teaching people to cook, it's become obvious that many people hate cooking because they find the skills difficult (many have never been taught) or struggle to understand how the processes of cooking affect the final products. Once people master the fundamentals of cookery skills, their experience can be transformed. It has been a privilege to see students who initially struggled with any type of cooking or kitchen work, transfigure the experience from being a nightmare to one of excitement, joy and confidence, as they mastered these critical skills.


Our Vegan (and gluten-free) Essentials course contains some simple recipes to demonstrate and help embed some of the basic culinary skills that can transform your approach to cooking. As the series develop, more complex recipes, meals and processes will be introduced to help you develop your skills and knowledge. Each recipe highlights the key skills that can be learned from the dish.

For experienced cooks, the recipes may simply provide new ideas or a new take on old ideas; but for less experienced or confident folk, we have introduced techniques and kitchen hacks throughout the recipes to try to ease your culinary journey.


This is not an attempt to teach you how to become a master chef, it is simply to help make life a little easier and more satisfying with respect to having a varied and interesting diet using only plants and avoiding gluten.

Every recipe is accompanied by a video demonstration and a photo of the final product to take you through the entire process. If the recipe calls for a particular outcome, we show how to achieve the desired result in a safe and efficient way. We have included links to other sites where we have found masterful demonstrations of a particular skill and process.


INGREDIENTS


Where possible, we use very simple ingredients that are readily available in most supermarkets and in most countries. We try to avoid using commercially branded food products such as burgers, sauces etc., because what may be readily available in one country, simply will not be available in many other places. For many people the prices of branded products can be prohibitive, especially regarding products that have been developed as meat substitutes.


My son was finding that his budget for living at university was being eroded by some of the freezer products he was buying, so we set about to adapt the ingredients he was using, such as frozen vegan mince to dehydrated vegan mince. Although initially he had to soak the dehydrated product, it cost him less than ¼ of the price of the frozen product. In addition, because he bulk-cooked it, he was able to freeze 8 portions (and eat 2) whereas before he was making about 4 portions. Ultimately, he gained huge savings in time and money.

Where specific ingredients such as rice vinegar are called for, they are easily substituted for other readily available and commonly stored products that are in most kitchens. Each individual recipe will guide you on potential substitutions. As your repertoire and confidence grow, chances are you will want to start breaking out and experimenting with new products over time.

Keeping the ingredients simple helps to manage the economics of eating, and whilst many people don’t need to concern themselves with this aspect of cooking, for others it is a primary concern and we hope we can help address these needs.


While we are fortunate to have access to high quality fresh produce that is affordable, in other countries the cost of fresh produce can be expensive for many families. If this is the case, frozen produce can be far more economical and nutritionally superior, whilst providing a similar outcome, so don’t be afraid to change and experiment with frozen produce if you wish.


FOOD SCIENCE


Cooking is definitely part art but mostly science. You don’t need to be a specialist to understand some of the fundamentals of food science, but knowing why and how reactions in food occur, really helps to know how to handle, prepare and cook healthy beautiful dishes that taste amazing. We try to highlight some of the science in both the recipes and the video demonstrations.

This is not about trying to complicate processes with highly detailed explanations about what is happening at the molecular level, but more about describing what is happening to the food so you are aware of what to look for.


ORGANISATION IN THE KITCHEN


Organisation and pre-planning is one of the most important aspects of producing high quality food. Being organised takes so much stress out of the experience and good organisation can lead to a relaxing and even sociable event in the kitchen. Having ingredients and equipment ready can really save time in the long run.

Optimise your storage space so that the products and equipment you use regularly are easy to hand, whilst the tools and foods that you rarely use are placed in the more difficult places. Keep cupboards and shelves tidy. I’m actually a bit on the OCD side in that I have to be able to access everything without even looking. Even the herbs and spices have an exact location where they are stored. Try to find a system that works for you, it will pay dividends in the long term.


Some of the critical planning behind producing meals or products are listed below.

  • Set up clear work zones that separate out activities, even in a small kitchen. Find an area to prepare, a space to cook, a space to clean. If you avoid mixing equipment and ingredients across the three zones, then it will be easier to work in the kitchen. If the only space you have for dirty dishes while you cook, is the sink, then stack things tidily until you have the space on a counter to put them there.

  • Have a little collection bowl or bag for scraps right next to your preparation area, so that it is immediately to hand and will save you dropping things on the floor trying to get to the bin. This will keep your work area tidy and you can empty it straight into the compost heap or the bin when you are finished. If you don’t have a special bowl, use an empty vegetable punnet. I used empty mushroom punnets for years. I’d simply empty them and, if necessary, rinse them so they stayed clean.

  • If possible, pre-prepare or weigh out ingredients the night before. An example of this would be where I have gluten free guests and I make muffins for breakfast. As I don’t want to get up at a ridiculous hour, I measure out all the dry ingredients into an airtight container and the wet ingredients into another, the night before. Even the muffin tray is set out with baking cups in. This means that when I get up, I simply have to turn on the oven, mix the wet and the dry ingredients together, put them in the baking cups and pop them in the oven, so they are super fresh for the guests.

  • If anything needs defrosting eg. frozen spinach, take it out of the freezer the night before and pop it into a secure container in the fridge. Simply drain it when you want to use it.

  • Get out all your ingredients before you start cooking and set them out in a neat way (try to cluster them in the order you will use them or prepare them). Similarly, get out all the equipment you need and place it where you will use it eg. saucepans on the hob, food processor plugged in etc.

  • If you are using a lot of fresh produce, wash it all before you begin to cook, that way you will not only check that you have everything you need, but it will reduce the chance of ruining a great meal because you are distracted by having to wash something. This acts as a double check system to ensure you have the correct ingredients.

  • Likewise measure out any ingredients so they are ready when you need them. I always put ingredients that are added at the same time together as when they are needed, they are in a single pace and you don’t need to go through all your ingredients looking for the one you want. It also prevents clutter as fewer containers are needed (and saves on some washing up!). Once you have measured and weighed out, put the ingredients away. This will clear up more working space.

  • Where appropriate prepare dry ingredients such as sieving flour before working with more perishable ingredients such as fruit and vegetables. The flour will not deteriorate whilst it is sitting in a bowl, but produce such as potatoes will discolour, through oxidisation if they are prepared and left.

  • If you are preparing a number of dishes for a meal, then set out a plan of the order of things with indications of timings. Start from when everything should be ready and work backwards. Using colours in your plan make it far easier to know what dish you are working on. This doesn’t have to be done on a computer, but can be a simple plan that uses different colour pens or highlighters. Planning like this will ensure that you are not hanging around waiting for things to happen or spoiling food because you are rushing or forgetting a critical stage.

  • Use natural breaks in the preparation and cooking to wash up, clean and tidy as you go along. This is a massive time saver and helps you get the kitchen back into shape much quicker. An example of this might be that you have finished using a food processor. Wipe down the machine and put it back into its space when you have about a minute spare. It’s quick and easy and helps you to more free time and space. Clean up spills as soon as is possibly convenient; particularly if you spill on the hob; an early clean will remove the spill, if it is left, it will cook onto the hob and be harder to clean later on.

  • Keep a damp clean cloth to hand, so that you can simply wipe the knife blade or chopping board when required.


KNIVES


Knives are just about the most important tool in the kitchen and the greater your skill and confidence in using knives, the more enjoyable will be your cooking experience.



There are many types of kitchen knife on the market, each with its own specific function (as will be covered shortly), with a variety of materials. To get the best out of your knives, keep them sharp. Really sharp blades are not only safer but they ease the preparation stage of cooking. A well-honed blade will slice through a ripe tomato with the ease of a hot knife cutting through butter.

Most commercial knives come with a stainless-steel blade that will not rust easily. Japanese knives traditionally made with high carbon steel that are machined to a fine edge (usually about 11 ½° to the midline, compared to American/European blades that are about 22 ½° to the midline). Whilst these blades are beautifully sharp, they do become blunt quicker and they will rust if not cared for properly.


Ceramic knives have become popular in recent years as they stay sharper than standard steel knives, but they are more brittle and tend to snap when dropped (and we all have accidents like that in the kitchen). Poorly made ones can be really blunt, which makes sharpening them a pretty arduous and thankless task. If you choose a ceramic blade, make sure it is super sharp to begin with.

I have chosen a particular brand of knife for a number of reasons: they have a fine edge (18° to midline) blade, so they are wonderfully sharp; the handles are beautifully balanced and fit my female hand perfectly and quite frankly they are gorgeous to look at. The ergonomics of your knives and the sharpness of the blade are two hugely important considerations. I personally find many of the American and European knives too big and heavy to fit my hand comfortably. The knives are quite expensive but we saved money by purchasing sets. We figured that since my main job was cooking, it was worth investing in the one tool that can make or break a kitchen experience.

Having said this, one of my favourite knives in the kitchen is a small paring knife I purchased with supermarket vouchers, costing me about £5.00. I have had this knife for over a decade and it’s going as well as ever.

Get yourself a decent sharpener. If you get in the habit of sharpening your blades every time you use them, it will become so ingrained that eventually you don’t even think about doing it, and the pleasure of working with a well-honed blade totally outweighs the effort of sharpening. A sharp knife is a safe knife as it will easily cut through food, rather than “bouncing off”, potentially causing injury.

If you are only working with plants, you will likely only need three types of knife; a chef’s knife, a bread knife and a paring/utility knife. If you want to treat yourself, add a Santoku knife into your set as this is great for perfectly straight cutting of harder vegetables. A good chef’s knife will cover nearly all your kitchen tasks, so don’t be surprised that you use it more than any other.

USING YOUR KNIVES

When using a knife, your chin should always be over the top of the blade so that you can see where you are cutting (it’s the same principle as using a saw to cut wood). If you are over the blade, you can see if the blade is crooked and make any necessary corrections. Avoid using force to cut. If you angle the blade correctly all you need to do is slightly push the blade forwards as you push down and the blade will simply slide through your produce.


Hold the blade with your index finger behind the heel of the knife and pinch the side of the blade with your thumb. Your other fingers should be relaxed, nestling the knife handle.


Always keep your fingers clear of the blade. Use the “claw” grip, where your finger tips are tucked under your knuckles, with your knuckles providing a cutting guide. Never let any part of your hand sit underneath the blade to avoid cutting yourself. The other option is a “bridge” grip where you literally bridge over the produce and the blade lies under your fingers.

Always try to work on the principle of developing a flat edge on your fruit/ vegetable so that the produce does not try to roll around your chopping board.

If your chopping board is slippery, place a (damp) cloth underneath to secure it.

Use the hand that is guiding the produce to push towards the blade rather than moving the blade towards the food. I have produced a simple worksheet to guide you on the different types of cuts and if you have a few spare moments, it’s a good idea to find a cheap vegetable to practice cutting. I used to laminate the sheets for the students so that they could place their efforts next to the photographs to easily compare. Because we used cheap vegetables, it was easy for them to start again if they made a mistake. Some even asked for a copy to take home so they could practice in their own time.


OTHER EQUIPMENT


The most common small electronic goods in a kitchen are without doubt a food processor, a liquidiser or a hand-stick blender. If you are limited by space and or budget, then a good hand-stick blender will be up to the task of most kitchen jobs, especially if it comes with a couple of extra attachments (as many do now).


If you are able to buy a food processor, then try and get one with a liquidiser attachment. A liquidiser is brilliant for blending soups or smoothies, whereas a processor will take care of dry goods and mixing.

If you are new to cooking and don’t want to start splashing out loads of money on a bewildering array of equipment, pop down to a charity shop that sells this kind of stuff, you’ll be amazed at the bargains you can find.

Before buying a specific piece of equipment, do some research on the equipment that is available in your budget range and read some reviews. Think about:-

  • Functionality – what will the machinery do. It’s better to probably go for slightly fewer functions but with high quality than having something that at the outset, can do anything, but produces poor results.

  • Power – having a machine with a higher power output will enable to deliver on higher volumes of food and tougher foods. You don’t need to go to industrial power to get great results and higher power items can start to be quite heavy, causing it to be uncomfortable after a short period of use.

  • Storage – if you have a smallish kitchen and don’t want to clutter it with untold items all over the counter tops (better to use your surface area for the actual cooking), look for items that have compact storage solutions. There are some great products on the market where the designers have really considered “real” people with “normal” kitchens.

  • Cleaning – trust me!! - this is really important. It you have a machine that is difficult to keep clean you simply will stop using it. I was given processor of a very well- known brand, that is impossible to clean all over. There are little catch points where bits of water and food collect, even when it’s been in the dishwasher (GROSS!!!) and you can’t dismantle the parts to get in a give it a really good scrub. I have to use wooden skewers and flexible bottle brushes to keep this clean, so guess which item only get called out for a very few jobs.


BULK COOKING


This is undoubtedly one of the great time savers (and can help with budgets too!). Whatever your reasons are for wanting to save time, freezing is the way to go. Some helpful hints are to :-

  • Bulk cook in a really large pan. It stops everything spilling or spitting out of the pan and helps keep the workplace clean.

  • Once you have finished cooking, portion out the recipe as soon as you can, as it will cool quicker in smaller containers than a single large one. Get it in the freezer as soon as you can.

  • Set aside a slightly longer time frame to cook in bulk than you normally would as you will be preparing double, 4x, 8x the quantity of ingredients that you would for a standard recipe. Being prepared mentally will make the job seen far less onerous.


COOKING ON THE HOB


When cooking on the hob, use the right size cooker ring for the size of the pan. Whether you are using gas, electric or induction, your heating edge should end at the base of the pan. If your heat source is too big for your pan, you will not only be wasting valuable energy, but you are more likely to burn food. Saucepans are thick on the base and usually have a number of layers that help them diffuse the heat evenly, whereas the edges are much thinner (usually a single layer of material) and the heat can intensify on the edges and food will begin to burn on the sides of the pan. You are also far less likely to burn yourself if the heat source is fully covered by a utensil.


Avoid having pan handles sticking out in front of the hob or over another ring. Try and face your handles to the outside edges of the hob either at a slight angle or perpendicular to the hob. By dong this, you will avoid accidentally knocking hot pots off the stove or burning the handles by accidentally leaving them over a hot hob (it’s easily done).


CLEANING


If your food catches or burns in a pan, the easiest way to get the worst of it off is to put some washing liquid or liquid soda crystal into the pan with a bit of water. Put the pan on a low heat and warm it through for about 5-10 minutes (depending on how burnt on the food is). After this take a cloth and remove all the excess. You may need to finish it off with a scouring sponge or pad, but it will now be a lot easier than not soaking.


Wash up from glassware and lightly soiled equipment first and move through the pile and do the dirtiest/grimiest last. If necessary change the water part way through as dirty greasy water just won't cut through additional grease on the equipment.


IN SHORT


The tidier and cleaner you work, and the more organised you are with ingredients and equipment, the more pleasurable the experience of cooking will be. Learning to cook is something to be worked on and you need to build confidence with easy wins. Don't give up, it becomes easier and more enjoyable, the more you work at it and practice. When I was teaching in schools, I saw pupils who had no skill or desire to cook; yet over time they grew to love what they were doing and were producing the most exquisitely presented, flavourful and complex dishes, simply through taking on board the basics and practicing.


Enjoy your cooking!!!

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