Teaching my father to cook
Published 12/08/2010 | 04:28
Like many men of a certain age, Sophie Morris's dad had left the cooking to his wife. Could his daughter turn him from kitchen novice to superchef?
An afternoon of cooking with my father – teaching him to cook that is, as he has very little experience in the kitchen – gets off to a worse start than expected. We're making a bacon and egg pie, which is technically an open tart, but a bold, filling, macho start to a cooking lesson, in my opinion.
I tell Dad that we need to bake the pastry tart case in the oven before making the filling and cooking the whole thing. I look round and he's bent down with the oven door open, putting the empty metal tart case into the oven. "We need to bake the tart case first," I repeat. "But that's what I'm doing," he says.
My mother is a brilliant cook and plans and cooks all the family meals. My father, like many men of his age, has never learned to do more than the basics.
Once, when I was 15, Mum and I arrived home from holiday very late after a day-long flight delay. Dad was excited: he'd made us dinner. While we festered in a tiny, hot airport, had he been slaving over a roast chicken or layering a hearty bolognese between sheets of pasta so we could return to a home-cooked lasagne? Not exactly. "I've bought steaks!" he announced, throwing them on the griddle. "And wait" – before we started eating – "there's a sauce!" He melted a piece of blue cheese to be poured on to each steak.
It was a good dinner, there's no doubt about that, but you can't eat steak and blue cheese for every meal. What he lacks are the basic skills and imagination to make decent, but not boring, everyday meals for himself and others. In this age of TV chefs, cooking is considered an essential social skill for both sexes. Perhaps that's why some useful books have begun to appear, aimed squarely at bringing men like my father up to speed. Today we're using Teaching Dad to Cook Flapjack, and Haynes, best known for their car manuals, have also recently published a no-nonsense guide called Men's Cooking.
Confusion over, we set to rolling out the pastry. This is shop-bought pastry, and I have no shame in admitting it. Making pastry is a pleasurable but time-consuming task, and one I suspect Dad will have no truck with on a day-to-day basis. The idea is to show him a few basic kitchen skills and leave him with experience of recipes he might well try again. Revealing how easy it is to roll out a bit of pastry and fill it with something delicious, which will do a light dinner for two with some left over for lunch the next day, makes more sense than attempting anything complicated.
"Shop-bought pastry can mean the difference between having a tart and not having one," admits Miranda Gardiner, author of Teaching Dad to Cook Flapjack.
And yes, the clue's in the name. Gardiner, a veteran of Keith Floyd's kitchens, only realised her father couldn't cook after the death of her mother five years ago. "It's a generational thing," she says. "I was at primary school in the Seventies and the division of labour at home was quite traditional. A few months after Mum died, I noticed that Dad started to ask questions about cooking and would pay more attention to what I was doing in the kitchen. Until then he'd been surviving on supermarket frozen stir fries and beans on toast." Like many men in their sixties, he missed the boat as far as kitchen skills were concerned.
Chris Maillard, author of Men's Cooking, a how-to manual that takes newbie chefs from chopping and dicing to baking and entertaining, says: "Men of that generation are probably the last survivors of the 'men don't cook' era. When we were growing up, cooking was women's work and the girls often watched. The boys were outside fighting with sticks."
My father is certainly one of this number. "I never go hungry," he tells the photographer. "And I do like salads," he says, as if this marks him out as terribly enlightened in his eating habits. But making his own meals invariably means arranging large chunks of cheese between or on top of sliced bread, or cooking bacon. It would never occur to him to boil water for pasta, much less make a sauce from scratch.
Rolling out the pastry does take a little time, but Dad is an attentive and patient student. Eventually we get a piece large and strong enough to put in the case. The filling is a mix of two red onions and a packet of bacon, chopped and cooked together in a frying pan, mixed into six eggs, whisked, and topped off with parsley and pine nuts. Before we start, I explain that it is easy to prepare all sorts of tart fillings, and that there's a recipe in Teaching Dad to Cook Flapjack for a green tart, a mix of chopped green herbs, and would he like to make that instead? Without a second thought he declines, with a smile that says, "Why eat fresh green herbs when you can eat bacon?"
He cuts the onions into large rings before gripping each one to chop it into smaller pieces. "I'm probably chopping these in the wrong way, aren't I?" he asks. His onion-chopping style is unusual, but when you're making a quick lunch, does it matter? People are put off cooking because they either perceive it as some wondrous alchemy only the few can be initiated into, or have been on the receiving end of a scolding for such a minor offence as chopping an onion incorrectly. I point out that it isn't wise to completely freestyle when you're trying to follow a recipe, but if it calls for "chopped onion", chop it how you like.
With the tart in the oven, we turn to the flapjack. I'm impressed by the precision he brings to each task and the way he gets every last drop of each ingredient out of the mixing bowl and into the baking tin. He is also extraordinarily good at clearing up as he goes along and seeking out things to do in the in-between times: the makings of a fine multi-tasking housewife.
For the main dish I have chosen chicken with za'tar and lemon because it is easy and looks good, but also to show Dad that he can cook with exotic flavours without going down the hot and spicy route. He breaks into a sweat if he so much as sees a chilli. "It's not that I don't like them," he says. "Just they're not too keen on me." Za'tar (sometimes spelt zaatar or za'atar) is a Middle Eastern blend of herbs including sumac, sesame seeds and salt and is sold ready-mixed in most supermarkets or specialist food stores. Dad puts 500g of chicken thighs in a bowl, rubs the za'tar all over them and adds two cloves of crushed garlic, one slice of lemon, oil, water and some sprigs of fresh thyme, and puts it aside to marinate.
Dessert is Gardiner's zesty pistachio and polenta cake, chosen because Dad likes refreshing desserts, and while this is definitely a cake, the lemon flavour is sharp and intense. It is also covered with pistachios, and I imagine if the fridge was out of cheese, Dad might well survive on nuts. I have already made this cake twice and mine fell apart, but they were the most delicious broken cakes I have tasted in a while. Gardiner suggests cooking for longer on a slightly lower temperature and putting a baking sheet over the top to prevent scorching. Dad's cake turns out perfectly. Strike one to him.
I should say, though, that while he is an admirable executioner of tasks, he does need instruction, because he doesn't have the sense of when something is ready that experience or exposure brings. For example, he want to keep on whisking the eggs when the yolks are blended with the whites, and I think he imagines he's got egg whites to whisk into peaks for meringue. Same thing when creaming the butter and the sugar; he goes at it like it's cement about to set before time on his watch.
Mum did all the cooking when we were growing up, but she also had a job. I'd watch her pulling off proper evening meals, Sunday roasts and dinners for 20 against the clock. From a standing start, Dad's doing remarkably well.
Finally it's on to a couple of salads to go with the chicken. This is where Dad excels because he can introduce his real passion, gardening, into the equation. Mum is dispatched to the garden and returns with about four different types of lettuce, including rocket leaves so peppery I'm surprised Dad's gentle palate can take them, and bundles of herbs, from which we assemble Miranda's jewelled salad with pomegranate dressing and naked broad bean salad.
Teaching Dad to Cook Flapjack is more a family cookbook incorporating Gardiner's experience of living and working in Australia, sharing food with the Finnish branch of her family and catering for her husband, Diggory, and three children at home in Cornwall. It's packed with summery fare and recipes to take to the beach for a picnic or prepare quickly after school, but there are heartier dishes in there for when the weather turns, too: deluxe toad in the hole, Diggory's venison stew and a nostalgic orange and vanilla rice pudding.
Maillard's Men's Cooking starts, like my father, at the very beginning. "I've tried to explain the whole framework around cooking," he says. "Most books assume you already know a lot, such as how to sauté, but plenty of blokes don't have a clue how to sauté."
It is unclear whether Dad will man up in the kitchen and take some of the strain off Mum. He did ask a few technical questions about the tart-making over lunch, while serving himself seconds. The flapjacks were chewy and indulgently sweet (the recipe calls for condensed milk) and Dad selflessly gave up the majority to his grandchildren. Who knows, maybe they'll grow up knowing Granddad as the flapjack maestro and beg all his best recipes for themselves.
Teaching Dad To Cook Flapjack by Miranda Gardiner, £20 (Hardie Grant)
Men's Cooking: Owner's Kitchen Manual by Chris Maillard, £19.99 (J H Haynes & Co)
A chef's tips for nosh novices
You don't need fancy tools You can get lots of mechanical food processors with shiny buttons to press, but one half-decent knife and a sturdy pan will do just fine, advises Chris Maillard, author of 'Men's Cooking'.
Don't rush it Speed isn't important. Don't try to match the 500mph parsley-mincing speeds of TV chefs. Slow and careful isn't very showy, but it'll get the job done with minimal bloodshed.
Go easy Don't try to use everything in the fridge – some things just don't mix. Whittle it down to two or three basics (onions, garlic and tomatoes are always good – that's most Mediterranean food covered) and build from there.
Contstructing a dish Pick one big item – meat, fish, cheese etc – and only use things that go well with it. Pork, peas, carrots, potatoes? Perfect. Pork, peas, carrots, potatoes, rice, Marmite, anchovies, chocolate buttons, sweet and sour sauce, mushroom soup, Kahlua? Not so good.