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From disaster chef to MasterChef - my fool-proof recipe for culinary success

Opinion

From frozen turkeys to hidden love-notes at the bottom of the bolognese, Michael Blucher has walked the culinary tightrope before discovering the true secret to good cooking – relax!

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Cooking. Now there’s a pastime that’s been on the boil ever since the initial outbreak of COVID early last year.

People stuck at home, looking for something to do, far fewer restaurants open, even for takeaway orders.

Also the proliferation of slow cookers – the modern day kitchen MVP – how many households don’t have one of those these days? Shove all the ingredients in the dish first thing in the morning, stroll back into the kitchen at 7pm, and Bob’s your uncle – you’re ready to have dinner with Bob.

I’ve always loved cooking, though I’d be exaggerating if I said my career in the kitchen got off to a stellar start.

It involved preparing Christmas dinner in an unsuitably small, antiquated kitchen in the London garden flat I was living in during my early, unruly 20s. Kind of underestimated how long the turkey would take to cook.
We finished up “dining” at 5am. Not that any of the dinner guests could even remember eating the said festive bird, which was probably a good thing. I might add the entree – heavily salted potato gems – were baked to perfection.

Back home, for most of the ensuing 12 years I shared a house with the least domesticated bloke known to man. It took him three years to discover we had a dishwasher. Seriously. So, I felt duty-bound to look after him, like you might a stray dog.

At the risk of oversharing, cooking even featured in my marriage proposal. I knew my wife-to-be detested “spag bol” – the archetypal bachelor dish – so to gauge her level of devotion, I served up a huge bowl, burying at the bottom a tiny hand-made envelope with my carefully penned proposal.

I assumed she’d stir the bulky dish ponderously and immediately unearth my romantic life-time offering. Then we’d celebrate by moving onto the “real” meal which was warming in the oven – baked chicken and camembert fillet parcels, with cordon bleu potatoes and steamed greens, to be washed down with the bottle of French champagne I’d carefully concealed in the corner of the back deck.

But that didn’t happen, did it?

She-who-hates-spag-bol chowed down the whole bowl, including unfortunately, my playfully concealed envelope, only slowing when the texture of the “food” changed discernibly.

“What-the-hell….??” she grimaced, removing spaghetti imbued remnants of the masticated envelope from between her teeth.

OK, not my best idea, but at least she said yes. And we had the champagne handy to rinse the blue ink from her back palate.

Now at a very different stage of life, she-who’s-come-to-tolerate-spag-bol and I are strongly encouraging our teenage children to explore and embrace the joys of the kitchen.

Perhaps a little belatedly, we’ve set up a weekly challenge where, individually or collectively, the errant trio are responsible for the preparation of the evening meal every Wednesday night – hump day.

Which, in our household, also traditionally marks the removal of the cap on the wine bottle for the first time in the seven day cycle. Traditionally, but not religiously. Some weeks it’s removed earlier.

We’ve had some very interesting repasts in the preliminary rounds of the Cooking Challenge Premiership. Neither of us, for instance, had heard of the dish “Udon and Corn” but apparently it’s a thing.

Nut Milk Pie… we couldn’t even work out whether that was sweet or savoury – a dessert or main course offering.

And from the adventurous hand of the youngest, Rainbow Fritters. They were served around the same time as the turkey in London, with I suspect roughly the same amount of precision.

Fortuitously, after this series of mildly confronting culinary concoctions – let’s call them “early season trial matches” – one of the offspring stumbled across a cook book titled “Kitchen Coquette”.

God bless the author, Katrina Meynink, a young Brisbane chef and writer.

Kitchen Coquette was her debut cook book, sumptuous but simple recipes, inspired by real life events including moments “growing up” she’d prefer to forget but sadly couldn’t. “Eating your feelings” was how she described it.

The book quickly changed our Wednesdays. From at best “unique” to at worst, “palatable”.

Sadly, for parents with aspiring teenage chefs, Kitchen Coquette is now out of print, but I’ve since discovered Katrina has written four books and co-authored a further three.

Stuffed if I know how any one person can have so many cooking concepts in their head, but clearly she does. I wonder if there’s a spag bol recipe in any of them?

With three girls under the age of seven, the young mother has started her own quest for adolescent culinary enhancement with, she’s proud to say, the appearance of some early green shoots of success.

A bit like us, she and her husband have “adventure night” in their house. Once a week, the kids have to pick a recipe from a cookbook – something they’ve never tried before – and then be involved in the cooking.

No signs of “Udon and Corn” being served up in that kitchen, which is both impressive and from my end, enviable.

“I think it’s important for kids to understand cooking and all the marvellous things good food can do for body and for mind,” she says, momentarily serious.

“As parents, the ability to cook and share good food is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. It costs us nothing more than a few ingredients, our time, and of course a truckload of cleaning products!”

As to the answer of the $64 million parental question – how do we to get our kids to eat vegetables?”, the super chef is clear. “Slice ‘em into chips and fry’ em,” she says. “Kids love chips right? Transition from there!”

Her other trick with regard to salad and vegetables – establish a veggie garden and get the kids to grow, water, and pick the produce. They might not clean their teeth, but they’ll always get their hands dirty.
Such wisdom.

At a more senior (approaching senile) level, the true art to cooking, Katrina says, is to relax and trust yourself. In the kitchen, as in the rest of life, we’re stuffing up all the time. Accept it. Embrace it!

“I find it very strange that in the corporate world, we can be responsible for decisions in the workplace that directly impact someone’s health or future financial stability – you know – serious stuff!,” she points out.

“Yet we get home and need to be told exactly how many teaspoons of salt to add to our dinner. It’s lunacy.

“Cooking is an inexact science. Constant adaptation and learning is important, but above all it should be fun. Trust your tastes, your smell, the ingredients in front of you.

“And at the end of the day, if you burn dinner to a crisp, there is pure joy to be found in a bowl of ice cream doused in milo.”

There you go. Cooking 101, without reading seven books.

If I can add my own 10 grams worth of advice – at Christmas, get the turkey on early.

They take longer to cook than you might think.

• Katrina Meynink’s latest book: “Slow Victories…the food lover’s guide to slow cooking.

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