1) One step at a time
Gary taught me, or perhaps drummed into me, in the two weeks I had with him to make sure that all my mise en place was done one step at a time. Before this, I was doing every stage of prep with each ingredient at a time. This does make a difference.
2) Trust your judgement
Because I am a food writer and I’ve written my own books and worked on/written books for other authors, I am meticulous about recipe testing. A recipe has to work perfectly for me, or I just won’t publish it.
So, whenever I cook from a recipe, I expect the same. What I somehow fail to take into account sometimes are the variables. It could be the temperature, it could be the oven, it could be the ingredients, and they affect how a recipe turns out and how long it can take to cook.
One day, in the first couple of weeks at Ballymaloe, I was complaining to Pam that something I was baking was taking far too long in the oven compared to the recipe. I asked Pam to take a look at what I was cooking to verify this for me, and see how much longer it was likely to take. “I can only tell you what the food is telling me, lovey” replied Pam.
How true was this. It really taught me to take a step back from the recipe. To observe, and to trust my judgement more on when something is cooked. I found this so useful, particularly, I must say, in my final exam, as I went over time-wise as I just wasn’t happy a few things were properly cooked to my liking.
Thank you Pam. A lesson for life.
3) How to make a French omelette
Yes, this is a very simple thing to learn, but they are just so delicious and make them nearly every day for breakfast. I can also feel very smug now when I (very occasionally) watch Saturday Kitchen and watch chefs making a plate of inedible slop to pass for an omelette, when I now know I can make a beautiful and delicious omelette in under a minute. Thank you Rory!
4) Use only the best ingredients
Having been fortunate enough to grow up in a family that really values good food, I have always been surrounded by excellent quality ingredients.
At Ballymaloe, Darina really does insist on using the very best quality ingredients. Once you try these ingredients, you realise just how terrible a lot of the food that’s widely available is. This is why I’m giving up shopping in supermarkets (I’ll save that for another post). My point is that a lot of ingredients that are sold to us as good quality actually are not. The difference is remarkable, and I cannot go back to using anything but the very best. It makes all the difference.
5) Taste, taste and taste again
Again, this is very simple, but the more you do this, you can analyse how the flavour of a dish changes, and how to make it taste the way you want it to. It is actually really important, and under no circumstances should it be considered as grazing.
6) Try everything, once
Darina really does try to get everyone to try everything. Having done this though out the 12 weeks on the course, you realise just how important it is. It really does develop your palate, and helps you to clearly understand what you do and do not like. And why.
There are so many simple, clever little tricks I picked up. Often, they’d be so simple, you’d think how stupid you were for not having figured it out. But all these little tricks put together do make for a better cook.