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Techniques and ingredients

Here are some techniques and ingredients that I use in cooking.

Biscuits

This is a British website, so "biscuit" means the same as cookie or cracker. They are nothing like the American biscuit. Digestive biscuits are a common British biscuit. They are very similar to Graham's crackers, except thicker and round and sometimes covered with chocolate. (For my British audience, Grahams crackers are rectangular and thin. And taste just like digetive biscuits. Americans use them to make the base of cheesecake, among other things.) If you are using digestive biscuits in a recipe, use the ones without chocolate! Or use Grahams crackers instead, or possibly other (British) biscuits.

Carrots and celery

Carrots and celery are strong tasting vegetables that go well together. Celery is bitter, and carrots are sweet, in a rooty sort of way, but together they balance each other. They keep well, so are useful to have in your larder (or fridge) as a stand-by.

For casseroles, you need to chop them. Some people peel carrots, but that's not necessary unless they are very old ones. Wash the carrot if necessary, cut off the top and slice. If it's a big carrot, it may be easier to cut lengthways first. For celery, pull off a stalk from the whole, wash if necessary, cut off the top and bottom if you don't feel like eating it, and slice. You can chop the few green leaves on the innermost stalks as well, if you want. Old celery can get stringy, but if you slice it thinly, you are chopping up the strings and they shouldn't be a problem. If the celery stalk if too wide, then split it lengthwise before chopping. Celery and carrot don't need frying, but they don't put out juices when fried, so it doesn't really matter when you add them to the pan. You don't need large quantities of carrot and celery in a casserole, as they are there for the flavouring.

Chocolate

Chocolate can, of course, be dark, milk or white. The recipe will usually specify which.

Chocolate is often melted for a recipe. It is best not to just heat it up in a saucepan by iteslf, as it is very sensitive to temperature. You melt it over a pan of hot water. So, get a saucepan with some water in, put the chocolate in a bowl and put the bowl in the saucepan. Heat the pan, which will make the water boil, and this will heat the bowl, which melts the chocolate. It seems very indirect, but that's the point. It stops the chocolate from getting too hot. Some authorities say that the bowl must not touch the water, but must rest above it, only getting warmed by the steam. That means you need a bowl and pan of the correct size, and also it takes longer, so I don't bother, and my bowl can sit on the bottom of the saucepan with the hot water around it. However, this means that the bowl must be able to withstand boiling water, and you must make sure that no boiling water gets into the bowl. It's a good idea to turn down the heat when the water boils, anyway, or even turn it off altogether. This technique certainly requires that you keep an eye on the chocolate. Overheated chocolate goes rather nasty. You can also add other ingredients such as butter, condensed milk or sugar to the bowl. The butter will melt as well, the sugar may dissolve, and adding condensed milk (if needed) may save on washing up... Don't add egg at this stage though. It may turn into scrambled egg, and chocolate flavoured scramble egg is probably not what you're aiming for.

Condensed milk

In Britain, you can buy a tin of sweetened condensed milk. This is full cream milk, thickened by removing water, and with lots of sugar added. I believe it was originally designed to feed babies who could not be breast-fed; my grandfather was raised that way. Then they discovered that cows' milk is bad for small babies, so now condensed milk is used for recipes instead. It is especially good for fudge, toffee and caramel. If you take a tin of condensed milk and boil it (without opening) for a long time, over an hour, then instead of the thick, white, creamy, incredibly sweet substance, you get caramel, brown, even thicker, but still, of course, incredibly sweet. But boiling a tin can be dangerous, as it might explode. So the nice people who make condensed milk now sell tins of caramel, where the boiling has been done for you. If you cannot get condensed milk, then I am afraid that I cannot recommend a substitute ingredient. Evaporated milk will not work instead. Normal milk is far too sloppy. Cream is too fatty. If you can buy condensed milk but cannot get the tin of caramel, then you could try boiling the tin of condensed milk. Perhaps it would be a good idea to make a small hole in the top of the tin first, to prevent explosion (although it's never exploded when I've done it in the past, but I suppose that there is always a first time). By the way, the Americans (and Canadians) have something called "Dulce de leche" which looks and tastes remarkably like this caramelised condensed milk to me.

Creaming fat and sugar

Many recipes involve mixing fat and flour, and often sugar, together, to make a cake or pastry. If the fat is hard, it must be well mixed in, or the pastry or cake won't cook properly. Creaming is one way to do this. It involves thoroughly mixing the fat and sugar together. The eggs and flour are added afterwards. The fat (such as butter or margarine) should be soft before starting. It also helps to cut the fat into small pieces before you start. You can use an electric food mixer or food processor, or even a hand mixer. If you don't have such equipment, then you can do it by hand with a fork, but I suggest that the fat really is soft, and that you take your time. The end result is that the fat and sugar are completely mixed, that there are no lumps of fat left, and the mix looks fluffy.

Custard

An egg custard is made by cooking egg (sometimes egg yolk) and milk. It is quite tricky to do. When the British say 'custard', they mean a sauce made with custard powder (bought in a tin). This is made from cornflour (which Americans call corn starch), coloured yellow and flavoured with vanilla. The custard powder is mixed with milk and sugar and brought to the boil while stirring (it burns easily). It's used with the heavier British puddings, as it's quite light - just thickened milk, really.

Deglazing a pan with liquid

When you cook a casserole, it's best to fry some or all of the ingredients before putting them in a casserole to put into the oven. Frying browns meat and some vegetables, and also improves the taste. It also leaves tasty gunk on the bottom of the frying pan. It's a shame to waste this. After removing the contents of the frying pan to put into the casserole, pour into the frying pan some (or all) of the liquid you will be using in the casserole. This might be beer, cider, wine, sherry, yoghurt or even just water. Stir the liquid to dissolve this tasty gunk, and it might help to scrape away at the bottom of the pan as well. Use a wooden spoon so you don't damage your pan. It doesn't really matter if the frying pan is on or off the heat at this point. If you are using inflammable liquid such as spirits, I suggest you take the pan off the heat! But I think that mostly it's easier to dissolve things if the pan is on the heat. You can then tip this liquid with all its bits into the casserole dish. This is called deglazing the pan. If you do it really well, it not only makes the casserole taste better, it helps with the washing up, as the frying pan should be much cleaner!

It gets a little more complicated if you are making a sauce. You can add cornflour mixed with a little water direct to the liquid, so here you can deglaze the pan before adding the cornflour. But a roux requires the flour to be added to the fat from the frying before adding the liquid. You need to stir the fat and flour vigorously before adding the liquid, so this will remove some of the gunk, and you also stir while adding the liquid, to complete the process. It doesn't matter how or when you do it, just end up with this nice stuff in the casserole rather than in your washing up.

Eggs

There are several ways to cook eggs. I mention whisked egg whites to make meringue below.

People talk of boiling an eggs as if it's the easiest thing in cooking. It isn't. You can't check the egg to see if it's boiled. The shell sometimes cracks while being boiled, and the inside of the egg ends up in the water. Eggs are of different sizes. The best thing to do about how soft or hard the egg will be is (like much cooking) try it and see, and do it the same (or different) next time. Use the same size eggs each time, as that may make a difference. For hard boiled eggs, I do 10 minutes from the eggs in cold water, but it may be different for you.

The cracked shell problem needs some thought. If you keep eggs in the fridge, then if you take them out cold, and put them straight into boiling water, it's not surprising that they crack! You can try warming them in your hands for a bit, or (like I do) put them into cold water, and bring both eggs and water to the boil together. This causes havoc with the timing of course, as different stoves/saucepans/amount of water takes different times, which is why you should find the right time and remember it (or write it down!) However, there is a neat tool to help. I don't normally have specialised kitchen tools, but I like this one. It's an egg pricker. You push the egg onto a tiny spike, which makes a small hole in one end of the egg. While the egg is boiling, you can see air coming out of this hole. If it didn't then the hot air would expand and break the egg. You can do the same thing with a needle, but it takes a certain amount of nerve to push it into the end of an egg! I used to do that, but having heard of an egg pricking tool, I kept my eye out and eventually found one, and now I always use it. But they're not easy to find!

Once the egg has boiled for the right amount of time, it will carry on cooking unless you remove it from the water and put it in cold water (or run it under the tap). An over-cooked hard-boiled egg developes a black ring round the yolk - unsightly but I don't think it changes the taste. An over-cooked soft-boiled egg becomes hard, and you don't want to put that in cold water! So eat it right away.

To peel a hard-boiled egg, cool it down first (or it may be too hot to hold!) and give it a gentle tap or two on a hard surface. Then pick away at the shell, plus an inner skin which needs to be removed. Sometimes this inner skin sticks, and lumps of egg come away. I've heard of various things suggested, as don't use eggs which are very fresh, or put the boiled egg into cold, then hot, then cold water to loosen the skin. It seems to happen at random for me, so I haven't quite got the trick of it yet!

Flour

These are British recipes, so certain things are taken for granted when talking about flour. It is wheat flour, and, in these recipes, white flour. There are three types of white flour, plain, self raising and strong. Strong flour or bread flour is used for making bread. It contains gluten. It is not suitable for making pastries or cakes or biscuits. Plain flour and self-raising flour is used for this. They are both soft flour, but self raising flour has a raising agent (baking powder) added to it. So you would use self raising flour (SR flour) where you want something to rise, such as a cake, and plain flour for something that doesn't, such as pastry. The recipe should specify which should be used. If you cannot get self raising flour, then buy soft flour and add baking powder or some other raising agent. Do not use bread or strong flour, as the result will end up looking a bit like bread rather than cake.

Garlic

Some people loathe garlic. If you're one of them, then leave it out. Use onion instead. Other people adore garlic with everything, and can't imagine cooking without it. It is a strong taste, so if you like it, I suggest using it in some recipes but not all the time. You don't want everything to taste the same.

Garlic comes in what is called a bulb. This is covered with a papery white skin. When you take this off, you see a number of cloves. British recipes often say (in rather a disapproving tone of voice) "a single clove of garlic". You may find that you can't taste the garlic, and so you'll want to use more. Break off the cloves that you are using. You will need to get another papery skin off the clove. Chop off the base of the clove. Sometimes the peel just comes off at this stage, but if not, cut the clove in two lengthwise and then prise off the peel. Then you can slice or chop the garlic as you wish. The garlic smell can hang around your hands, so wash your hands afterwards.

Golden Syrup

British recipes sometimes mention Golden Syrup. This is a type of liquid sugar, made by refining sugar cane juice. It is yellow, very thick, and very sweet. There is also Black Treacle which is a less refined syrup (and black). Black Treacle is a stronger taste than Golden Syrup. If you can't find Golden Syrup, then try using maple syrup or honey. It will taste different, but it is about the same amount of sweetness.

Mushrooms

People can get rather silly about different types of mushrooms. I suggest that you use ordinary field mushrooms, which are cheaper, until you are happy with how you cook them. You can then experiment with different varieties of mushrooms to see if you can tell the difference (I can't!) Of course, you should not collect mushrooms from the wild without being trained, since some are poisonous.

mushroom You can get ordinary mushrooms in two forms, button mushrooms, and big, flat, mature mushrooms. You cook them the same. Button mushrooms keep their shape well but are rather tasteless. Mature mushrooms have plenty of taste. They can colour the food that they're cooked with, which as they are black is slightly unfortunate. Mushrooms are very light, so if you buy them by weight, or buy a pack, you can end up with far more mushrooms than you want. If you are buying large mushrooms from a market stall, then you can always ask for a single mushroom if you want. 'Choose your own' places are also good, as you can get just a few button mushrooms. If you have too many, then put them in a paper bag (not a plastic bag - it makes them go slimy) and put them in the salad compartment of the fridge. They keep surprisingly well like that.

cut mushroom If you use mushrooms in a casserole, start by cutting them up. A button mushroom can be cut in four (see left). For a big mushroom, take the stalk off first, and chop it separately. Then you can slice the top, and if necessary, chop it the other way as well. When cooking mushrooms, add them to the frying pan after the ingredients that need real frying. Mushrooms behave it rather an odd way. To start with, they absorb fat so the pan seems quite dry. After a bit, they let out their juices, so the pan loses its dryness. However, these juices are not fat, and this will bring any frying to a halt.

Another way of cooking mushrooms is grilling or baking them whole in an oven, but you must be careful not to let them dry out. Direct heat on a mushroom surface will make it go leathery. If you are cooking something else as well that puts out fat, such as bacon, then roll the top of the mushroom in the fat before letting it feel the heat. It will absorb the fat, and you can see this, so check every bit is covered. Since this is a tedious process for button mushrooms, I suggest that you do it only with big mushrooms. If they are cooked alone, then you can take out the stalks, place them black side down, and smear a little butter or oil over the top. Cook them for a bit (so the juices start to run) then turn them over.

You can buy dried mushrooms of different types. These may need soaking before use, or you could use them in a casserole.

Onions

cut onion

Some people hate onions. I thought I did until I started cooking with them, and now I start most meat dishes by chopping an onion. Raw onion is a harsh taste, and very different from cooked onion, which is slightly sweet. If you are using raw onion, then the smaller ones seem to be stronger. If you can't find a mild enough onion for your taste, try spring onions, or even chives instead.

cut onion

Onions have layers. The outermost layer or two dries out and becomes brown and papery or leathery. You have to peel this. First cut the onion in two, through the top and the root. The onion on the right is a red onion, so the layers show up well. Put the onion flat side down (which was the reason for cutting it in two first) and cut off the top (which is mostly leathery skin) and the root at the bottom (which is a hard bit, and all the layers are fastened to it). Now remove the skin which you don't want with your hands. Put the onion flat on the board again, and cut into slices. These slices should be between the top and the root, which will give you nice semi-circles. If you go the other way, you'll get straight bits. Of course, you have to hold the onion while cutting. Place your fingers so the the knife stroke won't cut them, obviously. It looks as if my fingers are very close to the knife in the photo, but the knife direction is in fact away from the fingers, downwards. cut onion I also cut fairly slowly and carefully, my knive is not super-sharp (which can cut your without realising, until you see the blood!) and finally, I've cut lots of onions, so I know where my fingers and the knife are. But of course as you slice the onion, you has less and less onion to hold onto. When you've gone as far as you feel comfortable with, put the last bit flat on the board the other way, and just slice that.

So far, you have sliced the onion. That is fine for casseroles if you want. However, if you want to chop the onion, there are several ways to do it. Having carefully sliced the onion, I tend to reconstruct the slices back into a rough onions shape, hold them gently (or they shoot up in the air!) and then cut them the other way. Any that escape can be cut individually. Or if you want, you can chop each slice separately, which is safe and easy, but takes a little time. There is a much more cunning technique, where when you are slicing the onion, you don't quite cut right down to the board. Then means that half-way through, you have an onion which holds together, but has deep cuts in it. Then you can turn it the other way, and slice it again. The onion will fall into nicely chopped pieces, except possibly for pieces round the edge, which you can chop later. The final chopping method is to flatten the slices, and then briskly chop away at the board with your knife. Chefs are very good at this sort of rapid chopping. When I do it, bits go everywhere and end up on the floor! But please don't get worried by all these techniques. As long as the onion ends up in pieces which are the size you want, it doesn't matter how you do it. Use kitchen scissors if all else fails!

Onion juice can cause your eyes to water. People give lots of ways to avoid this, none of which seem to work. If this worries you, all I can suggest is try using milder onions, and do not get your hands anywhere near your eyes or face while working with raw onions. wash your hands afterwards, and if doing a lot of onions and it's getting bad, halfway through as well. I suspect that wearing reading glasses helps me but you need to be of a certain age to have those! The only time I get it bad is peeling onions for pickling, when I am peeling a kilo or more of small, strong onions. I tend to find it bad at first, and then my eyes adjust. Remember to wash your hands before blowing your nose! (And afterwards, of course).

I cook onions by frying them. There are different lengths of time for cooking, so chose the one you like. You can cook them until just translucent, which makes them taste one way, or cook them longer until brown (which is called caramelised), which makes them taste another, or forget to keep an eye on them, and they go black, which is not recommended! Still burnt onions don't taste as made as some burnt food, so I tend to use them all the same. In one recipe, I saw someone recommending adding a spoon of sugar while cooking caramelised onions. This would make them both go brown and taste sweet, but sugar is rather a dangerous ingredient. It's a strong taste, and you might end up adding it to everything, and become a sugar junkie.

Finally, there is the amount of onions that you need. Onions vary a tremendous amount in size, and also in strength, so it's very hard to give either a number of onions, or a weight or volume. Most British recipes have a fairly casual attitude to onions, and say 'one onion' without specifying size or strength! This means that the cook says "Those onions look small - I'll use two" or "Those onions are gigantic! I'll use half, cling-film the other and put in the fridge" or "Phew, that onion is strong! It's small, but I'll only need one", and so on. You need to work this out for yourself. Start off using a single, medium onion, then adjust it according to your own wishes.

Pasta

Cooking pasta can be tricky. For some reason it tends to boil over. Make sure that you turn down the heat immediately it boils, and do not cover the saucepan, which seems to encourage it. Traditionally you add salt to the water (I don't) and one suggestion is that it should be as salty as sea water. The different types of pasta take different times to cook, but it's quick, about ten minutes. You are supposed to cook the pasta al dente or slightly under-cooked, so it's not too soft. However, undercooked pasta can be gritty, which I find unpleasant, so it's up to you.

You can drain the water off using a colander or sieve, but if you don't have this, then try tilting the saucepan with the lid on over the sink, and see if you can persuade the water to come out. Some saucepan lids are better at this than others. If you get it wrong, either the pasta is still full of water, or all the pasta ends up in the sink.

Pastry

I am going to describe making simple or shortcrust pastry. There are more complicated pastries made in layers, such as puff pastry. There is also extremely thin pastry, such as filo pastry.

Shortcrust pastry recipes will have plain flour, fat and a liquid in them. They may have other ingredients as well, but the secret of making pastry is how you combine the fat and flour, and then how you add the liquid.

To make pastry, you need to rub the fat into the flour. Start by measuring the flour into a bowl. This will be plain flour. Also add any other dry ingredients, such as sugar, spice, salt, etc. (There may be no other ingredient at all.) Now measure out the fat. To rub in fat requires a hard fat such as butter or lard. Make sure that the fat is cold and hard, preferably straight from the fridge. Put the fat in with the flour.

It's easiest to start by cutting the fat up into small pieces. These pieces will naturally stick together, so as you cut them up in the bowl (I suggest using a blunt knife if you are using a plastic bowl!) stir the mixture with the knife to get the flour to stick to the outside of the pieces of fat. When you get bored with this, you can start rubbing the fat. Wash your hands first! Then put your (dry) fingers into the mix. Get up a bit between your fingers and thumb, and rub them gently together. Drop this into the bowl, and get another piece. You're aiming for the fat lumps, and you're basically squashing them into the flour. So make sure you have some flour as well as fat each time. Use your finger-tips only. The heat of your hands will gradually melt the fat, which can produce hard pastry. Using finger-tips, being gentle, and handling the mix with your hands helps, but so does starting with cold fat. If you gently shake the bowl, the larger lumps will rise to the surface (Yes - they really do! Magic.) Continue with the rubbing in until the mixture looks like bread crumbs (see right).

rubbing fat into flour
rubbing fat into flour

The next step is to add the liquid. This might be water, or milk, or even egg. I find it easiest to add with a knife, weird though that sounds. Add some of the liquid into the bowl, and stir it with the knife a little. It will probably make a big lump, with dry powder (the flour and fat) around. Cut the lump or lumps with the knife (which will expose a wet surface) and stir it to get the dry powder to stick. Carry on cutting and stirring. Eventually, you will get a lot of small lumps and still some powder. Add a bit more liquid, and carry on cutting and stirring. Eventually, all the dry powder will disappear. The small lumps may become one nearly dry lump, but if not, you can gently squeeze them together into a lump. If you've done that, you've got it right. You may well have some liquid left over. One of the most annoying things about making pastry is you can't say precisely how much liquid is required. It depends on the flour, the weather and for all I know, the sign of the zodiac. You must add the liquid bit by bit and combine it well each time, and stop in time. If you don't, or if you add all the liquid at once, the pastry becomes a wet, sticky lump, and you can't roll it out. You can add more flour, and carry on mixing, but you are altering the proportion of flour and fat, and changing the final pastry. (And if you're really heavy-handed, you end up adding more liquid, then more flour, then more liquid, and end up with three times as much pastry as you want!)

At this stage, you are supposed to put the pastry in the fridge for 30 minutes to let it rest. I must admit that I never do!

Now to roll it out. Sprinkle some flour on a board (or a work top if it's clean enough) and put the lump of dough on it. Sprinkle a little more flour on top. Gently roll out the dough with a rolling pin. Turn the dough through a right angle every now and then, or even turn it over. This makes sure that the dough gets rolled out evenly. Check that the dough isn't sticking; if it is, sprinkle a bit more flour, top or bottom. Carry on rolling until the dough is the thickness that you want. The pastry looks rather brown in these photos as I've added some cinnamon to the mix.

Now you need to cut it to the shape you want. You can use special pastry cutters, but you can also use a glass or even a knife.

rubbing fat into flour

Oil

There are different types of oil, at different prices. Some cooks have strong feelings about which oil you should use, but if you can't tell the difference, or perhaps don't like a strong flavoured oil, then why pay more? However, if you've never tried olive oil, perhaps you might like to experiment, once, to see if you do like it (but not because people tell you to!)

The blandest, and cheapest, type of oil is vegetable oil. It's made of rape seed, but for some reason, they don't want to call it rape oil! When you fry, you don't really want the oil to flavour the food especially, so this is a good oil to use. Sunflower oil has no particular merit over vegetable oil, and is more expensive. The olive oils have more taste, so you may prefer to use them for salad dressings, such as for a , but it's up to you. Virgin olive oil is the first pressing, and is usually stronger tasting. There are olive oils from different countries as well. There are also more exotic oils, some of which are very strong tasting and are really just flavouring.

The best way to treat oils is either to ignore all the choice and find something you like, at a price you like, and use that, or experiment carefully, one oil at a time, and see what you can taste, and what you can't, and whether it's worth it.

A warning - olive oils sometimes thicken if cold - if you have kept the bottle in the fridge, or you have a cupboard which gets cold in the winter. It doesn't affect the oil, and it will liquify again as it warms up.

Peppers

The word 'pepper' is used for several different types of vegetable, so here is an explanation.

Pepper is one of the commonest sort of spice. It is a seed, which is usually ground up to use. See seasoning.

Chilli peppers are a hot, sometimes very hot, spice. They are red fruits, usually small. Use extreme care when chopping chilli peppers, and do not put your hands anywhere near your face. Rubbing your eyes is a distinct mistake! Chilli is usually a ground powder. There are different strengths of chilli powder, as some are pure chilli, and others chilli seasoning, so take care! There are also chilli sauces. Using chilli is the best way to make food hot, but use other spices as well to get more interesting taste into your food.

The third type of pepper has several different names, such as sweet pepper or bell pepper. They can be several colours, and in British supermarkets are often sold in 'traffic light' packs of three, red, yellow and green. The taste is not hot at all. Paprika is ground pepper of this type.

cut sweet pepper Pepper and chilli are used as flavourings only, since they have such a strong taste. Sweet pepper can be used in a greater quantity. You can slice it and eat it raw in salads, or fry it and add it to casseroles. Since it has a bright colour, and a slightly sweet taste, it is a popular ingredient. You can use a whole pepper at a time if you wish, but they are quite expensive. You can make a pepper last some time if you are careful about how you cut it. Most people cut it lengthways to start with, as that's the way most vegetables are cut. Sweet peppers have little seeds inside which you're supposed to scrape away, and the first lengthwise cut tends to scatter these little seeds everywhere, including inside the pepper, where they have to be carefully picked out. It's better to start by cutting the end off the pepper (see left). You can use just this bit if you want, and put the top bit of the pepper with the stalk in the fridge for another day. The seeds are at the stalk end, so won't get disturbed. If you are very mean (like me) then you can gradually slice more and more off the pepper, using a slice or two in each recipe. As long as the stalk end is intact, it keeps well. When that is all you have left, you can cut off the remaining bits of pepper round the stalk, and if you're careful, not disturb the seeds and the white bit that they're attached to. You can then throw that bit away.

Potatoes

Potatoes are starch, or filler-food. There are different ways of cooking them. Mostly, you have to peel them first. Hold the potato in one hand, and draw the peeler across the potato, with the sharp edge just biting below the skin. Some peelers are sharp enough to cut your hand, so be careful. Gouge out any 'eyes' (which would have been future shoots of the plant) and mucky or rotten bits.

There are several ways to use potatoes in a casserole. You can chop the potatoes into fairly small pieces, and mix them in with the rest of the meat and vegetables. This can make the casserole into a complete meal, without needing any other vegetables cooked afterwards. Or you can slice the potatoes, and arrange them on top of the meat and vegetables. This is the technique. Its advantage is that it protects the meat and vegetables from the direct heat of the oven. The potatoes are exposed to the heat, though, and they can get dry. Either cook the casserole with the lid on for a bit, until the potatoes look cooked, then leave the top off to brown the potatoes. Or dot the top of the potatoes with butter or other fat, and cook them without the lid from the start. Another way to top a casserole with potato is to use mash, as in a .

Raspberries

If you pick your own raspberries or get given other people's fresh picked raspberries, you will need to check them. Raspberries often have little grubs in them. These are small, and quite frankly, wouldn't hurt you if you ate them by mistake, but since they're still alive, I prefer to remove them if possible! Spread out a sheet or so of kitchen paper towel and spread the raspberries in a single layer on it. You will find that the grubs tend to crawl away.

Reducing a sauce

A sauce is thicker than water. There are several ways of doing this, but the simplest is to reduce the sauce. Put it in a saucepan, and heat it. Gradually, the excess water will be boiled off, and the sauce will become the thickness you want. If there is a lot of sauce and it is very thin, this can take some time. If the sauce contains stuff in it, it may stick to the bottom when heated, so you will need to stir it constantly.

If a sauce is reduced too far and become too thick, you can add some water. This may make it too thin again, so you need to carry on reducing! Pretty silly, you may think, but if you are keeping something hot, the sauce will tend to reduce itself, so a little extra water will help.

Rice

There are several different types of rice and it is important to use the right type. When you , for example, for curries or Chinese food, the most usual type is long grained rice. Basmati rice is a particular type of long grained rice. Long grained rice is cooked quite quickly and does not absorb much liquid, usually about twice as much water as rice by volume. uses a short grained rice, which may be called pudding rice. This is cooked slowly for a long time (usually in an oven) and it absorbs a lot of liquid (usually milk). Another kind of rice which absorbs a lot of liquid is risotto rice, which is usually cooked in stock. Here it is slowly simmered and the stock is added a bit a bit at a time while the risotto is constantly stirred. Brown rice is unmilled rice. It takes longer to cook (usually boiled) and it ends up chewy. Easy cook rice claims to be just that. It is used as simple boiled rice as well.

Roux (making a sauce with fat and flour)

Sometimes a casserole or sauce needs thickening, and a roux is one way to do this. You start with melted fat. This can be the oil left over from frying the meat and vegetables for the casserole, or you can melt some butter, or use any other fat. The fat will flavour the sauce to some extent, so make sure that it is pleasant tasting, or at least neutral. Stir in a spoon or so of flour. More flour leads to a thicker saucer, obviously. Carry on stirring until all the lumps of flour has disappeared. This is important, as skimping here makes the next stage far harder. This is all done over a gentle heat.

Now, add the liquid for the casserole very slowly. The liquid may be wine, cider, beer, sherry or even water. Add a bit, stir until the sauce is well mixed, add a bit more, and continue. As the pan is still over the heat, at this point the sauce will start to thicken. As long as you are in control and the extra liquid is being mixed in evenly, then that's fine, but as soon as lumps start to form, take the pan off the heat and stir hard until they disappear. If you mixed in the fat and flour at the start properly, you should get back in control quite quickly. If you don't, and it's a casserole, then don't worry. Lumps tend to disappear in the long, slow cooking. If it's a sauce to be served immediately and it's gone too lumpy, then you can either use an electric beater, or sieve the sauce. A sieve is considered to be cheating - I don't know why. The sauce ends up OK. It might get a little cold, though.

Once all the liquid is in, and the sauce is smooth, carry on cooking until the sauce stops thickening. The heat must not be too high, and you must keep stirring or the sauce will burn on the bottom. A burnt sauce is harder to retrieve. Pour off the bits that aren't burnt! Once the sauce is complete, add any more flavourings that you want, and add to the casserole, or pour over something, or put in a sauce jug, or whatever else you're going to do with it.

Rubbing fat into flour

The technique of rubbing fat into flour is described in the Pastry section on this page.

Seasoning (salt and pepper)

Every recipe for a casserole seems to say "add seasoning to taste". My instinct is to leave the salt and pepper out, and see if I notice the difference. After all, salt and pepper is usually on the table when you serve it, so people can add it. I'm not saying that you should always leave seasoning out, just that you shouldn't inevitably add it. The point of cooking your own food is to have a variety of tastes, so why the same thing to everything? It's thought that we have too much salt in our diet anyway. We do need a little salt to be healthy, but you are likely to get that in the pre-processed food that you eat.

Pepper is one of the 'hot' spices. I'm not fond of it myself, as I find it an irritation in the mouth and nothing more, and I've been annoyed by too many speciality sausages with too much pepper, but many people would disagree with me, and regard pepper as one of their favourite tastes. But that is my point, I think. If you like pepper, use it in your cooking. But if you can't taste it, why bother?

You should be careful when using stock cubes or brand flavourings. These often have salt, sometimes in substantial amounts. After all, you're supposed to add seasoning 'to taste'. If you are using a stock cube, taste after adding it before adding extra salt. In the same way, it's probably more polite to taste food you've been given before sprinkling more salt on it. It might be too salty already!

Separating eggs

Eggs are extremely useful ingredients. Sometimes you need to separate the yolk and the white of the egg. There is a special tool for doing this which sits on a cup. You break the egg onto it, and the yolk stays on top, while the white slithers into the cup. However, you can do it without, with practice.

Breaking an egg It's easiest to use fresh eggs. (Older eggs have more fragile yolks, and you really do not want the yolk to break!) Before starting, get two containers ready, one for the yolks and one for the whites. (Yes - obvious, I know - but embarrassing if you forget!) These containers can be bowls or even cups or glasses. Give the egg a sharp tap against something sharp, such as the sharp edge of a kitchen counter. Some people tap a knife against the egg. A beginner is likely to tap too gently, so nothing happens. If you tap too hard, then there is egg everywhere! You want a tap (or more than one) so there is a crack starting to run round the egg. Now hold the egg over one of the containers (very important!) Insert your thumbnails into the crack, pushing your thumbs in slightly if necessary. Start prising the two halves of the egg shell apart, but as you do it, tilt the egg so the yolk stays in one half of the egg shell. If the crack has run crooked, then make sure you choose the bigger half! Once the egg shell is in two separate halves, you should have the yolk in one half, the other half empty, and most of the white in the container. Hopefully the yolk has not broken. If it has, hastily empty it and the remainder of the white sticking to it into the other container. But if it's whole, you might be able to get more white out. Carefully tip the yolk into the other egg shell. Some more white will slither down into the whites container. You may be able to tip the yolk from one half to the other until you have an almost dry unbroken yolk, which you tip into the yolks container. If at any time the yolk looks broken, then give up and tip the contents of the egg shell into the yolks container.

If you are making meringue, then you will need to whip the egg white, and this won't work if any yolk at all has got mixed with the white. (It is also important to make sure that the container for the whites is completely clean. Grease makes beating the eggs hard as well.) Hopefully, you won't break the yolk at all while trying to separate the egg. Even if you do, you may save the situation by removing the broken yolk before it drips into the whites container. But if the worst comes to the worst, remove the resulting mess to the fridge (make an omelette or something with it later) and try again. After all, eggs aren't that expensive, and you're going to learn how to do this, right? If you need to separate two eggs, and you're a beginner or not confident, then use a different container for each egg white. That means that if you mess up the second, you won't have contaminated the first.

Sherry for cooking

Sherry is a fortified wine. This is slightly stronger in alcohol than ordinary wine, but not nearly as strong as spirits. It comes from Spain. There used to be something called British sherry, which was made from imported grape juice (as opposed to English wine, which is made from grapes actually grown in England). This was cheap and kept better than ordinary wine, so was sometimes used for cooking - hence cooking sherry. Now we are not allowed to call it British sherry, but British fortified wine instead. You can still get it in Britain, but if you can't find it, then use any strong, cheap wine instead. If you can find any real sherry that's cheap enough (or you want to finish up) then that's obviously fine as well.

Simmer

Boiling is done on top of the stove. Cookers vary a lot in how their rings behave. It is rare to boil anything hard for any length of time. Normally, you put the heat up to full until the water is boiling (when bubbles rise to the top of the water, the surface is agitated, and it makes a noise). Then you turn the heat down to minimum to simmer. This means that bubbles still rise to the surface, but not nearly so vigorously. You still get the heat from the boiling water, but don't lose as much water through the steam escaping.

Spooning stuff

In cooking, you often have to transfer stuff from one container to another. Usually you can bung it in any way you want, and it settles down to a level surface, or stays in lumps, and that's fine. However, sometimes you want to spoon it in so it ends up looking level. Traditionally, you're told to spoon it in, then level it. This can cause problems. If it's a stiff mix (especially if you're spooning it into a tin lined with baking paper) then levelling it (by trying to flatten it with a spoon or knife) tends to drag the mix up and down the tin without achieving much. If the mix is full of carefully added bubbles, such as a meringue, this levelling also knocks the bubbles out again.

It's better to spoon these mixes in several smaller spoonfuls, and put each spoon in a different area of the tin. By the time you've spooned all of it, you have more or less covered the bottom of the tin anyway, and it needs only a gentle pushing of the lumps to join them up. (I know this is obvious! But I didn't realise it until I saw it suggested somewhere.)

Some mixes need quite careful levelling. Fruit cakes, for example, tend to stay where you've put them, except the centre of the cake rises more than the outside. This can mean that you get a cake which is higher in the centre than the outside. You may not mind this, of course. But if you want a flat topped cake and this is happening, then when spooning in the mix, make sure that it ends up higher round the outside (slightly) than the middle. Then when the middle rises, hopefully, the rising in the centre means the top ends up level. Sometimes you need to out-think food.

Stock

I must admit that my heart always sinks when I see "add a good flavoured stock" in a recipe. You can get a stock two ways. You can simmer meat bones and scraps, and vegetables, for a long length of time, to create a well-flavoured liquid. This takes time and hassle, and mine never ends up tasting of anything. Or you can use a stock cube (or similar) which you buy. These are variable in quality and taste. Some are so strong tasting (and not a very nice taste) that I feel that the meal ends up tasting of that stock cube. I like my meals to end up tasting of different things. If you sometimes cook in wine, other times in beer, or cider, other times flavour with tomato, or garlic, or use Indian spices, then there will be completely different tastes to appreciate, and they will be fresh tastes. However, I'm sure that other people will disagree! If I have to use stock, then I find that bought vegetable stock can be good.

Sugar

In Britain, there are several types of sugar. If the type isn't given in these recipes, then you use white granulated sugar (sugar with crystals), although any other sort of white sugar will also work. Castor sugar also has crystals, but smaller. Icing sugar is ground fine, and is used (as the name suggests) for make icing (frosting) for cakes. Demera sugar is brown crystallised sugar - rather like granulated sugar, only brown. There is also brown castor sugar as well. If these recipes mention brown sugar, then I mean soft brown sugar. This has a lovely treacle taste to it. There are various shades of soft brown sugar - the darker, the more treacly it tastes. There is also a pale brown castor sugar, which is a good compromise between white granulated and dark soft brown sugar.

I use white granulated sugar for simple sweetness, and soft, dark brown sugar, for the treacle taste. You can use granulated sugar where I say brown sugar if you prefer (or have run out of brown sugar or can't find it). You can also use brown sugar where I say just 'sugar' (and mean white). It still tastes sweet, and will add a treacle taste, but it will tend to make the pudding or cake browner than it would be otherwise. This brown colour is traditional for something like .

Tomato

Tomatoes are a popular ingredient. They add colour and a distinctive taste.

Small tomatoes are called cherry tomatoes, and are sweet. There are plum tomatoes, which are a different shape. There are beefsteak tomatoes, which are large and often strange shaped, but have lots of tomato flesh in. And of course, there are ordinary medium round tomatoes. Tomatoes out of season may not ripen, and unripe tomato are tasteless. If the tomatoes are sold on the vine (the stalk of the tomato plant), they are more likely to ripen, even out of season. In season, tomatoes ripen easily - put them on a sunny window sill, or with other ripening fruit, like apples or bananas.

You can eat tomatoes raw, in salads, of course. Small tomatoes can be eaten whole, or you can cut up bigger ones. You can quarter them, or slice them, or just chop them into rough chunks. For casseroles, some people peel them (by dipping them in very hot water, which is rather a hassle) and/or remove the seeds and juice. This seems rather fussy to me. I just chop them quite finely, so the final pieces of skin are very small. And who cares about tomato seeds? They're very small.

There are other ways to use tomatoes, especially if you don't like skin or seeds. Tomato paste comes in tubes, tins or jars. This is concentrated, so you can either use a small amount or deliver a real jolt of tomato taste. Don't get it mixed up with various forms of tomato sauce, either ketchup (or catsup) or tomato sauces for cooking. There are also tinned tomatoes, which do have seeds, but no skins.

Turning out a pudding

turning out a pudding

Several puddings are cooked or made in a pudding bowl. They are often turned out to be served. To do this, find a plate which is larger than the top of the bowl. Put the plate upside down over the top of the bowl. Put a hand on top, and your other hand underneath the bowl. (You may need oven gloves or a cloth if the bowl is hot.) Now turn the bowl over so the plate is underneath (and your hand underneath that). Ease it all onto a table. Now try lifting the bowl (which will now be upside down) off. Either the pudding will slide out of the bowl to stay on the plate (success!) or it won't. Try tapping hopefully on top and try again. If that doesn't work, turn the bowl the right way up, and poke a knife down the side of the bowl. In particular, try to get a little air right at the bottom of the pudding. (It is often the vacuum which stops it coming out.) If it is a cooked pudding, it may have stuck to the sides, so run the knife round the sides to free it. Now put the plate back on, and try turning it again.

If you have a serious problem, then give up, and serve it from the bowl. Why not! It will taste the same.

If you really want a proper turned out pudding, and you know that it might be tricky, like Christmas pudding, then before cooking it, line the bowl with baking paper or greaseproof paper, and then all you need to do is lift the pudding out! You have to get the paper off, but a knife will easily scrape it off while preserving the shape of the pudding.

Vinegar

There are several different types of vinegar. Malt vinegar is cheap, strong tasting and brown. Distilled vinegar is cheap, strong tasting and transparent - it only tends to be used for pickling where you don't want to colour the ingredients. Wine vinegar may be white or red, and is more expensive, with a better taste. Balsamic vinegar is dark brown, pleasant tasting and varies from expensive to extremely expensive (for vinegar). What you use is entirely your own taste (or what happens to be in the cupboard!). Please ignore snobs who look down on you for using 'inferior' vinegars. On the other hand, why not try a more expensive vinegar once, just to see if you do like it (not because someone tells you to!) I use malt vinegar on chips and to make pickles, and balsamic vinegar in dressings and where I think the better taste will come through (and no, not the most expensive balsamic vinegar!)

Whisking egg whites

To make meringue, you need to whisk the raw egg whites. Separate the eggs to get the egg whites. Make sure there is no egg yolks in the whites, and that the whites are in a clean bowl, since fat or grease makes the whisking difficult.

A food mixer makes whisking the eggs easy, but it's possible to use a hand beater, a whisk, or even a fork, if you have enough time. The egg whites start off transparent. As you beat them, the volume increases (so don't start off in too small a bowl!) and it goes white. It also goes stiffer, and eventually the mixture stands in peaks which don't fall over. You might even be able to turn the bowl upside down safely, although I don't recommend this unless you are confident! But cooks like to show off.

Egg white has little taste, so normally sugar is added to the beaten egg white. You can add of sugar per egg white at this stage, and carry on beating for a very short while to mix it in. If you try to beat in more sugar, the weight of the sugar starts the collapse the mixture and knock the bubbles out. It is suggested that you can fold the same amount of sugar again into the mix. Folding in sugar means adding the sugar, then very carefully turning the mixture over with a spoon until it's mixed. However, folding is quite tricky and you risk collapsing the mix. I don't bother with this second stage - I stop after beating in the sugar. It means that the meringues aren't so sweet, but since egg white has little taste, I don't think you need the extra sugar, and it certainly makes the whole process easier.

Sometimes the meringue mixture is used as the topping of a pudding, and sometimes they are cooked as separate meringues. But for both uses, you need to treat the mix very carefully. Use a metal spoon rather than a wooden one, as the sharper edges means you disturb the mix less. Take one spoonful and place it where you want. Then put the next spoonful in the next place. Try not to smooth the mixture too much when it's a topping. You don't want to mess the mixture about unnecessarily, and anyway a bumpy surface makes an attractive finish when cooked.