What’s the secret of good cooking? I firmly believe it’s all about using good-quality, fresh ingredients and having confidence to experiment with flavour combinations. My Cook First mantra is based upon three principles - the 3 Cs - Creativity, Combination and Confidence. Armed with these, there'll be no stopping you unleashing your inner Delia Smith (or maybe Nigel Slater).
Many of my clients, during our initial consultations, worry that they don’t know ‘what goes with what’. Yes, creating the ‘right’ flavour combinations can seem daunting at first, but once you master the basics, you can easily build an infinite skyscraper upon these foundations. These same clients often come to realise through our lessons that their favourite dishes are truly not as complex as they imagined – it’s all about blending, balancing, and experimenting.
Vietnamese cuisine is a perfect example of the importance of flavour combination; their delicate flavour formula is based on its ‘unami’ or ‘five tastes’ i.e. sweet, spicy, salty, sour and bitter – all found in herbs and spices produced in Vietnam.
Vietnamese food – for me – is the most delicious of all South East Asia. As well as being incredibly light and healthy, almost all gluten- and diary-free, it is full of sensational salads, aromatic fish and nourishing noodle soups. Influenced by French cuisine during the country’s 100-year colonisation, the combination of flavours in all dishes create an exquisite mélange of East meets West – a true feast for the senses.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Hoi An, Vietnam, where I was lucky enough to be gifted a half-day cooking class at the beautiful Redbridge Cooking School. After buying our ingredients from the organic vegetable market, to my delight, the first dish on the menu was one my all-time favourites – rare beef Pho. This rice noodle soup is particular aromatic due to the astoundingly fragrant bone broth infused with cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, star anise and lemongrass. The beef bones, fresh ginger, onion and lemongrass are grilled before being boiled down for at least four hours with all the spices, creating a marrow-packed, incredibly nutritious broth. I was convinced creating beef Pho would be something I’d never achieve on my own - until our teacher, the talented Chef Mimi, showed us how easy it is in fact to make. Seeing that it was simply a matter of combining these exquisite flavours filled me with confidence to embark on dish number 2: turmeric-dill mackerel in a clay pot or 'Cá kho tô kiêu Hà Nội.’ This again was gloriously simple to make – in fact, what really ‘made’ it was the pure freshness of the organic ingredients.
It was the first time I’d ever had the pleasure of cooking with fresh turmeric root, having only ever known it its powdered form. Turmeric is a relative of ginger, and is often dubbed ‘nature’s gold’ as its health benefits stem from the compound which gives it its yellow hue. It has been used in India, Asia and the Middle East for centuries to add colour and fiery flavour to curries and savory dishes. The compound Curcumin is high in anti-inflammatory properties and has been known to ease heartburn, indigestion and arthritis and as well as delaying the onset of diabetes. And it doesn’t stop there: turmeric contains another powerful compound called Ar-turmerone, which has been shown to improve brain function. Needless to say, after devouring this delicacy, I felt I could have solved the Rubik cube in seconds!
All in all, it was a magical afternoon of cooking – and eating! As we chowed down, Chef Mimi kindly advised us while in Vietnam not to describe any food we ate as ‘yum’ as this translates ‘horny’ in Vietnamese!
This experience reinforced my Cook First philosophy: that with good-quality ingredients, and the right combination of these ingredients, nothing will stand in your way from becoming Kitchen Confident.