The Darina Allen Column - How To Cook

As an ardent campaigner for teaching cookery and other life skills in schools, who better than Darina Allen to explain why ‘No Kids Should Leave School Without Being Able to Cook’ – which was the original title for her new book ‘How To Cook’. Whatever the title, it’s a must-have for everyone who needs a hand in the kitchen - perfect for Christmas, but definitely not just for Christmas. Potentially life changing, this could be the most important book you ever give to someone you care about.

My latest book, written during the pandemic, is called ‘How to Cook’, but the working title has always been ‘Recipes No Kids Should Leave School Without Being Able to Cook’. However my publishers were adamant that ‘kid’ was not PC so here we are with a title that doesn’t get the same spontaneous response that the original title engendered when I announced what was in the pipeline in answer to the question.

However, it’s all in there, 100 recipes and lots more variations on the originals to get everyone excited about how easy it is to cook simple and delicious dishes and do lots of contemporary riffs on time-honoured favourites.

How crazy is it that only a tiny percentage of our children learn how to cook at home or in our schools…What are we like…to have let at least two generations now out of our houses and schools without equipping them with the basic life skills to feed themselves properly, or for that matter letting them experience the magic of sowing a seed and watching it grow into something delicious and super nutritious to eat.

Since the 1950s, the main focus in education has been acquiring academic skills – mastering the STEM subjects. The subliminal message to all students has been that practical skills like cooking or growing are of much lesser value – unnecessary in today’s world where one can pop into the local supermarket and choose from an endless variety of ready-made and ultra-processed goods to save time and the ‘drudgery’ of cooking it yourself.

So why is it important to be able to cook – a fundamental question that sometimes stumps people…well at the very least to feed oneself nutritiously and deliciously and to take control of one’s own health. With a few basic cooking skills, one can whip up a spontaneous meal with a few inexpensive ingredients at a moment’s notice and bring joy to those around you. It’s one of the easiest ways to win friends and influence people, plus one can travel anywhere in the world and get a job. Chefs and cooks are welcomed with open arms everywhere but in the end home cooking is the most important skill of all.

When you teach someone how to cook, you give them a gift that will forever enhance their lives, it becomes increasingly evident that our food choices affect our energy, vitality, ability to concentrate and both our mental and physical health. So this book that I was determined to write before I hang up my apron has 100 basic recipes for you to cook your way through.

For virtually every recipe, I suggest variations on the original. For example, when you make a basic Irish soda bread, one of the simplest and most delicious breads of all, it can be white or brown, seedy or plain, flecked with seaweed or fresh herbs. Baked in a loaf tin or in a traditional round, marked with a cross – the traditional blessing and pricked in the four quadrants to let the fairies out of the bread.

Scones or teeny weenies made from the same dough can be dipped in grated cheese or toasted nuts, they can be sweet or savoury – spotted dog or stripy cat…. Gently, roll the dough into a rectangle, slather with chocolate spread. Roll up, cut and dip the twirls into coarsely chopped hazelnuts…Change tack, place a rectangle of dough into a well-oiled ‘Swiss roll’ tin. Top with tomato sauce, slivers of pepperoni, a scattering of chopped spring onion and grated Cheddar – now you have a deep-pan pizza and on and on it goes…

Same with an omelette, the quintessential fast-food made in minutes. So many delicious fillings to add, slip it into a crusty baguette for an omelette sambo… Cut in strips to add to a salad or soup or cook the well flavoured mixture in muffin tins to make mini frittatas.

This book is not just for kids, teenagers and college grads, it’s for anyone and everyone who wants to whip up something delicious for themselves or for family and friends.
So back to our educational system which many rightly believe has failed in our duty of care to fully educate our young people… so let’s raise our voices and pick up our pens to demand that our Government and Department of Education re-embed practical cooking and growing in our national curriculum for the future health and happiness of the nation.

Let’s start here…

Special thanks to my daughter Lydia Hugh Jones whose drawings greatly enhance How to Cook….

Quinoa is a super nutritious grain that originally comes from the Andean region of South America. It is full of protein and has more vitamins and minerals than virtually any other grain, so it’s a brilliant option for vegetarians and vegans. Pumpkin or yam may be substituted for the sweet potato in this recipe.
Serves 4 (vegetarian if using vegetable stock)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
225g (8oz) onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 – 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
750g (1lb 10oz) sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) dice
450g (1lb) ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 400g (14oz) can chopped tomatoes
100g (3 1/2oz) quinoa
500ml (18fl oz) vegetable or chicken stock
200g (7oz) black beans, soaked overnight and cooked for 1 – 1 1/2 hours (depending on the age of the beans) until just tender or 400g (14oz) can
black beans, drained and rinsed
a pinch of brown sugar (optional)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
To Serve: natural yogurt or labneh

• Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan over a medium heat, add the onion, garlic and chilli flakes and toss together. Reduce the heat, cover and sweat for 5–6 minutes until soft but not coloured. Add the cumin and coriander and season well with salt and pepper.
• Add the sweet potatoes, tomatoes, quinoa and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the black beans and continue to simmer for 20–30 minutes or until the sweet potato and quinoa are tender. Season to taste, you may need to add a little brown sugar if using canned tomatoes.
• Serve in a warm bowl scattered with lots of fresh coriander and a dollop of yogurt or labneh.

The secret of really good beefburgers is the quality of the mince, it doesn't need to be an expensive cut but it is essential to use the freshly minced beef. A small percentage of fat in the mince will make the burgers sweet and juicy – between 20-25 per cent. One or two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 teaspoon of chili flakes, 1-2 tablespoons of sambal oelek, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, 1-2 teaspoons of ground cumin or coriander can be added according to your taste but the recipe below gives a delicious basic burger. If you’re looking to eat less but better meat, try the variation with mushrooms – you’ll never go back… Serves 4

15g (½ oz) butter or extra virgin olive oil
75g (3oz) onion, finely chopped (optional)
450g (1lb) freshly minced beef - flank, chump or shin would be perfect
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
To Serve (optional)
burger or brioche buns
sliced ripe tomatoes
sliced red onion
crispy bacon
avocado slices or a dollop of Guacamole
fried onions
roast or piquillo peppers
kimchi, pickled slaw or pickles
spicy mayo, spicy tomato sauce,
barbecue sauce, hot sauce, bacon jam or relish of your choice

• Melt the butter in a saucepan, toss in the onions, if using, cover and sweat over a low heat for 5-6 minutes until soft but not coloured. Set aside to get cold.
• Meanwhile, mix the beef mince with the herbs and season with salt and pepper. Then add the cooled onions and mix well. Fry off a tiny bit of the mixture in the pan to check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.
• With wet hands, shape the mixture into four burgers, or more depending on the size you require. Chill until needed.
• Cook to your taste in a little oil in a medium-hot frying or griddle pan, turning once. For rare, cook for 2 minutes each side, for medium 3 minutes and for well done 4 minutes. If you’re cooking the burgers in batches, make sure to wash and dry the pan between batches. Burgers can plump up in the centre while being cooked; to avoid this, make an indentation in the centre of each raw burger with your thumb. Use any of the serving suggestions above, or try one of the variations.

Lay a slice of cheese on top of each burger and pop under the grill until the cheese begins to melt. Serve as in the main recipe.

*Beef & Mushroom Burgers
Heat 1 tablespoon of extra virgin oil in a pan over a high heat. Add 225g (8oz) finely chopped flat or chestnut mushrooms, season well with salt and pepper and cook over a high heat, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid is absorbed. Season to taste, transfer to a plate and leave to get cold. Once cooled, mix the mushrooms with 450g (1lb) minced beef. (You should have about one-quarter mushrooms to three-quarters beef by volume.) Fry off a little morsel to check the seasoning. Shape into four
burgers. Cook as in the main recipe and serve with your favourite accompaniments.

*Beefburgers with ginger mushrooms
Melt 15–25g (1/2–1oz) butter in a heavy–bottomed saucepan until it foams. Add 75g (3oz) finely chopped onions, cover and sweat over a gentle heat for 5–6 minutes or until quite soft but not coloured. Meanwhile, slice and cook 225g (8oz) flat or chestnut mushrooms in a hot frying pan, in batches if necessary. Season each batch with salt, pepper and a tiny squeeze of lemon juice. Add the mushrooms to the onions in the saucepan, then add 125ml (4fl oz) double cream, 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger, 20g (3/4oz) nibbed, lightly toasted almonds, if you wish, and allow to bubble for a few minutes. Season to taste, then add 1–2 tablespoons of chopped flat-leaf parsley and 1/2 tablespoon of freshly chopped chives, if you wish. Set aside.

*To make Buffalo chips.
Scrub 4 large potatoes and cut them into wedges from top to
bottom – they should be about 2cm (3/4 inch) thick and at least 6.5cm (2 1/2 inch) long. If you like, rinse the chips quickly in cold water but do not soak. Dry them meticulously with a tea towel or kitchen paper before cooking. Deep-fat fryers vary in size so fill the fryer up to the recommended line. Heat dripping or olive oil, or a mixture of olive and sunflower oil, in a deep-fat fryer to 160°C (325°F). Fry twice, once at 160?C (325°F) until they are soft and just beginning to brown, the time will vary from 4–10 minutes depending on the size of the chips. Drain, increase the heat to 190?C (375ºF) and cook for a further 1–2 minutes or until crisp and golden. Shake the basket, drain well, toss on to kitchen paper, sprinkle with a little salt, turn into a hot serving dish and serve immediately. Alternatively, fry in a deep saucepan with 5–7.5cm (2–3 inch) depth of olive oil. Cook the burgers as in the main recipe, transfer on to hot plates, spoon some ginger mushrooms over the burgers and pile on the crispy buffalo chips.

*Smashburger (Serves 4)
Heat a frying pan or griddle pan over a high heat. Melt 1–2 tablespoons of beef dripping. Divide 450g (1lb) freshly minced beef (20% fat) into four balls. Flatten each down with a spatula or whatever implement you find handy. Smashburgers get their name ’cos you get to smash them flat.
Season with sea salt and flatten so the edges are lacy. Cook for a minute or two and when the surface is well browned, flip over. Season the surface with salt and pepper. Lay a slice of American cheese on top of each burger, then cover the pan with a lid so the cheese starts to melt. Meanwhile, split 4 burger buns in half, slather the surface of each with hot mayonnaise (mayo and tomato ketchup mixed with a dash of hot sauce or Tabasco). Top the base with the smashburger, add a couple of slices of pickled gherkin, maybe some shredded lettuce and a couple of slices of tomato, or whatever you fancy. Top with the other half of the bun. Enjoy right away.

Apple pie is virtually everyone’s favourite pudding. My famous break-all-the-rules pastry taught to me by my mum is made by the creaming method, so people who are convinced that they suffer from ‘hot hands’ don’t have to worry about rubbing in the butter. I make this pie year-round with whatever fruits are in season: rhubarb, green gooseberries and elderflower, a mixture of stone fruit, such as apricots, peaches and nectarines… Enjoy all with a blob of softly whipped cream and soft brown sugar, it’s obligatory! Serves 8-12 (vegetarian)

Break-all-the-Rules Pastry
225g (8oz) butter, softened
40g (1 1/2oz) caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
2 organic, free-range eggs
350g (12oz) plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1 organic, free-range egg, beaten with a dash of milk
600g (1lb 5oz) Bramley cooking apples, peeled and cut into large dice
110g (4oz) blackberries
150g granulated sugar
To Serve
softly whipped cream
dark soft brown sugar

1 x 18cm x 30.5cm x 2.5cm deep square tin or 1 x 22.5cm round tin
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350?F/Gas Mark 4.

• To make the pastry, cream the butter and sugar together by hand or in a food processor. Add the eggs one by one and beat for several minutes. Reduce the speed and mix in the flour slowly. Turn out on to a piece of floured baking parchment, flatten into a round, then wrap and chill. This pastry needs to be chilled for at least 2 hours otherwise it is difficult to handle – better still, make it the day before.
• Roll out the pastry to about 3mm (1/8 inch) thick, then use about two-thirds of it to line a 18 x 30 x 2.5cm (7 x 12 x 1 inch) square tin or a 22.5cm (8 3/4 inch) round tin.
• Fill the pie to the top with the apples and blackberries and sprinkle with the sugar. Cover with a lid of pastry, press the edges together to seal. Decorate with pastry leaves, brush with the beaten egg mixture and bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour until the apples are tender. When cooked, sprinkle lightly with caster sugar, cut into pieces and serve with softly whipped cream and sugar.

* Classic Apple Pie
Use 675g (1lb 8oz) Bramley cooking apples, peeled and cut into large dice, 2–3 cloves and 150g (5oz) granulated sugar for the filling.
* Apple & Raspberry Pie
Use 450g (1lb) Bramley cooking apples and approx. 225g (8oz) raspberries.
* Rhubarb Pie
Use approx. 900g (2lb) red rhubarb, cut into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces and 175–225g (6–8oz) sugar.
* Apricot, Peach & Nectarine Pie
Use a total 1kg (2lb 4oz) fruit and 225g (8oz) granulated sugar.
* Green Gooseberry & Elderflower Pie
Use approx. 700g (1 1/2lb) gooseberries, 250g (9oz) brown sugar and 3 elderflowers.
* Cherry Pie
Use 1kg (2lb 4oz) cherries.

In Kiltumper – A Year in an Irish Garden
35 years ago, when they were in their twenties, Niall Williams and Christine Breen made the impulsive decision to leave their lives in New York City and move to Christine's ancestral home in the town of Kiltumper in rural Ireland. In the decades that followed, the pair dedicated themselves to writing, gardening, and living a life that followed the rhythms of the earth.

In 2019, with Christine in the final stages of recovery from cancer and the land itself threatened by the arrival of turbines just one farm over, Niall and Christine decided to document a year of living in their garden and in their small corner of a rapidly changing world. Proceeding month-by-month through the year, and with beautiful seasonal illustrations, this is the story of a garden in all its many splendours and a couple who have made their life observing its wonders.
Check in with your local bookshop to order a copy; also available online, eg from Dubray Books

There are currently no comments

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment
Not a member? Register for your free membership now!
Or leave a comment by logging in with: