Food school: Back to basics

Each week in these pages, Mark Hix dispenses recipes and advice to inspire readers to new culinary heights. But what could he teach the kitchen-shy Susie Rushton in a single morning?
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"Ideally, you should start learning basic cookery as early as possible. About four," says Mark Hix. Like skiing? "Yes, just like skiing."

Ideally, we're tutored in the culinary fundamentals as tots, either by our parents or at school, and by the time we leave home we can at least make a quick sauce for grilled chicken or cook a fluffy omelette. Ideally, we'll then acquire recipe books, equipment, tips from grandmothers, friends and TV celebrity chefs. Ideally, when we've got our own homes, we'll hold dinner parties. And among our many accomplishments, we'll often be described as "a really fantastic cook". Ideally.

Well – I can't ski, and my cookery has actually worsened with the years. When I was a kid, my mother did indeed equip me with the culinary skills. But then I forgot them, and over the years I learnt other things about food. That take-away chicken tikka has fewer calories than tikka masala. That at 9.52pm, a Tetra Pak of Covent Garden Soup not only makes a perfectly OK supper but results in very little washing up. I know that pitta bread, the ideal foil to both houmous and Marmite, goes stale less quickly than sliced brown. I've neither had to cater for children nor ever felt any desire to cook for the admiration of dinner guests. And the way in which certain competitive male friends learnt to cook slow-roasted pork with Madeira sauce and ceps, or bake their own bread, or (most infuriating) make sushi at home, has been enough to make a girl start using the oven as a moth-proof cupboard for cashmere jumpers.

When taken to task over my skills deficit, I've always said that while I really do like looking at food magazines and watching cookery shows, I also like looking at books on architecture – and I'm not about to start drafting the southern elevation of my new skyscraper in Dubai.

But lately I began to think that basic cookery might be a humble, relaxing pastime. I tried re-teaching myself first principles, concentrating on dishes that took less than 20 minutes. I thought I'd start with omelettes but they burned and shrivelled. I tried to make béchamel sauce but it tasted revoltingly of flour. The only thing I had thought I could cook was risotto – but you could slice the one I made with a knife. I got bored and was about to give up.

So that's why I end up at back-to-basics boot-camp, also known as Mark's own kitchen in Islington, north London, where a dozen copper sauté pans catch the autumn sunlight, a stove the size of a small car sits centre-stage and his two cats wander in and out of the French windows, twitching their tails smugly in the knowledge that they eat better than most of us.

Happily, the chef-director of Scott's, The Ivy, Le Caprice, The Rivington and J Sheekey doesn't consider such a task beneath him; indeed it turns out he's quite used to teaching cack-handed cooks. Perhaps he's sentimental about cookery education because it was a crush on his domestic-science teacher that got him into food in the first place. We amateur cooks have bad habits, he says, that we find hard to drop even when taught otherwise. In fact, he assures me, even the junior chefs starting out in his restaurants "get everything back to front". Strange, then, that we start the morning's lesson with afters: Chocolate Mousse.



Mark's list of ingredients:

275g dark chocolate (70-75 per cent cocoa solids), cut into small pieces, plus about 40g of grated chocolate to finish
150g unsalted butter
8 medium egg yolks, at room temperature
1tbsp caster sugar (optional)
8 medium egg whites

There's a reason why we begin with pudding: it will need to be chilled in the fridge for a couple of hours. Aha! Thinking ahead. I'm already into new territory. Cookery, Mark tells me, is "really just about being organised and using your common sense. If you're going to cook this, you should weigh everything out first, get all your equipment ready – so you don't end up with a table covered in stuff and chocolate everywhere." I also notice that he washes up as he goes along. When I cook, a cyclone of encrusted pans and butter-slicked knives hits the region. In Mark's sink, there never seems to be more than a single teaspoon.

Meantime, the chef has lugged a dictionary-sized slab of Italian chocolate out from his larder. This recipe, he says, doesn't require extra sugar: "I think that lets you really taste the chocolate. Even that Gü stuff – all you can taste is the sugar."

Before I know it, I'm standing over the slab of chocolate at the end of his kitchen table with a very expensive Japanese knife in my right hand, trying to copy his grating technique. His brisk scrapings make powder; mine, gravel. On this occasion, it doesn't matter too much since both now go in a bain-marie and melt with butter while the egg whites are whisked (in an electric mixer – he obviously didn't want to overwhelm me with heavy labour in the first round). Once the chocolate has become lovely, shiny liquid, I mix in the separated egg yolks.

"Now, this is the really tricky bit." I'm supposed to fold half the chocolate and egg yolk mixture into the egg whites, trying to be as gentle as possible. "Obviously, what this does is that it makes the mousse as light as possible." Then the rest of the chocolate mixture goes in, along with some extra shavings of chocolate that he assures me "will add a really nice texture". Mark whips out a fancy ice-cream

glass from a cabinet. I attempt to gloop the mixture into the glass, but some blobs of liquid chocolate mix escape the target, and I'm reminded of those videos by the American performance artist Paul McCarthy where Santa Claus covers himself in a gruesome mixture of mustard and chocolate sauce.

Mousse glass wiped down and safely in the fridge, Mark then imparts the most important tip about recipe-reading: "Never follow it line by line." This is a revelation. Apparently I should sit down and read it all the way through – really read it – at least twice. "It allows you to collect your equipment. So with this recipe, you'd get your eggs and bowls ready first. Common sense is so important – for instance, so you don't chop up the cabbage and then think, 'Shit, I haven't put the water on'. But so many people read line by line, and you end up with crap all over the pages of your books or you can't turn the pages over because your hands are dirty."

Risotto alla Milanese

3 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
200g Carnaroli risotto rice
100g butter
1 litre good quality chicken stock or that amount of stock from a good quality stock cube
2tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
A good pinch of saffron

"We'll make it with saffron, and it's important to have a stock that's well flavoured," he says decisively, heading into the larder once again and returning with a clear plastic box of very expensive saffron strands the colour of dried rust. "But it's not so much about the flavour. What I want you to try to understand is that it's about the texture of the risotto."

While a few strands of saffron are infusing in the stock (although you could also put pumpkin peel in water for a pumpkin risotto, ceps in the water for mushroom risotto and so forth), I am attempting the next challenge. Slicing an onion. "Nobody," Mark announces, "knows how to chop an onion. They think they do, but they don't. Really."

He hands me what he calls "a chef's shallot" – a lozenge-shaped shallot of the like you'd not find in regular supermarkets. Once peeled, he shows me how keeping a little part of the stalk intact keeps the layers of the halved shallot together. He then takes a small, serrated knife and makes narrow lengthwise cuts. "Then you use the bigger knife to just slice across." His blade guillotines up the strands of onion into tiny specks. "Most people just tend to peel it, cut it in half and randomly chop so they get all different shapes and sizes." I try to copy his technique. The lengthwise slicing is easy, but the widthway chopping is more difficult: keep the tip of the knife on the board, and roll the blade back and forth, he advises. "Try to feel it, use your left forefinger as a guide, but don't life the blade up too high or your finger will go in with the onion. Ha-ha-ha."

Am I doing it right?

"Yeah, kind of," he says, uncertainly. I chop a bit faster. " See, that's pretty good! Thing is, once you know how to do that, you can do whatever you want. Leeks, carrots. So many people chop an onion without even thinking about it." Certainly, I can't recall ever giving it as much thought as I have for the past 15 minutes.

We need garlic in the risotto, too, so Mark shows me how to crush that on a bit of table salt with the flat side of a broad knife: "The salt helps to grind it but also stops the juices from soaking into your chopping board."

I've always stuck to good old Arborio rice (the most common), but Mark tells me there's also Carnaroli and Vialone nano. All are "polished" in the production process in different ways, but all of them are intended to keep their bite, however long they are cooked. Carnaroli, he advises, " is the best all-round rice to keep at home". We melt 25g of the butter in a pan (the rest is for the finishing-off process), and add the shallots and fry them gently for a couple of minutes without letting them brown. Then we add an espresso cup of rice per person and let the rice warm through. "So. What would you do next?" he asks. It feels like a trap.

Er... add the stock?

"Yep. But make sure it's hot stock, so it takes less time to be absorbed. Season quite early. Don't add any more stock till it's been totally absorbed – that's how you get maximum flavour." After stirring and adding, stirring and adding, eventually we approach the crucial point, "the finishing – or mantecatura – this is

where people go wrong." In Italy, he tells me, they'll stir in a little white butter – which is very creamy – to lend it the correct texture. If you can't find that, yellow butter and a tablespoon of cream will substitute. "And here's another shortcut. If you've got 10 friends round, you can take it to this stage in advance – so you cook until there's five minutes till it's done – and then take it off the heat and spread it on a tray to cool it down. Then 10 minutes before you serve it, put it back in the pan and continue where you left off." Apparently, a lot of restaurants cheat and do that. The rice looks like bright yellow scrambled eggs: runny, bubbling and silken. This is generally the point at which I'd think, " Hmm, looks soupy," and then cook it for too long. "You're better off having it soupy than too thick. In the next five minutes it will absorb what it needs to." At this point, add additional ingredients such as wild mushrooms or pumpkin – cooked separately, not in the rice pan, because it makes over- or under-cooking of all ingredients involved more likely. "Better eat some now, eh?" he says, grating parmesan cheese into the pan. It's the best I've had outside Milan.

We'd planned to cook steak (a supper perhaps even more instant than a ready-made soup) and ever since I arrived at Mark's house at 8.30am, the cast-iron griddle had been over the flame, awaiting its fleshy offering. It waited. It smoked, then it stopped smoking. And it was left to wait some more. By the time metal met sirloin steak, a full hour had passed. You've got to be brave, Mark tells me, and just let it get far hotter than you think it needs to. He also showed me how to season like a chef: with a very heavy hand. I have never added so much salt and pepper to a cut of meat. But the result was delicious, giving the tender pink flesh a caramelised edge. After a few minutes in the pan – gently pressing the steak to test if it was medium rare (it gets firmer as it cooks) – it's done, and Mark slices off a morsels to test. I'm just savouring it when the flavour of the conversation becomes a bit too "industry" for me. "You know, people say that hanging the meat improves tenderness, but I think it's all about how stressed an animal is when it dies," he muses. So, I gulp, you're saying if the cow is really, really relaxed when it dies, the meat is better? Yes, he says, and goes on to describe a fantastic new abattoir he'd visited where the cows are rocked into hammocks and drink iced caipirinhas until they simply ... hang on, no. I must've blocked out the details. Besides, we'd cooked the steak but there was a sauce to make too. Why had my most recent effort at béchamel sauce turned out so foully floury?

"You probably didn't cook it for long enough – it takes quite a while, on a low simmer. Another good way to get rid of the flour is to blend the sauce afterwards in a liquidiser. That gets it really smooth."

Anyway, it turns out there's a quicker, tastier alternative to béchamel. It starts with a tub of double cream. "You literally simmer it," he says, tipping a half-pint pot into a shallow pan. Add parsley, salt and pepper – it's a parsley sauce. Simmer white wine and fish stock first, then add cream – it's a sauce for fish. Cook garlic and shallots first, then add cream – it's a garlicky sauce. "You can do it the old-fashioned way – that's how you'd make cheese sauce for cauliflower, for instance – but if you just reduce cream down, it's instant and not as heavy. And, if you taste it, there's no comparison."

Finally, we get to the quickest dish of all. Mark can make an omelette in 40 seconds – he once had to cook as fast as possible for a competition on Saturday-morning TV. "It's one of those things you learn early on at catering college. When I was working in hotels, we weren't allowed to use non-stick pans: that was considered cheating. You had to use black cast- iron pans and cover them in salt and put them in the oven overnight to stop sticking. But it almost always stuck anyway." He must be going soft, then, because I'm allowed to use a new-fangled non-stick pan. Once three eggs are whisked, salt and pepper added, we get to the part that's always flummoxed me: how to achieve a pale, fluffy roll of perfection rather than a leathery flap of overcooked egg. The answer lies in that same old combination of organisation, common sense and dexterity.

Melt the butter, he tells me, without letting it brown. Pour egg mixture in, and keep stirring it until it just starts to set. At this point I'd usually try to fold the omelette in half, but Mark shows me how to do omelette like a pro short-order cook: tip the pan down and away, and using a spatula to fold over the nearest edge, roll it, two or three times, and flip it straight on to the plate. The finished article doesn't look too bad at all: pale yellow, firm and unblemished. And that forward planning has ensured that the chocolate mousse is now ready to eat too. I'm just about to tuck in when I notice he's slicing up the rest of my delicious steak into tiny squares. Whadd'ya doing with that, Mark? "Oh, I'm giving it to the cats. " If my cooking's good enough for Mark's moggies, it's good enough for anybody.

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