Food and Drink: A guide for the culinarily challenged

What can you say of a cook who puts his frozen crabmeat, still in its plastic bag, in the oven and completely forgets about it while he works on a way to unfreeze the pastry dough that he needs for the pie into which the crab will go?

Then, suppose you were invited to dine at eight, and have been served nothing but farinaceous titbits until 10, and the cook beams at you absent- mindedly, sure in the knowledge that the cake on which he has worked all day is satisfactory. What do you do? Knock back the booze and forget about dinner altogether? Next time, arrive for the drinks circa 11.30?

The answers to this and many other pressing questions will be found in my long-projected book Eating for Beginners, a guide to post-modern cuisine.

In an earlier era, such a book would have been quite superfluous. There was a ready answer to all culinary crises, pithily expressed in countless novels and plays: 'Sack the cook]' But it is beyond us, in this timid age, to do anything of the sort: it is against our notions of correctnesses to lower the self- esteem of another; a lawyer lurks ever around the corner, ready to sue us for discriminating against the incompetent (or should we say the culinarily challenged?); and, in any case, we cannot very easily sack our hosts.

The conventional modern manner is to invite for a meal your best friend, the lovely girl (or boy) you met last week, your bank manager or whoever, and then to prop one of those glossy cookbooks beside the stove and follow the steps from one to 14.

The troubles with cookery books are many, but chief among them are that they do not tell you what you should not do (for instance, to leave the crab in its plastic in the oven), and that they give no advice as to how one sets about assembling a meal in which the first course is on time, and the others follow at suitable intervals, without let or hindrance.

There is nothing much you can do about the first. No kitchen I've ever visited, professional or amateur, is proof against forgetfulness or occasional folly. Nor should it be, for there is something very reassuring (in the same way, I would have felt infinitely better if Nancy Kerrigan had fallen on the ice and actually forgotten to smile) about fallibility. But timing can - and, indeed, must - be learnt. It is not inherent or instinctive; no biological clock tells us that if dinner is wanted at eight, the 6lb joint must go in by 6.30, and you can't start topping- and-tailing your haricots verts at five to eight. The essence of the matter here, as in the writing of food pieces or novels, is knowing, when you start, where you are going, and having some sort of plan. This means being realistic. If you know that Barry is always 45 minutes late for anything, do not plan to put food on the table at 8.30. If there are several guests, you must assume it will take them a fair time, during drinks, to find out who's what, and just what Roger does, and a full three-quarters of an hour to discover that they all have mutual friends in Usk. Rule One, then, is to set a time at which you can reasonably expect your guests to be ready and, so to speak, available for food. Rule Two is that no starter, first course, appetiser or whatever, should require preparation at the critical time.

The wise cook knows that an enormous part of the meal can be prepared well before time. If this were not so, most restaurants - many of which seem to prepare their meats weeks, and their sauces months, before time - would be out of business. That quiche will not be the better for coming straight out of the oven; those haricots will gain in flavour from being readied at four and then 'brought back to life' (faire revenir is the hugely expressive French term) when needed.

Rule Three is to be mindful of the usual limitation: that you have only one pair of hands. You will not be able to cope, all at once, with the hollandaise that is separating, the liver that is curling and the rice that is sticking. Allow time for these things to be done separately. This is called forethought.

Rule Four is that a certain amount of time is required for guests to serve themselves, to pass the baby turnips around the table, to explain their aversion to same, or their admiration for that frightfully pretty poppy you have chopped on to them. This cannot be rushed. You should imagine a meal as you would a film.

Rule Five has to do with simplicity. If you have to read the recipe while you're entertaining your guests, whisking egg whites and coping with a small child who knows full well how he can spoil your dinner just by being cute at the wrong time, you're asking for trouble.

Rule Six is, don't panic; and Rule Seven, for guests, is (to answer the question I posed at the beginning) to be charitable. We all started out ignorant and ill-organised.

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