Jamie Oliver likes to cook up a storm. His latest television series, Jamie's Ministry of Food, which continues tonight at 9pm on Channel 4, is doing just that. The programme, named after the Second World War government department set up to improve public nutrition, aims to tackle the growing national crisis around food and to educate those whose diet is storing up long-term problems of ill health, obesity and diabetes.
And so, in the first episode last week, the glottal-stopped culinary whizz-kid travelled to Rotherham to improve its inhabitants' eating habits by teaching them basic recipes such as spaghetti bolognese. (It was here, at the height of the debate surrounding Oliver's previous series, Jamie's School Dinners, that mother Julie Critchlow was filmed supplying children with junk food "over the wall" at Rawmarsh Comprehensive School.)
Oliver's plan is simple. He teaches Rotherham residents straightforward, no-nonsense dishes. If each of these people passes his recipes on to two of their friends, who in turn pass them on to two more, the eating habits of the town (and, by extension, the nation) could be revolutionised.
Not everyone thinks this a brilliant idea. Oliver has been accused of metropolitan hubris, and of stereotyping the northern working classes as intellectually challenged junk-munchers. "The people he put on TV were pretty downmarket, and he gave the impression that everyone living here is like that," said John Gilding, leader of the Conservative group on Rotherham council, last week. "It looks like he thinks we're all as thick as planks, and that we live on doner kebabs."
I'm not among the country's legion of Jamie-haters, and Oliver's pro-active approach seems, to me at least, commendable, although it sometimes comes across as a little pious. Admittedly, the aims of his Ministry of Food are ambitious and idealistic – and it's difficult to believe that all of Jamie's Rotherham guinea pigs will cook the Oliver way once the cameras have stopped rolling – but at least he's trying to make a difference, and his theories ought to be road-tested, at least, before we scoff at his presumption.
Culinary ineptitude is rife in Britain. I am a case in point. I could afford to cook good food, but I choose not to. I exist on takeaways, instant meals and restaurant food. I was never taught to cook by my mother, or at school. Any knowledge I do have comes from teaching myself, mainly while living abroad after university (when, on a meagre salary, I would have starved if I hadn't). But my technique is still sorely lacking. Only last week, I tried to impress a friend with a cooked brunch. The eggs were overcooked, the sausages burned, the bacon like cardboard, the mushrooms watery, and I had (horror of horrors) run out of ketchup. We ate our meal in silence.
Could Jamie transform my eating habits? The book that accompanies his new series claims that "anyone can learn to cook in 24 hours". It's a bold assertion, one I was determined to put to the test over a leisurely weekend at home. Out would go the fried chicken, burgers and extortionate restaurant bills. In would come the succulent roast beef, sweet and sour pork and raspberry cheesecake. I would cook the lot – and I would save money, too
Not a great start. The beginning of Jamie's book has sections called "Kitchen Equipment" and "For the Cupboard", in which he lays out "the bare minimum of items you need to have in your kitchen to be a well-rounded, efficient cook". Mixers, scales, colander and pestle and mortar are there, along with about 100 ingredients, such as smoked paprika, honey and nutmeg, that should be present in even the most rudimentary home-chef's cupboard. "The moral of the story is, go out and buy it all," Oliver writes. "It won't cost the earth, and it's not going to go off. The truth is there should be enough in your stores to get you out of trouble if you get snowed in... so stock up."
While I (or my flatmate) have most of the equipment, I am not really up for travelling into central London, where all the best shops are, to shell out for a food mixer or some kitchen scales. Equally, his belief that someone with little free time on their hands would go out and trawl around a supermarket for three hours, spending a lot of money on obscure "cupboard ingredients" they might never use, seems far-fetched. I decide to buy the things I need as I go along. But if I do not have the time or inclination to do as he suggests, I very much doubt that a reluctant cook with two screaming kids at her feet would go the extra mile either.
Saturday night/sunday morning
Chicken and leek stroganoff
I opt to begin my endeavours with one of Oliver's "20-Minute Meals". He describes them as "absolutely perfect for when you want a snack dinner or lunch" and says the recipes are written to be performed quickly, describing exactly how to heat your pan while chopping your ingredients. I plan to cook Oliver's chicken and leek stroganoff at around 4pm on Saturday, because it seems like it's an easy option, and the main ingredients (cream, mushrooms and, obviously, chicken fillets and leeks) are going to be easy to procure from my local supermarket.
I'm supposed to be cooking for a group of my sister's friends. But I take so long fretting about what to cook that they depart for their night out while I'm only just on my way to the shops. By now it's 8pm, and I'm hungry. On my way to the supermarket, I stop off at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and gorge myself while trying to avoid an extremely drunk man who is scooping up barbecue beans with his fingers.
When I arrive at Waitrose to buy my ingredients, they've run out of parsley, which I need. That's a blow. I also discover later that I have forgotten to buy "chestnut or oyster mushrooms". I arrive home tired from the shopping trip and resolve to cook for my sister and her friends the following morning, when they have no excuse to leave my flat.
On Sunday, I'm up at 9.30am. I boil up some rice with no problems (Hey! I'm flying now!) and then chop up the leek and chicken before tossing them into a pre-heated frying pan. Oliver's recipe is clear, and easy to follow. It is free from jargon and does not overcomplicate matters with unnecessary frills. Soon, the whole process begins to feel like fun. (Is that a warm glow, deep in my soul? Why – yes it is.) I add double cream and white wine and simmer the contents of the pan for the next 10 minutes. The timing of Oliver's recipe is such that the rice is already cooked by the time my sauce and chicken are ready to go. I spoon them on to a dish (although admittedly without the mushrooms and herbs specified in the book), drizzle some lemon over them, and present the dish with lemon chunks. To my eyes, it looks good enough to eat, so I take it to be sampled by the assembled hungry mouths.
"There doesn't seem to be any sauce," says one ungrateful diner. I realise the cream I had added to the stroganoff had disappeared quite quickly, although I had followed the recipe closely. "Knowing what it should taste like, I'd give this an eight out of 10," says my sister. "That's because of the way you cooked it. It's not to do with Jamie Oliver. You overcooked it." She says it is edible, and that she would eat it at a dinner party without complaint. "It does miss the ingredients you haven't put in there," she continues. My sister's boyfriend bemoans the lack of herbs. "Did the supermarket not have saffron?" I am bamboozled.
The stroganoff episode has given my confidence a knock. After a huge supermarket shop (my bill for the weekend reaches £80), I decide to go back to basics. Surely nothing can go wrong with poaching an egg, something I've never tried before?
As Oliver suggests, I add four eggs delicately to a pan of boiling water. His recipe seems foolproof. Even so, I don't have a toaster, so I improvise by placing some bread in my oven. I do, however, forget to turn the heat on, so the toast may take a while. Oliver says to wait four minutes and that, to check whether the eggs are done, I should give them a "gentle push with a teaspoon". He recommends that if the egg feels too soft, we should use our "instincts". I'm not sure my "instincts" are fully developed, and am in no hurry to contract salmonella. I remove all four eggs when the time "feels right" and let them dry on some kitchen towel.
My bread is still far from toasted. I eat two of the eggs and they taste good. I wait a further 10 minutes and remove my semi-toasted bread from the oven, although now the other two eggs are cold. I put them on top of the bread and season them with salt and ground black pepper, which I have somehow salvaged from the back of my cupboard. All in all, the package tastes good. It is undoubtedly healthier (I hope) than a supermarket baguette, which is probably what I would have eaten instead. Toast issues notwithstanding, I regard this as a qualified success, although it is unlikely I could teach someone else how to do it, as Oliver hopes I will.
I'm now becoming quite cocky about my abilities and decide to ramp up the stakes, although unexpectedly, Oliver's recipe for a roast turns out to be the simplest thing I cook all weekend. I preheat the oven to 240C, and roughly chop a mixture of onions, carrots, celery, garlic, herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage) and place it in an ovenproof dish. I drizzle it with oil, and do the same with a side of beef, which I also season. I bung the lot into the oven for an hour and it emerges looking great.
My only problem with Oliver's recipe is that I'm not entirely sure that it's clear to people with no cooking ability what he means by "basting" the cut. Equally unfortunately, I have neglected to buy potatoes, vegetables or anything to make gravy with; I am confused as to whether I'm supposed to eat the vegetables that I roast alongside the beef (I assume I am). By this point, I have been unable to entice anyone over to sample the roast and allow it to stand for half an hour covered in tin foil before putting it back in the oven on low heat. When I get around to eating it (I need to rush out to buy some emergency cleaning equipment, as my kitchen is starting to look like a war zone), the beef has completely dried out and tastes awful. I could have done with some pointers about how to keep it warm in the event of mucking up my timing slightly. I resolve to try harder.
Dinner of potato and leek soup, followed by sweet and sour pork; raspberry cheesecake for pudding
I invite four friends for dinner and begin preparations by making Oliver's raspberry cheesecake. I begin with the base. I only have a rectangular cake-tin, so I grease it with butter and bash up some digestive biscuits inside a tea towel. I add these, with oats, to a saucepan, although I have unwittingly left the pan on high heat so I immediately burn the oats. I mix in butter, heat, and spoon the mixture into the cake tin, which I leave in my fridge. At this point, I realise I have not bought enough cream cheese or cream, so I rush (yet again) to the supermarket. I unwittingly leave the heat on the pan. I pick it up on my return and scald my fingers. This makes further cooking painful. I wash my hand under a stream of cold water before preparing the topping, containing caster sugar, cream cheese and cream, along with orange and lemon zest. I mix it up in the best quantities I can without kitchen scales and add to the biscuit base in the fridge. I remove this an hour later and add a mush of raspberries and sugar as the final layer of the cake.
At this point, my friends begin to arrive. All voice intense disappointment that there will not be a roast as I had promised them. I convince one to help me prepare the starter for the evening, potato and leek soup. He immediately tries to take charge of the kitchen and there is a battle of wills as to who determines the pace of the cooking. He wins. I am relegated to chopping up carrots, celery, onions, leeks, garlic and potatoes, and I am told I'm not even doing this properly, despite following Oliver's method to the letter. My friend boils up some water, and we note that I do not have a big enough saucepan for the soup, so we decide to split it across two smaller pans. We wait for the vegetables to cook for 10 minutes before adding it to some vegetable stock we had rustled up using cubes from my cupboard. We serve the mixture to the rest of our guests and they greet it less than enthusiastically. One says it tastes "of nothing".
Eager to regain some ground, I produce my cheesecake. It looks impressive, although the whole thing breaks slightly when I try to remove it from the baking tin. I wrestle it on to a plate and take it to my guests, who devour it earnestly. It receives the warmest reception thus far. I feel the pride of a new father. No one comments on the rather burnt biscuit base.
After much wine is consumed, it's back to the kitchen to create the final dish, sweet and sour pork. By now, my companions are so frustrated that they all pile into the kitchen to help. While Oliver's recipe is overcomplicated, the four of us make light work of it. By now I am familiar with most of the procedures he describes and feel comfortable boiling rice and whopping things into the frying pan. But the novelty has worn off. I resolve to find a wife to do these things for me.
We begin by putting the rice into a saucepan, although we are unsure of the precise quantities. We all take it in turns to dice and chop pork fillet, red onion, pepper, garlic, ginger and chilli pepper. I then take control of frying the ingredients (in a pan, not the wok Jamie recommends) in groundnut oil. We add cornflour and soy sauce, and then pineapple chunks at the end, before simmering it down to a gravy-like consistency. The dish is hailed a success, although it was bit much after we'd gorged ourselves on cheesecake.
Passing it on
It is not just in his television series that Oliver recommends that people "pass on" his recipes; he also suggests it in the accompanying cookbook, imploring those who buy the book to learn a recipe from each of its chapters and teach it to two people. There is even a "pass it on pledge" that people need to sign and date.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the friends I have chosen to pass on the information to is a much better cook than I am. I assume that the point of Oliver's pledge is for people to pass on knowledge to others who have no idea how to cook at all. Unfortunately, while most of my friends do not cook much, they do have some basic skills. I'm sure that if this wasn't the case, I'd be able to teach them a thing or two. Whether they would keep on using that knowledge is another matter.
I nonetheless try to impart the wisdom I have gleaned from (helping to) cook Oliver's potato and leek soup to my friend. Perhaps predictably, he's soon criticising my chopping technique and saying I am doing it wrong. His abilities are well above those catered for by the Ministry of Food. I am appropriately embarrassed.
My 24 hours of cooking according to Oliver was riddled with errors and mishaps, but I still managed to rustle up edible, healthy dishes that I would not normally bother with. But it is unlikely I will cook regularly enough to improve my abilities. Deep down, I know I'd rather eat out, because I know I'm more likely to enjoy the food, and it is a lot less hassle. I imagine the reluctant cooks of Rotherham might feel the same way, too.