Fear and mortal terror over the cooking stove

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I don’t cook. I used to work quite successfully in a laboratory mixing and heating hazardous ingredients as part of precise processes to produce new forms of bulletproof glass that went into South African armoured vehicles, helped develop a plastic that was used to make the headlight surround on Bentley motor cars and a glue that bonded body panels on TVR sportscars together. But I didn’t have to eat them, cooking fills me with an irrational, but very real dread.

People know that I don’t cook (check out my friend David Pincott’s comments on this blog post). The reason why God invented the speed dial button and the microwave was so that people that can’t cook don’t have to. If cooking was such a joy, why don’t the chattering classes work in McDonald’s then? Where they would have the opportunity to cook hundreds of dishes a day AND get paid for it!

I got involved with with the Food 2.0: Nom Nom Nom event when I was approached by Mecca from Moo.com. The combination of a daunting challenge and being able to do some good, pursuaded me to participate. I found a willing team member in Liu Yumei.

This was the last shot of the melon before it was brutally dismembered and later discovered in a fridge

We started thinking about our approach to cooking, Yumei was afraid that the judges wouldn’t be able to handle spicy Sichuan-style cuisine and that I would be absolutely useless at making dumplings (and she is almost certainly right regarding my dumpling-making ability). So we had a challenge what food would be acceptable to the judges and we would be able to cook a three-course meal with only an hour’s cooking (oven, hot plate etc) (and an hour and a half preparation time?)

Enter stage-left, creative director for graphic and web design specialists bloodybigspider Mr Stephen Holmes. Stephen has had a varied career as croupier and chef whilst a student so was the ideal person to call on for ideas. When I posed this culinary problem to him he answered ‘Risotto’ like some kind of Zen koan.

He then explained the risotto was an easy-to-cook main course that would be hard even for a cooking armageddon to get wrong and can be prepared in just over an hour. The simplest starter to prepare is a slice of honeydew melon.

It can't be that hard this book make it sound easy

As for the dessert, my Mum’s gift of ‘The Dairy Book of Home Cookery‘ came in handy to give me the ingredients for a fruit crumble. I had recollections from childhood about how to make fruit crumble, but didn’t have an idea of the proportions.

The Saturday before the event Yumei and I went out and picked up double the provisions that we would need to make the meal. When you go out looking for it you don’t realise how difficult it is to find food ingredients in supermarkets. For instance, my local Budgens didn’t have cooking apples or risotto rice. So we spent most of the afternoon trapsing around on the tube to complete our bag of ingredients. Hmmm, it didn’t exactly match the ‘cooking is so easy and fun’ mantra of encouragement that I had received from my work colleagues during the previous weeks.

Stephen came around to supervise, which was pretty good otherwise we would have killed the tasters with an overdose of garlic. Apparently a clove of garlic is not the same as bulb of garlic. Some two hours later and Stephen was still standing despite my culinary efforts. I still have the remanents of my first risotto in the freezer and when I pluck up the courage I will defrost it, heat it up and eat it.

We learned some important lessons from this dress rehearsal (aside from what a clove of garlic actually is). Most importantly the order in which we were going to prepare our dishes the following afternoon. Melon first, then crumble and finally the risotto.

We had a menu, we had a recipe for each item and we had a plan.

The ingredients about to go on tour

Sunday morning came too soon and the ingredients were loaded out of the cupboards and the fridge into a holdall from my time at Yahoo!. These were lugged to Mile End station and then a short trip down the central line to Oxford Circus. Behind an innocent-looking blue door and down a set of steps to a shiny gleaming version of my own personal room 101.

Inside the room looked like an impromptu Apple store with the ubiquitous MacBook Pro, a bevy of Nikon DSLRs and a HD capable video camera with tripods and additional lens. In stark contrast I had brought my trusty Nokia E90 communicator to handle the multimedia as I wasn’t too happy to leave my camera anywhere near flour, moisture or sharp knives.

The ingredients

Its around about this time that I start to feel very out of my depth. We laid out our ingredients and after a quick pep talk about avoiding stabbing people with sharp knives by the organisers and then it was a relaxed take off from the starting line.

Mecca and Walid on the introduction

First up was fruit preparation, melons were sliced, apples were diced and and blackberries had their cores removed befoe they were sprinkled on the apple slices. The melon slices went into the fridge to wait for the rest of the dishes.

Fruit just before the crumble goes on top and the whole lot goes in the oven

Meanwhile flour and sugar were mixed with butter to put the crumb in crumble and shaken over the apple. Cinnamon added the finishing touches and the crumble waited on the side table to go into the oven. It was around about this time that the tension rose in the room as people realised that time was running on.

Onions right before they got sliced and diced

We were in good shape, at least as good a shape as anybody slicing while onions can be. Tears rolled down our cheeks. We measured out our rice, prepared our mushrooms and prepared the vegetable stock cubes in boiling water. Next we prepared the goats cheese, slicing it into easy-to-melt cubes, and cut the Parma ham up with a set of kitchen scissors.

Risotto  cooking away

Hubble, bubble, toil and curiously under-cooked rice – both Yumei and I took turns at the hob whilst the crumble baked in the oven. With 45 minutes to spare the risotto was allowed to sit with its final ingredients of cheese, ham and mushroom put in.

Our main course

We put out plates of washed rocket with a cherry tomato ready to receive the risotto, meanwhile two fish slices were used to carefully chop up the crumble and put it into dishes. The crumble was covered with plain yoghurt and then the risotto was eventually served on a plate.

Dessert - summer fruit crumble with natural yoghurt

Finally we had a well-deserved break. To counterbalance my fear of cooking I wanted share a video of Jo Hennings’ speech about cooking and love.

 UPDATE: You can vote for our cooking efforts here, have a chance of winning a number of cool prizes. In the words of a famous politician vote now, vote often!