Introduction

Welcome to How to Chop a Carrot!

I was lucky enough to grow up with a mum who, while not a great chef, is a very good cook. She knows how to put together a good meal quickly, and she taught me to cook too.

Cooking is really hard to learn without a teacher! If you look at even a ‘simple’ recipe, each step in the method contains three different things to do, half the ingredients are pre-prepared, and they all seem to think you know what terms like ‘finely diced’ mean. This blog is different.

Each month I want to introduce to you a handful of new cooking techniques, as simple as “How to Chop a Carrot”, and then bring them all together in a yummy dish at the end. I’m going to share with you some of my favourite dishes that I grew up with, and some of my newest inventions. Hopefully there’ll be something for everyone.

Before we get cooking though, I’ve taken the first four posts to cover some kitchen essentials – basic kitchen equipment (here) and a little health and safety (knife, heat, and food safety). Please take the time to read them – it’s not nearly as exciting as yummy food, but it is important.

I’m really looking forward to continuing this kitchen adventure with you all; I hope you love it as much as I do!

(Updated 5/1/2019)

How to Chop a Mushroom – into chunks or slices

If you haven’t already, please make sure you’re familiar with basic knife safety before starting this tutorial. (link)

We have a bit of a love/hate relationships with mushrooms in our house. By which I mean, two of us love them, one is indifferent, and one of us hates them.

Hand drawing of a pair of chestnut mushrooms, with the stalk and cap labelled

 

 

Mushrooms are a type of fungus, and there are actually a lot of different varieties. However, the ones you’ll see most often in supermarkets are closed-cup, chestnut, or button mushrooms.

These mushrooms have already had some of the prep done for you. All that’s left are the stalk and cap, so you can eat the whole thing!

 

 

 

You don’t even need to wash mushrooms; in fact it’s best to avoid getting them wet. Not only will it make them feel kind of slimy, it makes it very easy for mould to grow on mushrooms. (Mould growing on mushrooms has always amused me, a little fungus growing on a big fungus, but I digress.)

Hand drawing of the cap of a chestnut mushroom, showing the inside

 

 

 

If your mushrooms are getting a little old, however, you may want to peel them. It’s actually easiest to do this with your fingers! Start by pulling the stalk off the mushroom. You can then reach into the middle of the mushroom and get hold of the edge of the skin, close to where the stalk was. Then, gently pull it off.

 

 

 

To chop your mushrooms, it’s easiest to start with them lying on their caps. For chunks, you can just quarter them.

Hand drawing of a chestnut mushroom showing cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

If you’d rather have sliced mushrooms, start by chopping them in half. Then place the mushroom on its cut side as you slice it. I like slices about half a centimetre (1/4 inch) thick.

Hand drawing of a halved chestnut mushroom showing cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Mushrooms can be eaten raw or cooked, but an overcooked mushroom is rubbery and chewy. To fry mushrooms, simply heat them in a frying pan for anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes! It really depends on how well-done you like your mushroom.

How to Pan-Fry Chicken

Chicken is a popular (and tasty!) source of protein, but it’s one you have to be a little bit careful cooking because of the risk of salmonella. Luckily, chicken undergoes a very helpful change in colour and texture from raw to cooked.

Like fish (which I wrote about baking here), raw chicken is translucent, or kind of see-through, and has a kind of jelly-like texture. Once cooked, the colour fades from pink to a kind of off-white (though this does depend on the part of the chicken). The texture also changes, becoming firmer and more stringy.

If you’re going to be handling raw chicken, make sure to wash your hands (and utensils) with soap and water afterwards. Don’t wash the chicken though – this can actually spread harmful bacteria. You can find out more on food safety in my post here.

Pan-frying chicken is a great way to cook it quickly, and you can even cook it from frozen!

To start, add a little oil to your pan, and put it on a medium heat. You don’t need a lot of oil to fry chicken, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. We like to use a silicone brush to get a nice, thin layer.

Once you’ve added your chicken, putting a lid on your pan will help it to heat up quicker. It can also help to keep moisture in. (You can even add a little water if you want – this can help distribute the heat more evenly, as well as stopping the pan from overheating and burning your chicken! A little water is especially helpful if you’re cooking from frozen.)

Now chicken usually comes in quite large chunks – breasts or thighs for example. This means the heat reaches the outside of the chicken much quicker than it does the middle. This can lead to the outside being overcooked while the inside is undercooked. To avoid this, I like to chop my chicken into cubes a couple of centimetres (a little under an inch) on each side. You can even do this while the chicken cooks, as long as you don’t have a non-stick pan! Doing it in the pan also helps you to check whether the chicken is cooked right through to the middle.

It takes about 20 minutes to pan-fry chicken, but it does of course depend on how high you turn up the heat!

Pan-fried chicken is great for salads or sandwiches as well as hot dishes, but if you’re looking for a hot chicken recipe, why not try adding it to my curry (link) or stir-fry (link)?

How to Make a White Sauce

A white sauce is a sauce made using milk. It has a mild, creamy flavour that complements a range of ingredients, including mushrooms, chicken and fish.

The first thing to decide when making a white sauce is what kind of milk you want to use. If you’re using dairy, using skimmed milk will give you a very thin sauce, so I would recommend at least semi-skimmed. If you’re using a non-dairy milk, you need one with more fat and protein than sugar. This means that soy and nut milks will work, but things like coconut milk won’t. And, if possible, use an unsweetened milk.

The next thing to decide is how to flavour your sauce. I like to start a white sauce by gently frying some diced onion (cutting tutorial here) or crushed garlic in a little oil before I add the milk. You can also add a stock cube directly to the milk as you heat it – try and match the flavour of the stock to the ingredients you plan to put in the sauce. You could also add a little grated or cream cheese for richness, nutmeg for a little spice,  or some dried parsley.

Finally, you’ll need to thicken your sauce. There are two main techniques you can use here.

The classic technique to thicken a sauce is called a roux. A roux starts by frying a spoonful of wheat flour in a little butter or oil. You have to be careful at this stage that the flour is cooked, or the resulting sauce will taste floury. You also have to be careful to avoid lumps – one way to do this is to add the flour to onions, rather than directly into the pan. After a few minutes of frying, you can add your milk. To avoid lumps (again), you need to add it very slowly at first, and keep stirring!

It can be quite easy to get a roux wrong, so the thickening method I prefer is cornflour. Simply mix together one spoonful of cornflour with one spoonful of cold water or milk. Then, add the cornflour mix to your sauce. The great thing about this method is that it can be done last-minute, there’s no floury aftertaste, it’s a lot easier to avoid lumps, and it’s even gluten-free!

Whichever method you use, a white sauce is really versatile. You can use it with all kinds of fish, in pasta dishes like lasagna, or in a chicken and mushroom pie…

One final thing though – if you have leftover white sauce you may find that it sets when chilled, especially if you used cornflour as a thickening agent. This is perfectly normal and doesn’t mean the sauce has gone off; it will go right back to liquid when you heat it up again.

How to Make Porridge

It’s not what I had planned, but after a slightly rough week I thought I’d teach you how to make one of my favourite comfort foods – porridge!

Porridge can actually be made from a lot of different grains, but for me it has to be oatmeal. Oats are quite high-protein, and release the energy they contain nice and slowly. Plus they’re really good for your gut!

My favourite way to make porridge is in the microwave. (In fact, it’s one of the few microwave dishes I can make!)

You will need:

  • a microwave-safe bowl
  • a microwave

and the ingredients:

  • porridge oats (sometimes called rolled oats)
  • water or milk

First, you need a bowl. It needs to be microwave-safe, and it needs to be bigger than you think! While everything expands when you heat it, porridge is especially prone to boiling over and making a sticky mess! I recommend a bowl that can hold at least twice as much porridge as you want to eat.

Add your porridge oats to the bowl. Porridge is very filling, so I usually only use a couple of spoonfuls.

Now porridge can be made with water or milk, or even a bit of both. Porridge made with milk is a little creamier in texture, but it tastes just as good with water. Either way, add roughly as much liquid as oats, and give it a quick stir.

Set your microwave to high power, and set a timer for 5 minutes. Unlike most microwave dishes, however, you need to keep an eye on porridge as it cooks. When porridge boils, it bubbles up and does its best to try and escape the bowl. When this happens, simply stop the microwave and let the porridge settle back down.

Once porridge has boiled, it’s cooked and ready to eat. If you’d prefer softer porridge you can of course put it back in the microwave. Just be aware that it will boil up very quickly the second time.

Plain porridge isn’t the most exciting flavour, but you can add a whole range of things to it. Two of my favourites are golden syrup, and raisins. In fact both dried and fresh fruits go well with porridge. Or if you want something more savoury, why not try a little ham or bacon?

How to Make Cottage Pie

Cottage Pie (made with beef) and Shepherd’s Pie (made with lamb) are classic British dishes, made of a rich, meaty filling topped with creamy mashed potato.

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • a wok or deep saucepan with lid
  • a saucepan with lid

  • an oven-proof dish

and the ingredients (for four people):

  • A little oil
  • 2 medium onions
  • 500g beef, lamb, or Quorn mince (a.k.a. ground meat)
  • 2-3 carrots
  • tinned chopped tomatoes or passata
  • tomato puree
  • mixed herbs
  • salt
  • 3-4 potatoes
  • butter or margarine
  • a splash of milk
  • hard cheese such as cheddar
  • frozen peas or broccoli

My favourite way to make cottage pie is by combining savoury mince (you can find last week’s recipe here), and mashed potato. It’s a lot easier to make sure everything is cooked properly, because you can’t really stir a cottage pie! You can also make this recipe using leftovers, but I’ve written out the full process here.

Start by chopping your potatoes into chunks (tutorial here), and putting them on to boil in your saucepan. If you want really smooth mash it helps to peel your potatoes, but you don’t need to.

Photograph of a saucepan containing chunks of potato, roughly covered by water

While your potatoes cook, make your savoury mince.

Place your larger pan on a gentle heat. Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), and dice your onion. (You can find more detailed instructions here: onions)

Add your diced onion to the pan, along with a generous sprinkle of mixed herbs. (Adding a little garlic can help bring out the flavour of the meat, but it’s optional.)

Photograph of a wok containing diced white onion and mixed herbs

Add your mince, and stir it gently while the meat browns.

23.4 mince

Grate your carrots, then add them to the pan. (Remember to leave the top on while grating to save your fingers – you can find more tips in my tutorial here.)

Photograph of a wok showing mostly grated carrot

Add a tin of passata or cooked tomatoes. Remember to rinse out the tin to get all the flavour out of it. Stir everything together and leave it bubbling gently while you make the mash.

Photograph of a wok containing savoury mince

 

Now you can check on your potatoes. If they’re ready for mashing, they should feel nice and soft when you poke them with a fork. Drain off any water, then use a fork, masher or even a food processor to mash them. You can add a splash of milk to make the mash softer, butter or margarine for richness, and a little salt for extra flavour.

Photograph of a saucepan containing mashed potato (and a masher)

Your savoury mince should be ready by now, so taste the sauce. If it tastes like it’s lacking something, try adding some more tomato puree (or ketchup), or a little salt.

Now it’s time to assemble the pie!

Pour the savoury mince into your oven-proof dish, and smooth it roughly level with a spatula. (You may want to preheat the dish; you can pop it in the oven for a few minutes, just remember to wear oven gloves!)

Photograph of an oval glass dish filled with a smooth layer of savoury mince

Add the mashed potato on top of the mince.  Make sure you add it a little at a time, or you’ll make a big dent in your mince. If you smooth out the mash with a fork, it gives you little ridges that go all crispy in the oven. Plus they look nice! Finally, add a little sprinkle of grated cheese.

Photograph of an oval glass dish filled with a layer of mashed potato, topped with grated cheese

Finally, crisp up the top of the pie in a hot oven (Gas Mark 6 or higher), or under the grill. Once all the cheese is melted, it’s ready to serve!

Photograph of a generous serving of cottage pie and peas on a white plate
Serve with a generous helping of peas or broccoli!

Like all my recipes, there are a lot of ways to make variations on cottage pie! You could try any of the different variations on savoury mince for the filling, or why not top with sweet potato instead? Or, if you want to impress your dinner companions, why not bake individual cottage pies? Just use a small oven-proof dish for each person (and a baking tray to make them easier to take in and out of the oven!)

Photograph of a small, oval, glass dish topped with sweet potato on a white plate with a serving of peas

If you make cottage pie with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

How to Make Savoury Mince

The dish we call savoury mince in our house is super versatile. It’s quite similar to bolognese, but with subtle variations you can turn it into, chilli con carne, lasagna, or cottage pie!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • a wok or deep saucepan with lid

and the ingredients (for four people):

  • A little oil
  • 2 medium onions
  • 500g beef, lamb, or Quorn mince (a.k.a. ground meat)
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 2-3 carrots
  • tinned chopped tomatoes
  • tomato puree
  • frozen peas or spinach
  • mixed herbs
  • salt

Start by placing your pan on a gentle heat. Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), and dice your onion. (You can find more detailed instructions here: onions)

Add your onion to the pan, along with a generous sprinkle of mixed herbs. (I often also add a little bit of garlic, but you don’t have to.)

Photograph of a wok containing diced red onion and mixed herbs

Next, add your mince. Stir everything together, and break up any clumps of mince that are sticking together.

Photograph of a wok containing diced red onion and Quorn mince

Dice your pepper (you can find the tutorial here: pepper), then add it to the pan.

Photograph of a wok containing diced red onion, Quorn mince, and diced red pepper

Grate your carrots. (Remember to leave the top on to use as a handle while grating – you can find more tips in last week’s tutorial here.)

Add your grated carrot to the pan, followed by a tin of tomatoes. To make sure you’re not wasting any tomato-y goodness, rinse out the tin with a splash of water.

Photograph of a wok showing mostly grated carrot and chopped tomatoes

Mix everything together, and put the lid on. This helps the pan heat up quicker, and keeps the moisture in.

After 5-10 minutes, add a generous dollop of tomato puree. This makes the sauce richer; if you don’t have tomato puree you can use ketchup instead.

Photograph of a wok containing mixed vegetables and mince, with a roughly tablespoon-sized dollop of tomato puree on top

Your dish is nearly done, so make sure to taste your sauce. If it tastes like it’s lacking something, try adding a little salt or some more tomato puree.

Five minutes before serving, add your frozen peas or spinach to the pan.

Photograph of a wok containing savoury mince

Make sure to mix everything together before serving!

Photograph of a bowl of savoury since on top of pasta, with a sprinkle of cheese on top

This version of savoury mince is perfect with pasta. But if you have any leftovers, it also makes great nachos!

Photograph of a plate of tortilla chips covered in savoury mince and melted cheese

Remember, this recipe is only a base, so feel free to play around with it! Try adding chilli or paprika to spice it up a little, or using some different herbs. You could add a tin of beans along with the peas, either to complement or replace the mince. Or you could try using different vegetables – why not add some mini broccoli florets, or even try parsnip instead of carrot?

If you make savoury mince with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

How to Grate Anything (except your fingers)

A grater is a very useful piece of kitchen equipment; so much so that it made it into my top 20 (link)! It’s a great (or should that be ‘grate’) tool for quickly chopping ingredients very finely.

A grater is essentially a metal plate with sharpened holes in it. You can get a variety of shapes and sizes, but my favourite is a box grater because it has multiple sizes of holes in the one tool. Also, your grated ingredients (mostly) collect neatly underneath.

To use a grater, hold it steady in one hand. (Usually your non-dominant hand.) Hold your ingredients in your other hand, and apply gentle pressure as you rub your ingredients up and down the grater. Just keep your fingers out of the way – while graters aren’t as sharp as knives, they can still break your skin.

I think perhaps the most common ingredient to grate is cheese. Grated cheese is perfect for on top of pasta dishes, mashed potato, or in sandwiches. You can buy grated cheese, but it’s often much cheaper to grate your own, and it’s a good ingredient to practice grating. If you have, for example, a large block of cheese, you can grate quite quickly, especially if you’re not using all of it. However, the closer your fingers are to the grater, the more slowly you need to grate.

I also like to add grated vegetables (and even fruits like apple) to enrich sauces for dishes like pasta and curry. (All the flavours meld together in a blend of deliciousness!) The easiest vegetables to grate are those that are quite sturdy, particularly root vegetables like our old friend the carrot.

When grating a carrot you’ll want to chop the bottom (or ‘tail’) end off, and cut out any blemishes as usual. However, if you leave the top end on for now, you can use it as a ‘handle’ as you grate, to help keep your fingers safely out of the way. Other vegetables that come with their own ‘handles’ include parsnips and courgettes. With rounder root vegetables like sweet potatoes, you may find they need chopping into smaller chunks before they’ll fit on the grater.

There are many more ingredients you can grate, including chocolate and even some spices! But the best thing about a grater is that once you know how to grate one thing, you can grate most of the rest of them too! It’s a really useful kitchen skill.