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 Plan a Meal

Whether it’s a special meal for the holidays or just a regular weekday dinner, planning out how to cook your own meals is a great skill to have.

Whilst it can be great fun to try new recipes, I find that learning to cook individual ingredients gives you more freedom in the kitchen. (And doesn’t leave you wondering what to do with half a jar of whatever you bought for that one recipe you don’t want to repeat…) But turning those individual ingredients into one meal requires a bit more thought.

 

1. Know who you’re cooking for

How many people are you cooking for? Is anyone a picky eater, or do they have any allergies? Is everyone hungry already, or have you got time to spare? If it’s a special event, do you want to be spending all your time in the kitchen?

Questions like these can really help you narrow down what to cook. If you’re cooking for a lot of people, remember that chopping twice as many ingredients takes twice as long, and it takes longer for the heat to reach the middle of a larger (or fuller) pan. If everyone’s hungry already, pick techniques you know well and can cook quickly. And if it’s a big event, think about things you can prepare ahead of time.

 

2. Pick your main ingredients

For a special event, there may be traditional foods you want to serve. It’s also a great idea to cook produce that’s in season – it’s tasty, economical, and environmentally friendly! If you’re trying to pick from ingredients you’ve already bought, start with the things that go off fastest (like fresh fish, seafood, and green vegetables).

A balanced meal should contain a good source of protein (such as meat, poultry, fish, beans, or nuts); a source of carbohydrates for energy (pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, dumplings, or noodles); and a lot of yummy veggies! Try and think about colour and texture, as well as taste, when choosing ingredients.

 

3. Pick your seasonings

Seasonings such as herbs and spices are what take a meal from nutritious to delicious! It can take some time to learn which seasonings go with which ingredients, and with each other. Try and notice which seasonings are in your favourite recipes, sauces, and spice blends. Don’t be afraid to try a little experiment, but remember to smell and taste before serving.

 

4. Pick your method(s)

Now that you’ve chosen all your ingredients, think about how to cook them. You can pick different cooking methods for each ingredient, or cook everything in the same pot. If you want to use multiple different techniques, make sure that you have enough pots, pans, and oven space for them all. The methods you choose will also have a big impact on how long your meal will take to cook.

One thing you might not think to consider when planning a meal is the weather. Your cooking methods can change with the seasons just as your ingredients can. In winter, hearty dishes like soups are great, and roast dinners can warm you and your house. But for hot weather consider lighter dishes that don’t need much cooking, like pasta or even salad.

 

5. Work backwards from serving time

Getting a whole meal served up on time is a difficult thing to do. Even if you think you’ve planned everything, it’s very easy for one small thing to throw you off, so don’t worry too much if it doesn’t all go according to plan.

That said, it does really help to have a plan. Make sure you know how long it takes to prepare and cook each of your elements. (If you’re trying a new technique, allow yourself plenty of time.) Think about whether you can prepare some ingredients while others are cooking, or if you need to prepare them ahead of time. Then work backwards from your serving time, to make sure everything is ready at the same time.

 

 

There is a lot to think about when planning a meal, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Not every meal you invent will be a masterpiece, and it doesn’t have to be. Any mistakes you make can become something to do better next time. And as you practice, you’ll find things you once found difficult become almost automatic.

I’d love to hear about your culinary (mis)adventures in comments 🙂

How to Cook Garlic

How to Chop a Carrot is back from unplanned hiatus with one of my favourite ingredients – garlic!

Garlic is part of the same family as onions (link), spring onions (link), and leeks (link). It’s a great way to add flavour to a dish, and can even help boost your immune system!

Fresh garlic grows in bulbs with thin, papery skin. You can peel the skin off by hand, and break the bulb into individual cloves.

Hand drawing of a bulb of garlic

The cloves themselves also have a layer of skin. To remove it, slice off the thickened, fibrous part of the clove that connected it to the rest of the bulb. You should then be able to peel off the rest of the skin by hand.

41.2 Garlic clove

Whole cloves of garlic are delicious roasted – they caramelise and go all gooey and delicious! Simply pop the peeled whole cloves in with the rest of your roast.

To cook garlic more quickly, you can slice it thinly. Place the peeled clove of garlic on the flattest side, and cut slices as thin as you can.

Hand drawing of a peeled clove of garlic with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

However, since garlic has such a strong flavour, you may prefer to crush the cloves. You can use a garlic press (simply place the peeled cloves in the press and squeeze) or a pestle and mortar.

Preparing garlic can be quite fiddly (and make your hands smell of garlic) so whilst it’s a great skill to learn, you may prefer to use a pre-prepared ingredient for everyday cooking. I happen to like powdered garlic, but you can also get garlic preserved in oil. (Because water takes up most of the volume of fresh garlic, you need less than a third the volume of powdered garlic.)

There are two important things to remember when cooking with garlic. One is that it has a very strong flavour. (I’m often unsure whether it counts as a spice or a vegetable myself.) Remember that you can always add more garlic, but you can’t add less.

The other thing to remember about garlic is that it can be very bitter if it burns. So you may want to add garlic along with other ingredients, and don’t forget to pay attention to your cooking.

 

Garlic goes with such a huge range of other ingredients that it’s well worth learning to cook with. It’s great with pasta and potatoes, all kinds of meats, and mushrooms too. It’s a great complement to many herbs, especially rosemary, and many spices (like ginger!). Why not give it a go in your next dish?

How to make Beef Casserole (with Beer and Dumplings!)

This casserole may take a while to cook, but it’s a real treat! It’s a little harder than my sausage casserole from last year (link), so you might want to check you’re familiar with the different techniques, which are all linked in the recipe below.

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • an oven-proof dish
  • a measuring jug
  • a kettle
  • an oven
  • oven gloves
  • a mixing bowl
  • a couple of spoons

and the ingredients (for four people):

  • 1lb/500g beef (something like braising steak)
  • dried sage
  • garlic powder
  • 4 medium carrots (about the length of your hand)
  • 1 big leek
  • 1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes
  • 1 parsnip
  • frozen spinach
  • 1 pint/500ml beer or beef stock
  • 4oz/100g self-raising flour (or plain flour and baking powder)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1tsp dried sage
  • 2oz/50g suet

 

Start by turning on your oven to Gas Mark 3, 160°C.

Chop your beef into cubes about 2 inches (2.5cm) on each side. If you like your meat browned, dry fry the beef with a sprinkle of dried sage & garlic.

Photograph of dark red cubes of meat, with a sprinkle of dried herbs & spices, in a casserole dish

Using clean hands and utensils, chop your carrots into chunks (link). Add your carrots and beer (or stock) to the oven-proof dish. (I love the flavour of beer in this casserole, but not quite all of the alcohol evaporates during cooking. So if for whatever reason you prefer not to use alcohol, use stock instead.)

Photograph of a casserole dish filled with chunks of carrot and meat, and beer

Put your dish into the oven. (Don’t forget the lid!) It will take about three hours to cook from this point.

While your meat and carrots are cooking, chop your leeks (link), sweet potato (link), and parsnip (link) into chunks. After an hour and a half, add them to the casserole.

40 Beef casserole (3)

While the casserole continues to cook, make your dumplings. I wrote a detailed method last week (which you can find here), but basically mix together flour, salt, dried sage, and suet, then add water to form a smooth dough that comes away from the bowl easily. Shape this dough into eight round dumplings.

Half an hour before serving, add your frozen spinach (if using) and your dumplings.

Photograph of a casserole dish filled with chunks of meat and vegetables, topped with balls of frozen spinach, and dumplings

Once the dumplings are cooked, the casserole is ready to serve!

Photograph of a brown bowl filled with beef casserole, topped with two dumplings

This beef casserole is definitely not an everyday dish, but if you’re after a warming dish on a rainy day you can’t really do much better! You can of course use potatoes instead of dumplings if you like (add them at the beginning), or any other root veg you fancy! And for a veggie version, try using red kidney beans instead of beef.

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

How to Make Dumplings

Dumplings are an old-fashioned starch that have fallen out of favour somewhat, but they’re a great alternative to potatoes in casseroles and stews. This is a slightly more advanced recipe than a lot of those here on How to Chop a Carrot, but once you’ve got the hang of them dumplings are a great addition to your repertoire!

Although I’ve given the weights in the ingredients, you don’t need any scales for this recipe! I’ll explain how to measure everything using just a couple of spoons!

You will need:

  • a mixing bowl
  • a tablespoon
  • a teaspoon

and the ingredients (for four servings):

  • 4oz/100g self-raising flour (or plain flour and baking powder)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1tsp dried herbs
  • 2oz/50g suet
  • water

Suet is a very important ingredient for dumplings. Suet is basically small lumps of hard fat, coated in flour. So, if you don’t have any, you can make a suet substitute by grating a hard, white fat (like lard) into flour. Make sure that the fat is well chilled before and after grating – it needs to melt as the dumplings cook, not before.

To make your dumplings, start by measuring your flour. Heap as much flour as you can on a tablespoon. This is approximately one ounce (oz) of flour, and you need four of these. If you’re using baking powder, add a heaped teaspoon to the flour.

Photograph of a heaped tablespoon of flour, and a heaped teaspoon of baking powder

Next, add your seasonings to your flour. A quarter teaspoon of salt, and a generous sprinkling of herbs. Stir the dry ingredients together, making sure there are no lumps.

Photograph of a mixing bowl filled with flour, with small amounts of dried herbs visible

Now measure your suet. A rounded tablespoon (where the mound above the spoon is roughly the same as the bowl underneath) is roughly an ounce of suet. Add two to your flour mix.

Photograph of a rounded tablespoon of suet

Gently stir your suet into the flour. Don’t stir too hard or fast, or you’ll squish the suet.

Photograph of a mixing bowl full of dry ingredients

Now we’re going to add the water. To get the right consistency, I recommend mixing with your hands. The exact amount of water you need can vary depending on a lot of different factors, so it’s best to add it a little at a time. You want just enough water to make your ingredients stick together. In fact, when you get it right, the dough should form a neat ball, leaving your mixing bowl and hands pretty clean. If your dough is too crumbly, it needs more water; and if it’s too sticky it needs more flour.

Photograph of a round, pale ball of dough in a mixing bowl

To shape the dumplings, start by cutting your dough into eight pieces. (I find the easiest way to do this is by halving three times.) As quickly and gently as you can, roll each one into a ball, and flatten it slightly. Unless your dumplings are going in the oven straight away, pop them in the fridge to chill.

Photograph of eight round dumplings on an aluminium tray

Dumplings are steamed, so to cook your dumplings gently float them on top of your casserole or stew. They take about half an hour to cook at Gas Mark 3 or 4 (150-180°C). To make sure they rise properly, don’t open the oven door or take the lid off your stew for 20 minutes after you’ve put them in. After this, you can take the lid off to brown the tops of the dumplings.

Photograph of eight pale, round dumplings floating on a red casserole

When dumplings cook, they should roughly double in size. And once they’re cooked, they will sound hollow if you tap them gently.

Photograph of eight larger, golden, round dumplings floating on a red casserole

Dumplings are wonderfully warming on chilly days!

Photograph of a brown bowl filled with beef casserole and dumplings

The trick to fluffy dumplings is to make them as quickly as you can, and give them time to chill before they go in the oven. (It also helps if your hands are cold!) And to make them perfectly match every casserole you make, simply change which herb you use. Some of my favourites are sage dumplings for beef casserole, and parsley dumplings for chicken.

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

How to make Leek & Potato Soup

A lot of you really liked my Vegetable Soup post from last month (link), so I thought you might like another soup recipe. Leek & potato is a classic, and deliciously warm and filling on a cold day!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • a large saucepan
  • a measuring jug
  • a kettle

and the ingredients (for four servings):

  • A little oil
  • one large leek
  • herbs and spices
  • four medium potatoes (about the size of your fist)
  • 2 pints/1 litre stock (link) or 2 stock cubes

 

Start by placing your saucepan on a gentle heat. Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), and chop your leek. (For soup that cooks quickly slice your leek, but for slow-cooking chunks are quicker. You can find both techniques in last week’s post here.)

Add your leek to the pan, along with any dried herbs or spices you want to use. A little garlic helps to bring out the flavour of the leek, and both thyme and rosemary go great with potatoes.

Photograph of a saucepan containing sliced leeks & dried herbs

Gently fry your leeks until they’re soft and slightly see-through. Then add your stock.

Photograph of a saucepan containing sliced leeks in stock

Chop your potatoes into chunks (you can find my chopping tutorial here) and add them to the soup. If you don’t have a food processor, you might find it worth your time to peel your potatoes, but if you’re going to blend your soup at the end it makes little difference.

Photograph of a saucepan containing sliced leek and chunks of potato in stock

Put on the lid and bring your pan to a gentle bubble. Boil your soup for 20-30 minutes. I like this soup best when the potatoes are soft enough to blend into the sauce. If you don’t have a blender, you’ll need to boil the soup until the potatoes are really soft. In fact, using leftover potatoes is a great way to do this.

Don’t forget to taste your soup before serving – I find that potatoes like quite a lot of salt, though this will of course depend how much salt is in your stock.

Photograph of a white bowl filled with green soup, topped with grated cheese and thyme
A sprinkle of grated cheese and fresh thyme makes a simple bowl of soup look fancy!

You can of course add other ingredients to leek & potato soup. Green vegetables like spinach or celery are great because they complement the earthy taste of the potatoes and the green of the leeks. Root vegetables like celeriac, parsnip, or beetroot would be great winter additions too!

If you make leek & potato soup with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

How to Chop a Leek

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

Like onions, leeks are a type of allium. In fact, they taste rather like a soft, mild, onion. And they look like a giant, tough, spring onion! So if you’re already familiar with chopping spring onions (tutorial here), chopping leeks is quite easy.

Now it’s a step I’ve been known to skip with a lot of veggies, but it is important to wash your leeks. The reason is that the structure of leeks is exceptionally good at trapping small amounts of dirt. Because of this, you may find it easier to rinse leeks after chopping them.

Hand drawing of a green and white leek

To start chopping your leek, first remove about 1cm off the root end. Also remove the dried out ends of the leaves, and any dried out whole leaves. (Some people recommend removing all the dark green parts – while these are slightly tougher they soften when cooked, especially when slow-cooked.)

Hand drawing of a green and white leek with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

For slow-cooking, I recommend chunks of leek. Starting from the green end of the leek, simply cut off chunks about 2cm (a little under an inch) long. These chunks are perfect for roasts and casseroles, and they take about an hour to cook at Gas Mark 4 (180°, or 160° fan).

Hand drawing of a trimmed green and white leek with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

For faster cooking, slice your leek instead. Just like with chunks of leek, start from the green end of the leek. (This helps the leek stay together while you cut.) For most uses, I recommend slices about ½ cm thick, which you can pan-fry in 10-15 minutes. Thinner slices will cook faster.

Hand drawing of a trimmed green and white leek with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

When cooked, leeks become soft and translucent, just like onions do.

Leeks are great for giving a milder, sweeter, onion-y taste to dishes. They’re especially good with potatoes – why not try frying some sliced leeks in butter, and mixing them in with mashed potatoes? They’re also great in casseroles!

How to Make Gravy

As the weather cools, I’ve started thinking about more autumnal dishes like casseroles, soups, and pot roasts. And what goes better with a roast than a steaming boat of gravy?

Just like stock, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (link), gravy is easy to make from a powder. But, just like stock, it’s surprisingly easy to make your own too!

Like stock, gravy is essentially flavourful water. However, gravy tends to be thicker and richer than stock.

To thicken your gravy, you can use flour – either wheat flour (in a roux), or cornflour. I wrote about both these techniques in my post on How to Make a White Sauce (link), but for convenience I’ve copied it below.

The classic technique to thicken gravy 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 chopped onions, rather than directly into the pan. After a few minutes of frying, you can add some stock. 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. 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!

To make your gravy rich and flavourful, start with some stock. This can be from a stock cube, or just the water you used to boil the vegetables. In fact, using ingredients like vegetable water is a great way to make sure your gravy really suits the meal you’re serving. You can also add any meat juices that are released during cooking, or even leftover oil from roasting vegetables!

Of course, you can also use herbs and spices to add flavour to a gravy. Rosemary, sage, parsley, and thyme are great classics to start with, but you could also try making a mint gravy to go with lamb, or basil for a slight Mediterranean twist.

You can even use other sauces in your gravy – if you’re serving turkey why not melt a little cranberry jelly into the gravy? Or you could add a spoon of honey and a dash of mustard to go with pork or chicken.

Gravy is a great part of a meal to experiment with, especially since it’s often made using ingredients that might otherwise simply be thrown away. Why not give it a go next time you make a roast?