Recently, I came home to find the remnants of a hollandaise sauce smeared across the inside of a kitchen bowl. I ran my finger through what was left. It was perfect: foamy and rich with that necessary acidity. Apparently my 17-year-old son had knocked it up from watching YouTube videos. Not long before, I had introduced him to the glories of eggs benedict. (Look, he’s a restaurant critic’s child. What do you expect?) He wanted to eat one so Googled the instructions for the sauce. He had no idea that it’s tricky to get the temperature of the bain-marie right, so the eggs don’t curdle as you whisk them. He just did it. Sometimes ignorance can be a wonderful thing.
Nobody needs to know how to make the perfect hollandaise. But it got me thinking. My son is preparing for his A-levels. If all goes to plan, he’ll be off to university come the autumn. Surely good parenting, albeit of the belly-obsessed kind, demands that you send your progeny out into the world armed with some key recipes? Partly it’s about survival. You need to know how to stretch a budget. But it’s also about providing comfort, both for yourself and others.
The question is, what should those recipes be? And so I’ve started writing an ad-hoc cooking course. Scrambled eggs, we’ve already dealt with. (The trick is to turn off the flame before the finish and let the residual heat do the rest. Oh, and butter. Most things are improved with butter.) Everybody needs to know about the importance of what the Italians call a sofrito and what we’ll call onions, garlic and other vegetables chopped up and sautéed gently to become so much more than themselves. It’s the route to both knife skills and an understanding of patience. Cooking a sofrito cannot be rushed.
Teenage cooks: a minority?
That sofrito also gets you to a good tomato sauce. The ingredient fetishists will tell you it’s all about provenance. It’s not. A good tomato sauce is about time. Give even the cheapest tin of chopped tomatoes enough time – and he’ll be on the cheapest – and you will have a wonderful sauce. A sofrito is important too as a base for braises, for the interplay between meat and water. Which leads you gently to spag bol and a chilli. It may be 33 years since I went to university but things don’t change that much.
You need to know how to cook rice, how to dress a salad, and how to roast a chicken. (Quickly, at high heat.) You need to know how to make a stock from the bones and a soup from the stock, or the bottom of the veg drawer. (Note to self: pass on the old stick blender.) Most of all, you need to know both when to season and how to taste.
This is my list. It may not be yours. But it’s a start. And when he’s mastered all of that he can go back to perfecting his hollandaise. Happily, the second and third time he tried it the eggs curdled. I’ll be honest. I was relieved. After all, if he could crack that one from YouTube, what would he need me for?
Since you’re here …
… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but far fewer are paying for it. And advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.
If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure.