Simmer down! Easy and fun cooking from home

Published: 21/04/2020

Now that most of us are eating at home for every meal of the day, the stress can easily show, from producing so many dishes on top of shopping, running a household and working from home as well. Even if you fancy yourself as the next MasterChef, it can still be hard to stay inspired and energised about cooking when you're doing so much of it.

So we've come up with some ideas to help reinvigorate kitchen time – and free up some brain space in to the bargain – with a bit of batch cooking, a bit of store-cupboarding, a bit of mini growing-your-own, and some much, ahem, kneaded bread making!

Batch-cooked basics
Cooking up a large batch of good tomato sauce, curry sauce or stock – which you can freeze in portions – gives you the basis of many healthy meal options that you won't have to cook from scratch every time. As well as helping you quickly create a host of dishes, having these three basics will give you the mental energy to be more inventive in what you add to them, rather than exhausted at the prospect of the empty pan. And you can do it all in the knowledge that you're keeping your sugar and additives down.

The famous tomato sauce recipe from the New York Times – – is one of the simplest and tastiest you can make. And once it’s done, there are endless possibilities.

For a chilli con (or sin) carne, all you need to do is add beans, meat/quorn/TVP, chilli, cumin, a square or two of dark chocolate and a bit more garlic. Serve with a baked potato or rice, yoghurt and optional fresh coriander. If pasta is more your thing, simply add chilli to the sauce for an arrabiata, or drop in some tuna and olives for a puttanesca. And keeping with the Italian theme, you can use the sauce on your pizza base then add your toppings of choice, or go for a delicious slow-cooked Mediterranean stew by adding chorizo slices, courgettes and potatoes, served with toasted bread (or use up your stale for croutons). You can also layer the sauce for a lasagne or aubergine bake.

If you’re craving Asian flavours, making a curry sauce will give you the foundation for a variety of exotic meals. First make a paste by mincing onion in a food processor along with fresh ginger, garlic, one tomato and your chosen curry spice (or a Masala mix) until it binds together.  Now heat up some butter, oil or ghee in a pan and drop in some mustard seeds until they pop. Add your paste along with tinned coconut milk and some water or stock then cook down to the required thickness (use a ratio of one large onion per two tin volumes of liquid, and look to reduce it all down by half in the pan). This will freeze well and can be used to make cauliflower and potato curry, chicken curry, or for your chips! Add extra chilli, fresh coriander and lime juice for a great basis for noodle dishes.

Finally, stock, which is extremely easy to make. Keep all your leftover chicken or beef bits and bones in the freezer or fridge. When you’ve gathered them all, add them to a deep saucepan of cold water along with an onion, leek, bay leaves and garlic to your taste. Simmer for at least an hour, then add salt. Reduce down to a small volume, but don’t let it boil dry and burn, e voila! Pop it in the freezer in portions and use it as the base for gravies, sauces, soups and stews, or for extra flavour when cooking vegetables.

Beyond Bolognese
There’s more to pasta than a spag bol (although you do have that delicious tomato sauce you made for that). There are many ways to serve pasta fast and fresh that deliver a comforting and delicious dish in fifteen minutes, so forget thick sauces for a moment and think of adding some fresh and cooked ingredients together.

Grate some garlic; chop some cherry tomatoes into quarters; add olive oil, chilli (to taste) and rocket or watercress; toast some nuts (pine nuts are the classic, but walnuts, almonds and pumpkins seeds – or a mix – also work well); add some bread crumbs that have been sprinkled with olive oil. Mix all that with your cooked pasta and pronto! - you have the taste of spring on a plate.

Or try frozen peas cooked for the last two minutes with the pasta. Drain and throw in some julienned spinach so it wilts, then add olive oil, chilli and garlic. Sprinkle with toasted nuts and grated parmesan or cheddar for a warm, nourishing dish.

An alternative take on that is to add green veg such as bite-sized broccoli florets, or asparagus, into a boiling pasta pan. Drain and add the olive oil, chilli garlic, toasted nuts or seeds, toasted breadcrumbs (both add texture and bite, as well as protein and fats from the nuts and seeds), then grate over the cheese.

And if all you have in is oil, garlic and chilli, you’ve still got everything to make the classic Italian comfort dish (and perhaps the ultimate fast food), pasta aglio, olio e peperoncino. Serve with a generous grating of hard cheese – parmesan, pecorino or an English relative like mature cheddar – and a big salad, and that's another meal done.

Sprouting for beginners
Now is a great time to start sprouting, which is possibly something you’ve never heard of but is rewarding and also a fun project for children.
Sprouted seeds – mostly legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans, mung beans, soya beans or lentils – have more protein than their unsprouted siblings from a jar and also have vitamins and enzymes that are super nutritious and delicious. You can eat them raw in sandwiches, salads, or just as a snack, or cook them in a stir fry to add protein and vitamins.

The websites and both give you advice on how to start, but it boils down to these rules:

Soak for between eight and twelve hours, rinse well, drain, rinse well every day and within three days they’re ready to either eat or refrigerate. Rinsing and using clean containers is important as sprouting seeds can harbour listeria, although cooking does kill any issues with bacteria and most people following sprouting hygiene rules have never had any problems.

Just as easy is growing micro herbs or seedlings on a paper kitchen towel which brings out the child in everyone. Fold the towel till it fits in a low-sided dish, dampen, then sprinkle with seeds like raddish, broccoli or cress and wait for them to grow. Spray with pure water from a mister once or twice a day – do not let them dry out – and you have more fresh vitamin C and tasty additions to salads and sandwiches.

Boredom-busting baking
Bread making isn't nearly as hard as it looks. Well, getting to Paul Hollywood handshake-level might be a challenge, but most people can produce a tasty loaf to go with soup (using your basic batch stock), or chilli (using the batched tomato sauce), or salads.

Bread is such a satisfying thing to learn to make and you’ll find a remarkable number of YouTube demonstrations on various types of kneading: just need to pick one that suits you! Kneading is stress relieving – whether for Zen meditation or thumping out your frustrations – and there’s no need to worry if you don’t like your first attempt: simply Google what the problem was and you'll find a home-baking expert with a solution. Just enjoy the process.

For a regular loaf you would use bread flour, but you can also use ordinary plain flour. For something weightier you could go for one of the ancient wheats like spelt or barley, but remember to add a little extra water as whole-wheat absorbs more than a white flour.

Even if you can't get hold of any yeast, you can still make make Irish-style soda bread which uses baking soda as the raising agent. It makes a cakey style of bread which is delicious and faster to make than yeasted loaf. Recipes usually call for buttermilk, but if you don't have any you can use yogurt mixed with water to the right consistency (somewhere between single and thinner double cream). Try the wonderful YouTube channel Bon Appetit: they have videos of everything from making bread to fermenting sauerkraut:

Cooking with children
Kids love mess, which means flour is your friend. So once you’ve practiced acceptance of the ensuing chaos that will most surely come, it’s time for fun and entertainment in the kitchen.

You’ll find loads of recipes out there and a brilliant place to start is the BBC’s website:

As some ideas to get you started, try making:

  • burgers with minced beef, onion, flour and egg (you can also make vegan version replacing the meat and egg with black beans and rice);
  • pizza dough (flour, yeast, salt oil) so everyone in your household can make their own personal pizza to suit their own personal taste buds;
  • or of course, cakes and cookies (ultimately butter, eggs and flour then whatever you fancy) for naughty but nice treats.

Now don’t tell us that doesn’t sound like a load of manageable, tasty and healthy fun!