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Three simple meals – and how to make them twice as good

There’s a tendency with cooking (and you can partly blame the dramatic mood and expectant tone of Masterchef for this trend) to feel as if you have to overly complicate the process. It seems as if, because cooking is venerated as an art by the people who claim to be the experts of it on TV, we have to throw in a dozen spices, source rare and often expensive ingredients, and cook our meals using strange and confusing methods.

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But good cuisine has always been as much about simply, lovingly cooked food. French cuisine, so often claimed to be the greatest cuisine in the world, uses few ingredients; Italian food, and often British and Indian food, are the same. The key ingredient is often that allusive thing: thought.

As long as the food is thoughtfully cooked, it can have three ingredients and taste as good (generally, better) as one with ten. So here are three classic recipes, plus a few tips on how to turn them from boring 'it’s the middle of the week what can we eat' fare, into beautiful dishes in their own right.

Spaghetti Bolognese

A staple in British houses, there are some very quick ways to change the style of Spaghetti Bolognese and give it a completely different taste.

Go for the original recipe

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Pellegrino Artusi is maybe the first person to have written down a recipe for spag bol, that stomach-expanding refuge of the student, the busy family, and the hungover. In 1891 he set out that the sauce (never mind the spaghetti) should be made from the following:

 


  • veal filet

  • pancetta

  • butter

  • onion

  • carrot


The veal and pancetta meat (minced up), along with the onion and carrot, were to be cooked in the butter, making the sauce thick, and the vegetables flavoursome with the juices of the meat.

Most people now go with minced beef, and do without the pancetta – sometimes even the carrot, a key component of Italian pasta dishes. But the smokiness of the pancetta (and it’s easy to find as well as quick to cook, and pretty cheap) plus the crunchiness of the carrots, gives spaghetti Bolognese a whole different flavour.

Use a different kind of pasta

Sure, pasta mostly looks like it would taste the same, even if it comes in interesting shapes, sizes and colours. But (even if it is, in essence, pretty similar to taste) those different shapes and sizes make for whole different textures and ways of eating a meal. Think of the difference between a messy affair like spaghetti Bolognese compared with a meal that’s based on the compact, round tubes we call penne.

So, if you’re in a fix with a spag bol but want to make it taste a little different, why not reach to the back of the cupboard, pick out a different packet, and make penne, gornito or fettuccini Bolognese?

Shepherd’s pie

Another delectable comfort food, Shepherds Pie is up there with the greatest. The beauty of it, that you can use up the leftovers of things people always have lying around – potatoes and onions, mainly, but meat too – is matched with the simplicity of its making and cooking. Just fry the meat and veg while the potatoes boil, stick the whole thing in a dish and cover it in gravy; top it off with the potato, drained and mashed, and sit back and have a drink while it gurgles wonderfully in the oven.

Properly brown the meat

But, truth be told, the whole thing can get a bit sloppy, too watery, a little too flavourless. This is always a problem when you’re cooking minced meat; if it’s in a shepherd’s pie or a Spaghetti Bolognese. The Brilliant Kenji Lopez, of Serious Eats, put it this way: “it’s impossible to properly brown a pot of ground beef…. As soon as you start cooking it, liquid starts pooling in the bottom of the pot, completely submerging the meat and leaving it to gurgle and stew in its own gray-brown juices.”

It’s that liquid that gives the meal its diluted flavour. But how to solve the problem? Lopez’s solution is this: buy meat that’s not already minced, brown it off in the pan (you’ll get hardly any liquid if it’s a joint) then, once it’s browned, chop it down to the minced size. That way, you end up with a truly flavoursome dish.

But if that seems too much, go for the quick, budget option: once the minced meat starts to release liquid, drain the pan of 90% of that juice. Voila: gorgeous, flavourful meat, and a beautiful shepherd’s pie.

Go for a Cumberland

A simple change, but a different meal: make the dish exactly as you would for shepherd’s pie, but instead of topping it with mashed potato, use breadcrumbs.

Chicken Curry

A good chicken curry can be hard to come by. That’s mostly because, while the actual cooking time is pretty quick, the food really needs time to stew, so that the flavours of the respective ingredients can mingle and mix.

This is quick and easy to do. Before you cut up the chicken breasts, score them, and put them in a bowl. Add the spices, plus the sauce, and leave overnight. The meal will improve twofold: guarantee it.