Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Cooking for dummies

If ever there was evidence of the need for basic skills in the kitchen, it’s the instructions on pre-packed produce from supermarkets.

Sometimes, they make the Da Vinci Code look straightforward.

A few weeks ago, when marooned at home and unable to get out to the shops in midweek, I ordered some goods online from one of the better-quality supermarkets. Now online shopping is brilliant for cat food and litter, bog roll, kitchen roll and assorted non-food items.

And even for some foodstuffs such as bottles of ordinary olive oil, wine, jars of sauerkraut, large bags of flour etc.

But for fresh food it is not the best way to shop and I do it only in the most exceptional circumstances. In this case, which was exceptional, I had ordered a pack of two pork chops. It’s not that there was any major problem with the meat – although there might have been if I’d followed the instructions on the packet, which suggested something like 16-20 minutes cooking under a grill.

They’d be cremated by that time – and given that pork is notoriously easy to overcook, rendering it dry as a bone, such a cooking time is certainly not being recommended in the interests of producing good nosh.

Perhaps it’s borne out of an increasingly litigious society – the terror of being sued by someone because they were made ill by inadequately cooked meat makes companies cover their asses by giving instructions that go about as far in the other direction as is possible.

But it isn’t just meat. Occasionally, when browsing in a supermarket, I check such instructions. It makes for informative – and horrifying reading.

Asparagus, I have noted more than once, tends to come with a suggestion to cook it for around seven minutes. Now I’m not aware of vegetables giving you salmonella if they haven’t been cooked to death, so what’s going on here? Cook asparagus for seven minutes and even the thickest stems will be rendered utterly limp and devoid of any texture!

Is that why the British have such a dreadful reputation for vegetable cookery – or is such overcooking such a ‘tradition’ that it explains why so many Brits hate their greens? Honestly, two minutes is usually quite enough for asparagus – even with pretty thick stems.

Perhaps we should follow these instructions to the letter – and then sue the supermarkets for food destroyed?

And while we're on the subject of labeling, am I alone in wondering just who the manufacturers of processed foods aim their products at, given the howlingly obvious ‘serving suggestions’ on so many packs?

‘Oh look at this lovely idea for what to do with tinned ravioli: cook the contents of the tin and then put them in a bowl and, err, serve it like that.’ What? No sprig of basil on top as a garnish? What are the other options – how else would you serve tinned ravioli?

Mind, I don't think I'd be alone in rather doubting that that product is "an authentic Italian recipe" – especially since that would imply that Italian pasta dishes probably have high levels of salt and sugar and assorted other additives.

So, are we generally so stupid that we haven’t the first clue how to cook anything and need to be handheld through every stage? Are we so litigious – or is there such a fear of litigation – that companies believe that they have to cover their asses in such a way? Are we so used to grossly overcooked food that these instructions actually reflect the culinary habits and preferences of the great British public as a whole?

I’m really not sure which of those options makes me cringe most.

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