Pondering the new Delia Smith, plus acceptable cooking shortcuts

While I was mostly lounging around for the past week, I did get to catch up on a lot of TV. One of the shows I've cleared from my DVR is the new one from Delia Smith on BBC Two.

Delia Smith is a giant in the world of cooking in the U.K. Unlike the younger set of TV/Cookbook chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, she hasn't translated well over the pond, but I think it's safe to say that she's the most influential cooking instructor in Britain, at least since Fanny Cradock. Many legions of fans have relied on her cookery (as they say there) books to learn how to cook real food properly.

To put her in perspective, she's been known to cause sellouts of products she's used on her cookery programmes at the supermarkets. She had more reach, relatively speaking, than Julia Child did in the U.S.

So when she came out of retirement or something (at least she hadn't done any cooking shows or published any books for some years) and published a book called Delia's How To Cheat At Cooking, accompanied by the ubiquitous television series on BBC Two, outrage broke out around the land. Just look at some of the blog reactions (the comments to the Guardian Word Of Mouth blog are pretty typical). I don't own the book, nor do I plan to buy it, so I can only judge from the BBC series. In a nutshell, she's cooking things that are rather similar to what Sandra Lee does for the Food Network in the U.S. - combining fresh ingredients with lots of storebought, prepackaged foods with abandon. (And yes, you can read lots of vitriol against Sandra Lee too out on the interweb.)

I think that there's so much angst and outrage and disgust because up until this latest effort, as far as I know Delia Smith was all about cooking real food. I only own one of her books, Summer Collection, which I can highly recommend - and in there she sticks to real, fresh ingredients. I gather that that is the case for the rest of her prolific output, until now. (Edit, added a bit later: as a friend of mine pointed out, to put it into perspective for Americans, it's as if Julia Child had suddenly started making Pommes Dauphinois with Stouffer's Scalloped Potatoes, or macaroni and cheese with Cheese Whiz. A lot of people who learned cooking with Delia Smith's older books and TV series seem to feel rather betrayed.)

Now, any practically minded home cook uses shortcuts of all kinds. I do, and I'm sure you do too. But it's a matter of to which products you use, and how you use them. There's a line to be drawn somewhere. The position of the line differs from person to person, and exactly how much you actually cook.

For example, I do cook a lot (well that's a surprise), so my line is quite different from, say my friend M. who has a spotless kitchen and barely bothers. His freezer is stocked with frozen dinners, and he buys prewashed bagged salad, and he relies a lot on the deli counter for quick-to-eat food. When he cooks pasta, he uses a jar of sauce. For him, spending more than 15 minutes in the kitchen is pretty unusual.

Which is what puzzles me about the new Delia. She's using processed food like meat sauce or 'tinned mince' in a can, frozen potato cakes, and frozen rösti (hash browns to Americans). Being that rösti is a Swiss dish, there's a steady demand for it around here, so I tried the frozen kind. Once. Since then we've decided we'd rather make it from scratch or just serve something else. In my teens I was rather addicted to Tater Tots, but I think I've outgrown that phase...

But back to Delia. What is really odd is that she takes these processed ingredients and then combines them in a rather time consuming way. The frozen rösti, for instance, was used in a potato and cheese bread.She used frozen mashed potato to top off a fish pie. She also used them with chopped leeks in a soup. (Cleaning leeks is one of the rather more bothersome tasks in the kitchen.) Now, my non-cooking friend who doesn't spend more than 15 minutes in the kitchen is not going to be fiddling around with making bread with frozen potatoes. (He's not going to be watching a cooking show on TV for that matter, either.) And I tend to think that the modern dedicated home cook who bothers to make any kind of bread at home is going to want the ingredients to be as good as possible.

So, watching the first two episodes of the series (the third one airs tonight) I was amused but rather puzzled. I think she's gotten it all wrong. Totally wrong. Who did she envision as the target audience for this?

While Delia was ostensibly waiting for that potato-cheese bread to bake, she was shown going through her old cookbook collection. She curled her lip while stating her dislike for 'poncey' food, and pulled out a quote from a deceased Food Legend of the past, Elizabeth David ("theatre on a plate") to back up her statement. Well sure, a lot of restaurant food is theatre on a plate, and it can be poncey (which means fussy, stuck-up, etc.) But so what? It's restaurant food, and part of the reason why we go to expensive restaurants is to eat food that we wouldn't dream of making for ourselves at home. High end restaurant food has always been a bit poncey.

Of course, she did not mention the fact that there are several other TV and cookbook cooks out there doing unfussy and often quick-to-make food to educate the masses. There's Jamie Oliver, and Nigella Lawson (though I wasn't too fond of her Nigella Express show, she did take the sort of shortcuts that I find acceptable, like assembling a salad out of bought olives and cheese and so on.) There are others like Anjum Anand, whose Indian Food Made Easy book and TV series I loved. (American TV producers looking for the next glamorous TV cooking star should really look her up, if they haven't already.) These are shows aimed at home cook, unlike say The Great British Menu which is a cooking show about restaurant chefs, and they generally do a good job. In other words, there really was no reason for the venerable Delia to fill a gap in the market, because there was no gap.

On the other hand, Sandra Lee's show in the U.S. is still going strong, despite the online howls against her. So I guess there must be an audience for this type of cooking in the U.S., and maybe in the U.K. as well. The How To Cheat book is either no. 1 or no. 2 on the Amazon.co.uk bestseller list, depending on when you look. Ironically the no. 2 (or no. 1) book is Jamie Oliver's Jamie At Home. If you count the fact that he's growing his own veg (well, with the help of a gardener), it's not fast food, but the actual cooking is usually quite fast, easy and unfussy. If someday my non-cooking friend M. were to start showing any interest in the subject, guess which one I'd recommend.

Shortcuts - where do you draw the line?

The How To Cheat show did get me thinking about where I choose to use shortcuts, and what I refuse to use. I am talking about everyday shortcuts, not the occasional times when we all get too busy or something with other matters and rely on takeouts (takeaways) or frozen dinners.

For me, these things are ok:

  • Prewashed bags of greens, even though I know they are more expensive
  • Prewashed bags of sprouts and so on
  • Using things like olives and cheeses and bread for a quick dinner
  • Frozen vegetables - especially green peas and edamame
  • Some canned veg - tomatoes and corn are what I use the most
  • Canned fish (tuna mainly, mackerel, salmon)
  • Premade spaghetti sauce sometimes (tomato, pesto etc) - some of them are really good
  • Canned beans

These things, on the other hand, are not ok:

  • Frozen or vacuum packed rösti!
  • Frozen chicken nuggets (I used to love these...but no more)
  • Most frozen fried foods
  • Dessicated potato flakes for making mashed potatoes, unless it's for a potato bread
  • Pre-marinated chicken and meat (they always sell this in the summer around here. Mainly I hate the way the marinade tastes like plastic.)
  • Weird plastic cheese spreads that someone has a tendency to buy when it's on sale (grr)

What are your acceptable shortcuts and the ones you draw the line at?

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