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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I think I draw the line at presalted/prefabbed meat (for some kinds of stock I might make an exeption...), pickled mushrooms and pickled bruxelles sprouts, 'mystery meat' in frozen snacks. And I do like to stay away from those packages containing all the 'right' dried ingredients for a specific dish, with directions such as 'just add one onion, one tomato and mix the powder for the sauce with olive oil'. Brrrr!!!
The above may taste alright, but it's not real, you know what I'm saying?

No, actually I don't know what you're saying. If it tastes all right, how is it not "real"?

I actually use mostly frozen vegetables except during farmer's market season partly because it is easier and I don't feel nutrient value is compromised but mostly because I find I waste so much food otherwise. I don't always have the expected time, energy, or inclination to cook those lovely fresh vegs I bought and they often end up being tossed.

I also use frozen potstickers, pre-made broth, canned beans, and bottled salad dressings even though I could (and have) make these from scratch.

Sometimes a survivalist streak surfaces and I find myself stocking up on things like freeze-dried shallots and canned milk.

Where is my line? I think it wavers depending on time of year and mood but I've noticed I don't buy some convenience foods that used to be part of my repertoire like macaroni and cheese, ramen, and I've stopped using boxed foods like cous cous and rice pilaf because it is just as easy to buy the main ingredient in bulk and add whatever spices I want.

Canned soups, lunchables, lunch-meats, American cheese, margarine, juice drinks, refrigerated "Pop'n Fresh" biscuits, and canned frosting are always across the line for me.

Frozen potatoes in a homemade bread? What was she thinking? Maybe she had some in her freezer and tried to come up with some way to use it. That's fine, we all do that but we don't televise our efforts.

I find the same thing with vegetables - I cook for just my girlfriend and myself, and we both don't eat a lot. I still buy some fresh vegetables (like red pepper/capsicum and avocado, neither of which freezes well anyway) but I also eat a lot of frozen.

And another for my list - canned, cooked beans. Although I do make (Mexi-style) black beans from scratch, mostly because in Australia a can of black beans (if you can FIND them) runs you more than $2! I just make a big batch and freeze 'em.

OK: frozen greens, even spinach (sort of), frozen pastry, hollandaise sauce

NOT: canned vegies, except tomatoes and certain brands of beans, most soup stock

REALLY NOT: instant mashed potato

Brought up in Poland, in an era when the shops didn't use to carry the dizzying variety of food product they are now, I didn't know what to do with a stock cube until I was about 15. Not because I couldn't cook or because that particular article was not on the shelves - it was just natural in my Mum's kitchen to do all these things from scratch. Which was great and I do appreciate the difference between the real thing and the shop-bought one, but...I don't cook like that anymore - I cheat at cooking. Except I never really thought of it in that way. I take shortcuts when logical and the quality of the dish wouldn't be compromised otherwise, if the ingredients in my shortcuts are good quality and if the time saving is really worth it. After all, we don't all butcher our animals, bake our bread, milk our cows etc... so the idea is hardly new.
I mean, just go back to Nigella, not only in the latest, but previous books she wrote, or any other "TV chef" for that matter, and tips on where and how to take shortcuts were there. Except these would be merely propping a sound cooking process which I'm desperatelly lacking in the Delia's new venture.
I take quite a few shortcuts in cooking myself - most of the time you will not find me making my own pastry, baking elaborate desserts, making my own pasta, rolling my own cous cous, grinding curry paste etc. I have actually done all these things and will probably repeat that, but maybe not on an everyday basis. I use tinned pulses, tinned timatoes, passata and selected tomato pastes, jarred olives etc. Frozen grean peas are a wonderful invention and I don't bat an eyelid at jarred anchovies, artichokes or mayo.
I can't really imagine modern cooking without all these, but in my eyes at least, Delia has gone a bit too far and approached the subject from an angle I don't subscribe to.

In my kitchen, I cook out of necessity and expense first, convenience second. If we shop only the perimeter of our grocery stores, then we fill our carts with the basics: fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and bakery. If we wander within, the prepackaged, processed and wholly expensive foods fall into our carts. But the interior of the store is closer to the checkouts, and therefore much easier and quicker. Sometimes, too much choice is a bad thing. I'd be a total lier if I didn't admit to purchasing prepacked foods on occasion, but I try not to make a habit of it, and meals are rounded out by fresh, healthy additions and sides.

My tolerance of prepackaged foods is stunted by Instant Rice, Microwave Egg Anything (breakfast), Fruit Juices (better to eat the whole fruit), and any canned vegetable other than tomatos (used for cooking, not in place of fresh served).

What really upsets me about the New Delia is that on the one hand, she says that organic produce and free range, ethically raised chicken is too expensive for poor people, but then she tries to push them to use overpriced, overprocessed prepared food! It doesn't make any sense. It even pains me to look at my collection of older Delia books. I am one of those who learned how to cook from her books and others so it is more than a little upsetting. I also dislike the religious programming inserted in between recipes. Save that for Songs of Praise, please!

At this point, I'm almost getting too silly in the things that cross my line. I'm still very much happy with my tinned tomatoes, but buying sandwich bread seems silly to me, since I know I can make it myself, though I still buy tortillas and baguettes (once I get a better oven, though...). I'll purchase fish in a can and some other veg, but not much any more, and I freeze most of my leftovers for bento and future "easy dinners". I am very anti-Sandra Lee, especially for her push of all things Brand Name - whomever thought it would be a grand idea to have a show all about melting Hershey chocolate and how many Nabisco cookies one can dip into said chocolate should be fired, or at least receiving one heck of a stipend from the companies. I'm not a fan of Rachael Ray, either, but at least she tends to use "real" foods (from what I've seen).

I generally agree with what you already have in your two categories, but I draw the line at frozen/canned vegetables. I just can't stand the texture of either and the sodium content of the canned ones are crazy! (Although I must admit that I do use canned hearts of palm--they don't come fresh, do they?)

I also like having a bag of frozen shrimp on hand, just to add a little variety to the my protein sources!

Other things I draw the line at: Baked good mixes, Salad dressing, Minute rice, canned/boxed broth, microwave meals (although I've been known to cheat sometimes with the last two)

Funny, I commented earlier today on Unclutterer that the recipes in my Sandra Lee slow cooker book are terrible, especially if you aren't used to the taste of processed foods (like canned cream soups). I could have eaten these things 10 years ago and thought they were okay but not anymore. I like the list you made, I use many of those things (though I haven't found a jarred spaghetti sauce that I like in the last few years). I do buy a few other frozen things as well - Trader Joe's frozen shrimp gyoza and frozen fish sticks are surprisingly good, and I keep their frozen meatballs on hand for when my picky toddler rejects the dinner I've made. Oh, and I use frozen pie dough :)

I agree with your lists for the most part. The only swap I would make is to move the spaghetti sauce to the unacceptable list because we just can't find one that we can stomach and move potato flakes to the acceptable list because my daughter prefers them. I know, I know, but every time I try to make them homemade she'll say that they aren't as good as her schools!! That kind of comment can discourage any cook!

I'd probably only be comfortable using things that it's not practical for me to make myself, like puff pastry or stock. I do use microwave meals sometimes, but I hate doing it because it doesn't taste any good to me.
Anyone who is horrified by the Delia examples above should also know that there's a recipe in her book for making chocolate cupcakes with frozen mashed potato. Like it says in the blog, what a weird way to make things easier for a reluctant cook.

I sat in a book store a few days ago and picked this up. The last book I had read was "Bad Food Britain" by Joanna Blythman. Delia's 'how to cheat' seems a perfectly judged response to the Britain Ms Blythman describes.
Anyone who goes into a London supermarket and looks at other people's trolleys will see stacks of ready meals.

I hate that Delia Smith has felt the need to publish this book/series, but I can see why she has. I don't like to think of myself as part of some kind of elite, but according to Joanna Blythman, anyone who reads and then goes on to actually cook recipes is unusual in Britain. Cook books sell by the thousands over here, but apparantly it's mostly porn, few of the recipes are ever cooked or eaten. Perhaps Delia's will.

I wouldn't have the money to buy ready meals even if I could afford them (a box of delivered oragic vegetables seems cheap in comparison). My mother gets anything with a yellow discount sticker on it, so she's foisted a few of these meals onto us. Usually they're pretty yucky.

I agree with the list, except that the few pre-made pasta sauces I do like are too expensive to be an option in the UK.

Now that we've become such ardent Okonomiyaki fans (thanks Maki!), I also bought ready mixed okonomiyaki flour for those times I can't get (or afford) nagaimo. I figured it would help the grated boiled potato version along. I guess this is a cheat - just haven't tried it yet.

i tend to make a huge pot of concentrated chicken or fish stock and then freeze it in containers to have "boullion cubes" at hand :))
in summer i take the most fragrant fresh strawberries from the market and puree it in processor with 1:1,5 sugar. Then freeze the puree in bottles.
and of course i use pre-washed greens, corn and tomato in tins!
In Russia we do not have a well-developed industry of pre-made meals yet, we do not even have canned bouillion! which is kind of nice from my point of view :)

To be honest my main interest/strength in the kitchen is baking, so I tend to get a little lost when cooking real food (you know, like something to eat for dinner instead of a cake or something) so due to my experience I am much more accepting of shortcuts to cook "real food," and less accepting of shortcuts used to cook pastries and things like that. But I guess it goes both ways since it seems to be a pretty common shortcut to use things like frozen dough for those people out there who prefer to make their own soup stock, and for me who would prefer to make my own pastry it is perfectly acceptable to use canned/boxed soup stock.

So I suppose I am probably more accepting of things like frozen foods (although I do not necessarily enjoy the way they taste, depending on what it is I might only eat it if I had to - poor student here haha) but the idea of eating grocery-store cake and Starbucks pastries makes me feel rather ill. HOWEVER, I do agree with you that a line has to be drawn somewhere, and I suppose that my personal approach would be to use as many fresh ingredients as possible and not stress over the one or two things I'm using that happen to be store bought. I think that's probably the easiest way for me to feel good about what I'm eating/serving others without driving myself crazy over it

I just do not think that Delia's new programme does anything to help people to cook. She may as well have given lessons on operating a can opener or defrosting by microwave. See my own post:


I have been living in the UK for 5 years now,
I've heard everything about Saint Delia and it really makes me sick.

I cannot believe someone so pretentious on cooking can actually get people to believe in the load of shit comes out of her mouth.

She might be able to cook, but you know what? anyone that owns a couple of cookery books can read it out on the camera with a bunch of prepared ingredients and just chuck them on the pan add walnut oil and stir.

I've trained as a professional chef for different restaurants in Mexico. I love cooking and I am passionate about it.

Basically I don't understand How can she release a new book (that she actually published first 30 years ago) with instructions of how to mix (not to cook) ingredients forming an average meal. Her ways of telling us how to cook are obsolete, way too old.

Delia, if you get to read this or your fabulous PA, please: bear in mind that we are in 2008, we might not have time to cook but we are not stupid, that after you we have had another bunch of celebrity chefs and cooks that some of them are a million times better than you, that we've moved on and have learned how to boil and egg and even make a whole ethnic feast, You are obsolete, old, not to say ugly, fat and unreliable.

I suggest stay in your country house manage your amazing football team and shut your mouth and stop writing or re-publishing books. Listen to the new generations and get that you are expired

Sounds like this is the UK version of our Rachel Ray who has the loudest mouth on the planet and has no neck. The woman is just obnoxious. Some of the stuff she prepares I would not serve to a canine. But American domestic diva wannabees swarm to her.

So back to your original survey - I will buy frozen peas, and I do on occasion like something they call Tater Tots here. Little potato things shaped like little cylinders. But the Tots are only a sometime snack. I don't buy much else frozen. I do buy tinned tomatoes, tuna, mandarin orange slices, beets, and maybe a spaghetti sauce just to have on hand.

I would not go near canned peas or green beans if you paid me handsomely. And here we have refrigerated biscuits in a tube and refrigerated cookie dough. To me the stuff is just awful. Yet fat ass Americans eat it raw out of the package, and its popularity even spawned an ice cream flavor here. Frozen bread dough is another one on the bad list. Also do not buy frozen convenience meals, concocted frozen savory snacks or pizzas. There is a thing here called Pizza Rolls that are just the worst thing ever, yet people here down them by the dozens. Franky I'd rather have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on homemade bread rather than some of the garbage found in the freezer cases here.

The thing is - while Rachael Ray has always presented 'quick cooking' types of things, Delia Smith has, or had, a stature similar to the one Julia Child had in the U.S. television market. She was respected by just about everyone, even professional restaurant chefs, for teaching people how to cook properly. So her going the 'quick and easy shortcut with ingredients like canned meat sauce and frozen yorkshire pudding' has felt like a betrayal of trust to many people. I was not a big Delia fan (though I do have one of her older cookbooks, and it's very good) but I can understand that feeling of betrayal very well.

Hmm, this got me thinking about my own "cheating" guidelines. I'm a busy, pragmatic cook, not really a food purist. Basically, if a cheat saves more time than it decreases quality, I'll happily use it. For me, roughly:

  • Bagged salad greens: expensive but amazing for throwing a salad together. I see no reason not to use these, except cost.
  • Sauces: varies. Some pasta sauces are really good, particularly if you doctor them up. For a time, I was commonly making pasta puttanesca by starting with Barilla's bottled puttanesca sauce, then adding tuna, anchovies, and lots of olives. Some of the Indian sauces out there are nice too. OTOH, I rarely use store-bought pesto (however, Buddhapesto, a local gourmet brand around here, is better than mine), and I can make a better Thai peanut sauce than the bottled ones in about 10 minutes.
  • Canned beans can be a life-saver, particularly for chickpeas, which otherwise take forever to cook. Ditto frozen edamame.
  • Pregrated Italian cheeses, OTOH...why bother? Fresh is so much better, and no big deal if you have a grater.
  • I was ecstatic when I found that my Indian grocery carried panir and I didn't have to make it from scratch!
  • I have a bonito plane, but I haven't had much luck with it or the dried bonito I've gotten, so I usually just buy hanakatsuo.
  • I wish there were a "cheat" for fresh garlic that actually tasted good and saved all that peeling, but there isn't.
  • I like some bottled salad dressings, but normally at home I make my own.
  • I don't bake much, so I'm happy to buy bread. Ditto pasta: though I have made it from scratch, it's a lot of work for not much difference.
  • I have a weakness for good bottled Japanese green tea, even though I could probably make something similar...

You get the idea; I'm by no means a purist, but I do try to skimp on time without sacrificing quality.