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Shortcuts: How to be a gourmet cook

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(CNN) -- Turn your back on the world of ready-meals with their Orwellian copywriting, plastic trays and preservatives, and get back into kitchen.

Master the basics: There's more to being impressive in the kitchen than owning an array of shiny kitchen gadgets that chop, slice, blend, wash-up and remind you when it's your mother's birthday. You need to go back to basics. Get some proper knives - they will make preparing food much easier and cut down the time it takes to chop and dice, which while it can be quite meditative, will just be time-consuming when you've got plenty of other things to get on with. Standing over a chopping board hacking away at a pepper with a blunt blade is only going to add to your frustrations and potentially subtract from your digits. Your store cupboard should stock a few essentials. At the very least: salt, black pepper, olive oil, sunflower oil, flour, sugar, stock cubes, soy sauce and herbs including bay leaves, thyme and rosemary. And maybe a fire-blanket, just in case.

Doing it by the book: While some top chefs will profess that cooking is in their blood, you don't need sauce béarnaise running through your veins to cut it in the kitchen. Michelin-stared chef Heston Blumenthal taught himself cookery by following recipes from French cookbooks. A good idea to start with is to get one book that covers the basics, rather buying tomes of the latest creations by chefs that appear on afternoon TV. The Silver Spoon is the bible of Italian cookery, covering all the variations of the country's regional cuisine as well as providing an encyclopaedia for what to cook and how to make it.

Be prepared: There's nothing worse than feeling like your dealing with the gastronomic equivalent of spinning plates. Take a moment before you start to work out how long each part of your meal will take to cook and aim for them all to be ready at the same time.

There's no accounting for taste: Don't be blinded by recipes. It's a good idea to follow them if you're unsure of what you're making, but if you think a bushel of scotch bonnets is too much for your chilli, rein it in. Taste your food as it is being made and be aware that flavors infuse into different foods in different ways -- there's a reason why things are marinated days before they are eaten.

Find out what's in season: It's a part of 21st-century life that we often eat food that comes from thousands of miles away. Eating locally produced food won't just cut down on the food miles on your plate and make you feel virtuous, but will probably also taste better. For example, eating apples in season from the UK will have much more flavor than those shipped in from New Zealand.

Don't think you have to be like Gordon Ramsay: Chefs are notorious cranks, with high-blood pressure and short fuses and TV chefs a peculiar sub-genre. Having passion for food is great, but you don't have to fly into a rage if the subtle flavours of your warm endive and chive salad aren't appreciated in a similar manner by your family or guests. And while cooking is a tactile process you don't have to lovingly caress fresh rhubarb or marinade meat like a wanton Nigella Lawson. Unless you want to of course, but it's unlikely any histrionics will be properly appreciated without a television audience.

Get creative: Once you've mastered a few basic recipes you can move on to more ambitions projects and start breaking the rules. For Heston Blumenthal cooking is more than just a job or pastime, it's a science. He has pioneered "molecular gastronomy" in his slightly obsessive quest for true flavors and has created some downright weird sounding dishes in the process. Snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream, anyone. You don't have to go this far , but having a similarly inquisitive mind will help develop your awareness of which foods work well together and which don't. So don't be afraid to experiment, although you might like to use yourself as a guinea pig if you want guests to come back for dinner.


A little less 80 percent proof brandy, perhaps?

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