Darina Allen's new cook book: 100 essential recipes everyone should know

Cork-based Darina Allen wrote her new book during lockdown - 100 essential recipes everyone should know. CHRIS DUNNE talks to her about the generations left without basic cooking skills and what we need to do about it
Darina Allen's new cook book: 100 essential recipes everyone should know

Darina Allen in the gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School with her 20th book How To Cook. Picture: Dan Linehan

SOME of us weren’t lucky enough to grow up with cooking always going on in the family kitchen, learning the basics of how to cook, like Darina Allen did.

“There was always cooking going on at home and all nine of us were hands on helping our mother in the kitchen,” says Darina, whose new book How To Cook - The 100 Essential Recipes Everyone Should Know is out now.

“The book was originally to be called ‘20 recipes no kid should leave school without’,” says Darina, who wrote the book during lockdown.

“But my publishers said ‘kid’ was not PC, so I changed the title.”

Some of us never learnt to cook.

“That’s true,” says Darina. 

“Several generations left school and left their houses with no cooking skills and they played into the hands of the multi-nationals.

“We’ve failed several generations of young people by not emphasising the importance of acquiring life as well as academic skills,” adds Darina.

“The strong subliminal message since the 1960s has been that practical skills are of lesser value and consequently several generations have left our homes and our schools without the basic skills to feed themselves properly.

“I would really like the government to commit to putting practical cooking skills on the national school curriculum and I’d ask every grandmother and mother to write to their TD to ask that they do this.”

 Darina Allen in the gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Picture Dan Linehan
Darina Allen in the gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Picture Dan Linehan

Cooking can be time-consuming.

“People can be convinced that cooking is drudgery; that they can’t do it,” says Darina.

“Perhaps they try out a recipe that hasn’t been tested enough and when it doesn’t turn out right they say; I can’t cook, and they just give up and so they miss out on the fun and satisfaction of being able to rustle up a meal in minutes for the family and friends from a few inexpensive ingredients.”

Lots of us are time poor.

“Yes, everyone is so crazy busy these days trying to keep all the balls in the air - studying, commuting, and home-schooling,” admits Darina.

“Day-to-day life is super hectic, feeding fussy kids, picky eaters, ravenous teenagers, dropping kids off to music lessons, play dates, matches; not to mention actual food shopping.”

How then can we get back to basic cooking?

“You’ll need to make a basic survival plan,” says Darina.

“Batch cooking is a good idea and slow cookers are a godsend. They are not expensive and with just a few minutes in the morning, a delicious meal in one pot can be ready to pop on the table when you all arrive home in the evening.”

A few basic ingredients can make a nutritious meal.

“Eggs and potatoes are both so versatile and so nutritious,” says Darina. “There are so many variations you can do with an omelette adding things like scallions, cheese and fresh herbs, mushrooms, peppers, or crispy chorizo for example.

“A simple French omelette takes 30 seconds to make, or 45 seconds if you’re adding filling. The secret is to have the pan hot enough and to use clarified butter if at all possible.”

Darina’s book is full of ideas for the busy cook and for those who missed out on basic cooking skills.

“A baked potato is so simple to make using a variety of fillings. You can make potato wedges or spicy sweet potato wedges in minutes in the oven,” says Darina.

“Make full use of shortcuts like frozen puff of shortcrust pastry.”

Darina remembers getting her own kids out to school every morning.

“I no longer have four kids to get out to school every day; I’m acutely aware of the day-to-day pressures of family life; everybody is so busy.”

But Darina says it is vital that we feed ourselves properly.

“It is the most important thing that we do,” says Darina.

“So much depends on the food we eat; our health, our energy, our vitality and our ability to concentrate. It is the ‘fuel’ we ‘put in the tank’ to keep us going.”

 Darina Allen with her 20th book How To Cook. Picture: Dan Linehan
Darina Allen with her 20th book How To Cook. Picture: Dan Linehan

The quality of our food is key to our health.

“It is crucially important to think about the quality,” says Darina. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but cheapness should not be the only criteria. My mother said put money into good food instead of into the doctor or the chemist.”

Being able to cook brings many advantages.

“Apart from being in control of your own health, it also means you can travel anywhere in the world and get a job,” says Darina.

“It’s the easiest way to win friends and influence people. You will never be short of guests if you can rustle up a meal at a moment’s notice.

“Whatever we do in life, we all need to be able to cook in order to feed ourselves properly.”

We are what we eat.

“Our food should be our medicine rather than bottles of vitamins and minerals that line the shelves in our supermarkets,” says Darina.

Is it difficult to learn how to cook?

“It’s really not difficult to learn how to cook,” says Darina.

“But many people convince themselves that it’s way beyond them. It is so worth developing a repertoire of simple, delicious recipes you can build on and have fun creating variations, not just returning to the same few dishes over and over again. If you cook, you’ll know exactly what’s in your food.”

How To Cook is a good staple to have in the kitchen. “This book is a collection of essential recipes that both beginners and experienced cooks need to know,” says Darina.

“These are recipes you’ll find yourself turning to over and over again, from traditional to more modern classics, incorporating flavours from around the world.

“Recipes that deliver on taste but also teach basic skills that are the foundation of all kinds of creations.

“Everyday staples are the recipes that will form the backbone of your cooking,” says Darina.

“From sauces and a simple green salad to baking a loaf of bread or creating your own stock.”

How To Cook is a call to arms then.

“In many ways, this book is a call to arms,” agrees Darina.

“To bump up the food we eat and feed our families right up to the top of the agenda.”

Darina is extending an invitation to all of us.

“Join me in demanding that practical cooking and growing skills be embedded in our national curriculum, from kindergarten upwards, for the future health of our nation.”

How To Cook is also a gift for life.

“This book shows how simple it is to rustle up a delicious and nutritious meal using 25 of the most staple ingredients - from eggs and potatoes to tomatoes, rice and pasta. We all know cooking from scratch is better for us. Everybody should have a copy of this book. It is a gift for life.”

Darina’s well illustrated book offers up a myriad of easy recipes with many variations and edgy foods that the most reluctant or inexperienced cook can undertake; from simple soups to basic risotto, to every day dhal to simple spaghetti and meatballs.

Darina finishes with an important message for all of us. “Get cooking and spread the joy.”

Darina’s book is published by Kyle Book, and costs €25 in all good bookshops.

A tip from ‘How to Cook’

‘Good things with scrambled eggs’.

  • Green eggs and ham - add 2-3 tablespoons of chopped chervil to the eggs and serve with two slices of ham on hot-buttered toast.
  • Thai scrambled eggs - add 1 tablespoon of sliced spring onions, (or garlic chives), 1-2 teaspoons of fish sauce and 1-2 tablespoons of light soy sauce and scramble as in the basic recipe.

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