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Michael Pollan: We need to 'take back control of cooking'

Michael Pollan Michael Pollan wants people to remember the joys of cooking

Food writer Michael Pollan believes many of us have lost touch with cooking and the food we eat. His advice is to take back control of the kitchen.

Processed food is driving people further away from real food and cooking, says Michael Pollan. One recent report even suggested a third of children think cheese grows on trees.

The food writer wants to reconnect us with where our food comes from, and the natural elements we use to cook - water for braising, air (baking), fire (barbecuing) and earth (fermenting), themes explored in his latest book Cooked.

He says that is not as daunting as you might think, and starts with being prepared to relax and enjoy it.

1. Feel good

Back to basics:


Michael Pollan cooks using the four elements:

Bake your own sourdough (air)

Pull some slow-cooked pork apart (fire)

Rustle up a spaghetti bolognese (water)

Ferment cabbage to make sauerkraut (earth)

"I don't think people should feel guilty about not cooking, there are good reasons not to cook.

"The thing we don't stress enough when we talk about cooking is how pleasurable it can be. Once we get over the hurdle of learning a couple of skills, it's a really interesting way to spend some time.

"I don't think we should just cook just because it's good for us, we should cook because it's rewarding, in many, many ways. And if we cook we are going to sit down and have a meal together.

"Those are some of the most precious times in life, and they are going away along with cooking. So pleasure is at the very centre of it. Pleasure in the kitchen and then pleasure at the table."

2. Don't be afraid

"Find the kind of cooking that fits in to your life. It might take some experiments and some disasters, but don't be afraid of failure.

"Failures in cooking are really not that serious, you'll get something to eat, it might not be great, but you're not going to kill anyone, it's just not going to be the end of the world.

"Maybe the problem is you don't trust yourself in the kitchen, you think you don't have the skills.

"You know we live in a culture now of celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows that look really competitive and difficult with a clock ticking down the minutes, it looks like work best left to professionals.

"Home cooking is not about hitting the mark of a great restaurant, it's just about making good simple classic dishes, you know roasting a chicken and not making some elaborate sauce."

3. Assess your time

"Something we all need to do is take an inventory of our time.

"We say we don't have time to cook, but we have time to wait on line at the chip shop, and we have time to defrost, or time to drive to the restaurant and wait for a table and the meal to be served. So is it really time?"

"Do they have just an absolutely brutal work schedule that they don't have time?, and if that's the case... there's lots of wonderful meals you can get on the table in 15-20 minutes.

4. Embrace stories

Food for thought:

Egg whites whisked

Hear more from Michael Pollan on on the craft, science and pleasures of cooking on Radio 4's Food Programme

"If you understand a little bit of the science of cooking, if you understand the tradition behind a dish, if you understand the story of an ingredient, all these things it makes it a much more interesting experience.

"I find the more people know about the provenance of ingredients the more interested they are in cooking. You gain a power by cooking that you don't have when using say, ready meals.

"The cook knows that that tilapia (a type of fish) say comes from China, and can decide 'Am I comfortable buying Chinese food given all the problems with the Chinese food economy?'"

5. Taste foods

"I think it's one of the virtues of cooking - that you shop right, and you learn about ingredients, and you taste things at every stage.

"I always try a piece of raw asparagus or carrot or whatever it is, it tells me how long I need to cook it, how tough it is, and how sweet it is.

"The cooks I know are constantly tasting things and using things to make adjustments. I think it makes you prize good produce more, you care. Half of great cooking is great farming."

6. Take a class

"If you don't know how to cook, take a class - it's really worthwhile or use YouTube videos.

"If you don't know how to chop an onion, which is such an important skill and essential to so many different cuisines, and not that complicated to learn, Jamie Oliver has a three minute video on how to chop an onion, it's brilliant.

"For some people that's a better way to learn than reading a book."

7. Watch a friend

"The odds are, even if you don't cook a lot, or don't have have a lot of confidence in cooking, you know someone who does.

"Invite yourself over. Say 'next time you are making that wonderful soup you make, can I come over and watch and help?'. People will be flattered to be asked.

"You get this sensory instruction that is so much more important than the intellectual instruction.

"If you're there, and you can touch it and taste it and smell it, you'll know for all time."

8. Make meat special

"I think we eat meat in a very thoughtless and careless way for the most part - meat has become too common and too cheap and we have lost track that it is a big deal.

Pulled pork and spicy coleslaw Pulled pork is great cooked "slow and low"

"We need to go back with our meat eating, to a point where meat was special, because for our health and the health of the environment we can't continue to keep eating meat the way we are."

"Great barbecue is very slow, at a very low temperature. The kind of barbecue I was learning you take a whole pig, but you can just take a piece of pork shoulder, salt it well, two days before.

"The result is infinitely superior meat."

9. Slow down

"We are all cooking too fast, and I know we are rushed, but amazing things happen when you slow down, amazing things happen when you give the onions 45 minutes to sweat instead of 10 minutes.

"It takes a lot of time but as a baker said to me, 'it's not your time, you can do other things while this is all unfolding, if you need to'.

"Grilling for me was taking a fillet, which is usually an expensive piece of meat, cooking it very quickly, searing it, and that was it, 20 minutes.

"I have slowed down on my grilling, I will cook very low and slow (barbecuing), and get really good results that way."

10. Try something new

"I thought it was a very daunting thing, cooking with bacteria (fermenting), these invisibles, but it's not, it's actually quite simple.

"If you slice up a cabbage as thin as you can, with a knife (or a mandolin if that's easier for you) and salt it... it will ferment.

"It's the most remarkable thing, you don't have to introduce the bacteria. They're there, on the leaves - the right bacteria are there."

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