Levels of obesity in the UK worsen, with a reported one third of three-year-olds already overweight. Undoubtedly many factors are at work, but certainly the growing reliance on convenience food plays a part.
M&S, generally well known for the quality of its ready-to-eat foods, was an early culprit. Half a century ago, my mother was serving M&S minced meat pie (about their first convenience dishes), which just needed to be heated up. But she did cook fresh vegetables as an accompaniment. I am sure that if she had a growing family today she would be feeding the members entirely on ready meals, ‘I caaaan’t cooook!’ being a daily catchphrase (she could; she was just playing the martyr).
In light of the problems, the government has recently indicated that it would like to re-introduce cookery classes (they called it ‘Domestic Science’ in my day so that we girls could be persuaded it was a cerebral subject and not just ‘how to cook for your future husband’), so that each school leaver would be able to cook at least ten dishes from scratch.
All well and good, but instead of teaching ten recipes and how to achieve them, would they not be better looking to traditional Greek cuisine? Our last-generation (pun warning!) home-cooked model relied on techniques rather than specific recipes. Village girls had no recipe books to follow, but still were capable of producing a variety of dishes according to seasonal ingredients. They did not store these innumerable dishes in memory. Instead, they learnt a limited number of cooking methods and applied them to what was on hand.
Take ‘Bourdetto’ for example. These days the name has come to denote a fish dish – at its simplest a robust fish cooked in a little water and lots of oil flavoured with hot paprika (more complicated recipes add tomato and even potato). But in old-fashioned villages ‘bourdetto’ was a method of cooking which could be applied to different ingredients. Leeks and other winter vegetables were often cooked this way, by themselves or in combination. ‘Lemonato’ is another technique, which these days usually signals the arrival of chicken cooked with potatoes, garlic and lemon juice. But the method can be applied to other meats, with to without potatoes, and with other vegetables, like leeks, chard or carrots, or all of them. ‘Lemonato’ with fish is called ‘Bianco’ but it’s essentially the same technique. ‘Kokkinisto’ is a way of cooking in tomato sauce; the protein ingredient could be octopus, squid, chicken or beef, or how about leaving them out and just using vegetables (plain potato is nice)?
I reckon by mastering only these three techniques you could make at least twenty dishes, and more if you think outside the box. Why not replace meat with chick peas, or lentil patties? It’s a great return for a little knowledge.
To see how it can work outside Greek cooking I’ll use the example of my last ‘turn’ at preparing a meal for Lunch Box, every Wednesday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Town. I’d bought two packs of boneless pork chops at Lidl when they were on offer, but I didn’t want to make my favourite porky treat, Pork Normande, where you cook the meat in cider and add apple slices towards the end, and cream to finish. Raiding the store cupboard, I found half a jar of dried mushrooms which would benefit from being eaten up. I looked on the Internet for a dish involving pork and mushrooms, but nothing hit the spot. So I fell back on the Pork Normande recipe, with different ingredients and a small tweak (you’ll have to work out quantities as I was cooking for 16):
Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Allow to soak for at least 30 minutes. Drain through a sieve lined with kitchen paper, reserving the liquid. Cut the mushrooms up if large. Set aside.
Dust the boneless pork chops in flour, shake off the excess and fry in hot oil until lightly browned. Remove to a heavy casserole. When all the pork is done, heat up the casserole and tip in some white wine. Allow it to bubble, add the dried mushrooms and their strained liquid, season (be generous with the pepper), reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes. Depending on how much wine and mushroom juice went in, you may have to add water to take the liquid just up to the level of the pork.
Remove the pork pieces and liquidise the sauce (I used a stick blender). Replace the pork. *
Cut fresh mushrooms into convenient pieces (the large round ones used for stuffing are the best as they don’t disintegrate) and fry in butter until half tender. Add to the pork and simmer until the mushrooms are fully tender, 15-30 minutes. The pork should be nice and tender too. Remove from the heat and add some fresh cream. Do not allow to boil after this addition. Swirl and gently stir until the cream is incorporated, making a rich sauce.
I served it with buttered rice and glazed carrots. It’s essentially the same technique as the Pork Normande: Fry the pork with flour; add braising liquid to cook; put in extra ingredients later; finish the sauce.
For your homework, class, create three more ways of cooking pork chops using a similar treatment but different additions.
* You could be a terrible cheat and cook the pork in a can of mushroom soup to this stage, but the finished dish won’t be as nice.

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