Easy recipes for the newbie cook, the beginner in the kitchen, the nervous novice: we all had to start somewhere, and you can start right here.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Microwave: Tool of the Devil?

A chef acquaintance once said to me “You don’t cook in a microwave, you heat things up,” summing up my feelings exactly in one pithy phrase.  I have never bought a microwave, although I’ve owned or had the use of several: one given to me, one left behind in a house by the previous tenant, one owned by a flatmate.

I have one now: it sits in its corner, glowering at me, and taking up far too much space on the worktop for the use it gets.  I would get rid of it, except for one thing: I use it to heat stuff up.

What things are they?  Well, foods that I have prepared myself in quantity, and frozen down; curries, casseroles, stocks and sauces, perhaps the odd portion of mashed potato.  Quick meals for when I’m busy, or home late, or haven’t been food shopping.  Never, ever, though, for bought-in pre-prepared meals.  And in this last lies my main objection.  It ain’t cooking.  For far too many people, cooking is something that goes “ping”.  Nope, that’s heating.

The vast majority of ready-meals are, frankly, nasty, made with cheap and low quality ingredients, and filled with additives, chemicals, and far too much salt and sugar just to make it taste of something.  Imagine lining up all those additives on a plate: would you eat them, would they seem appetising?  I doubt it.

The same is true, of course, for all kinds of processed foods, not just for ready-meals for the microwave: biscuits, cakes, jars of pasta sauces etc, etc.  But the microwave, to me, is an evil influence because it implies that there is no need to develop real cooking skills – you can feed yourself and your family in one quick step from the supermarket chill cabinet to the humming monster in the corner.

Much better, I believe, to cook in quantity (and quality) whenever you have the time and the inclination, and freeze down portions for later use, as I have suggested above: here, your food has been made with love and care, and you are being a frugal and canny cook.   In these cases, the microwave is useful, usually quicker than defrosting and re-heating in the oven or on the hob, but I could still do without one just for the few minutes it saves.

I have friends who swear that vegetables cooked in the microwave with a splash of water are perfect: crisp, tasty, and losing none of their goodness.  I remain to be convinced, as whenever I try it I find it difficult to get a consistent cooking; one end of a french bean will be overcooked and soggy, while the other remains raw.  Much better, and just as quick to steam or boil on the hob, and much more controllable.

However, to be fair, here’s a couple of jobs that I do use the microwave for.

If you’ve forgotten to take the butter out of the fridge, a few seconds’ blast makes it spreadable.  The microwave is a quick, easy and efficient way of sterilising bottles and jars for home preserves.  As well as reheating a frozen home-made meal, I do use the infernal machine to defrost things from frozen, usually meaty things such as a chop, a chicken breast or a couple of sausages, that I then go on to cook conventionally.

If I’ve got a busy bit of cooking for a meal where everything needs attention all at once at the end, I’ll cook off the vegetables to perfection earlier, “refresh” them by running under cold water to stop further cooking, then nuke ‘em at the last minute while I’m bringing everything else together.  This is how it’s done in many restaurants: the veggies cooked off earlier in quantity, refreshed, portioned, then zapped while the chef plates up your freshly cooked steak, fish or whatever.

And you can make a good white sauce in a microwave: traditionally, you’d do this on the hob, where there is always a risk of catching the bottom of the pan, however careful you are, or in a double-boiler, which takes forever.  The microwave method is easy, and works very well.  I’ll give the recipe in the next blog, along with the traditional version.

My original dislike of microwaves was on safety issues: there were dire warnings that foods continued to “cook” for some time after they were taken out of the machine.  I am yet to hear that anyone has managed to bake their stomach linings in such a fashion, and as long as we observe the minute or so “resting time”, we’re probably safe there.

I’m less sure about the leaking radiation: again, though,  I haven’t heard any real horror stories, which, after the decades that microwaves have been in use implies that there is no real problem, but I’m still uneasy.  However, I would probably be rather hypocritical to single out the microwave here, as I am a frequent and dedicated user of computer scenes (sitting much closer than I do to the “Thing that goes Ping”), mobile phones, televisions etc.

No, my true dislike of the microwave, and my question as to whether it is a tool of the Devil, is that it tricks us into not cooking.  But I wonder if we all know, perhaps subconsciously, that microwaving is not “proper” cooking and that we could do better: consider the rather contemptuous terminology we use, both at home and in professional kitchens – “Nuke it,” “Give it some Radar Love,” “Shove it in the Telly”…

Not, perhaps, an object of love to any of us.  Now, draw up a chair, and let’s all sit round the microwave while Grandpappy tells us a story…

No comments:

Post a Comment