Sticking points

Professional chefs may not admit it, but everyone has a culinary weakness

My mother was a hopeless chip fryer. An excellent though unpunctual cook, she turned out chips that were greasy on the outside and desiccated within. To a young boy, this was disappointing.

I cannot see what her problem was. I do not have a chip pan, and I do not measure the temperature of the cooking oil. I heat the oil until a small piece of bread sizzles in it, drop in the cut-up potatoes, allow them to cook gently, remove them, turn up the heat, and brown them in the hotter oil. It works even if you cannot be bothered to remove the chips between the blanching and browning stages. The only reason why I do not cook chips more often is that I do not enjoy taking the small risk of setting fire to my kitchen.

Still, most of us have bogey dishes and foodstuffs. Most domestic cooks, that is. A few professional cooks are unwilling to admit to any weaknesses, as I discovered last year when I read a book called Don't Try This At Home (published by Bloomsbury). The chefs who contributed to the volume were asked whether there were any dishes that they found hard to get right. "I don't think that exists as yet," Tom Aikens replied. Giorgio Locatelli's response was: "Nothing, really." It was easier to relate to Antonio Carluccio, who said that soufflés caused him problems, and Jamie Oliver, who confessed that he had trouble with poached eggs.

My poached eggs are acceptable, although they often have raggedy whites. I watched my brother-in-law make one recently: it was perfectly formed. Certain preparations, we learn, require particular knacks that we may not possess; it is beyond our power to conjure up the necessary alchemy. What finds me out is rice.

It works perfectly when I throw rice into a large volume of boiling water and simmer it for ten minutes. The grains are distinct and pleasingly textured. But that is not how you are supposed to do it if you want to think of yourself as a proper rice cook. You are supposed to use the "absorption method", covering the rice with water and a lid and allowing the rice to absorb the liquid while the grains steam, separating, in theory, as they do so.

Some recipes tell you to wash and soak the rice first. That is always disastrous when I try it. A cousin, whose wife was taught to cook rice by Gurkhas, suggests simmering the rice uncovered until the water is mostly absorbed, then covering the pan. A couple of correspondents on my blog, where I have confessed to my shortcomings in this area, have offered other, apparently definitive techniques. I have tried them all. The results are rarely bad; but the rice is always a little sticky and clumpy. As you would expect it to be: the grains have been sitting together, rather than careering around happily in bubbling water.

Chips, anyone?

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war