Fuss-free dinners

Home cooking is all about doing the best with what you've got.

May I make just one more point in defence of Delia Smith, who has been accused of attempting to undermine the nation's culinary standards? I maintain that, whatever the qualities of some of the ingredients she promotes in How to Cheat at Cooking (Ebury Press), the philosophy behind her book is sympathetic. It is that home cooking, for most people, is an entirely different task from what Jamie Oliver and Masterchef contestants, let alone Heston Blumenthal, do. The task is, even for the committed and enthusiastic cook, to prepare the best meal that time, ingredients and equipment allow.

The home cook's approach sometimes produces food that one would eat in preference to fussier concoctions. Sometimes the good enough seems unimprovable. It seemed so to me the other day, when I surprised myself by cooking the best chips I'd eaten in a long time, without a proper chip pan and thermometer, and without following the most up-to-date advice on the subject.

Some years ago, experts announced that you could not hope to get decent chips simply by throwing potatoes into hot fat. As Harold McGee explains in the indispensable McGee on Food and Cooking (Hodder & Stoughton), a single immersion gives a thin, flimsy crust that soon turns soggy. Chips need double-cooking. An initial go in relatively cool oil - between 120°C and 163°C, McGee says - softens the interiors, and helps to form more sturdy crusts. You remove the chips, turn up the heat until the oil reaches 175-190°C, and resubmerge them until brown.

Then, characteristically, McGee's disciple Heston Blumenthal introduced a further refinement. Blumenthal's chips are triple-cooked. After you have cut them, you put them under running water for ten minutes, to remove some of the surface starch. Then you simmer them in water, very gently, until soft, place them on a tray, and hold them in the fridge - or, preferably, in something called a vacuum dessicator chamber. Then you follow the two stages of frying, as outlined above.

I couldn't be bothered with that; nor could I be bothered with frying the chips in stages, or in batches. I had six medium-sized King Edwards, which I cut and put into a bowl of water. Meanwhile, I heated - not too fiercely - a litre of sunflower oil in a pan with a four-litre capacity. After about ten minutes, I dropped in a small cube of bread; it sizzled gently, so I drained the potatoes, patted them with paper towels, and dropped them into the oil to cook for about 15 minutes. There was a risk that this quantity of potatoes, piled together, would not brown; nevertheless, I turned up the heat and hoped for the best. Within a quarter of an hour, I had superb chips. Between Delia Smith's frozen potato wedges and Heston Blumenthal's hi-tech versions, they were a happy compromise.

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 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?