It's best to use this quick method of cooking only for tender cuts of meat and fish, and for shellfish. The grill should be well heated before cooking begins. The heat can then be adjusted by the temperature dial or by raising or lowering the grill pan. Some meats, such as sausages and bacon, contain sufficient fat for grilling, but leaner cuts such as skinless chicken breast fillets will need a light brushing of oil or other basting liquid, or they can be marinated for 30 minutes to 1 hour first to add moisture. Use a rack in your grill pan so that fat drips down into the pan.
Grilling is also excellent for cooking vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms and peppers. Slices of eggplant and zucchini will have a great flavor if you brush them with a little oil before putting them under the grill. It's also a great way to brown the top of a dish, such as a breadcrumb 'gratin' or creamy mashed-potato topping.
Also known as char-grilling, griddling is a method of cooking in a ridged cast-iron pan on high heat, searing the food quickly on the outside. It's fast and healthy, as it uses less oil than frying, and gives attractive markings to the food.
Griddling is ideal for thin cuts of meat such as chops, steaks and poultry breast fillets as well as for seafood and thick slices of zucchinis, eggplants and other summer vegetables. You can even griddle halloumi cheese, which retains its shape and tastes excellent prepared this way.
When buying a ridged griddle, choose one with deep ridges and grooves so that the food doesn't sit in the fat or juices that drip from it while cooking. Always make sure that the pan is really hot before using, otherwise the food will stick to the surface. To test, splash a few drops of water on the heated surface – they should splutter and disappear instantly. Brush the food (not the pan) lightly with oil. If it has been marinated, drain off the excess before placing it on the griddle. Cook the food on one side, then turn it over, using tongs. Don't turn food over too soon or it will stick – as the food chars it will come away from the griddle, naturally. For crisscross lines, turn the food once by 90 degrees as it cooks. If you have time, allow meat to rest, covered on a warmed plate, for 3-5 minutes before serving; this gives the muscle fibers time to 'relax' so that the juices will be distributed evenly throughout the meat.
Lean cuts of meat and poultry are perfect for stir-frying, as are firm-textured fish and shellfish, vegetables, rice and noodles. Because cooking is so quick, the flavors, colours and nutrients are retained – and the method uses little oil, making dishes really healthy.
You need to use an oil that can withstand a high cooking temperature. A good choice is groundnut, frequently recommended for Chinese cooking, but corn, rapeseed (often sold as vegetable oil) or sunflower oils are also fine. Don't waste good-quality olive oil on stir-frying because it has a low smoke point and will burn. For the same reason, toasted sesame oil can be sprinkled over a stir-fry towards the end of cooking, but should not be used at the outset.
Have all your ingredients prepared before you start cooking. If there's time, marinate meat and poultry first for 30 minutes or so, to help to tenderise and add extra flavor. Use a wok or large, deep-based frying pan and get it very hot before adding the oil to ensure an even heat. Add about 1-2 tablespoons oil and swirl it around. When the oil is hot enough it will sizzle. It can spit, so use a long-handled spatula for stirring.
When you add the food, start with the ingredients that will take the longest to cook, such as carrots, and add the tender ones, such as bean sprouts, last. Keep the ingredients moving.
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4. En papillote
Parcels of sweet and savory foods can be wrapped in squares of foil, greaseproof paper or baking parchment, then cooked in the microwave, oven or steamer, sealing in all the flavor and nutrients. It is a good way to cook fish or lean cuts of meat that might otherwise dry out in the heat of the oven or disintegrate under the grill. Serving individual portions still wrapped in their parcels is a fun way to present the food.
Food is steamed by setting it above simmering water. The natural flavor, colour, shape and texture, as well as water-soluble vitamins and minerals, are retained in the food, making steaming a healthy way to cook.
There are several ways of steaming, but the chief points to remember are that the pan containing the water must not be allowed to boil dry and the water must not go off the boil. Roughly sliced onions, chopped vegetables such as celery or fennel, lemon slices, fresh herb sprigs or warm spices can be added to the boiling water so that their flavors waft upwards and seep into the foods as they cook.
Steaming is a moist method of cooking and is ideal for cooking delicate foods such as fish, chicken and vegetables, including new potatoes. Although food can be seasoned before steaming, never sprinkle salt over vegetables, as it will draw out the moisture and nutrients.
The microwave may be frowned upon by foodies, but every kitchen needs one. A microwave is great when you are busy, as food can be prepared in a fraction of the time it would take to cook conventionally. It's also brilliant for thawing food in minutes and reheating leftovers, as well as numerous little jobs, like softening butter, melting chocolate and heating liquids. Packs of baby leaf spinach and frozen peas can be cooked in their packs (pierce first with a sharp knife), which also saves on washing up. Cooking times vary depending on the power level and quantity of food in the oven, so it's best to follow the manufacturer's instructions. Always slightly undercook food, then stir (if appropriate) and allow to rest for a few minutes. Return to the microwave if it needs a little longer. Keep the dish covered to help the food cook more quickly and prevent it drying out or splashing the inside of the oven.