Delia cheats

No foraging for nettle soup here. Delia Smith has re-emerged from a self-imposed TV ‘retirement’ as the anti-Hugh.

So famous she doesn’t need a surname, Delia’s no-nonsense approach and reliable recipes gave a generation of Britons more confidence in the kitchen. When she cooks, people watch and supermarkets stock up.

Delia’s last series, ‘How to Cook’ (several years ago now), recognised the decline of cookery skills in British households and went right back to basics. She took it upon herself to re-teach us, quite literally, how to boil an egg: to show us that it is easy to make simple, wholesome meals from scratch.

Her new message is that you can make more ‘complicated’ meals by cheating. Fill frozen vol-au-vent pastry cases with jars of chicken sauce and hey presto, individual chicken pies! Well, we all use short-cuts to some extent: do you smoke your own haddock? But the chattering classes are horrified.

I can see where she’s coming from: there’s enormous public interest in food and cooking, but (she argues) people lack the time, confidence and skills to recreate the complicated dishes of their favourite TV chefs. And Delia isn’t saying that we should always cook like this – just that it is useful to have some short-cuts on occasion, which means that when you are very busy you can still have a home-cooked meal.

The puritan in me can’t help thinking that if time is really so short, why not make something deliberately simple, with fresh ingredients? It would taste at least as good, could be made just as quickly, and probably cost less. Or, when you do have time to cook, why not cook more than you need and freeze the leftovers – the home-made ready meal?

It might be unduly cynical for me to suggest that her new show is an even bigger boon for the supermarkets than usual. The ‘Delia effect’ has long been the adult equivalent of kiddie pester power – when Delia recommended a particular type of saucepan, there was a run on the shops. Frozen potato rösti is apparently in short supply all over south east England.

These latest recipes will drive customers away from low-value produce like fruit and vegetables, with their inconveniently short shelf-lives, towards more expensive ‘value-added’ products (often with much else added too) that are much more flexible to order and stock. Frozen mashed potato, tinned lamb mince, ready-made cheese sauce. But pre-boiled, pre-peeled eggs? Good grief, did Delia teach us nothing? This is the ultimate in cash-rich, time-poor cooking. I’m sure Mr J Sainsbury will be smiling.

The ingredients that you use, they matter. I tried the vol-au-vent / chicken-in-a-jar trick once, when I was a student. Never again. Disgusting. It’s a way of thinking about cooking that harks back to the 1950s, and which Elizabeth David deplored and transformed; the culture that reheated a jar of frankfurters in a tin of baked beans and called it a cassoulet. Don’t you care how it tastes? Are British palates so debased? If you can’t do it properly, do something else instead!

Food purists need not lose heart entirely. As with cooking from scratch, the success of the end result will depend in part on the quality of ingredients used. It’s true that fresh ingredients aren’t always cheap. However, I get the impression that while Delia’s recipes may be cheats, and might even be tasty, they won’t be cheap either. Convenience comes at a price.


~ by jobes on April 6, 2008.

3 Responses to “Delia cheats”

  1. I have to say I can see nothing good in the new Delia approach. Please see my own post on the same subject:

  2. Guilty as charged to the cornichons, walnuts and capers, I’m afraid, and as for the quail eggs – they’re far too good to be buried in a fish pie.

    I read an interesting test-drive of Delia’s recipes in the Guardian recently:,,2265305,00.html

    Give me slow food over ‘edible food-like substances’ any day of the week…

  3. Do people really need a cookery book to show them how to “cheat”? We’ve had tinned pie-filling for decades, also frozen pastry, soups, rotisserie chickens, bread and cake mixes and ready-cooked mussels! What about a “Don’t want to cook” book about things that can be eaten straight away – bread, cheese, pickles, salad, pate, fruit, prepared shellfish, vegetables?

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