Cook This: Three recipes from The Secret of Cooking, including a pillowy, soft-centred omelette

Make Bee Wilson’s hazelnut waffles, soft-centred lemon omelette and adaptable âsh

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Our cookbook of the week is The Secret of Cooking: Recipes for an Easier Life in the Kitchen by the Bee Wilson.

Jump to the recipes: Anne’s hazelnut waffles, soft-centred lemon omelette and adaptable âsh.

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Bee Wilson made me reconsider my box grater. I was almost ready to get rid of it after scraping my knuckles more times than I could count and feeling annoyance wash over me every time I saw it in the sink. I had nearly convinced myself that I didn’t need it — that my Microplane grater did the job. Then, I read The Secret of Cooking, Wilson’s eighth book and first cookbook, and saw my box grater — and so much more — in a new light.

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Wilson’s essay, “In praise of the box grater (or using what you have),” convinced me not only to keep but to embrace the kitchen workhorse. To appreciate just how much one low-tech, stainless steel instrument can do. Grate carrots for a salad, tomatoes for a buttery sauce, cabbage for sauerkraut, a less-than-fresh loaf for breadcrumbs and even mushrooms for pasta.

The beauty of The Secret of Cooking lies in Wilson’s attention to things that often go unnoticed or unsaid. Whether prompting you to take a fresh look at a ubiquitous tool or everyday ingredient or inviting you to time cooking tasks with songs instead of a clock (“it becomes a little bit like a dance”), her advice makes moments in the kitchen more enjoyable.

Take the discard bowl, which can be as simple as a mixing bowl or, in Wilson’s case, a shallow soup bowl. Of the hundreds of books I’ve read about cooking, I can’t think of another mentioning it. Yet, as Wilson illustrates, using a discard bowl to hold your trimmings is transformative. A cluttered cutting board can feel chaotic. The discard bowl provides a sense of order — a system to separate peelings from prepped ingredients.

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“As I was writing, partly because it was in the isolation of the pandemic, I kept sometimes thinking, ‘Is this just too obvious?’ I didn’t know about the discard bowl until quite recently, hence the fact I wrote about it,” says the Cambridge, England-based food writer and co-founder of the children’s charity Taste Education.

The Secret of Cooking book cover
The Secret of Cooking is food writer Bee Wilson’s eighth book and first cookbook. Photo by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Wilson was encouraged by the fact that British writer John Lanchester, “an amazing cook” whom she quotes in the book, didn’t start using a discard bowl until he was 50. British food journalist Sheila Dillon, presenter of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, posted on X that she learned about it by reading The Secret of Cooking. “I was stunned and so encouraged because I think nothing is obvious in the kitchen until you’ve seen someone doing it or you’ve been told how to do it,” says Wilson.

The author of acclaimed books such as Consider the Fork (2012), exploring how technologies have shaped the way we cook and eat, and First Bite (2015), on how our food habits are formed, writing a cookbook had been in the back of Wilson’s mind since she was a child. She would sit at the kitchen table reading her mother’s cookbooks by authors such as Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden and Jane Grigson, and remembers taking a pen to The Penguin Cookery Book by Bee Nilson, changing the N to a W.

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Despite always being interested in food, Wilson ended up writing about it “almost accidentally” as a hobby while she was doing her PhD in history. And even then, she naturally gravitated towards topics that weren’t recipe-based.

“I loved looking at food through all these different lenses. So, in a way, I suppose the cookbook idea just sort of drifted away, but all of these years I’ve been cooking, and it’s remained an absolute — I was going to say passion, but that’s almost the wrong word. It’s just a linchpin of my life, which is kind of what this book is trying to be about. Just the way in which cooking is anchored in everything else about how you’re living.”

The concept for the book shifted somewhat after her husband left at the end of the U.K.’s first lockdown in June 2020. At home with her two youngest children and the eldest away at university, she was plunged into grief.

Cooking as a remedy took on new meaning. It brought her closer to her children, “my major focus group for the recipes.” (Wilson dedicates the book to her daughter, Tasha, and features her recipe for “never-fail” chocolate cake, “which we made many times and which was a great source of comfort.”) At a sad time in their lives, cooking and eating together was celebratory. And because Wilson was cooking so much to test the recipes, she had to eat — even when she didn’t have much of an appetite.

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“There were mornings where I had just felt so sad the night before, but I had to get up and make breakfast for my son. And just the act of making waffles, and then suddenly you’re greeted by these good scents, and you realize that you’ve actually made it yourself. So you feel a bit like a magician.”

Wilson opens the book with a quote from The Treasurie of Commodious Conceits and Hidden Secrets (1591), in which a recipe for a borage syrup promises to “comfort the heart and take away melancholy.” From late medieval times, before there were cookbooks, “Books of Secrets” swept Europe, says Wilson. They were filled with remedies for all manner of ailments, from baldness to heartbreak, alongside recipes for cakes, jams and tarts.

The kinds of remedies we’re searching for today may differ from those people sought 400 years ago, she adds. But cooking can still be a cure, affecting our mood, health and ability to connect with others — particularly in our screen-obsessed lives. “There’s almost no other human activity I can think of that has that range of potential benefits. As well as, of course, in the daily run of things, being something that can frustrate us.”

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There’s no shortage of books promising to make cooking easier and quicker. But Wilson encourages coming to the kitchen with a different mindset. To slow down and appreciate the miraculousness of something as simple as making yourself an omelette for lunch and how making a small tweak, such as adding lemon, can brighten your day and bring you a bit more pleasure. As she shows, there’s magic in cooking if you take the time to look.

“As soon as I started to think about what cooking had meant to me when I was first discovering it as a child, it was about transformation. It was about mixing potions. And I really think there is still that in the act of cracking eggs and turning them into an omelette. Or cracking those same eggs and turning the whites into some incredible snowy white meringue and the yolks into a thick, delicious hollandaise sauce. Obviously, it isn’t alchemy. It’s just simple physics and chemistry. But there’s something about it that’s quite extraordinary.”


Hazelnut waffles
You can make these waffles with any nut. Wilson favours roasted unsalted hazelnuts. “It has this kind of depth of nutty autumnal flavour.” Photo by Matt Russell

Serves: 4

6 tbsp (80 g) unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp (20 g) granulated sugar (use less if you like)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (80 g) whole blanched hazelnuts (preferably roasted)
3/4 cup (180 mL) whole milk (or almond or coconut milk)
1 tsp vanilla extract (sometimes I leave this out and sometimes I use
1/2 tsp almond extract instead for a marzipan taste)
3/4 cup (100 g) all-purpose flour (I’ve made these with gluten-free flour for celiac friends and it works fine)
1 tsp baking powder (make sure this is gluten-free if making for celiacs)

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Step 1

Preheat the waffle maker. Put all the ingredients except the flour and baking powder in a bowl, add a pinch of salt, and blitz with an immersion blender until the nuts are fully blended. Add the flour and baking powder and blitz again. Check for any unmixed floury patches and blitz one more time before giving the whole thing a quick stir with a spatula. Make the waffles as per the instructions for your machine. These might take 2-3 minutes in a shallow waffle maker or 3-5 minutes in a deep one. Opinion in my house differs on whether they are better crisp all the way through, which is how my son likes them, or soft in the middle (my preference). I have them for breakfast with maple syrup, frozen blackberries warmed in the microwave, and Greek yogurt or crème fraîche.


Soft-centred lemon omelette
This soft-centred lemon omelette uses a technique Bee Wilson learned from watching a Jacques Pépin video. “When you see him doing it, you’re slightly goggle-eyed at first because you think, ‘This goes against everything I’ve been taught about omelette making.’ Because he’s taking a fork, and he’s furiously whisking underneath it, and then turning it over, and yet it miraculously turns into this pillowy thing.” Photo by Matt Russell

Serves: 1

3 large eggs
Zest of 1/2 an unwaxed lemon
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp finely chopped green herbs: chives or tarragon or parsley are all good, or any combination
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Step 1

At this point, I should really stop writing and tell you to look up a video of the French chef Jacques Pépin making a classic French omelette. Watching Pépin will teach you more than my words ever could. This is a completely different style of omelette from a more standard country-style omelette.

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Step 2

Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat them very well with the lemon zest and juice and herbs and a big pinch of salt, using a fork. Before you start to cook the omelette, make sure you have a plate handy because the cooking itself will take you no more than 30-40 seconds.

Step 3

Heat a nonstick pan or a seasoned omelette pan (6-8 inches/15-20 cm) with the butter in it over medium-low heat. When the butter is foaming, pour in the eggs. Hold a fork or spatula in the centre of the wet eggs and shake the pan like crazy. Every 5 seconds, pause and use the fork or spatula to scrape the side parts of the omelette into the centre. After 30 seconds or so, while the eggs still look very moist, gently use the fork or spatula to roll the omelette from one end of the pan to the other — Pépin says it is like rolling a carpet. When you have rolled it as far as it will go, use the fork or spatula to ease the other side over to make a long oval. Transfer to a plate, as gently as you would lift a kitten from a sofa.


Adaptable âsh
“The point of it is that it’s a template recipe, which, once you’ve made it often enough, you know it by heart,” Bee Wilson says of her adaptable âsh. Photo by Matt Russell

Serves: 3-4

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced (or a leek, or a bunch of green onions)
3 1/2 oz (100 g) spinach, rinsed and shredded (or a bulb of fennel, chopped, or some kale, leaves pulled from the stalks and shredded)
3 1/2 oz (100 g) fresh green herbs such as parsley, cilantro, or dill, or a few stalks of celery with its leaves, coarsely chopped
1 medium zucchini, green or yellow, finely diced (or 2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced or 2 beets, peeled and finely diced, or a few diced potatoes or a handful of sliced runner beans or green beans)
3 cloves of garlic, grated
1/4 tsp ground turmeric (optional)
1 × 15-oz/425-g can of chickpeas (or borlotti beans or kidney beans or cannellini beans or butter beans/lima beans)
3 tbsp (40 g) moong dal (or red lentils or nothing)
2 bay leaves (known as “leaf of fragrance” in Persian, or a whole dried lime, pierced with a knife, or nothing)
3 oz (80 g) dried noodles or broken-up linguini or spaghetti (or 1 cup/160 g of coarse bulgur wheat or rice)
A squeeze of lemon or a spoonful of vinegar

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To serve:
Choose any you like of chili flakes, fresh chopped herbs, a dollop of Greek yogurt, olive oil warmed with some dried mint, pomegranate molasses, sliced onions cooked until caramel brown in hot oil in a wok

Instant pot method

Step 1

Heat the oil on sauté mode and soften all the diced vegetables, stirring often, for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, turmeric (if using), 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of water, press cancel and set it to high pressure mode for 1 minute. Fast release and add the chickpeas or beans and their water. Refill the tin twice with water and add this too, along with the bay leaves or dried lime and the pasta (or rice or bulgur). Set it to high-pressure mode for 2 minutes (or 4 minutes for rice). Ideally leave it to stand for 5-10 minutes before releasing the pressure (be careful). Give it a squeeze of lemon, thin it with water if it needs it, check for seasoning, and serve with any of the suggested accompaniments.

Stovetop method

Step 1

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven and soften all the diced vegetables, stirring often, for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, turmeric (if using), 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1 tablespoon of water and cover the pan, turning the heat down, allowing the vegetables to sweat for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas or beans and their water. Refill the tin twice with water and add this too, along with the bay leaves or dried lime and the pasta (or rice or bulgur). Cook until the pasta (or rice or bulgur) is done: 5-15 minutes depending on the shape. Give it a squeeze of lemon, check for seasoning, and serve with any of the suggested accompaniments.

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Some more variations

— Sometimes I leave the rice/pasta/bulgur out and decrease the amount of water slightly. When it is done, I take out a ladleful of soup and blitz it with an immersion blender before returning this to the pan. I recently made a glorious purple version of this with beet, chickpeas, yellow zucchini and green bell peppers with a touch of vinegar at the end.

— For a summery version, which is especially good with white beans, add 3 1/2-7 oz (100-200 g of halved cherry tomatoes at the end along with some torn basil. Leave out the turmeric and moong dal or lentils for this version for a more minestrone-like flavour and texture and eat with a splash of olive oil and lots of grated parmesan sprinkled over each bowl.

Recipes and images excerpted from The Secret of Cooking: Recipes for an Easier Life in the Kitchen. Copyright ©2023 by Bee Wilson. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Originally posted 2023-10-20 12:00:58.