A shoogle is a unit of measure – cooking by instinct
shoogle: (v) shake, wobble, move from side to side.
One of the things that I find hardest about blogging is working out measures to put on my recipes. I rarely use scales, a spoon, a cup or a jug to check on weights and volumes, so have to be disciplined when trying to convey that which I have cooked. Baking is a different story, this doesn’t come naturally to me and I find myself measuring with the accuracy of a scientist to make sure a cake is light, bread rises and scones don’t resemble biscuits. But in this day and age of micro measuring molecular gastronomy I still prefer the shoogle as my unit of choice. A wee shoogle of cumin or smoked paprika or olive oil seems perfectly natural to me.
Are you a slave to the recipe, to the timings, the ingredients, the quantities? Is one of these ingredients being unavailable enough to make you scream and look for another recipe? ‘Sorry but they only had ground coriander not coriander seed so I can’t make you that curry’ or even ‘I know it’s raw/burnt/dry* (*delete as appropriate) but the recipe said roast for that time at that temperature’. For me cooking is a five sense experience, the sight of the produce available has flavour combinations whirring in my head. I’ll normally go to the farmers market with an idea of what I’m looking for, but then suddenly get drawn to a different ingredient and either try to incorporate it into what I was originally going to cook or change my mind completely.
Similarly if a pan sounds too hot and likely to burn then it probably is although it’s not always easy to tell over the music I’m playing or Strictly on repeat coming from the living room! Smell is very obviously one of the main senses in cooking, if it smells like it’s burning it probably is, ditch the recipe, it’s only a guide and go with what your instinct tells you. How many of us have cremated a pizza waiting for the buzzer to click to 12 minutes? Or if a fish feels slimy and unappetising then it will very possibly taste similar, if it feels dry like cardboard do you really think cooking is going to give it back any of the freshness the supermarket lights have taken away?
What I have tried to do is learn the basics from people whose books I love, like Marcella Hazan and Diana Henry. How to cook pasta perfectly, how to make a risotto creamy, how to make a simple tomato sauce. If you can make a simple tomato sauce then you are well on your way to having a base for bringing many different ingredients to life, whether that be with pecorino, guincale and olive oil as Amatricana or to make a stew with white beans, chorizo and roast peppers. Risotto is a blank canvas for flavours, trust your instinct as to what you think will go well together, whether that be inspired by autumn hedgerows with wild mushrooms, thyme and truffles or a taste of the sea from smoked fish and samphire. Get to know the butcher, fishmonger or game dealer, ask them how to cook a new cut you haven’t seen, ask them how they cook it, what they do with it or even to prepare it for you. Most people passionate about their produce will love to show it to you at its best and take the time for you to understand it.
Finally. Taste all the time, let your mouth give feedback to your instincts about the balance of flavours, be bold, throw in another shoogle of paprika, another glug of wine or an extra clove of garlic. Not everybody sees flavours shining from the shelves or has a natural instinct to try new things, which is fine, we are all different. But next time you can’t get that one ingredient, try to think what could replace it, you may even like it better, or be bold and try that new cut that looks so appetising but you’re terrified to ask about. And trust yourself in the kitchen, if it doesn’t look right it probably isn’t. While writing this I’ve managed to undercook a roast chicken and overcook creme brulee by not trusting my instincts, but I’ve also made two wonderful different stews from the same base tomato sauce. Don’t be scared to get it wrong, be excited to get it right and open up a whole new world of flavour. And next time you see a recipe with shoogle as a unit of measure trust your judgement on how big that shoogle should be, nobody knows what you like better than you.