Time to cook up a recovery in our culinary skill set
There are plenty of great courses out there in specialist schools or your local restaurant, says Lucinda O'Sullivan
For the past 15 years our TV screens have been awash with cookery programmes from the sublime to the ridiculous. We have had the Two Fat Ladies doling out colonial- style 'receipts' with Jennifer dipping her grotesquely painted fingernail in the bowl, more in the fashion of Sixties cook Monica Sheridan than sultry hotpot Nigella Lawson.
We've had Ainsley camping it up with Percy Pepper and Suzy Salt; we've seen Darina Allen's school-marm tweaking her specs to instruct us with devastating efficiency.
Jamie Oliver went from cheeky chappy to fatherhood in front of our eyes while Masterchef progressed from good amateur cooking (in the Lloyd Grossman era) to virtual professionals. Delia Smith turned to God and football before her comeback to foodie TV, while Keith Floyd packed his pots and pans for the heavenly kitchen, as did The River Cafe's Rosie Gray.
So, where does all this leave us, now that we are told that "dining in is the new dining out"? No matter how many sexy chefs we've seen on TV telling us how wonderful their cooking is, and how simple their fancy books are, the fact of the matter is that the nation can't cook!
Much of the spoiled generation of the Celtic Tiger years who wanted to be like Nigella or Rachel in fact relied on fully pre-prepared oven-ready joints with trimmings, convenience food, and cocktails.
It's one thing throwing a lump of meat or a few prawns on a sizzling grill pan and serving them with a commercial hot chilli sauce, but ask them to bone out a leg of lamb, clean out a chicken, or prepare a simple Bechamel sauce and they would die of pure fright.
It seems such a pity that domestic science classes, which imbued the basics of cooking into teenagers at school in earlier years, were not compulsory all the way through. I still have my basic school cookery book All in the Cooking, which has become an object of desire these days. Look out for it in secondhand bookshops and online.
This is definitely the era of the cookery class. New cookery schools have been opening up, and restaurants are not missing out on the chance to supplement their takings with classes on quiet nights. Some schools cover the basics of cooking over an extended period, while more are offering just short bursts to cover entertaining, including a variety of ethnic cuisines, but it is important to get the very basic grounding first of all -- then the world is your oyster.
I took myself off with a friend recently to Monty's of Rathgar, where Lina Gautam was hosting a masterclass on Nepalese cooking in the restaurant she and her husband Shiva run.
Nepal is a landlocked strip of country bordered by India, Tibet and China -- consequently its food is influenced by all of these countries. Lina, who was born and raised in Kathmandu, started by showing us photos of the food markets there and gave us a little taste of what life was like.
"Many people in Nepal say they are vegetarian basically because meat is so expensive, and such a treat, that they don't want to admit that they can't afford it," she said.
If you like Indian food, you will love it, but there are differences in spicing and cooking. Lina and Shiva say Nepalese food is lighter because it doesn't use cream (though they do use a lot of oil). Lina gave us a good rundown of their spices, which they grind daily, and how to make their plain masala spice mix and their garam masala mix.
A waiter poured us all a nice glass of wine as Lina then demonstrated how to cook three dishes, the first being Nepali noodles. It was a great dish because it had so many vegetables and health-giving spices. It was not only tasty, but could only do you good.
Another good point about Nepalese cooking is that nothing is too precise -- if you don't have something, just use the vegetables you have. Aromas of ginger, lovage seeds, turmeric, chillies and mustard wafted as we all got more matey with our fellow students thanks to the wine.
Lina then moved on to cook a classic Nepalese ledo bedo chicken curry, pointing out that one of the most important things with chicken curry is to brown it well in mustard or vegetable oil, which stops the chicken going soft and soggy.
We had a second glass of wine as we tasted that, and soon enough were best pals with our neighbours. Next was Lina's allo dum -- spicy potatoes. We all thought that was it when it came to tasting them, but we were in for a three-course dinner with wine.
At €55 for the class, dinner and wine, it was cracking value. Check with Shiva and Lina as to their other classes both in Monty's of Rathgar and in Temple Bar.
At Donnybrook Fair in Dublin, a full schedule of interesting hands-on and demo classes is available from €35, including Food From Spain, One-Pot Meals and Hands-on Sushi.
They also run a week- long transition year cookery course at €250 for five mornings, plus a four-week adult hands-on cookery course over four evenings for €270. The school has visiting celebrity chefs, including Rachel Allen and Ross Lewis of Chapter One. www.donnybrookfair.ie
THE Italian School of Cooking -- part of the Flavour of Italy Group, which used to be in Rathgar, Dublin, and also has Pinocchio Italian restaurant in Ranelagh -- is now in new state-of-the-art premises in City Link Business Park on the old Naas Road.
It has day classes on Saturdays, running fortnighty up to Christmas, and covering everything from home-made pizza and focaccia, through to a classic Italian Christmas dinner. The school organise special classes and culinary team-building and team-challenging activities for corporate groups.
Kevin Dundon's Dunbrody House Cookery School in Co Wexford has an intensive autumn programme of one- and two-day non-residential courses at €165 and €315 respectively, covering everything you could want from Thai cuisine to quick suppers.
Price includes light lunch. More details available online. www.dunbrodyhouse.com
Lynda Booth's Dublin Cookery School in Blackrock, Co Dublin, has a wide range of courses and hosts guest chefs such as Atul Kochar and Sunil Ghai. The courses range from €70, including Man in the Kitchen, Cupcake Night and Canapes & Tapas.
On September 18 the school will have guest chef Matthew Albert of Nahm, the only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in the UK. Another interesting masterclass involves Gerard Coleman of L'Artisan du Chocolate on November 6.
The Cook's Academy in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, offers everything from one-day courses to one-month certificates with a variety of enticing titles such as Discover Morocco, Perfect Pastries and Desserts, and Fast One-Pot Cookery.
Prices start at €50 for demonstrations and €70 for a hands-on experience. A particularly good option is theFriday Night Supper Club at €70, where you can eat the food you have cooked and have a few glasses of wine after your culinary efforts.
In Co Kildare, the new Village at Lyons Cookery School with Clodagh McKenna has courses on Kids' Lunch Box, Soups and Breads, Italian Family Table, Easy Family Suppers, 10 Ways to Roast a Chicken and even a Supper Club With Love From Paris. Prices start at €70.
Cuffesgrange, Co Kilkenny, boasts Ryeland House Cookery School where Anne Neary has morning and evening classes from €70 per session including an Absolute Beginners Class for students, Autumnal Lunches and Suppers and Fabulous Fish.
Down in Killarney, chef Mark Doe's Just Cooking courses include a six-week basic cookery course, one session per week, at €200 which will show you the basics of cooking, baking, knife handling, tricks of the trade and how to produce delicious meals without fuss.
many colleges around the country also offer courses which are very reasonably priced. For example, Newpark Night School in Blackrock runs courses in Basic Cookery, Asian and Indian Cookery, as well as Gourmet Evening at Home from €135.