Introduction

Introduction

By
Rosie Birkett
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742709147
Photographer
Helen Cathcart

The title of this book, which is also the name of my blog, says it all really.

It speaks of my love of a good meal – my tendency to literally fill my plate up given half a chance – but it also reveals a little about my life in general: the fact that like most young people trying to get on in today’s economic climate, I’m usually balancing a few things at once, albeit while feeding my notably round face.

For me, cooking is about more than producing fuel for your body. It’s one of life’s simplest and most essential pleasures, and one of the fundamental things that makes us human. It underpins families, communities, cultures and histories, and brings people together in a way that nothing else can.

I’ve always thought that cooking is a little bit magical. You take something as simple and prosaic as a potato and transform it into something that makes you purr with pleasure: whether it’s salted, vinegar-doused chips, golden, garlic-spiked roast spuds, or a creamy truffle-laced soup. These mouthfuls evoke emotional and sensory responses that are simultaneously universal and deeply personal. Cooking is remarkable in that sense, and it is absolutely one of the kindest, most creative things we can do for ourselves.

Aside from being relaxing and fun, cooking is also about looking after yourself and the ones you love, and being connected to the ingredients you’re putting into your body is a good way of doing that. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m as partial to a toasted cheese sandwich or decadent restaurant meal as the next person – I’m a strong believer in eating what you want and balancing, rather than eschewing food groups (unless you have to) – and counting calories rather takes the pleasure out of things – but if you cook from scratch you have more control over what you’re consuming, and can make informed decisions about how you want to nourish yourself.

Cooking can also be one of life’s greatest comforts. One of the toughest times in my life was the winter just after my father had died. I was 21, grieving and heartbroken, and still living in my student house in Leeds in the north of England. At a loss as to what I wanted to do, I was working in a miserable admin job that required me to travel to Grimsby on the coast of Lincolnshire throughout the week. This involved long, lonely waits on dark, freezing train platforms and far too much crying on public transport.

I would get in at about 8 pm, often to a deserted, dirty student kitchen. Cooking my evening meal was all I had to look forward to, and, after I’d cleared up the kitchen, I took great comfort in creating a warming, simple but satisfying meal for myself, usually while listening to music and drinking too much red wine. My repertoire then was limited, but whether it was a quick pasta dish or a fish pie, that meal reminded me of home, it reminded me of him, and it helped me get through a very difficult period in my life.

For me there is nothing on this earth I would rather do than bring together the people I love and share good food and wine with them. After all, conviviality is conducive to the best conversation and when we relax over a good meal, we free ourselves to marvel, plot and, importantly, laugh. We eat through joy and heartbreak, to celebrate and to grieve, alone and together.

We eat to live, but, when we can, there’s nothing better than living to eat.

Where it all began

If I had to describe my definitive childhood food memory, it would be the image of my mother – her ash-blonde hair clipped back, a cigarette to hand (I know, I know, but it was the 80s) and a glass of cold white wine by her side – at the kitchen counter, seasoning a joint of beef for her legendary Sunday roast; washing still-muddy vegetables from our garden, whipping cream into soft clouds for pavlova or doing any other number of delectable things.

She was, and still is, my first inspiration when it comes to home cooking. She brought us up on well-made meals cooked from scratch that were always so tasty we would clamour for seconds. Stewed lamb with sweet pickled walnuts, buttery mounds of mashed potato and sweet peas from the garden; hunks of rare roast beef that we’d dredge through rich meaty gravy and slather in creamy horseradish, or scoff cold from the fridge clasped to a golden Yorkshire pudding – this was the food of my childhood.

My parents, who met as news journalists covering the IRA’s siege of Balcombe Street in 1975, abandoned London to bring up me and my older, sister Alice, in the depths of the Kent countryside, and I wouldn’t swap the memories I have of long garden lunches, early morning mushrooming, or summer evening barbecues for anything. Our kitchen was the first room you came into when you entered the house, and it always smelled rich and homely with the fragrance of Mum’s cooking. It’s a bit of a joke in my family that when I cuddled my mother as a little girl, I’d often say to her, ‘You smell so good, just like stew.’

My father, Peter Birkett, was a Fleet Street journalist and news editor with a tremendous spirit and lust for life, and as big an appetite for food and wine as he had for a good story. As a young reporter living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he’d phone his copy through to the subs’ desks without ever needing to write it down, and his strong head for news saw him work in senior positions at national newspapers, commuting to London daily to make sure we were provided for.

At home in Kent, he was ‘foraging’ way before it was cool. I remember him getting almost hysterical about the start of Kent’s short cobnut season, when from about August to October, he’d declare war on squirrels; shooting at them out of the bedroom window with an air rifle, and obsessively raiding the cobnut trees with a plastic bag in his hand, later sitting at the kitchen table with a pair of nutcrackers and a large gin and tonic, shelling these gorgeously juicy, fresh crunchy nuts.

In those days I was more interested in cooking up inedible mud and nettle stews over a camp fire than spending time in the kitchen with my mother. But as years progressed, I became more and more interested in Mum’s cooking: observing the way she browned meat before gently nestling it into her battered Le Creuset with softened onions, and admiring the thrifty way she’d eke out dripping from a never-ending bowl she kept in the fridge, saving up left over stock or gravy, her freezer an Aladdin’s cave of well-labelled Tupperware.

My mum put particular effort into evening and weekend meals because they were the precious times that we were all together, and they were the times that I really got to know my father. And I’m so pleased I did, because I lost him very suddenly when I was 21, a week before graduating from university. I had studied English, with a view to following in his footsteps and going into journalism. He had no idea that I would go on to forge a career centered on one of his biggest passions, but when I think about my dad, it makes me very happy to know that our relationship was always so bound-up in food.

What this book is about

During my time as a food writer, I’ve had the incredible fortune to observe, interview and sample the cooking of some of the world’s best chefs: from Heston Blumenthal, René Redzepi, and April Bloomfield to Fergus Henderson and Alain Ducasse. Writing stories about food has taken me to some exotic, far-flung places and given me some delicious, and some downright bizarre, one-off experiences; from squatting on my haunches barbecuing lemongrass pork with Vietnamese women in Hanoi, to sharing a tub of buttery whelks with Pierre Koffmann and Alain Roux at a seafood café on the edge of Paris’s Rungis market. Then there was that time I ate a mealworm muffin and a cricket samosa in a Dutch university in the name of ‘research’. I’ve loved it all, and I truly believe that there’s never been a more exciting time to be interested in food.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned by getting in the way of chefs in their kitchens, is that a great dish starts with the ingredients. But I don’t just mean slabs of foie gras or fresh hauls of hand-dived scallops. I mean a bunch of peppery parsley, sprig of wild garlic or shin of beef. Most chefs I know are just as likely to get excited by humble produce – the first sweet green pea or the under-used cut of meat – as they are luxury ingredients. And while they’re a varied, charmingly obsessive and unique bunch, if there’s one thing they all agree on, it’s finding the best-quality produce you can, from the best possible source.

The recipes in this book will help you to think a little bit more like a chef about the ingredients you’re cooking with. They will, I hope, encourage you to explore your local markets and shops, butchers, delis and fishmongers, and investigate producer-direct box schemes for fresh well-sourced produce, and transform it into exciting, flavoursome, globally-influenced dishes for yourself and your loved ones. The book also offers ideas for making tasty, beautiful food on a tighter budget, using fridge, freezer and store-cupboard staples, and left overs perked up with a couple of key fresh ingredients, so that you can cook wow-factor food, without breaking the bank.

I hope it will nudge you to try out some new ingredients, too – that cut of meat you weren’t sure how to cook, or that piece of seafood you thought looked a bit daunting to prepare – and open up your repertoire to include recipes that you wouldn’t have cooked before. I want to inspire you to get creative, be a bit more daring and leave yourself open to finding new ingredients, or use well-known ingredients in a new way.

How to shop

This book is not about supermarket bashing. I know that many people, myself included, are short of time and money, and sometimes depend on the convenience and value provided by the supermarkets. But, taken as a single source for food shopping, I don’t think they do much for our culinary imaginations, or for the food culture of our local areas.

When we only shop at the supermarket we are swamped by choice, and led by buy-one-get-one-free promotions and discount offers, rather than by the seasons. We are offered meat and fish pre-cut and packed in plastic, rather than being given information on which bits to cook and which to discard. We are isolated as we shop, rushing past each other with trolleys, talking into mobile phones as the self-checkout tells us to ‘place the item in the bagging area’. Not exactly inspiring.

This way of shopping can make us complacent about the way we consume, sugar-coating us in a comfort zone where we buy cheaper, lower-quality ingredients in greater volumes than we need, cook repetitively and end up throwing much of our food away. Food waste is one of the biggest scandals of the modern age, and I think much of our throwaway attitude to ingredients can be linked to our disconnection to them.

I understand that not everyone has good access to markets or fishmongers, butchers, delis and greengrocers. Not everyone is self-employed or so obsessed with food that they want to spend free time hunting around for ingredients. And sourcing ingredients can be very time consuming, let’s be honest. But if you’ve picked up this book then you are probably interested in cooking and in where ingredients come from, and I would encourage you to start shopping around a bit more, if you’re not already, even if it’s just on your days off or at weekends.

Think about how much meat you’re consuming, too. I’m a huge fan of cooking and eating meat, but I’m also a firm believer that eating less, better-quality meat is kinder for our health and for our planet. It is now perfectly possible for food lovers to eat a largely plant-based diet and be sated. One of my favourite food writers Michael Pollan coined the mantra ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’, and I’m inclined to agree with him. In the same vein, I buy organic wherever possible because I think the produce tastes better, doesn’t contain any nasty chemicals, and is better for the universe and for our precious bees, who heroically pollinate some of our most prized foodstuffs – avocados, cherries and onions to name just a few.

Get to know your local suppliers

If you don’t live in an area served well by markets, there are some amazing producer-driven box schemes out there that can connect you directly to local farms and producers, as well as local growing initiatives that you can find by doing a little bit of research. If you spend just a bit more time thinking about sourcing you might just find, like I have, that it does wonders for your food, and for your wallet.

Fishmongers, greengrocers, markets and butchers – places where you can chat, shop, gossip, brainstorm recipes, learn about ingredients and generally get looked after – once formed the backbone of the food supply chain, but now they’re a dying breed. Seek out your local ones and look at what they’ve got to offer. Speak to them and try and get to know them. You’ll soon figure out if these traders are any good and if they are sourcing their produce from trusted suppliers. If you live in a multicultural area, suss out different communities’ shops too: they are often wonderlands of interesting, unusual and new ingredients and flavours, and can be hugely inspiring.

We’ve become so used to supermarket meat that we eat way too much of it, often consuming added salt and preservatives in the process. We’re so disconnected from the blood, guts and death of slaughter, that we’ve started to complain that carcasses on display in butchers’ windows are offensive. With ignorance comes fear: fear of not knowing what to buy or who to speak to – fear of looking foolish.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt a bit silly going into the butcher’s shop and asking questions. But most of the time I have been greeted with informed, helpful answers, told about cuts of meat that save me money, given tips for how to cook them and gleaned assurance about where the meat has come from. I also know that when I’m in there, watching them chop through flesh or saw through bone, I am faced with the death of an animal, and I have the utmost respect for that meat I take home. I make a fuss of it when I cook it, and savour the eating of it.

We shouldn’t view these specialists as unapproachable or intimidating. They are tradesmen and women who know their subject inside out and who are trying to make a living, and the good ones will strive to help you – be it with finding an ingredient, telling you what’s in season or what’s been grown/reared locally, how much of it you need and how to cook it. Crucially, they will work with your budget and help you find something that suits your needs, while informing you about their products. They have years of experience, knowledge and passion, and they are usually very happy to share it and any recipes they might have up their sleeves.

Make great food, whether you’re flush or frugal

To say that my life today is different to how I grew up is an understatement. Like many of my generation, making ends meet is harder than it was for my parents, and getting on the property ladder is just out of reach. I live in a rented, one bedroom basement flat in Hackney, East London, which I absolutely love, but which has the smallest kitchen – to use my father’s favourite hyperbole – known to man. But having very limited kitchen space hasn’t stopped me coming up with some cracking recipes, and it shouldn’t stop anyone. After all, many of the world’s greatest cuisines are cooked with modest means and facilities.

The recipes in this book reflect the ‘flush or frugal’ way I cook and eat. Some of them are super cheap to make (I’m looking at you, Baby potato and rosemary pizzas), while others, like Bavette steak with bottarga butter, will need you to spend a bit more on them. If I’m having a lean month, which, being self-employed and a writer, happens a lot, I tend to cook economically, using up trusty bits from the store cupboard, fridge and freezer, perked up by cheaper fresh ingredients like bunches of herbs, avocado or my go-to cheap eat: eggs. I find that it’s much better to shop as I go, rather than doing bulk shops, as this prevents me from wasting food and means that I often end up basing a recipe around one star fresh ingredient and other things I know I’ve got in the cupboard or fridge (hello, Smoked mackerel risotto).

Because I don’t like to buy cheap meat if I can help it, I tend to go easy on the meat during these times, instead using up cured meats or bacon as a condiment to season or add a meaty twist. When I do cook with meat, I tend to choose cheaper cuts of well-reared, higher welfare, preferably British animals from my trusted butcher. As such, this book doesn’t include any recipes for huge racks of lamb or prime joints of beef, but encourages you to embrace lesser-used cuts that can be just as, if not more, tasty than their better-known cousins, when cooked to their full potential.

When I’ve been paid and am feeling a little more flush, I usually celebrate by stocking up on things I need (a well-stocked store cupboard is essential to creating great meals on a budget) and lovely fresh, seasonal ingredients – perhaps a nice piece of meat or seafood, or a specialist ingredient, like bottarga, that I know will go a long way and add some real ‘wow’ to dishes. When I buy expensive ingredients like truffle oil or nduja (the gorgeous soft and spicy Calabrian sausage), I want to be able to eke them out over a few dishes, or use them in smaller quantities in condiments, starters, salads or small plates to be savoured. I still cook strategically at times like these, so I might buy a nice corn-fed chicken and make some really good chicken stock that can be frozen and dipped into, or do a slow braise that will keep us going for a few days.

Handy shopping tips

–Make lists, shop as you go and use up what you have in: we waste way too much food by overstuffing our fridges. Allow yourself to be led by what ingredients you might find and by what’s in season, and occasionally have a kitchen purge where you use up everything that’s hanging around the fridge, freezer or cupboard. You’ll save yourself some money and have fun stocking up again.

–Find out about your local farmers’ market or farm shop, and start popping in at the weekend to stock up on their seasonal bounties.

Meat and poultry

–Look out for local or domestic meat with Red Tractor, Organic, Biodynamic or Free Range accreditation, or details of the farm it comes from, the breed and any information about the way it’s been reared. Don’t be afraid to ask your butcher for these details – they should be happy to share them.

–Cheaper and on-the-bone cuts like oxtail, lamb neck, shank, shin, cheeks, bavette and skirt steak will save you a small fortune and pack a massive flavour punch.

Fish and seafood

–Check that fish and seafood have shiny rather than cloudy eyes and blood-red gills, and don’t smell fishy – as a rule, fresh fish shouldn’t smell strong.

–Look for fish and seafood that has been caught sustainably – keep an eye out for things like line- or pole-caught fish and ‘hand dived’ rather than ‘trawled’ scallops and clams. We all know by now that many fish stocks are endangered or on their way to being so. A helpful website is www.msc.org: it tells you which fish and seafood are plentiful and sustainable to eat now.

Equipment

You don’t need specialist equipment to make the recipes in this book, though if you want to invest in one thing, I would recommend investing in a pasta machine if you don’t already have one, and getting a cheap piping bag has really opened up my pastry repertoire. Most of my recipes can be made with the most rudimentary of kitchen kit, and I’ve certainly been known to improvise when a recipe has called for something that I don’t happen to have (perversely, I once made Yorkshire puddings in a madeleine tray). Below are some of the things that I find very useful to have in my kitchen, starting off with what I’d say is absolutely essential, and gradually getting less so.

Essential

–Decent, sharp knives: A great investment. I have a Global cook’s knife and smaller utility knife, as well as a fish filleting knife, carving knife and a bread knife, and that’s really all I need.

–A knife sharpener

–Digital scales: They are more accurate and easier to use than weighted ones.

–Colander

–Metal sieve

–Large saucepan

–Good-quality non- stick frying pan (skillet): I like the ceramic-coated ones.

–Cast-iron frying pan (skillet)These can be pricey but they last forever and conduct heat better than normal frying pans.

–Cast-iron or ovenproof casserole: I love my orange Le Creuset casserole.

–Metal or glass mixing bowls

–Wooden spoons

–High-sided roasting tin

–Springform cake tins

–Muffin tray

–Glass or ceramic pie dish

–Whisk

Less essential (but still really useful)

–Blow-torch: Great for brûlées, skinning tomatoes and blistering peppers or aubergines. Don’t bother with the kitchenware ones, a proper industrial one is much more powerful and the same price, if not cheaper.

–Pasta machine

–Silicone spatula and silicone pastry brush

–Wire cooling rack

–Cookie cutters: You can find loads of really cool shaped ones online.

–Meat thermometer

–Oven thermometer

–Metal skewers

–Plastic-lined piping bag: If you’re pushed you can make your own by cutting the corner of a plastic sandwich bag.

–Tongs

–Palette knife

–Vegetable peeler

–Rolling pin

–Grater: I use a microplane

–Glass measuring jug

Electrical equipment

–Mini chopper: My Cuisinart one is one of the most-used things in my kitchen, for making dips, grinding spices, making dressings, salsas, curry pastes and sauces.

–Stick blender: Makes light work of soups and smoothies.

–Stand mixer: It was a watershed moment when I got my KitchenAid – it’s like having a spare pair of hands in the kitchen.

–Food processor: So great to have for cutting down prep time, if you have the space.

–Small deep-fat fryer: Fab for making proper chips and fritters.

Basic ingredients

Here are some ingredients I like to try and have in stock: I find this lot keeps me very well equipped to make my favourite recipes and throw something delicious together in a hurry.

If you have a front step, windowsill or any outdoor space, no matter how humble, I’d really encourage you to grow your own herbs. It’s so cheap and easy to do, and there’s something wonderfully smug about being able to pick, rather than buy, your own fresh, food-mile-free food. I grow parsley, sage, thyme, rosemary and bay, and they’re the gift that keep on giving, demanding nothing more than a regular watering!

I buy organic milk, butter and eggs because they taste better and are better for the planet. I only ever buy unsalted butter, so when I list butter in the recipes, I mean unsalted. If I want salted butter, I just scatter it with crunchy flakes of Maldon sea salt. On that note, I prefer to use Maldon for pretty much everything apart from salting water for vegetables and pasta. I just love the crystals!

Store-cupboard

–Baking powder

–Basmati rice

–Capers: little buds of juicy, salty joy, which spruce up any fish dish or dressing.

–Coconut milk and desiccated coconut

–Dried mushrooms

–Fast-action dried yeast

–Flours: organic plain white flour, rye flour, buckwheat flour (great for making quick galettes for breakfast: just mix with water, salt and pepper, and 1 egg to make a batter, and fry like pancakes in a really hot pan), cornflour.

–Fried red onion: I get this in tubs from the Vietnamese supermarket – great for adding crunch to poached eggs or avocado on toast.

–Fruit: tinned lychees, tinned black cherries, maraschino cherries, golden sultanas.

–Grilled red peppers: in vinegar.

–Herbs and spices: ground cumin and cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, ground white pepper, cayenne pepper, garam masala, dried chilli flakes, dried chipotle chillies, star anise, nutmeg, garlic granules, dried tarragon.

–Kalamata olives

–Lentils: dried Puy or small green lentils (cooked with bay leaves and black peppercorns they make for a frugal and filling lunch, or are great for eating with roasted meats like the porchetta).

–Nuts: ground almonds, toasted flaked almonds (brilliant for impromptu desserts), hazelnuts (I’ve always got a packet on the go, for snacking, throwing into granola or toasting and adding a nutty crunch to pasta dishes, crumbles or salads).

–Oils: invest in a good-quality extra-virgin olive oil (for salad dressings, finishing dishes and having with bread), light olive oil, truffle oil, rapeseed oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil, groundnut oil.

–Pasta: spaghetti, orecchiette and other dried pastas (when my fridge is bare I use dried pasta for simple suppers, sometimes just with a crushed fresh garlic clove, olive oil, salt and pepper, a sprinkling of chilli flakes and Parmesan).

–Peanut butter: (I love to spread it onto a crusty baguette and top with an omelette, some coriander and Sriracha for a makeshift bánh mİ).

–Pomegranate molasses

–Quinoa: a great way to bulk up salads or create an impromptu lunch. Cook with a stock cube or bay leaves to give it a bit more flavour. Experiment with different colours.

–Rice noodles

–Sauces: light soy sauce, good fish sauce, Sriracha, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco.

–Sea salt

–Seeds: chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds (black and white).

–Shrimp paste

–Sugars: muscovado sugar, caster sugar (I like golden), icing sugar.

–Tahini

–Tinned beans and pulses: cannellini beans (blitz up with garlic and olive oil for a simple dip, use as the base for a stew, cassoulet or salad, or just eat them rinsed, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper and some parsley), chickpeas (great for whizzing up with tahini, lemon juice and garlic for a quick hummus), black beans (the perfect partner to Mexican food).

–Tinned fish: anchovies (I can’t live without these fishy little fiends – track down the salt-packed ones if you can, because they have a very special flavour, but regular anchovies in tins and jars do wonders for any salad, sauce, slow braise or dip), mackerel (fillets like the tinned mackerel in oil are great on toasted sourdough for a quick lunch), sardines, soft cod’s roe, smoked oysters or mussels (great for adding umami or whipping up canapés), tuna fillets in olive oil.

–Tinned tomatoes: I find whole plum tomatoes have a better flavour.

–Vinegars: red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, cider vinegar (I like the unpasteurised kind with mother), rice wine vinegar and tarragon vinegar.

–Wakame (dried seaweed)

Fresh

–Avocados: smash onto toast with salt, a squeeze of lime and chilli flakes for a meal in itself.

–Corn tortillas: from Mexican stores.

–Dripping: reserve from the roasting tin.

–Eggs: a meal in a shell. Organic and free-range, if you please. I use medium in this book (unless otherwise stated).

–Fresh ginger: so good for restorative teas, adding to smoothies, stir-fries and curries.

–Garlic: the fresher the better, don’t let it get all dry and crusty (old garlic is very overpowering). Cut out the green shoots!

–Lemons: unwaxed

–Limes

–Wheat tortillas

–Yoghurt: live probiotic – Greek is best. I prefer full-fat versions for adding body and sourness to sauces, salads, dressings and marinades.

Fridge

–Baby gem lettuce: a good trick is to separate the leaves, wash them, bag them up and keep them in the crisper – they’ll last longer.

–Birdseye chilli

–Carrots

–Celery: it keeps for ages and is always handy when making braises, stocks, stews or sauces.

–Courgettes

–Fresh herbs: basil, mint, coriander and parsley. Parsley is your best friend. It’s healthy, cheap, readily available from corner shops and easily livens up any dish when whizzed into a simple salsa verde or dressed in a perky mustard vinaigrette.

–Kale: keeps for ages and adds a bit of green goodness to any salad, soup or stew.

–Leeks

–Mayonnaise

–Milk: organic is best.

–Miso: great for adding umami to marinades.

–Mustard: Dijon, wholegrain and English.

–Onions

–Parmesan

–Preserved lemons

–Spring onions

–Tomato purée

–Unsalted butter

Freezer

–Blueberries

–Broad beans

–Chicken stock

–Curry leaves

–Ice

–Pasta dough

–Pastry

–Peas

–Peeled, chopped bananas: great for instant smoothies.

–Pitta bread

–Pizza dough

–Sliced sourdough: slice a loaf of sourdough then freeze.

The recipes in this book have been tested using a fan-assisted oven. If you have a conventional oven, increase the heat by 20°C. Ovens vary in temperature so invest in an oven thermometer to check yours.

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