Well hello, and welcome! I’m so pleased you could make it. Do sit down and make yourself comfortable – tip the cat off the chair. I apologise for the state of the kitchen; I’m a messy cook.
I hope I can show you that we eat very well despite not eating meat, and you won’t find any nut roasts or soya substitutes here. Just because we live in France, we don’t eat exclusively French food. French country cooking is generally meat-heavy – cassoulet, coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon. We like food with strong powerful flavours like Parmesan cheese, garlic, truffles (not the chocolate ones), capers, and spices, so Mediterranean and Indian cuisines are favourites. When I have spare time I’ll happily spend all day in the kitchen creating multi-course meals, but those occasions are rare, and more often than not I look at the clock and think, oops, nearly lunch time, what shall we have? With my butterfly mind – one minute trotting off to prune the lavender, the next deciding to do the ironing, write a few chapters of a new book, phone a friend or play with the dogs, when mealtimes arrive I like recipes I can put together with a minimum fuss – no spun-sugar domes with pink smoke and silver bubbles floating around in it, and no smears, blobs, jus or foams (as somebody remarked once, it looks as if chef has spat on the plate).
This collection is the accumulation of decades of scribbled notes on backs of envelopes, tatty exercise books, recipes given to me by friends and vague recollections. I am always losing track of things, so I thought it was time to put everything in one place where I could find it quickly instead of hunting through drawers and cupboards. This is my personal collection of fail-safe quick and easy recipes for friends and family, which you are welcome to share. None of them require very much time or skill to prepare, and they make no claim to be haute cuisine, just wholesome recipes that anybody can follow.
There are numerous variations of most of them. I enjoy watching foodies and chefs giving a new twist to old favourites, and I enjoy trying them, but sometimes I think they go too far and the originals lose the identity that I loved in the first place. For me there’s a great deal of nostalgia connected to the food we eat.
I have never ‘turned’ a vegetable, nor am I ever likely to. For a start, it seems so wasteful, and secondly because I probably could not if my life depended upon it. I am not cut out to do fiddly food. I’m far too impatient to whittle carrots into scale replicas of the Orient Express or to peel and stuff grapes. I am hopelessly ham-fisted and fiddly doesn’t suit my modus operandi. Neither do recipes with multiple columns of ingredients covering two pages of instructions.When we want to eat high-end food, beautifully presented, we go out and let the professionals do the hard work.
When I’m really short of time, fast food in our house is beans on toast, cheese on toast, Welsh rarebit or fried egg sandwiches. If you want to invite me for a meal, feed me a baked potato, with crispy almost-burned skin, served with a knob of butter or covered with melted cheeseand I’ll be ecstatic.
Except where specifically mentioned, the quantities given are not written in stone and do not require atomic precision. A little more or less of most ingredients won’t make an enormous difference to the finished result. If there’s an ingredient you don’t like, then unless it is essential leave it out, or substitute something else. I’m one of those people who believe that fats are good for you, so I’m generous with them. You can always reduce the quantities to suit yourself.
I have indicated whether each recipe is vegan and/or gluten-free for the benefit of those who aren’t certain, and have flagged up a ‘raw egg’ warning. It’s quite disheartening when you think you have carefully prepared a meal for somebody with an intolerance or allergy, and discover at the last minute that you’ve accidentally included an ingredient that they can’t eat. Of course, you can always substitute margarine or oil for butter in most recipes, although it will alter the taste somewhat.
To simplify measurements, I’ve converted Imperial and metric measurements wherever possible into cups and spoons. I find a set of stainless steel measuring cups and spoons, which are as cheap as chips and take up almost no space, more practical and quicker than weighing everything on kitchen scales – which I’ve found to my cost in the past to be not always reliable.
Flours differ; egg sizes differ; oven temperatures differ; spoon sizes differ. What is under-seasoned for one person is too salty for another. If something doesn’t turn out quite the way you hope, it’s always worth having another go and tweaking the recipe to see if there’s a solution.
How I Began Cooking
Being brought up and living for many years in Kenya, I was spoiled by a wonderful African cook who could give any Michelin-starred chef a run for his money.He cooked traditional British food – from full English breakfasts to Sunday roasts – including the lightest, fluffiest, puffiest Yorkshire puddings – as well as superb, authentic Italian and Indian dishes. He was truly passionate about cooking and sang, whistled and hummed happily to himself in the kitchen where I was completely surplus to requirements.
Moving to live in England was a shock, coming home from work to not only do my own housework, but also cook for a family of four. For a while we ate pot noodles reconstituted with boiling water, tinned pies, frozen meals cooked in the microwave, and powdered desserts whisked into milk. I had no idea how to prepare food from scratch.
I started thinking about nutrition seriously the day I saw tomatoes for sale that were advertised as ‘Grown for flavour’. Well, what a novel idea! And I began looking at the additives in the processed products we were eating, and wondering what they did, and why they were necessary. Particularly flavour enhancers. Why did manufacturers need to put flavour into the food? Didn’t it have any in the first place? There were E numbers and polysyllabic unpronounceable ingredients. I visualised them coming out vats and wondered if I would want to eat them if they were served on a spoon.The cost of processed food and their long lists of mysterious contents was alarming, so I thought I’d better start learning an alternative way to feed the family.
Watching formidable Fanny Cradock, amiable Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr and ebullient Keith Floyd displaying their skills on the television, inspired me. It looked so easy! I bought a simple cookery book and began experimenting with chops, sausages, home-made chips, and soon, somewhat to my surprise, managed to produce a perfectly roasted chicken with roast potatoes, Vichy carrots and Brussels sprouts – the first complete meal I had ever made from scratch. I realised that with time and guidance, cooking wasn’t rocket science.
Always one to gallop before I could trot, I tried a fully boned, stuffed and reconstructed chicken. After an hour of gory wrestling, a kitchen surface spattered with fleshy globs, and two sliced fingertips, the result looked like an albino frog that had been dropped from a great height and landed on a rock.
Following a recipe for Yorkshire pudding, I made the batter and put it in the fridge for half an hour as instructed, while the dish of fat heated up in the oven. When I poured the batter into the dish, I did not expect it to erupt like a volcano, spewing a molten mess all over the kitchen. Nowhere had the cookery book mentioned that Pyrex dishes, being made of glass, would not stand up to the shock of chilled batter hitting spattering oil.
Then there was the great icing sugar misunderstanding. I wanted to make a simple glacé icing, just a mixture of icing sugar and water with a splash of lemon juice. The recipe gave the quantity of sugar, and said: ‘Mix with sufficient water to coat the back of a spoon’. As ridiculous as this sounds, I took it literally, and tried to see how much water I could balance on the back of a spoon, using progressively larger spoons in the hope that if I found one large enough, it would hold enough water to mix the icing. Either I was particularly obtuse, or the instructions were badly phrased. Sometimes following recipes is not enough – you need to apply a pinch of common sense.
Over the years, I think I’ve made every mistake it’s possible to make in the kitchen, including pouring hot oil back into a plastic bottle and watching the bottle transform into a distorted mess before sinking gently into nothingness, flooding the surface, units and floor with a sticky mess which took months to remove.