Letters to my Food Heroes #3: Rachel Allen

Hi Rachel,

How’s it going?  I expect you’re super busy with family things, the cookery school and restaurant and what not.  I’m assuming you haven’t heard about my Food Heroes series so I’ll just give you a bit of a run down.  I’ve not been going long with it as you can see, as I’m only up to #3 (Nigel Slater is #2 and my Mum is #1 (of course) if you want to check those out).  As part of the series (ok, well it’s not really a series yet but it will be) I pay tribute to the key people who provided and still provide me with inspiration on my cooking journey.  I’ve got you high on the list I guess because you’ve been with me from the beginning.  I discovered ‘Rachel’s Favourite Food’ at a time when I was just starting out, broadening my horizons and being more adventurous in the kitchen and you helped give me the confidence to try some new things.  Well, they were new things to me but I guess you could argue some of the things I tried were pretty basic.  My repertoire at the time was very limited but you made more interesting things accessible. 

I have a few of your cookbooks.  I’ve got (in no particular order) Rachel’s Favourite Food, Rachel’s Favourite Food for Friends, Food for Living, Food at Home, Bake, Cake (this one’s signed!) and Entertaining at Home, so none of your recent ones unfortunately.  But nonetheless, quite a reasonable collection I think you’ll agree?  ‘Favourite Food’ was the first of your books to add to my collection.  I think my cookbook collection at the time comprised Good Housekeeping The Cook’s Classic Companion, The Quick After Work Vegetarian Cookbook (mum and dad got me this when I was a student), a tiny Anthony Worrall-Thompson book about buying and cooking real meat, Delia’s Complete Collection and a vegetarian pasta book.  I’d just come out of a 10-year vegetarian phase and needed a bit of help in the meat department.  I’d been turning up at the local butchers with a quizzical look on my face, reading off my shopping list like it was in a foreign language and making random roasting joint requests.  They were very understanding but couldn’t quite hide the odd smirk every now and again when I asked for anything that wasn’t beef topside or lamb shoulder.

I got ‘Favourite Food’ from a Borders bookshop in one of those out of town retail parks just outside of Inverness.  The bookshop isn’t there any more (I don’t know, do people not buy books anymore?) but I’ve heard the coffee shop that was in the store is still there.  It was in the food and cooking aisle in the now defunct bookshop that dreams were made.  I got a glimmer of what the future might bring and I felt excited by the prospect of realising the delicious dishes on those thick glossy pages.

I saw you once on TV.  It was the episode where you made chicken and ginger stir fry with coconut noodles.  You made it look so easy!  I don’t watch many, if any, cookery programmes on TV.  I don’t like the way they’re filmed, always switching and changing between subjects too quickly, and focused too close to the subject and I also don’t like it when the subject is blurry or when it’s in focus and then fades to blur or visa versa.  I wear glasses so like to avoid any blur if at all possible.  And I like to see the big picture, everything that is going on and not just a small part at a time.  I don’t know if it’s the ‘modern’ way to make cookery programmes these days but I don’t like it.

My all time favourites are mostly from ‘Favourite Food’.  Oriental broth is always a winner but I’m afraid I’m a bit greedy and throw in chicken as well as noodles and we also have prawn crackers on the side!  I love the lamb with raisins and pinenuts although I’m going to have to disagree with you slightly on your statement about being a fast dish.  Ok, it is fast to cook but only if you have someone else to cut the lamb up or do that earlier and don’t count it in your overall time.  Over the years the pieces of lamb have got bigger and at one point I used the same ingredients but used lamb mince and made patties instead.  I can eat the smoked mackerel pate all day and haven’t had any better anywhere else since or before to be honest.  It is just so more-ish and delicious.

I made chocolate mousse when The Husband’s mum and brother came to visit us in Orkney.  It was the only time she came to visit and I made it for pud because I knew she liked chocolate mousse so much.  It was very luxurious and delicious.  I don’t think she managed to eat it all!  I’ve made Moroccan chicken with couscous when making couscous was a mystery to me.  Macaroni cheese with bacon is super comfort food and just saved for times when the only objective in an evening is to be warm and cosy (the addition of bacon is a brilliant hero move, bravo).

I tried a few things out of Easy Entertaining.  I must say that the watercress mousse didn’t turn out how I was expecting but I’m not sure I did it right.  There was no picture so I wasn’t sure what I was aiming for.  I ended up with flat discs of what appeared to be watercress omelette and I’m sure that’s not what you were going for.  I was expecting something a bit more pooffy and fluffy, with a bit more height.  Spicy salmon cakes are delicious and spicy.  In fact we had those for tea last night with couscous and a spinach salad (I’m happy to say I’ve now mastered couscous).

I’d not done much baking when I started to explore your recipes.  I tried the brown scones with seeds but I didn’t do it right and they turned out a little bit hard (my fault).  I even did the good baker thing and shared my baking with loved ones.  Unfortunately nothing could be done with them and the ones I didn’t try toasting went to the birds.

I made Greek lamb, onion and butter bean stew one year for Mother’s Day.  It was during the time I was living back in Lancashire after a time in Orkney and was taking advantage of the fact I could spend Mother’s Day with my mum.  I’m living back in Orkney now.  It’s a long story and not one for this letter.  Maybe I’ll tell you all about it in my next letter.  My sister and me, we made a feast!  I meant to make Granny’s roast potatoes too but I FORGOT!!!!  I was so disappointed.  We had mash but I wanted two types of potatoes.  I’ve still to this day not yet made Granny’s roast potatoes but I will do.  I make roast potatoes all the time but sometimes it’s good to go back to a recipe for something you make routinely just to see if there’s anything you can pick up to make what you do better.

I used to make marshmallow krispies when we would go diving at the weekend.  I haven’t been diving for so long now.  I don’t know, I just fell out of it but I’m hoping to get out again this year when it gets a bit warmer.  And I’ve also not made the marshmallow krispie treats in ages either.  There’s nothing more contradictory than seeing a big strapping burly diver just back on the deck of the boat after a chilly dive in the waters of Scapa Flow with a cup of tea in one hand and a rice crispie treat in the other.   Toffee popcorn is amazing.  One movie (because it’s movie food isn’t it?) I made a batch and then ended up eating the whole lot myself because my sister wasn’t feeling well and mum doesn’t eat any fun food.  I wasn’t complaining but I was so full!  We watched Crush (2002) with Andie MacDowell.  If I remember correctly it was just OK but it was a nice girly movie to watch with mum and sis.  The whole movie watching experience was overshadowed by the fact I was the only one eating the movie snacks.  I remember the snacks more than the movie.

I like your soups.  Leek, potato and blue cheese (even though The Husband doesn’t like blue cheese and it’s not like I can hide it and pretend it’s not in there), chorizo and chickpea, broccoli with parmesan toasts, potato and parsnip with bacon, spicy beef noodle soup, chicken tom yum and oriental broth.  In fact I featured a couple in a recent post I wrote about soups for lunch (and other times) with annotations for the home cook.

I love all the comfort food type meals.  Good, hearty and tasty.  Chicken pie with bacon and peas.  That sounds so good; I think I’m going to make that next week!  Lasagne from Food for Living, chilli con carne (and yes I concur definitely better with chunks of beef rather than mince but it does take a little while longer to prepare). Cottage pie out of Bake.  Italian style beef stew with spring onion champ was a perfect Sunday lunch meal.  Lamb chops with mustard mash, Irish stew, lamb curry, lots of lamb.

Spanish tortilla with bacon, gruyere and marjoram must be one of the dishes I’ve made the most.  This showed me that an omelette could be much, much more if only some time was devoted to it.  Pancakes with rashers and maple syrup have helped us kick-start the weekend on a high.  They were my introduction to American-style pancakes.  I would make the full batch and we’d eat the lot between the two of us.  I’ve made a few different pancakes since and whenever I have something that doesn’t quite work out (Jamie Oliver, I’m looking at you) I go back to your recipe because I know it always works and because it is always delicious.  Just a little check back in to restore my pancake faith.

Gosh! There are so many things I’ve made; I can’t possibly go into them all here.  I like your cakes and bakes.  I loved the cardamom bread and snickerdoodles.  Turkish flatbreads were so easy and delicious.  Battenburg was quite adventurous for me but it worked and went down very well!  And the oatmeal and raisin cookies were satisfying especially with a good cup of coffee.  Lots of muffins, they are always a winner.  Greek almond crescents were pretty much gone in a couple of days.

I think I’ll have a look at your more recent books and see where the journey takes me next.  I don’t really know which to go for.  Which is your favourite? ‘Coast’ looks good and the photography looks amazing.  It might help me achieve one of the food challenges I set myself as there’s sure to be lots of fish recipes in there.  Or maybe ‘All Things Sweet!’ I’m a sucker for a sweet treat, especially chocolate.

Anyway, got to go.  Hope I’ve not bored you too much and thanks for reading this far.

Take care, bye for now and thanks for the inspiration!

Andrea

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