People often ask me how I come up with new recipes. I get loads of inspiration from my garden, my travels, reading and eating out but the truth is that the idea is the easy part!
A few years ago one of my friends commented that I was so predictable as I was always cooking. And it’s true – pottering in the kitchen writing recipes makes me happy. The other day I found a book of recipes from family and friends that I had made when I was about 14, so I think writing recipes has always been a creative focus for me. My brain seems wired into a complex grid of ingredients, flavour and texture profiles, methods and plant knowledge. Some people paint, others pot, I write recipes.
But as much as I like doing it, I don’t think people realise how much work happens after this initial conceptual stage. A recipe is like a road map and that fabulous dish is your destination. My job with my recipes is to get you expeditiously to your destination by pointing out the key directions on the road map and making sure you won’t get lost or fall down any potholes! I think of it as engineering a recipe – all my family on my Dad’s side are civil engineers so it’s the only bit of the engineering gene I got!
My main goal when I write a recipe is to get to the best-tasting dish in the simplest possible way, while also thinking about how I can adjust it so that it’s lighter, fresher and, if possible, healthier. Health by stealth, I call it! So sometimes I will make something seven or eight times until it’s exactly where I want it to be. It probably drives everyone else mad but I’ll just know that it needs something, or it could be better, or easier, so I keep going.
There is nothing more demoralising than having a dish fail, it’s the quickest way to lose confidence in the kitchen. So occasionally I have given up on an idea for a recipe, even when it could have possibly worked, if there was too much of a risk that it might go wrong when someone else makes it. I also don’t want people to have to run around a bunch of specialty stores to get loads of exotic ingredients – I know how busy we all are so if you are going to cook then the ingredients need to be easy to access and affordable.
People often say that they really like the way my recipes taste and to me that’s everything. When I’m testing something I instinctively think about how a little bit of fennel seed or some lemon zest would connect up the other ingredients; or how a swirl of crème fraîche would soften out spicy flavours; or how a little mushroom would be the trick to give that dish some more depth and umami. I also always say to people that the secret to good-tasting food is seasoning and the acid balance – often a squeeze of lemon juice right at the end adds this wonderful, bright clean taste. Constant tasting really helps with this – the more you taste the more tuned in and ‘fit’ your palate gets.
Once I’ve reached a point where I feel happy about a recipe, our kitchen team puts it through its paces. The recipe is checked to make sure I haven’t made any mistakes that won’t work or assumptions that will leave people stranded. Once it has proved a success it gets made again so we can photograph it. So all along the way each recipe is tested, checked and tasted, often many times, until it’s a formula that’s really robust.
There’s no cheating in the photographing of recipes these days. Back in the day you’d find distinctly non-foodie items such as nail polish and glycerine on set – on one awful TV ad I was food styling for, they even used some hydrochloric acid to make the food look like it was steaming hot! These days the styled food is all ready-to-eat fare, and usually gets pounced on and devoured by the team the minute the shutter has clicked for the last time.
I don’t want to think about how much it all costs to get a recipe to publishable stage – it would be scary. But having that bulletproof failsafe formula is what it’s all about and it is so satisfying to have people come up and tell me how they made one of my recipes and everyone loved it and it was just so easy to do. That’s when I know that I’ve done my job right, because at the end of the day this work is about other people enjoying and using and cooking these recipes and getting pleasure from their efforts – and the praise and appreciation of their family and friends!
In this busy world, cooking is such a good way to feel useful and successful, and I think one of the easiest ways to bring positive change to your own life and that of those you care about around you. I guess that’s my mission – to share the skills and knowledge I have so others can discover the pleasures of creating dishes to share together around the table.