Allegra McEvedy: 'I'm on a mission to eat as many different things as possible'
Sunday 06 November 2011
My earliest food memory...Shrove Tuesday, when I was about four. My mum was making pancakes, tossing them, and I thought it looked fun. So I grabbed the pan, not realising that it was going to be hot and ended up in A&E with an enormous blister just under my forefinger. It wasn't the greatest start [to my cooking career], but it was quite a real one!
My store-cupboard essentials... Sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, two extra-virgin olive oils – one basic and one good – some cold-pressed rape-seed oil and some kind of flaky sea salt. Also, I've always got to have some representation of pig in the fridge. Normally I'll have three different types, whether they be a bit of ham or saucisson, some bacon, a nice bit of pork or a couple of chops.
My favourite cookbook... The seminal one for me has been Claudia Roden's A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. My copy is so battered that it's held together with two elastic bands. The way she brought the culture into her writing really influenced me; most recipe books are just books of recipes, but Claudia always puts hers in context with stories and anecdotes.
The kitchen gadget I can't live without... My knives. I have about 60 of them from all around the world: I brought back the first few quite accidentally as reminders of my trips. But having enjoyed them so much, I then started to actively seek knives out; part of the mission of going on holiday was to find one that was reflective of the place where I was eating. Some of them are very useful – I work with them in a kind of rotation – and others are deeply impractical. It's quite difficult to find a use for a Brazilian pig-leg boning knife or a Malawian tea-tending knife in your culinary life, though the latter's quite good for pruning.
My culinary tip... Don't throw good money after bad: if a dish isn't going well, don't keep playing with it and chucking in more ingredients, because chances are you're only going to make things worse.
My favourite food shop... Damas Gate. It's a Syrian supermarket on the Uxbridge Road in west London. It's got a great meat counter and lots of pickled veg, and also lots of things I don't know, which makes me like it all the more.
My top table... I like what Russell Norman is doing at the moment with Polpo, Da Polpo, Spuntino... His places have great cooking and a relaxed atmosphere, and I love that you can eat lots of little different things at them: I'm a fan of small plates, but only because I'm always on a mission to eat as many different things as possible. My most memorable meal was this amazing plate of bollito misto [boiled, mixed meats] I had in Verona when I was about 21. It arrived on a huge trolley and there was a whole boiling hen, a huge cotechino [salami], an enormous ox tongue and a whole side of brisket. And it was served by a suitably old man in a burgundy jacket carving it for you: suitable pomp and ceremony for what is one of Italy's greatest dishes.
My guilty pleasure... A croissant with baked beans. It's my daughter's idea of absolute heaven, so we have it together at weekends. I'm sure the French would whack our heads off if they could see us noshing them down.
My pet hates... Garnishes – never put anything on a plate that isn't supposed to be part of the dish. Poor curly parsley, for example: it has a great flavour but it's been utterly confined to the side of the plate for the best part of two decades. Also, I hate the words "selection" and "platter" on menus – they're the least sexy in the world – as well as anything that's "on a bed of...".
Allegra McEvedy is a chef and food writer. Her latest book, 'Bought, Borrowed & Stolen: Recipes & Knives from a Travelling Chef', is published by Conran Octopus, priced £25
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