From our culinary correspondents: Our columnists serve up their favourite dishes

We asked four Independent columnists to cook up their favourite dishes – from a family-friendly curry to a sensual aphrodisiac surprise
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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: My favourite red and yellow curry

It is 6pm, and I am released from the taut concentration of writing. The study exhales ease, a breeze spreading through the house as I head off to cook the evening meal. I am transformed into an ardent domestic goddess (alas without the wet Lawson lips and winking nightgowns). The kitchen has a church-high ceiling window and gorgeous view into the garden, these days alive with red and pink creeping roses, and white lilies big enough to chomp on a tiny baby. Immigrant parakeets fly all over across the trees, and yellow-breasted birds sit on the deck and meditate. This is when I feel most at peace with the world.

It wasn't ever thus. I came to proper cooking shockingly late for an Asian woman, because my thoroughly modern mother believed daughters should concentrate on education, not domestic chores which would be picked up when necessity called. She taught me only three things when I was young – chapattis, puris and perfect boiled rice. Our grim, prim, Catholic Goan teachers trained us to make perfect cakes and scones, pies and crumbles. But not real food.

Married to my first husband at 23 and an impoverished post-graduate student at Oxford, the small kitchen in the college flat felt alien, made me clumsy, nervous, inept and weepy. Oh I tried – Birds Eye hamburgers topped with canned pineapple slices and wrapped in Jus-Rol pastry, spag bol made of broken-up, leftover burgers the next day.

Bit by bit I learnt to chop, stir, mix, fry, bake, boil; I learnt from mum and the totally splendid aunties. Never capable of sticking to conventions, I got bolder and more audacious, an alchemist who could flash up invented dishes in no time. Until last year, I cooked in a small, low kitchen-diner with old pine cabinets painted blue 10 years ago to make them look less tatty. The oven door was broken for six years and five people were a squeeze, though that never stopped me feeding 10 in there. I conjured up such miraculous feasts to win friends and influence people.

Exiles always use food (and sex) to entice the folk they join across the seas. This is where real integration takes place, especially in England, whose natives have been wonderfully promiscuous, unable to resist new tastes. This flash, new kitchen feels like a reward, a final settlement between me and this land. They can never put me on a boat out because I will never leave my kitchen. And if they come for me, my cooking will intoxicate their senses and they will lose the will.

These two dishes, lal/pila (red/yellow) are easy and beautiful, an ode to food and sensual pleasure. You will impress your lover and he will thank you in delightful ways. Trust me. In my family we always eat both dishes together; they make brilliant, if garish, companions, one red and meaty, the other crunchy and yellow.

Lal (red)

Serves 4

4-6 pieces of skinned chicken leg and thigh joints
1 large tub plain yogurt (not Greek style)
1tsp crushed ginger
1tsp crushed garlic
Juice of a fat lime
5tbsp tomato purée
2tsp garam masala

Mix all the above ingredients in an oven dish and bake for 40 minutes. Take the almost cooked chicken out of the oven, and stir in the tomato purée and garam masala, coating the pieces well. Return to the oven for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make the pila.

Pila (yellow)

Serves 4

1 small cabbage, chopped roughly
3 carrots, peeled and cut into long pieces
3tbsp vegetable oil
1tsp black mustard seeds
1/2tsp fenugreek seeds
1/2tsp sugar
3/4tsp turmeric
1 whole chilli, slashed open
Salt to taste

Heat the oil, add the seeds and chilli. Wait until you hear them pop. Add the vegetables and stir-fry for five minutes. Add the spices and flavourings and carry on frying for another five minutes. Serve with the Lal and warmed pitta bread.

Claudia Winkleman: My idiot-proof chilli con carne

OK, so I don't really cook. Sure, I've got a pair of Cath Kidston oven gloves at home, and I've got all the River Café cookbooks (largely unopened) neatly lined up on the shelf, but I'm not sure that counts. I throw a bit of fish into a pan occasionally and I can cook roast chicken. But I have never made a roux and I wouldn't know how to make custard. For the first 28 years of my life I thought mince pies had actual beef in them, and I couldn't tell you what a shoulder of lamb looks like. Unless, of course I was standing next to a live one. And even then ...

You could say that any sort of relationship between the culinary arts and me went askew when I got thrown out of my home- economics class when I was 10. In my defence, a friend sneezed on the quiche Lorraine and another friend dropped an egg into her satchel by accident – all within five minutes of each other.

I laughed so hard I dropped the whole tray of meringue nests (filled to the brim with single cream) on to the teacher's head (she was kneeling down to pick up a raspberry – you sort of had to be there), and she told me that I'd never be able to hold it together long enough to make a sandwich. I was sent out of the class and told never to come back.

She wasn't wrong about the sandwich. Once I've buttered, I've usually forgotten what's supposed to go in between the bread. Anyway, about the only thing I can put together is this chilli con carne. That's only because: a) I love it, and b) it's freakishly easy to do. These are the things you'll need.

Some vegetable and olive oil
3 onions
4 fresh red chillies (when I say 4, if you only have 3 it's not the end of the world)
A few garlic cloves
3 cans chopped tomatoes
2 cans kidney beans
500g minced beef (not the kind that has no fat in it – that's gross)
1 bottle Lea & Perrins
1 bottle Tabasco
3 bay leaves
Lots of posh (Maldon) sea salt
Pepper
Tomato purée
Sour cream
A big fluffy potato
Butter

And then this is what you do: whizz the chillies, garlic and onions in a food mixer (or chop like a mad person for 20 mins) and gently fry it all in the oil in a big heavy pan for 15 minutes. Then the mulch will be very soft (not too brown) and will be full of flavour.

Add the minced beef and cook for at least 10 minutes – let it get really hot and dark. Add the two cans of the chopped tomatoes and up to half a tube of tomato purée.

At this point throw in lots and lots of the Worcestershire sauce and plenty of Tabasco and lots of pepper and lots of salt (don't dick about – chuck lots in). Let it keep bubbling on the hob and keep stirring as it all gets darker and gloopier. Then drain the kidney beans and throw in. Mix it all up and put in the bay leaves and another shake of salt.

Pour the contents into a casserole, and stick in the oven for two hours on about 150C (this, I realise, sounds completely tonto, but I promise this is how the flavour intensifies).

Get a potato and sprinkle it with olive oil and more rock salt and stick it in the oven for 90 minutes until extremely crisp on the outside. Take the potato, split it, melt some butter in the centre, and then spoon over the boiling hot (almost crispy – don't be alarmed) chilli con carne. Dollop sour cream on the top and then you're done.

You see, easier than a sandwich.

Alex James: My hearty shepherd's pie

Leftover lamb. Onions. Carrots. Olive oil for the mash. Butter and potatoes. Parsley for garnish

My grandfather was a chef. I used to love helping him. I love cooking and kitchen equipment. Food and love are the new drugs, and (as Dylan Jones has already pointed out) kitchens are the new discos.

When we get one of our lambs back from the butcher we usually celebrate with a mixed grill of the liver, kidneys, heart and the chump chops. Lamb freezes very well, so the rest goes straight in the freezer. The belly used to be the cut that tended to linger around for longest, but I've recently discovered that it's excellent boned, stuffed with fried mushrooms and rolled. The racks are perfect for midweek diner à deux with Claire. That leaves the weekend party pieces: the shoulders and the legs.

Rather than starting with mince, I usually make shepherd's pie from leftover roast leg and shoulder. It's really hard to mess up roasting lamb. It's very forgiving. The secret to a good shepherd's pie is a good stock for the gravy, so it's well worth making a stock from the bone. Once you've removed the meat, get the bone simmering gently with an unpeeled onion cut in two and maybe a whole carrot, depending on your mood. The stock will be less bitter if you skim off the scum that forms as it starts to boil, but you can more or less forget about it while you're peeling potatoes and picking parsley.

Cut the trimmed meat into little cubes. The more I make shepherd's pie, the more rustic it seems to get. I think it works well with the meat quite chunky. Along with the stock, the caramelised sugars from the browned meat are the keynotes of the flavour. Browning the meat is a job for the biggest frying pan. A frying pan can never be too big. I've just ordered an obscenely large one from Nisbets (www.nisbets.co.uk), an excellent source of internet chef porn. With my electric stove, I can turn all the rings on to full power and cook directly on the hob, using the whole thing as a giant browning device. Sweat some diced onions and carrots in a little olive oil and add the browned meat to them, or you can brown the meat in with the vegetables, once they've softened, if you want to keep things tidy.

Once the bone has had an hour in the bubbles, strain the stock into another pan and blast the liquid on full power until it has reduced to a cupful of essence. Pour this cheffy elixir over the poaching meat, carrot and onions. Claire likes to move in at this stage to adjust the flavouring. Season with salt and pepper and add port, vinegar, honey, Marmite, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, whatever you've got, until it's nice. It's a good time to try out the herbs and spices that sit in cupboards for years, but this isn't a dish you should ever bother going to the shops for. It's a leftovers special.

The mash shouldn't be too sloppy, so I only add butter and seasoning. There is no apparent upper limit to the amount of butter you can use. The more butter that goes in, the nicer it seems to taste, but let your conscience be your guide.

There is an art to trowelling on the mash, but it's not rocket science. I habitually bang the thing in a hot oven until it's nicely browned on top. I suppose it benefits from stewing for a while, but you could probably just as well brown the top under the grill or even serve it with the mash white and fluffy.

The parsley made it look quite pretty, and goes well with the potato, but I only used it because I had some knocking around. The flavour is all about lamb, which is why the stock is a winner. Wham, bam, thank you lamb. That was delicious.

Alex James's home-reared lamb will soon be available from www.evenlodelamb.com

Catherine Townsend: My arousing asparagus soldiers

If there's any truth to the saying, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach," I'm probably facing a long spell of spinsterhood.

Cooking has never been my forte. My successes in the bedroom are only outnumbered by my failures in the kitchen, where the current contents of my refrigerator are a half-eaten jar of salsa, two bottles of champagne and a withered lettuce leaf. The only thing that isn't at least six months out of date is the booze.

I surprised my first love, a fiery Frenchman, by whipping up my signature bourbon pecan pie in his kitchen. Unfortunately, after I ended up consuming two shots of Southern Comfort for every one I gave the pie, I fell asleep at the kitchen table and woke to the sound of a smoke alarm, as he tried to waft away the black smoke pouring from the oven, and dumped the charred remains in the bin.

Since then, my perfect aphrodisiac meal has been either a) one that someone else is paying for in a fabulous restaurant, or b) anything eaten off a lover's naked body.

Still, I love a challenge. So when our chef Mark Hix recommended this recipe on the grounds that between the phallic asparagus and the oozing yolk, it's a sexually charged dish, I jumped at the chance to have a go at cooking it. My sometime boyfriend Paul was less enthusiastic about the idea of me cooking in his house. "At least I have a fire extinguisher handy if anything goes wrong," he laughed, and casually mentioned the drawer of pizza menus.

But I began to relax when I saw that there were only three ingredients: eggs, asparagus and salt. This seemed like something that even I couldn't screw up. That was before I discovered that duck eggs are the culinary equivalent of a Kate Moss-designed dress: widely advertised but impossible to find. I went to three organic grocery stores, only to be told that they had sold out. Luckily, I realised that I could substitute hen's eggs.

My confidence kicked in after I managed to boil the water, and started using a random wooden spoon to drop in the eggs. I had a moment of panic when one cracked, which I suspected was not a good sign. Fortunately I had six, and only one (Paul's) had to be edible.

Knife nervously poised in hand, I started to slice the asparagus – before the photographer helpfully pointed out that the "woody tips" were at the other end. Oops. The amount of salt isn't listed, so I obsessed over how much to add. A pinch or a handful? I guess-timated an amount and dumped it in.

The rapidly boiling brew was starting to resemble a witch's cauldron as I frantically asked Paul if he had an eggcup. All he had were two espresso cups, which was close enough.

The moment of truth arrived when I cut off the egg tops, and was horrified to find that only one egg yolk was runny enough for dipping.

But I gave Paul the good one, after stacking the vegetables to garnish the plate like I've seen on late-night cooking shows.

Despite the chaos I managed to create in the kitchen, the end result was pretty tasty. At least his egg was; mine was a bit rubbery.

But Paul seemed to get turned on watching me nibble the stalks, and we got pretty horny – then again, it could have been down more to the stiletto-heel-and-mini-apron combination than the chemicals in the food.

I'm no galloping gourmet, but I considered the evening a raging success. Despite the complete mess I left behind, neither of us ended up in casualty. But I have to admit that we did order a pizza afterwards.

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