Food & Drink: Variety spices her cooking life: Joanna Blythman applauds the winner of the 1993 Independent/Le Cordon Bleu Cook Competition

YOU COULD say that the winner of this year's Independent/Le Cordon Bleu Cook Competition won us over before we even tasted her food.

Priya Wickramasinghe (the name might be familiar because she was our 1992 runner-up) first wooed our sense of smell. Who can resist the aroma of finely chopped onions gently caramelising in oil with cinnamon sticks and other whole spices? A series of savoury dishes which demonstrated sophisticated spicing proved as persuasive as the come-on. The final triumph was a sweetener in the form of a splendid mango mousse.

As regular readers may recall, we judges were asked to imagine that we had been invited round to each finalist's house for dinner on a Friday night. Shaun Hill from Gidleigh Park in Devon and Caroline Brett from O'Keefe's in London represented chefdom. Sophie Grigson and myself made up the cookery and food-writing contingent. Andre Cointreau (president-owner of Le Cordon Bleu Cook Schools in Paris, London and Tokyo) and Michel Perraud (the London school's chef des chefs) brought to bear their experience from running what is probably the world's most professional cookery training outfit.

We were not looking for the amateur equivalent of chef cooking. Instead, we craved that old cliche - good home cooking. And we wanted it to be something that came naturally to the cook, not something produced at the cost of turning her or him into a hassled wreck. It had, therefore, to be something that could be accomplished within two hours.

It was Priya Wickramasinghe's cooking which most grabbed our attention. Originally from Sri Lanka, she has lived in Britain for 27 years, first in Cambridge and for the past 20 in Cardiff, where she now works as a part-time teacher at Fitzalan High School. The menu she cooked was Indian (Maharashtran to be specific) but might equally have come from many other parts of the globe. Along with her husband, professor of applied astronomy at the city's university, Priya is a world traveller, and it was obvious that she learns and absorbs cooking methods wherever she goes. Drop in on a weekday night to the Wickramasinghe household and you might be served food as diverse as Japanese sushi, Canadian maple-syrup pancakes or English Christmas pudding.

She is, to our knowledge, the first person to succeed with a non-European menu in any major British cookery competition. That reflects a too-narrow attitude to 'serious' cooking in this country, which the Independent is delighted to correct.

Priya cooked us minced Welsh lamb kofta in a complex tomato and yoghurt sauce with a perceptible whiff of cloves. With it came vegetable pulao, beautifully scented with saffron; okra in a piquant sauce; and a cooling raita. We were bowled over by one dish in particular, her dal saag, where yellow moong beans were gently cooked then a seasoned oil or 'baghaar' was added. Although the names of the dishes were familiar, Priya's cooking was light years away from the ordinary curry house.

She moved, apparently effortlessly, through whole spices, unroasted ground spices, then home-roasted ground spices, which she employed at different stages of the cooking in various combinations. The net effect was tremendously well balanced: differentiated flavours which really stimulated the appetite.

Her dessert was fantastic. She had taken that unfashionable ingredient - evaporated milk - and whisked it up with what she assures us is the king of mangoes: the Alfonso, which comes only from India and Pakistan and is distinguished by its lack of fibres. It was the kind of mousse that you wanted to disappear quietly into a corner with and devour.

Priya had some very stiff opposition from Elaine Bates of Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire. In a completely different culinary repertoire, she too proved to be a cook with a great mastery of flavours. She had given us a warm salad with perfectly ripe pear, and breast of duck, the skin and fat of the duck rendered and used as an almost crouton-style garnish. The salad leaves were young and fresh, and the dressing used stem ginger without being sweet.

She showed the same sure hand when she grilled lovely halibut (crisp on the outside, pearly within) and served it with assorted vegetables. This was a mixture of aubergine, fennel, courgettes, orange, pepper and pink shallots, which had been marinaded in a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red chilli pepper and shredded basil, then finally grilled in their marinade.

Absolutely stunning, as was her pudding - rhubarb charlotte with an orange and cinnamon sauce. Individual moulds are buttered and sugared and lined with very thin slices of bread which have been brushed with melted butter. They are then filled with a thick puree of rhubarb and sealed with a lid of bread. They are baked in the oven until crisp, and unmoulded and served warm with a sauce made from cream, orange juice and a hint of cinnamon which is just gently warmed through. We felt humbled by it.

Thereafter, honourable mentions (not in any particular order) went to every other contestant for at least one dish. Frank Maltby from Melksham, Wiltshire, came up with the nice idea of a buckwheat pastry which he filled with monkfish and laverbread. He bowled us over with yet another first-rate vegetable dish, a puree of aubergine and flageolet beans with roasted pepper strips. It was good enough to eat on its own as a main course.

Saffron was much in evidence, revealing a problem of quantity: we tasted both too much and too little. But Gillian Stallard, from Oxford, got it just right when she infused it in a custard, which she baked in a pastry tart and used to cover stewed gooseberries. We thought the combination of saffron and gooseberry inspired. The same could be said of her elderflower sorbet, which was perfumed and refreshing.

We enjoyed another great sorbet (bitter chocolate this time) prepared by Gabrielle Page, who gets the stamina prize for not being flustered despite suffering a train derailment en route from Essex. She made good pasta, very savoury rabbit with a very decent winey sauce, and much more. Deeply impressive.

Everyone liked the approach of Claire Ketteman, from near Keighley in Yorkshire, who served a Mediterranean fish stew with home-made, sundried tomato and olive bread. She again showed the potential of rhubarb in the early summmer, using it as a sauce (flavoured with dessert wine) to accompany pear tarts whose pastry was crumbly and compulsively melt-in-the-mouth.

Another old familiar (his second year in the final) was Ben Baglio from London. His thing is Italianate-American. We revelled in the gutsiness of his Roman artichokes which he stewed with olive oil, garlic and mint, and a fantastic olive oil cake scented with marsala and citrus zest which he used to partner strawberries.

Adele Little from Twickenham continued the olive oil theme (she makes a point of bringing hers back from the remarkable Alziari shop in Nice). She demonstrated how well it can work with South-east Asian flavours such as lime, lemon grass and coriander which she used as a marinade for squid.

More assiduous shopping was demonstrated by Joanna Kjaer from Cambridge, who performed the miracle of finding ripe, sweet apricots, which she smothered in a geranium-scented cream and topped with marvellous chewy balls of raisins, passion fruit and honey.

We had been intrigued by the menu of Rosie Sykes from London, which mentioned tomato 'pikelets'. These turned out to be splendidly even and deliciously browned pancakes with the appearance of Russian blinis, which she intelligently and tastefully partnered with green asparagus and a lightly herbed sour cream. Another high point in her menu was a sort of gingerbready upside-down cake, studded with juicy chunks of pear.

After the cooking was over, our 10 finalists joined the judges, the Independent's food and drink team and representatives of Le Cordon Bleu at Les Saveurs in Mayfair for the results of the competition and a celebratory meal. Priya Wickramasinghe, resplendent in a magnificent sari, was surprised and delighted to have won.

She receives an all-expenses-paid shopping and eating trip to Paris in the company of Independent food writers. This includes a class at Le Cordon Bleu Cook School there, and dinner in several top restaurants. We are sure she will pick up a few ideas in Paris to feed her apparently effortless cooking talent. But anyone who is open and willing to listen will learn quite a bit from her, too.

THE RECIPES

Ben Baglio's Olive Oil Cake

Makes 1 cake, serves about 6

Ingredients: 3 eggs

3oz/100g castor sugar

grated peel of 1 orange and 1

lemon

6tbs dry marsala

3tbs milk

3tbs orange juice

175ml extra virgin olive oil

1tbs baking powder

1/2 cup (American cup) toasted, chopped almonds

6oz/170g plain flour

Preparation: Beat eggs with sugar until foamy. Add peel and liquid ingredients. Add combined baking powder and flour. Fold in almonds. Bake in either a springform or tube pan for 50 minutes (moderate oven). Cool, serve at room temperature with strawberries soaked in marsala.

Frank Maltby's Roasted

Aubergines with Flageolet

Bean Puree

Serves 4

Ingredients: 2 aubergines

2oz/60g flageolet beans, soaked

and boiled (or 6oz/180g tinned flageolets)

1 red pepper, charred and peeled, cut in strips

1tsp/5g ground cumin

extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: Slice the aubergines in half lengthways. Slash the flesh criss-cross (without piercing the skin) and sprinkle salt into the cuts. Stand for at least 30 minutes, then rinse and dry. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4.

Place the aubergine halves, cut side up, in a roasting tin and pour about 1 tbs/15ml oil over each. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes until the flesh is soft.

Scoop out the flesh and chop roughly, reserving the skins. Heat 2 tbs/30ml of oil and add the cumin. After a few seconds stir in the aubergine flesh and the cooked or tinned beans. Season and cook together for a minute, then puree coarsely in a food processor or food mill.

Pile the puree into the aubergine skins, and arrange a few strips of peeled red pepper on each. Return to the hot oven for 10-15 minutes. Serve as an accompaniment to roast lamb or as a separate vegetable dish for lunch or supper.

Priya Wickramasinghe's Dal

Saag - Lentils with Spinach

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1/2 lb/225g yellow

moong lentils

1/2 medium onion, roughly

chopped

1 medium-sized onion, finely

chopped

2in piece ginger, grated

1/2 tsp cumin powder

1/2 tsp coriander powder

1/4 tsp turmeric

1tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

4 curry leaves

4oz/120g fresh baby spinach

2 spring onions, finely sliced

1tsp salt

3tbs oil

Preparation: Wash the lentils in several changes of water and soak in 2 cups of water in a pan for half an hour. Add the roughly chopped onion, the ginger and the ground spices (cumin, coriander and turmeric) and bring to the boil. Simmer until thick and mushy.

In another pan heat 3tbs of oil. Add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Once the seeds have 'popped' add the curry leaves and the finely chopped onion. Fry until the onions are a deep golden brown. Pour this spicy oily mixture into the lentils and simmer for a further half-hour. If the lentils seem dry, add a cup of hot water.

Remove the stalks from the spinach and wash thoroughly. When ready to serve, add the salt, spinach and spring onion to the simmering lentils. Mix thoroughly and remove from heat. The spinach will cook in the heat from the lentils.

(Photographs omitted)

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