As a TV chef, food writer and instructor at Ballymaloe Cookery School, Rachel Allen’s day is often filled with fine-tuning recipes and teaching others how to improve their kitchen skills. She and her husband, Isaac, make it a priority that their three childrenhave a wholesome, homemade meal to enjoy. Her secret? Rely on fresh, seasonal ingredients and have a well-stocked kitchen at home to make meal planning easy and inexpensive. Read on below to learn her top tips for developing your skills as a home cook.
1. How would you describe your cooking philosophy at home?
Simple, but relying on good seasonal produce.
2. What first inspired you to cook?
I always loved baking as a child with my mum and my sister, and that carried on through my teens. When it came to deciding what to do after I left school, I always knew I wanted to do something creative; it was either shoe design or cooking for me. I decided to learn how to cook first as I wanted to travel the world and my parents advised me to travel with a skill so that I could always get a job. When I went to Ballymaloe and started learning how to cook, I realised that this was definitely what I wanted to do. I still enjoy shoes, but just wearing them!
3. What is a typical mealtime in your house?
A typical mealtime in our house is in the evening. No TV, phones or tablets at the table. It’s the one time where we can all sit and chat, as more often than not everyone is coming and going during the day with all their different schedules. I just love this time of the day.
4. How do you plan for family-friendly meals during busy weeks?
Isaac and I tend to work out during the day what we are going to cook that night, and who will cook. I wish we could say we are really organised and make a plan at the start of the week, but we don’t! We have so many local suppliers close to us so sometimes we’ll pick up a chicken for roasting, or call Brenda, our local fisherman’s wife, to see what fish she has.
5. What are your top tips for keeping school lunches interesting?
I change the school lunches regularly and depending on what’s in season. When Irish cucumbers are in season (from June to about October) they always get packed in lunch boxes, thickly sliced with some Feta cheese. I try and make it colourful too with some raspberries or strawberries in a small box on kitchen paper (so they don’t get soggy and bruised).
6. How adventurous or picky are your kids with new foods?
Ours vary, some are more picky than others. The one food that they all still dislike is mushrooms: it’s not the flavour but the texture if they’re in big slices in a pie or casserole. We don’t make a big deal of it, we often leave them out, but sometimes we’ll just say to leave them at the side of the plate if they don’t want them. I’m hoping that eventually they’ll all love them!
7. What is the worst cooking disaster you’ve had, and how did you recover?
I once had to get a hotel in Singapore evacuated when I was cooking on stage as I set the pan on fire from preheating it for too long. Thankfully the fire was put out in two seconds and everyone was able to come back in straight away, though I’d say they were all slightly nervous of my cooking afterwards! Apart from that there have been no disasters!
8. What advice would you offer to a novice cook who wants to start preparing more home-cooked meals?
Start cooking food that you love to eat yourself. Start simply with basic recipes and using good, fresh produce.
9. How do you make the most of local ingredients in your recipes, and how can home cooks do the same?
Local ingredients always feature in my recipes because it makes the most sense. They’ll be fresher than anything that’s been sitting in a warehouse for days or weeks, and it’s also really important to support the local economy. It’s a really good idea to go to markets to hunt out your local ingredients and have a taste of them while getting advice on how to use them.
10. What would be your ultimate dinner party menu?
This would of course completely depend on the season but seeing as it’s the end of summer I would go for some lovely shellfish. Perhaps lobsters or crabs boiled in sea water and served with homemade mayonnaise, local tomatoes made into a tomato and basil salad, and some freshly dug potatoes, boiled and served with Irish butter slowly melting over the top. For dessert, perhaps I’d serve a raspberry fool with buttery shortbread biscuits. In winter time I might go for beef with Bearnaise sauce and something chocolatey to end.
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