For every adventurous cookbook out there (and, cor blimey, there are a lot of them these days), there is usually always another one that keeps things in perspective, reminding us that as fun and as easy as cooking can be, not everyone has time to do it properly every day. Sometimes you just want straightforward, with fancier things to aim for.
Let’s Eat is the latest book from Elly Curshen, who has been running her Pear Café in Bristol since 2006, and has a gigantic and relatively London-heavy social media following. This one actually came out in June but felt right to try out now following a recent wave of harder cookbook challenge attempts using Supra (Georgian food, which was new to me) and On The Side (adventurous and cheffier recipes). And thankfully, it’s really useful. As Curshen writes in her introduction, she listened to all the feedback she received from her last book, Fast Days and Feast Days - which I have yet to try - before sitting down to devise the next one.
The result feels to me like a mixture of two others I’ve previously enjoyed cooking from, folding in the simplicity and accessbility of the The Cornershop Cookbook, and the creativity of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage: Love Your Leftovers, which encouraged its readers to find interesting ways of using up all the bits many of us had got used to throwing away. Indeed, here she repeats something she regularly says on Instagram about leftover bread: ‘Whenever I buy [it] I slice it at home, freeze it and then blitz the crusts in a food processor and pop in a freezer bag. Whenever a recipe calls for breadcrumbs, use these.’ Having also been doing this over the last year or so, even my flatmate now knows to offer me his stale loaves if he’s thinking of throwing them away.
In Let’s Eat, Curshen explains why she wants us all to do a bit of advance prep in order to make really quick and easy dinners, which she says require little washing up, something she hates ‘with a passion.’ She has become ‘much more experienced in finding ways to make dishes more interesting, textured and exciting,’ that she garnishes regularly, that she’s discovered the benefits of batch cooking and using her freezer for more than ice and peas. She’s sorted out her dry stores, and ‘become an expert in using bits and pieces up’ from an abundance of half-used packets and produce.
The success of this book is down to the fact that Curshen appears to have worked out what would genuinely be most useful to her readers. She’s divided it into ideas on what to make and freeze, what to make and add to, and then what to make to build a menu. And throughout the whole thing, she talks and writes like she might be a mate - sort of like Jamie Oliver but without the ‘chuck-a bit-a this and a bit-a that’ stuff. She’s straight to the point, and she makes it sound easy. It’s important to remember that she also runs a cafe so she has to make things that work, with leftovers that she and her staff can recycle. In short, I trust her not to take me for a ride.
As cookbook challenges go, this wasn’t one to wow people with. Noone was impressed with the pizzazz of it, or with any surprising flavour combinations. This was just stuff that was comforting and fresh, and that worked; they were things that I know I could bash out again after a long day of work, or unfreeze and eat again, or use when I knew people were coming over and I’ve done very little planning. So let’s not waste time and just get on with the eating part, shall we?
What Victoria cooked:
10-minute flatbreads... smeared with roasted garlic butter and rosemary
From the chapter entitled Building Blocks, the idea here is to make one thing and use it in several different ways. In this case, I made the flatbreads (mixed and then kneaded flour, water and salt, before frying it all in olive oil), and then piled them high with the dhal (see more below). I also roasted garlic for 45 minutes simply for the satisfaction of being able to squeeze it out of its skin at the end and rub it into butter and then onto the bread. Stuffing them with halloumi was another easy crowd-pleaser that she suggested. The breads themselves were good on the day, if a little floury, but dire the following day, even with a sprinkling of water and a few minutes’ in the oven. In the end I gave up and smashed them all into breadcrumbs to use on a future soup or salad.
Satay Sauce... with Noodle Salad
Also from Building Blocks, this sweet and nutty hot sauce is essentially peanut butter mixed with soy, soft brown sugar, lime juice, sesame oil, sriracha and rice wine vinegar, and as Pear warns, ‘the only problem with this is that you’ll want to down it straight from the jar.’ Needless to say, after I’d used most of it on the noodle salad, I polished the rest off with a teaspoon and wished I’d made double the quantities. The salad is very straightforward, and still good and crunchy the next day, but be warned you’ll be finely slicing carrots, cabbage and broccoli for what seems like forever - please, mum, can I get a mandoline slicer for Christmas?
Lentil, tomato and coconut dhal
From Elly’s Freeze for Ease chapter, here she recommends making lots of this and then ladling it into freezer bags and re-heating with different things over the following week(s). Once I’d toasted the spices (I used shop-bought garam masala instead of making my own), and got the stock ready, this was really just a long slow cook-down of all the ingredients including lentils and tomatoes. I find dhals so comforting, and this was just that. I served three portions to friends, then had some for lunch with Elly’s top-up recipe for dhal with wilted greens, lemon and yoghurt the following day. Easy peasy.
Blueberry and Mint Fizz
From the Menus chapter, this is part of a menu designed for someone cooking brunch for a baby shower where there might be breast-feeding mums. I have absolutely no intention of cooking for any baby shower but I did like the sound of this non-alcoholic drink. After boiling up blueberries with caster sugar, I ladled some of the syrup over iced fizzy water and ended up with a very pretty summery drink. I found it madly sweet, but my two friends all polished off theirs pretty quickly.
Pea Frittata Bites
From the same menu as the fizz, these moreish bites are designed for children, are a doddle to make, and satisfying to lay out on the table - you just mix up cheddar, peas, pesto, eggs and a few other things, throw them into a 12-piece muffin tin and cook for 15 minutes. They’re nothing special, they’re just really easy and really moreish - doing them again, I’d make a load for a picnic, and I’d season them properly (presumably this wasn’t suggested because they’re designed for babies).
These, taken from the ‘kitchen table dinner for four, thinking of Jerez’ were a slightly random addition to the other bits and bobs I cooked, but I added them in since I had some of these peppers already and, as Elly writes, they’re ‘really one of the simplest tapas dishes you can make.’ You just fry them up, dust them with salt, and watch them get eaten up. Next time, I’ll make sure I have some sherry handy.
‘Elly Pear’s Let’s Eat: simple delicious food for everyone, everyday’ by Elly Curshen is out now (£20, Harper Thorsons). Buy it here.