You don’t have to be a chef to make good food fast, says Claire Thomson

  • Thu,4 Apr 2019 01:18:15 PM

Chef and cookery book writer Claire Thomson thinks we’re all a bit “stuck”.

“We’re all cooking the same thing day in, day out,” she says, while roasting courgettes and crumbling feta over half-moons of avocado and hand-crumpled tortilla chips. After all, why stick with a same-old iceberg lettuce and tomato salad, when you can have spiced courgettes and tangy cheese? Why not get unstuck from your usual culinary habits?

This is the essence of the Bristol-based food writer’s latest cookbook, New Kitchen Basics. In it, she aims to free us of our mindlessly relied-upon staples, and zhuzh them up without increasing the difficulty, and without asking you to track down out of the norm ingredients.

She calls the recipe collection – which is split into 10 core components, each focusing on a different ingredient; lemons, chocolate, cheese, mince, for example – “a manifesto on contemporary eating that isn’t too esoteric, or too difficult to achieve”.

And so, there are dishes like asparagus carbonara, meatball pho, Stilton and fig wholemeal scones and tomato fritters. Interesting takes on ingredients you’re sure to have in the house.

“This book is an attempt to replicate the same feeling you might have of needing dinner fast and wanting to fall back on the dishes you know well, but giving you a new arsenal of recipes,” explains Thomson, who you may know as the capable pair of hands behind the popular blog and Instagram account 5 O’Clock Apron, which sees the mum-of-three sharing the speedy suppers and mid-week dinners she makes her family.

But the idea is not to intimidate you with her own abilities to feed hundreds of children of a Wednesday night with no fuss, but to show you that it can be done – chef or not.

“I know that I have this knowledge because I am a chef,” she admits. “I know how to make a stock and a risotto from the stock, but it’s knowledge that’s easily pushed out.”

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I very rarely post pictures of myself. In fact, I hate it. But there we have it, posting this today in honour of the fact I’ll be cooking from my new book @toppingsbath this Friday 29th March, doors open at 7.30pm. Come and say hello. Real life. Real people. New Kitchen Basics is dedicated to my mum who first taught me to cook; I think it would make an excellent Mother’s Day present for any young, middling or older mothers out there?? Thanks for this photo @marrbell taken last spring, I think I had about 4 minutes left until service was about to start, and there you were, wanting to take my photo, of all things. Honestly, us chefs, much better hiding in the kitchen. My look here screams ‘gahhhhh, just let me get on with my plating up, I’m feeling a little frazzled, keen to crack on with it….smile’ it’s a brilliant picture, & sums me up perfectly. Never one to look at the camera, one eye on the kitchen. #the5oclockapron #mothersday

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She’s adamant it’s possible to get a decent, home-cooked dinner on the table in 20 minutes, regardless of your kitchen skill level.

“It’s just food, at the end of the day. I cook every day, it’s just part of the natural rhythm of life, the kitchen is where I’m happiest,” she says, explaining that the food world often does, but really shouldn’t, feel unattainable.

“If you pare back to using good quality ingredients and cook them with the knowledge of how they perform, food’s really easy,” Thomson adds, noting that seasonal vegetables, pulses, grains, rice and pasta are all affordable for the majority of families, too. “These are all really cheap, if not cheaper than higher priced big chunks of protein and cheese.”

Thomson has been cooking since adolescence, when she’d make “quite ambitious” dishes, at the expense of masses of washing up. Her mum would come back from work to “lots and lots of dirty pans – my sauce would go lumpy and then I’d sieve it again!” (Yes, she really was the kind of teen who’d sieve her bechamel sauce before slopping it in lasagne…).

Inspired by food writers like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, and Simon Hopkinson, she studied journalism with a view to go into food writing, but got side-tracked by cheffing (to be fair, she did get there in the end).

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Pani Puri table set for the swimmers…. #the5oclockapron #cookingforkids #familyfood #pulses #leftovercatering spoils ????

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“I loved being in kitchens in my 20s and early-30s. I really loved the machismo and dynamo, the pace. I’m quite competitive – the later and longer the shifts, the better,” she recalls.

“My mum was like, ‘What are you doing? You’ve got a degree and you’re working with all these boys in sweaty kitchens!’ But I loved it. And then of course, [I had] babies, and the two don’t really match.”

She says her experiences of kitchen culture and cheffy attitudes has been overwhelmingly positive; it’s just that parenthood and late-night restaurant service aren’t all that compatible.

“Fundamentally, when my babies were little, I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the pass plating food at 8.30pm, I’d rather be cuddling them in bed. But now they’re bigger, there needs to be a way we can go back into the workforce,” she muses. “Whether that’s, you work the day shift when your kids are at school and you don’t work night shifts, I don’t know.”

Whatever the answer, it’s something the industry needs to grapple with if they want talented chefs, who happen to have kids, filling jobs.

That said, Zimbabwe-born Thomson genuinely trusts that you “don’t need some flash kitchen with a big great island in the middle to make good food”.

“I’d rather make something nice that’s tasty, from humble ingredients, than go and buy Deliveroo,” she says with a grin. It’s simply a matter of approaching dinner with confidence.

“Know your way around flavours and what goes with what,” she says encouragingly. “I just want people to be able to cook like I can.”

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Wait. No children. With 1 (still stuck) in Paris & the other 2 elsewhere on play dates. Matt is somewhere in the air above Turkey flying home from NZ also @melbfoodandwine. Instead I’ve spent the last 4 hours making vegan Banana & Ginger Cake for x130 people tomorrow (more of which then). Sunshine spilling through the windows and music turned up really loud. That said, if I was cooking the kids their tea, I might make these for supper. From my new book, Quinoa Fritters with Green Goddess Sauce. An absolute doddle to make, minutes. And my 3 love them, as do we. Thanks to everyone who has bought my book & I am thrilled to see so many of you cooking from it. I’m looking forward to talking #newkitchenbasics with Cerys on @bbc6music this Sunday. Keep me posted on all your cooking. Off to round up the kiddos. And then maybe ?? #the5oclockapron #quinoarecipes #cookthebook

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The key, she says, is having what you need in the cupboards (she wrote at length about this in her last book, The Art Of The Larder) and having a plan. After all, if you’ve got arborio rice in the pantry, and some peas and chicken stock in the freezer, you can be eating risotto within 17 minutes.

“As a chef, you wouldn’t even consider going into service without your mis-en-place ready, and that’s set me in real good stead for motherhood,” says Thomson. “You’ve just got to be organised.”

Not convinced? “People can check up on me on Instagram, if they don’t think I cook it all!” says Thomson with a laugh. “I am there doing it in a real-time zone, amongst the normal mayhem of family life.” And if she can do it, you can too – or you can at least have New Kitchen Basics cajoling you into it.

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I’ve just bought all these ?? for £1 at my local fruit & veg shop. I’m going to salt some for a tagine I plan to make next week & with the remainder, make the Candied Lemon & Saffron Yoghurt Cake from #newkitchenbasics, more of which later. Can I ask an enormous favour of all those who follow me here and have a copy of my new book, would you kindly leave a review of the book over on Amazon. If you don’t have my book, it’s still on at a silly price. Little more than a magazine. I’ll be on @cerys6music this Sunday talking New Kitchen Basics. NB I plan on bringing the Lemon & Chamomile Shortbread from the book to the @bbc6music studio for tea dunking. Sending slices of cake to you all by way of thanks, if only x ????????????????????????????????????????

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New Kitchen Basics by Claire Thomson, photography by Sam Folan, is published by Quadrille, priced £25. Available now.

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