Quite good cuisine: MasterChef judge William Sitwell rounds up the best British dishes in new book
No longer will British food be blasted for consisting only of pie or fish and chips – not if Waitrose Kitchen's William Sitwell has anything to do with it, at least. He tells Ella Walker about rounding up the brightest foodie talents for a new compendium
WILLIAM Sitwell is adamant: "British food culture is the greatest food culture in the world."
The writer, TV presenter and food critic puts it down to the fact even the most provincial high street still overflows with eating options, from Chinese and Thai, to French, Italian and Indian.
"We welcome food culture with open arms, we absorb it into our daily lives. What we do – which probably annoys people from overseas – is that we actually end up doing their food better than they do."
As a MasterChef judge and editor of Waitrose Kitchen magazine, he's well placed to adjudicate.
And who better to pull together The Really Quite Good British Cookbook, a new collection of recipes from "about 100 of our finest chefs, cooks, bakers and food heroes".
It features established talents (Nigella, Ottolenghi, Stein) and rising stars (Gill Meller, Rosie Birkett), as well as home cooks, restaurateurs, celebrities and innovative producers.
Sitwell's job was to "corral" the lot of them – via phone, email, Twitter and accosting them at parties – and get them to hand over recipes for dishes they make their loved ones.
You won't find a recipe from Sitwell himself in it, however – he thought the idea "a bit self-regarding" – though he is a keen cook.
"On a Friday night, the default thing I do for the people I love is roast chicken, dauphinoise potatoes and a crunchy green salad with French dressing, and a nice bottle of Chardonnay," he muses.
"I like doing braised belly pork in cider, preferably '3Cs' cider – which is the cider I make. I'm quite good at roast potatoes, especially if they're a bit burnt at the edges."
The father-of-two is constantly nibbling on something – today, it's an Honest Burger for lunch, then chocolate and rhubarb sweet-things snaffled from the Waitrose magazine test kitchen – but he says: "I was a very bad eater when I was small, I never ate anything."
He's no food snob "I used to love Kentucky Fried Chicken – with a glass of milk" and proclaims a love for Iceland's frozen fish soup.
But after 17 years in food journalism, Sitwell – who now lives in Northamptonshire and has just been shortlisted for a Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Award for his non-fiction work, Eggs Or Anarchy – has developed a few dietary guidelines, including eating less as the day goes on, cycling everywhere and avoiding food trends.
"I eat when I'm hungry and what looks good, and I try and eat widely – and I certainly eat very greedily," he says.
Fortunately, greediness is essential if you're filming MasterChef; Sitwell and his fellow critics, the likes of Jay Rayner and Tracey MacLeod, are served any number of two-course meals back-to-back by anxious contestants.
"You get a whole grown-up portion – if you like it, you eat all of it," Sitwell explains.
He adds with a laugh that they do tend to share good dishes with the crew, however, "they devour the crumbs we leave, so sometimes, just to annoy them, we eat everything!"
When asked what fascinates him about his field, Sitwell is irrepressibly passionate.
"Food is about politics, it's about history, culture; it's about entertaining, it's about love, it's about survival, it's about poverty, it's about pleasure, hedonism, it's about staying sober, it's about getting drunk.
"It's a subject that covers every aspect of human life."
Cheers to that.
Inspired to cook? Try the following recipe.
NETTLES ON TOAST WITH POLLACK, WILD GARLIC AND POACHED EGG BY GILL MELLER
250g fresh young nettle tops (foraged from the garden or local park)
2tbsp olive oil
2x150g pollack fillet steaks
1 small bunch wild garlic shredded (foraged from the garden, local park, hedgerows and roadside – or use 1 clove, crushed)
2 slices sourdough or good-quality country bread, toasted
Salt and pepper
Wash the nettles in plenty of fresh water. Remove any tougher lower stalks. Drop the nettles into a saucepan of salted, boiling water and simmer for two to three minutes, until tender, then drain really well.
Return the nettles to the pan, add half the butter and one tablespoon of the olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper, stir and then cover and keep warm.
Set a large, non-stick frying pan over a medium to high heat. Season the fish all over with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining butter and oil in the pan and when hot, add the fish, skin-side down.
Cook for three to five minutes, depending on its thickness, then turn the fillets over and fry for one to two minutes until the flakes separate when pressed lightly with a fork; this indicates the fish is cooked.
Add the garlic to the pan. Spoon it through the buttery fish juices; cover and keep warm while you cook the eggs.
Bring a medium-sized, high-sided saucepan of water to the boil. Twirl a spoon in the water to make a mini whirlpool. Crack the eggs in, turn the heat down to minimum and cook for three-four minutes.
Remove the eggs carefully with a slotted spoon. Keep warm. Remember: the fresher the eggs – the better they poach.
To serve, place a piece of toast on each plate. Divide the warm, buttery nettles between the plates, top with a piece of fish, followed by a poached egg, then finally spoon over the garlic and any buttery juices from the pan.
:: The Really Quite Good British Cookbook, edited by William Sitwell, photography by Lizzie Mayson, is published in hardback by Nourish, priced £25