Jenny Bristow talks about Mary Berry, Nigel Slater and giving food a healthy twist
With the great weather we've been having, Jenny Bristow is keen to get more of us cooking outdoors. She tells Jenny Lee about keeping it simple and healthy, watching her heart, and how she gets mistaken for Mary Berry's daughter
FOR the past three decades, Jenny Bristow has been an omnipresent figure in food circles across Ireland. Her highly acclaimed television programmes, cookbooks and ability to create new ideas and twists using readily available ingredients have earned her a firm following.
The food writer, who opened her own cookery school at her Cullybackey home three years ago, admits that she is as busy as ever – but is beginning to "mellow" as the years pass and her simple approach to life is reflected in her cooking.
"The lovely thing about food is that it just keeps evolving and changing. We have fantastic produce here and it's all about doing less and getting better results,” says Jenny, who is proud to serve as Ireland's Good Food Ambassador.
Making the most of our recent spells of sunshine, Jenny has been experimenting with al fresco cooking and will be demonstrating cooking in a cast iron outdoor oven at this month's Dalriada Festival at Glenarm Castle.
"I've been going to Dalriada for a number of years. Every year they reinvent it and this time we are going to be in the kitchen garden doing outdoor cooking, using produce from their estate, such as apricots and artichokes.
"We will be showcasing the whole range of things you can make cooking in an outdoor wood-burning stove, like puddings, sundried tomato bread with feta cheese, smoked scallops and, of course, Glenarm salmon.
"Delicious and healthy al fresco food can come together in a flash. With outdoor eating you can cook things so simply with easy salads and salt-crusted potatoes with Himalayan salt. I even made a wonderful baked Alaska – that old fashioned desert that people made years ago – on it recently.
Although Jenny believes there is currently a theme of nostalgia going on with food, she is proud of being able to pass on healthier ideas on classic dishes – and she recently tested this out on her own mother.
"My mum was here for lunch at the weekend and I cooked the salmon with teriyaki, ginger and chilli. She said 'I always cook salmon in butter, lemon and white wine – I never thought of doing that and it's lovely'.
"One of my favourite puddings is vanilla ice cream, with espresso coffee and a swirl of Tia Maria over the top. It's so much easier than slaving over a black forest gateau, which is about 1,000 calories per slice!
"Thankfully we no longer feel the need to get the best dinner set out. The easy, casual way of hospitality is really exciting and a great time to still be involved in food."
Four years ago Jenny underwent a triple heart bypass. I ask her, if has that influenced her diet?
"No, I've always followed a very healthy diet and walk four or five miles a day – though the dog seems to be losing more weight than I am,” she laughs.
"Unfortunately we have a family history of heart problems. My dad died in his early 40s and my younger brother also had to have a heart operation the same time as I had as we both had a faulty gene."
Jenny's love affair with food began as a child, growing up on a dairy farm in Coleraine and foraging for berries. While she grows her own herbs, radishes, potatoes, rhubarb, raspberries and strawberries and has apple, plum, fig and kiwi trees in her garden, she has to share the space with husband Bobby's hobbies.
"I have a husband who is an engineer who has to be doing things that are crazy," laughs Jenny, who is thankful that he has never completed a long-running project of building a light aircraft. "As long as we never get to the time it takes off, I'll be happy."
When it comes to own palate, Jenny admits she has a soft spot for fruit desserts.
"For me, food is all about the sense of occasion. My choice depends on the mood I'm in and where I am. If I happen to be in Portrush or Carnlough I will instantly want to eat fish. But I love fruit desserts of any shape or form.
When hosting, Jenny is constantly experimenting.
"I don't follow recipe books. I cook what's in season and fresh. Now I'm loving asparagus – with fish or steak – so simple, but delicious.
“I'm also currently working on an idea of making a lovely light vanilla Pimms cheesecake with ricotta cheese, with fruit and Pimms and a lovely coulis over the top."
Jenny's 13th cookbook, Jenny Cooks, was published three years ago and if she had time to "still long enough” she would finish her 14th. So will we see her back on our TV screens any time soon?
“We haven't done anything for a couple of years, but you never know. Maybe I will do a Mary Berry and come back and do a series in my 80s.”
Jenny is full of admiration for Mary and she admits to even been having mistaken as her daughter. "Mary is amazing. I love everything she does and the way she does it. People call us Mary Berry and Jenny Plum,” she laughs.
When it comes to watching cookery programmes and celebrity chefs, Jenny has a firm favourite. “I absolutely adore Nigel Slater and the simple way he puts together recipes together with five ingredients.”
Recognising that people's lives are busy juggling families and careers, Jenny advises readers that it's fine to take short cuts. "You can take readily available produce and put your own healthy stamp on them – like a one-pot dish with chicken drumsticks, vegetables and low-fat coconut milk.”
Jenny, who taught home economics for eight years at Cambridge House Grammar school in Ballymena, is passionate about getting children interested in cooking at an early age.
"Don't be afraid to let children experiment and get your kitchen messed,” advises the mum of three and grandmother of eight.
:: The Dalriada Festival takes place on July 14 and 15 at Glenarm Castle with a range of fun activities, music and fine food. Community events in Glenarm then continue until July 21. For full information and tickets visit Dalriadafestival.co.uk
CRAB AND SAMPHIRE FRITTATA
1 bunch spring onions, finely shredded
150g cooked crab meat cooked
150g cooked new potatoes, cut into 1cm cubes
Small handful samphire – about 150g
8 eggs, beaten
Small bunch fresh chives, finely snipped
Salt and pepper
Mix the spring onions with 1tbsp of the olive oil and season well. Put a heavy 25cm
frying pan in a Morso, or similar wood-burning stove, on a bed of hot embers and when the pan is well heated, add the spring onions and cook for one-to-two minutes until softened.
Add the softened spring onions to the beaten eggs and stir in the chives. Add the crab meat, samphire and potatoes. Season well. Swirl another three tbsp of olive oil in the base of the pan, reheat the pan in the oven and add the egg mixture. Put the pan in the oven and let the eggs cook until set moving the pan around from time to time.
When the frittata is set, take the pan out and let it rest for a minute before sliding the crab frittata out of the pan. Serve hot for lunch or cold as part of a picnic.
BANANA AND CHOCOLATE CAKE
2 Ripe Bananas peeled and mashed
100g good quality milk chocolate chopped into liIle bits
200g caster sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
300g self raising flour
3 eggs beaten
Line a 24cm round cake tin with baking parchment. Melt the butter and sugar together in a saucepan on the hob or in your oven. Mix the banana with the eggs and vanilla extract. Mix the chocolate with the flour.
When the butter has melted and sugar dissolved, cool for three minutes before mixing everything together in a large bowl. When mixed, put the cake batter into the prepared cake tin and bake in the oven at about 200C until skewer comes out clean – about 30-35 mins. Cool and serve with a cup of tea or cut while warm and serve with vanilla ice cream.