Life

How to put a twist on classic dishes – according to two MasterChef winners

Fancy trying some MasterChef dishes yourself? Past winners Ping Coombes and Shelina Permalloo tell Ella Walker their secrets, as outlined in a new cookbook

Shelina Permalloo, winner of MasterChef 2012

THE latest series of MasterChef has kicked off with Greg Wallace, Marcus Wareing and Monica Galetti putting professional chefs through their paces. And now home cooks can have a go, too, thanks to new cookbook, MasterChef: The Classics With A Twist.

The 100-strong recipe collection is filled with nifty culinary ideas and traditional dishes that have been pepped up and innovated, thanks to past winners of the amateur MasterChef competitions.

For starters, there's Natalie Coleman's smoky aubergine parmigiana arancini and chilli con carne samosas. Or, try Tim Anderson's xian-style roast leg of lamb and prawn cocktail tacos. Then there's Simon Wood's French onion rarebit soup and Irish cream bread and butter pudding.

We caught up with 2014 champion Ping Coombes and 2012 winner Shelina Permalloo to find out more about embellishing classics and how the MasterChef experience can change your life.

For Coombes, adding Asian ingredients to dishes comes naturally. "I'm used to changing things to my liking because I'm married to an Englishman and I'm Malaysian, so I put a lot of Malaysian ingredients into my food."

Take her lamb ragu with lemongrass and ginger ("It's Italian fusion with Asian ingredients, and I serve it with linguine,") while in the book, she shares an apple and blackberry pie flavoured with cardamom that uses activated charcoal: "The pastry turns jet black, it still tastes the same, but it looks completely different."

It's about being clever, not completely overhauling an entire iconic dish, she explains: "Don't go overboard." Instead, "keep the core flavours, but then maybe add one or two ingredients that you love, or are a bit unusual, or make it look different."

"The whole point is: How can we elevate a normal home cooked meal into something a bit more MasterCheffy?" adds Permalloo. "Sometimes it doesn't necessarily need to be about the technical skills involved, for me, it's about a true balance of flavour that can take something from being ordinary, to being sublime."

Mauritian flavourings are crucial in Permalloo's cooking, and there's one fruit she cannot do without. "I have a mango obsession," she buzzes. "I think I used mango in every single recipe in the final of MasterChef."

Coombes, meanwhile, is all about lemongrass ("I have a tonne of them in the freezer,") as well as ginger, garlic and a range of chilli sauces, which she says are particularly versatile: "Sweet chilli sauce can be just dip, you can make a lovely dressing, it can be put in a dish to sweeten it up – it's just about knowing how to use your ingredients to the best of your ability."

So, what does it take to win MasterChef? "A lot of determination," says Coombes, "and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but it's a lot of fun as well.

"I was at the deepest darkest hour of my life, I'd got made redundant," she adds, on why she applied. "I wanted to do something I wanted, which I love, which is to cook – but I didn't do it to win."

"A real love to want to change your life and cook," is paramount, agrees Permalloo. "That's the most important thing."

But could you handle the pressure?

"Everyone can cook, but not everyone can deal with pressure well – that is the most challenging aspect," says Coombes of the MasterChef experience. "You're cooking in a foreign place with foreign utensils, with a time limit and people talking to you; you have to cope with a lot, while actually trying to give your all."

Permalloo remembers being taken to Thailand for a street food market challenge, in 45 degree heat: "We had no idea what half the ingredients were, I think one of the guys had to cook with cockroach paste!"

"You can call yourself a chef, but when you go to a new country, I don't think you can justify that, because you don't know what the ingredients are in front of you," she says. "You just have to use your own intuition to figure out how it works."

Coombes now runs restaurants in London and Birmingham. While MasterChef launched her food career, she says, "it's definitely really hard being a MasterChef champion, having been a home cook, and then suddenly people expecting you to be this professional cook within 24 hours of winning."

Since winning the show, Permalloo has written two cookbooks and worked in Michelin star restaurants, and has opened her own joint, Lakaz Maman. "It's a real whirlwind as soon as you leave the show and start experiencing what it's like to work in a professional kitchen," she recalls. "You sink or swim really, really quickly."

:: MasterChef The Classics With A Twist is published by DK, priced £25. Photography David Loftus. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.

PEA AND WHITE TRUFFLE SOUP WITH PARMESAN GALETTES

(Serves 4-6)

250g frozen peas or petit pois, plus 1 tsp for the galettes

450ml hot vegetable stock

A few thyme springs, leaves picked

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1-2tbsp creme fraiche (optional)

White truffle oil, to serve

For the galettes:

80g (3oz) Parmesan cheese, finely grated

2 slices Serrano ham

1 packet pea shoots

Small handful of mint tips (the very tiny new growth buds at the end of the stem) or 6 mint leaves

Viola flowers

Method

Put the peas in a bowl, then pour over boiling water and leave to stand for about five minutes. Drain. Put the peas (setting aside one teaspoon for the galettes), stock, and thyme leaves in a blender and blend until smooth and combined, in batches if necessary. Add more stock if the soup is too thick. Season well with salt and pepper, and blend again.

For the galettes, heat a heavy-based non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and sprinkle four thin layers of Parmesan to make a galette wide enough for your serving cups. When the cheese starts to melt, wait about two minutes, until it turns golden and bubbly. Remove from heat, leave for about one minute, then transfer to a wire rack.

Finely shred the ham into strips. Scatter each galette with the reserved petit pois, viola petals, pea shoots and mint. To serve, stir the creme fraiche (if using) into the soup, use a hand-held blender to froth up the liquid, pour into serving bowls or cups, and spoon a head of froth over each. Add a few drops of truffle oil to each cup and top with a Parmesan galette balanced on each cup.

NO-COOK RAINBOW PAD THAI

(Serves 4)

250g wide or medium rice noodles

Vegetable oil, to coat

1 carrot, shredded

1/4 red cabbage, shredded

100g beansprouts

Bunch of spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped

Small handful coriander leaves, chopped, plus extra to garnish

75g dry-roasted peanuts, roughly chopped

For the dressing:

1 garlic clove, grated

1tbsp grated ginger

Juice of 1 lime

1tbsp vegetarian 'fish sauce' (optional)

2tsp tamarind paste

1tbsp honey

1tbsp light soy sauce

1tbsp sriracha

1/2tsp sesame oil

2tbsp smooth peanut butter

Method

Soak the noodles in boiling water for 10-15 minutes until soft. Drain and run under cold water. Drizzle with a little vegetable oil to coat the noodles so that they don't stick. Place the noodles in a large bowl with the carrot, red cabbage, beansprouts, spring onions, and coriander. Combine all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk well to combine. Season to taste.

Pour the dressing onto the noodles and vegetables and toss thoroughly. The best way to make sure they are well incorporated is to use your hands to massage the noodles with the dressing. Serve with the chopped peanuts on top and a scattering of coriander leaves to garnish.

PINA COLADA SYLLABUB WITH CANDIED PINEAPPLE

(Serves 4)

For the candied pineapple:

4 thin slices of fresh pineapple, skin removed

250g caster sugar

For the syllabub:

Juice of 1 lime

4-5tbsp caster sugar

300ml double cream

50g finely chopped pineapple

1/3 coconut, finely grated, toasted in a dry pan

Finely grated lime zest, to decorate

Method

The day before you plan to serve the syllabub, prepare the candied pineapple. Place the pineapple slices into boiling water and blanch for 1 minute, then submerge into iced water to cool. Drain.

Place 240ml of water in a saucepan. Add 200g of the sugar and dissolve gently over a low heat. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the pineapple slices. Do not stir, but move the pan to ensure the pineapple slices are fully immersed. Simmer for one and a half hours. Remove the pineapple from the pan with a slotted spoon. Toss with the remaining 50g of sugar, and leave to dry for at least 24 hours on a wire rack before using.

To make the syllabub, place the lime juice in a bowl, add the sugar, and stir until it starts to dissolve. Pour in the cream and whisk until the mixture forms soft peaks. Fold in the chopped pineapple and toasted coconut. Spoon into four serving glasses, and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes. Garnish with the lime zest and a slice of candied pineapple.

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