Life

Recipes: Rick Stein is ripping up the rulebook in his new cookbook

The chef talks to Prudence Wade about cooking for his family in lockdown, putting his own spin on traditional dishes and why simple food is best...

Rick Stein was stuck in Australia during lockdown
By Prudence Wade, PA

RICK Stein has won countless accolades for his food over the years, but one of his greatest achievements came during the first lockdown of 2020.

His wife's 98-year-old grandmother, Betty, had gone off her food – until Stein started hosting weekly family dinners. “She made an exception for my food,” the 74-year-old says with glee.

“She had lots of it, she really tucked in. If we cook, we all love it if it's clear people enjoyed what you're cooking. And a 98-year-old tucking in with great gusto was quite special.”

Stein spent five months of 2020 in Sydney, when the pandemic meant he couldn't get back to his beloved Cornwall. The chef “feels bad” in saying he enjoyed the lockdown, because “everywhere, people suffered enormously” – but last year, Covid-related restrictions were eased earlier in Australia than the UK, meaning he had the opportunity to spend more time with his family and start hosting those weekly dinners.

He doesn't take this time for granted, saying it taught him “how much the business of life is unnecessary, in a way”. It allowed Stein to get back to his roots: cooking dinner for a small group of loved ones, revisiting some of his all-time favourite recipes.

Staying and cooking in one place also led him to write his latest book: Rick Stein At Home. He describes it as “fairly scruffy food” – the kind of meals you'll throw together in a hurry from whatever you have in the fridge. The book is “about what really goes on cooking-wise”, he explains, “as opposed to the slightly upmarket view of how I cook at home. I try to keep it as real as possible.”

Free from the shackles of fancy meals or culinary rules, Stein calls this kind of cooking “liberating”. Unlike his past books, which tend to be dedicated to a certain country, such as France, Spain or Greece, the recipes are “thoroughly eclectic” – just like normal home cooking is.

Although Stein's background is in French cooking – a cuisine full of strict directions on how things should and shouldn't be done – he ripped up the rulebook in many of the dishes here. “I'm thinking about my mother's risotto, because it's not a proper risotto,” he explains. “But I thought that's what we do cook, that's what the kids really like and I like for the kids. I'm not saying it's a proper risotto, it's more a rice pilaf, but my mother would call it her risotto.”

The book is peppered with stories and recipes from friends and family too. “I've got three sons [Edward, Jack and Charlie] and two step-kids, Zach and Olivia, and it was really nice how they all wanted to contribute recipes, I didn't interfere at all”, Stein says.

Luckily, the recipes “were all great”, he says enthusiastically – including Charlie's pad kra pao and Zach's vegan chilli, along with cottage pie from his wife Sas [Sarah] and dessert from his mother-in-law.

Mini essays punctuate the book's pages, with Stein's ruminations on everything from the redundancy of a first course (he much prefers loading up on fancy nibbles and then going straight into the main) to all the fancy food gadgets languishing unused in his garage.

Despite these captivating tales, Stein says with a hearty dose of humility: “I'm not a very good storyteller, as it happens” – although fans of his TV shows would surely beg to differ. “It's funny doing television, because I'm quite shy. If you're made to do something like speak on TV, it's a great way of concentrating your attention whether you like it or not, and it's the same with telling stories.”

To help focus his mind on the essays in the book, Stein dictated them. “The problem with writing is it's very easy to get distracted, but if you're dictating to somebody, you have to be talking, so it's a real concentrator of the mind. Also, if you're talking to somebody, you have to make it as funny or as meaningful as you can – so that's how I did it.”

With nearly 50 years in the industry and over 15 cookbooks under his belt, Stein's approach to food has changed since he was first starting out. “In the early days of running the restaurant, I felt like I had to emulate the great French chefs of the time and make everything incredibly complicated,” he admits. “Lots of garnishes, everything a bit too pretty.”

This is no longer the case: “I guess I try and keep things absolutely simple,” he says of his approach now. “I'm not chasing accolades in food, I just want people to like what I'm cooking.”

And if his grandmother-in-law Betty is anything to go by, it's safe to say Stein is doing alright.

Rick Stein At Home: Recipes, Memories And Stories From A Food Lover's Kitchen is published by BBC Books, priced £26. Photography by James Murphy. Available now. Below are three recipes for you to try at home...

Barbecued whole sea bass with fennel mayonnaise

(Serves 2)

2 x 450–500g sea bass, cleaned and trimmed of fins

2tbsp olive oil

1 bunch fennel herb

2tsp Pernod

Salt and black pepper

For the fennel mayonnaise:

1 egg yolk (at room temperature)

1 tsp white wine vinegar

150ml olive oil (not extra virgin)

½tsp Pernod

½tbsp finely chopped fennel herb

A few chives, finely chopped

Method:

Preheat a barbecue or an indoor grill. Slash each fish three or four times down each side and rub them with olive oil. Season well, inside and out, with salt and pepper, then push some of the fennel herb into the gut cavity. For the mayonnaise, put the egg yolk, vinegar and a pinch of salt into a bowl or food processor and whisk together. Start adding the oil very slowly, literally a drop at a time at first. If you go too quickly, your mayonnaise will split. Then keep adding the oil in a very slow, fine stream until the mixture is really thick. Stir in the Pernod, the chopped fennel and chives. Check the seasoning, adding more salt if required, then set aside. Barbecue the fish for five to seven minutes. Sprinkle each with a teaspoon of Pernod, then carefully turn them over and cook for a further five to seven minutes until they are cooked right through to the backbone. If you're using an indoor grill you probably won't need to turn them over, but they may take a few more minutes. Use the browned side as the presentation side. Carefully remove the fish from the barbecue or grill and serve with the mayonnaise, boiled new potatoes and a green salad.

Apple charlotte

(Serves 4)

125g butter

350g Bramley apples

350g Cox's apples

2tbsp sugar

A little grated lemon zest, to taste

6–8 slices white bread, about 5mm thick, crusts removed

Custard, clotted cream or ice cream to serve

Method:

Grease a pudding basin, about 15cm in diameter and 10cm deep, with plenty of the butter. Peel, core and finely slice the apples. Rinse in cold water and put them in a saucepan with the sugar, lemon zest and 30g of the butter. Cook to a pulp over a low heat and then beat to a puree with a wooden spoon. Allow to cool. Preheat the oven to 200°C/Fan 180°C. Melt the remaining butter. Dip each slice of bread into the butter and then line a pudding basin with about three quarters of the slices. Pack them in tightly and don't leave any gaps. Spoon in the cooled apple puree and cover with the remaining buttered pieces of bread and gently push down. Tightly cover the pudding with foil and bake for about 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for a further eight to 10 minutes until the top is golden brown. Leave the pudding to rest for five minutes before turning out on to a serving plate. Serve with custard, clotted cream or ice cream.

Cornish briam

(Serves 6-8)

150ml olive oil, plus extra for greasing

500g waxy new potatoes, peeled and cut lengthways into 5mm slices

400g carrots, peeled or scrubbed and sliced lengthways

2 large courgettes (about 400g) sliced lengthways

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

5–6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

300g Tenderstem broccoli

4 large tomatoes (or 6 medium), thickly sliced

1 red or green finger chilli, sliced

Handful flatleaf parsley, chopped

A few thyme sprigs, leaves stripped from the woody stalks

200ml passata

100g feta cheese, crumbled

Salt and black pepper

Method:

Preheat the oven to 190°C/Fan 170°C. Grease a roasting tin or a shallow, lidded casserole dish with oil. Spread the potato slices in a single layer and season well with salt and pepper. Layer the carrots on top, then the courgettes, then the onion and garlic, seasoning each layer with plenty of salt and pepper. Scatter over the broccoli and cover it with tomato slices. Add the chilli, herbs and a final sprinkling of salt and pepper. Pour over the passata and the olive oil. Cover the roasting tin tightly with foil or put a tight-fitting lid on the dish and place in the oven for about one-and-a-quarter hours. Sprinkle over the crumbled feta and return the tin to the oven, uncovered, for a further 15–20 minutes. Allow it to cool slightly before serving as a side dish or as a main with crusty bread or rice.

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