Darina Allen on a mission to teach everyone how to cook
As Darina Allen, of the world-renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School, shares her lifetime of experience in her new book, she tells Jenny Lee about her quest to get everyone cooking from scratch and her campaign to get practical cookery lessons at the heart of the school curriculum
"I'M on a mission" are the words with which Ballymaloe chef Darina Allen greets me, as I call her to talk about her latest book, How to Cook: The 100 Essential Recipes Everyone Should Know.
One of Ireland's best known food ambassadors, the chef and TV personality has always said she wanted to write a collection of straightforward recipes that no child should leave school without, to enable them to be independent and healthy.
The Covid pandemic gave her the time to fulfil this life-long passion, and when it became apparent that it wasn't just young people who couldn't cook, but highly successful business people too, she expanded the book into the huge how to cook manual it is today.
"Covid has been a big wake up call for a lot of people," says the 73-year-old.
"During the first lockdown, people found themselves faced with the reality of having to provide 21 meals a week for their family, yet they could scarcely make toast."
She admits to getting her fair share of cries for help. "A highly successful CEO of a multinational company was in tears on the end of the phone - she scarcely knew how to shop for food, not to mention cook it."
Darina, who runs the highly successful Ballymaloe Cookery School with her brother Rory O'Connell, responded to the pandemic by converting her back kitchen into a makeshift studio and doing online classes, as well as expanding their farm shop.
"We kept on many of our staff and had a large food shop enabling people to purchase fresh sourdough bread, soups, stews and pies, as well as fresh fruit and veg," she enthuses.
Wanting to do more, she hopes her latest book will give people of all ages the confidence to "cook good food from scratch time and time again".
How to Cook, which is illustrated by Darina's daughter Lydia Hugh Jones, includes a large selection of everyday staples, and recipes that form the basis of cooking, from sauces and flavoured butter to salad dressings, bread and making your own stock.
"If people have about 20 basic cooking techniques, they can build upon them and have the confidence to cook all kinds of creations," she says.
Darina acknowledges the busy lives many people lead today and stresses that cooking from scratch does not need to take up a lot of time, and that it can save you money and help the environment by cutting down waste.
"If you can cook, you can take a few inexpensive ingredients like potatoes cabbage or bacon and make a delicious meal. If you can't cook you are all the time buying something new and throwing something out," she observes.
"A bag of potatoes doesn't cost much, they are so nourishing and the possibilities are endless. We have forgotten how easy it is to make chips from potatoes rather than buying frozen chips.
"An omelette can be made in 40 seconds, yet you can add so many things to it, from a bit of grated cheese to chilli and coriander, Mexican or Middle Eastern flavours.
"You could then turn that one little dish into so many others - in a sandwich for work or cut into strips on top of a salad or soup."
Darina's other secrets to stress-free cooking are meal planning, batch cooking and having a well-stocked store cupboard "so you can rustle up meals in minutes".
However, it's the health and habits of future generations that the grandmother of 11 is most passionate about. She is campaigning, with an online Uplift petition, to the Irish Education Minister Norma Foley, to re-embed practical cooking and other life skills in the school curriculum.
"The whole emphasis in education since the '50s has been to concentrate on the STEM subjects rather than learning how to cook and grow things. It's a huge mistake," says Darina.
"No Irish child, boy or girl should leave school without being able to cook for themselves. Otherwise, we are undeniably, failing in our duty of care to our young people.
"When you teach someone how to cook, you give them a gift that will forever enhance their lives. Food affects our mental and physical health and is at the heart of the fight to tackle the climate crisis."
Darina stresses that her words are no way an indictment of the many enthusiastic home economics teachers who, due to other pressures, are hard pressed to fit in enough practical classes.
"Sadly there is also still a stigma, particularly for boys, about cooking. Every child needs to be given the joy of cooking and the satisfaction of being able to put together a spontaneous meal in minutes and share it with their friends. And we all know the way to a person's heart is through their stomach," she laughs.
How to Cook is Darina's twentieth book and the one she is "most delighted with". Although she had thought this would be her last, she already has "various ideas" for another.
With her daughter-in-law, Rachel Allen, also launching her new book, Soup, Broth, Bread, this month, I ask if they have they ever contemplated doing a joint book or television show?
"We haven't; but that is another thought," she ponders.
:: Darina Allen: How to Cook The 100 Essential Recipes Everyone Should Know is published by Kyle and is out now. Information on courses and Ballymaloe Cookery School at Cookingisfun.ie.
EVERYONE'S FAVOURITE MAC & CHEESE
225g (8oz) macaroni or ditalini
50g (2oz) butter
150g (5oz) onion, finely chopped
50g (2oz) plain flour
850ml (1½ pints) boiling whole milk
¼ teaspoon Dijon or English mustard
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)
225g (8oz) freshly grated mature Cheddar cheese or a mix of Cheddar, Gruyère and Parmesan
25g (1oz) freshly grated Cheddar or Parmesan cheese, for sprinkling on top (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring 3.4 litres (6 pints) water to the boil in a large saucepan and add 2 teaspoons of salt. Sprinkle in the macaroni and stir to make sure it doesn't stick together. Cook according to the packet instructions until just soft. Drain well.
Meanwhile, melt the butter over a gentle heat, add the chopped onion, stir to coat, cover and sweat over a gentle heat for 6–8 minutes. Add the flour and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 1–2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk the milk in gradually, season well with salt and pepper, then return to the boil, stirring constantly. Add the mustard, parsley, if using, and cheese.
Add the well-drained macaroni and return to the boil. Season to taste and serve immediately.
Alternatively, turn into a 1.2-litre (2-pint) pie dish and sprinkle the extra grated cheese over the top. Bake at 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 for 15–20 minutes.
GOOD THINGS WITH MAC & CHEESE
Smoked salmon or smoked mackerel
Add 225g (8oz) smoked salmon or smoked mackerel dice to the mac and cheese before serving.
Mushrooms and courgettes
Add 225g (8oz) sliced sautéed mushrooms and 225g (8oz) sliced courgettes cooked in olive oil with a little garlic and marjoram or basil to the cooked mac and cheese. Toss gently, turn into a hot serving dish and scatter with grated cheese and serve or reheat later.
Add 225g (8oz) diced chorizo and lots of chopped flat-leaf parsley to the mac and cheese before baking.