kitchen friends

ABOUT this time of year my creativity in the kitchen flags. My ingredient larder remains solid – meat, fish, game, dairy, backbone winter greens: leeks, brassicas, long lasting celeriac, fennel and more. It’s not that I’m bored with ingredients, it’s more that I’ve used up any new or original ideas that I had. Such a mood is only natural at this time in winter. But from the first whiff of wild garlic in spring, cooking inertia will give way to momentum.

Meanwhile, I’m falling back on my old kitchen friends, cooks whose dishes have earned their place in my personal recipe canon. These are dishes that are easy, failsafe, and most of them can be eaten once, twice or thrice in slightly different configurations.

Sabrina Ghayour is the first name in my culinary address book. My copy of Persiana is stained with frequent use. Once you’ve got the defining ingredient, dried Omani limes – found in any good Asian or Middle Eastern shop – then her Koresh-e-Gheymeh, one of Iran’s most popular, winningly sour stew of lamb and split peas – is a skoosh to make.

Her tagines are epic, my favourite being the black garlic and tomato one. I loved the pungency of these black, sticky, slow-cooked garlic cloves but hadn’t a clue what to do with them until Sabrina sorted me out.

READ OUR EATING OUT/EAT IN REVIEWS: Good food, bad service

She recommends lamb shank, but I’ve made it successfully with other cuts of bone-in lamb. The presence of a substantial amount of syrupy balsamic vinegar in this recipe balances the unctuous richness of the meat. This stalwart takes ten minutes to prepare, and then just cooks away happily.

Simon Hopkinson’s rendition of Coq au Vin takes a bit more effort, but mostly I have to remind myself that the chicken-skinned whole legs need marinaded in wine in advance.

Hopkinson would wince when I say that I’ve used cheap red wine to make it, but the results have still been pleasing. One fiddly thing about this dish is peeling small onions or shallots. The trick here is to soak them in boiling water for a minute first, then the skins slip off. Because you’re using leg this dish reheats well without drying out.

Gill Meller’s cooking introduces a calmness to any kitchen, and the aroma of his home baked beans bubbling on the stove – his mum’s family recipe – makes my mouth water.

So many US-style bean recipes are too sweet. Gill’s is a wonderful synergy of molasses, onions, and tomatoes with sharp vinegar, earthy mustard, and wintry herbs. Suitably truncated, this recipe works well with tinned beans in place of soaked beans. These beans make a meal when served on buttery sourdough toast with a fried egg or grated cheese on top, and they are sublime with sausages.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Ken Hom. Ken’s braised pork recipe uses belly, but I tend to use pork cheeks, which are cheap, and cook to a succulent softness. All you do is simmer them in a mixture of stock, rice wine, soy sauce, and sugar, along with spring onions, ginger, five spice powder. I like to add a star anise too. Served with rice and some steamed or very lightly cooked green vegetable, you’ve got a blindingly simple, easy meal.

READ OUR EATING OUT/EATIN GIN REVIEWS: So good, I'll pretend I makde it myself

Thoran is the classic ‘dry’ vegetable curry from Kerala, basically cabbage, carrot, and coconut stir-fried with spices.

Rick Stein’s recipe is reliable and straightforward. There are two provisos. First, you need fresh curry leaves for this recipe, available in any Asian grocery that takes its fresh herbs seriously. Dried leaves just don’t cut it. Second, breaking into, then grating a fresh coconut, is a mission, but one hard crack on concrete usually gets the ball rolling.

Lastly, there’s the River Cafe’s fish baked on tomatoes and potatoes. Just sizzle slices of boiled potatoes in a hot skillet with lots of olive oil, throw in a handful of cut cherry tomatoes, a few fronds of rosemary, place fish fillets – I use chunky haddock – on top with a couple of anchovies on each fillet, and season really well with salt and pepper.

Add a splash of white wine, liberal olive oil again, and into a high oven it goes. A fantastic meal, but with no faff.