First, wash your hands: Sally Clarke’s new book for non-cooks
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I’ve been wondering what it would be like to have Sally Clarke as a mother. I should explain. The chef patron of the beloved Clarke’s restaurant in Notting Hill has written a book (her third) called First Put on Your Apron. It’s aimed at novice cooks who find the idea of creating a meal out of groceries “somewhat frightening”. By her reckoning, that includes young adults focused on their careers who subsist on snacks and ready meals; executives who dine out every night of the week; and the newly single, divorced or widowed who are now fending for themselves.
It also includes students, in particular Clarke’s son Samuel who inspired the book. At the time, Samuel was about to take a gap year to be a choral scholar at Portsmouth Cathedral. “The thought of him going to a grotty flat with some unknown flatmates,” Clarke says, “I just had kittens thinking about how he was going to cope.” This surprises me because, as Clarke notes in the book, Samuel benefitted from a fairly enviable “edible education”, “born out of trips to farmers’ markets on summer trips to France and Italy” and from watching her cook at home.
In fact, her teenage son was now an inventive cook who enjoyed making recipes from the internet or TikTok. But Clarke’s apprehension when Samuel headed off to Royal Holloway university the following year will be familiar to many mothers. Clarke describes feeling “fearful for his sustenance, wellbeing and general health during those years away from my watchful eye”. My mother still feels this way and I’m now in my 40s.
Clarke’s misgivings about her son’s capacity to survive away from home led her to scribble down some kitchen confidences: “It was, literally, put your apron on, wash your hands often, don’t sneeze over anything, keep the sink neat and tidy,” she recalls. She then added recipes. Later, she broadened it out to appeal to inexperienced cooks from all walks of life.
Naturally there is plenty of advice on cooking, from how to dice an onion to blanching and peeling a tomato. The seasonal recipes, which range in difficulty from “technically straightforward” to “requiring time and modest technique”, include warm porridge with brown sugar; baked eggs; mushrooms on toast; pumpkin, blue cheese and walnut galette; pea and celery risotto; cod and smoked haddock pie; rhubarb and Bramley apple muffins; strawberry Pavlova; and baked cheese in a box (a surefire winner). Some, like the braised pheasant or rabbit pappardelle, may be beyond the average student (at least in terms of expense), but their inclusion adds a level of aspiration for the older cook and both recipes work with chicken just as well.
Given I’m not the primary audience for this book, I consult a few people who are, eliciting feedback from the teenage kids of How to Spend It editors. The verdict? Despite some grumbling about how long some of the recipes are (the longest is three pages) and how long it takes to prepare certain dishes (Gen Z is clearly very pressed for time), the consensus was that everything tasted great.
HTSI editor Jo Ellison also found herself the target reader. Describing herself as a “horribly lazy cook” who lets her husband do all the cooking, she now finds herself “embarrassingly de-skilled”. She says: “What I like about Sally Clarke’s book is that she allows us all some latitude. There’s no pressure to deliver a cooked meal in the traditional sense: I love that she offers a ‘recipe’ for a tuna sandwich: it takes away the shame and stigma around what might be considered proper food. She makes it all seem manageable and effortless. And as someone who, left to their own devices, subsists on apples, oatcakes and shop-bought hummus, I will be using it to restore my confidence in the kitchen and make some tiny expansions in the repertoire.”
Clarke’s book goes back to basics even in its non-culinary advice. There is, for example, a section on how one should wash up. At first, I thought this was excessive. But then I realised that while I know how to stack a dishwasher (and it still bugs me that so many people don’t – you need to scrape the food off first), no one ever taught me how to wash up properly, in terms of the order to tackle plates, glasses, pots and pans, and the best technique for washing, rinsing and draining. I must sound like a dope. But who ever bothers to explain these things? My mother was too busy feeding me samosa.
Pinnies on . . .
Pea & celery risotto with pea leaves
This recipe works well using fish stock, but I prefer not to use cheese with fish – this is a personal preference, so see what works best for you.
600ml vegetable, fish, chicken or ham stock
4tbsp olive oil
1tsp finely chopped thyme
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
½ bulb fennel, finely diced
250g arborio or carnaroli rice
1 glass dry white wine
250g fresh or frozen peas (defrosted)
A handful pea leaves, rocket or parsley
75g grated Parmesan or fresh goat’s cheese (or a mixture of both), plus 20g extra Parmesan, to serve
Gently bring the stock to a simmer in a small pan. Meanwhile, place olive oil, butter and thyme in a heavy-based pan and heat until starting to sizzle. Add the onion, celery and fennel and cook until they start to soften. Add the rice, season with salt and pepper and cook over a medium heat until the oils have been absorbed. Add the wine and stir well for 1–2 minutes while it is absorbed by the rice.
Little by little, add the warm stock over a low heat, stirring from time to time. This will take up to 15 minutes. If using fresh peas, add them halfway through the cooking time. Once the rice is cooked to your liking, add the pea leaves and defrosted peas (if using), then check the consistency. It should be soupy but not too liquid, and the grains of rice should be part of the liquid, not separated from it.
Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the cheese and taste for seasoning. Allow the risotto to settle for 30–60 seconds before pouring into a warm dish and serving with a little grated Parmesan on the side.
Baked cheese in a box
Serves 2, 3 or even 4
1 “boxed” cheese of your choice – ideally Baron
Bigod, Tunworth, Camembert or Vacherin
1 large clove garlic, centre shoot removed if present
¼–½ loaf bread of your choice
Good olive oil
Runny honey (optional)
Heat the oven to 180°C/fan oven 160°C/mark 4.
Unwrap the cheese (if in paper) and return to the balsa wood box. With a small, sharp knife, pierce the top skin of the cheese in 10 or 12 evenly spaced places. Slice the garlic finely and gently push a slice, along with a small sprig of rosemary, into each hole. Place the cheese (in its box) into an ovenproof serving dish and bake for 5 minutes or until the tips of garlic and rosemary start to colour.
Meanwhile, slice the bread into eight or 10 chunks or slices for dipping. Remove the dish from the oven and place the bread around the outside of the cheese. Drizzle them with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Return the dish to the oven for a further 8–10 minutes or until the toasts are golden at the edges and the cheese has started to ooze from the side.
Serve on warm plates, drizzled with honey if you like, and using the breads to dip into the molten cheese.
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