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Backpacking around the kitchen

Isabel Lloyd unpacks the friendly, slangy recipes of Allegra McEvedy

Isabel Lloyd | November/December 2013

What are the things that Allegra McEvedy, a clever, jolly but by her own admission restlessly rebellious west-Londoner, likes? Parties, home-grown veg, good knives—and parties. McEvedy, a graduate of the River Café in the early 1990s when, in her words, it "stank of success", excels at sharing a sense of fun both on the page and in her restaurants. She spent two years "cooking for the talent" at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill in New York, opened an everybody's-welcome, arts-centre café in Notting Hill in 1998, and in 2004 co-founded the "healthy fast-food" chain Leon. Her first book, "The Good Cook", came out in 2000; five more have followed, all championing seasonal, organic and good-for-you food, spiced with an insistence on enjoyment. A traveller since childhood, she's as confident discussing the cuisines of Norway and Malawi as of France and Spain—reading her is like going backpacking with a friend who enjoys a drink, but knows what to cook to get rid of your hangover.

MAIN INFLUENCES  Her mother, who died when McEvedy was 17, left behind a treasured file of recipes copied from magazines. McEvedy would come home from school, do her homework (or not), and use it to cook for the family. A publisher later mislaid it, and the loss haunts her: everything she's published smacks of the scrapbook, that feeling of important memories scrabbled for and stitched together. Other than that, the great explainers of the Mediterranean: Elizabeth David (whose grave in Sussex she admits to falling on during a drunken visit) and Claudia Roden, whose books she recommends you "take to bed for at least a couple of weeks".

TABLE MANNER  Chatty, informal, slangy; she chucks words about like a roadhouse chef flipping burgers. McEvedy is not a starched-napkin kind of gal. Instead she invites readers into her life, feeding them homey anecdotes about how she sets her chefs good-natured challenges to identify which ingredient they'd take to a desert island. The result is disarming: she tends to make you feel anything is possible. Only when you finish cooking do you realise she's persuaded you to spend four hours turning 33 ingredients into a silky-rich fish stew with an anchovy and rosemary aioli.

FAVOURITE INGREDIENTS  A taste for combining heat with sourness means that chilli, garlic, coriander and all the citrus fruits are on permanent standby. But saturated fats, wheat flour and sucrose get pushed to the back of the store-cupboard; McEvedy makes gooseberry fool with yogurt, not cream, and sweetens it with elderflower cordial rather than heaps of caster sugar.

TYPICAL DISH  Roasted sweet potato, halloumi and cherry-tomato kebabs are punched up with cayenne pepper and garlic, then served with a chunky drizzle of chopped chilli, spring onions, coriander, olive oil and lime juice. She says herself that this started life as a salad, and it's typical of her laid-back style to make it win either way.

WHAT WORKS  Her spicing. A cheat's tagine of Moroccan lamb slow-cooked with onions, saffron, ras el hanout, coriander and cumin is a centrepiece dish for a party; bland pumpkin wakes right up when slathered with cumin, honey and flaked almonds. And she's both authoritative and inventive with American classics: her oaty buttermilk pancakes manage to be tart, fluffy and filling all at the same time.

WHAT DOESN'T  Texture is not a strong point. McEvedy's versions of Indonesian curries and Chinese sweet-and-sour dishes tend to the authentically watery, but Europeans prefer their sauces gloopier, so they stick to the bones. And her informality can tip into sloppiness. She sometimes fails to explain crucial bits of technique and can wildly under- or over-estimate quantities: the amount of caramel she suggests for topping the apples in tarte Tatin would swamp an orchard.

COOK HER BECAUSE  She puts the whole world on your table, and keeps you (relatively) healthy while she’s at it.

Big Table, Busy Kitchen by Allegra McEvedy is out now

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