Frozen veg and double dinners: chefs are changing how they cook during lockdown
They're not cooking for us anymore, but why are they pouring water on burgers? Crazy times!
Did you ever think Scott Hallsworth, the Australian ex-Nobu chef, founder of Soho restaurant Freakscene and author of cookbook Junk Food Japan would resort to cooking with frozen spinach? Or that self-confessed carnivore Christian Stevenson (aka DJ BBQ) would be eating less meat and two dinners a night?
With the nation is in lockdown, Britain's chefs are still feeding us foodie inspiration via the TV, social media and the pages of our favourite sauce-splattered cookbooks.
But now restaurants are shut, deliveries reign supreme and supermarkets are running bare, we wondered how chefs are coping – and what on earth are they are cooking at home?
We asked Scott, Christian, and vegan crusader Nicki Skidmore to tell us what's changing for them in the kitchen. They've shared a typical day's food diary and a simple recipe we can all try – and been really honest with us. Here goes.
The Junk Food devotee
Photography © David Loftus
Australian-born Scott Hallsworth was head chef at Nobu for six years. Here, he mastered the ins and outs of Japanese cuisine before founding and running three Kurobuta restaurants located in the city's Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Marble Arch areas until May 2017.
He lives in London and normally runs South Asian restaurant Freak Scene in Soho. He's also the author of bestselling cookbook Junk Food Japan. Buckle up, a lot has changed for Scott (possibly the nicest panic buyer we know).
What has changed for you Scott?
For a long time I didn't care about what I ate. I often grabbed whatever would fill up quickly on a double shift. Hamburgers for breakfast, a bowl of rice with a blob of spicy mayo... or I'd a dive into a late night chicken joint.
Last year I quit eating meat, and being in my mid-40’s I've started to consider nutrition more so I can manage every day to its fullest. New eating habits aren't easy to sustain right now, but I’m nailing my new direction.
The Covid-19 virus is sweeping through our communities changing everything, including eating habits. Initially, I fell victim to panic buying and I've changed the way I cooked at home. My three kids live with their mum in West Sussex so I won’t have a chance to see them much, if at all, during the lockdown. Can’t wait until it’s over!
How are you coping in lockdown?
When I first came to London in 2001, I bought a book called We’ll Eat Again by Marguerite Patten OBE. It’s a collection of recipes based on cooking with rations during WWII. I read it again in lockdown and was blown away by how they made creative meals out of nothing.
I lined up at my local Waitrose for half an hour to find the fruit and veg section barren, so I grabbed some frozen spinach. If I can’t get my kale or ripe avocados, who cares. Thinking of those folks creating meals during horrible war years, I have a lot to be thankful for.
What positives have come out of your lockdown experience so far?
This is the perfect time to clear out the pantry and use up those half used bags of lentils and pasta in the shadowy corners of the cupboard. I have a bit of extra time on my hands to figure out what to do with all the opened packets of seeds, nuts and dried fruits I found and try some new recipes. One-pot dinners hide most oddities.
Scott's food diary
Scott's sweet potato fries are our lockdown snack of dreams. Photography © David Loft
I mixed up seeds and dried fruit with oats, coconut milk, fresh banana and honey and let it steep overnight into a killer Bircher muesli (the trendy name nowadays is overnight oats). This was probably the best version I’ve ever made, and done with my kitchen cupboard castaways.
I found some canned mackerel and made a Thai mackerel toast. It's a dish my partner, Phar, used to get served up by her granny as a kid in Thailand. Drain off the mackerel and mix it up with a little fish sauce, sliced red onion, a pinch of sugar, a solid squeeze of lemon or lime juice, chilli flakes and fresh coriander. Whack a nice mound of this onto warm buttered toast.
In Japan there’s a whole category of cooking dedicated to one-pot dishes called Nabemono, and they are generally incredible creations. I experimented making a one-pot wonder with soaked chickpeas and lentils, a can of white beans, onion, garlic, ginger and chillies mixed up with tomato paste and curry powder. They take 30 minutes. Add spuds for a hearty take.
- 1L rapeseed oil, for deep frying
- 200g sweet potato, peeled and cut into thin long chips
- 60g soba (buckwheat) flour
- 30ml spicy Korean miso
- For the spicy seasoning mix: 3 tsp Maldon sea salt, 2 tsp shichimi togarashi and a small pinch of hot dashi powder.
- For the chilli dressing:
- 100g green chillis
- 100ml rice vinegar
- 120ml grapeseed oil
- A pinch of sea salt
- To serve: chopped green chillis and a wedge of lime
- First, make the green chilli dressing. Chop the chillies into small pieces and combine with the rice vinegar and a pinch of salt. Blend on a high speed until the chillies have broken down. With the motor still running, slowly trickle the grapeseed oil into the blended chilli mix until it has been fully incorporated. Stop the blender immediately, pour the mixture through a fine strainer and keep in the fridge until you need it.
- Heat the oil in a fryer or large pan to 140°C/275°F. For the first round of frying, fry the sweet potato for about 4-5 minutes, until soft and kind of soggy looking.
- Remove from the oil with a perforated scoop and allow to drain well. Be careful as you move them, as they’ll be fragile at this stage.
- Increase the temperature of the oil to 180°C/350°F. Put your soggy chips into a bowl and pour over the soba flour and about 2 tablespoons of water. Mix well – gently but thoroughly.
- Place these into the oil one at a time and fry for 2–3 minutes, until crunchy, and then remove with a perforated spoon and allow to drain.
- To finish off, quickly smash all the spicy seasoning mix together with a pestle and mortar. Season your hot fries with 10 big pinches of spicy seasoning mix and serve up with the chillies, lime and dressing on the side. Get ’em while they’re hot!
Extracted from Junk Food Japan by Scott Hallsworth, published by Bloomsbury Absolute
THE MEAT LOVER
Christian Stevenson, aka DJ BBQ
Photography by David Loftus
Christian Stevenson, aka DJ BBQ, has built a career as a trail blazing barbecue cook with a tribe of dedicated fans who follow his sizzling rock 'n' roll antics on his DJ BBQ YouTube channel.
He's the author of three successful barbecue books. Right now, he's feeding three teenagers on lockdown.
What has changed for you?
We've gone nocturnal, weirdly. I'm a single parent living in lockdown in Sydenham, South London with my three teenage sons, Blue, 19, Noah, 16 and Frasier, 13. We usually go to bed around 4am now so our entire way of living and eating has changed drastically. I'm the only one eating breakfast!
How are you coping with lockdown?
We love our meat. I do think we need to eat less meat, but with teenage boys, that's tough – they crave it. I try and source my meat from local butchers now. We haven't been able to get online food deliveries, but that's fine should be for frontline workers. Normally I'd have friends over and be cooking and entertaining.
What are the positives so far?
Lockdown has pushed me to not rely on supermarkets for that easy all-in shop. When I lived on my own I would go out daily to buy fresh produce from small shops. When my sons moved in with me I relied on deliveries and supermarkets to keep up. This recent change in the way we live has brought me closer to the local community. My local butchers is having a second Christmas with this shutdown!
DJ BQQ'S FOOD DIARY
Photography by David Loftus
This doesn't really happen. I make a pot of coffee and eat an onion bagel. When the boys get up at around noon I make brunch food. Yesterday this was omelettes with fire roasted peppers and onions from the previous night's fajita cookout. We've also had cola ham leftovers with chopped tomatos cooked in Appleby's Cheese Butter. Holy crap, it's the best butter ever!
We have a late evening dinner together at around 8pm. Something like homemade beer battered fish and chips with some locally delivered seafood from Bethnal Green fishmongers.
I have to give the boys another meal around 11.30pm, usually steak or homemade pizza. The boys head into the kitchen and make up cookie recipes for more snacks then get lost in gaming and chatting to friends. We are working towards a better routine, but this is a crazy time.
DJ BBQ's Smashed Burger, photography by David Loftus
- 400g (14oz) beef mince
- American yellow mustard
- 4 slices of burger cheese
- 4 burger buns
- Water in a jug or squeezy bottle
- Favourite condiments (mayo, ketchup, basically the yellow mustard is for cooking in)
- ¼ iceberg lettuce, shredded
- Sea salt and black pepper
There's some interesting things happening in this recipe. Pay attention!
- Divide the beef mince into four balls and roll into perfect spheres of awesomeness. If you’re cooking outdoors, place your frying pan or plancha over direct heat and make sure it’s hot.
- Indoors, get your frying pan really hot over a high heat on the hob.
- Now throw your balls of meat down onto your hot frying pan or plancha and smash them into flat patties with a strong metal spatula.
- If you want to get more weight on the beef, try using the base of another frying pan. You’re not looking for perfection though – you want imperfect-looking patties with lots of lovely nooks and crannies resulting in fjords of flavour.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Sear the bottom of the patties and get a nice crust (around 2-3 minutes), then flip them over and brush on some of the American yellow mustard.
- When the other side has developed a crust (after another 2-3 minutes), flip the burger again and brush on more mustard. Give the burger a couple of flips until the mustard is cooked into the patty.
- These burgers are best served medium. When they’re almost cooked – after about 8 minutes – add the cheese slices on top of each burger and cover with a cloche or metal bowl to speed up the melt on the cheese.
- Grab your water jug! This next bit is the key to making this the best burger ever.
- Place the top burger bun onto the cheese, add a splash of water next to the burger and quickly replace the cloche for 15-20 secs. This creates a lovely steam that will make the burger nice and squishy.
- Get that bottom bun ready with a splodge of mayo (or your favourite condiment) and a handful of lettuce. Then throw the rest of the burger on top and you are ready to indulge in this, the tastiest of burgers.
DJ BBQ's good friends The Beefy Boys use this water technique on every single burger they serve. Those dudes won second place in Best Burger at the World Food Championships in Vegas a couple of years back. If it works for them, it’s gonna work for you.
Extracted from The Burger Book by DJ BBQ (Quadrille, £12.99) Photography © David Loftus
Nicki Skidmore, founder of Two Vegan Adventurers
Nicki Skidmore loves a pumpkin
Nicki Skidmore went vegan two years ago and now creates recipes for Two Vegan Adventurers, which she started with her friend Jill, who is 73, to show vegan food is for any age, palate and occasion.
Nicki lives with her boyfriend and another couple in a two-bedroom flat in Fulham, London. Pre-lockdown, they had a weekly veg box delivered and did a bi-weekly online shop of other supplies such as oat milk, canned goods (beans, tomatoes), toilet roll and yogurt.
What has changed for you recently?
I’ve been using a lot of chickpea flour to make savoury pancakes. I have also ordered dried beans and lentils from Hodmedod’s and cooked chickpeas from scratch for the first time in my life! I even made my own aquafaba with the cooking liquid and made some mayonnaise from it.
I’m also looking at ingredients in a different light, using things more sparingly, eking out every last drop of flavour and wasting as little as possible. Any post-squeezed limes and lemons go into a carafe of water in the fridge, cauliflower leaves get roasted or thrown into a stir fry, and that oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes makes a a great base for sauces or soups.
How are you coping with lockdown?
I've found myself being more meticulous. Like most people I’ve also been digging to the back of cupboards to use up everything. My three favourite ingredients at the moment are Marmite, tahini and miso. I had a good stock of these pre-lockdown and they're serving me well. I've made miso roast new potatoes, which are delicious, more times than I can remember.
What are the positives so far?
How much pleasure I’m taking from making simple dishes with just a few ingredients. It feels counterintuitive given I’ve got lots more time on my hands, but basic things are all the more comforting in what feels like a very complicated time for society. The triumph of making something great from not very much is rewarding.
Nicki's food diary
Nicki Skidmore's miso roast potatoes
We’ve been enjoying making a cafetière of coffee every morning rather than instant – we have the time! I can have four cups of coffee in one morning. My boyfriend has been baking sourdough loaves so I might have two pieces of (pretty dense) toast with loads of Marmite.
I go on a freezer forage. Today I reheated the remains of a curry I made about six weeks ago. The sauce was made with tomato puree, coconut cream and tamarind, so it was rich and tangy.
I also found some fava peas in the cupboard that I bought on a trip to Santorini last year. I tried to make fava in the traditional way, but ended up with a split pea dip, akin to hummus. I baked some mini tortilla wraps in the oven until crisp then spread them with the dip and some celery and baby tomatoes. A messy snack!
I’ve taken to defrosting veggie sausages (I like Linda McCartney’s), crumbling them into a frying pan and cooking them until crispy with some miso and tomato puree for a rich but quick ‘ragu’ type pasta sauce. We’re at the end of a few packs of pasta, so it’s a jumble of shapes – and maybe our last pasta dish for a while.
Nicki Skidmore's Caramelised Onion & Hummus Tart
- 1 sheet ready rolled vegan-friendly puff pastry, kept at room temperature
- 2 tbsp soya milk for brushing
- 1 x 200g pot of hummus
- 2 large (or 3 medium) red onions
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp sugar (ideally brown)
- 70g pitted Kalamata or black olives, sliced or torn into halves
- 2 tbsp capers
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
- Lay the pastry sheet onto the tray, then score a 1-inch-thick border around the edge. Prick/criss-cross the middle section using a fork or knife to reduce the rise. Brush the border with soya milk to help it brown.
- Place in the oven to bake for 12 minutes until golden and puffed up. Once done, remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly.
- While the pastry bakes, finely slice the onions into half-moons and gently fry in the olive oil over a medium heat until starting to caramelise. Add the balsamic and sugar, and continue cooking until the onions are sweet and sticky.
- Take the pastry sheet and gently press the middle section down if it’s puffed up, leaving the border risen. Spread the hummus across the middle section into an even thin layer.
- Scatter over the balsamic onions, olive halves and capers, then season with black pepper and serve.
If you can't find ready made vegan puff pastry, supermarket own brand pastry normally has the butter taken out to save costs and so works as a vegan option. Just check the ingredients before you buy!
Nicki Skidmore, founder of Two Vegan Adventurers