Food on a shoestring (+ recipes)
The person who taught me what it really means to be a cook is French. Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch has a deep-rooted sense of resourcefulness and no meagre skills to transform humble ingredients into something of sublime deliciousness.
At her hands, a simple leek may become a tender tart or be baked and served with a mustardy vinaigrette with grated hard-boiled egg on top, or perhaps even be slowly braised in stock with potatoes for a soup, but whatever the means, the result will be delicious and there will be a pretty table, candles, a glass of wine and convivial conversation to go with it.
Such is her talent that during Francois Mitterrand's tenure as president she was his personal cook. They even made a film about her, Les Saveurs du Palais (the English version is Haute Cuisine).
For most of the year Daniele lives in the south-west of France on the small farm that has been in her family for at least 700 years. Recently, while clearing out the attic, she found some old receipts, from which she was able to decipher the sale of truffles from the farm to Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715.
Daniele lives, as we would say, on the smell of an oily rag. But there is nothing poor about her life. She has, by choice, made a mantra of resourcefulness. There is no doubt that she can cook every French delicacy imaginable but she lives with the lightest of footprints. Her fierce intelligence, endless curiosity and warm, easy charm have forged a rich and fascinating life and friendships that crisscross the planet. By nature, like all good cooks, she is greedy, but only for good things and mostly for the pleasure of bringing people together around her table.
Aside from wine bottles, you'd be unlikely to find a single barcode on anything in her house. Everything comes from the farm, the market or one of her many cousins' farms. In the winter and the summer she gathers truffles; in late summer, the grapes from her ancient vines dry to raisins in shallow wooden boxes at the front door. Now in her 70s, she retains a capacity to work that leaves me exhausted.
Waste is a foreign word in her kitchen — the vegetable peelings and tips of herbs go into stock, the leftovers from last night's meal are transformed into something new, and over-ripe fruits made into jams.
For me, this resourcefulness is the hallmark that defines good cooking. That and tuning in to what's in season and getting your pantry well organised and allow you to transform everyday ingredients into dishes fit for kings and presidents.
Turkish bride soup
Who would have imagined that you could transform such cheap, easy-to-find ingredients as lentils and bulghur into a spectacular soup? It delivers a deeply satisfying flavour but is easy to make so it's my go-to whenever I am tired or feel like comfort eating.
In Turkey this soup is traditionally fed to a bride the night before her wedding to sustain her through the day. Don't skip the lemon and mint — they bring the dish alive. Get the recipe