When you are a journalist you get the opportunity to meet some very interesting people. Sometimes, you get to meet famous people, who will almost always disappoint you, due to their sheer tininess and lack of anything interesting to say. It’s always, without fail, the people who are as normal as you or I despite their immense talent for singing/dancing/writing/appearing on a reality television show that delight and surprise me.
When I received an advance copy of Sophie White’s new book Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown I thought it looked very pretty and because I knew that Sophie is quite a funny person, decided to dedicate a few hours on a Saturday morning to reading it. I want to preface this by saying that I have two small boys, so finding a few hours ANYWHERE is no small feat. I poured a large cup of coffee and siphoned myself into the only private place in my house – the toilet.
I read and I read and I read, and I cried a little bit, and then I laughed a LOT. About half way through the book I left the tiny refuge of my bathroom to get myself a highlighter so that I could mark the recipes that I will be adding to our weekly menu. I marked over half the book.
Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown is one of the best food-related books I have read. It is funny and endearing and told in a way that doesn’t overwhelm in any particular emotion. It has made me want to become friends with Sophie (I’m coming for you. I live in Cork though, so it might take a while), and eat dinner at her house regularly.
Sophie is about to have a baby, but she took a bit of time out to answer some of my fan girl questions about her new book – here’s what she said.
What is your absolute earliest memory of food and how has this informed your cooking style?
Probably neither of my parents cooking eggs the way I like them! I was forced to take over at a young age. To this day I enjoy when people have a bit of weird fastidiousness around food, I think it shows passion! A regular in a cafe I used to work in, used to order their poached eggs one hard and one soft which is so damn weird, I love it.
If you had to cook one dinner every night for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Probably the Lebanese-influenced feast in Chapter 12 of my book – Lamb Tagine, falafels, baba ganoush, hazelnut dukkah, feta dip, flatbreads and tabbouleh. It’s hands-down my favourite kind of food to eat. It’s based on the meal we had on our wedding day, so it conjures up good memories. There’s degrees of faff to it, in that the tagine takes a bit of cooking but it’s so worth it for being just a really really flavourful dinner. And it has loads of bits to it which I always love in a dinner. I always want sides and dips and extra toppings and more of this and more of that, so it really appeals to me!
As you have a small child and another on the way, how has adding to the family changed your attitude to family mealtimes?
Our mealtimes have probably become a little bit more routined since having a baby but it’s also probably no coincidence that we both stopped working as chefs when we had a baby. So pre-baby we brought leftovers home from work or else ate cereal for dinner and now post-baby we do waaaaaay more cooking at home.
Do you cook different dinners for you and your husband or do you all eat the same thing?
I generally give my son who is nearly three the same things as us though maybe made a bit plainer as we eat a lot of spicy food. That started when he was a baby. The first solid food he ever ate was porridge and coconut milk because that’s what I like and also he is a solid D4 hipster baby. But he’s a terrible eater. I strongly suspected he had been switched at birth the day he refused chocolate. What child of mine ya know??? But then he is insanely picky about what cutlery he uses and how his toast is cut and he’s obsessed with condiments so I know he’s deffo my loin-fruit.
What is the dish that intimidates you in the kitchen and why?
Hmmmm maybe some intense butchering, like deboning a chicken or something. Or cooking rice. I hate cooking rice.
What’s in your shopping basket every week?
Butter, fruit gums, dark chocolate with sea salt, tahini, harrissa, eggs, more butter, bananas, grapefruits and pink ladies. I could go on and on… I feel like I’m definitely becoming the “Butter Girl”, I saw someone on social media had hashtagged a picture of me #butter recently. Also I should note I am totally okay with this. A hallmark of eating out for me is asking for multiple replenishments of the butter dish.
If you had to pick three recipes from your book as your favourite, what would they be and why?
So hard. I would say…
The smashed white beans with grilled haloumi, sumac and poached eggs because I am beyond obsessed with eggs – My cooking philosophy could well be summed up with the line ‘stick an egg on it’! I’m also a fan of fried cheese in all its forms and I like meals that can be breakfast lunch or dinner…
The conchiglioni pasta with butternut squash, blue cheese and crispy sage because crispy sage is a revelation! Also this dish always makes me think of a kind of upmarket version of those really naff American 70s dishes where they like crumble crisps over a macaroni bake or something. Obviously a dark part of me would only love to be serving things with crisps crumbled over the top so the crispy sage scratches that itch!
The chocolate and orange and bread and butter pudding because I AM Butter Girl! And also I remember the first time my mother made me bread and butter pudding and I distinctly remember feeling (aged about five) like I hadn’t given these simple ingredients their due. An “Oh bread and butter, I never knew you…” kind of thing! I suppose it was revealing of that magic alchemy of cooking too if that doesn’t sound too wanky…
I too am addicted to peanut butter. What is your favourite brand and type and why?
For a complete peanut butter devotee I’m weirdly unpicky when it comes to brands. Now I feel like a bit of a peanut butter philistine, I just like it to be crunchy and beyond that I don’t over-think it, my policy is just get into ma face!
You are searingly honest in your book about your personal life. What is the most shameful thing you keep in your kitchen and how much do you love it? (I adore Easy Singles and hate myself)
Eeeeewh I hate Easy Singles, even when I was a kid I was a total snob about them! However I too have a few skeletons in my kitchen cupboards: Himself is obscenely posh and never stops making fun of my abiding obsesh with Old El Paso Taco Meal Kits. They really remind me of my dad as whenever my mum would go away the Old El Paso would materialise, they were his guilty pleasure too. It has to be the crispy shell one, and like, I won’t tolerate any kind of fancification of them. If Seb is cooking and he even tries to add a bit of mushroom or pepper to the minced beef I freak. It has to be super super basic. I also ALWAYS buy extra seasoning powder and add it in to really up the salty MSG goodness! (That’s probably a mildly libellous thing to say about Old El Paso I’m sure there’s no MSG in their products!)
Finally, what was it like, writing a cookbook? Was it more difficult than you thought it would be? What were the pressure points for you along the way?
Well In a way this cookbook probably has more writing in it than the average 100 percent recipes type cookbook, there is a kind of a narrative to it and a lot of rambling anecdotes that made it quite a different endeavour! I spent most of Spring and Summer 2015 writing the memoir side of it and my main routine was to put my son to bed and then go to bed myself and write until it was time to go to sleep. Writing is my day job so I did consciously have to tap into a different vibe when working on the book so as not to feel depleted. Also I have a desk in my kitchen where I tend to work on my column and recipes, and so I worked on the recipe side of things from there. As the book progressed I chopped and changed from bed desk to kitchen desk which kept me form becoming too bogged down with either side of it!
I absolutely adored shooting the pictures for the book. Jetti Virdi who is a food stylist but also a total polymath (she has a gorgeous interiors collection Created and Found coming out soon) styled the shoot and did an incredible job. Photographer, Leo Byrne was on my wavelength from the off, I had shown him Richard Corrigan’s The Clatter of Forks and Spoons and we were immediately on the same page. Also my training was in Fine Art and I loved being involved in creating a visual world for Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown. It was all shot in my house and using lots of my things and it was just fun to be mincing salmon on a battered burned old wooden chopping board and having Leo come in and start snapping over my shoulder. One night after everyone had left I took a picture of the dirty dishes in the sink and sent it to Leo and he came in the next day and executed it much more beautifully. We smashed plates and stomped on cakes. It was as fun and off the cuff and irreverent as I hope the whole book is.
Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown is published by Gill Books and is available at all good book stores nationwide.