Eating Habits with Belinda Jeffery

Belinda Jeffery is the kind of cook whose food evokes good company, good memories and all round contentment. At the age of ten she was given a copy of Margaret Fulton’s cookbook and since then hasn’t looked back. Now the author of seven cookbooks herself, Belinda lives on the Far North Coast of New South Wales and contributes to Delicious and The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.

Hi Belinda, please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I’ve been in and around the food industry all my life – all I ever wanted to do from when I was very small, was to cook. I started off catering and cooking in restaurants, then went on to write for magazines; work on television as a cooking presenter (a very steep learning curve!); and finally to write cookbooks – the thing I love most.  I also do quite a bit of teaching now, which I really enjoy as much of what I do is quite solitary work, so it’s lovely to have contact with people.

What’s your earliest food memory?
I clearly remember dipping a spoon into a jar of mum’s crab apple jelly. It had the most beautiful rosy glow to it, and the flavour was magical. I also remember planting my first veggie garden of radishes and carrots – I used to visit it at least three times a day, willing everything to grow. (I must have pulled out and replanted dozens of tiny carrots!)

What was on your dinner plate growing up?
My mum was a really good home cook. Our food was simple – shepherd’s pie, crumbed lamb cutlets, soups and casseroles in winter; in summer we often had fish as both my dad and my brother loved fishing, and we would often eat their catch simply cooked in butter with a squeeze of lemon juice; whatever the season we always had lots of veggies and salads.

Mum used to take me with her to the local market gardens where we would walk up and down the rows with the farmer as he picked what we needed. We bought our eggs from him too, and I loved it when the chicks were born as he would let us cradle them.

One thing that was never missing was dessert – it was nothing fancy, but invariably delicious.

It ranged from things like mulberries from our neighbour’s tree, with cream and icing sugar; to mum’s famous caramel soufflé; junket and stewed fruit; rice pudding; and my all-time favourite, her golden syrup steamed pudding… with custard, of course!

Why is food important to you?
I love the way that food brings people together. It transcends boundaries, and there have been times when I have eaten meals with people where neither of us has spoken the other’s language, and yet there has been such warmth and laughter from that simple act of breaking bread together.

For me, food is a way to show people I care for them – there is something very special about cooking for people you hold dear.

Have you ever used food to impress someone? Tell us about that!
Oh yes, I have to confess to that! I can’t remember a specific incident, but I do recall in the 80s slaving for days in our tiny kitchen, cooking for a dinner party of far too many complicated dishes, and being utterly exhausted by the time our guests arrived! I certainly don’t do that anymore!

Name three plant-based ingredients you love, and one you always leave on your plate.
Eggplant – I’m always teased about the number of eggplant recipes I have in my books and classes. I love everything about it – looks, flavour, and versatility. It’s fabulous.

Tomatoes – they don’t grow very well where we live, but I persevere as I love being able to go out into the garden, not only to pick them, but to rub the leaves between my fingers and smell their wonderful fragrance – it takes me back to my childhood.

Ruby chard – fortunately it thrives here, and one of my favourite breakfasts is wilted ruby chard tossed with lots of extra virgin olive oil, a little chilli and splash of lemon juice, topped with poached or frizzled eggs.

There aren’t too many plant-based ingredients I don’t like. It’s more often than not a textural thing for me – I’m not keen on Ceylon spinach, as it has an odd slippery quality once it’s cooked. Unfortunately, it grows really well here, and is often the only green that thrives in summer!

What dish do you most connect with your mum/dad/grandparents?
Raw onion sandwiches with my mum, Cooee. She would thickly butter fresh wholegrain bread, layer it with finely sliced raw onion and a sprinkle of salt, then slap the two halves together and cut them into triangles. Both mum and I absolutely loved them!

Do you have any food or eating-related rituals? Please tell us about them.
Yes, I do – my early morning cup of English Breakfast tea. I make a pot of strong tea (the sort you can nearly stand a spoon up in); take it outside, and sit quietly in the cool of the morning sipping tea, listening to the birds, and collecting my thoughts before the day starts.

Picture this: It’s 7pm, and you’re starving. The phone rings. It’s the Dalai Lama, inviting you to meet him for tea in half an hour. You NEED to eat beforehand, otherwise you’ll start chewing your sleeve and swearing in front of the venerable one. What do you cook? (ie. What’s your go-to, slap together, wholesome 15-minute meal?) Can you share the recipe with us?
A goat’s cheese and herb omelette – it’s my standby. Chop a tablespoon or so of chives finely and scrape them into a bowl. Add a couple of eggs, and a pinch of salt, and whisk them with a fork until they’re only just combined. Heat a small non-stick frying pan over high heat, add a teaspoon or so of butter, and swirl it around to coat the pan. As soon as the butter smells nutty, pour in the egg mixture and using the back of the fork, cook it, swirling the mixture around constantly so that you’re scooping up the cooked bits and allowing the more liquid mixture to fill the gaps and run underneath. Stop stirring once the omelette is well on the way to being set (it will still be a little wet in patches on top); crush 20g or so of marinated goat’s cheese in your fingers and dot it over the surface. Leave it for a moment, so the cheese starts to soften, then roll the omelette out of the pan onto a warm plate. The whole process should be all over in less than a minute.

If you were asked to cook and host a vegetarian Sunday night dinner for 5 people, what would you cook and who would be invited?
Being a Sunday night I would do something simple and homely.  In cold weather I would most likely make some hummus to have with chickpea crackers while we’re having a drink and chat; and then serve a big pot of spicy lentil or pumpkin soup in the middle of the table so everyone can help themselves. We’d have warm cornbread or a loaf of sourdough bread with this (along with lashings of homemade butter or good olive oil), and a big watercress, fennel, avocado, pomegranate and goat’s cheese salad. I would finish off with a rhubarb and strawberry crumble with ice cream; or an apple or pear crostata.

Being Sunday night, I would most likely ask our dearest friends as I love spending time with them. However, if I had a wish list, it would include Barack and Michelle Obama; David Attenborough; Yotam Ottolenghi; and the Australian poet and writer, Kate Llewellyn (who, I have to confess, is a friend whose company I love.)

Check out Belinda’s website and Instagram for more food inspiration!