Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros The Dinner Ladies

Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros The Dinner Ladies

London-based food and events company Dinner Ladies is known for its seasonal, sustainable food – all packed with unforgettable flavour. When they’re not busy orchestrating large-scale events or designing menus for intimate supper clubs, founders Emily Plunket and Lily Cai love to get creative in their own kitchens. Here, they share some of their best at-home tips…

We’d love to start off by knowing when you learned to cook…
We’ve both loved and been interested in food from a very young age. Both our fathers, although from totally different parts of the world, have been a huge influence on us. Emily grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland, where her father was an avid fruit and vegetable grower, so was lucky enough to have access to a lot of fresh homegrown produce. Lily’s father moved from China to the UK in the 80s, which inspired her diverse and exciting palate. Both of us, however, really grew up understanding the importance of eating as a family. It’s such a great way to start and end the day. Food brings people together and there’s nothing better than sitting down together. 

How would you describe your cooking style?
Our cooking style has always been focused on flavour and living in China and exploring different cuisines has had a huge influence on us and our food. We love taking dishes from our travels and pairing them with British ingredients – it’s about recreating the excitement you feel when you try something new on holiday. Over the past year, we’ve learnt so much about our cooking style, too – we’ve had to adapt, evolve and get creative very quickly.

What are your top tips for easy mid-week suppers?
A roast chicken at the weekend with all the trimmings gives you so many great leftovers for the week. Turn the carcass into a delicious stock and use it throughout the week along with the leftover meat. Chicken, sweet potato and red lentil dal is a favourite, too – it’s a really warming and flavoursome dinner idea. Alternatively, a simple piece of white fish such as hake with a mojo verde –salsa verde blended with an avocado to create a delicious creamy sauce. And potatoes – Emily is Irish, so they’re a must. 

Are there any store cupboard essentials you think people don’t know about?
Gochujang – a Korean red pepper paste made from fermented soybean, chilli powder, glutinous rice, malt powder and salt. It’s especially good in soups, marinades and sauces as it has a strong spicy, smokey, sweet and umami flavour. Now it’s BBQ season, we’re enjoying coming up with lots of delicious marinades for meat, fish and vegetables. We also love making our own pickles. Fermentation is a really fun process – not only is it a great way to preserve vegetables which are about to going off, they’re also great for your gut. We have a lot of pickled food on our menus – pickled cucumber with cured fish is an absolute winner.

In your view, what are the most underrated meat, fish and veg ingredients?
Game is definitely underrated and under used. One of our favourite dishes is pheasant ravioli with chestnut sauce, a great autumn dish full of flavour. Pheasant sometimes gets called dry but when you slow cook it or add it to curries and stews, it tastes great and is a lovely alternative to chicken. British shellfish such as cockles and mussels are also worth exploring – either in a chowder or spicy soup or tempura battered as a delicious starter. 

Is there a way to make easy, vegan dishes?
We make a lot of vegan food and love trialling new dishes. Crusted cauliflower florets, chermoula-rubbed aubergine and spicy bean casserole are some of our go-to vegan favourites. The best way to elevate and enhance vegan dishes is to add a punchy sauce. Our favourites at the moment are muhammara and zhoug. We’ve also done a lot of vegan baking. Our vegan brownies have taken a while to perfect, but we now have two great flavours: either sweet potato, dark chocolate and peanut butter or beetroot and dark chocolate.

In your view, what makes the perfect salad?
Asparagus. We’ve just entered British asparagus season and there is nothing better than blanched asparagus with summer leaves, lots of black pepper and lemon dressing. A standout dressing is key, actually. By using flavoured oils and vinegars you can enhance the taste of any salad. We love adding tahini or grape must mustard to our dressings. Making flavoured herb oil by blanching the herbs in some good olive oil and blending them is something we always do – basil, dill and parsley are our favourites.

Also, add some crunch and texture. Adding a topping to your salad such as soy-glazed toasted seeds or Sichuan-roasted almonds is great for that extra bit of bite. While we’re not quite blessed with the French or Italian sunshine, when it gets to tomato season in the UK there’s nothing better than homegrown tomatoes with a bit of British burrata tossed in some balsamic vinegar and good olive oil. 

Do you have a favourite homemade soup?
We love wonton and noodle soups and try our best to replicate the 50p street corner versions you’ll find in China, but they’re great for when you have a lot of different leftover ingredients to use – just chuck them all in with some soy, sesame, miso and a good chilli oil. We’re just at the end of the season now, but wild garlic, pea and crème fraiche soup, too. It’s very easy to make with either chicken or vegetable stock for a vibrant green, wholesome lunch. 

We’re all trying to make our food healthier. Do you have any tips?
Buying more raw ingredients and making food from scratch cuts out the number of processed items, added sugar and preservatives you use. Something as simple as making your own hummus, granola or bread will also save you money. Where possible, choose a good supplier and buy from local producers rather than supermarkets – it’ll mean your produce is fresher and you will have supported small businesses in the process. 

What oils do you like to use when you’re cooking?
We use Belazu for our oils and vinegars. Its early harvest arbequina extra virgin olive oil is so delicious. When we are on holiday, we love to buy oils to bring home and test. Last year we tried some amazing olive oil in the Douro Valley in Portugal.

What do you think people always get wrong or use too much of? 
Tinned food serves a great purpose, but using dried chickpeas or beans instead of tinned is so much better. The process is longer with the soaking and cooking, but the end result is totally worth it. People could sometimes benefit from learning about lesser-known and appreciated foods and being more adventurous and daring when shopping. For example, trying less expensive cuts of meat such as beef onglet or bavette rather than always choosing fillet steak.

What are three good cookbooks everyone should have on their shelf?
An absolute must is Eggs by Michel Roux, a masterclass on all the classic French ways of serving eggs, it also has great pastry and dessert recipes. Fuchsia Dunlop’s The Land of Fish and Rice is a beautiful recipe book exploring dishes from Jiangnan, with its modern capital Shanghai, and there are lots of dishes in it that we cherish from our time in China. Rick Stein’s Seafood is an A-Z of fish with great recipes and a techniques section – how to fillet, scale and gut fish, as well as cooking methods for round fish, flat fish, shellfish etc. It’s perfect for seafood lovers.

Asian food is delicious but seems tricky to do well yourself – any tips? 
Asian food is really important to us, and we love experimenting with new dishes at our annual Chinese New Year supper club. Finding a local Chinese supermarket and purchasing authentic ingredients will create a more authentic flavour, such as using pure sesame oil as opposed to blended. Creating a balance of flavours is important in Asian cuisine, so make sure you taste your food while you’re making it to find the balance of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.

Do you have any good weekend breakfast or brunch ideas?
We love making shakshuka for Saturday brunch. Add some spicy chorizo, curry powder, a dash of coconut milk and top with lots of fresh coriander. Best served with homemade flatbreads. Also, if you have access to good quality British sausages and bacon, you just can’t beat them sandwiched between some lovely soft bread. 

What are some of your top dinner party menus?
Sharing-style food is always a winner. People get to try lots of different dishes and it creates a relaxed atmosphere. Slow-cooked meats or marinated fish dishes are both great served with lots of vegetables, breads and dips. 

What are the best starters you can prepare in advance?
At the moment we’re loving mackerel rillettes, a mixture of smoked and fresh mackerel with some homemade rye toasts and crushed peas. Best of all, it can be done ahead of time. We also love a tart – tomato, mascarpone and basil with a gruyere and walnut crust is easy to make in advance and you just have to warm it through before serving. 

What are some of the simplest ideas for puddings that still have the wow factor?
Flourless chocolate torte with a mirror ganache is easy and looks beautiful with some fresh fruit, edible flowers and honeycomb. A summery layered pavlova always impresses, too, especially with pink poached rhubarb, strawberries, basil cream and pistachios. Finally, an ice-cream sandwich with homemade ice-cream and cookies is an easy summer winner. 

Are you a fan of a cheese plate? 
It’s especially exciting how British and Irish cheese is becoming more popular and putting together a bespoke cheeseboard for our clients is always fun. Right now, we’re loving Cornish yarg, a semi-hard cow's milk cheese wrapped in nettles and Young Buck, a raw-milk blue cheese from Northern Ireland.

Finally, what’s your secret is to a throwing really good party? 
Have the food ready ahead of time and don’t worry about it. If in doubt, make lots of nibbles people can pick on. We love using fun table décor, too, reusing old wine bottles and painting them to become candle holders – not everything needs to be new. Pick flowers from your garden to add some green foliage or you can even press flowers in advance for place settings. Create a playlist in advance that compliments your menu and will get people chatting. Finally, a simple and delicious welcome cocktail that you make up in a big jug before guests come normally ensures a really good party. But if you can’t be bothered with all of this, we’re happy to do it all for you.

For more information visit DinnerLadiesLtd.com and follow @Dinner_Ladies on Instagram.

Fashion. Beauty. Culture. Life. Home
Delivered to your inbox, daily