Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pro Zara’s Kitchen

Regular readers will know how much we love Zara’s Kitchen – not only for her enviable Instagram feed full of colourful, delicious looking food, but also her simple cooking philosophy, which is based around eating seasonally and making the most of natural flavours. Here, the woman at the helm – Zara White – tells us more about how she cooks at home, what she keeps in the store cupboard and the fool-proof dishes she relies on to feed a crowd…
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Tell us, how did you get into food?
I learnt to cook when I was a child – my granny taught me most of what I know, and it’s been a passion ever since. At a very young age, I’d wake up early, go downstairs and be in the kitchen – it’s something that’s never changed, you will always find me there. 

My mum is also a fantastic cook, although her style is very different to mine. My dad has a wonderful kitchen garden and the older I get, the more I get out of it. For me, my main food memories are so nostalgic. For example, many moons ago, I did a cookery course when I lived in South Africa. Cooking has taken me to so many wonderful places.

How would you describe your cooking style? 
It’s probably best described as simplicity at its best, and always packed with flavour – in the kitchen, we try not to be overly fussy. We also love anything brightly coloured, as well as plenty of herbs. I love working with homegrown fresh and seasonal produce, too.

I grew up eating seasonally and we also had lamb and deer from our own land, so staying as local as possible and using fantastic suppliers is a top priority. More recently, thanks to more time spent in lockdown, foraging has also become more of an interest.

What are some ideas for easy midweek suppers?
At home, I always make sure my ingredients cupboard is stocked with some must-have essentials like harissa, curry paste, and a selection of spices and chilli. This way, I can throw together quick and easy dishes with punchy flavours, like broths, pastas, soups and salads. At the moment, anything green is great, and I always have lemons and limes hanging around. A quick wild garlic pesto to serve with pasta, fish or meat is the perfect mid-week pick-me-up.

Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros Zara’s Kitchen
Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros Zara’s Kitchen

You’ve mentioned some store cupboard favourites – are there any people don’t know about?
Chipotle chilli flakes are a go-to – especially for Turkish eggs, which is one of my favourite dishes. Otherwise, I’d say Japanese spice mixture shichimi togarashi, miso, dried mushrooms, seeds, nuts, coconut milk, curry paste, and ready-to-go ginger, garlic and lemon grass pastes are always good to have. Anything with an ‘umami’ flavour is the best way to satisfy a craving. 

In your view, what are the most underrated meat, fish and veg ingredients?
I grew up eating a lot of muntjac – a wonderful red meat with hardly any fat on it. As for fish, my favourite is probably monk’s beard. Mussels and mackerel are both so cheap and versatile, too. My new interest in foraging has also led me to discover more things we can eat for free, so I’m loving things like nettles, wild garlic and dandelion. Bitter leaves are perfect for spring/summer salads – think radicchio, kale, nasturtium, sorrel and Japanese kale. I love herbs like chervil, chives and sage and at this time of year, too – all of their flowers are just coming out, which are lovely to add colour and flavour to a salad. 

Is there a way to make easy vegan dishes?
I eat a lot of vegetarian or vegan dishes myself, and it’s particularly easy if you like Asian cooking – so much of their cuisine requires zero meat or fish. In our catering kitchen, we work closely with a sustainable company making mostly vegan/vegetarian food, so we’ve definitely upped our game to ensure we stay exciting.

Over the winter, broths, curries and dahl are all brilliant veggie dishes, while spring and summer are prime salad seasons – think tahini dressing, sumac, extra virgin olive oil, the best tomatoes and anything else colourful all thrown together with asparagus, broad beans and Jersey royals. The best thing about this time of year is that everything has so much flavour – there’s no need to mess around with it.

Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros Zara’s Kitchen
Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros Zara’s Kitchen
Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros Zara’s Kitchen

Speaking of Asian food, it’s delicious but seems tricky to do well yourself – any tips? 
Sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, ginger are the basic ingredients you need to make great Asian food. A pinch of sugar also goes a long way. If you mix them together, you can basically put that on anything – from salmon and chicken to tofu and veggies. It’s the most wonderful marinade, and the easiest way to give your food flavour quickly. Don’t be scared, just keep tasting.

And what in your view makes the perfect salad?
For me, it’s all about the olive oil. The best extra virgin olive oil is Fino, which is a wonderful small family run company. When I go on holiday, I always buy a locally produced olive oil, too. Fingers crossed that’ll be a possibility soon.

We’re all trying to make our food healthier. Do you have any tips?
In my view, being healthy is as much about being sustainable and thinking about from where you get your food from. Plus, less is more. Use whole, good fats and good oil. Buy your meat and fish from good suppliers, support your local vendors and try to cook most things from scratch. These principles will instantly make your cooking healthier. 

Is there anything you think people always get wrong? 
Not tasting their food as they’re cooking is the main mistake at-home cooks make. You have to keep tasting. Always salt your water for veg, too – you can always add more salt if needed.

Home Cooking Tips From Catering Pros Zara’s Kitchen

Which cookbooks should everyone own?
Nopi by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully is the by far the best and hands down my most-used cookbook. I’m also a huge fan of Gill Meller – his book Time is fantastic. Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana is wonderful, too. 

 

By the time the weekend rolls around is there a classic twist on a cooked breakfast you recommend?

I've already said how much I enjoy Turkish eggs, but often, instead of sourdough – which is the best kind of bread, especially the one from October 26 – I love to add some greens, like some lightly-roasted kale with the yoghurt and, now perhaps because it's spring, some asparagus. I also cook the smoked paprika with chipotle chilli in oil, which is not the traditional method in any sense, but it's delicious! 

What are some of your top dinner party menus?
I always do bowl sharing food… mostly so I can prepare most it in advance, but also to suit different dietary requirements. At my last dinner party, we had cheese-eating vegans, pescatarians and only meat eaters. Always have everything ready or something you can literally take out of the oven and serve – you want to enjoy yourself. And empty the dishwasher beforehand! 

What are the best starters you can prepare in advance?
Cured fish. There’s nothing better – especially in summer – than a massive squeeze of lime over some raw fish… perfection.

And some simple puddings ideas that still have the wow factor?
A frozen summer fruit fool is so easy and very beautiful. I love adding meringue into the mix for more texture, and also only folding in the fruit so you can see the ripples. Or ‘drunken peaches’ which have been soaked in wine or bubbles, then served with sorbet and fresh mint. It’s making me dream of holidays and sunshine…

Are you a fan of a cheese plate? 
I don’t eat a lot of cheese, but if I do, then ewe or goat’s cheese is what we serve. I love pairing it with fresh and dried fruit, chutneys (I tend to hoard them as my sister Charlotte makes incredible chutneys and jellies), and quince paste.

Let us finish by asking what the secret is to a throwing a really good party? 
Having everything done before your guests arrive, and a beautiful tablescape – even if you’re worried about the food, decent presentation can make all the difference. Finally, make sure there’s plenty of wine… it’s important to never run out. 

 
For more cooking inspiration and advice follow @ZarasKitchenUK on Instagram or visit ZarasKitchen.co.uk.

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