Claire Thomson describes herself first and foremost as a chef. With her latest cookbook, “Home Cookery Year” and upon becoming a parent of three, this description has now morphed into chef and food writer. Not reluctantly, but rather in the way that carrying a family and demanding career requires you to adjust and reinvent while still trying to hold onto parts of the identity you’ve left behind.
Getting into the restaurant scene in my mid-20s, I was a rather late arrival. While my sister took the official chef route in my family, finishing culinary school to become a pastry chef, I ended up in the front of house. This combined family skill level often had us thinking we’d open our own place to enjoy the struggle and creativity that is restaurant life. Life tends to make its own plans.
While in my youth, I battled illness, but resumed somewhat of a normal life: went to school, entered the restaurant world, made plans, had dreams. Then, my body gave out.
Not in just a small way, but wholly and completely. Our little family operated on a level of denial, pushing off dreams and plans to the “next year” until we found the years had run into decades and our plans needed altering indefinitely. So, when Thomson introduces her book with her story of trying to keep “chef” in the reality of home life, while not ever a chef myself, I get it.
“Home Cookery Year” is a culmination of Thomson’s years of notebooks and recipe building, travel and work as a chef. The book is broken into seasons and further into sections like midweek suppers, recipes on a budget, and treats for those times she calls “payday cooking.”
Thomson adds those little extras that bring “chef” back to the kitchen. Recipes that realize my pantry or budget isn’t always brimming with options, feel hopeful and inventive. Dishes that celebrate the weekend and give a leg up to Mondays are especially applicable. Imparting her years of experience, ingenuity and necessity, you can feel the love of home cooking in every bite.
Somehow, standing at the stove frying cauliflower in hot oil with family around, salting the fresh batches and yelping at the heat, while dipping them in Thomson’s spicy green buttermilk sauce feels “cheffy” enough for me. The practicality of audibly walking my husband and sous chef through barbecuing Thomson’s beer-brined spatchcock chicken because I don’t have the energy to get off the couch makes a true team effort all the more sweet — especially since the chicken was freaking amazing.
I may not define myself as a chef, but I’m a home cookery queen. And thanks to Thomson, this year I’ll dominate.
Buttermilk fried cauliflower with jalapeno and lime dressing
Thomson names this as one of her favorite recipes in the book. The cauliflower is awesome on its own, but the dipping sauce takes it to another level. If your blender is reliable enough, you needn’t bother chopping the garlic or jalapeno, just toss it in. Keep your florets in smaller bit-sized pieces and you’ll have the addictive popcorn shrimp of the veggie world. Self-raising flour is something easy to DIY: 1 cup flour, 1½ teaspoons baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt. Any high-temp frying oil will work for this recipe. We doubled our recipe as an appetizer for a hungry family of five.
1 cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
1¾ cups buttermilk (or use natural yogurt)
1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
1-2 jalapenos, roughly chopped
1 lime (or 2 if your limes aren’t especially juicy), halved
1 small bunch cilantro, leaves picked and roughly chopped
½-1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
⅔ cup self-raising flour (see my note)
Sunflower oil, for frying
Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower florets and boil for 2 minutes, until just tender, then drain well and allow to cool at little.
In the meantime, blend half the buttermilk with the garlic, chilli, salt to taste, juice from half the lime and all the coriander to make a smooth dressing and put to one side.
Mix the remaining buttermilk with the chilli powder, cumin and ½ teaspoon of salt, then mix the drained cauliflower florets into the buttermilk mixture until fully coated.
In a separate bowl, mix the flour and cornstarch together with a big pinch of salt.
Coat the cauliflower in the flour mixture and place on a baking tray so that the pieces aren’t touching each other. Pour at least 1¼ in of oil into a wide, deep pan and heat to 350 degrees. The oil is ready for frying when you drop in a piece of cauliflower and it sizzles and floats to the surface immediately.
Working in batches of about 6-8 pieces at a time, fry the cauliflower florets for a few minutes, or until golden on all sides. Remove each batch with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain on paper towels while you fry the remainder. Season well with salt.
Serve the fried cauliflower immediately along with the dressing and with the remaining half of the lime cut into wedges for squeezing over.
Beer-brined BBQ chicken with mustard and miso mayonnaise sauce
Thomson says if you don’t have one yet, you need a meat thermometer. It’s the best way to ensure a fabulous bird. We brined our chicken for around 3 hours and found it perfectly flavorsome and moist. Hispi cabbage isn’t easy to find around here; we opted for Savoy cabbage since it’s sweeter and more delicate than the traditional green cabbage.
½ cup warm water
½ cup coarse salt
½ cup caster (superfine) sugar
About 2 cans light beer such as lager
1 whole chicken (about 3½ pounds)
For the spice rub:
1 tablespoon sweet or hot paprika, as you like
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1-2 teaspoons chilli powder (chipotle, if you have it)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the sauce:
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon caster (superfine) sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon miso (optional)
Salt, to taste
½-1 hispi or Savoy cabbage, cored, leaves thinly sliced, for serving
½ small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped, for serving
Good bread, for serving
Pour the warm water into a large bowl. Add the salt and sugar and allow to dissolve. Add the beer and top up with just shy 1 quart of cold water. Place the chicken in the brine, adding more cold water if necessary to completely immerse the chicken. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.
Remove the chicken and discard the brine. Pat dry with paper towels.
To spatchcock the chicken, place it on a large baking sheet, breast-side downward (this helps to keep things orderly). Using sharp kitchen scissors, cut along both sides of the backbone. Remove the backbone and flip the chicken over so that the breast side is now upward. Press down firmly to flatten the chicken. If you have time, refrigerate, uncovered, for another hour to further dry out the chicken (this will help to get crisper skin).
Combine the paprika, mustard powder, chilli powder, cumin and black pepper in a bowl to make the spice rub. Rub this all over the chicken, then rub in the olive oil.
To cook the chicken, heat the grill (broiler) or barbecue for indirect heat. If you’re using a gas grill this means turning off the centre burner and reducing the side burners to medium. If you’re using charcoal, place the coals to heat up on one side of the grill.
Place the chicken, breast-side upward, on an indirect heat. Cook for about 45-50 minutes, turning every 10 minutes, until the juices run clear on the thickest part of the thigh and the chicken is cooked through (the internal temperature should read 150 degrees on a meat thermometer).
While the chicken is cooking, mix all of the ingredients for the sauce together and season with salt. Divide the sauce equally into 2 bowls. After 20 minutes of cooking time, begin to baste the chicken using one of the portions of sauce. Do so every 10 minutes.
Once the chicken is cooked through, move the chicken to cook over direct heat, breast-side downward, for about 5 minutes, until the skin is charred and crisped. Remove the chicken from the grill and let it rest on a serving plate for 10 minutes.
Carve the chicken and serve with the remaining sauce and with the cabbage and parsley and good bread on the side.
To cook in an oven: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Roast the chicken, skin-side upward, basting often with the sauce, for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, or until the chicken juices run clear when skewered in the thickest part of the leg (the internal temperature should read 150 degrees on a meat thermometer). Rest the chicken for 10 minutes before carving.
— Recipes excerpted with permission from “Home Cookery Year” by Claire Thompson, published by Quadrille.
“Home Cookery Year”
by Claire Thompson
Quadrille. 384 pages. $45.
Who should buy this? Home cooks seeking inspiration and practicality for bringing that extra something to the table.