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Interview: Sue Lawrence, home cook

IN SUE LAWRENCE'S spacious kitchen, exceptional observational skills are not required to spot the signs of her passion for food. They are everywhere.

The shelves of cookery books (Nigel Slater is a favourite); the impressive equipment – a grape-coloured Kitchen-Aid and a huge stove, there's even underfloor heating just beneath the worktop where Lawrence stands to stir and mix, concoct and create. The room is the impeccably planned nerve-centre of Lawrence's culinary operation disguised as a rather swanky family kitchen, replete with artwork that develops the theme – a large painting of a fork tangled in a generous twist of spaghetti and, opposite, a small painting of a mince pie, a memento from when Lawrence was a judge in a pie competition.

"It was wonderful," she says of that contest, buzzing around making coffee and bringing home-baked brownies and flapjacks to the table. "But I realised I had to start eating smaller mouthfuls because there was an awful lot to get through."

It's 20 years since Lawrence won the BBC's Masterchef contest and since then, through newspaper columns – including in our sister paper Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum magazine – and TV appearances as well as her five cookery books, she has built a reputation as a champion of Scottish produce, an exceptional home baker and a writer of accessible recipes that genuinely work, even if you are not au fait with the finest techniques of French culinary art.

In fact, in the introduction to her latest book, Eating In, aimed at helping us to entertain at home in keeping with these financially straitened times, Lawrence makes clear that her foodie interests are not "blowtorches and cheffy techniques" but straightforward fare that tips its hat to tradition while adding something new.

"We started discussing this book a couple of years ago when the credit crunch was just starting to happen but it's actually still very contemporary because people are eating out in restaurants much less,"

Lawrence says. "They are much more likely to get people to come round to their homes, but even then it's casual, casual, casual."

The days of polishing the cutlery and starching the napkins are gone for good according to Lawrence and it's clear for her that's an opportunity rather than a catastrophe.

"The thing I always say is that it's just so easy to cook from scratch. Actually, not even from scratch. In the olden days I might've said you have to make your own chicken stock for a risotto, but a good quality stock cube is fine. It's not so much cutting corners as just making things easier.

"The ingredients that you can buy are much better quality. Even things like pastry. Personally I always make my own shortcrust pastry, I always do. But I'd never in a million years make puff pastry."

The mantra of seasonal and local has almost become a clich when it comes to contemporary cookery, but Lawrence walks the walk as well as talking the talk. For A Cook's Tour of Scotland, her fourth book, Lawrence travelled round the country meeting the producers of some of Scotland's most well-loved and respected produce.

"Oats, butter, lamb, beef – each chapter dealt with an ingredient and of course I went to meet the producers," she says. "So for haggis it was off to see Steven MacSween; for black pudding, I went to Stornoway. It wasn't just about expensive ingredients but about what we do well."

In Eating In, the same concern is clear – Lawrence uses lamb from the Shetlands, cheddar from Mull and hot smoked salmon from South Uist, among other items. But it is what she does with these ingredients that is most interesting. Not for Lawrence yet another recipe for a tried and tested classic. What she is interested in doing is tipping her hat to traditional dishes while bringing them bang up to date. Think Cullen Skink Pie and her take on ham and haddie – she has made it into a rarebit served on grilled muffins.

"Recipes like the coconut milk porridge and Partan Bree Risotto are about taking those old classics that I'd hate to see disappear and bringing them up to date," she says. "I've included things like a perfect cheese scone and a classic fish pie, but I'd like to think I've brought them up to date, too."

Does anyone ever complain about the fact that she tinkers with traditional favourites, I wonder? She laughs. "No-one has yet," she says.

Maybe that's because although Lawrence likes to put her own stamp on classic dishes, her love of Scotland's larder and what we are best at doing with those ingredients shines through every recipe. For Lawrence, when it comes to food, things have got much, much better in Scotland in recent years.

"We used to take the kids on holiday to the Hebrides and it could be tough – there was a lot of tinned stuff, a lot that was wrapped in plastic," she says. "Now it's a joy to go. I don't just mean stopping off in a caf where there's lovely home baking, but in the evening when you're eating out you can actually get local produce, which is just lovely. We've still got a way to go, but we are getting there. Hallelujah."

Lawrence's enthusiasm for food and cooking is as obvious in the way she talks as it is in her books. It's a life-long interest, although she admits she was no great shakes to start with. She tells me that when she was on her gap year in France she was asked to cook a Scottish meal. The menu she came up with ("I was rubbish in those days") was lentil soup, followed by mince, followed by apple crumble. She phoned her mum for instructions and was talked through it.

"They didn't use red lentils so I had to use the brown ones, so it was brown soup, then brown mince, then brown crumble." She laughs. "All the French people said it was very nice but 'a little bit brown'. It was so embarrassing! But it was tasty." She may not have been particularly gifted as a cook then, but she credits her year in France for opening her eyes to what food and cooking could be, not least because everyone there talked about food so much. "At Scotland at that time, we didn't do that. You'd ask if someone enjoyed their meal and the answer would be, 'Fine'. That was what you'd say. In France they'd ask how a dish was made, what had been used to make it.

"I was in Arles for three months as an au pair. I'd go round the market with the madame and she would touch and prod everything. I thought it was so weird – I'd never seen anyone do that. But of course it influenced me."

In fact, travel still influences Lawrence. The food she's eaten in Barcelona and Buenos Aires and Brazil all finds a way into her recipes.

"Things like the parsley and brazil nut soup in Eating In, I know no-one else in the world will ever have done that because this shaving of the brazil nuts I saw in Sao Paulo on another dish and I just thought, 'That's brilliant'. We shave our parmesan, why not our brazil nuts? The combination is lovely because you get the crunch of the brazil nuts and the soup is just delicious." The hummus and haggis with pine nuts combination came from a visit to the Middle East.

"They do the dish with spicy lamb," she says, "and what is haggis but a spicy lamb dish? It works very, very well. I love it."

Haggis lasagne is another favourite, she says, although she doesn't always tell her guests that's exactly what they're getting until they're eating it. "Otherwise you might witness certain presumptions," she laughs.

But not all of Lawrence's inspiration comes from far away – some ideas develop much closer to home. Chicky Melee is inspired by a dish Lawrence ate in Barcelona which was made from chickpeas and morcilla (black pudding) but the name comes from a game that Lawrence's dad used to play as a child in Dundee.

"It was called Chicky Melly (also known as tap door run]," she says, "from being a chicken if you weren't brave enough to do it and mle from the fracas that would ensue if you were caught."

The recipe for the apple pie is from the woman who bakes for Morvern Art Gallery on Lewis.

"The way she prepared the apples was quite extraordinary," she says, flicking through the pages to re-read the recipe. "She peels them and slices them and then leave them out for almost an hour. They go brown and that is the point because as they dry the flavour intensifies."

Wherever she goes, when she eats out, she always keeps always a notebook and pen handy. Recipes and ideas are picked up from all over then brought back to the kitchen of her home in Trinity, Edinburgh, where they're tweaked and developed. "I always credit where they've come from and most people are happy for them to be used," she says. "Van Gogh didn't say to other artists that they weren't allowed to paint sunflowers, did he?"

Eating In runs the gamut from Hogmanay buffets to bookclub suppers, to Sunday roasts to anniversary dinners and Christmas get-togethers. It's a guide to cooking for every occasion for these cash-strapped days when going out to restaurants is a luxury too far for many of us and seasonality is a key part of that.

"Shetland lamb is incredible and it's just coming into season now," she says, adding this is what she'll be cooking for the celebration with friends and family of her book's publication.

"If you think about it, Shetland is so far north, it makes sense that although the season in Cornwall begins in March, in Shetland it runs from the end of August until December. The meat is unique because the lambs tootle down to the shore and eat the seaweed. It's delicious.

"I've never said I'm a chef, I'm a home cook. But we're all singing from the same song sheet. We're basically saying Scottish produce is great."

• Sue Lawrence's Eating In is out now, published by Hachette Scotland (25). She is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at noon on? Saturday. Contact the box office on 0845 373 5888 or online at www.edbookfest.co.uk

RECIPE

Warm chocolate, shortbread and pistachio mousse cake

This pudding is light, gooey and simply wonderful when freshly baked.

The texture becomes more dense the day after it is made but the cake will still taste divine served with a dollop of crme fraiche.

INGREDIENTS

350g/12oz dark chocolate (minimum 60 per cent cocoa solids)

200g/7oz butter

3 large free-range eggs

300g/10.5oz golden caster sugar

150g/5.5oz shortbread broken up into bite-size chunks (not crumbs)

100g/3.5oz pistachio kernels shelled (not salted)

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas Mark 3 and butter and line a 23cm/9in spring-form cake tin.

Melt the butter and chocolate together – I do this in the microwave, though you can also do it in a saucepan over a gentle heat.

Beat the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is thick and pale (4-5 minutes in a food mixer; 8-10 minutes by hand).

Fold this mixture into the chocolate and then gently stir in the shortbread and nuts. Tip into the prepared cake tin. Bake for about 40 minutes until still a little wobbly in the middle. Remove to a wire rack and leave for an hour.

Remove the sides of the tin and serve in wedges while it is just warm, or at room temperature with pouring cream, or crme fraiche and berries.

 
 
 

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