Rosie Birkett's delicious Orzo Seafood Salad

Photography: Helen Cathcart

Rosie Birkett is a food writer, stylist, journalist and presenter. She is based in Hackney, east London but travels the world to taste and report on different cuisines. Her debut cookbook A Lot On Her Plate is out now, published by Hardie Grant.

I grew up in Kent, in a family where food was always a massive focus. At home we grew our own vegetables, we had chickens, plum trees, apple trees and cobnuts. My dad was a big eater and my mum is a fantastic cook, so the family would just be eating and drinking the whole time.

Sunday lunch was always a big ritual. My dad would invite extended family and friends over and my mum would cook for everyone. Everything revolved around food. So really it is no surprise that my life is centres around it now – although it wasn’t planned.

I started off in journalism when I finished university. I went straight to work at a local listings magazine in Leeds. I became deputy editor and it was definitely a great education in print media and magazine content. But what became most apparent in my time there was my obsession with food. I always had crumbs around my desk and condiments in my filing cabinet. I used to get a lot of stick for it. Eventually my editor took pity on me and let me take on the restaurant reviews. So I just went around Leeds, eating and doing reviews.

Then I moved to London after a few years. It was 2008 and there were very few opportunities in the media because of economic downturn. I managed to temp at a trade magazine for a while, but after that it was a struggle. I was told I had more chance of winning the lottery than becoming a food writer. I decided to try it out anyway, using the contacts I’d already made in various jobs. And I just fell in love with it. It took years and years of hard work, of knocking on doors and getting ignored and not having any money. But I just carried on and ended up getting there.

Through my line of work I’ve had the opportunity to eat out at all these amazing places but a few years ago I realised how much I loved cooking myself. I wanted to try and inject the excitement and artistry I had witnessed in this food scene into my own cooking. I learnt a lot from interviewing chefs. They go into so much detail with what they do, which could also work so well at home. They use methods that were once a big part of home cooking, like pickling and preserving, which I want to help bring back because they can add so much to your cooking.

The cookbook got started a couple of years ago. I just wanted to do a book of delicious food that would inspire people to want to cook and enjoy food and see it all as something pleasurable, happy and creative. I cook everything from scratch and am keen on encouraging home-cooks to be aware of all the ingredients they are using. It is easy not to bother but its so good for your health and well being. It also works out to be a lot cheaper! I am also a big believer in eating what you like in moderation. I don’t encourage people to cut out food groups or anything like that. Most of all it is important to celebrate food and the way it brings people together. To cook with friends and family or to just spoil guests with delicious food.

A Lot on her Plate by Rosie Birkett (Hardie Grant, £25.00)

Mum’s Seafood Orzo Salad (Serves 6)

My mum got the idea of an orzo-based seafood salad from her seafood hero, the legend that is Rick Stein. But having made variations of it over the years based on what she gets fresh from her fishmonger in the seaside town of Deal in Kent, I think she can claim this particular version as her own by now.

This is her standard dish for entertaining friends, and it always goes down a storm, thanks to the way she lightly cooks the seafood so that even when it’s prepped ahead and served at room temperature it’s absolutely delicious. You can adapt it according to what you can source and what you fancy – I sometimes add clams, cockles or little brown shrimp, and it’s also perfectly lovely with mussels.

200 g (7 oz) cherry tomatoes, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
300 g (10 ½ oz) cleaned squid (ask your fishmonger to clean it for you)
Grated zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 garlic cloves, crushed
10 g ( ½ oz) pine nuts
5 spring onions (scallions), finely sliced
300 g (10 ½ oz) orzo pasta
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
1 green chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
12 raw king prawns, shells on
300 g (10 ½ oz) shelled, cooked prawns
1 tablespoon finely chopped
flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives

Preheat the oven to 140°C (280°F/Gas 1).
Coat the tomato halves in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, lay on a baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and scatter over the thyme leaves. Roast for 1 hour, until slightly shrivelled, concentrated and softened. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Now prepare the squid. Keep the tentacles whole, because they look good in a salad, but with a sharp knife, cut the body pouches down one side, wiping with kitchen paper, and open them out on a chopping board. Remove any leftover membrane or innards, and lightly score with a cross-hatch pattern with the tip of the knife. Cut the squid into 5 cm (2 in) pieces and put them in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon of the crushed garlic.

Cover and leave to marinate while you prep the other ingredients.

Put the pine nuts in a dry frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat, and toast them until golden, tossing them in the pan occasionally. Remove and set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the frying pan over a low heat, add the spring onions and cook for about 4 minutes, until they’re soft but not golden. Set aside.

Cook the orzo pasta in a very large saucepan of boiling water, according to packet instructions (normally 5–6 minutes), until al dente. Drain and rinse under cold water. Transfer to a large bowl, and, once cool, pour over a glug of olive oil and fork through the pasta to separate the ‘grains’.

Heat some more olive oil in a wok or heavy-based frying pan (skillet) until very hot. Add half the chopped red and green chillies, followed by the squid, and cook, shaking the pan or using a wooden spoon to stir fry it for about 2 minutes. The body sections should curl up into tubes. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Adding a little bit more oil if you need to, cook the king prawns in the wok or frying pan (skillet) for about 4 minutes until they turn red. When they are cool enough to handle, peel most of them and remove the black intestinal tract running down the back of them with a
sharp knife. You can leave a couple in the shell for presentation.

Once cooled slightly, mix the squid, king prawns and shelled prawns, remaining chilli, lemon zest and remaining juice, parsley, tomatoes, pine nuts and spring onions into the orzo. Garnish with chives, season with salt and pepper, and drizzle over a touch more olive oil.

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