Interview: Helen Longstreth

Claire Thomson is a chef and food writer, she co-owns Flinty Restaurant with her husband in Bristol, and has three kids. Her new cookbook ‘The 5 O’ Clock Apron: Proper Food for Modern Families’ hopes to inspire parents with young children out of their teatime ruts. She talks food, travel and how to make that teatime meal ‘proper’, easy and delicious! ‘The 5 O’ Clock Apron’ by Claire Thomson is published by Ebury Press, £20. Photography by Mike Lusmore.

“Food and family meal times have always been an important part of my life. I had two quite different childhoods and family meal traditions, as I spent my early childhood in Botswana and later childhood in Shropshire.

In Botswana I mainly remember a lot of BBQs outside. Sometimes my dad would take us into the bush and we would eat under the stars. When my parents split up I moved back to England with my mum, where my upbringing was a lot more traditional. We had a vegetable garden and bees, it was a very idyllic country childhood.

My mum made the best cottage pies. She was a very good cook and taught me how. As she had to work away a fair amount I would cook for the family a few nights a week. My cooking became more my own style when I started cooking for myself when I went away to University. I loved finding and experimenting with new recipes and cookbooks. I was very inspired by Nigel Slater, The River Café books and all the cooking style that originates from Italy and the south of France.

I was studying journalism, film and broadcasting at Cardiff University but wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it. Straight after finishing university I went travelling with my best friend to Australia and Thailand. What I really loved about that experience was all the amazing food in these places. I just cooked and ate everywhere possible.

In Botswana I mainly remember a lot of BBQs outside. Sometimes my dad would take us into the bush and we would eat under the stars

“When I came back to the UK I realised I wanted to continue cooking. I trained as a chef in Bristol and went on to work in London where I met my husband, Matt. He is from New Zealand and a chef, too, so equally shares my love of travel and food. We went backpacking for nine months, it was a real adventure. First to New Zealand to visit his family and then over land from Beijing to Bangkok, all by bus and train and then way out over the Mongolian pass.

Through my travels I came to find all the different cuisines and food cultures of the world utterly compelling. Pop me in a kitchen anywhere in the world and tell me where the nearest market is and I’m happy.

When we moved back to the UK, Matt and I decided to open our own restaurant. We eventually moved back to the UK to start a restaurant (and a family!). The restaurant industry can be quite aggressive and male-dominated and having a career in it doesn’t necessarily fit well with being a mother or having a family. But I figured this all out in my twenties and have since tried my best to avoid that side.

Once we started having children I was able to be a bit more flexible with my time and stopped working nights to be at home more. I always have it in mind that we eat well as a family. I really want them to be able cook well and understand flavour and with that, culture.

I think food is such an important way for children to access different cultures, it’s a great way to explore the world and it is completely equalitarian. I’m lucky enough to live with a great assortment of shops here in Bristol. A Chinese grocer, Japanese, Turkish and Indian restaurants and then local butchers, veg shop, fishmongers and bakery. I cook an eclectic menu for my children and from these dishes, interesting conversation can always flow about flavour, spice, ingredients, and provenance. At the same time I do really cook with the mind of making my life easier. It can be so simple by just using good ingredients that speak for themselves.”

Recipe: Pink Rice/Beetroot Pilaf (serves 4)

For the rice

– 250g white basmati rice

– 2 tbsp olive oil

– 1 large onion, finely diced

– 3 fat cloves of garlic, finely sliced

– 2 cinnamon sticks

– 1–2 tsp each of cumin, caraway and coriander seeds, ground and toasted

– salt

– 500g raw beetroot, grated (about 4 medium beetroot)

To serve

– a large handful of mixed sunflower and pumpkin seeds

– ½ clove of garlic, minced

– 250ml plain Greek yoghurt

– ½ a clove of garlic, minced

– 1 tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil, to top the yoghurt

– sumac, to sprinkle on the yoghurt (optional)

– 1 small bunch of chopped fresh dill, mint or coriander

– brown butter (optional)

– chilli flakes

– 1 lemon, cut into quarters, to squeeze at the table

Note: To make brown butter, put 75g of unsalted butter into a pan over a moderate heat to melt.

Once melted, the sediment (milk whey) should begin to collect and brown at the bottom of the pan. When the sediment is beginning to turn golden and brown, add the juice of half a lemon to stop the butter cooking. Unused brown butter can be kept in the fridge and warmed through when needed again.

1. Give the rice a good rinse through in a sieve under cold running cold water.

2. Put the olive oil into a heavy-bottomed medium pan (one for which you have a tight-fitting lid) over a moderate-to-low heat. Add the onion and cook gently for 10 or so minutes, until translucent and soft. Add the garlic and spices and cook for a further 3 minutes or so. Add 2 teaspoons of salt.

3. Add the washed and drained rice, then turn up the heat to moderate and move the grains around the pan to ensure they are coated with the oil, spices, onions and garlic. Toast the rice in the pan for a further minute, taking care that nothing catches and everything begins to glisten nicely.

4. Add the raw grated beetroot. Mix thoroughly.

5. Pour boiling water (from the kettle) over the beetroot and rice until the entire mix is just submerged in water. Bring to the boil, then lid the pan tightly and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. The pilaf might benefit from a gentle turning over with a big spoon halfway through cooking, to distribute the beetroot through the rice again. Lid tightly and cook until the rice is cooked through and the liquid has gone – 15–20 minutes. Be brave: don’t be tempted to add more water.

6. When the rice is cooked, put a clean tea towel under the lid, then re-seal the pan and let it rest for 5 minutes. The tea towel will remove unwanted extra moisture in the rice and make the pilaf extra-fluffy.

7. In the meantime, assemble your extras.

8. In a large dry frying pan, gently toast your seeds with a pinch of salt until they turn golden brown and begin to crackle. Put them in a bowl.

9. In a separate bowl, mix the Greek yoghurt with a pinch of salt and the garlic. Slick the top of the seasoned yoghurt with some olive oil and add a good pinch of sumac, if you have it.

10. Roughly chop your chosen herbs and put into a separate bowl.

11. Some brown butter spooned over the rice at the table is great, but optional.

12. To serve, spoon the rice on to a plate and add a blob of yoghurt, some herbs, toasted seeds, a spoonful of brown butter, if using, and a pinch of chilli flakes. Serve some lemon quarters alongside to squeeze.

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