Prue Leith may have been a major player in the food industry for over fifty years now, but these past two years have seen her reputation rocket to new heights courtesy of a certain TV baking show. Here she talks to us about catering for vegetarians, using up leftovers, and the Great British Bake Off’s vegan week…
Prue Leith is back. There are some fans who may not have known the Johannesburg-born cook had ever gone away, having followed her since her earliest beginnings in the industry in the late sixties. But her latest cookbook – My All-time Favourite Recipes – is a return to her roots after twenty-five years of novel writing, philanthropy, and TV commitments in what some can surely argue is one of the most varied careers in celebrity cooking to date.
“25 years ago, I made a deliberate decision not to write cookery because I would not be able to write novels,” the 78-year-old nods. “I did that for 25 years, and then I was back in the food world a bit with Great British Menu and I was meeting chefs and talking food. “I’ve always loved eating, and I started to find I was collecting recipes and scribbling things down and behaving like a cookery writer. In the end I said, ‘well it’s just lovely to have this whole new audience of younger people’ who wouldn’t have even known of me – if they’re under 25, or even under 35, they probably won’t have heard of me because I haven’t been in the food world for a very long time.”
It’s hard to imagine Prue not being a central figure in the food industry given how the last two years have played out. Stepping into Mary Berry’s shoes during the somewhat controversial transition of The Great British Bake-Off from BBC to Channel 4 would have been a daunting task for anyone any less accomplished than herself. But Prue has taken to the new format like a duck to water, even despite that social media mishap (where she inadvertently leaked the winner) at the close of series eight. Prue’s effortless transition into one of the nation’s favourite foodie shows is altogether unsurprising given her history of variation, innovation, and adaptability.
She’s founded Michelin-starred restaurants, cookery schools, and TV shows. Likewise, the food industry has changed almost beyond recognition since she last put her name to a cookbook. For example, the huge rise in vegetarianism and veganism. “I had a restaurant which had a vegetarian menu on it because I have always thought it very unkind to vegetarians to give them a menu that has one vegetarian dish on it and all the rest are things they don’t even want to look at!” she reveals. “I always had a separate vegetarian menu, and I think we were a little bit out on a limb.
“In most restaurants those days, and mine as well, vegetables tended to play a secondary part. They were beautiful little garnishes that went with the lamb chop or the salmon or whatever, but what I did – unusually for then – was take these garnishes, these stuffed tomatoes or artichokes or chickpeas or whatever it was, and make them the heroes. I’d serve them as a vegetarian main – but obviously bigger, in a pastry case or something that would make vegetarians think ‘oh good I’m getting something when I’m out that I wouldn’t get at home’. Most restaurants in those days gave vegetarians either risotto, or omelette, or pasta – and that’s what they were eating at home most of the time! I would say ‘Let’s do a filo parcel with mushrooms and broad beans, or a cheese gougère with beetroot or cream sauce.’ And some of those dishes have made their way into this book I have to say.”
Of course, with a variety of ingredients from around the world these days, veggie shoppers are spoiled for choice when it comes to making showstopper dishes. Well-travelled Prue is only too happy to welcome such exotic delicacies, and make use of them. “There’s one that’s not really my recipe, it’s an absolute classic, but I just love doing it: it’s tabbouleh, and mejadara, and fried Lebanese potatoes, and labneh,” she gushes. “Labneh are the Lebanese cream cheese balls – you sometimes see them in deli shops, those little balls of cheese dipped in olive oil, they’re very easy to make. Mejadara is basically lentils and fried onions, and tabbouleh we all know is cracked wheat and lots of parsley.
“It’s a lovely salad and very quick to make. I’ve called it my Lebanese Table in the book, and it’s those four recipes together, and they are delicious – and if you end up with leftovers of all of them and you pop them in a bowl together it makes the most delicious salad.”
Leftovers, too, are a typically ‘Leithian’ideal that have returned to public awareness as a way of saving money on food costs.
“They save you time and they save you money!” she enthuses. “If you have something left over that you can make into something else it saves you the cost of a whole entire meal. I’m horrified at how many young people just throw things away. Because we were post-war really, if I spread my bread too liberally with butter, my father used to say things like ‘have some bread on your butter, won’t you?’ My parents were the absolute no-waste generation. They had gone through the war, and I was born in the war, so I grew up post-war with austerity and so on.
“I’m just horrified by people, for example, throwing away a whole lump of cheese because there is a bit of mould on it. I would just put that under the tap and scrub the mould off with a hard brush and it’s fine! There’s no reason why you should throw something away like that.”
This no-nonsense, can-do attitude of Leith’s has certainly made her a popular judge on Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off. And the show itself has undergone a recent revelation of sorts, with the last season seeing the very first vegan week come into play – leaving even the most experienced cook on the programme learning new tips and tricks.
“I have to say, I’m not much of a vegan baker, but you can make wonderful vegan cakes,” she nods. “What I can’t do is make vegan meringue, because the only way to make it is with aquafaba, which is the liquid that comes out of flageolet beans and fava beans in a tin – that gluey, opaque liquid can actually act like egg white. When we did vegan week on Bake Off it was an absolute revelation to me! I had heard of it but never actually seen it done, and the bakers did ever so well. But it does take ages and it is a real struggle, and I don’t think I’d bother with that!”
Prue’s return to cookery writing will surely please her fans both old and new. As for what’s to come next in her varied career, there’s “hopefully” a new series of Bake Off to be a part of. It will give Leith the chance not only to showcase some of her characteristic frankness, but also a new selection of bold and vibrant clothes that she is becoming equally well known for: an on-screen reminder of her husband, fashion designer John Playfair, who she married in 2016.
“He’s very keen on colour, and he’s been in the fashion business his entire life, so he’s very quick to tell me if I’m wearing something that it too gloomy – which I don’t often!” she says. “He has had an influence on me in that I’ve always liked colour, but he will push me a bit further than I would normally go.”
My All-Time Favourite Recipes by Prue Leith is out now via Macmillan. Please note: this book contains both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes
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