The person who taught me what it really means to be a cook is French. Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch has a deep-rooted sense of resourcefulness and no meagre skills to transform humble ingredients into something of sublime deliciousness.
At her hands, a simple leek may become a tender tart or be baked and served with a mustardy vinaigrette with grated hard-boiled egg on top, or perhaps even be slowly braised in stock with potatoes for a soup, but whatever the means, the result will be delicious and there will be a pretty table, candles, a glass of wine and convivial conversation to go with it.
Such is her talent that during Francois Mitterrand's tenure as president she was his personal cook. They even made a film about her, Les Saveurs du Palais (the English version is Haute Cuisine).
For most of the year Daniele lives in the south-west of France on the small farm that has been in her family for at least 700 years. Recently, while clearing out the attic, she found some old receipts, from which she was able to decipher the sale of truffles from the farm to Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715.
Daniele lives, as we would say, on the smell of an oily rag. But there is nothing poor about her life. She has, by choice, made a mantra of resourcefulness. There is no doubt that she can cook every French delicacy imaginable but she lives with the lightest of footprints. Her fierce intelligence, endless curiosity and warm, easy charm have forged a rich and fascinating life and friendships that crisscross the planet. By nature, like all good cooks, she is greedy, but only for good things and mostly for the pleasure of bringing people together around her table.
Aside from wine bottles, you'd be unlikely to find a single barcode on anything in her house. Everything comes from the farm, the market or one of her many cousins' farms. In the winter and the summer she gathers truffles; in late summer, the grapes from her ancient vines dry to raisins in shallow wooden boxes at the front door. Now in her 70s, she retains a capacity to work that leaves me exhausted.
Waste is a foreign word in her kitchen — the vegetable peelings and tips of herbs go into stock, the leftovers from last night's meal are transformed into something new, and over-ripe fruits made into jams.
For me, this resourcefulness is the hallmark that defines good cooking. That and tuning in to what's in season and getting your pantry well organised and allow you to transform everyday ingredients into dishes fit for kings and presidents.
Turkish Bride Soup
Who would have imagined that you could transform such cheap, easy-to-find ingredients as lentils and bulghur into a spectacular soup? It delivers a deeply satisfying flavour but is easy to make so it's my go-to whenever I am tired or feel like comfort eating. In Turkey this soup is traditionally fed to a bride the night before her wedding to sustain her through the day. Don't skip the lemon and mint — they bring the dish alive.
Ready in 55 mins + infusing. Serves 6-8 (main).
6 Tbsp butter
3 onions, finely chopped
3 Tbsp tomato paste
1½ tsp smoked or plain paprika
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1½ cups red lentils
¾ cup bulghur or cracked wheat
12 cups vegetable stock or water
1½ Tbsp dried mint
2 Tbsp chopped mint leaves, extra to garnish
2 Tbsp lemon juice, plus extra lemon wedges, to serve
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup natural yoghurt, to garnish
Heat the butter in a large, heavy-based pot and cook the onions over a gentle heat until very soft (about 10 minutes). Stir in tomato paste, paprika and cayenne and cook for another minute. Mix in lentils and bulghur or cracked wheat, then add stock or water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer and continue to cook for a further 30 minutes, stirring now and then. Remove from heat and stir in the dried mint, fresh mint and lemon juice. Adjust seasonings, including cayenne pepper, to taste, cover and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. The soup can be made ahead to this point, kept in the fridge for up to 3 days and reheated when needed. When ready to serve, bring back to a simmer. Divide between serving bowls, swirl in a little yoghurt and serve with lemon wedges and mint leaves.
Ready in 45 mins.Serves 4.
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
4 medium potatoes, peeled and boiled in salted water for 5 minutes
2 Tbsp parsley leaves, finely chopped
Heat 2 Tbsp of the oil in a large frying pan.
Add the onions and cook over a gentle heat until softened but not browned (about 8 minutes). In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the salt and pepper.
Cut cooled potatoes into ½ cm-thin slices and stir into the egg with the onions and parsley, making sure all the potato slices are separated and coated with egg.
Heat remaining oil in the frying pan used for onions. Add egg mixture.
As the base begins to cook, use a spatula to lift it in several places, allowing raw egg to run underneath.
Once it starts to set, leave it to cook over a very low heat until just set through (about 12 minutes). Don't be tempted to turn up the heat. Place under a preheated grill until the top is set and golden (about 5-6 minutes), or run a knife around the edge to loosen, flip on to a plate then slide back into the pan to cook through.
Test by gently pressing the centre — if it bounces back it is done. Cool for five
minutes before turning out on to a plate (if necessary, run a knife around the edge to loosen first). Eat hot or at room temperature.