Catching recent instalments of MasterChef, Thomasina Miers finds herself marvelling at how things have changed since she won the BBC contest in 2005.
“It feels like we were in the dark ages when we were doing it,” says the 38-year-old chef, who founded the popular Wahaca Mexican street food chain after being crowned winner.
“I remember cooking for the army and putting some basil in my rice pudding because I thought it would give it a nice perfume, and Gregg [Wallace] going, ‘What the hell are you doing?’
“Now, you wouldn’t think twice; you get basil ice cream all over the place.”
The mother-of-two, who has just released her latest cookbook, Chilli Notes, admits she has “never cooked any” of the type of dishes now conjured up in the MasterChef finals.
“I find that type of food very male anyway — very molecular [gastronomy],” she adds. “There are a lot of male chefs in this country now doing ultra-precision kind of cooking, which is really clever and amazing and brilliant.
“But I guess, as a female and as a mother, I’m more interested in this idea of food as being for everyone — feeding people, providing nutrition, that everyday purpose of food.”
Everyday needn’t equal boring, however, which is why Miers has infused Wahaca’s menu and the recipes in her new book with a delicious kick of chilli.
The Londoner fell in love with Mexican cuisine two decades ago, after travelling to the country on her gap year.
“I ate Tex Mex food in England before that, but I was really amazed by this incredible variety of food and the fact that a whole nation of people loved food, and the quality of it,” she enthuses.
“And I didn’t know it was so bio-diverse - you go to food markets and you really do see the most extraordinary range of fruits and vegetables, wild greens, edible flowers, you name it. It was a huge discovery.”
After studying Modern Languages at Edinburgh University, she ended up working in marketing, advertising and modelling.
It was during a catwalk show that Miers met the late Two Fat Ladies star Clarissa Dixon Wright, who helped the young food lover land a place at the prestigious Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland.
After the course finished, Miers travelled to Mexico to indulge her passion once more and, on returning to the UK, entered and won MasterChef.
These days, when she isn’t working at her restaurant chain, writing books or appearing on TV, Miers happily spends time with her husband and two young daughters; she has a three-year-old and a 16-month-old.
“They’ve eaten bits and pieces of chillies, always,” she says, adding that her eldest recently started helping her in the kitchen on occasion.
Miers also enjoys eating out to keep on top of new food trends — although the slim star confesses she’ll “always order chips if they’re on the menu”.
And when it comes to chillies, she recommends “going lower rather than higher”.
“Definitely, when I go to Mexico I can eat a really hot sauce, but [here] it’s not like I smother all my food with them,” she adds. “I always think that subtle chilli spicing is a lot more interesting than blowing your head off.”
Here are three recipes from Chilli Notes for you to try at home...
SPICED CAULIFLOWER SOUP WITH AVOCADO SALSA (serves 4)
2tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 sticks celery, finely sliced
1/2tsp Turkish chilli flakes, plus more to garnish
1tsp coriander seeds, crushed
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium floury potato, peeled and diced
1 large head of cauliflower, broken up into large florets
1 litre vegetable stock or water
Salt and pepper
For the salsa:
1 large, ripe Hass avocado, peeled, de-stoned and diced
25g hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime
2 spring onions, finely diced
2tbsp olive oil
1 small bunch coriander, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
Heat a large saucepan or casserole dish, pour in the olive oil, then add the onion, celery, chilli and coriander seeds. Season to taste then cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until the onion has turned silky soft and translucent. Add the garlic and potato and cook for a further few minutes, stirring to coat the potato in oil before finally adding the cauliflower and enough stock or water to cover.
Simmer the broth until the cauliflower is completely tender. Whizz up with a stick blender and taste to check the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if you think it needs it.
Stir all the salsa ingredients together and season to taste. Serve the creamy soup with dollops of the fresh, zingy salsa on top and a scattering of chilli flakes, if you like.
ROASTED RED PEPPER AND GOAT’S CHEESE TART (serves 4)
230g ready-made all-butter puff pastry
150g roasted red peppers (jarred to make it easy), cut into strips
1/2 a red onion, finely sliced
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
25g pine nuts
80g goat’s cheese, crumbled
1/2tsp Turkish chilli flakes or a pinch of sweet smoked paprika
1 egg, beaten and 2 more if you want to make the tart more substantial
For the tapenade:
1 garlic clove
Zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
1tbsp of capers, washed in cold water
110g black olives
A good handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 large fresh red chilli, roughly chopped
6tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 220C/gas 7.
To make the tapenade, whizz all the ingredients apart from the olive oil in a food processor until roughly combined, then add the olive oil.
Roll the pastry, place on a lined or buttered baking sheet and chill for 20 minutes. Lightly smear the base of the tart with the tapenade, making sure you leave a border of pastry, 1cm wide, all the way around.
Scatter the base with the strips of pepper, onion, tomatoes, pine nuts and cheese. Brush the edges of the pastry with a beaten egg and bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until the pastry has risen and is golden and crisp and the tomatoes and onion are cooked. Sprinkle with the chilli flakes and serve.
You can also break a couple of eggs on top before baking if you want to make the tart a little more substantial.
FRUIT SALAD WITH LIME AND CHILLI SNOW (makes 500ml of ‘snow’)
2 mangoes, peeled and sliced
300g raspberries, sliced in half
150ml apple juice
For the nieve (‘snow’):
90g caster sugar
1 fresh red chilli, halved lengthways
Zest of 1 lime
100ml apple juice
150ml lime juice (about 5-6 limes)
2tbsp 100% agave tequila (preferably an unaged blanco)
To make the granita, put the sugar, chilli and 200ml of water into a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Simmer, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved completely, then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the lime zest and set aside.
Once the syrup has completely cooled down, pour in the apple juice followed by the lime juice and tequila and stir to combine. The mixture will be quite strong-tasting at this point, but once frozen, it will lose much of its punch.
Pour the liquid through a sieve into a shallow dish and place in the freezer. After three hours, use a fork to break up any ice that has formed, particularly around the edges of the dish. Return the granita to the freezer, repeating the raking process every few hours or so until the whole dish consists of crunchy, flaky ice crystals. It is important to use a shallow dish, or this process will take a lot longer!
Mix the mangoes and raspberries together (you can do this a few hours before you are ready to eat, but not much longer, or the raspberries will start looking soggy). When you are ready to eat, dress with the apple juice and serve in bowls with the lime and chilli snow scattered on top.