Describing the pandemic as “one hell of a hurdle”, Sabrina Ghayour says this year has been a real challenge. But the only time she’s come close to tears in lockdown? That would be when she suffered a three-tiered baking mishap.
The British-Iranian cook and author of bestselling Persiana had whipped up a trio of gooey chocolate sponges, layered and iced the cakes and popped them in the fridge to chill.
“Fifteen minutes later, mum comes home and I went, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to see this cake, it’s amazing’,” recalls Ghayour. “I opened the door, and” – she gasps at the memory of the collapsed creation, half of which had fallen into the fridge door. “I just was speechless, which doesn’t happen very often.”
Rather than ditch the chocolatey mess – which was meant to be a birthday surprise for Ghayour’s partner, Stephen – she salvaged what she could, crafted a smaller cake, and promptly shared the hilarious incident with her nearly 80,000 Instagram followers.
That cake-tastrophe aside, the 44-year-old says she’s been trying to stay positive during lockdown, which she’s spent at her home in Yorkshire with her mother – though there have been times of stress.
“Anyone that says, ‘Covid was fantastic for me, I’m absolutely thriving’, is lying through their teeth. I got a massive chunk of anxiety,” she says, when she was forced to cancel all of her scheduled supper clubs and cooking classes.
“The whole crux of my dinners is not social distancing – it’s intimacy. With supper clubs, the whole point of them is gathering together and getting to know people.
“But I really tried not to focus on that which I couldn’t control, and I just thought, you know, every time I’ve been thrown a curveball in life, I’ve always bounced back.”
Initially excited about the prospect of luxurious lie-ins, Ghayour was indulging in a few gin and tonics of an evening, but after realising she was starting to feel gloomy the next day she says she quit drinking for a while.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really messing with me,’, so I thought I might nip this in the bud, and it was very effective.”
Home-cooking has been keeping her occupied, too. “I’ve cooked every meal since the end of February, with the exception of a few sneaky visits to McDonald’s and now a local pub,” she states. “I have cooked food from every corner of the world, from Africa to Mexico to Peru to Burma, Thailand, you name it.
“It keeps me busy, mentally stimulated, it keeps me going in the absence of being busy elsewhere. And, thankfully, I’ve got a book coming out, so that will distract me.”
Called Simply: Easy Everyday Dishes, the book is Ghayour’s fifth, promising recipes that are “big on flavour, low on labour” and packed with the Iranian-born cook’s trademark Persian flavours.
“The point about Simply is not that it’s like my ‘easy’ book – my recipes have always been easy,” she says. “I’m known for cooking Middle Eastern food, but if you ask Middle Eastern people, ‘Is she making Middle Eastern food?’, they’ll probably go, ‘No, she isn’t’. I don’t know if it’s East, I don’t know if it’s West, it’s simply Sabrina.”
That means lots of marinated meats and hearty stews alongside slow-cooked veggies, crunchy salads, fragrant soups and Persian classics like tahchin crispy rice cake and tahdig e makaroni, a borrowed-from-the-Italians baked spaghetti cake.
Recently, Ghayour has been particularly enjoying the simplicity of 10-minute tandoori salmon and tepsi tray kebabs (“When you’re too lazy to shape kebabs and fry them you just mix, mix, mix, smoosh it in a pan, shove it in the oven, cut a slice of it, done”), and believes that, when it comes to recipes, you have to put the reader first.
“I’ve quickly realised if you’re not cooking it at home, don’t expect the other people to cook it. Trust is a big thing for me. I want to always have the trust of people who buy my books, and their confidence.
“It’s a very privileged position to be, that people think, ‘Oh Sabrina that sounds absolutely disgusting, but because it’s you I’ll give it a go’,” she says, citing bacon and salad cream as a weird but wonderful combination she loves.
“Then they come back and say, ‘Oh my God, you were right’.”
Mozzarella, olive and za’atar pizzettes
These flavoursome flatbread pizzettes combine elements of Italian and Lebanese cuisine.
With a tortilla wrap base, the tasty mini pizzas – or pizzettes – from Sabrina Ghayour’s latest book Simply, are inspired by Lebanese mana’eesh breads.
4 mini tortilla wraps
Olive oil, for drizzling
2tsp (heaped) za’atar
150g ball of mozzarella (not buffalo mozzarella), torn into 1cm pieces
12 Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
2 tomatoes, cut into 1cm dice
Maldon sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat your oven to its highest setting (with fan if it has one). Line a large baking tray with baking paper. Place the tortilla wraps on the prepared baking tray and drizzle with just enough olive oil so that when you rub it in it coats the whole wrap.
Divide the za’atar between the tortillas, reserving a little for seasoning the topping, then divide the cheese, olives and tomatoes between them.
Season with salt and pepper and the remaining za’atar, then bake for four to five minutes until the cheese has melted. Serve immediately.
Simply: Easy Everyday Dishes by Sabrina Ghayour, photography by Kris Kirkham, is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £26
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