Stephanie Alexander on eating with pleasure: ‘My remit is to go on trying to convince people’

She may play companion to half a million Australian cooks, but Stephanie Alexander still fears for our culinary future

In the years after Stephanie Alexander’s monumental cookbook, The Cook’s Companion, was released in 1996 it became known as the orange book. A few called it BOB – “big orange bible”. Organised with a librarian’s eye and alphabetically, from A is for anchovies (and apricots, artichokes and avocados) through dozens of ingredients to Z for zucchini, it grew to be a splattered, dripped-upon, dog-eared kitchen essential.

A 2014 revision abandoned the orange fabric-spined cover and wrapped multi-coloured stripes around a bunch of new recipes and text. The book kept selling – a phenomenal half a million-plus copies sold and counting.

Only a couple of months ago, a post on the Leigh Sales/Annabel Crabb-founded Facebook group Chat 10 Looks 3, asked members to nominate their all-time favourite recipes from the orange book. More than 500 people piled in to offer their suggestions. The orange and almond cake. The Vietnamese chicken and mint salad. The sticky date pudding. The corned beef with mustard sauce. Stephanie’s roast chicken. The flourless chocolate cake. Her pavlova. The cauliflower soup.

One woman noted that, in her household, Alexander is referred to as “Aunty Steph”. Another shared her husband’s observation – that there were probably more Australian households with a copy of the cookbook than there were Australians vaccinated at the time.

My nominations from the orange book: Alexander’s quince tart recipe and her method to make silverbeet interesting: sauteed, olive oil, currants, pine-nuts. But, true, it had been a while since I had last consulted it; a glut of recipes – clippings from newspapers and magazines, print-outs from websites – spill out of folders and files on my kitchen bench, I commonly turn to a search engine for recipes, and my cookbook shelves gather dust.

Ahead of an interview with Alexander to coincide with the publication of her 19th book, the intoxicating Home, and admiring lemons hanging from a neighbour’s tree, I went back to my original 1996 edition of The Cook’s Companion. I begged my neighbour for a clutch of fruit, hauled out my ice-cream churn, and turned to page 395. Reduce the lemon juice (to concentrate the flavour), beat egg yolks with a sprinkling of zest, pour simmering lemon syrup over egg yolks, fold through lightly whipped cream, churn. My lemon ice-cream was quite something. It was consumed with indecent haste. And it was as Alexander intended: it gave great pleasure.

Stephanie Alexander
Stephanie Ann Alexander AO is an Australian cook, restaurateur and food writer. Photograph: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

“It makes me sad that there are so many people who get absolutely no pleasure out of what they eat or how they shop,” she tells me. “I feel that my remit is to go on trying to convince people who don’t know a lot about food, don’t have a lot of money, [that they] can increase the amount of pleasure and enjoyment they get out of this thing which they have to do every day, eat.”

This ethos, which has informed Alexander’s work both as a writer and as the founder of the schools-based Kitchen Garden Foundation, was forged in her post-second world war childhood. “There was laughing around the table, there was wine, there was lovely food; there was always a sense that hospitality prevailed and that the time you spent around the table was special.”

Her parents hosted a discussion group and people “with accents” brought unusual flavours and big ideas to the table. She remembers the evident pleasure her parents derived from the gatherings and finding leftovers in the mornings, “amazing little snippets of this and that”.

Alexander carried what she had learned with her to Women’s College (now University College) at Melbourne University, where she studied for an arts degree, complained about the food (“I could not believe that we were being fed things like white sliced bread and red tinned jam for lunch”) and spent her small allowance on occasional meals at the Society restaurant (respectful waiters, fillet steak, an ice-cream dessert like a small football covered in chocolate served in a frosted silver bowl, fruit salad in a pineapple).

She followed her arts degree with librarianship studies but in the essays scattered among the recipes in Home, it is clear that her continuing informal education was equally, if not more important: her explorations of French food and hospitality, through the pages of the influential English food writer Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, through the time she spent living in France in her 20s and consummated in multiple visits in the decades since.

Her grand love affair with France’s culinary culture informed the restaurants she created, most notably the legendary Stephanie’s (first in Fitzroy, then later in a grand Hawthorn mansion), and in the way she lives today. She still prefers to eat in “the French manner”, with vegetables playing a substantial role in a meal and with an emphasis on salad, good bread, cheese.

The French love affair permeates the pages of Home: here a mention of a Montparnasse bistro meal with her friend Annie Smithers (owner and chef at Trentham’s Du Fermier); there, accompanying her recipe for honey madeleines, a note about a return visit to the hotel-restaurant Les Prés d´Eugénie in south-west France, and the plate of strawberries and freshly baked madeleines that were in her room when she arrived. A comment on “the very last of the onion soup bowls”, grès stoneware pottery bought in Paris years ago in which she serves her soupe au pistou, bears signs of a wistfulness about the passage of time.

Alexander is 80 now. She is fit and healthy but the pandemic has stolen two years of her travelling life. She is not sure that she’ll write another cookbook. She regards the work she continues to do with her Kitchen Garden Foundation as her most important.

“I think the exercise of exposing young children from the earliest age to really good food, to where their food comes from, to understanding environmental issues, to being with friends around a table, socialising them, is the best possible thing that anyone could do about setting the next generation on a good path.”

Soupe de poissons avec sa rouille

A recipe from Stephanie Alexander’s new book Home
Words and recipe by Stephanie Alexander

Soupe de poissons avec sa rouille
Soupe de poissons avec sa rouille Photograph: Armelle Habib

In 2018 I visited one of the great Parisian bistros – Le Dôme in Montparnasse – with friend and fellow gourmand Annie Smithers. We went in order to enjoy a darne de turbot, a thick chunk of perfectly cooked turbot, a luxurious fish that does not swim in our waters. Annie ordered the soupe de poissons. It was marvellous, presented to the table in its own tureen.

I have cooked many versions of this iconic soup and this one is from one of my original recipe cards from Stephanie’s Restaurant days. Making a good soupe
de poissons
is a big production and I do not think it is worth making a smaller quantity. Any excess soup or stock can be frozen for another day. It is also quite hard work, so best attempted with another food lover to share the pounding and sieving.

In France no soupe de poissons or bouillabaisse would be served without a garnish of croutons and rouille, a spicy, rust-coloured paste that melts into the soup. ‘Soupe de poissons avec sa rouille’ is the usual way of describing it in the bistros of Marseille and other Mediterranean ports. The two are linked together just as the English might say ‘bangers and mash’ in the same breath.

In France I have been offered roughly torn fried croutons or simply
a basket of dried slices from a baguette. Either works well here. Ricard is an aniseed- flavoured apéritif popular in the south of France, and is widely available.

Serves 10

3–4 large prawns
1 kg mixed rock fish (red mullet, flathead, gurnard, leatherjacket),
cleaned and cut into chunks
1 large snapper head
, washed well and roughly chopped
2–3 blue swimmer crabs
(optional), cleaned and quartered
2 leeks, sliced and washed well
2 large onions, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
½ fennel bulb
, chopped (tops reserved, optional)
1 head garlic
, halved crossways
2 tablespoons Ricard or pastis (optional)
7 litres cold water
250 g tomato paste
2 bay leaves
6 flat-leaf parsley stalks
6 thyme sprigs
1 long red chilli
, seeded or not as preferred
1 tbsp sea salt
1 tsp fennel seeds
, or 1 handful reserved fennel tops, washed well
1 tsp saffron threads
freshly ground black pepper
croutons, to serve

For the rouille
2 roasted red peppers (capsicums), skinned and seeded
2 long red chillies
, seeded
2 large potatoes
, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
4 garlic cloves
, peeled
pinch of saffron threads
reserved fish broth
150 ml extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt

Remove the heads from the prawns, then wash the heads well and put them aside. Slit the shell along the back of each prawn with a small, sharp knife and hook out the black intestinal tract with the knife or a skewer. Put the prawns and their washed heads and the fish, crab (if using), vegetables and garlic into a large stockpot. Sprinkle over the Ricard or pastis if using. Cover with the cold water.

Mix the tomato paste with a little hot water in a small bowl until smooth, then stir this into the pot.

Bring to a boil but do not skim. Adjust the heat to a steady boil and cook for one hour, stirring once or twice. At this point tie the herbs in a bundle with kitchen string and add to the pot with the chilli, salt and fennel seeds or reserved fennel tops. Simmer for a further 30 minutes.

The next stage is very important. Everything will eventually be forced through the coarsest disc of a food mill and to facilitate this you now need to break up the solids. Drain the pot through a large sieve over a deep bowl. Discard any very large pieces of crab shell or fish head. Keep the liquid on one side. Discard the herb bundle and rinse out the stockpot.

Either transfer the contents of the sieve to a food processor in small batches and pulse quickly to a coarse mash, or else pound the contents in the stockpot very well indeed with something like a wooden rolling pin. (The food processor method is best although it will make a ghastly noise.)

Once all the solids have had a good mashing, transfer most of the liquid (reserving some for milling and the rouille) and mash to the stockpot and return to a simmer over medium heat, giving the pot a good stir.

Now set up a large food mill over a strong and very large bowl settled on a folded tea towel and force the liquid and mash through one to two cups at a time. Each time, help the mash through the sieve by adding some of the reserved liquid. You may need help! The quality of the finished soup will depend on how well the flavours and juices are extracted at this point. Expect the texture to be a little grainy from the pounded seafood.

Rinse out the stockpot once more. Return the soup to the stockpot and add the saffron. Bring the glorious soup back to a simmer over medium heat and taste for salt. Now is the time to add some pepper if needed.

To make the rouille

Put the roasted pepper, chillies, potato, garlic and saffron into a small saucepan and ladle in enough fish broth to cover barely. Simmer gently until the potato is quite tender. Scoop all the solids into a food processor or blender and combine to make a thick paste, adding a little of the cooking liquid. Gradually add the olive oil with the motor running and blend until the rouille is the consistency of mayonnaise. Taste for salt. Return any remaining liquid to the soup.

Serve the hot soup in warmed bowls and offer a bowl of the rouille and another of croutons for self-service.

Home Cover
Home Cover Photograph: Pan Macmillan Australia

Garnish with extra fish or shellfish
The soupe is superb on its own, or with a handful of shelled mussels dropped into it. You can create a simple bouillabaisse by simmering pieces of fish and some halved or chunked prawns in the finished soup base. This is then a main meal rather than a soup.

This recipe is an extract from Home by Stephanie Alexander, published by Macmillan Australia, RRP $59.99, Photography by Armelle Habib

Contributor

Stephanie Wood, with a recipe from Stephanie Alexander

The GuardianTramp

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