Chef Tonia Buxton, talks us through special occasions, annual foodie highlights and why, to her, Greece is the word...
January has begun and a new year lies ahead – after the decadence of the Christmas period, what do you think makes a good foodie new year’s resolution?
I think a great new year's resolution is to endeavour to make everything you eat from scratch. So all the little cheats like ready-made pasta sauce – don't use them anymore, just make up a big batch and freeze it, then you can take it out to use as your base sauce for so many things. Sometimes you might prepare a slow-cooked stew from the night before, or another time maybe make a quick and fresh stir-fry. As long as you are a little organised with your shopping it should really be quite easy.
We’re all about healthy eating at the start of the year – do you have any of your own healthy eating tips for our users?
Gosh, there are so many. Firstly keep to your new year's resolution. Do your best to eliminate all refined and added sugar from your diet. Where you can, add super spices like cinnamon, which helps regulate your blood sugar, or cumin, which is protective against memory loss and the damaging effects of stress on the body. Just a little and often can make a big difference to your health.
I do like meze-style sharing plates, so I would start with some homemade dips like houmous and tahini, served with lovely Kalamata olives and Greek flatbread. Then, I would make a dish of baked sardines with lemon and oregano served with cumin potatoes and Greek salad, and maybe some dolmades with pine nuts and sultanas. My husband's favourite dessert is my baklava served with Greek yogurt, sprinkled with cinnamon.
Every year, we see our steak content rocket in popularity around Valentine’s Day – from beef cut to chip style, what would be your ultimate steak dinner?
I like fillet steak cooked medium to blue with garlic butter and served with sweet potato wedges.
Our users love Pancake Day – what’s your serving style of choice come Shrove Tuesday… and where do you stand on the filling situation?
We have a pancake supper on that day. I always make my batter with wholemeal flour so the kids get the fibre. We start with a savoury filling of feta cheese and spinach then move on to the basic sweet with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of maple syrup or honey with crushed almonds.
We tend to tighten up our food spend in February. What are your tips for cooking on a budget?
Planning! As long as you are organised you can keep things low-cost. Use leftover baked chicken and vegetables to make a lovely soup, adding wholewheat pasta to make it extra filling. Beans and pulses are so cheap and nutritious, so use them more in your food. I love chickpea stew served with brown rice and a big dollop of yogurt.
Spring sees us celebrating Mother’s Day. What influence does your family have over your cooking? We’re talking first meals right through to what you like to eat with your family nowadays.
My family has a huge influence on what I eat as I like us to eat together every night, plus I try for us to eat the same food. My youngest son is the world's fussiest eater, I just don’t understand how he can be mine! I have to hide vegetables in the food as he will not eat them if he sees them, so I make keftedes, which are Greek meatballs, but mine are full of blitzed broccoli, carrots, onion and garlic. Me, my husband and two teenage daughters pretty much eat all good food but my boys are the challenge! But one thing that always happens is we switch off all the phones and the TV and we have supper together every night.
My favourite piece of kit is my Magimix. There is nothing I can’t do with it and it makes such quick work of it all! I can make homemade houmous in two minutes flat!
What’s your idea of the perfect Easter spread? From choice of egg to the finest roast dinner.
It has to be a Greek Easter for me - slow roast lamb, with lemon potatoes and Greek salad. Then maybe a filo pasty pudding of apples, pears and cinnamon. I love Green & Blacks organic chocolate, so it would have to be one of their eggs too
As soon as the sun shines, we dust off our barbecues. How do you go about throwing a truly sizzlin’ al fresco spread? And what do you do when the weather fails you?
The most important thing about the barbecue is getting the coals at the right heat (I have no time at all for gas barbies). The coals need to be grey so they have a good, even heat. There must be no naked flames, as they just burn the outside of food. If the weather fails, then it’s umbrellas, gazebos or a bit of tarpaulin!
What would we find in your picnic basket on a hot summer’s day?
Half a large watermelon that has been chilled in the fridge and a pack of fresh halloumi - you don’t need anything more! The sweet watermelon and salty halloumi are the perfect mix of flavours.
Nothing but nothing beats the Greek islands for a wonderful holiday, and as there are so many you have loads of different choices in terms of style of holiday. If you want uber chic then head for Mykonos; The best sunset in the world is at Oia on Santorini. Or for its calm and breathtaking underground lake its Kefalonia. The food is fresh and wonderful, everyone grows their own vegetables and the fish is so fresh it has literally just come from the sea.
September is back to school season – what do you think we should be teaching the future generation about cooking and eating? Were you an early kitchen dweller?
I think that all schools should teach children how to grow herbs, vegetables and fruit as I think good eating starts there. Then the children can harvest what they have grown, cook it and eat it. I learnt to cook at a very young age at my mother's and grandmother's kitchens, as is the Greek tradition.
We love a touch of ghoulish cooking action on Halloween, and we particularly love creating a spooky pumpkin. What’s your tip for carving a pumpkin – and what do you do with the surplus flesh?
My children will agree I am the worst pumpkin carver but I make a lovely pumpkin and cumin soup, which I hope makes up for that fact!
Bonfire night is all about bangers, parkin and gathering around a fire with marshmallows – what do you cook when the fireworks are flying?
Our favourite bonfire night food is pulled pork, cooked slowly with juniper berries and garlic, served in a bun. Then we finish off with an apple, sultana and almond crumble smothered with custard.
Gosh, over the years I have sent and received many hampers - organic ones, ones from Harrods or Selfridges - but I always like it best when someone brings me something that they have made for me. I don’t care what it is but I cherish the effort that has been put in.
Talk us through your Christmas Day experience – from breakfast choices right through to the post-lunch snooze on the sofa.
The truth is Christmas is a bit of a marathon for me - at least a three day event. I have a big family and they always come to my house so normally I am doing a Christmas lunch for 25 people or more. First there is all the shopping, then all the prepping the day before Christmas Day and then all the cleaning up after.
I try to prep as much as possible the day before, par-boil my spuds and put them in their roasting pans with goose fat, garlic and rosemary. I will prepare the pumpkin, which I serve roasted with chilli and honey, make the pigs in blankets with lovely organic bacon and sausages and a wonderful sage, pancetta and mushroom butter to go on the Brussels sprouts. My turkey will be prepped and layered with streaky bacon, ready to go first in the oven, then out to rest whilst I roast off the veg. I normally start Christmas lunch with a small fig and feta tart for everyone around the table, then I can get on with the proper Christmas fayre.
After the main course, it has to be a Christmas pud (one year I forgot to put it on to steam three hours before, that was not good!) I serve it with custard and vanilla ice cream. Or if someone wants something a bit lighter I make some homemade (mincemeat and all) mince pies. Then it's a big old clear up before I bring out the cheeseboard, served with the bread I make, plus walnuts and figs. Alas, there never seems to be time for a post-lunch snooze as I will then be prepping and getting out the honey-glazed gammon I made the day before and some cold nibbles.
Everyone loves a party to celebrate New Year’s Eve. What’s your choice of tipple to raise at midnight? And what’s your ultimate party menu?
I love a good salted margarita cocktail. Actually, I pretty much love all cocktails, but they are lethal. My favourite party menu is constant little nibbles being brought out so I can eat and drink all night long. I like little crackers with caviar and a pickle, a honey-glazed prawn or two on a skewer, slow-roasted lamb in an iceburg lettuce wrap…oh I could go on and on!
Looking back over the year that just passed, what’s your favourite foodie season in terms of ingredients – and how do you like to cook the season’s golden haul?
I have to say late summer is my favourite time for good ingredients. Because my parents live in Cyprus I am often there then and there is a glut of amazing fruit and vegetables. I make lots of tomato sauce and we freeze it in batches and with all the fruits we make spoon sweets with grapes or watermelon peel. My family know I like figs so bring me loads, too many to eat, so I make a lovely fig, almond and yogurt cake.
Looking to the year ahead, what trends do you see emerging in the food world?
I think finally the world will see that Greek food really is the best food in the world. Greece is so vast - 1,500 islands, lots of mountains and flat fertile plains - they have such wonderful ingredients to chose from. That alone makes it the best cuisine. Because of the religious calendar, when vegan food is eaten, there are so many amazing vegetarian dishes, too. So from fish dishes, grilled on the barbecue with just a drizzle of olive oil and splash of lemon juice or marinated with wine, to slow-cooked lamb with fresh oregano and dates to lentils with fresh beetroot & feta cheese, Greece is the word!
More from Tonia Buxton...
Tonia's Greek Easter menu: