MELISSA HEMSLEY’S FEEL-GOOD FOOD
Melissa Hemsley might just be one of the loveliest people in the food business. For over a decade she’s inspired her growing audience to cook from scratch, love the food they eat, and be conscious of its environmental and social impact. She’s a self-taught chef, food columnist, best-selling cookbook author, real food activist and all-round champion for positivity, community and feel-good food. Eva Ramirez chats to Melissa about her views, tips, inspiration and more.
What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
About 12 years ago, my sister and I started cooking for bands and actors. Our mission was always to cook food in a relaxed way with easy to source ingredients, for lovely people to bring them energy – and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. Since then, I’ve written four books in total, always with that mission in mind, to just spread a little bit of good stuff through food while shouting out farmers and producers and having fun with it all.
Now more than ever, I’m deeply interested in where exactly foods come from, the relationship to the land and earth, how the seasons affect this all, why we should all care for and respect our farmers, and so on. I’m constantly learning and I like to discover ways to make food in the most authentic way possible, as well as putting a modern spin on things.
What are some foods that are commonly thrown away which can actually be used?
From having spent time in people’s kitchens, and I say this in a non judgmental way(!) I’ve seen pretty much every ingredient being thrown away, from meat, fish, eggs, milk, dairy, all the way through to vegetables and chocolate. Yoghurt and hummus are big ones too! I get it, it’s habitual…they’re things you may always have in your fridge and then when you do your weekly shop and you buy them again you might just think “oh throw out the old hummus or yoghurt as we’ve got a new one now”. Also, the last few seeds or raisins in a bag, often people will think “oh there’s just a bit left I’ll throw it away” but they can always be saved and used in desserts, chucked in your porridge or for granola. Milk always gets thrown away and while of course hygiene and food safety is really important, I think use by labels can be a bit of a problem. I’d suggest going back to the old-school way of sniffing and seeing what’s obviously gone off and what hasn’t.
What do you think is an obstacle people face when trying to reduce food waste?
I think a lot of it is just down to mindset, and retraining yourself in regards to your attitude towards food. Once you start thinking about food in a way that doesn’t prioritise one part of the ingredient over the other, you can start really envisaging your meals around that whole ingredient, whatever it is. So for example a cauliflower – instead of thinking about the cauliflower florets as being the good bit and the leaves extra, maybe rethink it. The leaves are just as amazing as the florets, they’re beautiful roasted or stir-fried, you can treat them just like cabbage! That’s why I wrote my book ‘Eat Green: Delicious recipes for planet friendly eating’.
Truly, being more conscious of food waste is good for your pocket, good for the planet, and the feeling of when you haven’t wasted anything is so satisfying. If you flip that on its head, when it’s a rainy day, or it’s cold, you just don’t want to go to the shops, or it’s difficult for you to get to the shops, and you make something from what you’ve already got, it just feels good!
What are some of your favourite restaurants for their ethos and ethics?
I miss going out to eat but I’m also really happy that we can order from our local restaurants which may not have been fulfilling home deliveries pre-pandemic. Tredwells, Silo, Coombshead Farm, Riverford, River Cottage, Elliot’s, Poco, Native…there are so many!
What are some of your favourite ingredients and why?
I love eggs for their versatility and the fact that you can eat them at any time of day, chickpeas because they’re great for bulking out dishes, and garlic, because nothing beats the smell of it frying! When it’s in season I love wild garlic too. I’ve got more of a savoury tooth than a sweet tooth but when it comes to sweets, it’s got to be really delicious or I’m not that enthused. I’m not a fan of making a ‘healthier’ version – I’d rather just have the best possible version of it and if not, then I’ll order it from someone who makes it really well and authentically.
You do a lot of charitable work, can you tell us about some initiatives that are close to your heart that you feel are doing inspiring work?
I’m involved with quite a few charities. One of them is The Felix Project which is run mainly on volunteers. They pick up food from about 500 food businesses, be they cafes, food brands, food warehouses or supermarkets and store distribute them across London to those in need. I’ve helped deliver food to community centres, kids clubs, homeless shelters and the like. I’ve also helped cook for them, so that we can show people what to do with the food or just spread a little bit of love and inspiration within the community.
What are some tips you can share with regards to being more sustainable when cooking at home?
Globally and on a community level, we should all care about food waste. There is a hunger crisis and food emergency even here in the UK and ⅓ of food gets wasted, whether that’s in transit, in the shops, or at home. Some of my tips to reduce waste at home are:
- Be creative with reusing ingredients, like adding parmesan rind into a tomato sauce that you’re simmering for pasta or to a lovely noodle broth for that gorgeous, salty umami flavour.
- If you do eat meat or fish, thinking about how you can add lentils or beans to the dish to make the fish/meat stretch further so that you can buy the best quality you can afford.
- Keep a clear bowl or container next to you as you cook instead of running back and forth to the bin. When you’re finished cooking, look at it and be aware of how much you’ve discarded, then ask yourself if there’s anything in there that can actually be salvaged. It might be a broccoli stalk which you can add to a soup, or herb stalks that can be used for pesto.
- Also look inside your bin on a weekly basis – you don’t have to get elbow-deep, but have a little rummage and see what foods you repeatedly throw away or don’t get through before having to chuck it away.
- Get a compost bin ASAP if you don’t have one!
- Use your fridge or freezer to store leftovers.
Who do you feel (other than yourself!) is driving change in the food industry?
People like Anna Jones, Tom Hunt (Poco) and Doug McMaster (Silo) are huge inspirations of mine. Also Max LaManna, a fantastic zero-waste chef and Gizzi Erskine too. There are also some great apps like Olio, which is a free app that lets you connect with your neighbourhood to share things. So if you’ve got anything from a bit of extra lasagna or potatoes, someone not too far away will gratefully receive it.
How would you describe your approach to food and cooking?
Feel-good food – it’s got to hit the spot. We’re all unique and need different things at different times, so it’s about really listening to your body and discovering whatever feels good for you – that to me, is the most important thing. I base how I eat on what’s local and in season or what comes in via my veggie box.
I always come up with recipes based on the most common foods people throw away. So the 13 most common groups of foods are what I base my book Eat Green on. So things like salad bags or just salad heads, herbs, root vegetables like carrots, celeriac and potatoes. I always suggest people make freestyle fritters with things like that – just grate any veggies you’ve got, combine with flour (I love chickpea/gram flour which is great if you’re vegan because you can avoid an egg as it binds really well). And then I use herb stalks or herb stems to whizz up into a gorgeous Indian-style chutney with a bit of coconut milk, lime juice or apple cider vinegar. I really like doing things like that once a week. I make a fridge raid frittata once a week too, which is great if you eat egg.
What are some ways we can get more connected to the food we eat?
I think it’s about connecting with your food consciously by trying (it can be hard!) to have laptop-free lunches or sit at the table and take a bit more time to eat, and then a little bit of time to observe how different foods make you feel. Also to understand our digestion. I love that I’m seeing more doctors and nutritionists speaking about this and educating people through Instagram. I’ve grown up eating fermented and pickled foods, and what’s great about things like kimchi and sauerkraut is that they can sit in your fridge for ages so there’s no chance of you wasting them.
What was the last meal you ate?
Oooh good question. I was really craving ramen, so I made a 20-minute winter veggie noodle broth. I find Japanese food is really multi textured and with many dishes, to do them authentically it takes a lot of time and care. So I was loosely inspired by a Japanese ramen to use up whatever I had in the fridge. I sliced up a bit of cauliflower and cavalo nero and fried some leek with ginger and garlic then added it all to a broth. Then I cooked some noodles and while it was all simmering I made a dressing out of miso, more ginger, a bit of apple cider vinegar and some sesame seeds which I drizzled over it at the end – it was delicious. I just wish I’d made an extra amount of the sauce because I want to have it on some roasted sweet potatoes tomorrow!
MELISSA COCONUT CARROT SOUP WITH CARROT TOP PESTO
This Spiced Coconut Carrot Soup with Carrot Top Pesto is a great way to love your veggies and minimise food waste in your home. A comforting soup for all seasons, feel free to use whatever root veg you’ve got at home like sweet potatoes or squash. If you can’t get carrot tops then use whatever greens need some love instead, such as radish tops, or left over spinach/mixed leaves from salad bags that you don’t know what to do with.
For the soup:
1 onion, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 tbsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
pinch of chilli flakes or 1/4 tsp chilli powder, to taste
1 tbsp ghee or coconut oil
8 medium carrots, about 800g
400ml full fat coconut milk
500ml veg stock / organic chicken broth
juice of 1/2 lemon or lime
sea salt and pepper
For the carrot top pesto:
handful carrot tops
handful fresh coriander, stems and leaves
8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 a lemon or lime (the other half from above)
small handful pumpkin seeds/nuts, roughly chopped
sea salt & pepper
1.Fry onion in oil/ghee in a medium sized saucepan, stirring now and then for 10 minutes until softened. Use the time to prep everything else.
2. Add garlic and spices and let fry for another minute, stir halfway.
3. Add the chopped carrots along with the coconut milk and the liquid, stir then put the lid on and let simmer away for about 18-20 mins (until the carrots are tender then add a pinch of sea salt, pepper and lemon juice) and take off the heat.
4. Meanwhile, make the pesto by roughly blitzing or just chopping everything and mixing together in a bowl or jar, season to taste.
5. Blend the soup, seasoning to taste and adding a little more water if you’d like it a bit less thick then serve up with a good dollop of carrot top pesto.