ELLY PEAR’S real name is Elly Curshen, but most people just know her as Elly Pear, the name she uses on social media in reference to her Bristol-based cafe.
‘Since the age of 17, I’ve been working in hospitality,’ she says.
‘First as a waitress, then a hostess, until I was general manager of a gastro pub at the age of 25.’
She opened The Pear Cafe in Bristol just over a decade ago and, when Instagram became a part of our lives, it seemed only natural for her to use the handle @ellypear and showcase images of what she was eating.
Back in 2015, like many of us, she was doing the 5:2 diet — eating under 500 calories two days a week.
‘It’s a diet that really suits people who are very into food and cooking,’ she says. ‘But a lot of the recipe books didn’t seem to be suggesting the sort of food that I liked to eat, so I was working out for myself what worked, and posting pictures of it on Instagram, and that got a lot of attention.’
It was attention that led to her first book, Fast Days & Feast Days, which was built around her approach to the diet. Her latest book, Let’s Eat, is a reflection of what she’s learned over the past few years. The result is quite an unusual recipe book that’s divided into three sections.
Freeze For Ease is a chapter of five basic recipes that can be made in large quantities, frozen in portions and then used as the basis for different dishes.
‘Batch cooking actually benefits lots of people,’ she says. ‘If you’ve got children, you’re unwell, or very busy, you can cook once a week, portion it up, pop it in the freezer and you’ve got meals for the week.’ But it’s about ringing the changes, so you’re not eating chilli five nights in a row.
‘That can get boring, so I developed ways of making base recipes that become component parts of different dinners and dinners suitable for different things,’ she says.
‘The mushroom ragu is really easy with pasta for a quick lunch when you’re on your own. You can posh it up and serve it with polenta, garlic spinach and parmesan crisps if you’ve got people coming round for dinner.’
‘I want people to get confident and to use recipes as a springboard’
Having been under the weather recently, she’s really reaped the benefits of getting into the habit of a weekly batch cook. ‘Wednesday Elly thanks Sunday Elly all the time,’ she laughs.
The second chapter continues on the idea of versatile recipes with what she calls ‘building blocks’ — they’re not freezable, but the idea is that once you learn to poach salmon or make a satay dressing, you can use it for any number of things (beyond the recipes that she suggests).
‘I want people to get confident in their ability, to get out of a rut, and think about how they can use these recipes as a springboard.’
And finally, there are the menus: ‘Baby shower brunch for a crowd with breast-feeding mums who could eat a horse’ and ‘dinner for four when you want to show off a bit but not stress’.
Elly adds: ‘After years of doing events and supper clubs, I know that sometimes it’s just easier if someone else has worked out the whole menu and the quantities.’
The book is also packed with tips that come from the cafe.
‘From running a small business through the recession, I became very frugal. Nothing is wasted, and while the incentive for that was originally financial, now we understand more about the impact of food waste, things that I’ve learned.’
This includes how to buy whole lettuces and prepare and store the leaves so they last longer than bag salad. Among her favourite recipes from the book is the noodle salad with satay dressing.
‘You make it and it’s fine for three days. If it’s hot, and you’re busy, make it, put in a massive tub and it’s great for lunches, or in the evening with fresh herbs and peanuts — it’s all your five a day in one go.’ Another favourite is the tomato and coconut dahl, with tofu, pickles, avocado, and seeds: ‘That’s typical me-food. I’m all about the toppings. I love a garnish. I think you eat with your eyes first of all and this looks beautiful and it’s delicious, as well as nutritious and filling.’
For Elly, her knife, rubber spatula and a good chopping board are essential — but for batch cooking, a big stockpot with a lid that you can make ‘eight to ten portions of something in is a really good investment.’
As someone who’s at the forefront of the Bristol food scene, I wonder whether she ever feels that the UK’s foodies focus too much on London.
‘The food scene is very London-centric,’ she agrees. ‘But there are places giving it a run for its money. For me, Bristol is food and food is Bristol. We’re in the countryside, so close to some great ingredients, but it’s still somewhere that’s cheap enough for people to start their own business without getting outside investment — so it’s a vibrant and experimental scene. The same is true in Brighton — there are a lot of interesting independents there. The big chains don’t get a look in.’
Mushroom, lentil and walnut ragù
Makes 12 portions (approx 300g each)
■ 40g dried porcini mushrooms
■ 4 tbsp olive oil
■ 1 onion, peeled and finely diced
■ 6 garlic cloves, peeled and grated or finely chopped
■ 1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
■ 2 tsp smoked paprika
■ 400g button mushrooms, finely diced
■ 125ml red wine
■ 3 bay leaves
■ 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
■ 1 x 680g jar passata
■ 500g green lentils, rinsed
■ 4 tsp dried oregano
■ 2 tsp pul biber (mild Turkish chilli flakes)
■ 150g walnuts, chopped
■ 2 tsp vegetable bouillon powder
■ 1 small bunch of basil (approx. 20g), leaves picked and roughly torn
■ Flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Put the porcini in a large heatproof jug, pour over 1 litre just-boiled water and soak for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and a pinch of sea salt and cook for 5 minutes until slightly softened, stirring occasionally.
3. Add the carrot, smoked paprika and button mushrooms. Turn the heat down to low and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the wine, turn up the heat to high and bring to the boil. Use a spatula to scrape up all the flavour from the bottom of the pan and stir well. Add the bay leaves, tinned tomatoes, passata, lentils, oregano and pul biber.
5. Use a slotted spoon to scoop out the soaked mushrooms, roughly chop, then add to the pan. Pour in the porcini soaking water, add a generous pinch of salt and black pepper, then bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to low and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every few minutes, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan.
6. Add the walnuts, bouillon powder and 500ml boiling water. Stir in the basil, cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Finally, taste, season if needed and remove the bay leaves. Serve with pasta of your choice. Remaining portions will last for three months in freezer.
Makes 6 portions
The only problem with making this peanut sauce is you’ll end up wanting to down it straight from the jar. It’s addictive stuff. It makes a great dipping sauce and salad dressing. It’s also great on Buddha bowls and lots of noodle dishes.
■ 1tsp light soft brown sugar
■ 2tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
■ 4 tbsp peanut butter (smooth or chunky is fine, and I actually find the cheaper versions work best)
■ 3tbsp rice wine vinegar
■ 1 tbsp soy sauce
■ 1¼ tbsp vegetable, sunflower or rapeseed oil
■ 1¼ tbsp Sriracha, to taste
■ 2 tbsp sesame oil
1. Dissolve the sugar in the lime juice, then put it into a blender with all the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust as you see fit. That’s it.
To store: Once made, it will keep fine in a jar in the fridge for ages.
■ Elly Pear’s Let’s Eat is published by Harper Collins, £20, ellypear.com