Anything with chilli lifts my spirits. On a chemical level, the capsaicin in it is a form of natural morphine. It releases happy hormones and gives you a buzz. I love that. I’m definitely addicted. I start sweating in anticipation just talking about chillies, without even a waft. Curry is the Oliver default dinner. Jools enjoys a vegetarian curry and we both love a chicken tikka masala.
My top tip is to have a little nibble of your chillies – dry and fresh – because they can be different heats even if they’re the same variety. I have sometimes added chilli without tasting and it’s been blow-your-head-off hot. I say nothing to see if I can get away with it and halfway through Jools will politely gasp: “It’s quite hot.” I think women can take more pain then men.
Nan’s Pineapple Chunks
My grandparents weren’t well off and Nan [who died last year, aged 93] made a little go a long way. There’s a nod to her in my new cookery book: a cake made with tinned pineapple. The habit of relying on tinned fruit never left my Nan. As far as she was concerned, it had an agreeable flavour, good-quality consistency and it wasn’t perishable. She wasn’t going to swap that for some expensive, rock-hard boulder that finally gets ripe for half an hour then goes mouldy.
Her generation was also obsessed by spreadable butter products but I’ve drawn the line at using margarine, although she would have used it. I hate it.
Dad’s Marie Rose Sauce
When I was a child, my Dad’s attitude was: you’ve got to keep boys busy or they get into trouble. We lived in a pub so from the age of about eight I started working for £1 an hour at the weekends and in holidays, peeling potatoes, carrots, onions, washing up. Then I progressed to cleaning the toilets, polishing the brass, picking up cigarettes, cleaning out the bins. Eventually I was allowed to cook.
One of my earliest memories of making something from scratch was tartare sauce. Next came marie rose: understanding what cayenne pepper did and why you put brandy in, which I detested. You learnt by making mistakes… and ended up locked in the freezer for five minutes!
Mum’s Shepherd’s Pie
Dad only cooked at home once a month and he’d always do something new that was going on the specials board in the pub. Mum did all the day-to-day cooking. She wasn’t experimental but she cooked from scratch: curries, spag bol, fish pie, shepherd’s pie. I was a very happy boy if I got home from school and shepherd’s pie was turning golden in the oven, and it still transports me to a really happy, fulfilled, safe place. Mum always served it with peas and brown sauce for me, red sauce for my sister.
Porridge Grandad’s Way
Nan used to make the most amazing dinners and she’d always say to Grandad: “Everything all right, Ted?” And he’d always say, “Adequate, darling, adequate.” Even though they were both retired she made breakfast at six o’clock every day. Most people don’t know how to cook porridge. Nan knew and Grandad knew how to eat it: he taught me porridge is a waiting game. If you leave it, the chill of the bowl cools the outside so it firms up and forms a floating island. He taught me to sprinkle brown sugar on top and wait for it to turn into a bad ass caramel, then ease a drop of milk in to finish it off. “Grandad, I’m starving!
I want to eat it!” “No, no, no.”
My Midnight Breakfast
Me and this dish go back a long way: to the pre- shaving days of being an underage drinker down at the Wagon and Horses in Saffron Walden with a fake ID and all my village mates. My midnight all-in-one pan-cooked breakfast was devised so we didn’t have too much trouble making it or much washing up to do. It’s completely uncheffy but it is joy beyond joy.
Bizarrely it became the most famous dish of my first television series, The Naked Chef. To this day, when I get in a cab, I often get: “Oh mate, that breakfast you do! Where you crack the egg in at the end? That was really clever, that was.”