For chef and recipe developer Ixta Belfrage, a life well lived is time in the kitchen, cooking for pleasure, soulfully and instinctively, uncertain of what flavours might unfold. Ixta takes us on the journey of her life and career surrounded by food: market stall tacos, Ottolenghi’s Test Kitchen, lasagne for comfort, her first cookbook, the magic of Brazilian porridge and the pure joy that can come from creating something completely new. Tuck in!
What does a life well lived mean to you?
A life well lived for me unsurprisingly centres around food. Of course I cook for work so I’m surrounded by food all the time, but I find happiness in the pockets of time between big developing jobs, when I can get back to cooking for pleasure- soulfully and instinctively, rather than precisely (when I’m developing recipes, I have to think ahead, to time and weigh everything, and that can take the joy out of it).
What is comfort food to you?
Comfort food has to have some sort of nostalgia attached to it. For me there is no food more comforting than chicken soup, lasagne and tacos.
What are some of your rituals when cooking for pleasure?
I wouldn’t say this is a ritual but when I’m cooking for pleasure, I love the idea of adventuring into the unknown. I prefer to set out with a very loose idea of what I want to achieve, because my favourite part about cooking for pleasure is being able to add anything without thinking, without timing, without weighing, which means that a dish could go in any of a thousand directions.
Can you tell us a little about how you came to be a chef and recipe developer?
I’ve always loved food but it took me a while, a bunch of random jobs and two abandoned degrees to realise that I should be working in food as well as eating it. I started out with a market stall where I sold tacos, after which I set up a little catering business. I found both extremely tough without any industry experience, so I applied for commis chef positions, not hopeful as I had no restaurant experience. Luckily NOPI, one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurants, gave me a chance and I worked there for the best part of a year before being offered a trial in Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. At the time, I had no idea the test kitchen existed, or that recipe development was a job, but it all came very naturally and now I couldn't really imagine doing anything else but recipe development!
What was it like working in the Ottolenghi test kitchen?
It was an unforgettable experience, most significantly because I learned so much from people from around the world. My colleagues were from all over; Noor from Bahrain, Chaya from Mauritius, Gitai from Israel, Verena from Germany, Calvin from South Africa, Andrea from Venezuela. My own background was in Brazilian and Mexican cooking, so we all brought something different to the table and there was a constant sharing of knowledge of cuisines and ingredients.
What is the most valuable thing you learned from working with Yotam?
Yotam is one of the kindest, most patient people I have ever met. He is always generous with his knowledge and selfless in his desire for others to succeed around him. I love that about him and share that belief that you should always try to bring others up around you and with you. I used to be quite an impatient person, quick to give up on things if I felt they weren’t going the right way. Yotam always taught me to persevere - with recipes, especially, this has been invaluable.
What are your three favourite places to eat in London?
What are the ingredients you use most often?
Dried habanero chillies, limes, tangerines, olive oil, miso, soy sauce, tomato paste, maple syrup, parmesan.
Do you have any advice for those who would like to be able to improvise more with cooking and feel confident in pairing flavours?
This has been said a million times before but, TASTE! You’ll never get better at pairing flavours unless you taste as you cook, adjusting and balancing as you go. Also, explore and expand your palate by eating out and trying as many cuisines as you can, all the while learning how different cultures balance flavours.
Tell us about an ingredient that you’re excited about cooking with that we might not have heard of yet?
Azeite de dende/Palm fruit oil - you’ll probably have heard of it, but for the wrong reasons. Made from the pulp of the palm fruit, It’s native to West Africa but also ubiquitous in Brazilian cuisine. Its use as an unrefined cooking oil long predates its use as a commercial, refined and environmentally problematic oil. The unrefined cooking oil is very different to the refined, commercial oil, but it's still very important to make sure the brand you’re using is fairtrade and RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil certified). Azeite de dende is one of my favourite ingredients; its flavour is unique and very hard to describe - sort of like ghee spiked with carrot and paprika, but also nothing like that at all. It’s a bright orangey-red, owing to high levels of carotene (the same pigment that gives tomatoes their colour). It’s unmistakable flavour is what makes two of my all-time favourite dishes: moqueca (a Brazilian seafood stew) and pirão (a Brazilian porridge of sorts made by beating coarse cassava flour into hot seafood stock), so special.
What will you be cooking on Christmas Day this year?
Scallops with lime and habanero brown butter, rib of beef, cassava gratin, tangerine and ancho chilli flan (find the recipe in Flavour p. 278).
SWEET & SOUR CELERY BY IXTA BELFRAGE
60g golden (or regular) raisins
1 medium celery bunch, with the leaves
1 tbsp olive oil
>¼ tsp fine salt
25g pine nuts
¼ tsp urfa chilli flakes
¼ tsp pul biber (or use Aleppo chilli/red pepper flakes)
125g ricotta (optional)
5g basil leaves
1 tbsp chives, finely chopped
2½ tbsp soy sauce or tamari
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp maple syrup or honey
1 medium garlic clove, very finely chopped
Black pepper (about 8 twists)
Put the golden raisins in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave to soak while you fry the celery.
Remove the leaves of the celery. Set aside 10g of the brightest leaves in a small bowl. Cut 400g of the stalks into 4cm-long pieces (cut any of the wider stalks in half lengthways, first). Toss the celery stalk pieces together with the oil and fine salt. Use any remaining celery in another recipe.
Place a large frying pan on a medium-high heat. Toast the pine nuts for 2½ - 3 mins, or until nicely browned. Transfer pine nuts to a plate. Add the celery to the pan and cook for 4 mins undisturbed. Toss the celery and cook for another 5-6 mins undisturbed, or until the celery is nicely charred in places. Take the pan off the heat and cover it with a plate or lid, so the celery softens a little in the residual heat.
Mix all the dressing ingredients together. Drain the raisins, then finely chop them and add to the dressing. Add the cooked celery and leave to steep for 5-10 mins.
Stir through half each of the celery leaves, basil and chives. Transfer the celery and dressing to a plate and sprinkle over the urfa and pul biber. Spoon over the ricotta if using, then finish with the remaining celery leaves, basil, chives and pine nuts.
Follow Ixta: @ixta.belfrage