Teaching assistant Kirsty Robinson loves everything about food – cooking it, reading about it, making up new recipes, but most of all eating it.
A CHILD’S drawing of a big, smiley face with scarlet red lips and a mass of curly black hair makes an immediate impact on Kirsty Robinson’s new business card. The portrait, created by one of Kirsty’s pupils, Molly Plumb sums up her attitude to her work and her life. It’s fun, engaging, informal and incredibly endearing. And that’s exactly the ethos behind teaching assistant Kirsty’s new foray into the wonderful world of food and cooking.
“Too many people are scared to cook,” said Kirsty. “They think they can’t do it and they are too frightened to try. But cooking something from scratch with fresh, natural ingredients is not only healthy, it’s easy, once you know how. And it can be great fun too.”
The idea behind Kirsty’s new business is to pass on her self-taught skills in cookery classes at home or in local cafes and restaurants. She’s even taught curry making at Chollerton First School where she works part time as a teaching assistant. “I am happy to go anywhere,” she said. “My passion is food and I love to share it with as many people as I can.”
Kirsty has never had a cookery lesson in her life and yet her knowledge is astounding. She has devoured cookery books, TV shows and recipes over the years and now has the confidence to invent her own recipes.
Kirsty’s fledgling business is only a few months old but she’s already making a name for herself with a small army of groupies who love coming to her courses at The Watling coffee shop in Corbridge. From scones and scrabble, pizza from scratch, curries, bread and edible Christmas treats, there’s a course for every season and every mood.
“When I teach I like to keep it as simple as possible,” she said. “Cooking should not intimidate you. People think it’s complicated, but it really doesn’t need to be. Preparation is the key. As long as you have the right ingredients you can’t go wrong. Just have confidence and go for it.”
Kirsty, who lives in Hexham with her partner Rachel and two sons Josh and Callum, was brought up in Manchester but moved to Keswick when she was 11 with her parents Laura and Peter.
“We had a family guest house then a hotel, The Heights,” said Kirsty. “I was an incredibly fussy eater as a child. All I wanted was chips. But by the time we moved to Keswick I was starting to get interested in food. And that increased once I started working in the hotel kitchen.
“It was a case of all hands on deck and I helped cook and serve breakfasts and dinners. Our most popular meal was gammon and eggs. Our guests were mainly walkers coming off the hills, starving, wanting a good hearty meal and a pint.”
Kirsty now collects cookery books “like a mad thing” and soaks up knowledge like a sponge. “I watch endless cookery programmes and read recipe books – as many as I can get my hands on.”
Along the way Kirsty has picked up a useful list of hints and tips. “When you’re a cook many things become instinctive. For instance, when you are making scones, just go straight up and down with the cutter. If you twist it you will seal in the dough and it won’t rise. “It’s like anything in life. If you’re interested, it’s easy to learn. It’s just the same at school. If the kids are interested, engaged and stimulated they will learn all sorts of wonderful, new things about the world.”
A year working in America as an au pair, cooking for a young family in Michigan on the Canadian border, helped hone Kirsty’s skills and now she’s keen to impart her knowledge to anyone who will listen with men, women and children enjoying her various courses.
“I was an incredibly fussy eater as a child. All I wanted was chips.”
She’s particularly passionate about teaching the next generation about the benefits of good, healthy food. “I made samosas with the kids at Chollerton and they loved them,” she said. “If children are involved in preparing fresh food from scratch they are far more likely to eat it.”
Kirsty’s courses are usually held in the evening and run for around an hour or two. They are also social gatherings with many groups of friends booking a course together and others coming along to meet new friends, chat, have a glass of wine and try out a new recipe.
“One woman cooked my curry sauce for her husband at home and he said it was as good as the local takeaway. That was praise indeed!” laughed Kirsty. Joking aside, there is a serious side to Kirsty’s cooking and her drive to use fresh, local produce as often as she can.
“I do worry about what’s in a lot of food you buy at the supermarket – the sort of food with a ridiculously long shelf life. Just what’s in this food to preserve it for that long? I find myself looking at people’s baskets of processed food and wanting to show them how to cook fresh food at home for half the price – and twice the health benefits – without any of this artificial nonsense.
“A lot of people seem to have lost the art of cooking from scratch. They have busy lives and it’s easy to grab a convenient, ready meal from the freezer. But making your own food doesn’t have to take long and you can freeze big batches of curry or pasta sauce.”
“With a curry sauce you start with the holy trinity of garlic, ginger and onion and build from there. Don’t overcook the onions or they’ll caramelise and it will change the flavour of the dish and don’t burn the spices. Remember you are warming spices up, not cooking them, to release the flavour and they should be added later. If you add them too early they’ll burn and release a bitter, acrid flavour which will spoil the dish.
“Add turmeric for colour, ground coriander for flavour and paprika for its warm, red colour and subtle flavour. Passata works well for a good consistency and the onions act as a natural thickener.
“For Madras add chillies and cumin and for a korma, mix in yogurt and ground cashew nuts. My favourite is a pathia, the Indian equivalent of sweet and sour, which needs sugar, white wine vinegar, cinnamon and chilli powder.
“It’s easy to adapt the basic sauce to any flavour you want. And, of course, you can choose your own fresh ingredients. Add raw chicken and simmer or cooked, fresh vegetables. Either way, it’s delicious and you can experiment with all sorts from butternut squash to spinach, sweet potato and parsnip.”
Kirsty is now planning a pastry course to feature traditional Cornish pasties and sweet, choux pastry which she promises is incredibly easy to make. “I made a profiterole tower for Josh for his 18th birthday, drizzled it with chocolate and fudge sauce and decorated it with sparklers. He loved it. I think that any food made with love is irresistible. Put your heart into it and it’s delicious every time.”