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08.05.2020 | Words by: Kat Milligan

It is easy to keep eating the same meal over and over again, to bake the same buns or biscuits and get bored with repetitive cooking habits. However, this period of time has offered both restrictions and opportunities simultaneously. Never before have we had so much time to experiment with flavours and recipes to excite our taste buds, but equally, many of our favourite cafes, restaurants and snack bars aren’t open for indulgence. 

Cinnamon buns have always been a favourite of mine, and during these months, I have tested my baking skills, making them four, five, six times in the last seven weeks. There is wild garlic growing everywhere, so after consulting one of my chef-friends on Instagram, I made my first ever batch of wild garlic pesto. However, my ideas of what to cook next are wearing thin, and I personally, am in need of some new ideas. At De School, the cafe is constantly coming up with new menus, using seasonal ingredients and creative combinations. So, I’ve had a chat with two of the cooks, Lara and Estela, about working in the kitchen, how their cooking translates at home and some tips and tricks to give us all a fresh wave of inspiration.

Hello! Can you first each tell me a little bit about your role in the cafe?

Lara: I’m a cook. Estela and I help Cafe DS chef, Reuben with the menu, he asks for our input and we come up with a load of recipes.
Estela: We all kind of have the same job except Reuben who decides on the menus and that stuff. He is super open to new things so we can be creative with the sweets and also with the weekly dish.

How would you describe yourself in the kitchen?

Estela: The food in the cafe is simple and vegetarian. Similar to when I’m at home, I try not to repeat anything. I’m Brazilian, so when I do the weekly dish I try to make it with a little bit of inspiration from there. Although, in Brazil, we don’t have so many vegetarian dishes, so I try to transform it. For example, we have a traditional dish called “feijoada” with black beans and pork. It’s like a stew and in the cafe, I made it with mushrooms and pumpkin, but I smoked them so they had a little bit of the bacon flavour. It was really nice. 
Lara: Because you work alone in the cafe, I start my day with R&B or Dancehall to make a nice vibe. I’m pretty organised, I like to be in action and always do a lot of stuff between; ordering and baking a lot. At home, I try to experiment a little bit more and push my boundaries. So there are always weird containers somewhere in the kitchen full of experiments. I ferment things, make lots of oils and specific kinds of vinegar. Because I’m more adventurous, sometimes I also end up making something really disgusting. 

I’m sure that doesn’t happen very often though...

Lara: Well it’s good because then you learn how to improve yourself. If something really works out or really doesn’t, go back in the process and think, “what did I do” and why did it turn out like this. That’s when you learn. 

Spring brings us wild garlic, which I’m obsessed with and have been trying to make into pesto and those kinds of things. Do seasonal ingredients affect what you cook and how you make recipes and menus for De School?

Lara: It affects it a lot! I have a dog so every morning I go out and walk through the park and see all this stuff I want to use while cooking. I have done a lot with wild garlic: I have a litre of wild garlic oil in the fridge and I made wild garlic salt. In the Netherlands now, we have a lot of white asparagus so I’ll use that. Elderflower is blossoming so I’ll make elderflower lemonade again and fermented elderflower. Also, I don’t want to order strawberries in winter, so you have to think about what kind of fruits work, that’s super limited here in the Netherlands, but I look into which fruits are more sustainable to get over. For example, I use apples or make marmalade out of something. 
Estela: At DS we use ingredients from the season and we change the menu a few times a year. At home, I’m still getting used to seasonal eating because in Brazil we have everything for the whole year round as the weather stays the same. So when I go to the supermarket and see the white asparagus, for example, I’m like, oh the season has started! So, I start using the ingredients and coming up with dishes I can use them in. But I’ve only lived here for three years. 
That’s so interesting, it’s easy to forget that in these cold countries we are more limited in ingredients. I also associate seasonal eating with nostalgia, like I only eat parsnips around Christmas!

Estela: We do have some seasonal things. For example, at Easter, we always eat codfish, but it’s completely different to the codfish you have here that’s fresh; in Brazil we have it salted. I really try to make stuff I ate in Brazil at home, because I miss it, but it’s not so easy to find ingredients here, so I adapt everything. 

Makes complete sense. Are there ways we make our fresh seasonal ingredients last through the year?

Lara: Well, in the summertime you have a lot of fruits and vegetables, so it’s good to try and conserve that stuff so you can use it throughout the winter. In August, I’ll buy a big tray of the “ugly” tomatoes, and I’ll boil them and make passata out of it, so I have big jars of it to use in autumn and winter. Same goes for making gherkins and different kinds of jams. At DS we don’t use summer ingredients in winter, because 1) it’s really expensive and 2) it doesn't make sense and it isn’t sustainable. 

What are some of the key themes you use when creating dishes and how do you come up with recipes?

Estela: I try to have different colours and different textures. So when I’m thinking of a new dish or something to put on the menu I try to balance the textures and flavours. I have something that is a base and something that is the star ingredient. I try to think of stuff that is going to feel good in your mouth. When you have a bite of everything at the same time you should have a crunchy and a soft texture, a strong and a complimenting flavour, so that's what I try to think about. 
Lara: Mostly what’s out there at the moment. I love to go to the organic vegetable market and that’s mostly stuff they produce locally. I buy what looks good and from there I figure out what to make. 

Do you have some tips and tricks for cooking or baking at home?

Lara: Don’t overcook anything, because that’s when you lose all your flavour. Something I learnt is putting vegetables in the oven for a while takes it to a whole different level. So if you’re making carrot soup, put carrots in the oven with orange juice and zest for a bit and then make soup with them. Also, don’t overcrowd your pan. For example, if you want to bake mushrooms, don’t put them all in the pan at once. Do them in batches. Add a little bit of garlic or thyme it really makes a difference. 
Estela: Don’t be afraid of the flavours, and while you’re cooking try to taste everything. You have a wild garlic pesto that you like, now you can try with new twists. I eat a lot when I’m cooking, so I know how the flavour is when it’s raw or cooked and how much to add when it’s finished. When I’m cooking, I go with the flow. I don’t plan so much what I’m going to do. I get creative. Maybe something doesn't go as planned, but if I’m tasting and really paying attention to what I’m doing, I can still fix it or change it to something else. Also, always try to use fresh ingredients. 

Finally, can you tell me a little bit about the recipes you’ve given us?

Lara: The cake is a lemon poppy seed cake, something I make quite often at DS. I like it because it’s super moist, depending on my mood I’ll put it in a big baking tray or a muffin tray because it has a different effect. It’s a nice basic, it’s really not that hard. The other recipe has a lot of aspects that are not really that easy to make, so I was hesitant, it has wild garlic oil and salt I made, but I thought about how to translate it into something that can be made at home. It’s a fun way to come out of your comfort zone without being really difficult. It’s a good one to plate nicely, it has a couple of stages but it isn’t something that’s hard and the kitchen stuff you need is stuff everyone has at home.  
Estela: The cheese bread is super typical of Brazil. Every bakery and snack place would have it. You usually eat it for breakfast or as a snack during the day. It’s one of the main things we eat with coffee or juice. The cake is my recipe. A friend of my mother made the same cake for me once, but when she gave me the recipe I changed a lot of stuff. It’s different textures, a structure that people here are not really used to. The texture is a little bit elastic and spongy. The coconut goes really well and it’s a cake I really love and make at DS. Every time I have made it, it’s gone by the end of the day. They’re both very easy recipes to do at home.  

Find Lara & Estela’s recipes here.
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