Some chefs claim they started cooking from a very young age, but Yvette van Boven isn’t exaggerating. She was just four years old when she began dabbling in the kitchen.
Over the decades, she continued to keep detailed notes, with recipes reflecting her multicultural upbringing. (Now splitting her time between Amsterdam and Paris, van Boven was born to Dutch parents, lived in Ireland as a child, and has frequently spent summers in Provence with the extended family of her husband, Oof Verschuren.)
These days, despite a busy culinary career that encompasses food illustrating and styling and recipe writing, not to mention co-owning a catering company and café, she has somehow found the time to publish a new cookbook, Home Made (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2011), which contains more than 200 from-scratch recipes.
Elements of van Boven’s international background are evident throughout Home Made—Irish oyster soup, oeuf cocotte, and buttermilk hangop with caramel sauce all get a look-in—along with comfort food such as risotto from the oven with sausage and bell pepper. There are even ideas for what to cook at a funeral, a ménage à trios menu, and an entire (albeit small) chapter devoted to dog treats.
However, the consistent theme throughout the book is “DIY made easy.” Van Boven shows us that home cooking needn’t be intimidating. When we use whatever we have on hand, we control what goes into our bodies.
Ingredients are kept to a minimum, comprising what’s in season and what’s in our pantries. No raspberries in your garden for making jam? Use that leftover rhubarb from the farmers’ market instead, and add some ginger for a new spin.
Equipment is basic, too. If you think you need a breadmaker to bake your own loaves, think again. No ice cream maker for your sorbets and semifreddos? No problem. As the introduction says, “Sometimes you don’t even need anything, just a little patience.”
We’re even given step-by-step instructions on how to fashion a simple fish smoker in two minutes and make jam from scratch, beginning with picking the fruit ourselves.
Throw in tips and tidbits from van Boven’s daily life and frequent travels, plus glossy photos shot by Verschuren, and Home Made is an endearing, mouthwatering read.
TakePart caught up with the author fresh off a promotional tour.
In the introduction to Home Made it says you wrote your first cookbook at the age of four. Tell us about that.
I remember it really well. I was standing on a little stool beside my mom’s stove. She was making scrambled eggs and I was making notes. I started off with, “You take the blue pot”—I knew we always made eggs in the blue pot, not the red one—and I did little drawings of the pot.
I guess you can’t make something too complex when you’re four.
No, that was big enough for me. Melt the butter and scramble the eggs. That was it. My mom let me cook for all of us from the age of about ten. She also taught me how to sew. Her thinking was, “If I show you how it works there’s less risk it will go wrong.” So if you know the stove is hot you will probably never put your fingers on it. I think that’s quite smart.
What made you decide to publish a book now?
I’d wanted to do a cookbook for as long as I can remember. I’ve been writing recipes and illustrating for magazines for years. I would save up recipes in a notebook, but I was always looking for a reason to create a book. I thought that if you just put a pile of recipes together it’s not enough. I was trying to figure out what the similarity in all my recipes was, and I realized it was “making everything yourself.” So I decided that could be the main theme throughout the book—and then I could hang my own life story onto the recipes to make them more personal. I took about a year off to work on it. I designed it, drew it, cooked it, wrote it—I did everything myself.
Of all your backgrounds—Irish, Dutch and French—which has influenced your cooking the most?
I really couldn’t say. I’ve lived in so many countries and each one brings its own stories and memories. I cook a lot from memory. The recipes that you learn are always quite traditional, but I like to give them a bit of a twist; whether it’s French, Irish or Dutch, I try to change them in my own way. I like to make them a bit surprising. Otherwise, it’s boring.
What about cookery writers and chefs. Which ones have influenced you?
Many. I have a huge collection of cookbooks. The first books I really loved and still have and that I’ve cooked everything from are the books of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray [of London’s River Café]. And the books of Sam and Sam Clark [of London’s Moro] have also had a huge impact on me. Also, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I’m very fond of his writing more than his recipes—he’s a very funny writer. Those are my favorite ones that I could sleep with and read over and over again. I love to read cookery books in bed. As for Irish, I’d say Clodagh Mckenna, and Rachel Allen and her mother-in-law, Darina Allen. I’ve learned a lot from them. Darina has a tremendous book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best. It’s a huge book [it contains more than 700 recipes.] My recipes are simple and my book is easy to read; her book is much heavier, with loads of difficult things to cook. It’s really nice, though.
Forgotten Skills sounds like a great book, but complex. I wonder if people have the patience to cook from it.
You don’t have to do everything. You can just read it.
But that’s why I like Home Made. It makes me think, “I could make this bread. I don’t need all the proper equipment.” It’s inspirational yet practical.
That was exactly my thought at the beginning, when I was considering doing the book. When I was growing up, I would want to cook something and then I’d realize, “Oh, we don’t have this equipment in the house; we have to go back to the store and buy it,” and then I’d be disappointed already and didn’t want to make it. So that’s why I did a book that shows you you can make all these dishes from scratch. You don’t need all this fancy equipment.
And just as fancy equipment isn’t important to you, seasonal ingredients are, correct?
Yes, they’re very important to me. At our café [Aan de Amstel in Amsterdam] we change the menu every two weeks to reflect what’s new and available. I think it’s something that everyone is working with right now. In the ’80s we all ate kiwis flown in from the other side of the world, but that’s changed now. We’re all more aware of what we put into our mouths. Local produce is now a big thing for everyone.
We’re now realizing that we can do a lot of things with what we have available already. We don’t need every ingredient all the time. We’re more creative and more aware of what’s in the shops and markets. People aren’t as afraid as they used to be of trying new things with what they have. Or, like our French family does: rather than waste produce, they swap their leftover pears from their orchard with their neighbor’s surplus peppers.
The introduction also says that when you were living in Ireland as a child, the women there used to make a lot of things with their own hands “out of necessity or by tradition.” Do you think both reasons are still relevant today or that with the recession it’s more a case of necessity?
No, I don’t think it’s related to the recession. I think the bigger issue is that people are getting fed up with all the extra stuff that is put into processed and prepackaged food. It’s a big movement. People are saying, “I’m not going to eat this any more. I’m not going to eat these additives and these codes when I don’t even know what they are.” We’re getting allergies. I think if you make all the dishes yourself, you know what you’re putting into them so you’re already aware of what you’re eating. I think that’s a bigger issue than the recession and cost-cutting. It’s more about being healthy.
The book also talks about how the recipes help us add a little luxury to life, without the usual associated costs. Do you think we’ve moved away from overly fancy recipes for good, or do you think there’s still a time and place for being OTT?
There’s still a time and a place for that kind of thing, but I think all trends—if you can call my style of cooking a trend—come and go. But you never know. It was so different ten years ago, and in another ten years everything will change again, although I’ve no clue how it will go!