There are lots of ways to start a story, but this begins with a chicken.
One of the many strings to Risbridger’s bow, is food writer. She has written a children’s book, edited a poetry anthology as well as numerous other journalistic efforts, but food writing seems to be the things she keeps going back to. She’s very good at it. She combines personal stories with her love of food, to create a recipe book that is more memoir and good mental health guide than a list of ingredients and methods.
These particular recipes and stories come from a certain time of life for Ella. Midnight Chicken (& other recipes worth living for) is like a snapshot into her life as it was when she was in her twenties. Each recipe generously include helpful tips and hints to make each recipe fool-proof as well as stories about the many special people she shared her food with at the time.
It is only fitting then, that this book came into my life thanks to a very special person.
Midnight Chicken was highly recommended at work by one of our very regular and very dear customers at the beginning of the latest Sydney lockdown, winter 2021. She is a loving, kind-hearted, thoughtful person. A woman who has worked hard, raised her family and is now helping to do the same with her grandchildren. Like the rest of us, she has had her ups and downs in life, and it was Ella’s personal story that I believe resonated with her most.
I was instantly reminded of the wonderful heart-warming book written by Charlotte Wood a number of years ago called Love & Hunger which also came to me thanks to a personal recommendation. Dear Sophie was a colleague at the time. We shared an interest in food stories and eating good food. Despite changes in careers, family situations and interstate moves, I consider Sophie to be a dear friend and the person I still keep close when preparing something new or special in the kitchen (my very brief review of Love & Hunger in 2012 does not do it justice in any way. What I learnt about making my own stock from Charlotte is worthy of a post all on it’s own!)
Both are recipe books, but they are also so much more than that.
They are deeply personal stories all about the highs and lows of life. They are about the love of food and sharing it with those you love. Charlotte wrote her book during her 40’s; Ella was in her 20’s. Ella’s book was about starting out with food, and cooking for yourself and working out how to do things. Charlotte’s was more nostalgic for the memories of food from her childhood as well as the lessons she had learnt along the way.
Both books are based on recipes that work. They have been tried and tested multiple times, at different times of life, with different people.
Everyone should, of course, develop their own tried and tested favourites, but many of the recipes shared by Ella (& Charlotte) are ones we already know but may have forgotten. Or they are ones that you realise have an extra special ingredient, or way of cooking them that you haven’t tried before.
Either way, both books inspire, or re-inspire you to get back into the kitchen…in a good way.
Things to Remember: This book has three main morals, and I urge you to remember them and apply them liberally. 1. Salt your pasta water. 2. If in doubt, butter. 3. Keep going.
Ella is very much about cooking with a glass of wine in hand, a philosophy that both Mr Books and I embrace whole-heartedly.
There were times when Ella sounded impossibly young and I simply wanted to reach through the pages to give her a big ‘you’ll get through this phase of your life’ hug. But as all of us know who have gone through it, the only way through is through. In the end, you are the only one who can do it. You have to find the way that works best for you. Thankfully Ella found her way. The trick is to have a few kind and loving souls to walk beside you along the way. The ones who know when it’s time to leave you alone and when it’s time to intervene. The ones who pick you up when you fall; the ones who love you regardless.
This is a story of eating things, which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive. More importantly, this is a story about wanting to be alive.
Ella cooks like me (much to Mr Books despair, and perhaps one of the reasons why he took over the kitchen during lockdown!) At times, she’s a bit hit or miss about quantities and happily plays around with flavours and spices until she gets the taste she wants. Mr Books is a by-the-recipe kind of guy. He measures, he times, he calculates and plans ahead. Which means, annoyingly, all his meals work out every single time, but they often lack the extra flavour ooomph I like, which sees me piling on the pepper at the table!
I’m a cook, I suppose, but a slapdash, bottom-of-the-vegetable-drawer cook. A buy-first, Google-later, cover-it-in-Parmesan cook. A two-old-jugs-without-a-handle, measure -it-in-wine-glasses cook….I believe in bad cooking and experimental cooking and giving-it-a-go cooking.
However Ella’s story has a heart-breaking zinger at the end. As you read the afterword and acknowledgements, the reader is suddenly confronted by the huge back story to Midnight Chicken. A whole new light; a whole new heartache is added to the mix. Everything that has gone before is retroactively tinged with this new knowledge.
I highly recommend this to anyone who loves a food memoir.
I suspect this will get tagged as a Millennial food book, but it’s Millennial in the same way Sally Rooney’s books are. They are written by a Millennial, living and adulting during the 2000 and 2010 decades. But the themes are universal. For anyone who has ever been a heart-broken, mixed-up twenty-something wondering what on earth to do with your life, then this is all very relatable, regardless of the era in which you happened to be twenty-something.
I’ve dog-eared a few recipes to try at some point. These include:
- Glumday Porridge (pg 58-9) – she dry toasts the oats before adding the milk!
- Avocado on Toast (pg 64) – Ella uses Marmite, but I reckon Vegemite would have the same effect.
- Perfect Roast Tomato & Garlilc Soup (pg 100-101)
- Trashy Ginger Beer Chicken (pg 111-113) – along with a trick for how to peel ginger using the back of a teaspoon that I didn’t know.
- Wildly Easy Hummus (pg 126-127)
- Labneh (pg 129-130) – already know how to make this, but reminder to self to do so more often!
- Danish Crackers (pg 134-135) – for cheese, pate, labneh, hummus, tapenade etc.
- Fig, Fennel, Freekeh & Cauliflower (pg 138-139) – can be eaten hot or cold at a picnic.
- Burrata Salad (pg 140-141)
- Big Hearty Black Bean (& Tomato) Soup (pg 161-162) – no such thing as too much home made tomato soup!
- Carbonara (pg 166-169) – a family favourite – I enjoy testing other people’s recipes to see how they compare.
- Uplifting Chilli & Lemon Spaghetti (pg 171-173)
- Blackened Broccoli & Bittersweet Almonds (on Toast) – a friend loves broccoli in salads & on sandwiches. She is slowly converting me. I’m hoping this recipe will help (pg 174-175)
- Slightly Charred Cauliflower Cheese (pg 176-177) not sure if this could ever replace Ottolenghi’s cheesy mustardy cauliflower in our hearts, but I’m willing to try it once.
- Roasted Chickpeas (pg 188-189)
- Pangrattato (pg 193) spicy, zesty bread crumbs.
- Creamed Leeks (pg 201-202) – very English sounding
- Sweet Potato Hash (pg208-209) – with chirozo!
- Miso Ginger Aubergine (pg 216-217) – I keep seeing versions of this recipe. I really must try one soon.
- Fast Green Harissa (pg 222)
- Parmesan Green Beans (pg 226-227)
- Proper Ragù (pg 245-251)
- Beginner’s Chicken Curry (pg 258-260) – always on the look out for recipes the boy’s might like.
- Salted Caramel Brown Butter Brownies (pg 291-293)
Three Last Things: 1. Wash up as you go along. 2. If it smells fine, it’s probably fine. 3. It’s probably all going to be fine (in the end).
Finally, if you ever get a chance to source the lovely 2019 hardcover, colour illustrated edition, do so, it’s truly delicious.
Title: Midnight Chicken (& other recipes worth living for) Author: Ella Risbridger Illustrator: Elisa Cunningham ISBN: 9781526623898 Imprint: Bloomsbury Published: 31 December 2020 (originally published 10 January 2019) Format: Paperback
- This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.