Lamb kofta, sea bream puttanesca, potato cakes – 20-minute recipes from Anna Haugh

<span>Sea bream puttanesca.</span><span>Photograph: Laura Edwards</span>
Sea bream puttanesca.Photograph: Laura Edwards

When Anna Haugh decided to write a cookbook after more than two decades in professional kitchens, pitching her recipes at the right skill level was a challenge. “Trying to simplify and reduce was an interesting learning curve,” says the Dublin-born chef, who opened her restaurant Myrtle in London’s Chelsea five years ago. “Even when I was doing the photoshoot [for the book] I would think, ‘No, that’s a bit too much,’ and I’d remove an element.”

The result is accessible enough for even the most hesitant cooks. It begins, irresistibly, with a section on 20-minute dinners, featuring potato cakes, speedy pasta dishes and a sea bream bake “for which you need zero cooking ability”. But Haugh, who has appeared as a judge on MasterChef, believes that sometimes a little extra effort at the stove can yield outsized rewards. “There are some dishes that might look complicated, but then you do it and realise, I’ve just injected loads of flavour and it wasn’t that hard. There weren’t 15 pots in the sink, a broken marriage and somebody weeping on the floor, questioning their life decisions.”

Haugh, who is 43, has a determination that’s carried her through tough, male-dominated kitchens, but in person she is friendly, funny and enthusiastic about her vocation. “My nickname at culinary school was the Air Hostess,” she says. “I’m somebody who wants to give, to take care of people, who doesn’t see getting up and doing stuff as effort.”

Cooking With Anna is full of recipes she has shared with friends and family over the years. There’s the caramelised swede and honey soup that she once made for her sister, whose children now demand it every Christmas; the spiced couscous dish that she dreamed up for her partner when he wanted to shed a few pounds. Influences come from across the map, taking in curries, tacos and gazpacho, but the main emphasis, as at Myrtle, is on Irish food with a modern edge.

Haugh was raised in Tallaght, a working-class suburb of Dublin, where her mother grew fruit in the back garden and cooked from scratch, drawing on recipes handed down from her own mother and grandmother. “I terrorised that woman because she wouldn’t buy the cheap pink stuff in the supermarket and instead made me eat the most delicious, luscious gooseberry jam,” says Haugh, laughing ruefully. “I was like, ‘How dare you, Mam?!’”

This mirrored her response to Irish cuisine more generally. “We were made to believe that anything Irish was muck, savagery and unrefined. If you asked me about it when I was younger, I would have been like: ‘You just boil stuff in water, that’s Irish food.’”

After deciding to become a chef in her late teens, Haugh gravitated towards French cuisine, working in Paris and then London under the likes of Phil Howard and Gordon Ramsay. Only later did she begin to appreciate that what her mother cooked at home – mackerel coated with oats and fried; boxty potato pancakes; a Dublin stew of sausages and potatoes known as coddle – had culinary value. (All three recipes appear, with elaborations, in Cooking With Anna; the oat-crusted hake with smoked mackerel sauce is one dish that handsomely rewards a little extra effort.)

The growing appreciation of her native cuisine lies at the heart of Myrtle, which she opened in 2019, naming it after Irish cooking’s matriarch: Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House in Cork. “When I told people I wanted to do modern Irish, everybody said, ‘Please don’t do this, it’s a terrible idea!’” Five years later the restaurant is going strong, though convincing people to eat Irish food was the least of her challenges. First Covid hit. Then Haugh became pregnant. “People were saying, ‘Choose between being a mother and opening a restaurant,’” she recalls. “It can be really hard to keep going, but if it’s your restaurant, you get to choose whether you come back or not. When you’re the boss and your baby is on your hip in a meeting, people accept it.”

Despite time pressures, Haugh is thriving. She’s a regular on Saturday Kitchen and Morning Live and last month began filming her own BBC travel show about Irish food.

Through all this, she still manages to cook at home “all the time. I bake bread every single weekend. On Sundays I’ll choose a cookbook – it could be Indian or Vietnamese or Italian – and make a breakfast from it, and then a special cocktail followed by snacks, main course and dessert. If I have somebody to cook for, I’m motivated. I love giving things to people.” Her partner, Rich, is a lucky beneficiary of this, as is their son. “That little boy eats like a king,” she says.

One message Haugh is hoping to get across is that “you can have simple ingredients, but if you treat them right, you will create magic”. This can take time, she acknowledges, “but even if it’s just half an hour, you’re giving yourself more than tasty food. You’re giving yourself a break, you’re properly switching off from social media. By cooking for yourself on a regular basis, you’re enriching your soul.”

Balsamic prawns with cherry tomatoes and creamy polenta

A great quick dish that is easy to scale up and serve from the centre of the table.

Serves 2
For the polenta
water 600g
sea salt 1 tsp
quick-cook polenta 100g
parmesan cheese 50g, finely grated, plus more (optional) to serve
salted butter 30g
milk up to 100g, if needed

For the prawns
vegetable oil 1 tbsp
garlic 1 clove, halved
raw prawns up to 300g, deveined if needed
cherry tomatoes 200g, halved
balsamic vinegar 3 tbsp
sugar ½ tsp
chilli flakes a pinch
spinach 2 handfuls, total weight about 50g
extra virgin olive oil to serve (optional)

Bring the measured water and salt to the boil, then whisk in the polenta: it will cook very quickly. Beat in the parmesan and butter, then taste and see if it needs more salt. Keep it warm over a low heat, covering the surface with a sheet of baking parchment to prevent a skin from forming, and stirring it occasionally, while you quickly cook the prawns.

Get a frying pan hot over a high heat. Add the oil and garlic clove, then throw in the prawns and cherry tomatoes, along with the balsamic, sugar and chilli flakes. The prawns will change colour from blue to pink when they are cooked. Take them off the heat and add the spinach, stirring to wilt.

Mix up the polenta once more: if it seems a little dry, add the milk a little bit at a time to loosen it up.

Spoon the polenta into the middle of the plates or bowls, creating little wells in the centre of the mounds. Spoon the prawns on top. Finishing with some parmesan, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is a nice touch, if you like.

Sea bream puttanesca

This is the single most surprising dish I’ve made at home. I cannot quite believe there is such a good recipe for which you need zero cooking ability. You will wow anyone with this. Ideally, make it in a pan that has a lid, but if you don’t have a lid you can always use a large heatproof plate to cover the pan instead.

I serve this with proper crusty sourdough bread and a simple rocket salad.

Serves 2
extra virgin olive oil 2 tbsp, plus 1 tsp
garlic 1 clove, halved
capers 2 tbsp
kalamata olives 10, pitted
cherry tomatoes 200g, halved
chopped tomatoes 1 x 400g tin
sugar 1 tsp
sea salt ½ tsp
sea bream fillets 2, or sea bass fillets
parsley leaves from a bunch
rocket 50g

Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the garlic, capers and olives, stir and cook for a few minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes, chopped tomatoes, sugar and salt and let it bubble together

Add the fish skin side down, place a lid on top (or see recipe introduction) and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 6 minutes. Once it is cooked, remove the lid and add the parsley.

Meanwhile, mix the rocket leaves with the 1 teaspoon of oil.

Serve the puttanesca with the rocket salad, with sourdough bread or toast on the side, if you like.

Tricks of the trade
If you want to make a vegetarian meal with these flavours, I find replacing the fish with vegetables that you know cook quickly – such as asparagus or bok choi – works brilliantly, because the sauce is so versatile. Either version is also great as a pasta sauce.

Mussels with herb pesto

If you want a more substantial meal, add 150g sliced boiled baby potatoes and 50g sugar snap peas.

Serves 2
garlic ¼ clove
tarragon ½ bunch
parsley ½ bunch
sugar a pinch
extra virgin olive oil 3½ tbsp
mussels 600g
celery stalks 2, peeled and chopped
lemon finely grated zest of 1
sea salt

For the pesto, in the jug of a hand blender, mix the garlic, tarragon, parsley, sugar, a pinch of salt and the extra virgin olive oil. Blend until combined (see tip, below).

If any mussels are open, tap them to see if they close. You are checking to see if they are alive, as they will only close if they are. Discard the shells that stay open.

To prepare the mussels, pull off the “beards”, which are the hairy strands emerging from the shells and are actually bits of the rope the mussels were grown on. With a small knife, scrape off any barnacles. If any mussels are cracked, discard them. Rinse briefly to remove any debris from the shells.

Place a wide-based pan with a lid over a medium heat. Tip in your mussels and celery and cook, gently opening the mussels. (If any mussels refuse to open after 5-8 minutes, discard them.)

Add the herb pesto to the mussel pan and toss until fully coated, then serve steaming hot, sprinkled with the lemon zest.

Tricks of the trade
When blending in a food processor, think of what the desired texture should be. If you are making pesto, as here, you want the ingredients united, but still to have different flecks of colour and a nubbly texture. It is a quick process and you have to watch carefully and stop when it is just right.

Lamb kofta with yoghurt dressing and herby cucumber salad

Ideally you would use 8 metal or wooden skewers, but if you don’t have those, shape the koftas into sausage shapes and fry them in a frying pan instead.

Serves 4
For the koftas
minced lamb 400g
ground cumin 1 tsp
chilli flakes ½ tsp
dried oregano 1 tsp
garlic 1 clove, crushed
sea salt 1 tsp
water 1 tbsp
pitta breads 4, to serve

For the salad
cucumber 1, grated
dill ½ bunch, chopped
mint leaves from ½ bunch

For the sauce
yoghurt 300g, thick Greek-style
extra virgin olive oil 2 tbsp
white wine vinegar 1 tsp
breadcrumbs 1 tbsp (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190C fan/gas mark 6½. Put the lamb in a bowl with the spices, oregano, garlic and salt and mix really well with your hands. Just as you think you have combined it enough, mix in the measured water (see tricks of the trade, below).

Make 8 kofta sausage shapes around metal or wooden skewers (or see intro), then place on an oven tray and bake for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together the cucumber, dill and mint in a bowl. Separately mix the Greek yoghurt in a second bowl with the olive oil and vinegar, seasoning to taste with salt. If your sauce seems a bit loose – which can happen if the yoghurt was runny – you might want to add the breadcrumbs to thicken it up.

Pop the pitta breads in the toaster, then cut in half with scissors. Spoon the cucumber salad on to plates, spoon some of the yoghurt dressing over it, then add the koftas. Serve the toasted pittas on the side, for people to stuff as they choose, along with a bowl of the remaining yogurt dressing. Tuck in.

Tricks of the trade
Adding water to any meatball or burger mixture will help to keep it soft and juicy when cooked.

Potato cakes with rashers and mushrooms

A great use for leftover mash and so easy that I hope it becomes a staple quick meal you throw together at home. In the restaurant, when we have a little leftover mash, I quickly get these together to feed the whole kitchen crew. They are also lovely for breakfast, if you’ve woken up and there’s no bread in the house.

For a vegetarian version, you can remove the bacon and add asparagus spears and maybe some shavings of a vegetarian parmesan-style cheese.

Serves 4
For the topping
salted butter 25g, plus 10-15g for the mushrooms
garlic 1 clove, halved
smoked bacon rashers 8, snipped with scissors into strips, or 80g smoked lardons
chestnut mushrooms 200g, quartered

For the potato cakes
cold mashed potato 200g
self-raising flour 200g, plus more if needed and to dust
egg 1, lightly beaten
sea salt ½ tsp
vegetable oil 2 tbsp
flat leaf parsley leaves from ½ bunch
kale 80g, coarse ribs removed, leaves finely chopped

For the dressing
extra virgin olive oil 4 tbsp
balsamic vinegar 2 tbsp
sugar a pinch

Heat the 25g of butter in a frying pan and add your garlic. Cook for 2 minutes, then add your bacon and cook for 5 minutes. Now add your mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes. Add the 10-15g butter over a low heat, stirring to create an emulsion.

In a bowl, mix the mashed potato, flour and egg with the salt. You are looking for it to be wetter than scone dough. If it’s super-wet it will still work: you can spoon it into the pan like thick batter.

Dust your work surface with flour and split your potato mix into 4 balls. Shape each into a patty. Preheat the oven to 175C fan/gas mark 5½.

Heat up an ovenproof frying pan with the oil and cook the potato cakes for 2-3 minutes until golden brown, then flip and pop into the oven for 5 minutes. If you don’t have an ovenproof pan, lift them on to a baking tray before you put them in the oven.

Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl with a pinch of salt. Toss the parsley and kale in the dressing and serve with the potato cakes fresh out of the oven, the mushrooms and the bacon.

Fennel sausage meatballs

My partner, Rich, has a handful of dishes that he makes for lunches and dinners for us. He hates cooking, not because he’s bad at it, but because he doesn’t think the extra time spent making a dish more special is worth it. So he only makes dishes that are super-quick, involve minimum cleaning and are still delicious. This was the first recipe I taught him to make. I have lost count of how many times we have had it for dinner and it never disappoints.

Serves 2
chipolata sausages 8, skins removed, or 200g minced pork
fennel seeds 1 tbsp
sunflower or vegetable oil 3 tbsp
garlic 1 clove, halved
onion 1, finely chopped or grated
sea salt ½ tsp
sugar ½ tsp
chopped tomatoes 1 x 400g tin
tomato puree 1 tbsp
sugar a pinch (optional)
baby spinach a handful
dried linguine 150g
extra virgin olive oil a little
parmesan cheese to serve

Mix the sausage meat or minced pork in a bowl with the fennel seeds.

Place a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the oil and, using a teaspoon, spoon the sausage or pork mix on to the hot pan. Leave until the meatballs are golden brown on their bases, then turn over.

Add the garlic and onion with the salt, sugar, tomatoes and tomato puree. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Taste, and see if it needs an additional pinch of sugar, which it might if your tinned tomatoes are acidic. Add the spinach and give the mixture a quick stir to wilt the leaves.

Meanwhile, cook the linguine according to the packet instructions, then drain it, reserving a little of the cooking water. Return the pasta to its pan and toss it in a little extra virgin olive oil.

Add a spoonful of the pasta cooking water to the sauce and stir it well, then serve the linguine with the meatballs, offering parmesan to grate over the top.

Recipes from Cooking with Anna by Anna Haugh (Bloomsbury, £26). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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