How to put a twist on classic dishes – according to two MasterChef winners

The latest series of MasterChef has kicked off with Greg Wallace, Marcus Wareing and Monica Galetti putting professional chefs through their paces. And now home cooks can have a go, too, thanks to new cookbook, MasterChef: The Classics With A Twist.

The 100-strong recipe collection is filled with nifty culinary ideas and traditional dishes that have been pepped up and innovated, thanks to past winners of the amateur MasterChef competitions.

For starters, there’s Natalie Coleman’s smoky aubergine parmigiana arancini and chilli con carne samosas. Or, try Tim Anderson’s xian-style roast leg of lamb and prawn cocktail tacos. Then there’s Simon Wood’s French onion rarebit soup and Irish cream bread and butter pudding.

We caught up with 2014 champion Ping Coombes and 2012 winner Shelina Permalloo to find out more about embellishing classics and how the MasterChef experience can change your life…

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How they approach putting a twist on things…

For Coombes, adding Asian ingredients to dishes comes naturally. “I’m used to changing things to my liking because I’m married to an Englishman and I’m Malaysian, so I put a lot of Malaysian ingredients into my food.”

Take her lamb ragu with lemongrass and ginger (“It’s Italian fusion with Asian ingredients, and I serve it with linguine,”) while in the book, she shares an apple and blackberry pie flavoured with cardamom that uses activated charcoal: “The pastry turns jet black, it still tastes the same, but it looks completely different.”

It’s about being clever, not completely overhauling an entire iconic dish, she explains: “Don’t go overboard.” Instead, “keep the core flavours, but then maybe add one or two ingredients that you love, or are a bit unusual, or make it look different.”

“The whole point is: How can we elevate a normal home cooked meal into something a bit more MasterCheffy?” adds Permalloo. “Sometimes it doesn’t necessarily need to be about the technical skills involved, for me, it’s about a true balance of flavour that can take something from being ordinary, to being sublime.”

Their key ingredients for adding a flourish to a dish…

Mauritian flavourings are crucial in Permalloo’s cooking, and there’s one fruit she cannot do without. “I have a mango obsession,” she buzzes. “I think I used mango in every single recipe in the final of MasterChef,” – try her tart mango and lime coleslaw in the book.

Coombes, meanwhile, is all about lemongrass (“I have a tonne of them in the freezer,”) as well as ginger, garlic and a range of chilli sauces, which she says are particularly versatile: “Sweet chilli sauce can be just dip, you can make a lovely dressing, it can be put in a dish to sweeten it up – it’s just about knowing how to use your ingredients to the best of your ability.”

This is what it takes to win MasterChef…

“A lot of determination,” says Coombes, “and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but it’s a lot of fun as well.”

“I was at the deepest darkest hour of my life, I’d got made redundant,” she adds, on why she applied. “I wanted to do something I wanted, which I love, which is to cook – but I didn’t do it to win.”

“A real love to want to change your life and cook,” is paramount, agrees Permalloo. “That’s the most important thing.”

We can all cook if we put our minds to it, it’s whether you can handle the pressure – wherever your kitchen…

“Everyone can cook, but not everyone can deal with pressure well – that is the most challenging aspect,” says Coombes of the MasterChef experience. “You’re cooking in a foreign place with foreign utensils, with a time limit and people talking to you; you have to cope with a lot, while actually trying to give your all.”

Permalloo remembers being taken to Thailand for a street food market challenge, in 45 degree heat: “We had no idea what half the ingredients were, I think one of the guys had to cook with cockroach paste!”

“You can call yourself a chef, but when you go to a new country, I don’t think you can justify that, because you don’t know what the ingredients are in front of you,” she says. “You just have to use your own intuition to figure out how it works.”

How MasterChef can switch up your whole life…

Coombes now runs restaurants in London and Birmingham. While MasterChef launched her food career, she says, “it’s definitely really hard being a MasterChef champion, having been a home cook, and then suddenly people expecting you to be this professional cook within 24 hours of winning.”

“It’s the challenge to be taken seriously,” she explains. “You’re kind of in between a home cook and a professional cook, and you have to get through that.”

Since winning the show, Permalloo has written two cookbooks and worked in Michelin star restaurants, and has opened her own joint, Lakaz Maman. “It’s a real whirlwind as soon as you leave the show and start experiencing what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen,” she recalls. “You sink or swim really, really quickly.”

MasterChef The Classics With A Twist is published by DK, priced £25. Photography David Loftus. Available now.

- Press Association

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