Mary McCartney: food from the heart Following in her mother Linda McCartney's food-loving footsteps, Mary McCartney has put together a collection of family-friendly vegetarian recipes.
By Tamsin Blanchard
Mary McCartney is standing on my doorstep, holding a small Tupperware box with fairy cakes in it. She was going to bake brownies but didn’t have time; the fairy cakes are leftovers from the previous day. The lack of brownies doesn’t matter because I am in the middle of baking the super-easy, all-in-one banana muffins from her new recipe book. It’s not often the daughter of a Beatle comes to cook lunch in your home. But McCartney has agreed to talk about her new book, simply called Food, Vegetarian Home Cooking, while cooking me her courgette and lemon spaghetti. The list of ingredients was straightforward and didn’t involve me having to track down anything more exotic than some rosemary from the garden and a block of feta. As I was in the middle of stirring the mashed bananas into my muffin mix and didn’t want them to turn brown, McCartney set to work rummaging around in my pan drawer and putting the kettle on to boil for the pasta.
'It’s a real cottage industry book,’ she tells me. 'I wrote down the recipe, I cooked it, I photographed it.’ McCartney’s day job is as a photographer (she was in the middle of a job for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel when she stopped by) but she is quick to point out that she is not a food photographer. She is more at home with people – she has photographed Lily Cole, Kate Moss and Helen Mirren among her starry portfolio. Nevertheless, the pictures in the book are extremely seductive. Big close-ups of minestrone soup, a sandwich oozing with hummus, avocado and chilli jam, and – definitely one to try – Linda’s Lemon Drizzle Cake, a loaf cake freshly cut into mouthwateringly fat slices.
McCartney decided to do the book after a publisher contacted her with the idea when she was helping to promote the Meat Free Monday campaign with her father and her sister, Stella, three years ago. She is an instinctive cook who makes simple, stress-free food for family and friends – she has three children under the age of 11. Her husband, the television director Simon Aboud, was not a vegetarian when they met, but once he had tried McCartney’s hearty style of cooking, didn’t feel he was missing anything by not eating meat. When the first proof of her book arrived, he followed her recipe for butternut squash soup. McCartney was very happy that it turned out just like it should. 'He didn’t look as though it was stressful or anything!’ she says. Being a McCartney-style vegetarian is not about missing out on anything or being healthier-than-thou. I make a mental note to try her red onion gravy, one of her most-cooked recipes. She pours it over everything from veggie sausages and mash to make a quick children’s tea, to a sage and onion roast for Sunday lunch. Like her father, she likes traditional food and says it is nice to have something to slice and pour gravy over alongside Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. 'I did the book for the stimulus of people who are interested in eating more vegetarian food,’ she says. 'If you are not vegetarian and you want to eat vegetarian food it can be a bit daunting.’
McCartney’s food is an intimate peek into the family’s kitchen table – the culmination of tried-and-tested recipes cooked by three generations of women. Baking was something McCartney did with her grandmother Monique, who introduced her to the joys of the oven thermometer. 'She was my mum’s stepmum. She was American French. She wasn’t a mumsy granny; when I got to my teens, I connected with her on cooking. She taught me how to roll out pastry; you roll it, turn it, roll it, take your time. So I got to know her and like her more through that. There is an apple tart she taught me to make. My mum would never take the time to slice everything like that.’
Her Aunt Louise, Linda’s sister, gave Mary a recipe box where she keeps photocopies of annotated recipes and notes of her own experiments. Louise, who lives in Massachusetts, is credited for her coleslaw recipe, which has caraway seeds in it. 'My mum was more a tactile, peasant-cook, while my aunt will do coleslaws and will make these bean pickle things in the summer which I love. She grows beans and then pickles them with dill, garlic, vinegar and chilli; they are amazing.’
But it is Linda’s influence that shines through, from the corn fritters that Mary made because her mother liked sweetcorn so much, to the macaroni cheese, and the peanut butter, banana and honey on toast, a version of her mother’s beloved peanut butter and jam. Quiche is a family favourite. As children – as well as Mary there was her older stepsister, Heather, Stella, who is two years younger (also, Mary tells me, a great cook) and their brother, James – they were allowed to choose what they ate on birthdays, a tradition that carries on with the current generation of children. 'A lot of the time it was Mum’s quiche because it was a bit of a wow factor when it would come out of the oven. Her quiche is good because it’s that big American thing, it’s not like a flan. The key is to have a hot oven. I phoned Mum when I moved out to ask the secret to quiche. Apparently if you cook it at 200 degrees it has a lot more fluffiness to it.’
McCartney has adapted some of Linda’s recipes to her own taste. She couldn’t not include a recipe for brownies, she says, because they were such a treat when her mum made them. She recalls that her friends loved them because brownies were quite unusual in 1970s Sussex. Other favourite puddings included fried bananas with cream and brown sugar (McCartney has a healthier version with baked apricots and peaches) and rice pudding. 'Mum knew how much rice to sugar and she knew how much milk and she could put it in the oven and bake it. I don’t think she could be bothered to measure and be that exact.’
But back to the spaghetti. In between licking the leftover muffin batter from the bowl, and trying out my homemade green tomato chutney from the back of the fridge (she confesses to being a snacker, hence the section in the book on snacks and sandwiches, which includes a family favourite, hummus and Marmite on toasted bagel), McCartney cuts a courgette into thin slices lengthways and puts them in the pan with the oil, garlic and herbs. She says she doesn’t use many gadgets and doesn’t have a microwave. 'The one I do use a lot is my oven thermometer,’ she says. 'How are the muffins?’ I open the oven. 'They look like muffins!’ she says, laughing. 'How exciting! Can you imagine how mortified I would have been if they hadn’t worked?’
McCartney likes to eat as much as she likes to cook. As we sit down to eat, she recalls that growing up in the 1970s as a vegetarian was quite an alien thing. 'None of my friends was vegetarian. It felt like we were a different sect of people.’ Her mum was vociferous in her campaigning about animal welfare. 'She was so passionate about it.’ McCartney’s approach is much gentler and less confrontational, though she is worried about the environmental impact of beef farming and the increasing industrialisation of meat production. She doesn’t eat fish either, for the same reasons. But fundamentally, she hopes people will simply use her book because they like food. 'Seeing clean plates is the most satisfying thing,’ she says. 'I love it. I’m really glad I did it. It looks like a proper cookbook!’
'Food’ by Mary McCartney (Chatto & Windus) is available from Telegraph Books for £18 plus £1.25 p&p (0844-871 1515; books.telegraph.co.uk). Mary McCartney will be in conversation with Sophie Dahl at Words in the Park Festival in Holland Park, London on May 18 (0300-999 1000; wayswithwords.co.uk)