DEBUT cookery book writer Ella Risbridger, talks to Taste about making the kitchen more accessible.

The food blogger-turned-cookbook writer, journalist and tweeter extraordinaire is currently editing a poetry anthology, there's homemade chicken stock simmering on the stove, and she's halfway through a batch of her flaky sea salt-sprinkled chocolate cookies.

"If I dropped my copy of the book," she notes, "it would open on the cookies page. I make them so frequently."

The book in question is her debut recipe collection, Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For), and five years in the writing. Instead, as Risbridger, 26, puts it: "This is it, it's finally here."

Midnight Chicken is not your usual cookbook. For starters, glossy food photography has been sacked off for bright, wobbly illustrations by Elisa Cunningham. The pages are strewn with drawings of creamy garlic cloves in their pink paper skins; knobbly, zingy green gherkins; and even a pheasant hopping away from Risbridger's Danny The Champion Of The Pie recipe.

The recipes themselves are less instructions for dinner, and more stories and moments, captured in a perfect "high and light and solid" cheese scone, or a blackberry pizza that is "a little bit sexier than nearly every pizza in the world". There are musings on fog and the necessity for pea soup, what to make if your anxiety has had you stuck in a bookshop for 40 minutes (salmon with sticky rice), and how to chill homemade hummus ("For as long as you can bear it").

It's also a book of love. Risbridger's partner, journalist John Underwood, and the 'Tall Man' found in her writings, who she credits with teaching her how to cook, died in 2018.

And while Midnight Chicken revels in food, it also shifts with, and navigates the demands of Risbridger's anxiety disorder. Cooking became a lifeline and a way to manage, she explains in the book, and that eponymous roast chicken recipe (ginger, she reckons, is its secret elixir) was the beginning. Writing it all down, first in her blog, Eating With My Fingers, and then in book form was simply "natural".

"What I try to achieve with everything that I write about mental illness is to say, 'OK, how can we live with this? How can we make a life worth living when things are really hard, when things feel really difficult, how can you find the good?" says Risbridger. "How can you find something to hang onto when you're in that dark place?

"What I wanted to do most was to help," she says of the driving force of the book. She wanted it to be useful, to make the kitchen accessible and "to make it clear that having anxiety or depression or any kind of mental illness, is a part of life".

For Risbridger, her mental health issues made "everything feel very chaotic", and cooking presented a "puzzle" that "fitted very perfectly into what I needed it to be. It combines this creative impulse, which I love, with this sense of inevitability: If you put these two things together, you'll get this result.

"There's a precision to it, a creativity, and, at the end of it, you've got something to eat - you've done something practical, you've taken a real step to help yourself.

"There's something really soothing about that," she adds.

Cooking offered a reliable kind of safety, rather than a fear of the unknown. "Without sounding horrible about it, I just had bigger problems. I was so nervous about everything, [I thought] 'Well, cooking, what's the worst that can happen?'"

Hence the book's list of: What to do when it all goes wrong - e.g. "Order a takeaway. Nobody will care."

"Cooking's great. It's essential for me, and everyone's got to do it at some point, you might as well try and have fun with it - but it is just food," Risbridger says matter-of-factly.

"If it goes wrong, it's a pain - and I understand that's quite a privileged position in itself, as some people might not have the money to chuck away dinner, and I can understand that's a whole set of social and economic and financial realities that are really terrible - but I suspect, for most of the people reading and buying this book, they're probably in a position where if dinner goes wrong and they have to have toast, it's probably going to be OK."

And there's always her three core principles to fall back on:

1. Salt your pasta water ("It makes such a huge difference")

2. If in doubt, butter ("That really makes me laugh")

3. Keep going ("It really is a book about keeping going")

While there are melancholic moments (Risbridger touches on a suicide attempt and difficult family relationships in the book), mostly it's about the things she loves, like dumplings ("I would live on soup dumplings") and mini pasta shapes ("They're so adorable. To have a soup with tiny, tiny stars in just makes everything feel better"), and the hot-pink ribbon it has for keeping your place ("Isn't it great?!"). But what comes across most, on practically every page, is how much she delights in cooking for others.

"I love having people for dinner," Risbridger buzzes. "[I'll say] 'What do you want to eat? Come here and I'll make it for you' - I love that, it's like giving people a birthday present, all the time.

"My flatmate, I text her in the middle of the day: 'What do you want to eat?' She'll text back two words, like: 'Maybe sausages?' Great, I'll go to Asda and I will think."

Risbridger calls Midnight Chicken "a very accurate picture of my life five years ago, a lot has changed in my life since then". And so when asked what happens next, she replies: "I need to work out where I'm going, what I'm doing.

"It's been a bit of a year," she muses. "I need a bit of time to just look at it all."

But for now, there's joy to be found here. Platefuls of it.


Meat-free and full of leek-y goodness.

"Lasagne, I think, is the truest weekend food: the Saturday dinner, the Sunday lunch. You can make it in a rush on a weeknight, but it's not nearly as good, and scrambling to get it ready takes all the fun out of it. You want half a day to devote to it really," explains Ella Risbridger, author of new cookbook Midnight Chicken. "Lasagne can be party food, picnic food or leftovers, but most of all it is proper comfort food. Done well, it's both a joy to eat and a joy to cook."

"This version is vegetarian, which I prefer," she adds. "Both lighter and more grown-up than its meaty counterpart, it's also beautiful: The deep umber of sweet squash, green-and-gold slivers of charred leek to temper the sweet with the bitter, punchy green kale for vitamins and to cut the fat a little, all layered with rich, melty, nutmeg-y bechamel (or something like it, anyway) infused with Parmesan rind, peppercorns and a bay leaf."


(Serves 6)

About 300g no-cook lasagna sheets, depending on the dimensions of your dish

1 x 125g ball of mozzarella

25g Parmesan

Freshly grated nutmeg

Black pepper

Salad or garlic bread, to serve

For the vegetable filling:

800g squash, such as butternut (but any is fine)

1 garlic bulb

Olive oil, for drizzling

50g butter

Small handful of thyme

2tbsp white wine

3 large leeks

400g kale

For the cheese sauce:

60g Parmesan

60g strong Cheddar

40g butter

40g plain flour

600ml milk

200ml double cream

6 black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

1 Parmesan rind



1. Pre-heat your oven to 180°C.

2. First, make the filling. Peel your butternut squash - a big knife works much better than a standard peeler for this. Use a spoon to scrape out the seeds, then chop into dice. Tip the dice into a large roasting tin. Take your garlic bulb, and slice the top off to expose just the very tips of the cloves. Wrap in foil, like a parcel, leaving it slightly open at the top. Drizzle the tops of the garlic cloves with olive oil, then seal the parcel and tuck in the tin with the squash.

3. Cut half of the butter into tiny cubes and dot among the squash. Grind over some pepper, then strip the thyme leaves from their stalks and scatter them in, then pour over the white wine. Put in the oven to roast for 40 minutes or until the squash is good and caramel-y.

4. Meanwhile, turn your attention to the leeks. Split them lengthways and rinse thoroughly under the tap (leeks are great at hiding grit and mud). Chop roughly, then muddle with your hands to separate the leeks into their constituent layers. In a large frying pan over a medium-low heat, melt the remaining 25g butter and allow it to brown slightly. Give the leeks a last shake dry, and tip them in. Stir to coat in the brown butter, then leave them to lightly char (maybe 20 minutes), giving them a stir every so often - this adds a lovely rich bitterness to balance the sweetness of the squash.

5. Rinse the kale, and chop roughly with scissors. That's all you're going to do to the kale. Leave it be.

6. When your squash has been in the oven for about 20 minutes, check on it: It should be happily doing its thing. If it looks like it's burning, spoon over some of the juices from the bottom of the tin and loosely cover with foil, before returning it to the oven for the remaining 20 minutes.

7. Next up, the cheese sauce. Grate both the cheeses - you can mix them together; it's fine. (Give your leeks a stir.) Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, and when it's foaming, add the flour, stirring to form a golden-coloured paste (breathe in - it smells amazing). Cook your roux for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from the heat. (Stir your leeks again - they should be softened and starting to catch by now.) Gently and slowly introduce the milk to your roux, stirring the whole time. You want to pour with one hand, and stir with the other, to avoid lumps. Keep pouring. Keep stirring - you can get any lumps out by stirring. When your sauce is smooth, stir in the cream. Add the peppercorns, bay leaf, Parmesan rind and a good grating of nutmeg. Bring up to a simmer, stirring constantly, then cook for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and fish out the peppercorns, bay leaf and Parmesan rind. Add the grated cheese, stirring until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste - you might want salt.

8. Check your squash, which should be very soft with caramelized edges by now; your garlic too should be soft, like butter left out on a warm day. Remove, but leave the oven on. Squeeze the soft garlic into your cheese sauce and stir well to fully incorporate. Decant the squash into a bowl and take the leeks off the heat.

9. Dig out a tin or baking dish about 30cm x 20cm, and 5cm deep: It's time to assemble your lasagne. Squash in first, a thin layer; next, a handful of kale, then lasagne sheets in a single layer, followed by cheese sauce, then leeks and more kale. Another layer of squash, lasagne sheets, cheese sauce, leeks and kale; then a final of squash and lasagne sheets, followed by the end of the cheese sauce, spreading it right to the corners of the tin.Tear the mozzarella and scatter over the top, then grate over the last 25g of Parmesan, some nutmeg and a twist of black pepper.

10. Bake for 45 minutes or until the pasta is soft and the cheese is golden-brown and bubbling. Serve with a sharp side salad (or garlic bread) and cold white wine.


That's a Vietnamese dish, by the way...

"I should make clear at once that this probably has very little to do with authentic chao xa ga, a kind of Vietnamese lemongrass rice porridge (this sounds terrible in English, which is why it isn't the title of this recipe), but it does share most of the same flavours, and some of the same techniques," explains writer of new cookbook Midnight Chicken, Ella Risbridger.

"Of course, it is really a kind of hearty chicken soup, and an actual doctor once told me that chicken soup has real benefits. That's why I make this: Infinitely adaptable and infinitely delicious, it seethes and bubbles and fills the house with soft steam. It's more than the sum of its parts, it's absurdly comforting and clean-tasting, and you feel better and more lively for having eaten it."


(Serves 2)

1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk

200ml chicken stock (or 1 chicken stock pot/cube dissolved in 200ml boiling water)

2tbsp fish sauce

2tbsp grated ginger (about 6cm)

1tbsp grated garlic (about 4 cloves)

1tsp brown sugar

2tsp white pepper

2 lemongrass stalks (fresh is better, dried is fine)

2 limes

200g kale

Bunch of coriander

Bunch of spring onions

2 red bird's eye chillies

200g jasmine rice

200g cooked and peeled prawns


1. Combine your coconut milk, chicken stock and fish sauce in a saucepan, and stir to dissolve any lumps. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar and pepper. Stir again. If using fresh lemongrass, chop it into the pan with scissors; if using dried, add the stalks whole. Bring the broth to a gentle simmer over the lowest possible heat while you zest and juice your limes. Reserve a pinch of lime zest, then add the rest to the broth, along with the juice. Inhale deeply. Feel better.

2. Tip the kale and coriander into a colander, and rinse them vigorously (both are horribly good at hiding grit). Use scissors to chop them as finely as you can manage, then set to one side.

3. Rinse and slice the spring onions, then add most to the broth, reserving a few green shreds for garnish. Rinse, slice and de-seed the chillies, and do the same.

4. This should all take about 10 minutes, and by this time the house will smell beautiful and bright and green. Rinse the rice, then tip it directly into the broth. Cover the pan and cook for 18 minutes, stirring a couple of times to break up any clumps of rice.

5. Taste: The rice should be soft and sticky, with broth bubbling all around and over it. Stir through the kale and coriander and cook for two minutes more. Finally, add the prawns and cook for another two minutes.

6. Decant into bowls: A mound of tender rice, studded with pink prawns and flecks of vivid green, with a moat of richly scented broth. Scatter with the reserved lime zest, loops of red chilli and hoops of green onion. Serve straight away.


Perhaps the ultimate roast chicken.

"There are lots of ways to start a story, but this one begins with a chicken. It was the first story I ever wrote about food, and it begins with a chicken in a cloth bag hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. It was dark outside, and I was lying on the hall floor, looking at the chicken through the door, and looking at the rust in the door hinges, and wondering if I was ever going to get up," explains Ella Risbridger, author of new cookbook Midnight Chicken (named after this very recipe).

"Perhaps, I thought, lying on the hall floor, I will just stay on the hall floor forever, and sink through the laminate, and into the concrete, and down into the earth. But this is a hopeful story. It's the story of how I got up off the floor. It's also the story of how to roast a chicken, and how to eat it. 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.

"Eventually the Tall Man came home, and helped me up. 'Come on,' he said, and we went into the kitchen together, and I made this, late at night, and we ate it at midnight, with wine, and bread, and our fingers, sopping up the garlicky juices from the baking tray, sucking the bones.

"So this story begins with a chicken. This is the best roast chicken you'll ever have, and I think it might just be perfect."


(Serves 2, with leftovers for soup and salad and stock and sandwiches)

Chicken, mine was 1.6kg

Garlic, about 8 cloves, or as many as you can muster

Fresh chillies, 2 (or 3 if you don't have chilli salt)



Mustard, the grainy sort


Chilli salt (or sea salt)

Olive oil (perhaps)

Ginger, a nub about the size of your thumb

Honey, about a spoonful

1 lemon


1. Take your chicken out of its packaging. Sit it in a baking tray; let it breathe. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.

2. Take half of your garlic and chop it finely, then put it in a cup. Using the kitchen scissors, chop the chillies and a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Put those in your cup, too. Add a hefty teaspoon of mustard, some pepper and chilli salt (just ordinary sea salt will do, if you haven't got chilli salt). You can add a little splash of olive oil too, if you like. I don't always, but sometimes I do, and then it is gold.

3. Peel and grate the ginger, if you have a little grater, or you can just chop it if not. It'll be OK. Add most of it to your cup with the garlic and herbs. Put the last pinch into a mug with the honey. Boil a kettle.

4. Take the lemon and cut it in half. Juice one half very briskly, and the other half a little less briskly. Pour most of the lemon juice into your cup of stuff. Stir. Pour the rest of the lemon juice into the mug with the ginger and honey. Add hot water from the kettle. Stir. Drink. Steady yourself.

5. Go back to the chicken. Unloop the elastic string holding its little legs together, and shove four of the garlic cloves and the less squeezed lemon half up its little bottom. Loop it up again, if you can, then rub the garlic-chilli-herbs-ginger-lemon mixture into the chicken skin; into the legs, the thighs, the wings.

6. Slide the chicken into the oven. Set the chicken timer (your timer might be different, but mine is shaped like a little red hen) for about one hour and 20 minutes, if your chicken weighs the same as mine, and your oven is temperamental in the same ways as mine. If your chicken is bigger or smaller than mine, give it about 30 minutes per 500g (there are very accurate roasting-time calculators online: I use the BBC Good Food one).

7. Have a glass of wine.

8. When the timer rings, check the chicken. I am very bad at testing when a chicken is done, but I know in theory - something about sticking a skewer into the meatiest bit of the leg and the juices running clear. If it's still pink, send it back to the oven. If not, turn the oven off and let the chicken sit for five minutes. Dip some bread in the juices.

9. Carve the chicken. Tear the meat from the bones. Drink. Eat. Feel glad.

Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger is published by Bloomsbury, priced £22. Available now.