For a woman who hated cookery lessons at school, she hasn’t done bad – having two of the country’s most popular TV chefs rev up to her front door, writes Richard McComb.
The Hairy Bikers, otherwise known as Simon King and Dave Myers, popped in for a Greek feast at Ira Phedon’s home in Edgbaston.
The roving chefs wanted to try out mother-of-two Ira’s fantastic homemade dolmades and pasticio in order to highlight the unsung heroines of the nation’s food heritage – mums.
Si and Dave visited Ira during filming for the recent BBC series, Mums Know Best, and based on the lunch that the 42-year-old cook later serves me, they won’t have gone away hungry.
Ira’s food is packed with flavour and rustic richness and comes in extremely generous portions.
“My husband is always moaning at me for cooking a lot of food,” says Ira, who wants to launch a book based on her favourite 100 recipes. “Our food bill is huge. That is why I need to get the book published,” she adds, laughing.
She’s got two cookers, two fridges and three freezers, although she says she needs a fourth to cope with the meals and ingredients she stores, like the vine leaves harvested from a tree at the home of her husband Paul’s parents.
The leaves are used for her famous dolmades, which she cooks for me along with a tray of pasticio, which she describes as a Greek version of lasagna, “only nicer”. Some Cypriots – her parents, Christalla and Nicholas, were born in Cyprus – call the dish “macaronia tou fournou”, which loosely translates as “baked pasta.”
The main dishes are served with a salad of rocket leaves, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese (Greek fusion, as Ira calls it) and a sensational bulgar wheat salad with lentils, roasted red pepper, parsley, chilli, red onion and garlic.
Naturally, there are traditional dips of humous and tzatziki, lovingly prepared by Ira, accompanied with delicious traditional bread, made the way her grandmother baked, with lots of fresh coriander, dill, onions and kalamata olives. Humous, on the face of it, is dead easy to make but Ira has tried and tested a huge number of combinations to get it just right. In the end, she decided that modest tinned chickpeas make for the best humous. Oh, and don’t forget the garlic cloves, a slug of good Greek olive oil, tahini paste, thick Greek yoghurt, fresh parsley, cumin, ground coriander, the juice of a lemon, salt and pepper.
It’s surprising to learn that food wasn’t always a popular hobby or love.
Ira recalls: “I hated cookery at school. In those days we used to make rock cakes and apple crumble with no flavour. The food was too bland. Horrible old sponge cakes.”
She first tried her hand by baking cakes and bread with her mother as a teenager but she says cooking became more of a chore, rather than the activity she loves, after having two children.
The family always enjoyed entertaining but there was never the time for experimentation in the kitchen with a young family to feed. Now that the children are grown up – Christie is 17 and Tim is 16 – there’s more time for Ira to let her creativity run riot, particularly after she gave up her job to concentrate on launching a career in cookery.
A notebook is always close at hand in the open-plan kitchen, just in case Ira gets some fresh inspiration or discovers a new way to tweak her favourite dish.
She is always pushing herself and tries to come up with a “recipe of the week” to add to her growing collection. Ira is convinced there is a market for her Greek food with a modern Brummie twist. Having tasted her food, it’s hard to disagree. The recipes in so many Greek cook books simply don’t work, says Ira. She bought one on holiday to Cyprus.
She says: “It was rubbish. I looked up and said ‘I don’t know why I bother. I should write one of these myself’.”
Ira clearly loved the whole TV experience. She says: “I was nervous at the start of the filming but I loved it. I thought, ‘Move over Nigella – I am here now!’”
* For more information about Ira’s recipes and ideas, go to www.morethangreek.com