Monday 3 March 2014

A Girl Called Jack may just be the cookbook you use most this year

It’s hard to believe it’s just over a year since I first came across Jack Monroe. Since then this feisty single mother who struggled to feed herself and her small son on £10 a week has become a superstar, campaigning for Oxfam, appearing on TV and being courted by a raft of national newspapers from The People to the Guardian. The New York Times even had a profile about her the other day.

And now she’s brought out a book named after her blog A Girl Called Jack.

Having written a budget cookbook myself I was curious to see how she handled it and the answer, as usual with Jack, is immensely impressively given that she’s neither a cookery writer or a chef “I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest cook” she writes "but I can sweat an onion and sauté a mushroom with the best of them". She goes on to  make the valid point that “in an age of glossy ‘food porn' on our televisions watched while stabbing ready meals with a fork there seems to be a disheartening disconnect between fantastic nutritious food and the myth that one needs a fancy kitchen and seventy ‘store cupboard essentials’ to cook them with. It’s simply not true. "

To prove her point her recipes are admirably simple and straightforward, using the minimum of ingredients. An easy chicken satay made with chilli, peanut butter and yoghurt. Chicken with diet Coke. Saag aloo with tinned potatoes and frozen spinach. It's affordable and do-able.

I decided to road test a couple using the same ingredients to keep down my food costs. Like Jack I shopped at Sainsbury’s, choosing the cheapest 'Basics' options.

The first was her version of spaghetti carbonara called car-Brie-nara that didn’t have any eggs - a misprint, surely? And lemon juice with bacon?  Brie instead of parmesan? And half a large tub of yoghurt? I wasn’t at all sure it would work. Well it did and very tasty it was too. And surprisingly healthy. There was no extra oil although I added a tablespoon as my bacon (a selection of offcuts) was leaner than the streaky Jack suggested. And no extra salt. The surprisingly large amount of yoghurt also means that unlike a carbonara any leftovers could be eaten cold, creating an instant lunch to take to work the next day.

I looked for another recipe that would use up the Brie and bacon and found a courgette, tomato and Brie gratin. That was also a great success though I only used half the amount of tomato Jack suggested and reckon you could simplify the recipe by cooking the rice by the absorption method* rather than like a risotto (though it’s good to know you can make such a good risotto with ordinary long grain rice). I also suspect the amount of liquid in the recipe should have been more than 200ml despite the added tomatoes though I like the fact that the stock gives the dish a deep savoury umami taste without the need for any other seasoning. And surprisingly the Sainsbury’s stock cubes (only 25p for 10) are MSG free - better than many more expensive brands.

In fact having often recommended in the past that readers should trade up as and when they can afford to I was impressed by how good the Basics range was. 500g spaghetti for 30p, a kilo of white rice for 45p (that’s roughly 3.5p a helping), 670g of cooking bacon, enough for 5 meals, for £1.10 - you could spend twice or three times as much and not eat any better.

Jack’s advantage is that having been limited by the tightest of food budgets she had to work with what she could afford - and being an instinctive rather than a professional cook sees no reasons why certain ingredients shouldn’t be combined together. Salmon paste with pasta? Tried that one too and it was surprisingly tasty thanks to a hefty chilli kick (I used a couple of chillies from a jar I found in my local health food shop - less costly than fresh). Mandarin oranges in a chicken dish? Why not? They’re cheap, add flavour and contribute to your 5 a day. If you’re buying low cost ingredients you need to add extra oomph any way you can - and Jack certainly does.

I’m not going to ask permission to run the recipes I tested because I think you should invest in the book. Even if it stretches the budget this week it will save you a lot in the long run. Buy it, use it and enjoy it. It’s a cracking good read apart from anything else.

* Boiling it with twice the volume of water to rice until the water is absorbed.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Vaguely Iranian chicken, lime and rice soup

My first frugal recipe of 2014 is not an unfamiliar one. Chicken soup made with the carcass of last night’s roast chicken. You might think there wasn’t much new to say about that but a couple of twists transformed it from the commonplace into something quite satisfyingly exotic.

First the stock - made the usual way (carcass in a saucepan, half an onion, a bayleaf, a few peppercorns, cold water to cover, brought to the boil and simmered very slowly for a couple of hours).

I then drained and skimmed the stock which tasted so good it seemed a shame to use it as the base for something rather than a soup in its own right.

I had some leftover carrots and about 100g of brown chicken meat. I added a handful of rice and two dried limes which I pierced with a sharp knife. A handful of chopped dill (also in the fridge), a squeeze of lemon and that was that. A fragrant, nourishing Sunday night supper for next to nothing*.

The point is you could take this anyway you choose - you just have to work with what you’ve got. Which is why it’s useful accumulating a good collection of spices and seasonings.

Makes 4 bowls though we managed to demolish it between the 2 of us

1 chicken carcass
1 small or half a medium onion, peeled
6-8 peppercorns
1 bayleaf
Leftover cooked carrots or one carrot, peeled and finely sliced
About 100g of leftover chicken meat, preferably brown meat
a handful of basmatti or other long grain rice
2 dried limes (available from Asian and middle eastern shops)
A handful of fresh herbs. I used dill because that’s what I had in the fridge but you could use parsley, coriander, mint or tarragon or a combination of two or three of those (not mint on its own. Too strong). At a pinch you could use dried tarragon.
Salt and a squeeze or squirt of lemon

Put the chicken in a large saucepan with the onion, peppercorns and bayleaf. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat right down and simmer for at least an hour and a half, maybe two. Strain and skim the stock.

Return the stock to the pan with the carrots and chicken, season with a little salt and bring back up to simmering point. Pierce the dried limes in two or three places with a sharp knife or skewer and add to the pan along with the rice and simmer for about 20 minutes until the rice is cooked. Remove the limes and add the chopped dill or other herbs, Add more salt and a squeeze of lemon if needed. Serve with flatbread or pitta bread.

* and a real flu-beater, I reckon.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Camembert: the best value cheese in Britain?

I know it's heresy but I'm not at all sure that Camembert isn't the best value cheese in Britain. For just £2.35 or £9.40 a kilo (online), for example, you can buy a perfectly matured Tesco Finest Camembert that will easily feed four.

Add a few grapes and crackers and you have a respectable cheese course for well under a fiver. Sainsbury's - obviously price-watching - costs the same.

OK, on special occasions I'll splash out on Britain's answer to Camembert, Tunworth, which is around £7.95 for the same weight. We all like to fly the flag. But it's not just that these premium Camemberts are cheap, they're also tasty - so much improved from a few years ago.

You can also bake them, a Nigel Slater classic that makes an indulgent supper for two with some boiled new potatoes or crusty bread and a sharply dressed green salad (although Nige, I see, favours PSB - aka purple sprouting broccoli)

Some of you may know that I also have a food and wine matching site so you'll be pleased to hear that I can also recommend a drink pairing for your Camembert that won't break the bank: a dry or sparkling cider. Or, if your Camembert is particularly runny or pongy, a Pommeau - a mixture of cider and apple brandy. The Somerset Cider Brandy Company has its own version called Pomona for £9.60 a 50cl bottle which would easily serve six.

What do you reckon is Britain's best cheese - or the best value cheese sold in Britain?

Friday 11 October 2013

5:2 recipes: Mushroom, tomato and cardamom curry

Not the best pic I've taken because I was ravenous and couldn't be bothered to faff around with it but better than it might have been thanks to Hipstamatic

I've got a bit lazy about 5:2 lately, largely because I've found it's just about possible to keep my weight under control without it (more on this in due course) but after a heavy week last week I decided I needed a proper fast day.

This is what I made for supper. Mushrooms are brilliant diet food as they have diddly squit calories which justifies you having more indulgent ingredients like crème fraîche and rice which makes you feel as if you've had a proper meal. Which, of course, you have.

Don't leave out the cardamom. It makes it.

Serves 2

1 tbsp oil
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tsp grated fresh ginger (optional)
2 tbsp curry paste (I used a korma paste but reckon a garam masala paste would be even better. But use what you have)
6-8 cardamom pods crushed, husks removed and seeds ground with a little coarse salt - or 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
250g mushrooms, wiped and sliced
2-3 medium to large tomatoes (about 225-250g), skinned, seeded and chopped or 1/2 a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
Salt, freshly ground pepper and a squeeze of lemon if necessary
A handful of coriander leaves
2 tbsp low fat yoghurt or half-fat crème fraîche (optional)

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a moderate heat and fry the onion until it starts to soften. Add the garlic, stir for a minute then add the curry paste and cardamom. Stir, cook for a few seconds then add the mushrooms, stir and cook until they begin to release their liquid. Add the chopped tomatoes, stir, bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer while you cook the rice - or veg. (Steamed broccoli would work well). Check the seasoning of the curry, adding more salt if necessary and pepper and lemon juice to taste. Stir in the coriander leaves and heat through. Stir through the yoghurt or crème fraîche if using and serve with rice or a green vegetable.

About 175 calories without the yoghurt or crème fraiche (about another 20-25 calories). 75g of cooked rice would be an extra 80 calories - you could, of course, have less.

Friday 4 October 2013

What to do with tons of plums including a great plum jam

I've been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks which means that probably all your plums will have fallen but you may still be able to find some in the shops. And, if not, hopefully it will be useful for next year.

A fortnight ago we spent a weekend with some old friends (old as in we've had them for a long time not that they're ancient) who had a plum tree that was absolutely laden with fruit.

We'd thought of doing a bit of preserving but ended up having to think of other ways we could bring plums into the day's eating which included supper for nine.

This is what we made:

Roast plum relish and salsa

A plum salsa from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's Guardian column. We didn't have any lime so I used lemon. This was really good - I'd definitely make it again. We had it with chicken but it would be even better with lamb.

A roast plum and onion relish to go with the cheeseboard. Just because I wanted to see how it would turn out if you roasted plums. Slightly dull is the answer. Don't bother.

Baked amaretti plums from a Woman and Home recipe for which we used an ancient (and on this occasion I do mean really old) bottle of cream sherry rather than the recommended marsala. Also delicious and incredibly easy.

A spiced plum chutney from the Woman and Home site. We didn't have any raisins so we used a mixture of dried cherries and cranberries. It tasted pretty good when we'd finished but it needs to mature another couple of weeks.

And this incredibly good (though I say so myself) plum jam which I invented largely to compensate for the plums' lack of flavour. The pomegranate molasses made it so don't leave it out and it needs the cinnamon too. Note there's far less sugar than in most recipes so it'll be a bit runny but add more if you want.

Plum and pomegranate jam
Makes about 4 x 400g jars

1 kg plums
250g preserving sugar
300g granulated sugar
3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
6-8 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
100ml water

Halve the plums, twist and remove the stones, then cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Place in a large saucepan or preserving pan with the sugars, pomegranate molasses, cardamom pods, cinnamon and water. Place over a very low heat until the sugars have completely dissolved then bring to the boil and boil hard for about 15 minutes until the jam is set. Skim off any scum, fish out the cardamom pods, rest the jam for 10 minutes then pot into hot, sterilised jars*.

* If you don't know how to sterilise jars there's a useful post here.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The tomato salad that turned into an aubergine bake

You'll have to allow me the pleasure of crowing about this dish - a rescue remedy for a leftover tomato salad.

I'd always taken the view that salads were unrescuable. Of course you could finish off the leftovers but not turn them into anything else. Or nothing that my husband would eat anyway, having an aversion to cold soups like gazpacho.

But we had so much left over I couldn't bring myself to throw it away so I tipped it into a pan and just simmered it until it took on a jammy consistency. And you know what? It didn't taste bad.

I then decided to use up another couple of leftovers - a couple of aubergines and some Comté to make an aubergine bake which would have actually fed 4 at a pinch, certainly three but the two of us scoffed the lot. Here's roughly how it was done

2 medium sized aubergines
About 300g leftover tomato salad cooked down to a sauce or homemade tomato sauce made from 1 onion cooked in a little oil until soft,  1-2 crushed cloves of garlic and 1/2 a 400g can of chopped tomatoes
Any stray herbs - I had a bit of fresh basil
About 4-5 tbsp olive oil
75g-100g Comté, Gruyère, or other leftover cheese plus a little parmesan if you have some
Salt and pepper

Cut the stalk off the aubergine and slice into 4 lengthways. Salt generously and set aside for half an hour or so. Cook down the tomatoes or make a simple tomato sauce - or even use a jar of pasta sauce if you have one knocking around that needs using up. Add a bit of extra garlic and chopped herbs if you like.

Rinse the aubergines and pat dry with kitchen towel. Heat a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan and fry half the aubergine slices until browned, turning them a couple of times. Press them against the sides of the pan as you remove them to let as much oil run out as possible and repeat with the remaining aubergines. Warm through the sauce and adjust the seasoning.

Heat the oven to 200°C. Lay half the aubergines in a shallow dish and top with half the sauce and grated cheese. Repeat with the remaining ingredients, finishing with some grated parmesan if you have some. Pop in the oven for 20 minutes and bingo - there's your parmigiana. (Actually, you might want to flash it under the grill for an extra-crisp topping and grate over a bit more parmesan to serve. Oh, and a green salad on the side wouldn't go amiss.)

What's your most triumphant use of leftovers?

Monday 12 August 2013

Are fritters the way to get fussy kids to eat veg?

Coincidentally I came across fritters twice last week - once in Caroline Conran's superb 'Sud de France' which I've been working my way through down in the Languedoc, the other at a neighbour's house when she invited us over for an impromptu lunch. And the dish that her grandchildren tucked into most avidly was the courgette (zucchini) fritters.

Of course I'm not suggesting you fry every vegetable in sight to get kids to eat their greens - and other veg for that matter - but you have to admit it's a good way to win round recalcitrant eaters. And they're cheap. You can have them on their own with a dip or salsa or as an accompaniment to stretch a piece of meat or fish.

Having mastered courgettes I then tried some Santorini-style tomato fritters but they were a great deal more fiddly and no tastier, to be honest. And with courgettes bang in season at the moment, I reckon that's the place to start your fritter-frying. Here's my slightly tweaked version of Caroline's recipe. She just used onion so you don't have to add the garlic, chilli and mint if you don't want though I like the kick it gives them.

Courgette fritters
Serves 2-3 adults or a couple of adults and 2 kids

350g courgettes
4 tbsp sunflower oil or other oil for frying
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp chilli flakes (optional)
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint or a good pinch of dried mint or herbes de Provence
2 eggs
2 rounded tbsp plain flour, sifted
Salt and pepper

Wipe and top and tail the courgettes and grate coarsely. Put them in a colander and salt generously. Leave for 20 minutes then rinse. Take handfuls of the courgettes, squeeze and place on a clean tea towel. Twist the tea-towel to extract as much liquid from the courgettes as possible.

Meanwhile heat a tablespoon or so of oil and soften the onion in it for about 10 minutes. Add the chopped garlic towards the end of the cooking time then the chilli flakes and mint or other herbs, if using. Tip onto a saucer or plate and set aside to cool.

Beat the eggs and add the sifted flour bit by bit, whisking as you go. You want a thick-ish batter. Season with pepper.

When you're ready to serve the fritters, mix the grated courgettes and onion mix into the batter and add a little salt. Heat the remaining oil over a moderate heat and fry the fritters in batches - about 4 tbsp of mixture to the pan. Flip them over after about 2 minutes and cook the other side. When they're nicely browned and crisp transfer them to a plate lined with kitchen towel to drain off the oil and serve as soon as possible - with fish or meat as suggested above or with tomato salsa or tzatziki (cucumber and yoghurt dip) which would also work well.

I reckon you could add a tablespoon or two of grated parmesan to the mix if you have some or even some crumbled feta for a more substantial meal.

Do - or would - fritters go down well with your kids?

Saturday 27 July 2013

Apricot and cardamom jam

I can't believe I've got to the age I have (don't ask!) without ever having made a pot of jam. Marmalade, yes, as regulars may recall from this post but jam and chutney, never. Which makes no sense considering the cost of good preserves these days - about £3.50-4 a small jar in farmers' markets and posh delis.

I decided this year was going to be the year to break my duck and lugged down a large bag of jars and an armful of preserving books to our house in the south of France. After all fruit and veg is cheap down here so it sounded like a good holiday project.

It's actually been so hot for the last few days I couldn't face it but yesterday I made my first batch of apricot jam (my favourite) based on a recipe in my friend, cookery writer Thane Prince's Jams and Chutneys. Needless to say I couldn't resist going off-piste a little - I like my jam slightly less sweet than most and had this hunch that cardamom would be a great addition (it is!) but Thane's recipe gave me an excellent basis to work on.

Apricot and cardamom jam
Makes about 4 x 400g jars

I kg of apricots (not over-ripe which shouldn't be a problem in the UK as they never are)
Juice of 1-1 1/2 lemons (about 4-5 tbsp)
8 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
900g jam sugar (with added pectin. If you like your jam tart you might even be able to do with a little less)

You will also need 4-5 350g-400g sterilised jam jars and a cold saucer to test the set

Wash the apricots and quarter or halve them depending on how large they are. Put in a large saucepan or preserving pan with the lemon juice, crushed cardamoms and 400ml water and bring slowly to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the apricots are soft but still retaining their shape, skimming off any scum (that sounds horrible doesn't it? Let's call it froth) that appears on the surface.

Turn off the heat and tip in the sugar and gently stir then leave the pan for a couple of minutes off the heat for the sugar to dissolve. Gradually back to the boil and boil hard for 5 minutes or so until the jam looks like setting, skimming off the scum (sorry, froth) as you go. Take the pan off the heat and spoon a little onto your chilled saucer. Leave it a minute then run your finger through it. If it's set it should crinkle slightly. If not boil (the jam, not your finger) for 3-4 minutes more.

Once the jam is set take off the heat. Warm the jars in a moderate oven. Stir the jam then ladle or pour into the hot jars. Seal with the lids or a cellophane jam jar cover, wiping the outside of the jar with a damp cloth. Label once cool. Slather over baguette and French butter. Drool.

Just a wee taster to make sure it's OK ...

Cost? Apricots around €2.60 a kilo, sugar 1.28€ a kilo bag (I used slightly less), lemon about .30€ and cardamoms I already had so roughly 1€ (86p) a jar for the most heavenly scented apricot jam you can imagine. Can't wait to make more.

Are you also a novice or a regular jam maker and what are your favourite jams?