Tuesday 30 September 2008

What a terrible waste!

I spent the last couple of days in Dublin, judging the World Cheese Awards (see right). You can read more about it on my cheese blog, The Cheeselover, but there was one thing I wanted to share with you here.

At the end of the judging all the cheeses - some 2000 of them, worth thousands of pounds were apparently destroyed, for 'health and safety' reasons. They were apparently going to be rendered into 'cheese powder' whatever that is.

I'm sure the organisers are abiding by the letter of the law. Some of the cheeses were laid out overnight and certainly it would have been foolish not to dispose of the more perishable ones. But not to do anything with the aged cheeses which would have been perfectly edible is complete madness. As a cheeselover it makes me indignant. As an ordinary member of the public thinking about the use to which all that good food could be put I feel just plain angry.

I'm sure this is not the only example of profligate waste. Shops and restaurants have to throw away perfectly good food all the time. Isn't it about time we introduced some common sense into the regulations and treated our fellow citizens as grown ups capable of making their own choices about whether food is fit to eat or not?

Friday 26 September 2008

French-style pork chops with cream and mustard

It's been a bit of a crazy week in Bristol. The long-awaited £500 million shopping centre Cabot Circus has just opened with huge razmatazz. We went down for the opening of Harvey Nichols (a friend was doing the PR!) which bizarrely included a striptease by Dita Von Teese. There are apparently 25 (twenty five) restaurants in the new development. How will they possibly fill them all?

Easily if the crowds this week are anything to go by. Certainly in London restaurants are still heaving. I tried to get into two yesterday and they couldn't offer a table until after 2pm. I thought we were supposed to be in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression

Anyway, I digress. A recipe, and not before time. After the Harvey Nix bash we went round the corner to a brilliant new food shop and café in St Nicholas market called Taste@ St Nicks. I expected the prices to be food hall standard but they were surprisingly reasonable for the quality. They also supply restaurants in the West Country and sell to consumers at roughly the same price as they sell to chefs.

They had some fantastic pork chops (above) which reminded me we hadn't had this classic French bistro recipe, which comes from my student book Beyond Baked Beans Budget, for a while. Hope you enjoy it.

French-style pork chops with cream and mustard
Serves 2
1 tbsp vegetable, sunflower or olive oil
15g butter
2 medium-sized pork chops
125g chestnut or button mushrooms, rinsed and sliced
100ml dry white wine or vegetable stock made with 1/2 tsp vegetable bouillon
1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2-3 tbsp double cream or crème fraîche
Ground black pepper and lemon juice
Heat a medium sized frying pan and add the oil. When it’s hot add the butter, then lay the pork chops in the pan. Brown for about 2-3 minutes on each side, then turn the heat down and cook for a further 3 minutes or so each side depending how thick they are. Remove from the pan and set aside on a warm plate. Cook the mushrooms in the remaining oil and butter until lightly browned. Scoop them out and add to the pork. Pour in the wine or stock, add the thyme and bubble up until the liquid has reduced by about two thirds. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the cream or crème fraîche and mustard then warm through gently taking care not to let the sauce boil. Season with salt and plenty of black pepper (and a squeeze of lemon juice if you're using cream rather than crème fraîche). Return the chops and the mushrooms to the pan together with any juices, heat through for another couple of minutes then serve with boiled new potatoes or buttered tagliatelle and some green beans or broccoli, I suggest.

Monday 22 September 2008

Chaps, cheeks and trotters

News in the Guardian today that Waitrose is to start selling Bath chaps, ox cheeks and trotters from next month. Which sounds like good news except for the fact that it will almost certainly drive the price of these thrifty cuts up. Lamb shanks, once a cheap food, are no longer a bargain buy. Ox cheeks (which are delicious) will probably follow suit, particularly if the other supermarkets decide they have to stock them too.

And I wonder how many people will actually cook with them? I must confess that even when I was researching The Frugal Cook I didn't use any of them (though I did use ox liver, scrag end of lamb and ham hocks). It takes time and time is what most people are short of these days.

Do you buy these sort of cuts? Would you if you could get hold of them easily? (Obviously you needn't answer if you're a veggie . . . )

Thursday 18 September 2008

Classy chocolate at a budget price

Although I wouldn't describe myself as a chocaholic I do have a weakness for fine dark chocolate which I justify on the basis that it's good for me.

I'm always on the lookout for the perfect bar but until this week the ones I've liked have all been pretty pricey. Except for one we buy in France which it would be pointless to recommend to you here.

Now I - or to be strictly truthful - my husband has found a really superb one in the Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range. It's called São Tomé and comes from the African island of the same name which I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of. It not only has a really deep, rich chocolatey flavour but a fabulous velvety texture that I think would probably make the ultimate chocolate mousse. Not that it isn't divine to nibble on its own . . .

And the best bit is that it only costs 99p for a 100g bar.

Isn't that just about the best news this week?

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Tough times ahead

It's hard to read today's headlines without a shudder. Even though city boys, who for years have enjoyed ludicrously inflated bonuses, might not be the immediate object of our sympathy you have to feel sorry for the hundreds of ordinary people who have lost their jobs. And there will be more casualties, of that I'm sure.

Losing your job is tough. It's not just the financial implications, worrying though they will be to those who are mortgaged to the hilt. It's the loss of identity that is bound up in a job and the consequent lack of self worth that often ensues.

Adapting to a situation where you have to think about every penny you spend, an experience already familiar to many, won't come easy.

I hope this blog, for those who read it, can at least make cooking and eating on a budget enjoyable rather than daunting.

Friday 12 September 2008

Two thrifty soups

This week has been dominated by the produce I bought from the Organic Food Festival. Cooking it hasn’t quite gone to plan as I had to go to London for two days but earlier in the week I used the beets to make a favourite soup which my daughter Jo invented - carrot borscht. The addition of carrots - and a skinned tomato - is an inspiration. It sweetens the soup and rounds out the flavours.

I used the chicken stock I’d made from the carcass of the organic chicken I bought which wasn’t quite as strongly flavoured as the game or beef stock I’d normally use so added a scant teaspoon of Bovril stirred into three tablespoonfuls of stock. (Eurrrgh, you may think but Bovril makes perfectly decent beef stock - far better than most stock cubes.)

The original version also had bacon in it. No bacon, so I added a couple of slices of some smoked Manx Loaghtan lamb I’d been given to try. A reckless extravagance in a way but a) it was free and b) had the requisite smoky flavour I was looking for. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Speaking of which, last night’s soup was even thriftier if anything. Got back early evening from London and couldn’t face sploshing (it was raining of course) down to Tesco. So I rooted around in the storecupboard and fridge and came up with the recipe below.

The starting point was a packet of chard which I’d forgotten and was on the verge of going off. I thought of combining that with cannelini beans (happily found a can in the cupboard) then remembered there was still some chicken stock, a couple of slightly squishy tomatoes, some really pungent basil and those fabulous parmesan rinds. Voila, an Italian-style bean soup. Hope you enjoy it!

Bean, chard and tomato soup
Serves 2-3
2 tbsp olive oil + extra for drizzling
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
2 medium-sized fresh tomatoes, skinned and chopped
A small handful of basil leaves (optional)
A piece of parmesan rind (optional)
About 300ml chicken or vegetable stock or water
1 x 400g can of cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
A handful of chard or spinach leaves, stripped from their stems
Shaved or coarsely grated parmesan to serve
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat and add the onions and garlic. Stir, cover the pan and leave over a low heat for about 5 minutes until the onion has started to soften. Add the chopped tomatoes, replace the lid and cook for another 5 minutes until the tomato starts to break down. Roughly chop the basil leaves and stir them in then add the parmesan rind and stock and bring to the boil. Add the beans and simmer for another 5 minutes or so. Finely slice the chard or spinach and add to the pan. Cook another few minutes then remove the parmesan rind and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve the soup with some shaved or grated parmesan or with a drizzle of olive oil.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Introducing The Cheeselover

A new book project (cheese). A new blog - The Cheeselover.

Must be mad but here's the thinking. I could write about cheese on The Frugal Cook but it would take the blog over for the next few months and cheese, as we all know, is far from frugal these days.

It also helps, I've found, writing a blog as you write a book. Book writing is a long and lonely journey and you don't see any results for months but blogging is immediate and gratifying, enabling you to share the ideas and thoughts you have as you go along with fellow enthusiasts.

You can also take and share your own photos which publishers understandably won't let you do ;-) Or won't publish them anyway.

That doesn't mean I'll be abandoning TFC or never posting about cheese. In fact to allay any worries you may have here's a pic of the glorious cheese rinds I scrounged from The Parmesan Cheese Co at the Organic Food Festival at the weekend which I shall add to the soup I'm making from the carcass of the half-price organic chicken I bought (which has already provided two meals). Fantastic in risottos too. When you buy cheese - if you buy cheese from an independent cheese shop - ask for some.

Monday 8 September 2008

Farewell Fresh & Wild

As we passed the Bristol branch of Fresh & Wild earlier today we noticed huge notices announcing a closing down sale. By the time we got there a couple of hours ago the shelves were nearly stripped bare.

Word had spread rapidly on the local grapevine and the store was crammed with bargain-hunters, gathering like vultures over the carcass of this once-hip organic hypermarket.

I don't think it was the fact that it was organic that did for it so much as the prices. It took a discount of 50% to bring the shoppers - including us - in. (We normally shop for that kind of produce in our local health food shop or down Gloucester Road where the prices are a lot more reasonable.)

According to The Telegraph, Fresh & Wild's parent company, Whole Foods, which recently announced losses of £10 million, is known as 'Whole Paycheck' because of the prices it charges. It seems unlikely that Bristol will be the only casualty.

Luckily for us, Whole Foods' loss was our gain. We bought a whole lot of organic wine, cheese, chutneys, spreads and biscuits, not all of which, it has to be said, we needed but they seemed too good a bargain to pass by. Even a frugal cook has to splash out sometime ;-)

Saturday 6 September 2008

Why it's still worth buying organic

I spent the best part of today at the Organic Food Festival in Bristol, doing a demonstration in the Bordeaux Quay demo kitchen (thanks to all those brave souls who turned up in the pouring rain) then wandering round the stalls.

Thankfully there was little sign of the reported slump in organic sales. Although I would have said the numbers were down marginally on last year there was still an impressively large number of people milling - or rather sploshing - around. (When is it ever going to stop raining?)

The media who love a bad news story are convinced we've all switched to shopping at Aldi and Lidl but I'm not so sure. Those who have been convinced by the arguments for organic food (eloquently expressed on the Soil Association's website) are not suddenly going to stop being concerned about the effects of chemicals on the environment and in the food chain. And as readers of this blog will know it's perfectly possible to cut back in other ways - by buying less expensive cuts, and wasting less food, for example.

I did most of my weekend shopping there and with loads of special festival offers didn't pay over the odds for it. All the lovely veggies above, plus several others, came to just over £8 and there were some great offers on organic chicken and other meat. I also got a litre bottle of gorgeous organic olive oil for just £6.80. If you're within reach of Bristol the festival's still on tomorrow. If not organic fortnight is coming up so you may well find special offers on organic food nearer home.

Finally for those people who attended the demo and wanted the recipe for Mexican salsa chicken you'll find it here and the pea and ham soup here.

The Moroccan spice mix I used in the fish couscous recipe is 1 tsp each ground coriander and cumin, 1/2 tsp turmeric and 1/4 tsp chilli powder or hot paprika. (It's worth making a bigger quantity and keeping it in a jar. Use about 2-3 tsp at a time).

Friday 5 September 2008

Off to press!

It's been a frantic couple of days - my last chance to read through The Frugal Cook before it goes to press.

It's a frustrating process because however many times you look at it - in fact, however many pairs of eyes go over it, silly mistakes always slip through. The author is the last person to spot them, being so familiar with the text.

The compensation is that you finally get to see what the book is going to look like when it's published and I have to say the design is simply brilliant, with wonderfully original, quirky illustrations. (Thanks to Matt, Claire and Andy!) You can't see it that clearly but you can get an idea from the image above of a sample chapter opener.

First copies should come through in a week or so and it should hit the shelves by the end of the month. Amazon for some mysterious reason has lost the cover and hidden it away below several other similar titles but you can find it here if you want to get your order in. (Course you do ;-)

I can't wait to have the final copy in my hands.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

A tale of two tomatoes

One rarely acknowledged reason why recipes don’t always work out is the quality of the ingredients.

Take a look at this picture. This is the tomato salad I made yesterday from locally grown tomatoes in the south of France (which incidentally cost 1 euro (81p) a kilo). All you have to do is cut them up, season them with salt and pepper, pour over a little olive oil, toss them and leave them for 10 minutes or so. Then just before serving them sprinkle over a little red wine vinegar and some fresh basil (2.50€ for a bushy plant that doesn’t die 3 days after you get it home). The lavish amount of liquid in the bowl is the juice that comes out of the tomatoes as they macerate.

I’ve tried to make a salad like this in the UK, but you simply can’t, so you have to compensate by adding more oil which makes it less healthy or more onion or herbs which makes it a different sort of salad.

No problem about that but we’re paying a fortune for tomatoes that don’t have a fraction of the juiciness or flavour.

In terms of cooked dishes the way I get round it is to use a tablespoon of tomato paste before I add fresh tomatoes or mix them half and half with tinned tomatoes (which makes a good sauce for meatballs)

And the thing that really gets my goat? 'Vine-ripened' tomatoes (for which you always pay a premium)! What else are tomatoes ripened on, for goodness sake?