Sunday 27 September 2009

When cheap food is too cheap

Pride comes before a fall they say and my smugness at my bargain buys these week met with an appropriate reminder that even experienced cooks can make mistakes. My £3 rabbit was inedible. Or, to be precise, since it smelt so bad we didn't eat it I'm pretty sure it was inedible. Bad enough to have to chuck the whole dish away, along with the bacon, onions, carrots, apples and very nice cider I'd added to it.

It wasn't off otherwise I'd have picked it up before I cooked it. It just had that unappealing whiff of stale meat you get from meat that's been kept too long in the freezer. My suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that there was an unusual amount of blood with it, usually a sign that something's been frozen. The pieces were also quite large which led me to suspect it might be tough (usually remedied by slow cooking) though not that it would be rank

The total cost of this disaster - £5 odd on the rabbit and other ingredients, another £5 on picking up a pizza and a pack of rocket to have instead. (Yes, I know I could have made my own and that would have been cheaper but I'd been out all day - and looking forward to my rabbit casserole)

Together with the woolly peaches I bought for a song the other day (largely to write about for this blog) it's a timely reminder that cheap food has its price . . .

Have you had any let-downs from buying so called 'bargain' ingredients?

Friday 25 September 2009

How to cook breast of lamb

I bagged a couple of terrific bargains on my way back to Bristol yesterday at an extraordinary shopping complex called Darts Farm just outside Exeter. Farm shop doesn't even begin to describe it: it's a gourmet shopping mall on an epic scale - more like the out of town shopping centres you find in the US.

You'd expect it to be expensive but it isn't, suprisingly. Or, put it another way, it needn't be. I picked up some good value fruit and vegetables grown on their own farm (including over a pound of rhubarb for 49p), a whole rabbit for £3 and a breast of lamb for £1.50.

Personally I don't like breast of lamb the traditional way, boned and rolled as you never seem to get rid of the fat so I had them chop it up into chunks which I then roasted much as you do spare ribs until it was crisp. I cooked it unseasoned (apart from salt and some smashed garlic cloves) for 20 minutes, poured off the accumulated fat then sprinkled over the za'atar I wrote about the other day and some ground cumin. If you don't have za'atar you could grind up some salt, thyme, sesame seeds and cumin.)

In keeping with the frugality of the dish I decided to use up some storecupboard ingredients as accompaniments. I cooked some rice and Puy lentils Lebanese-style, flavoured them with a pinch of cinnamon and topped them with roasted diced courgette and carrot. (If I'd had some coriander handy I'd have added some chopped up stalks and forked through a few leaves at the end. I'd also have squeezed a little lemon juice over the meat before serving it).

We had our lamb 'ribs' with yoghurt, harissa and a green salad (see the rather fuzzy picture above) and a mighty feast it was too - ample for three although the two of us managed to polish it off without much difficulty. All except enough rice and lentils to make a salad for lunch today which makes me feel doubly virtuous. Later I'll cook the rabbit - with bacon, cider and apples, I think. Happy days!

Do you have any favourite ways of cooking breast of lamb?

Sunday 20 September 2009

Homemade crostini

One of the economies that gives me most satisfaction is my homemade crostini bases. They're one of those things that are invariably overpriced in smart delis - you can pay £3 plus for a pack.

If you bake them yourself you can make them for about 80p. You just need a stale(ish) ciabatta or similar shaped long loaf - I tend to pick up mine reduced in the supermarket. Slice thinly and place on a couple of baking sheets that you've drizzled with olive oil, moving them around so they get evenly smeared with oil then drizzle a little more oil on the other side and bake in a medium hot oven for about 10-15 minutes until crisp and golden - or a cooler one for a little longer. I'm lucky to be able to shove mine in the AGA but to save fuel just cook them when you have the oven on for something else.

Once they're cooled keep them in an airtight tin - they'll happily keep for a week or so. And you can spread them with any kind of dip or paté for a snack, nibble with drinks or an easy first course.

What's your favourite way of salvaging stale bread?

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Chicken, Za'atar and other stories

It's been a hectic few days since we got back from France. Trying to finish one book, publicising another and launching a student cooking campaign. I'm not sure where the time has gone

It hasn't left much time for cooking that's for sure but this weekend we made best use of the annual Organic Food Festival in Bristol and did our weekend shopping there.

Interestingly it wasn't that expensive. Sheepdrove, our local organic butcher had a special offer on frozen chickens for £5 each which was unmissable so Sunday night's meal was built around that. Because it had been a balmy late summer's day (what on earth's happened to the weather since?) we served it warm having stuffed it with herbs and garlic. We also had a huge platter of yellow and green courgettes (above) I'd lightly fried in olive oil and tossed with some blanched green beans and some new crop Desirée potatoes, boiled in their jackets, all from one of my favourite local organic suppliers Wrington Greens. I tossed the courgettes and beans with a fantastic dried herb mix I'd bought in Nice earlier this summer (a fines herbes blend of parsley, tarragon, chervil and chives) which really enhanced their flavour though fresh herbs would have obviously been good too. (Most of ours seem to have shrivelled up while we were away).

The next day we had cold chicken with the remaining veg, some fried up potatoes and garlic and some mixed leaves from Wrington which are always wonderfully flavourful. And there's a huge batch of stock which I'm going to use for noodles tonight and risotto tomorrow. Ten servings from one medium-sized bird which isn't bad.

The other good buy at the festival was a huge bag of Za'atar, a Middle-Eastern blend of dried thyme, sumac and roasted sesame seeds. This particular one had been imported from Palestine by a company called Zaytoun which also brings in a very nice olive oil. You can use the Za'atar to scatter over flatbreads, dips and grilled meats or simply dunk bread in oil and then in the mix. It was actually more than I needed but I felt I wanted to support the producer so I've been giving small jars and bags of it away to my friends.

The only disappointment of the weekend were some ultra-cheap peaches I bought at the local greengrocer which had that awful woolly texture that imported peaches tend to have even at this time of year. I rescued them by skinning them, submerging them in sweet wine, scattering over a few crushed cardamom pods and chilling them for a few hours but they still weren't wonderful. Which underlines yet again that locally grown food is best, organic or not.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Why DON'T Frenchwomen get fat?

Having blogged the other day about how easy it is to eat healthily in France a totally contrary thought occurred. Why don't Frenchwomen - and men - get fat?

By all rights they should. French restaurants always have a prix fixe menu - usually two or more - alongside the à la carte which are almost always better value than ordering dishes individually. We have deals here in the UK too but they're usually two course ones which makes it easy to eat moderately. In France menus almost always include a dessert and sometimes cheese as well so it's more economical to eat 3 courses than two starters.

So how do Frenchwomen do it? I can only assume they don't eat everything on their plate but as someone who was brought up to do just that I find that well nigh impossible. I also find it hard, as a self-styled frugal cook, to resist a bargain so always find myself going for the set price option.

This may well be why I inevitably come back from holiday a good kilo or two heavier than when I went away. And why I'm now facing the inevitable post-holiday diet.

So I'm asking those of you fellow foodies who remain enviably trim, how do you do it? And what do you think is the Frenchwoman's secret?