Friday 24 December 2010

My cut-price Christmas turkey

As you can see I managed to get my cut-price turkey - just. I had a moment's panic when we went to Sainsbury's at 3pm and found there wasn't a single turkey left.

But Waitrose had several including this under half price offer on a 5.5kg organic bronze which was reduced from £57.77 to £27.19. I could have got a cheaper one still for about £9 from their Essentials range but this seemed too good a deal to pass up. Some more free-range birds came out as I was queuing to pay.

The checkout assistant told me that last year the last turkey in the store - an outsize organic bird - had been reduced from £74 to £5.99 just before they closed at 7 o'clock so if you hold your nerve - or are prepared to cook something other than turkey if you miss out - you can probably get one cheaper still. But I'm pretty pleased with my bargain.

Have a very happy Christmas everyone, however you spend it x.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Anti-flu soup

Having sailed through the winter so far without a cold I've fallen victim to one just before Christmas. Isn't that always the way? The only consolation is I'm not alone. Practically everyone I know is coughing and spluttering including most of my family.

In a vain attempt to ward it off I made what I hoped would be a healthgiving onion soup. It didn't work in the end but it made me feel a lot better at the time and - who knows - I might have been more lurgified still without it.

It's basically a French onion soup with extra garlic and without the croutons and cheese which makes it lighter though you can obviously add those at the end if you have time and/or are feeling more robust. I also used French onions - one of those strings of Brittany ones - which I think improved the taste and texture as they're not as wet as English ones though obviously you're not going to set out on the ice looking for an onion man if you're feeling like death.

Onions, like garlic, have anti-bacterial compounds and are a recognised method of treating colds and flu according to this site although getting any definitive answer on health out of the internet is always an uphill struggle. But I seem to remember reading it elsewhere.

Onion, garlic and thyme soup
Serves 2-4

5-6 medium-sized onions, preferably French
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 tsp dried thyme (optional)
3 tbsp olive oil
About 15g butter
800ml vegetable, chicken or beef stock
Salt and (preferably) white pepper though if you're stuffed up you may not be able to tell the difference

Peel and finely slice the onions and garlic. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or casserole, tip in the onions, garlic and thyme, stir and cook uncovered over a low heat for about 20-25 minutes until the onions have completely collapsed and begun to colour. (It will depend on the onions and how fast you cook them how brown they get but it's better to keep the heat low. Having said that I cooked them in the top oven of the Aga.) Pour over the stock, bring to the boil then turn the heat down and simmer for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve in warm bowls, adding some grated cheese if you like. To make it more of a meal, top with baked bread slices and grated cheese and return to the oven or melt under the grill.

I'm sure I've asked you this before but do you have any favourite ways of dealing with lurgies?

Saturday 18 December 2010

Cutting the cost of Christmas food shopping

With the weather being so atrocious at the moment you may be simply grateful to get out and find anything in the shops but I’m going to suggest a strategy for cutting your Christmas food shopping bills. Which is not to shop with a preconceived idea about what you’re going to cook and just see what's on offer.

There is admittedly a danger that you’ll just snap up every bargain you find but if you buy things that will keep or which you can freeze you can pick up some really good deals as I’ve done a couple of times over the past week.

Last weekend I picked up some packs of game casserole in Waitrose, normally £4.69, reduced by 20% to £3.75 then slashed to 99p each to clear. We used them to make a game pie filling which we served with what I call floating pastry lids rather than as a pie, a trick that speeds up the cooking process, ensures your pastry remains crisp and can even leave you a couple of lids for leftovers.

Then this week I hit the jackpot in the Co-op with a leg of lamb for £4.94 which will do for dinner for six sometime over the Christmas period.

I also picked up an 800g pack of mince for a lasagne or a batch of bolognese, a 700g bacon joint for £2.50 which should feed four with lentils or butter beans and a Bury black pudding for 49p which the two of us had for lunch yesterday with a potato, apple and onion fry (all from ingredients already in the cupboard)

Tonight we’re going to have chicken casserole based on a £2.19 pack of Freedom Food chicken thighs with a 73p pack of chestnut mushrooms. OK, it will be zipped up with some leftover wine or cider and a little cream but it’ll still cost us no more than a couple of quid a head.

We’ve also decided as there are probably only going to be three of us on Christmas Day to take it to the wire and leave our shopping until the afternoon of Christmas Eve and simply see what we can pick up. That may result in us having a chicken or a joint of pork rather than a turkey but we can still make a stuffing and all the trimmings that go with the traditional Christmas lunch and I don’t think we’ll enjoy it any the less.

I admit I don’t always shop like this but occasionally it’s good to see how little you can manage to live on especially over Christmas when the pressure to spend far more than you need on food is at its greatest.

It's not as if we're laying in for a 10 day siege. (Well, unless you're unlucky enough to be snowed in). The shops will be back open again on Boxing Day and the chances are you've got enough in store to survive till the New Year even if they weren't. We certainly have.

How do you handle your Christmas food shopping? Do you find you tend to buy more than you need or have you developed strategies for keeping the cost - and waste - down?

Saturday 11 December 2010

Is it worth baking your own cakes?

I baked a really brilliant cake last weekend. No credit to me - I'm not a great baker - but the recipe came from my friend and erstwhile commissioning editor Sarah Randell, who is.

Sarah has been brought up in the Delia school of patient and exhaustive recipe testing - she used to work on Delia's books, hence the unusual credit on the front of her own new book Weekend Baking. (Delia almost never gives endorsements for cookery books.) She's now the Food Director of Sainsbury's magazine (which is where I worked for her) and tweets as @sarahbonviveur for those of you who are on Twitter.

The cake's particularly delicious taste owes a great deal to the amount of dried fruit in it and the agave nectar, a natural fructose sweetener. It's an ingredient you might well not have at home which got me thinking about the cost of baking.

No doubt about it, it costs more to bake your own cakes than buy them ready made, particularly fruit cakes. They obviously taste much, much better, make the kitchen smell great, give you a glow of satisfaction and probably feed more people than a shop-bought cake - but those people will probably eat far more than they would of a shop-bought cake as well.

I know baking is more about love than economics but what is the frugal cook to do? Adapt the recipe to use ingredients you already have for a start. Sarah already suggests a range of different nuts so you could use what you have, toasting them first if they've been hanging around the cupboards for a while. I didn't have prunes so I used apricots and figs instead which was lovely. And I didn't give the cake its final crust of crushed sugar lumps but used the demerara sugar I had instead.

The other strategy is to find another way to use the ingredients you have had to buy, such as the agave nectar. The most obvious being to make another cake and as we're not mad about conventional Christmas cake I plan to make this again instead. (Sarah suggests that if you want to make the cake more celebratory you can brush warm, smooth apricot jam over it and decorate it with small dried apricots and pecan halves.) And there are shedloads of suggestions if you Google 'agave nectar recipes'.

There's also the question of tins. I didn't have the 18 cm square tin that Sarah recommended so used a round 21cm tin instead. It made the cake slightly shallower than it should have been but it was fine. If you're an infrequent or inexperienced baker it's easy to fall into the trap of feeling you have to buy a new tin every time you make a cake. There's a useful chart on how to adjust the size you use here. (I should ideally have used a 20cm round tin)

Anyway, try it - for Christmas or not - it's a really great recipe.

Sarah's Simple Fruit Cake
Serves 12

100 g ready-to-eat dried apricots or figs
125 g stoned, soft Agen prunes
125 g shelled pecan nuts, almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts, or a mixture
150 g butter, softened
125 g light brown soft sugar
175 g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
150 g sultanas
juice and zest of 1 orange
juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons agave nectar (or runny honey)
2 pure cane rough-cut sugar cubes, roughly crushed

an 18-cm square tin, 7 cm deep, lined with baking parchment and buttered

Preheat the oven to 150˚C (300˚F) Gas 2.

Using scissors, snip the dried apricots and the prunes into small pieces. Roughly chop the nuts.

Put the butter and sugar in an electric mixer (or use a large mixing bowl and an electric whisk) and beat until combined and fluffy.

Sift the flour and cinnamon into another bowl.

Add the flour mixture and beaten eggs alternately to the butter and sugar, whisking on a low setting all the time.

Using a large metal or wooden spoon, stir in the chopped fruit and nuts, the sultanas, orange and lemon juices and zests and the agave nectar. Mix well.

Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and spread it evenly with a spatula.

Sprinkle the crushed sugar over the cake, then bake in the preheated oven for 1 1/4 hours. Leave to cool in the tin.

Recipe taken from Weekend Baking by Sarah Randell, published by Ryland Peters &Small £16.99.

Do you regard the cost of home baking as an issue? If so how do you keep down the cost? Do you ever feel it's simpler/easier to buy a ready-made cake or does the pleasure of baking your own generally outweigh that?

Friday 3 December 2010

Chilly con Carne

I don't know about you but this weather is making me crave rib-sticking soups and stews and I suddenly really fancied making a chilli or - maybe more appropriately - Chilly con Carne.

I was thinking of making this south-west American version (in the rather messy, quickly snatched photo, above) which I included in my beer book An Appetite for Ale and which uses chopped rather than ground beef. What clinched it was finding a one and a half kilo joint of top rump in the Co-op reduced to £3.72 instead of £9 odd a kilo for braising beef. (There was even enough left over to make another stew.)

My original (for which I've given the recipe below) used a mild chile called Chile Molido from Santa Fe which gives a particularly good rich texture but as I didn't have any left I used a tablespoon of mild chilli powder, a heaped teaspoon of sweet pimenton, a teaspoon of hot pimenton and about the same of some smokey ground chile I brought back from Chile earlier this year. (You can buy Chile Molido aka New Mexican Red from the Spice Shop in Blenheim Crescent or online if you want a more authentic south-western flavour)

I also used 2 tins of kidney beans rather than cooking them from scratch because I couldn't face going out in the cold to buy some!

Serves 6

For the beans
250g dried red kidney beans
1 bayleaf
1 tsp epazote - a Mexican herb which is often used for cooking beans (optional)
A few black peppercorns

Or use 2 x 400g tins of red kidney beans

For the chile
5-6 tbsp sunflower or other cooking oil
800g-1kg braising steak, topside or top rump, whatever's cheapest
2 onions (about 250g in total), peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 heaped tbsp tomato paste
5-6 tbsp chile molido (or a mixture of mild and hotter chile as described above - about 2-3 tbsp in total. You want something, ideally to give it a smoky edge)
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 level tbsp plain flour
300ml beef stock
175ml lager (optional - you could just add extra stock but it gives it an edge)
1 tbsp cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Drain them, cover with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. Skim off any scum and boil hard for 10 minutes then turn the heat down and add the bayleaf, peppercorns and epazote if using (it flavours the beans and makes them less flatulent!). Cook for about an hour to an hour and a quarter until the beans are tender, topping up with boiling water as necessary. Set aside till the chile is cooked.

Meanwhile pat the meat dry, remove any fat or gristle and cut into very small cubes. Pour a little of the oil into a frying pan and brown the meat in batches, transferring it to a casserole as you complete each batch.

Add the remaining oil (you’ll need about 3 tbsp) and fry the onions until soft but not coloured. Add the crushed garlic, cook for a minute then stir in the flour, 2-5 tbsp of ground chile (see above) and 1 1/2 tsp cumin.

Cook for a few seconds then add the stock and lager, if using, and bring to the boil. Pour the sauce over the meat, stir well, bring back to the boil then turn the heat right down and simmer for 2 hours or so till the meat is tender adding a little water if the sauce gets too thick.

Drain the beans and add to the meat and cook for another half hour. Taste the sauce and add a few drops of cider vinegar and a little more chilli powder just to lift the flavour. Serve with baked potatoes and homemade coleslaw or corn or wheat tortillas and an avocado salsa.

* Actually if you can leave this overnight and reheat it it tastes even better. Like most stews.

What's your favourite way of making chilli? And favourite way of serving it?

Saturday 27 November 2010


I'm still buzzing with ideas for meals to cook from my trip to the Lebanon last week but with a weekend of work ahead I know I'm not going to be able to spend much time in the kitchen.

This spicy egg dish which I cooked for the Guardian Student Cookbook I wrote back in the summer will have to do in the meantime.

Cooking eggs with tomatoes, chillies and sometimes peppers is popular all over North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Basque country but this particular version originated in Tunisia. I love the way the egg whites leach into the sauce marbling it red and white.

Serves 2-4
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium to large onion, peeled and sliced
3 small or 2 medium peppers, quartered, seeded and sliced
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4-1/2 tsp hot pimenton, paprika or chilli powder
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes - or 400g fresh tomatoes, skinned and 1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp chopped coriander (optional)
4 eggs
Salt and pepper
Feta and pitta bread to serve (optional but good)

You’ll also need a large frying pan preferably with a lid or some foil

Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the sliced onion and peppers and cook for about 10-15 minutes until they begin to soften. Stir in the crushed garlic and cook for another minute or two then add the cumin and pimenton, paprika or chilli powder and coriander, if using and cook a minute more. Tip in the tomatoes, stir and leave over a low heat for another 10-15 minutes until the sauce is thick and jammy. Check the seasoning adding salt and pepper to taste. Make four hollows in the surface with a large tablespoon then crack an egg into each hollow (or crack it in a saucer then slide it into the sauce). Cover the pan with a lid or a large piece of foil and carry on cooking until the whites are lightly set but the yolks are still runny. Serve with warm pitta bread with some extra coriander sprinkled over the top. Some crumbled feta is also really nice with it.

Do you make baked egg dishes like this? If so what's your favourite?

Monday 22 November 2010

Parsnip, potato and truffle gratin

OK, before you point out that truffles are hardly frugal, I know. If you had to buy them that is. But we were given a huge one by a (Somerset) farmer who had so many on his estate he didn't know what to do with them.

Unfortunately it started to stink out the fridge so swift action was called for. We had pasta last night with an outrageous amount of truffles and tonight a parsnip, potato and truffle gratin I invented on the spur of the moment and which was actually rather good. (So good that we'd scoffed most of it before I got round to taking a photo.)

Serves 4 as a veggie (it would go well with lamb), 2-3 as a vegetarian main course (we had it with cumin-braised carrots and red kale with garlic and chilli.

2-3 large parsnips
1 medium to large potato
1 small onion
Generous shavings of black or white truffle or a drizzle of truffle oil (but don't overdo it. It's probably safer to mix a few drops into some sunflower or vegetable oil until you get the intensity of flavour you want.)
600ml light vegetable stock
Butter for greasing the dish and dotting over the gratin
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6

Scrub, peel and halve the parsnips, cutting away the woody central core. Slice on a mandolin or finely with a very sharp knife. Peel and slice the potato, onion and truffle to a similar thickness. Lightly butter a largeish baking dish, tip in the vegetables and truffles (or truffle-infused oil) season and mix, then pour over the stock and dot with butter. Bake in the oven for 45-50 minutes until the vegetables are tender and the top crisp and brown. Serve as a side dish with lamb, for example, or as a main with a couple of other veg.

Personally I'd have been tempted to add some cream to this somewhere along the line but my husband is dairy-intolerant :(

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Peppered mackerel and potato salad with mustard dressing

My husband seems to have taken over in the kitchen recently which isn't too good for this blog so I'm having to raid the back catalogue for recipes. This is another that went into the giveaway Guardian student book I wrote for them a couple of months ago. I'm not mad about smoked mackerel but it's fantastically good value and works brilliantly in this chunky potato salad

Serves 3-4
45 mins including cooling time

450-500g new potatoes
1/2 a small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 level tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp wine or cider vinegar
6 tbsp light olive oil or sunflower oil
200g peppered smoked mackerel
A handful of chopped parsley or some snipped chives (optional but adds a bit of colour)
Salt and pepper

Wash and scrub the potatoes clean leaving on the skins. Cook in boiling salted water until just tender (about 12-15 minutes) then drain and leave until cool enough to handle (another 10 minutes or so). Meanwhile whisk together the mustard and vinegar in a bowl and season with salt and pepper then gradually whisk in the oil plus a tablespoon of water if it seems a bit thick. Slice the potatoes roughly into the dressing and leave for another 15 minutes if you’ve time for the flavours to absorb. Pull the mackerel off the skin and break up with a fork into largeish pieces, removing any bones and lightly mix with the potatoes and parsley. Serve straight away (potato salads are never as good if they’re chilled)

IMO you can never have too many potato salad recipes. What's your favourite?

Tuesday 2 November 2010


The bargain of the week has to be lambs liver in Tesco which is currently selling at £1 a pack. I'd been vaguely thinking in terms of cooking it with mash and onion gravy but my husband offered to make one of his specialities, a Portuguese dish called Iscas.

I can never pin him down to quantities but basically it involves coating the liver with flour flavoured with dried rosemary and sage, frying it lightly then deglazing the pan with port (no, not particularly frugal unless you have some, which we do), vinegar and squeezing in a good dollop of tomato paste. Oh, and 2 or 3 sliced up cloves of garlic are cooked in the oil first. We usually have it with spinach or broccoli then feel very virtuous and smug about the amount of iron we've taken on. Conveniently forgetting the port which will probably give us gout.

There are other rather more precise versions online of which this one from Cookipedia looks about the best.

Do you eat liver and if so, what's your favourite way of cooking it?

Thursday 28 October 2010

Cornish Pasty Pie

I still seem to be insanely busy since I came back from France so thought I'd post an old favourite I haven't made for a while which comes from my book Meat and Two Veg. Since you can now buy it for 4p on Amazon (how humiliating is that?) I might as well give it away.

You might not be convinced of the virtues of making your own Cornish pasties given the number of pasty shops nowadays but I promise you that the taste of this freshly baked pie and the smell coming from the oven as it cooks will make you change your mind. I’ve made it as a pie as it’s much easier than trying to cram the filling into individual pasties (and also less fattening, I kid myself)

Do use good quality beef for it - the traditional skirt is perfect. And don’t be tempted to put the veg and meat through a food processor. They really are better chopped by hand.

Serves 4-6

400-425g beef skirt or lean braising beef, trimmed of fat
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Half a small swede, peeled (about 225g)
450g waxy potatoes, peeled (e.g. Desirée)
2 medium sized onions, peeled (about 225g)
1 rounded tsp sea salt
1 rounded tsp white or black peppercorns, freshly ground
For the pastry
250g plain flour
110g block margarine (e.g. Stork) or butter
75g Cookeen or other vegetable shortening
A good pinch of salt
4-5 tbsp iced water
1 medium egg lightly beaten

You will need a large shallow pie dish

Measure out the margarine or butter and lard, wrap each piece in foil and place in the freezer to harden for at least half an hour. Cut the beef into very small cubes, put in a large bowl and mix with the Worcestershire sauce. Cut the swede into similar sized cubes, quarter and finely slice the potatoes and finely chop the onion. Add the vegetables to the meat, season well with salt and pepper and mix well.

Measure the flour into a bowl and grate in the semi-frozen fats, dipping each block into the fat as you go. Cut the fat into the flour until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs then sprinkle over 4 tbsp of the iced water. Work in the liquid with a flat-bladed knife, adding enough extra liquid to enable you to pull the mixture together into a ball. Put the pastry onto a floured board, shape it into a flat disc then place in a plastic bag and chill it in the fridge for half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Grease the inside of the pie dish lightly with margarine or butter, tip the filling into it and pack it down well. Moisten the rim of the pie dish with water. Roll out the pastry to a circle slightly wider than the diameter of the dish and carefully lay it over the meat mixture. Press it down lightly inside the rim and trim off any overhanging pieces with a sharp knife. Cut a slit in the centre of the pie and brush the surface with the beaten egg. Decorate the pie with the trimmings if you feel inspired.

Bake the pie for 30 minutes then turn the heat down to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4 and bake another 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for at least 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with a simple green or mixed salad.

There's been a bit of a ding dong on Twitter over whether I should have called this Cornish Pasty Pie. Two Cornishmen (well, one man, one woman) were outraged but my argument would be that it's a pie with a Cornish pasty-type filling - hence the name. What do you reckon - and what would you call it?

Wednesday 20 October 2010

How (not) to cook a pig's cheek

I've been meaning to post this for about a month but events have overtaken me. First landing the Guardian wine column which meant a frenzied few days tasting before going away on a long overdue holiday to France. I was going to blog there but managed to get sidetracked by visiting winemakers. I suspect this will be the story of my life for the next few months.

Anyway, pig's cheeks. Or rather pig's cheek. I found one on sale (below) at Source in Bristol for around a fiver I seem to remember and having never cooked one thought I'd give it a go. I was a bit disconcerted to find that one of the recipes I looked up called for more like a dozen cheeks which would have made it about as expensive as fillet steak so decided to give my solitary one the pork and beans treatment following a recipe I'd been given by a friend for hand of pork.

The boys at Source suggested I brined it first which I did but am not convinced it made a huge amount of difference*. The end result was pretty tasty but there was so little lean meat on the cheek that it was more like a pork-flavoured dish of beans. To satisfy the average healthy male appetite I think you'd need at least a cheek per person which really negates the idea of pig cheeks as a cheap cut.

Anyway here, for what it's worth, is what I did but I suggest you make it, like my friend Sue, with hand of pork

Brined pig’s cheek and beans
1 pig's cheek

For the brine
100g granulated sugar
300g seasalt
4 juniper berries
3 cloves
1 bayleaf
1 litre water

For the beans
500g dried butter beans
2 onions
4 cloves of garlic
2 carrot peeled and cut into chunks
175ml white wine
vegetable oil
rosemary and /or thyme

Put the beans in a large bowl of water and soak overnight.

Put the ingredients for the brine in a saucepan and heat gently until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Bring to the boil and cool. Immerse the cheek in the brine for at least a couple of hours.

Pre-cook the beans in a large pan covered generously with clean cold water and boil fast for 20 minutes. Don't add salt. Drain but reserve the liquid.

Preheat oven to Gas 3/160°C (I used the lower oven of the Aga)

Very finely chop the onion, garlic and carrot or blitz in a food processor. Heat a large casserole big enough to take the pig’s cheek, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and cook the finely chopped vegetables until soft.

Add the part-cooked beans and the wine, and pour in 1 litre of the reserved stock from the beans (If you need more stock then make up some chicken stock from a cube and use that)

Add rosemary and/or thyme to taste - if you have sprigs then use these, if not, dried herbs will be fine - and plenty of black pepper.

Place the pork joint on top - with a bit of oil rubbed onto the skin and season with sea or rock salt.

Put the roasting pan in the oven and roast for about 3 to 3 1/2 hours. (Mine took more like 6-7 hours) Check every now and then that there is enough liquid in the beans - add more stock/white wine if needed.

At the end of cooking the pork should be deep golden brown with crackling worth fighting over! (Mine didn't get this consistency but the cooking temperature was lower)

Serve straight from the roasting dish in the middle of the table - the pork will be best cut into chunks rather than trying to slice it.

* Not that I'm against brining. I've brined pork chops to very good effect.

Have you ever cooked a pig's cheek/s and if so how did it go?

Monday 20 September 2010

Swapcrop - trading fruit for jam

Swapcrop is the latest in a series of initiatives encouraging us all to be more community minded and gain something in the process. (Other examples being Landshare and Freecycle). The basic idea is that people who grow more veg or fruit than they know what to do with should make it available to keen jam and chutney-makers who don’t have a garden or allotment in return for a few jars.

The idea comes from the newly formed Guild of Jam and Preserve Makers whose mission is to ‘promote and encourage jam and preserve making' and to provide a forum for jam makers to swop tips. It’s been set up by Rosemary Jameson, founder of the incredibly useful Jam Jar Shop which provides all kinds of jam-making supplies. Pam Corbin who wrote the excellent River Cottage handbook on Preserves is the president.

Seems like there’s a bit of a jam revival going on at the moment. The WI is holding its first Real Jam Festival at Denman College in Oxfordshire from the 20th-21st of November which sounds like a good old-fashioned village fête with competitions, demonstrations, fresh produce stalls and ‘refreshments’ (when did you last hear that word?). I like some of the tongue-in-cheek categories which include 'Jam in the Public Eye' for celebs and 'people of high office e.g. MPs and archbishops', 'Man Made Jam' (for men) and Children’s Jam.

And then there’s a return of the National Trust’s Chutfest, a two day event at Barrington Court in Somerset on October 2nd and 3rd where jam and chutney makers can swop their produce - and others can buy it. Their categories are rather more conventional though the idea of one devoted specifically to rhubarb and ginger chutney has an endearingly eccentric ring to it.

What I like about both these enterprises is the element of self-help - the barter and the swapping. Something that's always gone on in the country on an informal basis but which can benefit us townies too.

Do you make your own jams and chutneys or do you let your produce go to rot? I have to confess we lived for years in a house with several apple trees and never managed to eat our way through them all. Much to the disapproval of my mum who patiently used to wrap them in newspaper and store them in the garage whenever she came to stay - often to find them rotting away several months later. I still feel guilty when I think of it.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Squash and saffron risotto

I don’t know why risotto is thought of as special occasion food. I suppose because it seems complicated to make if you’re unfamiliar with it but it is frugal food par excellence - and comforting at that.

Sure, the rice is more expensive than most but you don’t need a lot of it. It also pays to use good parmesan (below) which I get from my local deli for no more than you’d pay in a supermarket (£16.95 a kilo). Don't buy ready grated - it's more expensive and the flavour isn't nearly as good.

Saffron is expensive, I grant you, but you only need a pinch and if you buy it by the box from a deli or online from a supplier like this you’ll have enough for a couple of years.

Risotto is also a great way to use butternut squash - or pumpkin come to that - a vegetable with which I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. It always needs something bitter or spicy to counteract its excessive sweetness. Sometimes I sprinkle it with crushed chillies and coriander before I roast it or sprinkle it with crisp-fried sage leaves but this time I used saffron because that’s what I happened to have.

A lot of recipes call for mascarpone but that seems to me too rich - and just another expense. I used a dollop of the crème fraîche I had in the fridge and it tasted fine as would a little double cream though you’d probably need to correct its extra creaminess with a squeeze of lemon.

Serves 2

1 small butternut squash or half a larger one
3 tbsp light oiive oil or sunflower oil
15g butter
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic (optional)
Pinch of saffron threads
1 small glass white wine
1/2 tsp sweet pimenton or paprika
600ml chicken stock made with 1 dsp vegetable bouillon powder
150g risotto rice
25g freshly grated parmesan
1 generous tbsp crème fraiche or 2 tbsp double cream and a squeeze of lemon
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley to serve if you have some.

Wipe the squash clean and cut it lengthways into quarters - or, if using half a squash, in half. Scoop out the seeds then cut each piece across into 4 or 5 big chunks. Cut the skin off each chunk.

Preheat your oven to 200°C/Gas 6. Pour 2 tbsp of the oil into a roasting dish. Turn the chunks of squash in the oil, season with salt and pepper and roast for about 15-20 minutes until almost cooked. Take out about a quarter of the squash, turn over the remaining chunks and give them another 10 minutes or so until completely soft. Set aside.

Meanwhile start the risotto. Peel and finely chop the onion. Heat a heavy pan on the hob, add the remaining tbsp of oil then add the butter. Cook on a low heat till the onion is soft, stirring occasionally (about 3-4 minutes)

Heat the stock and pour over the saffron then leave in a warm place to infuse.

Once the onion is soft add the garlic and pimenton, stir then turn the heat up slightly and tip in the rice. Cook it for about three minutes stirring continually so it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan. Pour in the wine and when the sizzling has died down and it has evaporated add the fully roasted squash and give a good stir.

Bring the stock up to boiling point and add a cupful. Stir until the stock has been absorbed then add more stock and repeat until the rice is creamy but still has some ‘bite’ and most of the stock has been absorbed (about 20 minutes).

Turn off the heat and stir in 2 tbsp of the parmesan and the crème fraîche. Cut the part-cooked squash you set aside into small cubes and add to the risotto then cover and set aside for 5 minutes. (The heat of the risotto will finish cooking the squash.)

Check the seasoning adding more salt and pepper to taste and a little more stock or boiling water if the risotto has got too thick and spoon into warm bowls. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and a scattering of chopped parsley if you have some.

Do you make risotto regularly and if so what flavours do you like best?

Monday 6 September 2010

Two meals for teens

This post was prompted by an exchange with one of my most longstanding followers notsupermum, a single parent of two teenage girls. Actually she clearly is a super mum but is far too modest to say so. She was saying the other day that she was pleased the blog was back as she was having to ‘tighten the purse strings’ again and we got to talking (on Twitter) about what her girls would and wouldn’t eat. One of them doesn’t eat much meat and neither are that keen on veg. “They like carrots, sweetcorn, cauli and broccoli” she tweeted. “They dislike peppers, green beans and most others!”

Having had four kids of my own I could identify with that so I thought it would be good if I could come up with a couple of recipes that wouldn’t break the bank, both made from the same set of ingredients. I headed for Sainsbury’s and picked up a pack of British pork shoulder steaks (£3.04 for 600g), a couple of large carrots (27p - cheaper loose than buying them by the bag), a head of broccoli (on special offer at 47p) and a 1 kilo bag of frozen sweetcorn (£1.19).

Sadly at a time when sweetcorn is bang in season it was far cheaper buying it that way than on the cob (the cheapest fresh corn was £1.50 for four ‘cobettes’ - i.e. half sized cobs.) I also got a 55g chunk of fresh ginger (26p) of which I used about a quarter and put the rest in the freezer.

The first meal I made was a stir-fry, which is generally popular with teens. The advantage of them is that they cook quickly and use very little meat. I used about a third of the pork which could easily be replaced with Quorn for a teen who was having an 'off meat' day. We had it with rice but you could serve it with egg noodles for rice-haters. I’d actually like a bit of chopped chilli with it but it’s better to underseason dishes for kids and serve with spicy sauces for those who want more oomph.

Pork and Veggie Stir-fry
(You may think this is a boring name for a recipe but let me assure you it’s better that way with teens. The more ingredients you mention the more reason they find not to like a dish before they've even tasted it. And DON’T whatever you do mention the ginger!)

Serves 3

200g lean pork or chicken (a chicken breast would be fine - or Quorn if you want to turn it veggie)
1 2cm square chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 clove of garlic, crushed
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 medium onion or half a bunch of spring onions (which I refused to buy as they were 79p a bunch. In season. Total rip-off!)
1 large carrot
1/3 of a head of broccoli and the stalk
3-4 tbsp vegetable oil
100g frozen or fresh sweetcorn
Sweet chilli sauce to serve. (This is good. Wean your kids off ketchup. Buy it in Asian stores where it’s much, much cheaper than in supermarkets.)

Cut the pork or chicken into fine strips. Put it in a bowl with the grated ginger, crushed garlic and soy sauce, mix well and leave it while you prepare the other ingredients. Finely slice the onion, cut the carrots into thin strips, cut the broccoli into small florets and peel the stalk and cut into fine strips. (Broccoli stalks are great for stir-fries). Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan and stir-fry the pork for a minute until lightly coloured. Set aside, add a little more oil and fry the onion for a minute or so, then add the carrot, fry for another minute, then the broccoli - another minute - then the corn. Add back the pork and carry on stir-frying until the veg are tender, adding a splash of water if the stir-fry starts to catch. Serve with rice, soy sauce and sweet chilli sauce for those who want it.

The following night I turned the remainder of the ingredients into a quick casserole

Creamy pork casserole
Again, not the world’s most inventive title. Doesn’t need to be. Don’t mention the mustard!

Serves 3 easily - 4 with a baked potato

350-400g pork shoulder steaks - or 3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs or 300g Quorn
2 tbsp oil
25g butter
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
Pinch of dried thyme or mixed herbs (optional)
1 dsp plain flour
225ml chicken or veg stock
1/2 a head of broccoli, cut into florets
100g frozen or fresh sweetcorn
1 - 1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard (essential - this makes the dish)
A heaped tbsp crème fraiche or a couple of tablespoons double cream if you have some
Salt, pepper and possibly a squeeze of lemon

Trim any excess fat off the meat, cut into cubes and season with salt and pepper. Heat a frying pan, add the oil then add half the butter. Once it stops foaming add the pork and fry until lightly browned on all sides. Transfer to a casserole. Add a spot more oil and fry the sliced onion and carrot for about 5-6 minutes until beginning to soften. Sprinkle over the thyme, if using, and stir in the flour then add the stock and bring to the boil. Pour over the pork, bring back to simmering point, cover then leave over a low heat for about 30-40 minutes until the pork is tender. Meanwhile microwave or steam the broccoli until just cooked. Pour boiling water over the corn to thaw, drain and toss in the remaining butter. When the pork is cooked take the casserole off the heat and add the mustard and crème fraiche or cream and squeeze of lemon if you think it needs it. Add a little water if the sauce is too thick. Add half the broccoli and corn leaving a little to spoon round the casserole and heat the meat gently without boiling. Serve with new or baked potatoes and the rest of the veg.

So there we are - two good hearty meals for just over £4 (I’d forgotten how filling sweetcorn was) and hopefully two happy teens. Let me know how it goes notsupermum!

Anyone else want to set me a frugal recipe challenge? Just write to me at the address on my profile telling me what you like and dislike . . .

Wednesday 1 September 2010

What to do with a glut of tomatoes

This really is the best time of the year for fresh produce. Almost too good. Temptation lurks round every corner as I found to my cost when I bought an insane amount at a veg stall in the lovely old-fashioned town of Wells the other day. But the bargains! 6 peppers, 8 apples and 1 1/2 kilos of courgettes for a pound each. Massive trays of plums and, best of all, a 4 kilo tray of tomatoes for £2.

Although we've been munching heroically through healthgiving quantities of veggies since Saturday - much to the disgust of my OH who thinks 1 a day is excessive, never mind 5 - it's the tomatoes that have been the greatest success. Not that they were brilliant in quality. I started off using 500g odd for a ratatouille (you can find the recipe I used on my student website Beyond Baked Beans here) but they were really too small and too unripe to peel easily, thus scotching my initial plan to stash tubfuls of fresh tomato purée in the freezer.

Instead I cut them in half horizontally, laid them out on a well-oiled baking tray, seasoned them with salt, pepper and za'atar and drizzled them with more olive oil. I started them off at the top of the AGA then transferred them to the cool oven for about 3 hours. They came out wonderfully sweet, just like those posh 'Sunblush' ones you buy in cartons. You can obviously just cook them in a low oven if you don't have an AGA.

I blitzed half into a sauce in the food processor and froze that then drizzled more oil over the other half and put them in the fridge. We've been having them bruschetta-style on sourdough toast and they've been delicious but I've found myself thinking of making them into a salad with dressed lentils and parsley, and crumbling some feta on top. I think that's what I'm going to do with the next batch.

I have to say it was all unbelievably satisfying and I felt ridiculously smug at my domestic goddessery. But I still have to finish the rest of my box otherwise my 'bargains' won't be as brilliant as they seemed.

Have you been cooking up any seasonal produce like tomatoes in bulk? Or pickling or preserving? Do share any good tips.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Fish couscous

Fish couscous might sound an odd idea but it actually works really well, particularly at this time of year when you can get your hands on properly ripe tomatoes without them costing a fortune. (I would also say that it's perfect for summer weather but that seems a bit ironic given the deluge forecast for the West Country today)

It also suits the frugal cook as you can use fish offcuts for it - or even those brick-like fish steaks - and those strange bags of frozen mixed seafood which are tremendously good value but which I can never think quite what else to do with.

I first came across on the west coast of Sicily - it's a speciality of the town of Trapani. (I've just discovered that Ryanair fly there and that it's 33°C there today. Grrrr!) This is the version I put in The Frugal Cook. Apologies for the quality of the pic which was taken as an afterthought . . .

serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 1/2 tsp Moroccan spice mix (see below)
1 tbsp tomato paste
350g ripe tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped
150g small frozen (or chilled) prawns (the North Atlantic ones are cheapest - and sweetest)
250g skinned white fish fillets or frozen fish 'steaks', cut into small chunks
100g cooked mussels or frozen mixed seafood (optional)
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander or parsley or a mixture of the two
250g instant couscous
Vegetable stock (I use Marigold bouillon powder)
Salt and pepper

Heat a large frying pan over a moderate heat, add the oil and fry the onion for a few minutes until soft. Add the crushed garlic and spice mix, stir and cook for a minute then stir in the tomato paste. Tip in the tomatoes and half a small wine glass of water then simmer over a low heat for about 10 minutes until the sauce has thickened, mashing the tomatoes with a fork as they soften to break them down.

Meanwhile make up the couscous following the instructions on the pack but using vegetable stock instead of water. Add the prawns, fish and mussels or seafood, if using, to the tomato sauce, mix lightly and heat through until cooked (about 5 minutes). Season and stir in the coriander and/or parsley, adding a little more water if needed (you want quite a wet, soupy consistency) Fluff up the couscous with a fork and serve with the fish.

You could also obviously serve this fish stew with rice.

* I think I've mentioned this Moroccan style spice mix before. I make it up in bulk - say 20g each ground cumin and coriander, 10g turmeric and 3-5g hot paprika or chilli powder

Any other bright ideas for frozen - or chilled - seafood mix? Or other frozen fish for that matter. Do you use it?

Thursday 19 August 2010

Which store-cupboard ingredients could you not live without?

One of the problems about being a food writer or blogger is that you very quickly lose touch with the number of ingredients that your readers actually possess. Unlike you they probably don’t have whole cupboards full of herbs, spices and seasonings and groan when they see you list something that involves an extra expense. And fair enough.

I’ve been particularly thinking about this in conjunction with students going back to uni. They don’t have a huge budget - or much room to store things. On the other hand cheap food is immeasurably improved by being well-seasoned. I’m not counting salt and pepper which I think most people would have automatically though I admit that's a bit of a cheat.

Here are my top 10. What about yours?

Herbes de Provence
If I could only have one herb it would have to be this classic French mix which typically includes thyme, rosemary, basil, savory and marjoram. Ideally a French blend. Generic ‘mixed herbs’ just don’t taste as good

Possibly my favourite spice for its aromatic lemony lift. I have both ground and whole seeds but if forced to choose would go for the seeds every time. I love them toasted.

Spanish smoked pimenton
The ultimate paprika - adds depth and richness to all kinds of dishes, especially stews. There are two kinds - dolce and piccante (sweet and spicy). I’d have to go for the sweet.

It was a toss-up between cardamom and cinnamon as I adore the taste of the former but cinnamon is far more flexible, especially for desserts and baking. And you can add a pinch to savoury dishes too.

Curry paste
Probably the cheapest, most efficient way of making a curry. The jars (I like Patak's) keep for weeks once opened. Much more effective than curry powder though you do need to doctor them a bit with . . .

Ideally fresh though they are more expensive. Essential when you’re creating something lemon flavoured but if you just want a dash of sharpness bottles of lemon juice - especially the Cypriot ones - are fine.

Again, has to be fresh - garlic salt doesn’t count.

Soy sauce
I prefer a light one which I buy in big bottles from Asian supermarkets. Cheaper and more natural-tasting than stir-fry sauces.

Vegetable bouillon powder (Marigold)
I use this all the time as a base for soups. Much less synthetic and salty than stock cubes.

Fresh parmesan
Or Grana Padano at a pinch which is cheaper. Ideally aged for at least 18 months (a worthwhile expense - it tastes better and goes further). You can make a meal out of spaghetti with butter and parmesan

I've already got to 10 and that doesn't even include condiments such as mustard, olive oil and vinegar which are essential if you want to make salad dressings from scratch. There are no fresh herbs - I usually have parsley at least - but students typically wouldn’t. No fresh ginger, another favourite. No fish sauce :( But I could survive.

What couldn’t you live without if forced to choose just 10?

Tuesday 17 August 2010

The rise and rise of Rise

No sooner am I back then I'm going to stray off-piste and write about music and books. And, even more maddeningly, a shop that's only of interest to people who live in Bristol, Cheltenham and Warwick (odd trio, all with a student population which I guess explains it).

It's called Rise and they sell an brilliant selection of CDs, DVDs and books at extraordinarily cheap prices. A whole lot of jazz greats for £3 an album for example. And a hardback of 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen', originally £12.99 for a fiver which strikes me as the perfect holiday read. (I'm not actually on holiday but am trying to kid myself I am.)

My husband has been going there for months sneaking cut price CDs into our collection which is now spilling out over the carpet behind a conveniently large armchair.

But I can't object. With bookshops and record shops in the doldrums it's good to come across such a great place to browse.

Anyone else come across Rise - or any place like it you can recommend?

Thursday 12 August 2010

Return of The Frugal Cook and some musings on veg

Well, here I am back again. You might well wonder why when I already have two other blogs (Food and Wine Finds and The Cheeselover) but the fact is that more people still visit this blog than both of the other two combined. Which some might say is an reason for not blogging at all but, ever the optimist, I'm not taking it that way.

The other reason is that we're by no means out of the woods economically. A lot of people are losing their jobs. Even more - and I'm thinking of recent graduates - are having trouble finding them. Money is tight for many people who have never had to think twice about what they spend or may never have got round to acquiring cooking or shopping skills.

I'm not going to be overly ambitious about this. I probably won't post more than two or three times a month but I hope it will be useful and occasionally inspiring - not least for the very helpful comments that visitors have always left on this blog.

So, to start with, a reminder about the virtues of farmers' markets which are at their best at this time of year. And here (above) is what I bought at ours the other day. It came to £6.60 which I think is pretty good and will certainly keep us in veg for the week. To give you a price comparison a small vegbox from Abel & Cole would cost £7.99 + 99p delivery. The 580g of runner beans I bought for £1 would have cost twice that in Tesco and I doubt would have been half as fresh. So it's a good deal.

I also like the fact that having such great produce I can build whole meals round them, cutting the costs of the other food I buy. The onions actually cost more than I'd pay in a supermarket but because they're large and sweet I can use them for an onion-based dish like Jill Dupleix's baked stuffed onions with parmesan cream or even, given this unseasonal weather, make a creamy onion soup.

The cabbage witll make a slaw and a stir-fry, the courgettes can be grilled, anointed with oil and served with feta and the beans can be cooked as a veg or sliced and frozen for less plentiful times. Or use them as I did today, to make this variation on a salade niçoise for a quick, healthy lunch for one

Mackerel, tomato and bean salad
Serves 1
150g runner beans, trimmed and sliced
4-5 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
2 tinned mackerel fillets, roughly broken up*
1 tbsp finely chopped onion, spring onion or chives
About 2 tbsp oil from the mackerel can or jar if it tastes nice, otherwise use olive oil
A few drops of wine vinegar or lemon juice
Salt and pepper
A heaped tablespoon of parsley or a little chopped mint if you have some

Trim and thinly slice the runner beans, put them in a saucepan and pour boiling water over them. Bring back to the boil add a little salt and cook until tender but still crunchy (about 4 minutes). Drain and rinse with cold water and pat dry. Put in a bowl with the cherry tomatoes, mackerel, chopped onion or chives. Drizzle with a little oil a few drops of wine vinegar, season with salt and pepper and lightly mix together. Scatter over some parsley or other fresh herbs if you have some.

*Another economy. Mackerel is cheaper and more sustainable than tuna!

Any other good ideas as to what to do with runner beans which are at their peak - and lowest price - right now?