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 ni├žoise 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?