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.