Tuesday, 27 October 2009

So farewell Frugal Cook . . .

How long should a blog last? It's a question, I guess, that more and more bloggers will be asking themselves over the next year or so. This one has lasted just over 21 months which isn't bad but I feel its time has come.

The online world has changed a lot in the past couple of years. When I started in January 2008, with the specific purpose of recording my progress writing The Frugal Cook book, there weren't nearly as many blogs as there are now. But the big change has been Twitter which has in some ways made blogging superfluous - especially if you already have a website. I know you can't tweet a recipe but you can tweet ideas with an immediacy and an effectiveness it's hard to match in a blog.

It's also true that you can get to a stage of casting round for things to write about, particularly if your remit is as narrow as frugal cooking. I do write about other aspects of food and drink which I'd like to explore more. I don't want to get to the stage of repeating myself.

Of course I won't give up writing about frugal eating altogether - after all I've always cooked frugally - but you'll now find my recipes and tips on my student and budget eating website Beyond Baked Beans.

The biggest wrench is the very personal interaction I've had with those of you who have followed this blog and contributed so many useful tips and comments. I hope I won't lose touch with you. Please sign up to the Beyond Baked Beans fan page on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter where I now 'tweet' as food_writer. Fellow cheeseaholics may also like to know that I have - for the moment - a cheese blog called The Cheeselover (so you can see why I had to give something up!)

Anyway thank you all for visiting, for reading and for sharing. This blog has been richer for it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The cost of a recipe is relative . . .

The other day I roasted a mallard duck (which I'd found at a good price at our local butcher, I hasten to add). Mallards are quite small so there was only enough for 2 plus a carcass with a fair bit of meat on it for stock. I left it overnight in the AGA and the result was superb so I started thinking of dishes to set it off.

Beetroot risotto, inspired by a recipe from The Larder Lout, one of the students who collaborated on my recent student cookbook, emerged at the top of the list but I hadn't got any beetroot and had run out of risotto rice. I also fancied some horseradish in it and a dollop of crème fraiche so ended up spending over a fiver to make a dish for two - not so frugal after all.

It made me think how relative frugality is. If I'd already had most of these ingredients in the fridge or storecupboard - apart from the beets - it wouldn't have been expensive. Good cooks tend to have well-stocked storecupboards. Less well-off and less knowledgeable ones like students don't so are not generally able to make such interesting and complex dishes. The knack of frugal cooking - which I occasionally forget in my enthusiasm - is to be able to make a delicious dish from not a lot.

Anyway here's the recipe, for those of you who do have a well-stocked larder and a spare mallard (or other duck) carcass going begging. (Apologies for lack of picture. I was experimenting with new light settings - unsuccessfully!)

Duck and beetroot risotto
Serves 2

3 tbsp duck fat or olive oil
1 small red or other onion, finely chopped
a sprig of fresh thyme (optional)
150g arborio or other risotto rice
125ml red wine
750 ml hot duck (or other game) stock
half a bunch of beetroot (about 2 medium-sized beets, peeled and grated)*
25g parmesan cheese, grated
1 tbsp grated horseradish and 1 heaped tbsp creme fraiche or 2 tbsp creamed horseradish
leftover duck meat, cut into short lengths
a handful of the beet leaves, washed and shredded
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons of the duck fat in a large sauté pan or saucepan and cook the onion and thyme over a gentle heat until the onion is soft. Season with salt and pepper, increase the temperature and stir in the rice. Stir for a couple of minutes before adding the wine.

When the rice has absorbed the wine, add beetroot and stir for few seconds then add a ladle of the hot stock. Continue to stir regularly, adding a ladle of stock each time the rice has absorbed the previous batch. After 17 minutes or so taste the risotto. It should be almost cooked with just a little bite remaining. Cook for a minute or two longer if not. Remove the thyme sprig and stir in in the parmesan, horseradish and crème fraîche. Add a final ladle of stock, turn off the heat, cover the pan and leave for a few minutes.

Briefly fry the duck pieces in the remaining duck fat until crisp. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain them on kitchen paper. Wilt the greens in the same pan, adding a splash of water if necessary. Season them well with salt and pepper.

Stir the risotto again and dish up in warm bowls, topping with the stir-fried greens and the crisp shards of duck.

* Grating beetroot, if you don't already know this, is messy. I suggest acquiring some of those cheap, disposable plastic gloves to do it! (Another expense - but they are useful for other things!)

How big a store-cupboard do you have - in terms of range of ingredients rather than physical size? And, another issue, if you have an extensive one, do you get round to using all the ingredients before they go out of date?

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Floyd's Greek Mushrooms

My husband continues to upstage me on the frugality stakes, bearing bargains back to the house on an almost daily basis.This week's triumph was 750g of mushrooms, reduced to 79p in the Co-op. Needless to say it's yours truly who has to make good use of them and ensure they don't go to waste.

For those of you who can't envisage 750g of mushrooms, it's a lot. About 1 1/2 lbs and mushrooms are really light. Of course there are a number of things I could have done with them - mushroom soup, mushroom quiche, Mushroom duxelles (a thick, delicious paste of cooked down mushroom and onion) but flicking through a new reprint of Keith Floyd's first cookbook Floyd's Food I'd just been sent by my publisher Absolute Press I found a recipe for Greek Mushrooms - a Floydish spin on champignons à la grecque. And very good it was too. (My comments in italics)

Serves 4-6

1 lb (450g) small button mushrooms
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp sherry vinegar (not having sherry vinegar I used 1 tbsp cider vinegar and 1 tbsp amontillado sherry)
1 tbsp coriander seeds, coarsely crushed (don't use ground coriander)
1 bay leaf
1/2 lemon cut in very, very thin slices (sounds odd but delicious. Makes the recipe)
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 tin of tomatoes and their juice (assumed that was half a 400g tin)
Salt and pepper

Wash and dry the mushrooms. Salt and pepper them. In a pan heat the olive oil and vinegar with the coriander seeds. When hot drop in everything else including the mushrooms and cook wildly (love this!) for 5 or 6 minutes. Lift out the mushrooms and allow the sauce to reduce by half (I didn't find I needed to do this - will depend on hte moisture content of your mushrooms). Pour back over the mushrooms. Chill for ages and eat them later (with some crusty bread and maybe another couple of mezze.)

And the rest of the mushrooms? I added them to the tail end of a coq au vin, adding a good Floyd-like slosh of extra red wine and served the resulting sauce with pappardelle (thick pasta ribbons). Which was also a success. Maybe I should let my husband do the shopping after all . . .

Were you - are you - an admirer of the late, lamented Keith Floyd? And have you ever tried one of his recipes?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

A salad, a stir-fry and a soup


It's been a super-frugal week in the Beckett household so far, thanks not to me but my husband who has been trawling for bargains in the local Co-op/Somerfield. As you may know the Co-op took over Somerfield some months ago and finally seems to be in the process of introducing its own lines. That seems to be good news in the case of fresh fruit and veg which have improved in quality and gone down in price.

At the weekend he managed to pick up a decent-sized cos lettuce for 25p which I turned into a faux-Caesar salad (above) then yesterday proudly brought home some reduced sprouts (35p) and cheap parsnips (50p for a 500g pack) - with no particular purpose in mind, it has to be said.

I initially wondered whether I could turn them into okonomiyaki (but then I'm wondering whether I can turn everything into okonomiyaki since my induction last week) but having consulted a couple of recipes I realised I hadn't got vital ingredients like tempura flakes. However I knocked up a makeshift stir-fry instead which actually wasn't half bad and which I've just posted on my student website here.

The remaining veg together with some green beans I found lurking in the fridge went into a hearty minestrone-style soup along the lines of my Sad Unloved Vegetable Soup. I added a spoonful of tomato paste (diluted with some stock) as I didn't have any fresh tomatoes, a frozen tub of home-made chicken stock I hadn't got round to using and a tin of cannelini beans and topped each helping with plenty of parmesan. It made easily enough for four so there are leftovers for my husband today while I go waltzing off to London.

In both cases I grated rather than chopped the parsnips which I think gives a better texture - unless you're going to boil and purée them or roast them. In fact I'm wondering if you could add parsnip - and even sprouts - to okonomiyaki . . .

Saturday, 3 October 2009

A beginner's guide to okonomiyaki

This week I was introduced to okonomiyaki by a couple of friends who had spent time in Japan. On the face of it it didn't sound that much of a draw - a sort of Japanese pancake with cabbage and various other bits in it - but after I'd eaten it I could completely understand why they'd been raving about it.

In fact it's more like a particularly delicious bubble and squeak. You can order various varieties which are cooked by the server on a hot plate in front of you teppanyaki-style or at least you can at Abeno in Museum Street which is where we all went. I had a Tokyo Mix which included prawn, squid and belly pork (although it looked and tasted rather more like bacon) (plus spring onions, ginger and (according to the website) tempura batter.

They have a particularly good series of pictures on their website which are better than my rather blurry shots but basically the process goes like this:

1. They present your ingredients in a bowl with the pork (aka bacon) on a plate on the top

2. The server mixes the ingredients in each bowl vigorously, turns them out onto the lightly oiled hot plate and shapes the mixture into a cake


3. She (or he but there were more waitresses) fries the bacon separately on one side on the hot plate then places the slices, cooked side down on the cake, then flips over the cake to cook the other side. This cooking process takes a good few moments, I'd say 5 minutes a side.


4. More flipping continues until the crust is beautifully brown.


5. Each cake is then sprinkled with ground nori, anointed with a sort of brown sauce and mayonnaise squirted in circles round the surface and dusted with a sprinkling of bonito flakes which amusingly flutter on the top like feathers.




6. You then use a small palate knife to cut up your okonomiyaki into wedges (by this time you're quite starving) and eat it. With more mayo, chilli sauce and soy sauce if you want plus pickles like kimchee (fermented cabbage) and seaweed and cucumber pickle which we scoffed before we had even started.

If you have much the same reaction as I did when I was told about it don't let it put you off. It really is one of the most delicious fast(ish) foods imaginable - a real umami flavour bomb. Not having an okonomiyaki restaurant in Bristol I'm trying to work out how to do it at home. It must be one of the ultimate frugal dishes . . .

No sooner have I said there isn't one in Bristol, I've discovered there is. Obento near the Old Fish Market for fellow Bristolian okonomiyakiphiles.

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?

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Baked aubergines with cinnamon, pinenuts and coriander


We spent the day yesterday at friends for a big family party, all cooking in the kitchen together. My contribution was a couscous salad and a vaguely middle-eastern baked aubergine salad which everbody seemed to like and as aubergines are at their best right now I thought I'd share it. I used an interesting cinnamon, apricot and date seasoning mix they happened to have in their storecupboard but cinnamon would work equally well

Serves 8-10
1 kg of aubergines
6 tbsp olive oil
3 medium-sized onions, peeled and roughly chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ras el hanout (optional)
1 heaped tbsp of tomato paste or red tapenade
600g fresh tomatoes, skinned and chopped or 1 1/2 400g tins of tomatoes
1 tbsp red wine vinegar (optional)
50g toasted pinenuts
About 3 tbsp each of finely chopped coriander and parsley
2 tbsp finely chopped mint leaves (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the aubergines into cubes, sprinkle with salt and leave in a colander for about 30 minutes. Rinse, pat dry and tip into a large roasting tin. Drizzle over some olive oil, season with pepper and roast at about 190°C/Gas 5 for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile cook the chopped onions in the remaining oil for about 8-10 minutes until soft, add the chopped garlic, cook for a couple of minutes then stir in the cinnamon and ras el hanout if using and the tomato paste or tapenade, Cook for a minute then add the tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes until the tomatoes have broken down. Add a splash of red wine vinegar to sharpen if needed. Tip the sauce over the aubergines, adding a couple of tablespoons of water and return to the oven for around 30 minutes until the aubergine is lightly browned, stirring it half way through. Remove from the oven and stir in the pinenuts and fresh herbs, saving a few for decoration. Leave until cool and check the seasoning adding salt and pepper to taste if you think it needs it. Scatter with a few more herbs before serving. This makes a great vegetarian main course but is also very good, as we had it, with grilled lamb and couscous salad.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Why it's easy for the French to eat healthily


As you know I was going to give the blog a break but I've been overwhelmed at the quality of the produce in the south of France since we've been here. The apricots and grapes above come from a marvellous greengrocer in the small seaside resort of Le Grau d'Agde. It's open year round but is at its peak at this time of year. Our lunch yesterday consisted of tapenade and goats cheese, bought at the daily market, a bunch of hot peppery radishes (1 euro or 87p at current exchange rates) a couple of huge, misshapen but sweet, sweet tomatoes (€1.20/£1) and 5 fat figs (82 cents/71p). 4 out of our recommended 5 a day in one meal.

It's so easy to eat healthily - and the weather so hot you don't feel like doing anything else. Cooked food, especially meat, loses its appeal. All I want to eat is salads, fish, the occasional bit of cheese and fruit. Endless fruit.

Every stall in the market is laden with peaches - you can buy them for as little as 5 euros/£4.34 a tray (about 3 kilos I would guess) They're so ripe you can barely touch them without bruising them. You're lucky if they survive till next day - which is why, of course, we don't get fruit of this quality at home. They have to be picked earlier, refrigerated, transported the 600 miles or so across France and however many miles to a depot then distributed across the country. No wonder they don't taste of anything and cost three or four times as much.

What I can't understand is why we pay so much for fruit and vegetables we can grow perfectly well. Lettuces for example. In the greengrocer here they have five or six varieties - at around 90 cents (78p) and they're huge. Of course you have to wash them which people are no longer prepared to do back home but the flavour is wonderful - crisp, crunchy and sweet.

It is actually possible I might lose weight on this holiday (though I wouldn't bet on it given the amount of baguette I also manage to stuff down). I'll certainly end up a great deal healthier.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The frugal cook is away

Taking a break from the blog for a couple of weeks while I'm on holiday in France - unless I come across an impressively frugal dish. Enjoy the rest of August!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Gorgeous grape, honey and cardamom compote


I made the best recipe for a while the other day. By accident from virtually free ingredients and it was so ridiculously simple. My chef friend Stephen gave me a big bag of seedless black grapes to take home from a tray that were about to go over. We nibbled a few then I realised I would have to cook them to save them. I destalked them and put them in a saucepan with about a tablespoon of honey I'd rescued from the tail end of a pot and shaken up with boiling water to dislodge it and about 6 cardamom pods, brought the whole lot to the boil and simmered them for about 7 or 8 minutes.

Result: an exotically aromatic, sophisticated-tasting fruit compote that you could either serve as a light dessert or with yoghurt and granola as we enjoyed it the next day for breakfast. It was just fantastically satisfying to make something that tasted so good from produce that could easily have gone to waste. Who said frugal food was boring?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Our new student cookbook


It’s always a great moment when you finally hold a copy of a book you’ve written in your hands. It makes all the hard work - and believe me it is hard work - worthwhile.

This time it's been a particular thrill because I've worked with three of the students who have collaborated on my student website Beyond Baked Beans: Signe Johansen, Guy Millon and James Ramsden. By luck I stumbled across three students who could not only cook but cook really well. Sig and James have done cookery courses (Sig at Leith's, James at the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland) and Guy's father Marc is a food writer so he's been brought up in the kitchen.

As you can see from our Facebook page they've been making videos and posting recipes all year and now all have blogs of their own (here, here and here) They've all been students this past year - Sig at SOAS, Guy at Nottingham and James at Bristol so they've had first hand and recent experience of having to cook on a budget

What we've done with the book - and this is why we're bold enough to call it The Ultimate Student Cookbook - is pick the best recipes from the three Beyond Baked Beans books and get them to add their own tips to them as well as add some of their own favourite recipes. Because Sig's a keen baker there are more cake recipes than there were in the original books. James has added some sophisticated recipes for when you want to impress and Guy some great basics like his family's favourite chilli con carne. Their knowledge, humour and enthusiasm shines through every page

As if that wasn't enough we've got an endorsement from the great Heston Blumenthal, a chef we all really admire

So if you know anyone who's going to uni this autumn - or even who's already there - do buy it for them. It's only £10 for a whopping 288 pages and loads of lovely pix - still less if you buy it on Amazon. It should be in the shops now if you want to take a look at it before you buy it - if you don't see it do please ask for it.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Steak and onion baguette


It's a strange world out there in supermarketland. We were shopping last night and picked up a 400g pack of Somerfield's 'Best Ever' thin cut steak on a half price offer for just £2.83. That's roughly the same price as a pack of premium mince.

I reckoned it probably wouldn't be that tender so bashed it thoroughly with a rolling pin then marinated it in a small glass of red wine, a couple of tablespoons of oil and a good pinch of Herbes de Provence for half an hour.

In the meantime I cooked down 4 sliced onions in good slosh of olive oil for about 15 minutes then added a knob of butter and kept on frying them until they were soft and sweet (another quarter of an hour) then seasoned them with salt, pepper and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. (I could of course have used a jar of onion marmalade but that would have cost at least three times as much)

I drained the steaks, patted them dry and rubbed them with a little oil then cooked them on the highest setting on my double-sided electric grill for about a minute and a half each then stuffed them into the split baguette with a good dollop of onions.

The steak was a bit tough which could be remedied by marinating it a couple of hours longer, possibly even overnight, but it was really tasty. And could easily have served 3 or even 4 if we hadn't been so greedy. A bit of crumbled blue cheese (Stilton is good value) and a few rocket leaves would have been good additions which would have made the meat stretch further.

As I've noted before it's not the so-called 'cheap cuts' that are a bargain these days but the prime cuts. Weird or what?

Thursday, 30 July 2009

How to cut your restaurant bill

One of the few upsides of the recession is that there seem to be an unprecedented number of good deals in restaurants at the moment - provided, of course, you can afford to eat out.

Arbutus, which is one of London's most appealing restaurants, for example has a fixed price pre-theatre dinner for £17.50 for 3 courses - basically the price of a main course in a mid-price restaurant. And the food is terrific. My daughter and I kicked off with porchetta with pecorino (finely sliced, carpaccio style, served with a few leaves and a delicious dressing). She had Welsh lamb breast, pressed into a neat rectangle and served with mash and summer vegetables - just like a posh Sunday roast and I had smoked eel and tarragon risotto as a main course.

I finished with a couple of generous slices of Tomme de Savoie (to their credit as most restaurants charge an arm and a leg for cheese these days) while she had a truly classy dessert of strawberry sorbet (above right) with sliced strawberries and meringue. I honestly don't know how they do it for the price but I suppose it means they can squeeze in an extra sitting. (The restaurant opens for dinner at 5pm) Their lunchtime deal, which my son Will told me about, is even keener at £15.50

There are other tactics. Having two starters or a starter and a pud instead of a main course is a well-established ruse but I've noticed that restaurants have latched on to that and the price of starters is creeping up. Or just go for a main course. Yesterday I met with a couple of friends at another London favourite Racine and just had the steak tartare and chips (both awesome). Not having a starter, dessert or coffee probably cut our bill in half.

If you're prepared to eat vegetarian that's almost always cheaper than eating meat or fish as well.

Is this fair to restaurants while they're struggling? I'd emphatically say yes. I'm sure most restaurants would prefer to see customers who spent slightly less than not see them at all.

Has the recession affected how often you eat out and do you have any other good tips for keeping the bill down?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Remoska roast veal with rosemary and garlic

Although I can't think, given the current weather, why we ever switched off the AGA, I'm getting increasingly persuaded by the virtues of its temporary replacement, the Remoska - about a tenth the size but similarly versatile.

Tonight I rustled up a Sunday night supper from the freezer, veg rack and storecupboard- a small rolled shoulder of veal joint from the Real Veal Company I brought back from the Bristol Wine and Food Fair a couple of weeks ago and froze with assorted root veg, some home-grown rosemary and almost half a head of fresh elephant garlic that had been sitting round in the veg rack for a while.

I poked the rosemary into the meat then put it in the pan along with a quartered onion, a couple of giant cloves of garlic and a couple of carrots and switched on the cooker. 45 minutes later I turned the meat, added a slosh of white port (could equally well have been white wine) and a handful of new potatoes and carried on cooking it for another half hour. Total cooking time 1 1/4 hours, resting time 15 minutes. And it tasted like the best French country stew you can imagine.

The other day I made a meat loaf in it to this recipe. Scarily large amounts of fat came out of it (and were discarded) but the loaf itself was really delicious - and easily enough to feed six.

Apparently the Remoska uses 80% less electricity than a normal oven which makes it a frugal gadget par excellence. Perfect for the two of us (although you can easily cook meals for four in it) and for caravan or boat owners, I would imagine. (And no, I don't have any kind of commercial relationship with them!)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Check your till receipt!

This afternoon I found I'd been short-changed by Tesco on a special offer. It's the second time in a month that's happened - that I've been aware of although there may well have been other occasions.

I bought a couple of packs of herbs on a 2 for £1 offer instead of their normal price of 82p and 79p but the full amount was rung up at the till. I thought the total was more than I expected and checked the receipt. When I took it back I found that I'd been overcharged 61p.

A similar thing happened the other day at Somerfield on a 2 for 1 deal on kitchen towel.

I'm reluctant to conclude it's deliberate - I can't think supermarkets would be so stupid as to consciously swindle their customers. Putting a positive construction on what happened there are so many special offers these days it must be hard to make sure they all get accurately logged onto the system. But had these purchases been part of a larger shop rather than a small one I suspect I wouldn't have noticed. It would be easy enough to slip by.

So I suggest, if you don't already do so, you keep track as far as possible of what you're spending and scrutinise your receipt carefully before you pay or leave the shop.

Do you have a similar experience of being overcharged?

Sunday, 19 July 2009

A pinch of umami . . .

Just as I was thinking about posting on the subject of umami (following last night's delicious umami-rich supper of roast haddock and mushrooms) an animated discussion has broken out on Twitter on the virtues - or otherwise - of adding Marmite to a spaghetti sauce.

It was prompted by Nigella's discovery, revealed in Observer Food Monthly today, that adding Marmite to a classic al burro sauce makes for a particularly tasty, child-friendly meal, a tip she got from her mentor, Italian food writer Anna del Conte.

Marmite, of course, is rich in umami - the so-called 'fifth taste' (the others being sweet, sour, salty and bitter) It's a kind of intense savouriness you find in ingredients such as aged parmesan, roast chicken skin, slow roast tomatoes, porcini, fish sauce and dried seaweed like kombu and makes every dish that contains it taste lip-smackingly appetising.

The great thing about it is that it's not expensive. You only need a little to create the effect which makes it a great asset to the frugal cook's larder. Last night I cooked the simplest of dishes in my Remoska cooker (my new obsession) that involved sweating off a small onion, adding 250g of sliced chestnut mushrooms, cooking them for about 15 minutes then topping them with a couple of haddock fillets and cooking a further 6-7 minutes until the fish was cooked. The magic ingredient was a large pinch of the umami-rich poudre de ceps, I mentioned a couple of months back, which intensified the umami flavour of the mushrooms.

If you're going to France this summer look out for it in those sections of service stations that stock local food products (I think I bought mine in the Auvergne) or, if you can't wait that long buy a tin of the bizarrely named Shake O'Cini which has a similar effect. Failing that, add a little Marmite to your mushrooms - along with a good knob of butter. It might sound as weird with fish as it does with spaghetti but I bet it will work.

Do you consciously add umami to your cooking and if so, in what way? (I expect a full answer on this from Sig of Scandilicious, one of the three student collaborators on our forthcoming Ultimate Student Cookbook, who has studied the subject in depth ;-)

Monday, 13 July 2009

To eat better, eat less . . .


I've made a couple of purchases in the last couple of days that were not strictly frugal but they weren't extravagant either.

One was two very small punnets of raspberries (from a farm called Pixley Berries which makes fruit cordials) which I bought from our local greengrocer. I didn't weigh them but I would doubt if they were more than 125g each which at 99p a punnet wasn't cheap. But they had auch a fabulously intense flavour you could eat them on their own so no need for cream or even sugar. Worth every penny.

I also picked up four packs of back bacon at the Bristol Wine & Food Fair for £10 (plus a very fetching pink hessian bag). I have to say I was seduced by the name - spoiltpig - but in fact it was produced by a company called Denhay whose bacon I've been buying for years. Spoiltpig is a very clever rebranding which underlines the fact that their bacon is reared humanely (it's Freedom Food endorsed). It's also extremely tasty - dry and savoury without that awful milky goo that oozes out of cheap bacon when you fry it. I had a brilliant bacon butty yesterday made with 2 rashers instead of 3 so reckon I didn't spend any more than I would normally have done. (You can apparently buy it in Morrisons and larger branches of Budgens)

It reminded me that one solution to cutting back your food budget is simply to eat less. Easier said than done, I know, if you have hulking great teenage boys or alpha males in your family but for the rest of us cutting back a bit is no bad thing. And it still remains possible to treat yourself to the foods you enjoy and support small producers who need your custom in the process.

Do you have any particular weaknesses when it comes to pricier ingredients?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

My new frugal appliances

As predicted the weather has turned cold - or coldish - again so we probably could have left the AGA on but who knows what it will be like next week? And besides I'm getting quite used to our new cooking arrangements

The induction hob in particular is fantastic. I have to admit I was deeply sceptical when my husband suggested it and pretty well gave in to humour him but as usual he had researched the subject exhaustively and was (annoyingly) right: they are incredibly efficient.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them they only kick in when a compatible stainless steel pan is placed on them which then heats up very quickly leaving the surface around the pan completely cool. You can also adjust the temperature very easily - today I made scrambled eggs on ours for the first time and found it turned right down low when I needed it to. Our model, a Stellar, cost £59.95 which I thought wasn't bad at all and should apparently cost very little to run.

The other success - apart from the grill on which I reported the other day - was an old Remoska cooker I was sent several years ago when I was researching a feature and had never got round to using. Basically it looks like a baking tin with a heavy glass lid which conceals the element and works like a mini-oven.

We cooked a Spanish-style dish of cod and chorizo (above right), sweating off a red pepper with some wet garlic and the chorizo then placing the fish steaks on top. The whole thing took about 15 minutes.

It has one of those websites that claims the Remoska can cook everything including Yorkshire pudding and pizza (bit sceptical about the latter but I imagine you'd have no trouble with all kinds of small roasts and bakes. The temperature range is around 190°C-220°C) Again, it's supposed to run at a fraction of the cost of a conventional oven.

Both would be useful even if we weren't in our hobless, ovenless situation. The Stellar would be a great spare hob if you regularly have to cook for a crowd and the Remoska, which you can buy from Lakeland, would be ideal for anyone in a bedsit or a student a hall of residence who didn't have an oven. Or someone living on their own who wants to keep their fuel bills down. I'm converted.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Grilled lemon chicken and courgettes


Well the AGA is now off - phrew! - and we've got our summer cooking kit organised. Last night I gave the Cuisinart grill a run through its paces and was pretty impressed. I've only ever cooked with a George Foreman grill before which is fine for burgers but not much else - this had a much better system of heat transmission and a heavier lid which seems to cook single pieces of meat and veg more effectively.

I simply took a couple of chicken breasts, separated the fillet and sliced the remainder in half lengthwise to create pieces of a roughly even thickness. I marinated them for about an hour in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, crushed garlic and a teaspoon or so of some particularly nice mixed herbs I brought back from France last month that contained parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon (the classic fines herbes mixture the French use for omelettes). I cut up a couple of courgettes into thick even-sized wedges then rolled them in the marinade too once I'd put the chicken on the grill. Once the chicken was cooked and resting I grilled them too. The whole thing took about 10 minutes (apart from the marinating time, obviously)

I tend to be anti-chicken breasts as a more expensive cut but if you treat them this way - or cut them into strips - you can make two stretch for three people. (Not that we did . . . ) And they do cook quickly, a boon in this sultry weather. You could also cook halloumi cheese this way.

How are you coping with the heatwave? Any tips or particularly successful meal ideas to share?

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Should one switch off an AGA in summer?

For the last two or three weeks I've been vaguely wondering whether we should switch off the AGA. Now with the weather getting seriously sticky it's getting positively uncomfortable to sit in the kitchen - a problem since that's where we eat.

It's also, obviously, where we cook and where we dry clothes. No AGA = a trek to the launderette every time we change the sheets.

The main problem though is that there are no alternative cooking facilities other than a kettle (we rent our current flat) which is presumably why AGA owners keep them blasting away year-round. When I checked online just now I couldn't find an AGA expert who recommended switching them off.

Well, we're going to - at some expense I have to admit. We've just been out and bought a cheap toaster and a not-so-cheap Cuisinart Contact Grill which I fancied anyway as grilling isn't the AGA's strong suit. And tomorrow we're going to try and pick up a plug-in induction ring (having taken the precaution of snapping up a set of induction hob-compatible pans from Tesco. A fantastic bargain at £17 for 3 had I not had a pretty good stock of pans already.) We also have a slow cooker and a Remoska cooker so I'm hoping that will see us through to September. We won't be able to do a slap up roast or grill or bake but it leaves us with a reasonable range of summery possibilities.

Of course chances are the weather will suddenly turn and we'll be freezing in a week's time in which case all this expenditure will turn out to have been unnecessary. So I'm fascinated to know what the AGA or Rayburn owners among you do? Do you plough on, sweltering or do you have a conventional cooker as a fall-back?

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Another riff on pasta, tomatoes and pesto


Just to show that the current leftovers jag is still in full swing today I managed to rustle up another pasta dish with the remains of Friday's feast and a few other odds and ends from the salad drawer.

In effect it was a double pasta sauce. I fried a sliced onion and red pepper for about 7-8 minutes until they were beginning to brown then stirred in a couple of cloves of crushed garlic, a tablespoon of tomato paste and a chopped tomato. I left it bubbling away while I cooked about 200g of Mafalda corta pasta with a handful of green beans, adding a few sugar snap peas towards the end of the cooking time.

I spooned off a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water into the tomato mixture (a good trick - thickens the sauce), drained the pasta and vegetables then returned them to the pan and stirred in a tablespoon of olive oil and a good dollop of the leftover pesto from last week. I chucked a few leftover basil leaves into the tomato sauce then served up the pasta and beans with the tomato sauce on top. Could have added more parmesan but simply ground over some seasalt and black pepper. A cheap, simple lunch for two that looked a great deal sexier than its unpromising ingredients . . .

Monday, 22 June 2009

Living off leftovers

As time goes on I'm more and more convinced of the virtues of shopping as and when you need it rather than doing a big weekly shop.

We're still living off the leftovers of the supper I cooked for friends on Friday night - admittedly with a couple of food gifts: a carton of lettuce and pea soup (made to use up leftover leaves) from Stephen Markwick of Culinaria who I dropped in to see on Saturday and a highly original gift of gulls eggs and n'duja, a very spicy Calabrian sausage from one of our guests, fellow food writer Xanthe Clay. Our lunch today must be the least conventional fry-up ever: gulls eggs, bacon and n'dula on toast!

The meal itself was a slow roast joint of pork with fennel, a roast butternut squash and red pepper couscous salad, a lentil, lemon and grilled artichoke salad and a cooked tomato, sugar snap pea and green bean salad with pinenuts. We had the leftover salads with half the leftover pork on Saturday and the remaining pork heated up with some fantastic pan juices and a watercress, spinach and rocket salad I'd forgotten to serve up on Friday, last night.

There was also quite a bit of leftover cheese which made a great companion for the pea and lettuce soup.

If I'd shopped for the weekend on Friday I would almost certainly have overestimated how much we we would eat and bought far more food than we needed. As it is I reckon I can eke out another meal from bits and pieces in the fridge before going to the shops tomorrow. There's half a carton of cream that needs using up for a start . . .

What have you got leftover from the weekend and what are you planning to do with it?

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Spaghetti with pesto and roast tomatoes

I'm on a bit of pesto kick at the moment. The local greengrocer is full of fat bunches of basil and there's no other way to use one up before it goes off even if you add basil to everything. Not that making pesto is a hardship. It's so bright and flavourful and vivid in flavour - light years away from the drab, almost khaki-coloured paste you get in jars.

Since I posted the recipe on my student site beyondbakedbeans.com we've been having it slathered over everything which is why there wasn't quite enough to make the sauce I devised for our pasta lunch today (Napolina spaghetti being on special offer in Somerfield at the moment at 2 packs for £1.50). And why it looks slightly duller than it should. (I had to add a dollop of Sacla green pesto to stretch it)

Anyway it's a nice recipe potentially for you other pesto addicts out there . . .

Serves 2
225g spaghetti or linguini
2 tbsp olive oil
150g cherry tomatoes
1 tsp chopped fresh oregano (optional)
2 good dollops homemade green pesto (find the recipe here)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A little shaved or grated parmesan

Put a large pan of water on to boil, add salt and cook the spaghetti or linguini following the instructions on the pack. While the pasta is cooking heat the oil in a frying pan and add the tomatoes. Cook over a medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally until the tomatoes are soft and beginning to char. Chuck in the oregano if you have some. Drain the pasta reserving a little of the cooking water then return to the pan. Spoon in the oil you used for cooking the tomatoes then add the pesto and a couple of spoonfuls of cooking water and toss well together. Tip the pasta into warm bowls, top with the roasted tomatoes and shave or grate over a little parmesan.

What am I going to do with the rest of the Sacla pesto that's now sitting accusingly in the fridge? Mix it with breadcrumbs and make a topping for fish. Add it to sandwiches. Stir it into a soup. Possibly zip it up with some more fresh basil - although I'd rather use any new basil for a fresh batch of homemade pesto. Any other ideas?

Monday, 15 June 2009

Lamb legs are the new lamb shanks

I know I've been banging on incessantly about how cheap cuts are no longer cheap but here's a perfect illustration. Incited by my recent observations that men aren't as frugal as women when it comes to food shopping, my husband picked up a half price leg of lamb for £8.99 in Somerfield the other day.

I never really fancy a full English roast in this sort of weather so decided to make an old recipe I haven't made for years from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery which you can find (the recipe, not the book) online here

There was a time when I would have conscientiously trotted down to the shops and bought every ingredient in the recipe but apart from picking up a large pot of yoghurt made do with what I had from an admittedly well-stocked spice cupboard. I scaled down the spicing slightly reducing the garlic from 8 cloves to 4 and replacing the recommended 4 green chillies with 1 red one and also omitted the blanched almonds which was perhaps a mistake as the marinade split making the dish initially look as if it was covered in cat sick - as my husband somewhat tactlessly pointed out.

In the end I poured off the marinade, skimmed off the fat (a good move) and strained it then whizzed the solids in a food processor and added enough of the liquid back to make a thin - and delicious - sauce.

We had it with friends on Friday with a dry cauliflower and potato curry and some green beans with tomato and garam masala and have been scoffing the leftovers over the weekend. With seconds at I reckon we got 10 servings out of it which comes to less than £1 a head. Which is more than you can say for lamb shanks these days.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Salt and pepper wings


It's been a manic week on the work front so I thought I might dig up a recipe from The Book. (There is a Frugal Cook book in case it's slipped your notice ;-) I also had a rather enticing pic of it I remembered I hadn't published.

The main pleasure of eating chicken wings is the lovely sticky, finger-licking, almost Marmitey goo you get if you cook then sufficiently long, a texture and flavour that sometimes gets masked if you cover them with a marinade. If you can have salt and pepper squid I thought, why not salt and pepper wings? It cuts down on the other ingredients you need to use and makes them more child-friendly. A good dish to make when you have the oven on for something else.

Serves 4
1 kg free-range chicken wings, preferably organic (I bought mine from Sheepdrove Farm in Bristol)
1-2 tbsp light cooking oil
Freshly ground salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. Put the wings in a large roasting tin - or two smaller ones, pour over a little oil and turn the wings so they are lightly coated with oil. Season generously with freshly ground salt and coarsely ground black pepper and roast for 1 - 1 1/4 hours, turning the wings two or three times. Remove the wings from the roasting tin, rolling them in the pan juices to pick up any delicious sticky bits and leave until cool enough to handle (about 15-20 minutes). Eat warm or cold (but they’re never as good once they’ve been refrigerated) Save the fat from the pan which has a fabulous flavour.

Chicken wings seem to be one of the few 'cheap cuts' that still remains cheap. Have you noticed cheap cuts going up in price?

Saturday, 6 June 2009

So are men frugal?

There's an interesting trend I've been noticing over the last few weeks and months which is that almost all my followers and most of the people who comment on this blog (with a few honourable exceptions) are women. Does that mean men aren't frugal?

I think it actually says more about the dynamics of blogging than about frugality. Women are more prone to support and get involved with a blogger they like than men are, I would say but there is an interesting point here which I was discussing with a colleague on a work trip I've been on this week (hence the gap in posts) which is that men are frugal in a different way.

Her husband for example sweeps up all sorts of discounted 'bargains' in the supermarket when he shops which she says aren't really bargains at all because they all have to be eaten up in the next couple of days. Mine does the same. He also rarely eats up what's in the fridge while I'm away (his argument being that 'he doesn't know what's in there')

On the other hand I've another male friend who's a genius at cooking from leftovers. (But he's the only one I know)

Men, I reckon enjoy the hunter-gatherer aspect of frugality. Bagging bargains. Going off and killing or catching things, foraging for wild foods. Although there are of course exceptions, women generally have a more domestic take on the subject. They're better at handling a household budget, planning a week's meals and using up stocks. Which is why the man traditionally handed the woman the family's housekeeping money.

Or maybe I'm totally wrong . . . Male readers, do come out of the woodwork and tell me how frugal you are. Women - tell me how you leave it all up to your man. Or not . . . What happens in your household?

Friday, 29 May 2009

Quick chickpea, spinach and turmeric curry

Having been reading a lot recently about how incredibly good turmeric is for you I’ve been devising ways of upping the quantity I use. It turned out particularly well with this super-easy (and frugal) chickpea curry

Serves 2
2 tbsp light olive or vegetable oil
1 medium to large onion peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp chilli powder or hot paprika or a shake of hot pepper sauce
1 small can or 1/2 a 400g can of tomatoes or 200ml of passata
1 400g can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 handfuls of sliced fresh spinach leaves (stalks removed if tough and stringy)
1 heaped tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves (optional)
Salt
A small carton of unsweetened plain or soy yoghurt (optional)
Naan or pitta bread to serve

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion for about 4-5 minutes until soft. Stir in the garlic and spices and fry for a few seconds then tip in the tomatoes and break them up with a wooden spoon, spatula or fork. Bring to the boil, add the drained, rinsed chickpeas, cover the pan and simmer for 7-8 minutes. Chuck in the spinach and coriander if using and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Add salt to taste (you'll need slightly more than usual). Serve with a dollop of yoghurt and some warm pitta bread or naan

Do you have any favourite ways of using turmeric?

Monday, 25 May 2009

The lure of old cookbooks


I finally got to post about the two old cookbooks I picked up for a song in Topsham the other day. Do I need them? Absolutely not - the shelves are already bulging with cookbooks but for less than the price of two glossy magazines, how could I resist?

The first - for which I paid a princely £3.50 - is Len Deighton's quirky and original 'Où est le Garlic' first published by Penguin in 1965 (this is the '67 edition). Deighton was a successful thriller writer who turned his hand to cookery writing. The appeal is equally though in the charming comic strip illustrations (below), done not by Deighton but a team of designers


The diagrammatic treatment of the families of French sauces and how they relate to each other are particularly good. I love the sound of the improbably named Sauce Mohammed - a variation on tartare sauce flavoured with chopped eggs, anchovies, capers, celery, cucumber and chopped onion.

There's a useful chart on Measuring Heat and Bulk which tells you what temperature milk boils at (196°, less than salt water at 224°) and that butter burns at much lower temerature (278°) than beef suet (356°) Heston Blumenthal would approve.

There are diagrams showing how to julienne vegetables, make quenelles and create a Chaud Froid, a type of aspic used to glaze boiled chicken (One forgets how in thrall England still was to French cooking in the '60s. Did Observer readers, for whom Deighton wrote, really make such things?)

The writing is also wonderfully lucid. "The most difficult thing to explain in a cookery book is the amount of moisture that should be added to flour mixtures" Deighton writes. "Batter mixtures are like cream; they can be poured. A cake mixture is wet and will almost pour; it will drop from a spoon. Yeast mixtures are moist and plastic like modelling clay" Perfectly put. Who needs photographs, or even videos?

There are forgotten, frugal recipes for making brawn or stuffing a cabbage, all of which would take hours. Even bombes which Deighton says "date from the time when men in long beards with 'ski' at the end of their names hid these gadgets, still, smoking, beneath ankle-length cloaks." As you can see, a great book to dip into.


By comparison Green Cuisine: the Organic Vegetable Cookbook, self-published 10 years ago in my home town of Bristol is a much more modest affair though again I was seduced by the illustrations (above) Unlike Deighton's book I don't think it will become a regular kitchen companion though their are some nice ideas for cooking different vegetables such as Spicy Green Beans, Parsnip and Potato Dauphinoise and Pea and Cucumber Soup and for kohlrabi, a vegetable I admit I've never got to grips with) And at £1 who could resist?

By the way I bought both of these books in a charity shop, a much better-priced source of cookbooks than most second hand bookshops although you can occasionally get good bargains from Abe Books and Amazon. (Incidentally I just looked up 'Ou est le Garlic?' on Abe and the cheapest price for that edition was £40. So it was a bargain!)

Do you share my weakness for old cookbooks? If so which are your favourites and have you picked up any good bargains lately?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

So what did you cook when you were a student?

My publisher Absolute Press released details of our new student book yesterday which is called The Ultimate Student Cookbook. It's a big claim but we make it because it combines my 6 years experience of writing for students in the Beyond Baked Beans books and website with that of three current students who have been contributing videos, recipes and tips to our Facebook page this year.

As a bit of fun I thought I'd ask my fellow tweeters on Twitter what they used to cook at uni and got a flood of fantastic replies. There were all the usual suspects such as spag bol (or Slag Bol) as Oliver Thring rather nicely put it), cheese on toast and tuna pasta but also some surprisingly sophisticated dishes such as Helen of World Foodie Guide's tonkatsu and Japanese curry, Lorna Yee's boeuf bourguignon and Catlily's French onion soup

There were also some really weird ones - to me at any rate such as sophiemostly's husband's preference for sweet and sour sausages, Kavey Eats' Sausage Curry and Kerri of Dinner_Diary's tinned Oxtail Soup together with Matt of Absolute's odd weakness for boiled rice and salad cream (ugh).

I loved Becky of Girl Interrupted Eating's lentil fetish, Jessica of Lovely Chaos's Mustard Mash "with sausages when rich" and The Dieter who 'ate a lot of feta cheese' and 'made a jar of pesto last a month' (no need to diet then I would have thought)

The most appealing-sounding one came from an old friend Deb, an eternal student who has gone back to uni at the age of . . . no I won't let on. "Thinly sliced potatoes layered with onions and lashings cheese sauce. Baked. Chuck in mushrooms, bacon etc if feeling flush"

Sounds good to me

So what was your favourite dish when you were a student or just starting to cook. Fabulous or otherwise.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Spring vegetable, herb and goats cheese risotto


I've been editing a new bumper edition of my Beyond Baked Beans student cookbooks recently (of which more later) and once again wondered where to place risotto. Is it an everyday recipe or a special occasion one?

What makes most people treat it as special occasion eating is that it needs pretty much full-on attention. Not that that's problematic - all you need is a glass of wine and someone else to chat to while you're making it but it creates the impression it's difficult. It truly isn't - the two things you need to remember are to cook the rice sufficiently (2-3 minutes) before you add any liquid and make sure the liquid you add is hot.

People also think it's expensive and it's true that risotto rice does cost more than ordinary long grain but not much more than basmatti these days. And if you use ingredients in season, as I've done here, it's not an expensive supper.

This is a version of a recipe I created for Beyond Baked Beans Green (the veggie title in the series) which was originally dairy free. The other evening I made it for three of us with some fresh, young goats cheese but still no parmesan or butter. (The herbs do the job of the former.) It's lighter than a conventional risotto but perfect for showing off the new seasons' spring veg.

Spring vegetable, herb and goats cheese risotto
Serves 6 as a starter, 3 as a main course

A small bunch of asparagus
4 tbsp olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and finely chopped
250g risotto rice (e.g. arborio or carnaroli)
A small (125ml) glass of dry white wine
1 litre hot vegetable stock made with 1 rounded tbsp Marigold bouillon powder or an organic vegetable stock cube
1/2 a fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced (optional)
125g podded fresh or frozen broad beans
100g podded fresh or frozen peas*
150g fresh young goats cheese
3 heaped tbsp chopped fresh dill or fennel fronds, or chervil or parsley plus a little tarragon if you have some
Salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste

Break the tips off the asparagus spears about one third of the way down the stalk and set aside. Cut off any woody bits at the lower end of the stalk and chop the rest into small pieces. Heat 3 tbsp of the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan or sauté pan and add the chopped onion. Stir and cook over a moderate heat for about 3 minutes then tip in the rice and stir. Let it cook for about 2 minutes without colouring, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t catch on the pan. Meanwhile heat the stock in another saucepan till it’s almost boiling and leave on a low heat. Pour the wine into the rice - it will sizzle and evaporate almost immediately. Add the chopped asparagus stalks and fennel, if using then start to add the stock bit by bit, about half a mugful at a time, stirring the risotto in between and cooking it until the liquid has almost been absorbed. Then add the next lot of stock and repeat until all the stock is used up and the rice is creamy but still has a little ‘bite’ to it (i.e. you don’t want it soft and mushy). This will take about 20 minutes. While you’re stirring away lightly cook the broad beans, peas and asparagus tips for about 3 minutes in the hot stock then scoop them out and set them aside on a plate or a saucer. Add the broad beans* and peas to the risotto a few minutes before adding the last of the liquid. Once the risotto is cooked stir in the goats' cheese and let it melt then stir in the herbs and season with salt, pepper and a good squeeze of lemon juice (about 2-3 tsp). Gently reheat the asparagus tips in the remaining oil. Serve the risotto in small bowls with one or two asparagus tips on top.

* If you want it to look especially beautiful you can take the skins off the broad beans after you've cooked them but at this time of year I wouldn't worry

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Another supermarket pricing rant

I was going to blog about the two fabulous old cookbooks I picked up for a song in Devon last week but this week has been so manic I'll have to content myself with whingeing - once again - about supermarket pricing which almost matches MPs expenses claims for its deviousness.

My husband who was cooking supper last night doesn't really believe in veg so I nipped down the road to get some from Tesco (Yes, groan) We were having grilled mackerel and I fancied broccoli and it was on special offer so that seemed the perfect solution. Except for the fact that even with 20p off it cost 79p.

I know this is absolutely par for the course but occasionally you stop and think that that is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a small head of broccoli for two (particularly if you paid the full price). Since when did it cost nearly a £1 to produce and transport a non-organic, mass-produced vegetable? (Not that I'm sure the grower got anything like that). No wonder we're unhealthy in this country when basic veg cost as much as this. It certainly explains why Tesco continues to earn billions a year and is thinking of setting up its own bank. It's certainly got plenty of money to lend.

Anyway my new quick trick with veg like broccoli is to part stir-fry, part-steam them in a frying pan. I sweated off a sliced leek for a few seconds, added the broccoli florets (the stalks will go into a soup), stir fried a couple of minutes with a little fresh garlic then added half a glass or so of water and stirred and tossed until the broccoli was tender (about another 2 minutes), adding a slosh of light soy sauce at the end.

I also added a tiny handful of living salad leaves from the plants I bought a couple of weeks back. Unorthodox but there were too few to make a salad and the effect was rather nice, like adding a scattering of herbs. One pot is looking rather sickly though. I've either watered it too much or too little . . . Any thoughts?

Friday, 8 May 2009

Is cheap food acceptable?

Like many bloggers and food writers I went to the debate at the Real Food Festival on the Future of Food and have to say it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. With one exception (the corporate affairs director of ASDA, Paul Kelly) the speakers - Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, Raymond Blanc, Mark Barthel, director of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign and environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith - were all of fundamentally the same view: that the way forward must be organic and sustainable. Speaker after speaker outlined the apocalyptic future facing us. No-one really provided any solutions.There was a bit of ritual supermarket bashing but no-one seemed to me to get to the meat of the subject which is how to feed a growing population with dwindling resources.

The figures are scary. There are 6.7 billion people on the planet now: there will be 9.2bn by 2050, it is projected. We need to increase global food production by 50-60% but it's more likely to decrease by a fifth and a quarter due to climate change, land degradation, water shortages and crop damage from pests,

I would have liked to have seen a more structured debate between two opposing views - Holden or Goldsmith, say, interviewing Kelly of ASDA then turning the tables half way through or two speakers actually offering a tentative strategy for tackling the crisis. (It was ill-judged not to have at least one woman on the platform, who, Goldsmith apart, were all white, middle-aged, middle class males. Or an academic who worked in the field of food policy.

My heart is with the 'real food' campaigners but my experience of trying to buy 'real food' is that it's often way too expensive for families on a budget. People end up in supermarkets because it's easy and affordable. They could go to cheaper outlets like street markets but many don't know how to cook.

If the Government really wants a healthier nation it needs to have a much more coherent agricultural policy and regulate the food and advertising industry much more effectively than it currently does. The supermarkets could do far, far more than they do now to get over a healthy eating message. (Look at those full page ads and spreads for their special offers in the tabloids - almost all for unhealthy processed foods).

Like it or not - and I suspect many of the people in the hall yesterday wouldn't - the problem will have to be solved by big institutions rather than small ones and until they change things won't start to improve.

What do you think? Do you think the problem can be solved from the grassroots up or by national or international institutions? And what needs to happen for things to change?

Monday, 4 May 2009

Veg boxes revisited


Even though I've decided that veg boxes are not for me every so often I feel I have to give them another try. So many people (including my daughter) swear by them that I feel I'm simply not trying quite hard enough. This time I ordered a box from a local Bristol supplier Wrington Greens whose produce Ive bought and liked from the farmers' market. Only I rarely manage to get there in time to get the salad greens which is what they do best.

I ordered the so-called 'super-healthy' option which meant extra greens and fewer roots - appealing at this time of year. There were baby spinach leaves, mixed leaves (above) and some hot, spicy mustard leaves plus some watercress and mint (superfluous since I've just planted my own) red onions, beetroot, leeks, mushrooms and mixed sprouts.

We've had an unexpectedly busy week - always the way - so I've again struggled to finish it up. I had to chuck half the beansprouts today because they were looking a bit manky (the first half I used in a stir fry of red onions, mushrooms and spinach, an oddly successful combination I posted on my student site beyondbakedbeans.com.

We had three salads, one with roast beets and feta, a leek and watercress soup, plenty of fresh mint tea and an odd but tasty rice dish made with leeks, asparagus stalks (not included in the box but picked up at the farmers' market yesterday) and a couple of courgettes I found lurking in the fridge. We've also been scrumping some sweet juicy apples. There's now just a leek and a few onions left.

I have to say it was a lot better than the boxes I've had before - to have so many really fresh leaves was a real treat - but I still encountered the same old problem that I didn't get exactly the produce I fancy at this time of year. No asparagus. No rhubarb. And you do have to work hard to ensure you use the contents up, turning your back on other ingredients that are cheap and which you might have fancied buying.

On the credit side I'm sure we've eaten more healthily than we would have otherwise done so I'm going to give it another go, probably in two to three weeks' time. I'll crack it eventually!

Friday, 1 May 2009

My credit crunch lunch

The one upside of the credit crunch is that there are some amazing lunchtime bargains around currently. I've just had a two course lunch for a fiver at a Bristol fish restaurant called Fishers which was predictably packed.

The first course (above) was a simple but clever salad of mixed leaves and fresh anchovies with a pesto dressing. The second a salmon fishcake with a lemon butter sauce (half eaten before I remembered to take a pic, below). Neither portion was huge but then you don't want a vast lunch if you need to work in the afternoon. I'd say the accompanying 175ml glass of Muscadet while perfectly decent was overpriced at £4.90 but there were cheaper wines by the glass. And they have to make their money somehow.

It used to be the case that we all envied the French their fantastically cheap prix fixe menus but I can't think of anywhere in France where you could get a 2 course meal for 5.56 euros (today's exchange rate).

Have you come across any great lunch - or dinner - bargains lately?

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Pork osso buco with orange gremolata


Amidst all the herb excitement last weekend I found time to cook this satisfying stew. You may remember I discovered pork osso buco at Waitrose a few months back. And that I reckoned it needed slightly different treatment from veal osso buco. Well, this was the result. I loved the effect of the orange gremolata with the slightly sweet, spicy pork. The meat btw is still only £3.99 a kilo.

Serves 4

3 tbsp olive oil or other cooking oil
1kg pork osso buco
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, trimmed and finely sliced (optional)
1 small red pepper, quartered, de-seeded and diced
2 cloves of garlic peeled and crushed
1 tsp sweet pimenton/paprika + 1/2 tsp hot pimenton or hot paprika or chilli sauce
1/2 x 400g tin of chopped or whole tomatoes
225ml chicken or vegetable stock made with 1 tsp vegetable bouillon powder
1 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the gremolata
Grated rind of one orange, preferably unwaxed
1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped
1 heaped tbsp chopped mint
3 heaped tbsp chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a casserole and brown the pieces of pork on each side. Remove from the pan, tip in the vegetables and garlic, turn down the heat, cover and cook over a low heat for about 7-8 minutes until beginning to soften. Stir in the pimenton or paprika then the tomatoes (breaking them up if whole). Add the stock and vinegar, bring to the boil then return the meat to the pan and bring back up to simmering point. Cover the pan and cook over a very low heat or in a low oven for about 2-2 1/2 hours until the meat is coming away from the bone* Take the meat out of the casserole and set aside. Strain the liquid and put the veg in a food processor or blender and whizz until smooth. Add as much of the liquid as you need to make a smooth thin sauce. Return the meat to the pan and heat through in the sauce. Make the gremolata. Combine the ingredients and chop them together so they are well combined. Serve the pork with new potatoes, rice or couscous, sprinkling over the gremolata.

* I also reckon this would work really well with boneless pork as a quick sautéed dish. Slightly more expensive but not a lot. Oh, and the vegetables at the back of the rather blurry picture were a reduced (99p) pack of root veg which I roasted instead of making a stew out of them. That worked well too.
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