Thursday, 30 June 2011

A quick summer lunch

At the moment, I have the luxury of working from home most of the time. That's likely to change over the next few weeks and I'll be going back in to the office and facing the most expensive of food challenges - working lunches. The average cost in my area of London for a sandwich and a packet of crisps (at least one that looks like it will fill my belly) is about £4.50 and over a month that quickly adds up to around £90-100 a month!

So I'll be looking for good ideas of ways to save money and have varied, interesting food at lunchtimes. Something that doesn't send me in to a food coma until mid-afternoon but keeps me going until dinner time. Please send in your ideas and save my waistline and wallet!

While I'm still in the home office though, I thought I'd share a quick two-course lunch with you that takes no effort at all in the grand scheme of things. I've started with a warm chorizo salad:

Take a handful of sliced chorizo (which, by the way is pronounced "chor-EE-tho". It's not "chor-IT-zo" and wouldn't be unless it was a) Italian and b) spelt with a double "z". Which it isn't. Rant over.) and fry it in a dry pan until it starts to release it's own dark-red, paprika-flavoured oil. Add a glug of red-wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar.
In the pan
Once that's reduced a little bit, mix with some green salad leaves, halved cherry tomatoes, spring onion and a few croutons.
On the plate
That's it! I used some pre-made croutons, but I could have used one of the many clever ideas in Rose Prince's "The New English Kitchen" and just made them myself with an unwanted heel of bread by chopping it in to appropriately sized chunks, drizzling with olive oil and popping in the oven at a medium temperature until they feel about right. They can even be frozen for a month or so.

It's interesting that the book is called the "new" English kitchen, when in fact it contains the sorts of wisdom that our grandmothers would have taken for granted. Why would you buy chicken already cut in to bits when you can do it yourself much more cheaply and you get the added bonus of the stock that you can make out of it? Do all cheap cuts of meat really need slow-cooking? If you're interested in the kind of things we're discussing in this blog, it's a must-read.

For a dessert today (I know it's lunchtime, but why the hell not?) I've gone all Wimbledon on you.
The strawbs are in season at the moment - they're not something I would get at any other time of the year as they're always disappointing when you do - so they are served very simply with some Greek yoghurt, torn mint leaves and some cracked black pepper. Pepper, you say, on strawberries? Go on, try it. You'll never go back.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The end of a long week

Well, many thanks to my devoted army regiment platoon squad of readers, we've had a fine week of food despite it being the end of the month. Mrs Jay has been responsible for most of the creations this week as I've been busy with doing those things a person must do to pay the bills (not that Mrs Jay hasn't been busy, of course. She's had time to not only look after Master Jay but also have a heavy cold and find a job - not a bad week's work).

So we took up one of the ideas and had a lamb tagine using various leftovers that we had lying around. Well, "lying around" probably isn't right, I have a better idea of food hygiene than that, but the point is that we didn't have to really buy anything to make it. In fact our entire grocery bill this week, including the sundries and enough foodstuffs for the ever more voracious Master Jay came to about £38 - around half of our normal outlay. I won't post a recipe for the tagine, as this one was out of my hands, but here's a picture, and if you were to do a search for a quick lamb tagine on the BBC Food website you would easily be able to find it.

Lamb Tagine (left), Resident Moggie (right)
As you can see it wasn't just the human family members who decided this was a meal fit for kings. However excited Resident Moggie got about the tagine though, it didn't compare to her reaction to this, which was our lunch today:
What every lunch should look like
Yes, that is exactly what you think it is. A rare delight, a treat of the highest order, a true example (you could say) of culinary genius. It's a fish finger sandwich.

Bring it on.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Feasting at the weekend and a store cupboard week

So, ahem. I've been writing this blog for just over a week, and it's nearly a week since I've posted. Oops. We had my brother and his family staying over the weekend so things were rather busy in the Jay household. Sorry about that.

Naturally, as we had visitors we thought we'd put on some good food, the last two recipes from our weeks worth of meals for £35. It was important to choose recipes that didn't include any sausages as last time these particular guests came round I nearly killed them with a toad in the hole that contained 18 - eighteen - sausages which put everybody in to a food coma that very nearly required medical assistance to pull ourselves out of. We didn't have to eat all of them, but naturally we did so the idea this time was to give them meals that satisfied but didn't preclude any further conversation.

On the Friday then, we went for a slow braised pork shoulder recipe, cooked in local Suffolk cider.
Braised pork shoulder in cider with chive mash and gujerati beans
The cider itself was lovely (there was just a smidgen left over, which would have been a shame to waste) and while my guests politely disagreed, I thought the overall dish was a little underwhelming. I expected the flavours to be quite strong and pungent but it was a bit weedy overall. Perhaps I didn't season it well but I often find that when cooking with cider or lager that the results are not as full of body as I expect. This is the recipe I used, so if anyone has any ideas for giving it some oomph I'd love to hear it.
  1. brown the pork shoulder steaks in a little oil in an ovenproof dish. Remove them and add a finely sliced onion and cook until golden brown and sweet.
  2. Return the pork to the pan with about 400ml of cider and some bay leaves and cook at about 150 degrees for a couple of hours.
  3. Remove the pork and roughly tear it in to pieces. Return to the pan with some dijon mustard, creme fraiche and parsley. Cook for about 5 minutes and serve.
I also struggled with the mash - I know, I know, how can I claim to be a cook and struggle with mash? - but I never seem to get the tatties just right. This time round I over-cooked them and the whole thing was a bit sludgy. Any tips on perfect mash?

The Saturday night was a triumph of culinary delight, and cooked by Mrs Jay. A Goan chicken curry which was subtle yet spicy and wonderfully balanced. The recipe can be found in the April 2010 edition of Olive magazine. I'm really sorry I didn't get a picture as it was also a visual feast - so brilliantly yellow that we barely had to turn the lights on in the dining room all evening.

By the way, the beans in the picture above are a family favourite - infuse some oil with mustard seeds and garlic and then fry the beans slowly in the oil. Delightful, and you can add a spot of red chilli if it takes your fancy. If anyone wants to give them a go I'll post the whole recipe for you.

This next week brings its own kitchen challenges. Pay day doesn't come around until Friday (why is there always too much month at the end of the money?) so we're using up supplies in the freezer and the store cupboard. We've got some diced lamb, some minced lamb, mixed peppers and various salads and cheeses in addition to the usual things you'd expect like spices, couscous, pasta and rice. Does anyone have any good ideas for what I can do with these?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A week's worth of meals for £35?

One of the many ways in which I find recipes is through a magazine published by the BBC called "Olive". It's like a less daunting version of "Good Food", and in fact the two publications share a lot of content.

A regular feature that they run is "7 meals for £35" and a couple of weeks ago we decided to test this claim - could you really get all that food for such a low price, and if we did, would it taste any good? We experimented with the July 2011 article.

Spicy salmon with tomato and mint salad
While it wasn't without fault, we rather liked the results. There's a good variety in there: some vegetarian, fish, chicken and meat; Thai, English, Italian. It even got me eating some dill, which some of you will know as my nemesis. (I may do an article on Russian cuisine at some point, which will contain recipes such as soup with dill, chicken kievs with dill, beef stroganoff with dill, blini with dill, salad with dill, chips with dill and sour cream with dill.) By judicious use of the contents of the freezer, we were able to supply most of the ingredients with some minor substitutions for £36.14 from a mainstream supermarket. It's not £35, but it's pretty damned good.

Some things that didn't go so well: it turns out that making ciabatta dough (from a mix, I'm not a baker) is a messy business. When both hands are covered in something that looks like half-dried Copydex and your dinner is stuck fast to the worktop it's tricky to do anything except stand and giggle. I did manage to extricate myself eventually, but not before it looked like I'd been doing Robert Englund's makeup in the kitchen.

I've also got a fridge full of half-used packs of herbs, a bin full of spinach that had gone off before I could cook it and some suitable guilt about the food miles of the out-of-season vegetables required. However, so successful was it that we've gone back to an old edition and done the same thing this week. Pictured in this article are two of the creations - spiced salmon with a tomato and mint salad (couscous added for purposes of filling bellies) and broccoli and goats cheese tart, which we served with new potatoes from the market.

Broccoli and goats cheese tart
My questions for you today - should I freeze the random herbs? How long will they last for? How can I make spinach last more than 3 days? How did that dough get behind the radio on the windowsill?

Monday, 13 June 2011

An introduction

So what is this blog about? Who is it for?

I love to cook. There are few things in life more pleasurable than setting out a collection of seemingly incongruous and inedible ingredients and transforming them in to something beautiful, tasty, healthy and ethical. I avidly consume all types of media regarding food - television programmes, websites, blogs, magazines and recipe books. I would love to spend all of my time in the kitchen or the garden, growing vegetables, curing meat, raising chickens.

However, unlike many of my food heroes (who will become clear to regular readers of this blog) I live in what might be called - unfairly to them, I suppose - the real world. I have to go to work every day. I have to do the washing and change the sheets and raise a child (not without the help of Mrs. Jay, I hasten to add) and see my friends and sleep and....well, you get the idea. I would love to source my food locally and dig potatoes straight out of the ground but who really has the time? And when the major supermarkets, insidious though they may be, will deliver to my door, allowing me to do more of the things listed above, what's a man to do?

So this blog is an attempt to reconcile what I would like to do in the kitchen with what I actually can do. It's a record of what I have cooked, and why I have cooked it. For this format I owe much to Nigel Slater's "Kitchen Diaries", which display an admirable mix of culinary joy and everyday common sense, as well as some damned fine recipes. Sometimes, I don't even cook - I'm tired at the end of the day, the groceries haven't been bought and the takeaway calls, but that's fine. That's what happens in the real world (or mine, at the very least).

I'd like you to share your thoughts with me and other followers of this blog. Do you have suggestions for improving my cooking? Am I feeding my child beetles when at his age only spiders will do? Have you found an indispensable gadget, shop or time-saving tip that would help me or other readers?

The limits that I have to work under are familiar to everyone - time, money and energy, but given that Master Jay is only 6 months old I'm sure I'll find more. Because that's what it's all about - real food for the family within the constraints of the real world.