Saturday, March 22, 2014

Picture Perfect...

It's been an interesting day.  Spent a couple or so hours this morning watching TV: a chat show, and then Rip off Britain: Food.  Both very interesting.

Quite a lot said about food poverty with the first show, Jack Monroe being one of the panellists.  Do admire that girl even though am now getting bewildered as she tends to forget what she's said before (some weeks ago) and today heard a different story.  Not that it matters.  All power to her elbow.

Had to smile (twice) when we had to guess how much more it would cost to eat healthily, and it was said that this would add over £1,400 a year to our average food bills.  What nonsense is this?  Of course it wouldn't.  In fact we can eat a lot more healthily if we didn't spend so much on the not-quite-so-healthy foods.  We really don't need to eat a lot to keep ourselves fit and well.

Second smile came when another panellist - talking about her personal childhood poverty and how her mother was a good cook and able to make a chicken last four meals (believe for four people).  This should not be difficult at all (unless the chicken was mighty scrawny).

In the paper today there was a article about the shrinking size of chickens, and it is now difficult to buy large ones.  Think we all know that the larger the bird the ratio of flesh to bone is more than a smaller one.   Think I must do a trial and buy the largest bird on sale, then a smaller one, carve it up, then cook and weigh the flesh - see which works out the best buy.

Enjoyed the bit in Rip off B... about the photos on the packs of ready-meals on sale.  We were shown the tricks of the trade used by food stylists, and remember them well as - for several years - I too worked as a food stylist ( that's another story which you may wish to hear about some time, although have mentioned bits of it from time to time during my blog-life).

Would like to thank all who sent in comments, and so pleased that Grub-lover gives the correct name for our traditional Mothering Sunday, as for some reason we seem now to have copied the US and call it Mother's Day (which is not the same thing at all).

With Margie mentioning that more snow is expected (Canada), am not surprised as we too could be having some, although probably only in Scotland and Pennines.  It has turned very cold, and frost is forecast, and with a bumper crop of fruit expected due to the mild climate, and the early blossom, frost could do a lot of damage.  It was ever thus.

Do occasionally look at Frugal Queen's site jane, and it really is a very good one.  Trouble is, those lovely photos make me green with envy, and I feel my own blog is sadly lacking in that department. I've tried to get a photo up from my files - and succeeded - but couldn't it in the right place on the page and the printing kept starting in the middle of the page, so it made me cross!  Will have to have another go.
Steve has had to order a new part for my camera from China, and so am still waiting for it to be returned and then - hopefully - I will be able to take photos of the food I cook and publish them on this blog.  Meanwhile, just have to make do with the written word.  Sorreee.

Yes Suzi, I did write for Home and Freezer Digest magazine, but can't recall the 'Chicken Fantastic' recipe you mentioned.  Was it one of mine?  Am pretty sure I didn't begin writing for them as early as 1976, but might well have done.  I've written literally thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines over the years, and although used to keep the first ones in a 'cuttings book' (because being new to the game didn't think it would last very long) but after I'd filled three huge books (that I still have), gave up.  Think I must have written for nearly every woman's magazine (and some others) that were around at the time, even Good Housekeeping (feather in my cap there).

Thanks Carol for giving us the link re the rising price of food in the US.  I took a look and some of the foods are cheaper than in the UK, even if the price is more than it used to be.  Some things, such as milk seem cheaper here. 
Am pretty sure the price of fuel in the US is much lower than in Britain.  We've given up pricing it by the gallon, and it is now sold in litres.  The price can vary from garage to garage by a few pence (think petrol on motorways is more expensive due the motorists being a captive audience so to speak), but B tells me he pays around £1.30p litre.   He says that is around £6 a gallon (he could be wrong and I can't be bothered to work it out), but our gallon is not the same capacity as the US gallon. Still 8 pints but our pint is 20 fl.oz, the US is 16 fl oz.

Am pleased that the recipes for reduced meat meals and the vegetarian are useful, but it worth reminding everyone that when it comes to the amount of meat we use, we should 'cut our coat according to our cloth' and use only the amount of meat we can afford.  In many recipes (such as casseroles, spag.bol, chilli con carne, Cottage Pie, meat pies....) even using a small amount of meat still has 'mouth appeal' and flavour, and any shortfall is easily made up by adding extra veggies (or carbohydrates). 

To make sure a 'reduced-meat' recipe still will be enough to feed the number of people, all we have to do is to work out the total weight of  the main components in the recipe given (meat/veggies, and also rice/pasta etc - ignoring any flavourings such as spices...), and by ending up with the same (even if using different veggies and NO meat) there will be enough to feed the same number.

In the old days recipes used to suggest serving a large helping of meat per person.  At least 8 oz, and often more.  Nutritionists today suggest 4 oz/100g, and I've often seen recipes using only 2 oz/50g. We can add extra protein by including a vegetable protein in the dish - such as beans.  Or serve a pudding that contains animal protein such as eggs/milk.
This is one reason why I always use the Beanfeast spag.bol or Mexican Chilli (dry mix using TVP as the meat substitute).  One pack (99p) with a very little (say 4 oz) added mince beef (or beef and pork), onion, plus a can of chopped tomatoes (with the chilli I add a can of red beans) will make enough for four good helpings, and probably enough for six if we add a few diced carrots and celery as well. Having 'real meat' in these meals gives the texture that makes us feel that it's all meat (and no TVP).  Having said that, I can happily eat the above without adding any meat at all.  Just love them.
(They cook in only 15 minutes once they've begun to simmer - just time to lay the table/cook pasta).

Giving the cost of a meal can often lead us to believe we don't need to spend any more than the price quoted in a recipe.  Jack Monroe today was asked what was the cheapest recipe in her new cook book and also the most expensive.  Only the cheapest was mentioned - this being 9p burgers, but as the presenter said to her, 'to make these we would have to buy a whole packet or can of certain ingredients, and the total cost would be more'.  Jack explained that the price quoted was when the book was written and costs have since risen, but 'if you have a pound in your pocket you would have enough to buy everything to make the burgers'.   Don't know how many it made, but it still sounds economical, although if eaten in a burger-bun, or with salad that would knock the total meal price up.

Seems we always need to look at the wider picture when we begin costing things out.  However much I like to challenge myself to 'make a meal for £1' for four (or for 50p, 25p, or costs nothing at all), this all depends on other things.   There is plenty of 'free food' that can be gathered in the country, but unless we live there, it costs money to travel.
If we have a plot of land we can grow food, but not everyone has a garden (or even a window box), and the only way that we can economise is by building up a store-cupboard with long-keeping foods.
Working with a very small budget this can still be done, but admittedly slowly.  Even having just £10 a week (per person), we can still manage to have some food left over that can be used the following week (porridge oats for instance), leaving a little more money to spend the next time we shop, buying more to use and store.

It may seem false economy to buy food we don't eat within a few days, but with fridges, freezers and all the 'dry goods' in the larder, once we have them it really IS possible to make meals that are very cheap indeed.  Of course we've had to pay for the ingredients in the first place, but for some reason it just works out much less expensive when we have built up a variety (preferably all bought when on offer/half price/reduced) and by putting some together we can make a dish that really can taste great.

You would laugh at me when I'm preparing a salad.  I save the core of cauliflower and white cabbage, even lettuce, and these get grated to add to the next salad.  The 'ribs' of cabbage leaves, and the stalks of broccoli all get saved and are then used for B's stir-fries.  Cauliflower leaves, stalks and core are chopped up, cooked in milk, then whizzed together to make soup - this tastes really good, especially when cooked with the hard rind of some old Stilton!

The celery stump is kept to add to the pan (with carrots and onions) when making chicken stock.  Avocado stones are planted (grow into big houseplants and make good gifts).  The seeds from ripening (bought) bell peppers are saved and sown where they grow and produce more peppers. 
The peelings from washed carrots, parsnips, potatoes, are put into a pan with the outer skins of onions, and a celery stump and simmered to make vegetable stock, and it goes without saying that the seeds in butternut squash and pumpkins are washed and dried, roasted and then stored to be nibbled or to add to 'things'.
Think I get more fun using up what other people would normally throw away than I do with the actual cooking of meals.

Anyone with a small garden (or just a balcony that will hold a few plant pots) will be interested in 'small-scale' composting as a good way of using waste kitchen veg/fruit.  Take a strong plastic sack and place a layer of spent compost at the bottom - this could be from an old grow-bag or a plant container.  Then spread a layer of raw fruit and vegetable waste over this, with a sprinkle of QI compost activator on top, then continue building up the layers until the sack is full.  Tie the top and put it somewhere out of the way.  After six winter months it should be ready for use.  The time it takes depends on the temperature of the place where it is stored - the warmer it is, the faster.
For full description of how to compost in a bag visit

A word of warning (although perhaps not applicable), when vegetation rots it begins to heat up.  We once composted the hutch cleanings when we kept cavies (aka guinea pigs),  we tied up the sacks and left them outdoors, but when we sold our house in Leicestershire, for some reason the sacks were put together under cover and they began to heat up and eventually burst into flames - nearly burning our garage down.
Anyone who has a large lawn and ends up with a big pile of grass cuttings may have discovered that - if they stuck their hand inside the pile a few days later, the centre was very warm indeed. 

This is not the time of year for home-grown tomatoes, and even if it was the ones in the supermarkets would never be cheap.  However, this recipe will end up less expensive than one that contains meat, so if meatless is what you want, then give this one a go.
I'd like to suggest alternatives to almost all the ingredients that go towards the filling, but it is a pity to spoil the lovely flavours that work well together.  We could use bulgar wheat instead of couscous (or even cooked rice), sultanas instead of raisins (or even dates), finely chopped walnuts, almonds or brazil nuts instead of pine nuts, basil or parsley instead of mint.  With lemon, apricots, passata and the big beef tomatoes, don't think we'd notice too much difference from the original.  You may wish to think up other variations.
The advantage with this dish is that it can be prepared the day before to keep kept chilled overnight in the fridge before baking.

Baked Tomatoes with Couscous: serves 4
thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled/grated
2 - 3 cloves garlic, crushed
4 oz (100g) couscous
5 fl oz (150ml) water
3 tblsp olive oil (pref. extra virgin)
2 oz (50g) raisins
2 oz (50g) pine nuts
2 oz (50g) no-soak dried apricots, chopped
zest and juice of 1 lemon
small handful mint leaves
salt and pepper
4 large beef tomatoes, stalks left on
14 fl oz (400ml) passata
Put the ginger and half the garlic into a small pan and add the water.  Bring to the boil then take off the heat and immediately stir in the couscous and the oil.   Cover and leave to stand for 3 - 4 minutes, then add the raisins, apricots, lemon zest and juice and the mint.  Stir well, adding seasoning to taste.
Slice the tops of the tomatoes (keeping these as lids). Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds, then fill the tomatoes with the couscous mixture, piling it in so it rises above the tomatoes slightly, then perch the lids on top.
Mix the passata with the remaining garlic, and add a little more seasoning, then pour this into a shallow ovenproof dish then place in the tomatoes.   Cover and chill for up to 24 hours.
To cook, uncover the tomatoes and bake for 25 - 30 minutes at 190C, gas 5 or until soft.

This next recipe contains plenty of protein without containing any meat.  To keep the flavours as authentic as possible use all the ingredients, but - like most omelettes/tortillas of this type, we can use different ones (Spanish omelettes use eggs, onions and potatoes).

Greek Omelette: serves 4
8 eggs
handful fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
2 tblsp olive oil
1 large red onion, cut into wedges
3 tomatoes, chopped into chunks
handful of pitted black olives
4 oz (100g) feta cheese, crumbled
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl, then stir in the parsley, adding seasoning to taste.  Heat the oil in a large frying pan, then fry the onion wedges over high heat until they start to char at the edges. Add the tomatoes and olives and cook for a further couple of minutes until the tomatoes begin to soften.
Reduce the heat to medium, then pour in the eggs.  Give the pan a good shake so the eggs settle into the pan contents, then when these begin to set, give them a stir so that all the egg becomes half-cooked but still runny in places (this takes about 2 mins).
Scatter the cheese on top, then place the pan under a pre-heated grill and cook for a further 5 - 6 minutes until the omelette has puffed up and golden brown. 
To serve, cut into wedges, serving it straight from the pan.

Final recipe today is again vegetarian, but would happily accept strips of cooked ham (or even chicken) if you wish to include some meat.  I'd love to suggest using canned chopped tomatoes instead of using fresh toms, but as the appearance of this dish is part of its charm we don't want to spoil it.  But as my Beloved says "it all goes down the same way" so once in the mouth I suppose whether we use fresh or canned it would probably taste the same.  Maybe not cost the same though. As ever, personal choice.
Tagliatelle is the ribbon pasta that are sometimes (erroneously)  called noodles.  If you make your own pasta, then once rolled out thinly and dusted with flour, roll up into a sausage and cut into fairly narrow strips to make our own tagliatelle - and remember that this will cook in 2 - 3 minutes.  The bought (dried) pasta will take longer to cook.
Instead of ricotta we could use cottage cheese.

Tricolour Tagliatelle: serves 4
14 oz (400g) tagliatelle
6 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 x 100g bag rocket, roughly chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 tblsp capers, rinsed
4 tblsp olive oil (pref extra virgin)
salt and pepper
1 x 250g tub ricotta cheese
Boil the pasta for 8 - 10 minutes until just cooked (aka 'al dente').  Meanwhile, mix together the tomatoes, rocket, onion and capers.  Drain the pasta and return to the pan (off the heat), add the olive oil and toss well, then tip in the tomato mixture and toss again, adding seasoning to taste.  Finish by dotting small spoonfuls of the ricotta into the mixture, gently mixing it through before serving.

That's it for today.  It's now nearly 2.00am and am well into Saturday.  As per usual I'll be taking a day off, so although you will have this Saturday blog to read, there won't be one on Sunday, although I will blog late that night ready to publish for the Monday.  And then the week will continue as usual unless anything gets in the way.  Hope you all have a good weekend, and keep those comments coming.  TTFN.