Thursday, 15 July 2010

Summer break

Thank you all so much for the comments on the last post about the meat box.  It was a very interesting post to put together, and I am thinking of doing more frequent food and recipe posts later in the year.  Perhaps I will get an attack of nerdishness and share with you all my meal organisation plans.  Perhaps not!

But for now, the blog is taking a summer break.  We are off camping this weekend (at the wild campsite here), and then there are end-of-term excitements, a wedding, our trip to France and Switzerland, visits to the PYO and the blackberry woods, days out with friends, lazy days at home, and new adventures to be had in this great, big, mad city we live in - all before the children go back to school in September.

I shall continue to mutter about my days over on Twitter though, so you can follow me there should you be so inclined.  The link is over on the right had side of this page.

Happy summer, everyone!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A box of meat

I love good food, and I love cooking, but I do have a slightly uneasy relationship with cooking meat.

I didn't eat meat at all for nearly five years in my early twenties.  I just didn't enjoy the taste and texture of meat, and found that meals involving meat always revolved around the meat, rather than letting the other ingredients sing out.  So I stopped eating meat, got to know the world of vegetables and pulses, and was very happy. 

And then, aged twenty-six, I became pregnant, and suddenly with every fibre of my being, I craved meat.  I dreamed of lamb stews, sausages for breakfast, game terrine, chicken curries and pork pies.  I began to eat meat again, and re-discovered my taste for it.  I still eat meat now, eleven years on, and I enjoy eating it too.

But those years of not eating meat were the years when I really taught myself how to cook properly.  As a result, I find meat rather dull to cook with, and I always end up stocking the freezer with the same old cuts and feeling uninspired to try new recipes.  My best experiments usually seem to be the meat-free meals or the cakes and puddings. 

As a family we eat meat-free about half the time, which is fine by all of us, and fits in with the way of thinking, espoused most famously by Hugh F-W, that "Meat is the most precious of foods....It has its special status by virtue of being the flesh of animals, which must be killed in order to provide it." (River Cottage Everyday p.180).  I want to feel good about the meat I eat, and accord it the respect it deserves.  The meat I buy and eat does not necessarily have to be organic, but it does at least have to come from free-range animals that I know have been raised and slaughtered in a humane way.  So I buy my meat from the free-range selection at Waitrose, or from our local butcher, AG Dennis in Wanstead, who will tell me where the meat is from.  I eat less meat, so that I can afford to buy better quality meat.  But all this still does not get around the fact that I find meat so very uninspiring to cook with.  

One morning I had a moment of revelation as I was rambling on to someone about how wonderful our weekly vegetable box from Abel and Cole is for making me cook with ingredients I might not otherwise buy at the supermarket.  "Do you get a meatbox too?" my friend asked, and suddenly it seemed so obvious.

Abel and Cole do sell meat, and I have a regular order for their streaky bacon.  From time to time I also add other meats from them to my order.  However, they don't sell meat boxes and I am still guilty of ordering the same old familiar cuts of mince, diced lamb, chicken thighs and sausages from them.  I needed a meat box selected by someone else, which would introduce me to cuts of meat I wouldn't normally buy.

So I ordered a medium sized mixed meat box from Riverford Organic.  I winced at the price - £66.95 - but reminded myself that this was an experiment and if it proved to be poor value for money I didn't need to order it again.

My box came a month ago, and this is what the £66.95 bought me:
  • 600g braising steak (two large steaks)
  • 8 rashers unsmoked back bacon
  • a 1.2kg joint of boned pork loin
  • a ham hock (800g)
  • a large whole chicken (1.7kg), with giblets
  • 300g finely sliced cooked ham
  • 10 pork sausages
  • 400g diced pork
  • 600g minced beef
  • 1 mini black pudding (a complimentary taster)
All of this was organic.  When I unpacked the box, I was suprised just how much meat this was in reality.  I was relieved that I had cleared some space in the freezer in the few days before the delivery.  I had a happy afternoon sorting through everything, looking at use-by dates, working out what I was going to cook when, and what should go in the freezer, and finding recipes.  Out of this selection, the ham hock, pork loin and braising steaks were all new cuts to me; I had never cooked them before.

A month later, we have eaten everything in the box apart from the pork loin joint.  I would expect the pork loin to provide meat for three meals, so that would mean that the £66.95 has fed all four of us with meat for five weeks in total.  The only additional meat I have cooked in the last month has been four chicken thighs from Waitrose, and one pack of Abel and Cole's streaky bacon.

Here is my fabulously nerdy list of everything I cooked with all the different cuts of meat, and how many portions I got out of it all.
  • black pudding - two portions for Sunday breakfast, with roast tomatoes and toast.
  • sliced ham - sandwiches for eight, and part of a pasta sauce (with courgette, a little stock and creme fraiche) for four.
  • whole roasting chicken - four greedy portions as a roast dinner, four portions using  leftovers in a chicken and pepper fricasee, four further portions using leftovers in chicken and sweetcorn soup, and one final portion as part of a packed lunch.
  • I made two litres of chicken stock and chicken jelly from the giblets and the bones from the roast - this was used in the chicken and pepper fricasee, the chicken soup, the ham and courgette pasta sauce, and also in a pea risotto which made two portions.
  • back bacon - 5 rashers were used in a quiche lorraine, which fed six, and the remaining 3 rashers were made into a large BLT sandwich for one.
  • braising steak - I diced one of the steaks and made a mild beef curry, which fed four.  The other steak I cut into think strips and made a super-hot Hungarian goulash, which made six portions.
  • ham hock - I cooked the hock in coca cola, using Nigella's famous recipe.  The resulting ham fed four of us for supper with egg and oven chips.  The cold leftovers were then used over the next few days to make a sandwich for one, added to scrambled eggs for one, and stirred into couscous and spinach for four.
  • beef mince - I made this into a savoury beef and cheese crumble which made five portions.
  • diced pork - I made two four-portion pork, cider and mustard pies.  One for supper with new potatoes and one for the freezer.
  • sausages - I made a rich sausage and cider casserole which fed four of us (greedy portions - we all love sausages)
  • pork loin joint - not yet cooked, but hopefully to be roasted for four and then leftovers used for two further meals.  Probably a pie and a pasta sauce.
Assuming I get the twelve planned portions out of the pork loin, and discounting the portions from the chicken stock, I make this a grand total of 79 portions.  Meaning that each portion of organic meat works out at roughly 85p

I have loved cooking with all the unfamiliar cuts of meat, and searching out new recipes to use.  I have loved the taste and high quality of all the meat.  I have loved not having to think about shopping for meat for a whole month.  I also think that although the £66.95 is an alarming amount to pay for meat all in one go, it nevertheless represents very good value for money. 

I am planning on testing this out later in the summer by buying meat just from the local butcher and supermarket for a month and keeping a similar log of everything I buy and what I cook from it.  I am interested to see how much money I end up spending per portion, and how imaginative or otherwise my shopping and cooking will be.  I suspect I know the outcome already.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Ballet sewing

I don't know many people in real life who sew.  Sometimes I feel a bit of an oddball for doing so much sewing.  But there is one place I go to regularly where I fit right in, and where almost everyone knows about sewing.  O's ballet school.

Whether or not they knew anything about sewing when their daughters took up ballet, by the time their daughters have been there a few months, all the mothers have learnt to sew.

You start off by sewing elastic straps onto ballet shoes.  Not too taxing, but important to get right, so that the ballet shoes fit properly and the elastic doesn't ping off in the middle of an exercise thanks to lazy-mum sewing.  O gets through ballet shoes at the rate of two pairs a term, so that's many, many, many elastics sewn over the past four and a half years.

Sweet chubby legs wearing new shoes with new elastics - January 2007

Then the teachers will send the girls home with little bits of slippery silk, or satin, that need to be hemmed, or edged with lace, to become scarves or handkerchiefs or other dancing props.  Small girls learning ballet seem to do an awful lot of leaping about with floaty scarves.

And then a bit further down the line - when you get so blase that you can attach a pair of elastics onto shoes a scant five minutes before class - comes the ballet show.

Ballet shows require proper dance costumes, and proper dance costumes require alterations, adjustments and naming.  The costumes are ordered by the teachers and you are lulled into thinking that there is no sewing required - because someone else is making the costume.  But that's not quite how it happens.  Ballet costumes never seem to come with straps attached.  Like the elastics for the shoes, you need to attach the straps yourself, to ensure the best possible fit for the costume.  And you definitely don't want shoulder straps pinging off halfway through a performance thanks to lazy-mum sewing.  And then the teachers decide that the costumes look a bit plain, so could you please add a ribbon hem? or sew some floaty gauze over the back yoke?  Oh, and could you please sew nametapes onto everything, including socks and feather head-dresses because there will be fifty small girls in the green room, all wearing near identical outfits.

But it's fine.  I'm an old pro at this now.  I didn't even blink when on Wednesday I was given a tutu needing straps attached, a pile of blue sequinned fabric strips and vague directions from the teachers to make wrist cuffs and epaulettes to go with the tutu (and don't forget to nametape the wrist cuffs).  Neither did any of the other mothers.  We nodded and offered to share our stash of velcro with those who'd run out, and took our small, excited ballet dancers home to get ready for their show.

A froth of net and blue sequins - WIP

Showing me how the tutu fits - with straps partly attached and blue sequins yet to come

Thursday, 8 July 2010


There has been much sewing happening here over the past two weeks, but all of it for other people, so shall we talk a bit more about food and drink instead?  I do find summer food a drag - I like light things, and I like quick things when the weather is hot.  It is too much to have the oven on for hours, or to stand over the stove stirring a risotto.  And yet the children want something substantial in the evenings - their appetites do not seeem to diminish in hot weather like mine does.

A great summer supper for us is enchiladas with a big pile of green salad on the side.  Enchiladas are a Mexican dish originally, but I am sure my version is more anglicised.  Not even Tex-Mex but East-London Mex.  They are very easy - filled tortilla wraps, baked in the oven with a tomato sauce.

Tonight's filling for the wraps was turkey, green pepper, onion and sweetcorn.  I usually make these without meat though - avocado and kidney bean is very good, as is just onion and pepper.

Make your filling - it doesn't need any sauce.  If you are using avocado and beans, you don't even need to do any cooking - just peel and chop the avocado, drain and rinse the beans and mix together.  To make my turkey filling I very briefly softened the onion, then added the turkey mince and pepper and cooked for just a couple of minutes until the meat was browned.

Next, spread a tortilla with a little bit of sour cream or creme fraiche and put a few spoonfuls of filling along the middle of it.  Fold in the sides and then roll up and put in a baking dish.  Repeat until you've used up all your tortillas and they're nestling snugly in the dish.

Pour over a simple tomato sauce that you've made with an onion, some garlic and a tin of tomatoes.  I really love my enchiladas with a hot, chilli-tomato sauce, so will often add a good shake of dried chillis to the pan, but Cam really objects to hot spices so sometimes I make it without.

Add a good grating of cheese over the top of the wrapped tortillas and sauce, and bake in the centre of the oven for 10 minutes at about gas 6.  Minimal time in the oven is good in the summer.

Serve with a huge pile of lettuce and a sharp dressing on the side.  My children manage two of these each, but that's a big, growing-child sized portion.  I can only manage about one and a half in this weather.  If I make them in the winter I often serve them with rice rather than salad, which makes the whole meal incredibly substantial and cheap.

The children can pretty much make them by themselves - tonight I folded the wraps and lifted the dish in and out of the oven, but the children did everything else.  Cam made the sauce (no chillli as he was chef) and Livvy chopped vegetables, grated cheese and spread creme fraiche around.

And then they ate them all up, which is the best recommendation I can give really.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Iced tea

In honour of my American friends, on their Independence Day weekend, I've been making iced tea.  Graham and I drank gallons of the stuff during our year of studying there. The sugary brew that Liptons sell is nice enough when properly chilled, but a homemade version is in a whole other league.

Here is my recipe - adapted from an American one in this favourite cookbook - but metricised and using about an eighth of the sugar.

The List Writers Iced Tea

In a large jug with at least a 2 litre capacity, put two teabags and two dessert spoons of caster sugar.  Pour over boiling water, up to the 1 litre mark.  Stir well and leave to steep for ten minutes.

Top up with cold water, up to the 2 litre mark, and stir again.  Remove the teabags, and add slices of fresh fruit.  If I have peaches or nectarines, that is my favourite, but this weekend I've been using thick slices of orange with great success. Mango, rasperries or apple would also work well.

Chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours and then serve in a tall glass, over ice.  The fruit delicately flavours the drink without removing any of the lovely tea taste.