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.


  1. This is a fascinating post! We do eat meat but like you, I was veggie for a good part of my youth and still have an awkward relationship with cooking meat. We do buy almost exclusively organic and certainly free range - we don't even eat chicken in takeway food or restaurants unless we've checked its provenance. As a result our meat is pricey but like you, we eat far less of it.

  2. Great post Nancy, it's really made me think, in fact I think I'll stop by Riverford Farm tomorrow and buy some meat. I love the Farmshop there and it's certainly somewhere I'll be taking the girls this summer...a fun place to visit also.
    Take care,
    Jane. x

  3. Stateside here, and my 12 yr vegetarian experiment ended in my being hospitalized with a hemoglobin of 3.8. Three pints of whole blood later I was up to 5.6 and three years of huge honkin iron pills after that have brought me somewhere in the normal range. I still sneak back to no-meat shopping, but once in awhile I eat drive-through meat. As vegetarians, some of us couldn't take it. I enjoyed your post.

  4. Hmm. Just trying to work out how you managed to get approx 6 meals out of one roast chicken. Was it the size of an emu? Perhaps I now know why I have a weight problem and you do not!!
    Loved the post, really interesting to read about all of your different meals. You are so organised!x

  5. Lovely post. I do wish you'd blog about what you cook more often; I always want to come round to yours whenever you do.

  6. I've heard of veggie boxes, but had no idea about meat boxes! Not only was it interesting to hear about but I'm impressed by your data gathering.

  7. I agree with everyone else - a fascinating post. I have often wondered about a meat box but (truthfully) have been put off by the price. I also need to get my head round not worrying about freezing some too.

  8. I think this is a fascinating post too, especially as your cuts of meat you fall back on are exactly the same as mine. I was never a true vegetarian but lived in a vegetarian household for many years and really haven't experimented that much with less common cuts of meat. I will be interested to read what you do with the pork loin.

  9. I think organisation is the key. I know that I would probably forget the meat was in the freezer and then a year later end up throwing it out because its past its sell by date. I really like the idea of meal planning and maybe the shock of spending so much on meat in one go would force me to plan meals ahead!

  10. This was very informative for me, we have had a veggie box for some time and I have looked at the meat boxes and counted them out due to the cost. I am also feeding a family of 4( well 3 at the moment due to my husband being out of the country for 4 months) Actually £66 for a months worth doesn't seem too bad. Like you I buy less meat so we can have better quality free range meat. I also work at Waitrose on the meat and fish counter and their meat is produced for them and can all be traced so I know this is a good option. I may well give the meat box a try and as you say I don't have to have it again if it isn't how I expect.
    Thank you, Emma x.

  11. Good grief,the things you made with the meat box contents sound utterly delicious. As Coffee Lady says, it sounds as though it's very good eating at yours x

  12. This is such an interesting post! Looking at the cost of meat in terms of the number of portions it would give is clever because I think that I would find it difficult to pay £66.75 up front too. The pork, mustard and cider pie sounds lovely. Is there any chance that you could post the recipe?

  13. Oooh, I will have to send you some of my thrifty meat recipes. Pork loin is a lovely cut for oriental and asian dishes, btw. Or you can stuff it with apricots and pulses and tagine it. I often use bacon and roast leftovers and make a strata with the leftover bread and end bits of cheese, plus any eggs hanging about. It is smashing for lunches and you can slice it for lunchboxes too. Which reminds me, I did some lunchbox thinking re our conversation, and have lots of recipes for you.

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