Good food prepared from fresh ingredients – ideally seasonal and locally sourced – can and should be at the heart of every happy, healthy family kitchen. Yes, I genuinely believe that cooking from scratch (or with your own leftovers) is a possibility for everybody, pretty much every day. I realise, when so many of us are always in a hurry, and when easy access to fresh, local ingredients is not a universal privilege, that that’s a controversial position. But I stand by my conviction, and I’ve written this book to show you how I think it can be done.
It often seems that we are something of a divided nation when it comes to food. A crude way of describing the divide is that we fall into two broad categories: those who care about food and those who don’t. I have been accused at times of writing only for the first group or, to put it another way, of preaching largely to the converted. I can see why some would say that. I propose a degree of involvement with food – knowing and caring where it comes from, perhaps even growing some of it, or gathering some from wild places – that to many seems patently absurd. To some, I am ‘that weirdo who eats anything’. Of course, to me, eating nettles, rabbits and suchlike makes perfect sense. It’s completely normal. But it has been quite a journey for me to discover and embrace that kind of normality.
As a child, I was one of the fussiest eaters you can imagine. If it didn’t come out of a Birds Eye packet and get fried up and served with ketchup, then I really wasn’t that interested. So I have no qualms imagining that others can make journeys with food – even journeys they haven’t yet imagined possible for themselves. In the twenty-odd years since I first became involved in the food business, I have seen entrenched attitudes to food, on the part of both stubborn individuals and monolithic institutions, shift massively. I’ve witnessed burgeoning excitement, enlightenment even, as more and more people get involved in cooking real food from fresh ingredients.
I’ve seen people’s lives and family dynamics transformed by the discovery of good food and by a change of approach to acquiring and preparing food.
If you have watched any of the television programmes I’ve made over the last few years, you’ll know I’ve spent a lot of time trying to persuade various people to change their way of shopping and cooking and to become more engaged with real fresh food. For the most part, I feel I’ve succeeded, at least to some degree. The individuals and families I’ve been growing and cooking food with are now, at the very least, a little more sceptical of ready meals, factoryfarmed produce and anonymous, pre-packaged fare. Most of them have developed a determination to cook more with fresh ingredients and to make food a bigger part of their interaction with family and friends. But perhaps the most important thing is that all of them, I think it’s safe to say, have had a good time. They’ve discovered how to cook ingredients they’d shied away from and how to get more out of foods they thought ‘boring’, and realised that some truly delicious meals can be thrown together from scratch in very little time at all.
The food media can only do so much to engage public interest in these issues. Luckily there are all kinds of other catalysts that bring about a change for good in people’s relationship with food, and many of them can’t be marshalled or predicted: a meal at a friend’s house; a great dish encountered on holiday; a child coming home with something they’ve cooked at school; an unexpected gift of a fruit bush or veg plant. These can all kickstart a new and exciting future with food – one that turns out to be more accessible than you might have imagined. Buying your food becomes less of a chore, more of a pleasure, an adventure even, as you steer your trolley away from the ready-meals aisle and over towards fresh produce. Or perhaps start heading for the nearest farm shop rather than the supermarket. Suddenly it seems that your friends have discovered cooking too – though perhaps it’s just that you are hearing the food-related content of their chatter when previously you were filtering it out.
That’s why I think the ‘us and them’ view of our food culture is unduly simplistic. I see not two firmly entrenched camps who can never meet but rather a continuum, with those who are already thoroughly involved with the story of their food at one end and those who are entirely dependent on anonymous, industrially produced food, the origins of which are largely unknown to them, at the other. Everyone, and every household, has a place on this continuum. I see the main challenge of my work as helping people move along it in the direction of more engagement with real fresh food, away from dependence on the industrial food machine. I believe it’s a worthwhile enterprise for one simple reason: I’m convinced that a greater engagement with the source of their food makes people happier.
This book is my latest attempt to contribute to that happiness – by writing about the kind of food I eat at home, every day. I describe how bread, meat, fish, fruit and veg are dealt with in our house, how we juggle breakfast for three hungry school kids and how we sort out weekday lunches for two working parents. I reveal why so many of the meals we eat (including some of our absolute favourites) are made from leftovers. I try to show you how to put vegetables and fruit at the forefront of your family cooking, while eking out the most from precious foods such as meat and fish. I suggest ways to make entertaining at home less daunting, less expensive and altogether more fun. And I offer up the recipes I love to cook for my family – and those that, when I’m really lucky, they cook for me.
I make no prior assumptions about where you shop, what you may or may not know about growing vegetables or keeping livestock, whether you can tell the difference between a swede and a turnip, or know what to do with a belly of pork and a breast of lamb. Instead, I show you easy and confidence-inspiring ways with cuts of meat, types of fish and other ingredients you may not have tried before. And I offer you fresh approaches that I hope will breathe new life into familiar staples, such as rice, spuds, beans and your daily bread.
Above all, I intend to tempt you irresistibly towards a better life with food, with a whole raft of recipes that I think you will love. I hope some of them will become your absolute favourites, and the favourites of your dear friends and beloved family. I hope the dishes you like best will infiltrate and influence your cooking, giving you increased confidence and fresh ideas. In short, I hope that before long, cooking simple and delicious food from the best seasonal ingredients becomes second nature and first priority for you, not just once in a while, but every day.
A few of my favourite things
It’s a truism that the quality and nature of your ingredients make all the difference to a finished dish, and I’d expect any cook worth their salt to choose the freshest, finest raw materials they can lay their hands on. However, there are a few staples to which personal preferences (or outright prejudice) also apply. The following basic store-cupboard ingredients appear time and time again in my recipes, so I feel they merit a little extra explanation – and, since I feel pretty strongly about their provenance, a little recommendation, too.
An entire book could be written about oils – I’m sure there must be several – but let me cut to the chase and tell you what you’ll find in my kitchen. My general rule is to opt for organic and unrefined oils (the refining process can involve heating, the addition of solvents and even bleaching). Cold-pressed oil is also good because, while heating the seed or fruit increases the yield of oil, it affects the flavour and nutritional value, too. On the other hand, for deep- and shallow-frying you do need an oil that can be heated to a high temperature, and that usually (not quite always) means a refined oil of some kind.
Many British farmers are now producing this wonderful culinary oil, and I use a lot of it. Terrifically versatile, it has an incredible golden-yellow colour and a gentle, nutty flavour. Rapeseed oil is mild enough to use in mayonnaise but has enough character to contribute to a dressing, or to add flavour when trickled on to bread or soup. In addition, it’s stable enough at high temperatures to be used for frying or roasting – though perhaps not prolonged deepfrying. I like R-Oil (www.r-oil.co.uk), produced in Gloucestershire, and The Seed Company Oil (www.theseedcompany.co.uk), which is produced in Dorset, and you may well be able to find a good one produced locally to you.
I use quite a bit of olive oil but I don’t worship it. I no longer use it much for frying or roasting; rapeseed oil has supplanted it as the first oil I reach for. I’m much more likely to use it for dressings and for general trickling, and even then only if it’s that distinctive olive oil flavour I’m after. That might be in a classic vinaigrette or salsa verde, on sliced tomatoes or perhaps stirred into pesto. But these days it’s always a conscious decision to reach for the olive oil, rather than an automatic one.
That means I’m happy to pay a bit more for a good organic extra virgin olive oil (extra virgin means the oil has a low acidity level and is guaranteed unrefined). I’ve been using a lovely organic oil from Clearspring recently (www.clearspring.co.uk; tel: 020 8749 1781), and it does all I ask of it. I don’t dabble at the super-expensive end of ‘luxury’ olive oils – although once in a while, when someone gives me an exquisitely peppery, richly flavoured olive oil (usually Tuscan), I am reminded what all the fuss is about.
This is a very lightly flavoured oil with a high burn point, which makes it ideal for general frying, including deep-frying. This is one case where I definitely wouldn’t choose an unrefined oil, as the flavour would be too strong and it would most likely be adversely affected by the heat, but I do usually opt for organic and/or Fairtrade. I like Clearspring’s organic sunflower frying oil (see olive oil, above, for contact details). After using for deep-frying, sunflower oil can be recycled, by straining through a coffee filter or cotton cloth (when completely cold) and re-bottling. Don’t leave it sitting round in the saucepan or deep-fat fryer, or it will go stale and impart a rancid flavour to the next batch of fried goodies. Groundnut oil is a good substitute for sunflower where a neutral frying oil is needed.
Hemp oil is the Marmite of the culinary oils: you’ll love or hate its pungent, grassy, throaty flavour. I love it. Its intensity means it compares to the very best olive oils, and makes a great trickling and dipping oil. It’s full of goodness – loaded with omega fatty acids, which arguably give it the best nutritional profile of any raw culinary oil. It can be grown in the UK, and I particularly like Good Oil, produced by Braham & Murray (www.goodwebsite.co.uk), which I use on my breakfast toast and in a number of pestos.
Vinegar (literally vin aigre, or ‘sour wine’) is a crucial part of my cooking repertoire, as indispensable as lemon juice when it comes to balancing flavours. I use it almost every day, mostly in dressings and mayonnaise but also when roasting vegetables, in sauces or marinades, or to deglaze the pan after frying meat. English cider vinegar is the type I turn to most, because it is fruity and robust but not overpowering (white wine vinegar is a perfectly good alternative, if that’s what you happen to have in the cupboard). One of my favourite brands is Aspall (www.aspall.co.uk; tel: 01728 860510); their organic cider vinegar is pretty much a permanent fixture at home and in the River Cottage kitchen. I should make special mention of Aspall’s English apple balsamic vinegar too, which is an aged blend of cider vinegar and concentrated apple juice. Dark, thick, rich and complex, it makes an excellent alternative to traditional Italian balsamic vinegars, which can be a little melodramatic and over-oaked for my taste.
I like my flour stoneground if possible, as traditional stone grinding involves less heat than modern steel-rolling techniques, thereby preserving more of the grain’s goodness. Wholemeal is more likely to be stoneground than white.
Different flours vary enormously, not only in quality but in their colour, consistency and the way they absorb liquid. When you’re making bread, pastry or batters, you should feel confident in adjusting the quantity of flour or liquid to reach the consistency you think is right. Note also that wholemeal flour tends to absorb more water than white, so you might need to increase the fluid content if you’re converting a recipe from white to brown.
WHITE AND WHOLEMEAL FLOUR (GENERAL PURPOSE)
If I need plain white flour, then I favour one that’s produced from organically grown wheat. Doves Farm (www.dovesfarm.co.uk; tel: 01488 684880) and Marriage’s (www.marriagesmillers.co.uk; tel: 01245 354455) are both trusty, widely available organic brands; Doves Farm also makes a gluten-free flour. However, I’m increasingly turning to wholemeal flour in order to make our everyday meals more wholesome – I like its toasty, wheaty flavour, too.
I’ve found there are few traditional ‘white’ recipes that can’t be adapted to contain at least some wholemeal flour – a half-and-half blend of white and wholemeal is often very successful. I use a fine-milled organic wholemeal flour (such as Doves Farm’s Fine Wholemeal or Marriage’s Light Brown) for pastry, batters and the like. Both companies also make a self-raising version of these flours, which works well for cakes, muffins and drop scones. I’ll happily knock out a Victoria sponge using this type of flour: the result is very nearly as light and fluffy as you get with white flour but with a lovely, nutty flavour that I actually prefer.
This is what you should use for most bread recipes. It is milled from a particular type of wheat that is high in gluten, the substance that helps bread form the correct stretchy texture. Again, Doves Farm and Marriage’s (see white and wholemeal flour, above) are good sources.
A grain I’m very fond of, spelt is an ancient type of wheat with a distinctive nutty flavour. Since it’s being grown organically in the West Country by Sharpham Park, I also see it very much as a local ingredient. It differs from conventional wheat flours in that it contains a more delicate kind of gluten, which some people find more digestible. Wholegrain spelt flour makes very good bread, and can also be used in cakes and even pastry – or use the refined ‘white’ spelt if you fancy something lighter. These and other spelt products – including pearled spelt, an alternative to pearl barley – are available online from Sharpham Park (www.sharphampark.com).
Top-quality sea salt – sweet, flaky and fresh tasting – is an essential part of my everyday cooking. It differs from rock salt in that it’s harvested from the open sea by traditional evaporation techniques rather than being pumped out of the ground. Fewer of its natural minerals are stripped away and fewer unnatural things, such as anticaking agents, added. It also tastes much better – do a comparative tasting and I think you’ll agree. Maldon Sea Salt is a kitchen classic of long standing but I also really like the newly available Cornish Sea Salt (www.cornishseasalt.co.uk; tel: 0845 337 5277).
There are times when a fine-grained salt is more appropriate than a coarse, flaky one – when seasoning a delicate cake batter, for instance. In addition, if you need to use salt in large quantities – when mixing up a cure for pork chops, say – using top-notch flaky salt would be rather extravagant. In these circumstances, I still opt for sea salt but a fine-grained type – you’ll find it at any good deli or health-food shop.
Pepper and other spices
Spices remain exotic ingredients – precious, fragrant substances that must be imported from regions of the world more lush and tropical than our own. These days, it’s easy to find excellent examples, grown in a way that’s respectful to the environment – and traded in a way that’s respectful to the grower, too. Fairtrade and organic spices are available in many supermarkets and delis but it’s online that you’ll find the greatest variety – try www.steenbergs.co.uk.
Black pepper is so ubiquitous that most of us don’t give it a second thought, but try a few different varieties and you might be surprised at the way their flavour and heat vary. Wynad peppers, for instance, are fragrant and warm, while Penja berries are incredibly hot. A specialist such as www.thespiceshop.co.uk is the place to go for pepper perusal.
Wherever your spices come from, certain rules apply: once ground, they lose their flavour and fragrance surprisingly fast. If you can buy whole spices and grind them yourself, you’ll get much more bang for your buck. Find the time to dry-roast them gently in a frying pan before pounding them in a pestle and mortar and the results will be even more pleasing.
Sultanas, raisins, prunes, figs and dried apricots are store-cupboard essentials in my book (and in my kitchen). Foreign in origin they may be, but they are key to all sorts of British dishes, sweet and savoury. I choose organic where I can and also, as with many imported foods, Fairtrade if it’s available – which, for dried fruit, it often is.
Many dried fruits – raisins, sultanas and currants in particular – have vegetable oil added to stop them sticking together. I see this as a pretty benign additive but one I’m less sanguine about is sulphur dioxide (E220) – used to preserve a fresh, bright colour. You’re most likely to find it in dried apricots: if they’re bright orange, you’ll know sulphur has been used. This chemical also halts the natural oxidation process in the fruit, which is why sulphured apricots taste less rich, complex and toffeeish than the unsulphured variety. They’ve got a bit of a sherbety ‘fizz’ to them, which some people like. But I’m afraid it’s the E220 you’re tasting there. I prefer the natural, mellow, caramel flavour of organic, non-sulphured fruit.
Dried fruit in general, and apricots, prunes and figs in particular, are much more luscious, soft and juicy than they used to be. However, if you find yourself with a dry, tough batch, soaking the fruit in liquid (water, tea, freshly squeezed orange juice or a hefty slosh of alcohol) – particularly if it’s hot – will soon plump it up.
I get most of my organic dried fruit from my local health-food shop, Ganesha, in Axminster, but I also like the Crazy Jack organic brand (www.crazyjack.co.uk), which is widely available in supermarkets.
You’ll see from the Daily Bread chapter just how passionately I feel about the importance of good bread. A robust, well-flavoured, crusty loaf brings so much more to a meal than a cotton-woolly, flabby bit of sliced white. I am now a total convert to sourdough, and I use it not only for my daily toast, sandwiches and general meal-accompanying needs, but also for breadcrumbs, croûtons and various other stale bread applications.
I realise that not everyone has access to good sourdough (though you can easily make your own), and also that not everyone loves its tangy flavour and hearty texture. But I would nevertheless urge you to seek out a source of good bread – bread that does not dissolve on the tongue and go stale in 12 hours but that has flavour, texture and longevity – not just for these recipes but for every time you need a slice or two. You can find some good bread in supermarkets but it’s the exception rather than the rule, because most supermarket bread is made using modern, industrial methods and ingredients. An artisan baker’s is a far better bet, or a healthfood shop, a farmers’ market or farm shop.
A good savoury broth, home-cooked from meat bones, herbs and aromatic vegetables, is a precious thing in the kitchen. But I know it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to have a pot of stock on the go at all times. I certainly don’t. When I need stock instantly, I have various options. The ten-minute vegetable stock is an excellent solution to the no-stock situation (as long as you’ve got a carrot, an onion and a bay leaf available, you’re in business – a couple of sticks of celery would be ideal, too).
Failing that, or if I’m really in need of a meatier brew, ready-made fresh liquid stocks, like Joubère’s excellent organic chicken stock (www.joubere.co.uk; tel: 01293 649700), are the best replacement for home-made. Like all ‘fresh’ stocks, the best place to keep them for more than a day or two is in the freezer. But I am no stranger to the stock cube – Kallo Organic being the one I use most frequently. Kallo does a yeast-free vegetable stock, which is the first I reach for if I’m knocking up a soup, super-quick. Be aware, though, that cubes, pastes, granules and other concentrated, ready-made forms of stock are usually quite salty, so you’ll need to adjust the seasoning of your dish accordingly.
I’m not about to tell you which cheeses you should eat – though I can give my opinion that you rarely need to look outside the British Isles or, often, outside your own county, for a good cheese, whether you want something hard, soft, semi-soft, mild, strong, blue, mouldripened etc. However, I would like to let you in on what I personally find to be indispensable when it comes to cheese for cooking, as opposed to just sitting down and eating.
Instead of Parmesan I tend to use a hard, matured goat’s cheese. Capriano, made by Woolsery in Dorset (www.woolserycheese.co.uk; tel: 01300 341991) has the same salty, granular texture and exquisite seasoning potential as Parmesan. Woolsery also produces soft, fresh goat’s cheeses that are ideal for making cheesecakes or for mixing with herbs and other seasonings.
Ticklemore goat’s cheese and Cornish Yarg are two semi-hard cheeses that I like to slice and crumble over salads. Ticklemore produces a Cheddar-style cheese, too.
If I cook with Cheddar or a similar hard cheese, then it’s really got to be a mature one, otherwise the flavour just doesn’t carry. But you don’t always need one that’s tangy to the point of making your eyes water. One of my favourites is Westcombe, made near Shepton Mallet in Somerset.
Blue cheese frequently finds its way into my cooking. I tend to forego the pungency of Stilton in favour of something a little sweeter and creamier, such as Dorset Blue Vinny. I’m also a massive fan of the wonderful Harbourne Blue goat’s cheese.
All the cheeses mentioned above are available online from West Country cheese specialists, www.thecheeseshed.com.
Other store-cupboard essentials
It’s a sad and sorry day when a scan of my larder doesn’t show up at least some of these tried and tested standbys:
ORGANIC TINNED TOMATOES AND PASSATA
Combined with nothing more than garlic, chilli and seasonings, these can turn no-supper into Yo, Supper! They can also be an alternative to stock in a soup or curry and are generally indispensable. Tinned tomatoes are chunky, of course, whereas passata is a smooth, sieved purée.
We all have our own preferences when it comes to pasta shapes but one of my favourites is risoni, also known as orzo, which is available from delis. Shaped like fat grains of rice, it has a wonderful texture and is particularly good in soups and for soaking up sauces. I often make a ‘risoniotto’ (much quicker than a proper risotto) by simmering risoni in stock and adding sautéed onions and a few leftovers – cold fish or meat, grated cheese, wilted greens, etc.
DRIED AND TINNED PULSES
We eat lentils – usually nutty little Puy lentils – at least once a week. They are quick to cook (no soaking), absorb sauces and dressings deliciously and are packed with protein. I also keep chickpeas to hand, plus white beans such as cannellini. I prefer to use dried ones, soaking and cooking them from scratch, but I’d be lying if I said I always have time to do this, so I keep some organic tinned ones (usually the Suma or Essential brands) as well.