Half Scottish, Half Japanese. Tempura Mars bar?

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I began writing this blog in October 2010 as a new father documenting food in his family. Before I knew it, I was in the final of MasterChef 2012. Now cooking is no longer just a hobby.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 5

Day 3 (pronounced in a Geordie accent) of Live Below The Line. We have left: 2 chicken drumsticks, two chicken wings, 300g of split peas, 500g of pearl barley, one tin of chopped tomatoes and lots of long grain rice.

Lunch on Wednesday
Soup was always going to be one of our lunch options and I hoped there'd be enough left in the fridge in case we got hungry. I was going to make two types, but for simplicity, I decided to make one and make it as good as I could manage. I took the chicken stock, discarded the bones, set aside the vegetables and passed it through a fine sieve. I set aside 1 litre for cooking and used the remaining 2 litres or so for making soup.

Curried soup with chicken and split peas (about 5-6 portions)
2 litres of chicken stock
200g of yellow split peas
1/2 tin of chopped tomatoes
1/2 tsp curry powder
Pinch of salt

1. Rinse the split peas and bring them to the boil in the chicken stock.
2. Add the chopped tomatoes and a large teaspoon of curry powder and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the split peas are cooked.
3. Blitz in a jug blender. This is a good time to season the soup, with salt and cayenne pepper for more heat, if desired.
4. Pass through a sieve, if you want a smoother texture. Personally I'm happy with it being coarse this weeks - it makes it feel a bit more substantial! You could even add some cooked pearl barley to the soup before serving.

Supper on Wednesday
So far we've had chicken risotto and 'jerk chicken' (it wasn't really but we served it with rice and peas!) for suppers. On Wednesday, we had a mulligatawny style pearl barley stew. I love pearl barley. It's partly a nostalgia thing - my mum made lovely Scotch broth - but also because I love the bitey texture. It's very satisfying (and equally distressing if you overcook it into a gelatinous mush, as I did on one occasion). This recipe uses a British ingredient, cooked using the same technique as risotto, with Asian flavours. I did, however, overlook that pearl barley takes a while to cook - probably twice as long as  rice, so it's not great if you want to rustle something up in ten minutes. I served it with the chicken legs, which I boned, partly to help them cook quicker, partly for presentation. Don't get me wrong, drumsticks have their place, but with something like barley, I think it's nicer for the diner to be able to eat everything on the plate, instead of having a forkful of barley then gnawing away at a bone!

Chicken legs with curried pearl barley (serves 2)
2 chicken legs (preferably boned)
Veg oil
Cayenne pepper
100g pearl barley
200g chicken stock
Large pinch of salt
1 tsp curry powder
Water from the kettle

1. Preheat the oven to 190c and boil a kettle.
2. Coat the chicken legs in veg oil, sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes. Use the grill at the end, if necessary to get the skin to crisp up.
3. Bring the barley, chicken stock, salt and curry powder to the boil then reduce to a lively simmer.
4. Add water from the kettle when required and cook for at least 40 minutes.

Day 4, here we come. What's left with two more days to go? The chicken wings, half a tin of chopped tomatoes, 100g of split peas, 400g of pearl barley and lots of long grain rice. Although, Live Below The Line is a tough challenge and exactly why it's such a good awareness raising campaign, it's the kind of challenge I like from a cooking perspective. The tough thing about Invention Tests on MasterChef was being spoilt for choice and having to narrow your choices. For me, a true invention test is when the cupboard is bare and you have to create something out of very little.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 4

Well, I can confirm it only gets tougher. It was hard enough working out how to spend just £5 per head on food, but now comes the reality. My first observation is that with a limited budget and a limited range of ingredients, food becomes about sustenance. Eating becomes as mundane as having a shower, putting your clothes and going to the loo. There is no great pleasure in it, no breaks in the day to look forward to.

On Monday, I did two main jobs to prepare us for the week ahead. First, I portioned a chicken and made a stock out of the bones. Second, I made a hummus, by cooking and pureeing yellow split peas. As I blitzed it in the blender, I added a little rapeseed oil, some salt, the juice of a lemon and some cayenne pepper for kick. It looks like hummus and it is certainly edible, but it doesn't have garlic, olive oil and tahini (ground sesame seed paste).

Yellow split pea hummus (serves lots)
200g yellow split peas
1-2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tsp salt
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1. Rinse the split peas, cover with plenty of water and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until cooked.
2. Blitz the peas with the oil, salt, lemon and cayenne pepper in a smoothie maker. You can make it as coarse or smooth as you like. I like coarse. You could add some curry powder or some garlic salt if you have them, but I quite like it lemony.

Lunch on Monday
Lunch on Monday was particularly challenging because we went to Foodies Festival at Hampton Court and couldn't try any of the delicious smelling food. We were pleased it was raining because we had an excuse to go home and make chicken sandwiches! I had removed the mini fillets from the chicken breasts and gently poached them in the chicken stock for a couple of minutes. It was pretty bland, so I added some very thinly sliced onion and a few turns of the black pepper grinder.

Supper on Monday
On Monday evening we made a version of jerk chicken with rice and peas, inspired by one of the stalls at the Foodies Festival. I'm sure it wasn't nearly as good and we didn't have jerk seasoning, but we made do with cayenne pepper and ras el hanout.

Crispy spicy chicken thighs with rice and peas (serves 2)
2 chicken thighs, boned (put the bones in the chicken stock)
1 tsp veg oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ras el hanout (or other spice mix)
Dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 onion, sliced
1 tbsp veg oil
2 large pinches of salt
120g rice
150g tinned peas
200ml chicken stock
500ml boiling water

1. Preheat the oven to 200c and boil the kettle.
2. For the crispy chicken, rub the veg oil over the thighs, then sprinkle with salt, spice mix and dust with cayenne pepper. Roast the chicken for about 20 minutes while you cook the rice. I turned the grill on for the last couple of minutes to get the skin to crisp up.
3. Fry the onion slices in veg oil and salt until they have some colour to get flavour into the rice. Add the rice and the chicken stock and cook until all the liquid has been absorbed. Keep adding boiling water as required and check frequently for seasoning and bite. Add some spice powder if you want some extra flavour. Don't stir too much as its cooking - you want to keep the rice separate and you'll also probably leave rice on the side of the pan where it won't be able to absorb water. When the rice is just cooked, add the peas and warm them through.

Lunch on Tuesday

While the mini fillets made sandwiches for 2, one of the chicken breasts (poached in the chicken stock) provided enough meat for 5 or even 6 sandwiches (when sliced very thinly!). I enlivened them by rehydrating 10g of Paxo stuffing (about 4p from my store cupboard budget).

Supper on Tuesday
We actually made Tuesday's supper on Monday evening since it used many of the same ingredients but cooked with slightly different techniques. I also wanted to make sure the other chicken breast was cooked, so that we didn't find that it had gone off later in the week. While we made rice and peas in a frying pan so that they were quite spread out, I like to make risotto in a pot. Because of budget constraints, we were using long grain rice, which is less starchy than arborio or carnarolli rice. To try and mimic  risotto rice, we cooked it in a pot and stirred it continuously, to encourage the grains to rub against each other and become creamy. A bit like casseroles (some even say pizza!), it benefited from spending a day in the fridge. It tasted better and the texture was stickier, more like risotto rice and less like long grain rice.

Chicken and pea risotto (serves 2)
1/2 onion, diced
1 tbsp veg oil
2 large pinches of salt
140g rice (preferably risotto rice!)
750g chicken stock, hot
1 chicken breast, diced into 2-3cm cubes

1. Sweat the onion in a small pot with veg oil and salt.
2. When the onions are on the verge of browning, add the rice and coat all the grains in the oil.
3. Add a couple of ladles of chicken stock and stir gently. Keep stirring as frequently as you can, adding stock as you go. Stirring the rice helps give it a creamy consistency without adding cream.
Keep the stock hot so you don't keep reducing the cooking temperature of the rice.
4. After about 10 minutes taste the rice for seasoning and bite. When it is a bit too al dente, add the chicken with another ladle of stock.
5. For the last minute or so of cooking, add the peas and a large pinch of spice mix, if you still find it too bland.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 3

Last week I gave some advice to a radio presenter who was taking the Live Below The Line challenge a week earlier than most participants. Here is a summary of that advice:

1. Team up with at least one other person. There are economies of scale when you purchase things like a bag of rice or pasta and by pooling resources, you can have a much more varied diet during the 5 day challenge.

2. You have probably bought some ingredients that are fairly bland on their own (rice, porridge, pasta, potatoes) but don't have much left to buy other ingredients. Remember to keep a little money left over so you can dip into things in your dry store. This week, spices and cayenne pepper are your friend. Don't forget you'll also need veg oil (I use rapeseed) and salt, but you won't need a whole bottle or a whole tub, so you take some from your stores and charge a prorated amount to your budget. When it comes to spice mixes, I tend to keep Garam Masala, Curry Powder and Ras el hanout in my cupboard.

3. Colour = flavour. That's what someone taught me and it's what I told John and Gregg if I burnt something on MasterChef! One of my old colleagues would make us all hungry by making toast at about 4pm in the afternoon. There's a reason that the smell of toast is so enticing - the bread is already cooked but toasting it caramelises the surface. The same is true of onions - when I have a hotdog, I like the onions sticky and brown so they are caramelised and sweet, edging towards bitter. I hate it when the onions look like they've been poached in water. No colour, no flavour.

4. If you're using a chicken, don't throw away the carcass - use it to make a stock which will give more flavour to rice or vegetables than cooking them in water. Chop the carcass with a cleaver and rinse to remove any blood and guts which can make the stock cloudy and bitter. I made a brown chicken stock rather than a white one because it smells and tastes more of roast chicken. Fry the chopped bones until well browned then add a carrot and an onion (both quartered) and brown them slightly. I leave the skin on the onion for extra colour. Then add three litres of water, salt and a bay leaf and bring it to the boil. Reduce immediately to a very gentle simmer so you can skim it. Simmer for at least 2 hours, with a lid to minimise water loss and maximise flavour extraction.

My next blog will include recipes.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 2

In my previous blog (Part 1), I outlined the shopping list for Live Below The Line and what I planned to do with it. One of the major advantages of taking this challenge with a friend is that you can pool the £5 budgets and get more variety into the food. When I first agreed to the challenge, I assumed that our diet would be exclusively vegetarian, but our biggest extravagance this week is a chicken.

Chicken is generally cheaper than other meat (often worryingly cheap) and I'm sure we all eat far too much of it. But this particular blog isn't about the ethics of eating chicken or meat. There are many other people who research and write on this topic far better than me. This blog is about Live Below The Line, a campaign to raise awareness about the 1.4 billion people in the world that live on less than £1 a day.

The reason that the chicken is an extravagance is that it occupies 40% of our weekly budget, so I have been very conscious about getting the most out of it. On the way home from Scotland, we stopped at Westmorland Farm Shop in Cumbria and bought a local chicken for £4.00 exactly. It weighed in at just under 1.4kg (i.e. £3 per kilo).

By jointing the chicken myself, I reckon I have managed to get 12 portions out of it (that's about 30p per portion), before including the portions of soup that I will make from the stock. Admittedly, the portions are not particularly generous.

2x 170g chicken breast fillets
2x 30g chicken breast mini-fillets
2x 150g chicken thighs
2x 100g chicken drumsticks
2x 80g chicken wings
1 chicken carcass, about 400g

I compared how much this would cost if the supermarket did the butchery for you.

2 chicken breasts, £6.16 for 400g
2 chicken thighs, £1.43 for 300g
2 chicken legs, £0.85 for 200g
2 chicken wings, £0.65 for 160g
Chicken stock, £2.69 for 500g

That works out at almost £12 per kilo, butchered, compared to the £3 per kilo for the whole chicken. The most expensive cut is the breast, which at more than £15 per kilo, is more expensive than some cuts of beef!

I'll save some of the details of what I did with the chicken for a subsequent blog.