Read an Excerpt
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 realize, 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 there is a divide between people 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 such 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 package 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 programs 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 skeptical of frozen dinners, factory-farmed 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 realized 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 marshaled 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 vegetable plant. These can all kick-start 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 grocery cart away from the frozen-dinner aisle and over toward fresh produce. Or perhaps start heading for the nearest farmers’ market 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 vegetables are dealt with in our house, how we juggle breakfast for three hungry schoolkids, 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 favorites) are made from leftovers. I try to show you how to put vegetables and fruit at the forefront of your family cooking, while getting 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 rutabaga and a turnip, or whether you 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, potatoes, beans, and your daily bread.
Above all, I intend to tempt you irresistibly toward 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 favorites, and the favorites 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 a first priority for you, not just once in a while, but every day.
A few of my favorite 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 pantry 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 flavor 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 (but not always) means a refined oil of some kind.
Canola oil 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 color and a gentle nutty flavor. Canola oil is mild enough to use in mayonnaise but has enough character to contribute to a dressing, or to add flavor when drizzled on bread or soup. In addition, it’s stable enough at high temperatures to be used for frying or roasting – though perhaps not prolonged deep-frying. You may well be able to find a good one produced locally.
Olive oil I use quite a bit of olive oil but I don’t worship it. I no longer use it much for frying or roasting; canola oil has supplanted it as the first oil I reach for. I’m much more likely to use it for dressings and for general drizzling, and even then only if it’s that distinctive olive oil flavor 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 don’t use the super-expensive “luxury” olive oils – although once in a while, when someone gives me an exquisitely peppery, richly flavored olive oil (usually Tuscan), I am reminded what all the fuss is about.
Sunflower oil This is a very lightly flavored 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 flavor would be too strong and it would most likely be adversely affected by the heat, but I do usually opt for organic and/or fair trade. After being used for deep-frying, sunflower oil can be recycled by straining it through a coffee filter or cotton cloth (when completely cold) and rebottling it. Don’t leave it sitting around in the saucepan or deep-fat fryer, or it will go stale and impart a rancid flavor to the next batch of fried goodies. Peanut oil is a good substitute for sunflower when a neutral frying oil is needed.
Hempseed oil People either love or hate the pungent, grassy, throaty flavor of hempseed oil. I love it. Its intensity means it compares to the very best olive oils and makes a great drizzling 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. I use it 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 flavors. 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, but white wine vinegar is a perfectly good alternative, if that’s what you happen to have in the pantry.
I like my flour stone ground if possible, as traditional stone grinding involves less heat than modern steel-rolling techniques, thereby preserving more of the grain’s goodness. Whole-wheat flour is more likely to be stone ground than white.
Different flours vary enormously, not only in quality but in their color, 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 whole-wheat 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 whole-wheat flour If I need all-purpose or pastry flour, then I favor one that’s produced from organically grown wheat. However, I’m increasingly turning to whole-wheat flour in order to make our everyday meals more wholesome – I like its toasty, wheaty flavor, too.
I’ve found there are few traditional “white” recipes that can’t be adapted to contain at least some whole-wheat flour – a half-and-half blend of white and whole-wheat flour is often very successful. I’ll happily knock out a Victoria sponge using whole-wheat pastry flour, which is fine-ground soft wheat: the result is very nearly as light and fluffy as you get with white flour but with a lovely, nutty flavor that I actually prefer. It also works well with muffins and pancakes.
Bread flour 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.
Spelt flour A grain I’m very fond of, spelt is an ancient type of wheat with a distinctive nutty flavor. It differs from conventional wheat flours in that it contains a more delicate kind of gluten, which some people find more digestible. Whole-grain 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.
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 anti-caking agents, added. It also tastes much better – do a comparative tasting and I think you’ll agree. Maldon sea salt, a flaky, coarse white salt, is a kitchen classic of long standing. There are times when a fine-grained salt is more appropriate than a coarse 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 coarse sea 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 natural foods store.