For several months now I’ve struggled to work up any enthusiasm whatsoever for cooking. It had reached the point where a pall of gloom settled over me an hour or so before the evening meal was due. Partly it was depression, mostly it was having struggled with cooking for a picky, allergy-prone family for too many years. But things deteriorated to the point where I was spending a fortune on food, yet throwing far too much away, both cooked and uncooked, and resorting to takeout all too frequently.
I decided that a new cookery book might be the inspiration I needed, because the real problem seemed to be a dearth of ideas. Since we grow veggies and we’re into the whole natural, go-with-the-seasons thing, I thought River Cottage might fit the bill, but when I looked at Hugh F-W’s tomes in the shop, I couldn’t justify spending £25.00 on a lavishly-illustrated paean to the joys of hedgerow foraging to make preserves and butchering my own pig. The TV chef stuff did nothing for me either – most of these works of art have, if you’re lucky, a 10% success rate at best in terms of what you get around to trying more than once. The rest is aspirational gastro-porn.
On the way to the exit, I spotted a large, refreshingly plain volume called "The Kitchen Revolution", which promised to "change the way you cook and eat forever, saving time, money, effort and food". What I liked about it was that it was jam-packed with recipes, surprisingly sparse in many lavishly-illustrated celebrity chef-authored books these days. And the fact that it didn’t contain a single illustration.
So I handed over £25.00 – a lot, I’ll admit, and in return I got a whole year’s worth of menus, seasonally arranged complete with shopping lists. The whole shebang can be downloaded from here if you’re intrigued. There’s even a Facebook page (that’s where the pictures are). Since it’s the planning I detest, rather than the cooking itself, it’s an attractive proposition.
The concept’s this. You start the week by cooking a big meal from scratch – something like a pot-roast with matching root veggie mash and greens. Although this takes a while, increase the quantities and you’ll have sufficient leftovers for the next two recipe suggestions. For example, this week’s pot-roast feeds into beef for a stirfry the next day, and colcannon cakes with sausages for the following, both relatively quick and easy once the grunt work’s done. Midweek brings a seasonal supper suggestion, and a storecupboard meal (though it’s a well-equipped storecupboard that can run to chorizo sausage and smoked mussels at the footfall of those pesky unexpected guests – and most of my unexpected guests are teenagers who wouldn’t touch either with a barge-pole, but that’s what breaded chicken freezer pieces are for, isn’t it?)
Finally, before the cycle starts afresh, there’s a "two for one" meal suggestion that allows you to make one, freeze one, both serving four people. The other thing I liked is that the writers are very specific about little things you can do to get ahead in the occasional spare few minutes.
Anyway, armed with my list for October Week Four I ventured forth to my local vegan grocery co-op, Polish baker and deli and Asian supermarket on Friday afternoon. One is ethical with exquisite veg and virtually no food miles (they’ve just started growing stuff on the roof of the shop, I kid you not). One is indulgent and exotic, and the Asian one is cheap and brilliant for smoothies and herbs. They don’t have a website yet but, for some reason, you can always rely on them to have plain choc Bounty bars, and there aren’t many places you can say that about these days. It took about two hours and I needed the car because five squashes and vast quantities of swede, turnip, carrot and spuds were involved, but I returned home with the warm glow of virtue that comes from being middle-class and avoiding supermarkets in favour of the kind of retail outlet that makes habitat for redstarts on its roof.
Next day, I started on the Lemon Butternut Squash Lasagne. This is supposed to take an hour from start to finish – in fact it took me almost that long to peel and chop the squashes, and I have a blister on my little finger to prove it. If you’re around my age, that’ll make you start humming "I want my MTV" and recalling a Knopfler riff from Live Aid, but I digress. Two and a half hours later, I had two enormous lasagnes to show for my efforts, stuffed with good things like squash, leeks (from the garden), ricotta and creme fraiche – this is not a low-fat option. When all that was done, I went off to Lakeland Limited and spent £80.00 on freezer boxes, etc, and other things that seemed necessary at the time. I also priced up overflow freezers – what was that about saving money? But my own is full of Birds’ Eye Potato Waffles and soya ice cream.
We ate about 10% of the lasagne yield for tea and were absolutely stuffed. "I guess that’s the rest of the week covered, then?" asked DH, and was surprised when I told him I had to start again on the Pot Roast tomorrow. That took a bit longer – again peeling industrial quantities of veggies was the main problem, and the fact that the kids both wanted totally different things to eat when they heard that wine and bay leaves were involved (at least I’d avoided the book’s original suggestion of venison "cheap and plentiful at this time of year"). I suppose, between 8 hungry people, £15 for a haunch of dead Bambi could be regarded as reasonable.
Well, it was the most delicious Sunday dinner I’ve had for many a week – gorgeous tender beef rich with wine and stock, cooked long and slow – a rich but healthy mash of eight winter veggies and even the curly kale was quite palatable for something so virtuous. And it only took me three hours or so, plus another hour and a half rearranging the fridge to fit in all the leftovers – three individual portions of mash, plus a larger one to go with the Sausages, Balsamic Gravy and Colcannon Cakes on Wednesday evening, four huge lumps of Squash Lasagne with matching sauce and, hey wait a minute, what’s with all the bok choi and peppers in here? Oh yes, tonight is stir-fry night, isn’t it?
It didn’t help with the fridge situation that we harvested our sweetcorn yesterday – two massive tupperwares of cobs, and where can I fit those into the general scheme of things when the seasonal supper is mushroom curry? And don’t say I needn’t bother. I made the garam marsala two days ago (wanted to get ahead) and I can’t waste that.
But the interesting thing is, despite the vast quantities of food involved, my food bill so far is half the usual, which probably says volumes about the pernicious efffects of impulse buying in Tesco and general disorganisation. Food for thought indeed. Meanwhile, please drop by anytime, particularly if you like butternut squash lasagne.