I never use recipes. Ever. Never have, never will. In my day-to-day cooking, I have always judged ingredients by eye. I adore recipes and cookbooks – I have a collection of at least a hundred – but have never seen the point in exactitudes, as I tend to invent and add, subtract and amend and adapt a great deal. The beauty of the recipe is more often than not in the writing, getting the gastronomic juices flowing alongside an appreciation for a particular author. Tamasin Day-Lewis is my current passion – Queen of the tart.
Unemployment is a good taskmaster in having to invent new ways to make cheap and boring food more interesting, to adapt recipes to use the minimum amount of cost as well as time. That is all very well, but add to it the fact that I cook for myself and Himself in a cupboard in St James – on a hob which is plugged into the wall and sits on a sink – and in an oven the size of a microwave.
Therefore my theme today, dear Gastronauts (to quote the late great Floyd of happy memory) is frugal food, or cooking on a budget. Now, I am aware that several will turn away from this in horror – you denizens of Mayfair quafferies and establishments where to dine is to encur hundreds of pounds-worths of dinner bills, but keep with it thou Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
When preparing sups it is necessary to ‘pimp’ (excuse the term, Himself’s turn-of-phrase) up Tesco or Sainsbury’s chicken:
A bunch of mint, coriander and or basil, roughly chopped works wonders bulking up a salad or stuffed inside a carcass. Wonderfully cheering to the poor thing. The best and often cheapest cut is the thigh – couple of quid for enough for two (which works out as about two each). Then I usually cover it in left-over red wine, lemon juice, olives, plenty of decent salt (flakes) and pepper, garlic, chopped shallots or onions, courgettes and / or aubergines, and a tin of tomatoes (generally about 35pence). The above are nearly all cheap and cheerful (excepting the olives, but you can find basic tins of black olives in Waitrose) and the olives make a big difference. Another cheapish and easy option with basic cooking is mixing a spice – I have a big thing for paprika at the mo – and blending with a decent nugget of butter or oil – enough paste to smear all over one side of the thighs. They’ll need plenty of s and p too.
A recent birthday party for Himself confronted me with cake making on a small-scale – but Sainsbury’s provided a loaf tin (£2) and their value chocolate (3 slabs of dark choccie at about 35p each). Himself loves chocolate mints – drools over After Eights (which I personally find yucky – the insides resembling nothing more than gunk from outer space). Bendicks I can see the point of….Anyhow, I decided to make a chocolate mint cake, as ever, on a budget.
First, as dear old Isabella Beaton would doubtless not say, take three eggs and whisk the whites in a bowl with a whisk or fork. They need to be frothy if not at the hard peak stage. Melt said chocolate in a pan with a dash of water (the books ALWAYS say use a bain-marie, but I rarely do as it’s completely unnecessary to my mind, and far too long-winded). Then (if not using mint) add a good teaspoon of cinnamon (I think with cheap chocolate this adds interest. If you’re that sort of person, you could add chilli – I’m not). Then stir in the egg yolks, and when they’re mixed in, fold in the whites. Mix in a whole bag of ground almonds (the only expensive bit, about £2). Make sure all the nuts are amalgamated with the chocolatey goodness – by the by I found the chocolate sweet enough not to add any extra sweetening agent. Then tip a third of the mixture into the loaf tin, laying mint leaves in between the layers so that the leaves are embedded in the mix. The mint was supermarket bunch bought on sale for 35p. Leave it in the oven long enough to cook and go crackly and gorgeous on the outside but not so long that it’s dried out in the middle. About 20 minutes to a half hour depending on the oven. The joy of it is in its simplicity and fastness of execution.
Obviously one must vary the amount of mint leaves depending on how strong you want the flavour. The almonds give a fabulous richness to any cake but also body. I remember first seeing dear Delia Smith doing a choccy Christmas log with no flour and although it looked wonderfully light, I like my chocolate confections incredibly rich, or what’s the bally point? Since childhood I’ve always dived head first into any pud on a menu which includes the word CHOCOLATE – back in the early ‘90s a thing called Death by Chocolate was very much in vogue, usually nothing of the kind (which I always felt rather aggrieved o’r. The mint worked very well, embuing the whole cake with a minty taste which bore no resemblance whatever to the horrible synthetic taste of After Eights. I have used the above chocolate recipe at several dinner parties over the years, last time I teamed it up with homemade (ish) ginger-nut icecream but it would also work well with raspberries or pears instead of the mint.