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Real food for me

7 March 2009 972 views No Comment

A spate of entertaining is about to descend on FatBigot Towers. For reasons lost in the mists of alcohol invitations seem to have been handed out willy-nilly for attendance at the domestic trough and, no doubt, I’ll have to do all the cooking. In an idle moment this afternoon I thought about the task ahead and wondered whether I should try some fancy dishes, the sort the cheffy types do on the telly. Fortunately I soon came to my senses. No matter how I approached the subject, I could see no good reason for the menu at FatBigot Towers to list anything other than real food – meat, roots and shoots.

Not that I am decrying poncy nosh, it’s rather good fun once in a while to spend a lot of money you don’t have on very small portions that taste amazing considering how minuscule they are. There is no point pretending they are a meal, though, they are a fancy snack pretending to be a meal. I’ve tried making that sort of stuff from time to time and have been quite pleased with the results (leaving aside the many abject failures, of course), but it’s an awful lot of work and time and the end product can’t soak up much booze, so it’s not really suitable for a communal feast with sensible people. The last time I tried something fancy it was from a recipe by Gary Rhodes. Mr Rhodes is the man who finally persuaded me that cheffy stuff isn’t real food because he advised that the gravy should be strained through muslin. I mean, really! How has it come to this, that ordinary people who want to try something a bit different have to invest in lengths of muslin and remember not to use fabric conditioner when washing it so as to avoid the sauce getting cloudy? It’s all too much fuss and quite disproportionate to any possible benefit.

So I returned to casseroles, roasts, pies, soups and puddings, the stuff I grew up with and everyone I know grew up with. And the thing is, it’s so simple. Of course it takes time to work out a combination of ingredients that provides a decent dish, but once that is done you have decades ahead of you in which you can fill tummies to general satisfaction. You also pick up a few little tricks to call on if something goes wrong, but none of them requires a PhD in anything.

Having said that, some people just don’t enjoy cooking and others suffer from culinary dyslexia. I know someone who had such a flatmate long ago in undergraduate days, she neither could nor liked to try cooking. On one memorable occasion she was microwaving a pre-prepared meal and exclaimed “Oh god, I hate all this bloody cooking”. Fair enough, some just can’t get on with the whole thing, so be it, I am sure they are a tiny minority. There are plenty of chilled and frozen products to assist them, so they need not starve (unless they are strict vegans and refuse frozen food for fear it might contain real birds’ eyes).

For the last couple of years the cost of food has risen quite considerably, way ahead of average pay increases, so one might think more and more people will be turning to home cooking to keep the price down. The alternative is paying not only for the added cost of ingredients but also for the pleasure of having chicken curry extruded through a stainless steel nozzle in a factory and into a little plastic tray. If you can cut-out the factory and the plastic tray it seems obvious that a meal should be cheaper, and you will know exactly what has gone into it. Perhaps more are cooking proper balanced meals, I certainly hope so.

Yet still there is a stubborn group who seem unable to break the pizza and chips habit. These people’s dietary ways are quite beyond my comprehension. At Christmas I heard a distant relative was in hospital with chronic constipation. She is 18 years old and lives (without benefit of clergy) with her boyfriend who is the father of her 18 month-old child. They exist on a diet of cheap pies and pizzas from a well-known chain specialising in frozen food, always with chips. Fruit and veg? You must be joking, the closest they get to fresh vegetables is the lettuce and tomato in their weekly Big Macs. Eighteen years old and hospitalised by the concreting qualities of so-called “convenience” foods. When she was even younger she was guaranteed one proper meal every week or two when she visited her grandparents on Sunday and was presented with a proper meal of roast meat and piles of fresh veg, but those days are behind her. Now she just eats the easy stuff because that is what her mother provided and, frankly, she is too lazy and too blinkered to do anything else. Unless her habits change there seems every prospect of further hospitalisation in the future, it’s a desperate situation.

I wonder whether it would take more than someone teaching her a few simple, cheap, nutritious recipes. What about minced beef and onions with peas and mash? Do it the easiest possible way. Hack up a couple of peeled onions, never mind fancy slices, just chop them up a bit, stick the mince in a frying pan and stir it while it cooks, add the onions, crumble in an Oxo cube, add some water. Peel and boil a few potatoes, drain them and mash with a masher. Boil some frozen peas. It’s not haute cuisine but you don’t even need to bother with optional extras like herbs or spices in with the mince or a thickening agent for the gravy, it’s still a good balanced meal and cheap. Or get £2 worth of diced stewing steak at the supermarket, throw it in a casserole dish with a chopped onion, Oxo and water and stick it in the oven for a couple of hours. Mash and peas again if you want, or boiled spuds to save the tedious effort of spending a minute with a masher in your hand. It’s really very very simple to turn out basic balanced meals. The level of skill required is no greater than opening a box containing a frozen pizza and remembering to cook it for thirty minutes rather than forty.

The forthcoming guests at FatBigot Towers will get basic simple stuff. There will be no risk of constipation because there will be plenty of veg to go with the casseroles, roasts and pies. I will know exactly what has gone into each meal and they won’t get within sniffing distance of an E Number (the system by which artificial food additives are classified by the EU, for those who don’t know the term). It’s not rocket science, as the saying goes, it’s just the provision of the fuel we all need in a cheap and, I hope, tasty combination. It will also provide plenty of blotting paper to help absorb the wines they will bring and, with any luck, a fine time will be had by all.

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