Back to Basics
Julia Childs - “People who love to eat are always the best people.”
In days of yore human-beings stocked their kitchen cupboards. These closets of wonder even had special names - the Pantry for posh types in big houses or Larder for the not so grand. Folk got in the essentials which meant that on a freezing cold winter's evening when someone staggered in from an 18 hour shift gravel mining or peasant beating (depending on social status) they could rustle up a plate of filling hearty fare for next to nothing.
Somewhere along the way we've lost the plot when it comes to food. Yet, with a few kitchen basics and a smidgen of time & thought we can get back on track and eat healthier, tastier & indeed way cheaper food.
However, in order to do this sort of thing you must:
A. Be able to cook to some extent (easily learned).
B. Have a few basic ingredients to hand.
C. Possess some kind of cooking pot/pan & the means to heat it.
This all probably sounds a tad obvious but having in my youth flat-shared with several folk who quite literally couldn't boil an egg I don't think I'm too far off the mark. Funnily enough they couldn't wash dishes, clothes or hoover either. Thank God for those fondly remembered all-too-rare 'roomies' who could make something out of nothing.
So, after the usual preamble as you've probably guessed I want to go right Back to Basics. Let's start at the very beginning because, according to Julie Andrews, it's a very good place to start. You're staring at the cupboard. It's bare. It demands to be filled. You want to fill it. But with what? Where to begin? So many foodstuffs, so little time (and money). Right then. Here we go.
Do remember - we're talking basic here - just enough to get you up & simmering.
(you can get these for around 40 cents a pop in Lidl, Aldi or any semi-decent supermarket)
Spices: (see Lidl/Aldi tip above)
(As with the herbs these are what I tend to have in at all times. Go crazy - you get whatever you want!)
Stock is totally brilliant stuff. Well, you've seen the Marco-Pierre White Knorr ads haven't you? Just so happens he/they are right. If you want flavour - add stock. Simple.
Last but not least grab one of these. God forbid you don't know what it is. (I'm thinking of a 15 year-old lad in my daughter's Home Economics class who picked one up - it's a garlic bulb - and said, 'Jesus. Like, what's with the weird mushroom?') Anyway, I'm going to get into Veggie basics at a later stage but all will become clear at the end of the post as to why the pungent little tyke has made an early appearance. Stay calm - the answer is a mere paragraph away.
Reckon you've spent enough now - if in Ireland I'd say about €25 for the lot. With your last tenner grab a bottle of plonk. If you've got more grab two. Stagger home with your bags if you drank the wine outside the shop. My advice is to wait & have it when you get in. Lovingly fill your shelves. Feel a bit smug. Take 'selfies' standing in front of your stocked larder & share with friends. Realise you're starving. What to cook? Well, that's easy & that's why you needed the garlic & spaghetti. I couldn't do a food blog & let you go hungry now could I? Here's my great friend Merven's totally deliciously fab recipe for Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Oil & Garlic - there are chilli-flakes in there too - zingy & very, very good)
Aaaahhhhh - this picture makes me pine for the Greek islands. There's nowhere I'd rather be. Well, sadly I'm not there and if you're reading this you're probably not either. After all, why would waste your time on such things when you could be merrily wiggling your pinkies in the Aegean?
I first discovered the marvelous thing known as Tzatziki many many years ago. In fact it was the first truly Greek dish I ever ate. Having fled the horrors of a dreadful insurance job in London I found myself back-packing around the Cyclades. On the way out to the islands - on board the legendary 'Georgios Express' - I got chatting with a feisty bunch of Aussie girls. One was of Greek descent and had the nonchalant air of someone who knew her kalamatas from her keftedes. To her evident disgust I told her I'd never eaten a scrap of anything Greek in my life. With a sigh she said, 'Right then. Remember these and you won't go far wrong - Tzatziki, Souvlaki and Greek Salad.' She even scribbled them down in the back of my Berlitz Pocket Guide to Greece.
I departed the ferry at Ios for no other reason than someone had once told me it was a good place to go. It wasn't and best avoided but that's another story. After nearly 24 hours of non-stop travelling I was starving. So hungry in fact I couldn't think straight. The nearest Taverna beckoned. I ordered a beer and looked at the menu but didn't really need to. 'Wha' you want?' the waiter snarled. Smugly I replied, 'Tzatziki, Souvlaki and a Greek Salad.' The whole lot came with a pile of fresh bread as is the Greek way. It was one of the best meals of my life and I wolfed it down.
Ok - enough reminiscing. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. By the way, you'll have to set aside nearly 10 minutes out of your busy day for this one.
I got my youngest Katie to help. She's much much prettier than me anyway. In all seriousness though, Tzatziki is probably the easiest food you'll ever make and a great way of getting the kids involved. Once learned - never forgotten. And it's great fun too - just look that happy face for goodness sake!
To feed 4 you will require:
If there are 2 of you half the amounts, if 8 double, if 16 quadruple etc. etc. etc.
And now on to the method: (warning - this is incredibly tricky)
Pour your yoghurt into a largish bowl.
Here's the Cucumber bit. Personally I prefer to 'julienne' my cucumber but that's just me. Basically it means cutting it into slices then slicing again until you're left with strips which should be roughly 1/4 cm in diameter. Then you simply slice the other way until left with a pile of tiny chunks. If you can't be bothered with that sort of carry-on grate the cucumber using the coarse side of the grater. It's a lot quicker, carries less risk of injury & more or less achieves the same end result.
Ok - place shredded or diced cucumber on a couple of sheets of kitchen roll. Plonk another couple on top and let some of the moisture soak in. While that's happening machete your lemon in half, stick a fork in one of the halves (into the open fruity end) and twist a little lemon juice into the yoghurt (be careful here - not too much - a single twist will do). Then add about 3 pinches of salt, a generous pinch of ground black pepper and your 3 teaspoons of red or white wine vinegar. By the way, I mean the type of vinegar you'd use for salad dressing - not bunging on your chips. Remove the diced/grated cucumber from it's snuggly bed of kitchen roll and plonk into the mix. Give the whole lot a good old stir. Or follow my lead and get your offspring to do it while you have another glass of something refreshing.
Right then - this is the best bit - battering the living daylights out of your garlic. Remember to peel the little beggars & if you have a mortar & pestle all the better. Bung your peeled cloves in the bowl, add a little pinch of salt (I think it makes the bashing easier) and smash away until you're left with a thick garlic paste. Alternatively use a garlic press or chop 'em up as finely as you can (see handy yet violent tip on last post). When that's done whack your garlic (which should be nicely pungent at this point) into the yoghurty/cucumbery mix.
Then chop up your mint - bung that in as well - give it all another mix. Have a taste. Add a little more of whatever's needed. Cover it & stick the whole lot in the fridge for at least 2 hours. It can be eaten straight away & will taste lovely but honestly letting all the flavours infuse for a couple of hours - or in true Greek style overnight - is well worth it!
Sprinkle a little olive oil over the top and garnish with couple of fresh mint leaves (if you have them). Serve with loads of crusty bread as a Starter or as part of a Main Course. Makes a terrific dip - goes brilliantly with breadsticks & crudités. Marvelous with all sorts of meats - for example keftedes (Greek meatballs), souvlaki or gyros. Great simply to have alongside your salad too. If this doesn't instantly whisk you back to the best holiday of your life out on the Greek Islands then nothing will.
My kids love Tzatziki with bread for lunch. It keeps really well in the fridge for a few days too. The whole lot - using the yoghurt shown (bought in Lidl - where else) costs well under 2 Euros to make. What's not to love?
Wine: A nice crisp white does the job with this. Suggest a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio in the absence of Retsina (if you can get your mitts on that so much the better).
Tune in next time for Drew's Dinners - Back to Basics. Yassou!!!
Right then - it's the weekend again - mid-month, rent or mortgage paid (hopefully - otherwise this is the last thing you're thinking about) and after the previous post your fridge is stuffed to the gills with nothing but unused jars of Birbeck's 'No-Brainer' Tomato Sauce. 'Damn!' I hear you cry. 'It'll all go to waste & I'll have to order a Chinese take-away.' Fear not 'cos here's something you can do before rustling up the next batch.
Tis the season of reasonably priced veg and this is a great way of sneaking them into those who least expect it. It's cheap as chips to boot. Should the little tykes in your life shriek in unfettered delight at the sight of McDonald's Golden Arches then this is definitely one for you. Similarly if you co-habit with, or indeed are a die-hard carnivore yourself, it can be used as the base for a really tasty bolognese. Or you can bung it on meatballs, slap it on chicken, whack it on a chop, have it on a Halibut...
Now comes the edgy bit - and for bringing the fine art of veggie chopping to a whole new level I must give all credit to my good friend Merven whose Italian Recipe Blog is second to none. For the absolutely authentic taste of Italy click here:
Now back to we chuck it in the pan stressed out just got in from work/pub/argument with nut-case on the Bus types.
For 4 people you will require:
Ok - now what? Smash 'em all up with a rolling pin? Well, you can if you want - always good to work out the aggression before the other half appears. Alternatively, take a deep breath and get out a really sharp knife, a peeler and a chopping board. If you've got one of those posh 'chopper/hoosher-uppers' I mentioned last time that could work too but only if it chops finely rather than over-hooshes which leads to unpleasant mush. Suggest here too a glass of wine as this process takes a while yet is strangely therapeutic. I guess when you're trying not to hack off your fingers the brain ponders on little else.
Ok - slurp that wine - top up your glass again - feed the cat - and start to peel your veg. Oh, just wash the celery stick - they're impossible to peel - leave the celery leaves to one side too - they can be hacked up & go in as well. Remove garlic clove from bulb (handy tip with garlic coming up in a jiffy).
Now laid before you are the peeled carrots (make sure they're beheaded), 1/2 an onion and a gleaming celery stick. Drain your glass & re-charge. Have another glug. After all you've earned it - it's Friday and you're being healthy while all your colleagues are whooping it up at Max's Crazy Two-for-One Cocktail Hour for goodness sake!
Back to the food...
Time to slice & dice. Maybe lay off the wine for this one. Again, thanks to Merven for the tips here. Slice your carrots length-ways into individual strips about 1/4 cm thick. Then do the same again until you're left with loads of long thin bits. You can carry on being all precise if you want or simply finely dice here as best you can. It all depends on the sharpness of your implement, the quantity of wine consumed, and whether at this point you give a damn one way or the other. Anyway, the end result should be a lovely mound of relatively finely chopped carrot. Do the same with your celery, remembering to use the leaves too (they add loads of flavour) then chop your onion into teeny-weeny little pieces. Now comes the fun bit with your garlic clove. Place clove (which still has that annoying parchment-like covering) on your chopping board. Place hefty chopping knife flat on clove. I'LL RE-ITERATE HERE - FLAT ON CLOVE - NOT SHARP SIDE UP AS THEN YOU'LL HAVE TO GO TO A&E. Right then - 1,2,3 - with all your pent-up aggression smash down on flat knife (with clove underneath) using the palm of your hand (forehead not recommended). Result! Clove shoots out of kitchen window or lodges itself in the cat's ear. If neither occur glance furtively under knife and behold a load of smushed-up garlic. If you're the timid type you may need to chop a little more. If inherently prone to violence all should be well.
Have another glug and wipe away the oniony/garlicky tears of joy.
Grab a decent saucepan/frying pan and slop in a few hearty dollops of olive oil. Nonchalantly toss in your veg. Don't wait 'till the oil is hot as the whole lot could burn instantly & turn all nasty, crispy and brown. Give it all a shimmy-shake and let the aromas infuse your bedsit. Turn the heat down low as low can be and gently simmer. Bung in a twist of black pepper if you're feeling wild. Stir every now & then. Drizzle more oil if required. Locate your veggie stock cubes - they're at the back of the cupboard with a March 1998 sell-by date. Throw them out. Turn off the pan. Run around to your weird old neighbour to see if he/she has one. He/she does - phew! Triumphantly return to the kitchen bearing your bounty. Stick the pan back on & let the lot gently fry until the onions are see-through (about 10 mins should do it). Grab that jar of 'No Brainer' sauce from the fridge, flick off the lid, sniff appreciatively (after all you made it), slosh the lot into the pan with the veg. Open your stock cube - lightly massage between your fingers and let it crumble into the mix. If it's all drying out a little add a slosh of water, or wine, or both. Give it a stir. Bring it to the boil. Turn it down again. Simmer for 30 minutes or so. Have a taste. Chuck in some herbs, either oregano or basil are good. Drain the dregs of the bottle and open another one. God knows you deserve it. Light a few candles. The other half will be back any minute. Slide some good pasta - Conchiglie works (looks like sea-shells & holds the sauce within its ample folds) - into a cauldron of well-salted (ie. several good pinches) boiling water. Here's another Merven tip & it's a gem - always cook your pasta for 1 minute less than it says on the packet. When the pasta is cooked al dente (with a little bite) drain it in a colander. Take your bubbling sauce off the heat, tip in the pasta and give it all good stir until nicely coated. Answer your mobile. Have screaming row with other half as he/she is whooping it up at Max's Crazy Two-for One Cocktail Hour. Hang up quickly as your food is getting cold. Serve yourself a double helping. Grate. Garnish. Curse. Re-fill your glass. Eat. Drink. Make plans to change the locks. Enjoy!
Get inventive with this - it's really just a variation on last weeks. After all cooking's about learning some basics and then experimenting (within reason). If you want to use veg that's knocking about your fridge feel free & uninhibited! Just remember not to over-cook courgettes as they turn to unpleasant mush - same with peppers. Similarly aubergines require a bit (maybe a lot) of forward planning. And yes - this is a great sauce to have with meat & some types of fish too. If you like to spice things up a bit chop & fry-up a bit of fresh chilli with the carrots, onion etc. Chopped pitted Black Olives go well too - if you like Black Olives (which I do). Anyway, I'll get more into all this at a later stage as I reckon we need to leave tomato sauce behind for a while. Next time - something completely different!
Barbera d'Asti - my friend Elaine of the superb Toffoli's Italian Retaurant & Deli (if in Dublin put it top of the list) reminded me about this one. You'll find Toffoli's here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Toffoli/153882851315585?fref=ts
Anyway, the wine is bloody marvelous and as luck would have it Tom at my local off-licence just got in a few cases at a good price too. Give it a bash - goes really well with pasta & meat dishes.
Farewell for now & have a terrific weekend...
Birbeck's No-Brainer Tomato Sauce
Ok - this is a great one for the weekend. Hands up if you recognise these? C'mon, there's no shame in it. Yes - they're Lidl tinned plum tomatoes and the last time I looked cost 37 cents. They're bloody good too - full of flavour and far tastier then the Tesco equivalent. Anyway, just grab a tin of something similar (there's probably one lurking furtively at the back of your kitchen cupboard) & you then hold within your grasp the base for a brilliantly versatile tomato sauce.
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty however I'll bore you with the story of how I discovered this. Poverty and illness tend to focus the mind. When the two combine it's amazing how resourceful you can be. So, there I was in the wilds of West Cork - two young kids, as sick as a parrot after a lengthy hospital stay, utterly skint, totally isolated and with a mountain of unpaid bills. How, I pondered, could I feed my family for next to nothing? Oh, I couldn't drive either (see aforementioned illness) so needed something that could be rustled up easily with bulk bought ingredients. Honestly, I can't remember how this recipe fell into my lap, maybe it was in the Sunday paper, who knows? But fate sent it my way and I'll be eternally grateful because without exaggeration it damn near saved our lives. My kids (one of whom is hitting 17 now) still love it. We all do. Once 'mastered' you'll be able to rustle up a meal for two for under a euro and save a fortune on all those nasty 'Dolmio' /'Ragu' jars & stir-in sauces that taste vile (due to the horrendous amount of additives, sugar & salt) and cost a fortune to boot. You'll never give your kids tinned spaghetti again either because after tasting this they'll quite rightly refuse to eat it. So do your arteries, gut, offspring and wallet a favour and learn this one. A jar of 'Dolmio' may never darken your kitchen again.
Right then, this is simplicity itself:
Ingredients - Tomato sauce - 4 people
(by the way, I often cook up loads at a time. Plonk it in your old 'Dolmio' jars and store in the fridge for a week or so - make sure the jars are properly sealed of course)
That's it - no kidding!
Ok - here's how you cook it.
Empty your tins of plum tomatoes into a saucepan. Grab a sharp implement & hack the squidgy blighters (quite satisfying - not sure why - best not over-analysed). Place saucepan on hob and start bringing to the boil. While that's happening peel your onion. Once that's done bung it in the pan with your bubbling tomatoes. Add the knob of butter and give it all a wee shimmy and stir until the butter is nicely melted. Add your generous pinch of salt & pepper. Stand back, admire and turn the heat down low to a simmer. Sniff the air appreciatively because your kitchen smells all tomatoey and nice. Place lid on saucepan and let the whole lot gently bubble for 30 minutes. Read the paper, talk to your children, or crack open the wine - whatever. Do sporadically check to see if the mixture's drying out - if so add a splash of water. Easy eh? Once 30 minutes are up take the saucepan off the hob, remove entire onion and here's where a choice must be made - do you go satisfyingly chunky or slick and smooth? For me it depends what mood I'm in. If you're feeling chunky just mash a little with a fork, if smooth whack the lot into what we call a 'hoosher-upper' (blender to normal folk) and hoosh away for a few seconds. Either way you have a delicious tomato sauce which can be used as the base for any number of recipes or, as we often still do, just cook up some pasta of your choice, pour on the sauce, sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese over the top & Bingo - there's the handiest mid-week dinner you ever did see!!!
Here's a few tips to make it even more fancy:
Honestly - including bread, side-salad, pasta & the homemade tomato sauce, this lot costs under €5 - that's a great meal at just over €1 per head. If you opt for just pasta & sauce (nothing wrong with that as long as there's loads of it) you can feed 4 people for €2 euros. For us it's a holiday lunch & mid-week dinner staple. What's not to like?
Next time I'll expand on the many uses of No-Brainer Tomato Sauce. Until then...
La Cambuse, Nice
Traditional niçoise fare in the middle of the flower market.
La Cambuse, 5 Cours Saleya, Nice Cote d'Azur, +33 (0)4 93 80 82 40,www.restaurantlacambuse.com; Lunch for two with wine: €90
In a ringside spot on the Cours Saleya, home of the famous Flower Market (daily except Mondays, when antiques replace the blooms), La Cambuse is an ideal place to sample some traditional Niçoise fare, best described as French-Italian fusion, and watch the world go by.
Service is efficient and friendly and the restaurant spotless. There's a comprehensive, good value table d'hôte menu - see the blackboard - offering Niçoise favourites such as petits farcis (tiny, delicious stuffed vegetables) andsoupe au pistou (a local version of minestrone, made with pesto) to start.
Daube à la Niçoise is a yielding slab of slow-cooked beef, best accompanied by a side order of excellent gnocchi - far more interesting than plain old potatoes. Fish lovers can enjoy uber-fresh sardines, served farcis (stuffed) or grilled, while vegetarians can opt for a salade chevre chaud (warm goat's cheese salad). A classic salad Niçoise, meanwhile, comes with tart, vinegary anchovies and fleshy black olives. Wash it all down with a carafe of local Provençal wine then order a crème brûlée, whose expertly fired surface crackle is perfectly primed to hit with the back of your spoon. Amélie would be delighted.
For a few more euros and a wider choice, you can opt for à la carte. The house speciality of filet de boeuf rossini (fillet steak topped with foie gras) is meltingly tender, and the gambas grillées ou Provençal (Provence-style giant shrimps) full of flavour and bite. Wines start at €12.50 per half bottle and €21.50 per bottle and the choice is impressive, if solely French (of course).
For dessert, bistro favourites such as tarte tatin, chocolate fondant, profiteroles and a light, zesty lemon meringue pie are beautifully executed. Children will love the comprehensive pizza menu too. At La Cambuse, much like Nice itself, there's something to please everybody.
Love food, from the Sunday fry-up to Octopus mezze. If it tastes good I'll eat it. And there's so much great wine and beer out there to wash it all down with. Having said that you can't beat a pot of good strong tea with the Sunday fry.