The Spoonie Kitchen – and how to survive in it…

Apologies, in advance, for the length, a tad over 5,000 words – you could always copy and paste it into your word processor, and either print it and/or read it at your leisure. Or not ;)

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I hope what follows is some help to those who find themselves spoonless all too frequently, but who can, on probably rare occasions, muster sufficient spoons, even with a disability, to cook properly.

The following lists represent what I have in stock as I write. The absence of something you think should be here means little except that I don’t have any right now.

Having been a fully-paid up spoonie for some years now, at the top of my personal what-the-hell? list is what to eat when I’m too buggered to even make cheese on toast.

Emergency food:-

Like any spoonie, I have a lot of those times, in fact, I can’t actually remember when I last had cheese on toast, and I love the bloody stuff. The apparently insurmountable problem is that my cooker has a low-level grill – think 7-dwarfs low! – and I can’t bend down far enough to see what’s going on in there, so I keep a small stock of foods which need as close to zero effort to prepare as you can get, and no bending!

Most things in cans qualify almost automatically, especially with ring-pull tops, and I have an assortment of soups (plus instant soups), canned steak and kidney puds (Fray Bentos, microwaveable), and John West Boneless Sardines in olive oil.

The latter are, arguably, the best sardines you’re likely to find in a supermarket – expensive, 99p for 67g, drained weight, of fish, but worth it, as not only are they filleted, they are perfectly de-scaled (sardines have scales that are out of all proportion to the size of the fish, and many canners don’t bother to de-scale), and de-finned too. I tip them onto a plate skin side up, separate the fillets, slosh on some  balsamic vinegar and chilli oil, wait an hour, then drain, and stuff into soft white baps with mayo (one can per bap – I like a high fish to bread ratio!).

Sainsbury’s do skinless and boneless sardines, but the texture is just bizarre – they appear to have been compressed somehow.

I have canned pasta, too. Heinz Macaroni Cheese, low-fat these days, so it gets added butter and maybe Parmesan** (always buy in the piece and grate as needed, it keeps well). Never buy the grated stuff, it tastes like dehydrated vomit. Got some canned spag bol too, wildly inauthentic, but OK.

**I detest food producers who decide, unilaterally, that a product will henceforth be low salt, low fat, or whatever. Nobody lives on canned macaroni cheese, ffs! And if they do they have bigger worries than the fat content.

A short while ago I Tweeted that I fancied some Heinz spaghetti in tomato, so last week I bought some – it’s disgusting! There’s no cheese any longer, just over-fat spaghetti with the texture of rained-on worms, in an acidic blood-red sauce that tastes of absolutely bugger all except a vague fruitiness. If there are tomatoes in there, they’re ashamed to own up. I used to love this stuff even just a few years ago – not any more. I bought 4 cans. Three are going in the bin.

Some canned pulses are good, too, for an impromptu meal. A can of butter beans, drained, rinsed, and gently warmed through in a little melted butter, salt and pepper and  a dash or two of Tabasco, make a quick meal with some bread to balance out the protein.

Then there’s noodles, of various sorts, with Batchelor’s Super Noodles topping the list. I normally bin the soup base packet (loaded with MSG), and use half a Kallo veg cube. Serve with soy sauce and a splash of sweet chilli sauce or sesame oil. Adding a good handful of frozen peas increases the protein content, as it does with rice.

There are always pies in the freezer (I have a mini oven, perfect for heating them and cheaper to run than the main oven). Pies are usually Birds Eye , as they seem to be the only people who have perfected pastry that doesn’t go rock hard when baked from frozen.

Also in the freezer are sausages of various sorts, black pudding, fish, from fish fingers to plaice fillets and whole sea bream, burgers, cheese and onion pasties, pies, hash browns, carrot and swede mash – way too much for a complete list without emptying the thing to see exactly what I’ve got.

Frozen chips are always there, too – if all else fails, toss some in the fryer, eat with salt and vinegar and some mayo to dunk them.

Someone once Tweeted, angrily, that McCain’s Homefries were rubbish fried, which just showed that the bugger can’t even cook chips. Deep-fry at 160C until crisp and golden – it’s not hard. (NB: Don’t trust the thermostat, buy a kitchen thermometer).

I also like to make a plate of chips and cover it with sliced corned beef, not cut too thick, so it melts. This works better with fresh chips (frozen go soggy quickly), and tastes pretty damn  good. There’s always a couple of cans of corned beef, and Spam, in the fridge.** And don’t knock Spam – there are far worse things you can eat than a fried Spam sarnie with HP sauce.

**Easier to slice chilled.

There’s usually a couple of ready meals in the freezer and, though they’re rarely inspiring, they do fill a hole with zero effort.

As does rice, and rather better, with just a little work. A bowl of basmati rice and frozen peas, well seasoned and with a good knob of butter stirred through, is easy and relatively quick, and if you want something tastier there are ample choices below that you can add to it (I usually go with Kikkoman soy sauce and a squeeze of sweet chilli sauce). Any left-over rice (with or without peas), should be buttered while still hot, then have a tablespoon of cider vinegar stirred through – I normally make extra just for this. Very good eaten cold the next day (room temperature, not fridge cold).

With rice, or noodles, you could always stir in some canned sardines, or a beaten egg, which greatly improves them nutritionally.

And last, but very much not least, let’s not forget cheese. If you have cheese and bread, you have a meal in minutes. Currently I have a goats’ cheese from Asda, that mimics thinly-sliced plastic perfectly, McLelland’s Seriously Strong Cheddar, and some Tesco Lancashire. I was enthusing, a few days ago, about how sensation the latter is, and speculating that I might well have just eaten the last of the summer cheese. That seems to have been the case, as I’ve just bought some more, and it’s a shadow of what it was. If it wasn’t for the label I’d have no idea it was supposed to be Lancashire. Texture and taste are both wrong, and it’s wet.

Cooking, for those times when you can:-

I tend to cook stews for the freezer when I’m able to cook, simply because you get maximum return on your effort – it takes only a little more work to make six portions than to make one or two, especially if you use pre-prepped veg.

The first thing to have, to make cooking easier and, especially, more varied, is a well-stocked kitchen cupboard. Of course, if you live in a flat like mine, you might find you don’t have a cupboard to keep well stocked (the stupid old fart that used to live here removed it!). Luckily, I had a dead fridge freezer which I use as a cupboard instead, having first removed part of the door seal to provide ventilation (the last thing you need is an air-tight cupboard – it’ll get musty quickly).

The important thing to remember is not to keep dried herbs and spices too long, and to keep them in tightly-capped jars away from the light. Some, like sweet paprika, I get through a lot of, so I buy in bulk rather than the tiny jars you get at the supermarket, need to be kept as dark as possible, and especially out of direct sunlight.

I mostly buy Schwartz  brand herbs and spices, as they’re better quality than supermarket own brand. In addition, they have a foil seal under the sprinkler cap – do not remove this. Just peel it back a little to get at the contents, then fold it down again, replacing the sprinkler cap tightly to keep the airtight seal.

I’ve an olive wood spoon which is the perfect size and shape for Schwartz jars, which are too narrow for a teaspoon. Sadly, these are no longer available, so do what I used to do, and measure spices into your palm (herbs too), before putting them in the pot. If you tip them straight into the pot from the jar, you’d better be pretty good at measuring quantities by eye (which will come with experience), because once it’s in, by the time you’ve realised there’s too much there’s no taking it out again, so best to err on the low side. You can always add more.

A thought – if you have a set of measuring spoons, the ½ teaspoon will fit the jars.

Dried herbs:-

Basil, Thyme, Marjoram, Oregano, Parsley, Mint, Sage, Juniper berries, Bay leaves, Celery salt (home-made). Purists and food snobs will insist on fresh herbs, but you and I know that, for spoonies, just popping out to the shops, on a whim, for a bunch of fresh thyme is something we can’t do. 99% of the time dried herbs are fine.

Dried basil is nothing like fresh, by the way. It does, though, impart a pleasant, if generic herby flavour to a dish which is useful in its own right. Beware of dried thyme in quickly-cooked dishes, it can be spiky (the more so with O-B versions which contain way too much shredded stalk), and is best used in stews and soups. If you want thyme in a quickly-cooked dish, either use fresh or make an infusion with dried, and use that.

Some herbs can be frozen. I freeze fresh rosemary (for lamb dishes), in a recycled tablet bottle** topped up with olive oil to protect it (the oil, of course, absorbs the flavour, and can also be used). Curly parsley can be frozen as is and will stay good for a couple of months. Fresh basil (I used to grow it in a pot on the window ledge and often wound up with more than I could use), can also be frozen using olive oil (olive oil is solid at freezer temperatures). Put the leaves in a plastic freezer bag, pour in the oil (naturally, you don’t use your best extra virgin for this), mix well with the leaves, suck out the air and seal. Then pat out the basil into a thin layer and freeze. That way you can just break off a lump when needed.

**Back when tablets and capsules still came in white plastic bottles, I was a hoarder, as the plastic is food grade, and they can be rinsed out and re-used.

Ground Spices:-

Paprika, obviously, Cumin, Coriander, Mace, Mixed spice (for cake), Cayenne pepper, Nutmeg (ground and whole), Black pepper, White pepper, Garlic granules (not certain whether this counts as a herb or a spice; I doubt it matters).

A note about pepper: Food snobs will insist that you use only freshly-ground black pepper (and, indeed, all spices), but we are spoonies, and twiddling the knob of a pepper mill 15-20 times is (often actually), a pain, as is pounding spices for a curry in a mortar with a pestle. I’ve tried battery-powered mills, but frankly they’re too weak and feeble to grind really fine. So I use Schwartz fine ground black (they also do coarse for those who like a little grit in their diet), and white pepper.

They both come packed in Cellophane which, unlike plastic, is impermeable to air, so it’ll keep well unopened, though I prefer to tip it into a screw-topped glass jar. I also have black peppercorns, which I use when cooking joints of meat (these are subsequently sliced and frozen in portions, with gravy made from the cooking liquor). For table use I have a small shaker for white pepper in which I keep no more than a teaspoon so it’s used quickly and doesn’t have time to deteriorate, for on-the-plate seasoning.

Again, food snobs will decry this as contributing nothing but a little heat. This might have been true many years ago, when the Lion brand with its cardboard tubs dominated the market, but these days  superior processing retains most of the volatile oils in both white and black ground peppers, as does packaging in Cellophane, and white pepper is a much more sophisticated product than it was when I was young. Bottom line – your palate, your choice. White pepper is traditional for light-coloured or white sauces, too, unless you want them full of black specks.

By the way, if you ever come across McCormick’s ground black pepper, grab some, it’s wonderful stuff.

Stock:-

Stock, for most people, comes in the form of cubes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have beef Oxo for beef dishes and for hot drinks, Kallo organic vegetable cubes, and beef cubes, Knorr lamb, Bovril and, in the fridge, Knorr Touch of Taste stock concentrate in chicken and beef flavours (I’ve tried gel pots which, in my view, are over-salty and over-rated).

The thing to do with stock cubes is combine them, so that you don’t get a single flavour predominating. So if I’m making a beef stew, say, I’ll use an Oxo cube, a Kallo vegetable cube**, and a splash of Touch of Taste beef (and maybe a little Bovril if the meat is poor quality, as it so often is these days). Using a little of each item avoids a stock in which any one of them dominates. Gravy mixes, which I’m coming to, also have a role to play in flavouring dishes.

**These are invaluable, as the stock they create is quite light, enhancing the dish rather than dominating it. They are pretty much my default flavouring, the base upon which I build the stock. Yes, I know that sounds pretentious! Don’t care…

Incidentally, a stew of pork or chicken, say, in a light-coloured sauce, is called a blanquette,** and you need to tailor the ingredients accordingly.  It’s not compulsory, of course, but a dark brown sauce would just feel wrong, even if it tasted right.

**My favourite is chicken, parsnips, and butterbeans flavoured with lemon zest, very simple, tastes amazing.

And the only reason pro cooks don’t use stock cubes (or admit to it, at any rate), is that they have the materials, the staff, and the time to make, clarify, and reduce all the stock they need. Or buy commercially-made stocks and tweak them.

We, of course, don’t.

A beef or lamb stew will benefit from the addition of a little HP sauce and soy sauce, added right at the start and allowed plenty of time to cook out. HP, in particular, lingers, so err on the side of caution and don’t add too much.

And that’s vital to remember when using stock cubes, concentrates or whatever – you must allow time for them to cook out and become one with the whole, and all soups and stews benefit from an overnight stay in the fridge so that the flavours get a chance to snuggle up to each other.

Gravy and sauce mixes:-

These are mainly Bisto products. I’ve no idea if they’re the best, but I like them and they work. Currently I have Caramelised Red Onion, Beef, and Chicken gravy mixes. All can be used as intended, and also as ingredients, if used with care. A little of the Caramelised Red Onion granules will enhance a beef stew nicely. The only sauce mix I have at the moment is Bisto Curry Sauce, decanted from its cardboard tub with an ill-fitting lid into a glass jar – handy if I get a sudden urge for curried eggs! Pity I have no eggs…

Bisto also do a decent Onion Gravy mix, and mixes for parsley and for cheese sauces, which are worth a try.

Sauces:-

HP, of course, Heinz ketchup, Branston sauce, Soy sauce (Kikkoman for preference), Oyster sauce, Nam Pla (fish sauce), Mushroom ketchup, Curry sauce (both Sainsbury’s and Tesco have squeezy bottles of curry sauce, which are perfectly fine), Mayo (Sainsbury’s French is streets ahead of the over-salted,** over-hyped Hellmann’s), Spanish Salsa Brava, Ali Oli (garlic mayo), Maile Dijon Mustard Mayo, Encona Sweet Chilli Sauce, and Tabasco.

**This isn’t down simply to perception, though it does taste excessively salty to me, it contains1.5% salt compared to Sainsbury’s French at 0.17%.

Seasonings:-

Sarson’s malt vinegar, Aspall Cyder vinegar, Sherry vinegar, Balsamic (Aspall Apple, and ordinary), Sea salt, any additive-free brand is OK for fine salt, but for cooking greens it just has to be Maldon flakes. And pepper, which I’ve covered in Spices. I also have LoSalt, which I really should use more (the past year my heart meds (now stopped), prevented me from using LoSalt, as it’s two-thirds potassium chloride, and the drugs caused potassium to be concentrated in the body, which is potentially dangerous.

Dried pulses:-

Marrowfat peas (because it seems impossible to buy canned ones that haven’t had mint added – only one person should make that decision – the consumer), Dried mushy peas,* Butter beans,* Pinto beans, Cannellini beans,* Chickpeas,* Judion de la Granja (large Spanish butter beans), Red lentils, Green split peas.

*Also in cans. Napolina brand is the best available but becoming elusive** – possible the price is keeping down sales though, in fact, they cost no more than it does to soak and cook your own.

**But Sainsbury’s have their butter beans on offer right now, 3 cans for £2.00.

Odds and sods:-

The place for items that fit nowhere else, like butter (for cooking), Clover (for spreading), Rice – Basmati and paella –  Sesame oil (light, not roasted, which is way too dominant), Dashi (Japanese stock powder), Capers in brine, Cornichons in sherry vinegar (they came in brine, which was dumped and replaced), Salted anchovies, Dehydrated mixed vegetables, mostly aromatics (some of which are ground to a powder and used to enhance soups and stews without adding more salt), Tomato powder (keeps better than purée), Onion powder,  Chilli oil (home-made), Dried shiitake mushrooms,** Dried field mushrooms (home-made),*** Dried chillies, finger-sized and hot, tiny and ferociously hot, and on occasion there’ll be whole-grain mustard made with apple juice and cider vinegar, and pickled eggs, both home-made. And let’s not forget extra-virgin olive oil – Sainsbury’s own brand is actually pretty good (I recently bought some Spanish extra virgin at almost exactly twice the price of Sainsbury’s – it was hugely inferior).

**Doesn’t matter what you do with these, the texture remains that of leather. I just cross-hatch the top, deeply, with a sharp knife, rinse to remove grit and dust, and toss a couple into a stew. Discard before serving.

***Flat field mushrooms can be cut into thin strips and dried on a radiator, then stored in a jar. Chop and add to stews.

The cornichons and capers, by the way, will be going into a home-made Sauce Tartare in the very near future, to which the sherry vinegar will add an extra dimension.

There’s also drinking chocolate, cocoa, coffee (Carte Noir decaff – I have a very nice La Pavoni  manual espresso machine, but I’m no longer allowed caffeine), a hell of a lot of flour, mainly for bread, and occasionally cake (lots of mixed fruit too). I buy my flour direct from the mill, in bulk, and freeze it.

Oh, and a clip-sealed plastic box of dried pigs’ blood.

Smash instant mash is always worth having in stock, both for use as, well, mash, and for tarting up into something tastier.

The easiest “something” is probably Aligot. Basically, this is just posy, French, cheesy mash, and the classic version involves a lot of work beating a pan-full of hot mash, cream, butter, cheese and garlic, over heat, until smooth and silky. Not spoonie-friendly at all, but my version is.

First, though, a word about Smash. This has two drawbacks. One, it never seems to have recovered from its naff early TV ads, with tin aliens mocking real spuds and, two, the pack instruction on how to make it are a bad joke and always have been, and will give you a child-size portion of tasteless pap. Both have conspired to give it a wholly undeserved rep for being utterly crap but, as in moth things, a little attention to details pays dividends.

So my basic Smash for one person goes like this:-

Note: Never use a food processor for any kind of mash, unless you have a fondness for wallpaper paste. A hand mixer is fine, but on the slow setting, though for a spoonie the weight rather offsets the reduced effort. I use a metal tablespoon.

In a heatproof basin, weigh out 60g of Smash for one good portion. Season well with sea salt and black pepper, and remember to season for the finished amount, not the small amount of powdered spud. Add a little freeze-dried parsley, if you wish, at this point. Also, allow a slice of butter to come up to room temperature (how thick a slice depends entirely on how buttery you like your mash – in my case, very).

Pour over enough boiling water to cover, and beat with a spoon – add more water if needed, but don’t get it sloppy – before the butter goes in it should be quite stiff, not fluid. Once there are no more white flecks visible, make a hole, put in the butter, and cover it. Leave for a few minutes to melt, then carefully, so it doesn’t splash, beat it in (add more hot water, if needed, to get your preferred consistency. I guarantee you that only the most faddy would find fault.

You can use olive oil instead of butter, and add a little Dijon mustard to either version if you wish. Personally I hate whole-grain mustard in mash, but feel free…

For Aligot, or cheesy mash, reduce the Smash to 50g, and when you add the butter add a good handful of grated mature Cheddar, or sharp, crumbly, Lancashire as well**, and stir well. A little Dijon goes well with the cheese.

**As with butter, the amount of cheese is a matter of personal taste. Lots is good…

This can be perked up – before adding water – by adding a couple of teaspoons of onion powder, or a little garlic granules to taste.

That’s it. You don’t even need to decant it onto a plate, eat it straight from the bowl (I have spoonie-friendly polycarbonate crockery, which weighs just a few grams), with lots of ketchup. A few Ritz crackers, to scoop it up, wouldn’t come amiss either.

And, like all recipes, this has taken far longer to describe than it does to make.

Not quite as simple, but still pretty easy, is my spoonie version of Patatas bravas, whichare very tasty – hot, spicy, tomatoey, and a little smoky. Usually served as tapas, a tapas-sized portion would make a good starter, or have a plateful for an indulgent pig-out, but the dish has a couple of design faults – making the tomato/paprika/chilli sauce is not spoonie-friendly, and makes the fried potatoes soggy, which makes frying them a tad pointless, so this is my take.

First step, buy some Salsa Brava – this is the same stuff as you’d make, but in a jar. Ali Oli, Catalan garlic mayo,** is sometimes served with patatas bravas.

**Out of stock as I write, and supermarket garlic mayo just isn’t the same, but will do in a pinch.

Either peel some Maris Piper spuds (or buy ready prepped spuds – Tesco also do prepped fresh chips), and cut them into angular, bite-sized pieces. Boil until almost completely cooked in salted water, tip into a colander and allow to drain. While they’re cooking, preheat the deep fryer to 160C or the oven, including a roasting tin with about half an inch of oil, to 200C. No matter what you might read, you cannot roast spuds in just a smear of oil or fat.

Then either deep fry the spuds, or toss in the hot oil and roast them, until crisp and golden. (You could fry them at 190C, but you get a deeper crunch at the lower temperature.)

Or, simpler – just make some chips! You could also deep-fry the spuds without boiling first (blanche at 130C, finish at 190), but they won’t be as crunchy.

Either way, serve the salsa and mayo on the side, as dips, and put just salt on the fried spuds, so they stay crisp as long as possible.

The salsa is very good with fried eggs and fried or baked fish (for the latter, smear a thin layer over the fish before baking), or you can mix it with mayo to spice up a sandwich.

The important thing is to put nothing but salt on the fried potatoes, so they stay crisp as long as possible.

The tools:-

Finally, there are ways to make the actual cooking a little easier. The easiest way of all, of course, is to get someone else to do it, but that’s not always feasible, or live on ready meals, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Personally, I write about cooking, these days, far more than I’m actually able to cook, but when I am able, the one thing I do before I start is sharpen my knives. A razor-sharp knife will greatly diminish the effort needed during preparation, slipping through meat and veg with ease. Contrary to popular belief, a knife sharp enough to shave with is far less likely to cut you than a blunt one, as long as you have the basic sense to keep your fingers out from under it.

I have two main knives for prep, an 8” chefs’ knife and a 7” Santoku knife, between them they’ll deal with any cutting task, even the micro-surgery of removing wet, fibrous fat and ropey connective tissue from meat. I also have an old chefs’ knife, with a slightly stained and notched blade which looks fit for nothing, but it, too, is razor sharp and while it spends most of its life on the magnetic rack, when I need to split a swede in half, it never lets me down.

I’ve an assortment of tools for sharpening my knives, from a basic whetstone to a diamond-coated steel, but it doesn’t matter what you use – you can use a stone step if you like – as long as it puts the best possible edge on your knives.

I covered knife sharpening in this post so there’s no point in repeating it here, especially as I’m getting close to 5,000 words already.

As far as other tools are concerned, a stand mixer is a good buy, if you have the space and, of course, the money. I have a Kenwood Silver Premier Chef, with a 1kiloWatt motor, powerful to deal with any domestic task. In my case, it’s mainly used to mix the dough for bread, or my cake mix and, occasionally, for mixing the blood for home-made black pudding. Avoid KitchenAid mixers, they’re underpowered and too small – I bought one last year – went straight back to Amazon. I’ve read of a chef who says he uses one to make all the bread for his restaurant with the Artisan model. He’s either lying or the thing is running non-stop. Which is bad news as the Artisan is not guaranteed for commercial use.

I have doubts about a hand-held mixer, and the weight counts against the convenience, but a stick blender, especially one with a decent set of accessories (including a mini processor/chopper), is well worth having.

I don’t, as I’ve mentioned before, use wooden spoons, as  they’re not well designed for what they’re mainly used for – stirring. I’ve used rice paddles (sometimes called rice spoons), for many years. They’re paddle shaped, naturally enough, and the end is flattish, which is far more effective at clearing  the pan bottom, ensuring nothing sticks, than a wooden spoon is. The flat handle is easier to hold too.

This is a rice paddle. You might recognise it as the symbol I use on my recipes, one for spoonie-friendly, to five, get someone else to do it.

I recently wrote about an induction hob I’ve bought, which I initially thought was very spoonie-friendly. I’m coming round to the view that it’s actually a piece of shit!

The major problem is that it won’t simmer – though it will boil the bejesus out of almost anything – it will, in fact, melt tin – melting point 232C, maximum temperature of the hob, 240C. Who the hell needs that in a kitchen?

Boiling, though, is going to be its saving grace (along with quickly reheating stuff**), and the only reason it’s not going back. Many things need to be brought to the boil when cooking, and the induction hob will do it much faster, and much cheaper, than either my cooker or kettle.

**When reheating, or just heating, I tend to leave it on a low heat and go and sit down. Using the induction hob I can do it in a couple of minutes so it’s no hardship stay with it and watch it doesn’t burn.

And one last thought, taking everything into account, I’m self-sufficient in food if I don’t buy any more for a couple of months. I doubt that will be put to the test, but these days you never can tell.

I think that’s pretty much it, and, hopefully, some of it will actually prove useful.

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2 thoughts on “The Spoonie Kitchen – and how to survive in it…

  1. and now,after reading all that interesting stuff,im hungry. gonna make myself some poached eggs on a bed of tinned spinach on toasted wholemeal weight-watchers thick sliced bread, me thinks. now THAT is tasty and takes no effort hardly at all.leaves room for some of your playing about with it too Ron.lol.

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