September 2009

Everyone I’ve ever loved has loved a plate of mince in its various incarnations. Spaghetti bolognaise, chilli con carne or just mince and mash, learning how to cook mince to perfection has been a personal mission. I think I’m nearly there.

 ‘Mattie’s Mince Mess’ was the only recipe that could interest my brother in cooking when he was a little boy.  Mum and him used stir in all the ingredients together and then she served it with heaps of buttery mash. A perfect dinner for an aspiring rugby player/human tank.

With no disrespect to my brother’s cooking skills (although they are limited to stirring), the recipe is fairly straightforward.

However, for years I’ve been striving for that deep yummyness that my mum’s mix had.  My mince mess never quite that rich tasty moreishness – the kind that made me stand in front of the fridge and eat my mum’s mince mess cold. But last week, I think I cracked it.

Inspired by the dead mouse we found in our kitchen cupboard on Tuesday morning; I’ve called this recipe Mouse’s Mince Mix.  I would never have drunk quite as much red wine (partly meant for the sauce), and therefore been quite as generous with my ingredients and cooking time, if I didn’t have the deeply joyous task of cleaning the cupboards, floor and all the baking utensils the mouse had pooed all over in its death throes.

Not the most appetising image I know, but it worked for this recipe so do try it.

Spaghetti bolognaise

Ingredients (serves 2 for dinner, and left overs, serves 4 normal people for dinner, with garlic bread and salad)

One big onion, finely chopped

3 fat, firm cloves of garlic, chunkily chopped

3 table spoons olive oil

Two carrots, chunkily chopped

1 teaspoon each of whatever dried Italian herbs you have; I used Rosemary, Thyme, Basil, Oregano and Parsley

Salt and Pepper

250g ish low fat beef mince

250g ish low fat pork mince

Big squeeze of tomato puree

Tin of chopped tomatoes

Vegetable stock cube

Big glass of red wine (I used a Cabernet Merlot)

Whole-wheat pasta


1.       Heat the oil in a big saucepan on a medium heat, add the onions, garlic and salt and pepper, fry for 10 – 15 minutes, until really the onion is buttery and soft but not changed colour

2.       Add the carrots and fry for a for further 5 – 10 minutes

3.       In a non-stick frying pan heat a little splash of olive oil and put on a medium heat, season the meat with salt and pepper on both sides and then add it to the pan and brown it off gently until you get to stage 6 (about 10 minutes)

4.       Add all the herbs to the onions and carrots and stir around for a couple of minutes

5.       Push all the herby onion and carrot mix to the outside of the pan and add a generous squeeze of the tomato puree (just under a tablespoon) to the middle and fry for a minute or so, then mix it up with everything else

6.       Add the chopped tomatoes and mix, bring to a simmer and create a rich tomato sauce (no juice left), then add the meat and stir it all up

7.       In the tin that the tomatoes were in, add your stock cube and boiling water, stir to dissolve and then watching your fingers because the tin will be hot, add to the mixture.  Simmer and stir until the liquid is nearly gone

8.       Add the wine, and a glug more, and then simmer for an hour (or however long it takes you to deep clean all your bakery items, drink the rest of the wine, clean the floor, sigh dramatically a few times and grate some parmesan.

9.       Good plate licking to be had.


Note: a good variation on this mix is a chilli con carne; don’t use carrots (maybe mushrooms instead?) instead of the herbs add a teaspoon each of cinnamon, cumin, coriander and chilli powder. Use two – three fresh red chillies and add at stage 4.  Use a beef stock cube and less wine. Serve with rice and natural yoghurt.


Two sightings so far (one dead, one alive)

Traps have been brought.

After the success of last week’s curry (and by success I mean cheapness relative to taste) I decided to have a go at it again tonight. With no generous donations or huge sponsorship deals as yet, my personal credit crunch is still not showing any green shoots. The ingredients are still store cupboard gatherings. 

I found a packet of fresh king prawns lurking at the back of the freezer, and with the joy of frozen spinach now in my life, this week’s version was slightly more lavish than last week’s veggie offering.  As with everything I seem to make, nothing was really weighed or measured and most ingredients are interchangeable with other bits and bobs. I knew this one was particularly good because we both licked our plates clean. (When I was little and still lived under the watchful eye of my mum, I would have to lick my plate hidden in the kitchen pretending to load the dishwasher. Now I can do it straight after dinner).

Pauper’s Prawn Curry



Thumb sized bit of fresh ginger, chopped up

Juice of half a big lemon

2 grinds of salt

Fresh coriander if easily available, roughly chopped

Big glug of vegetable or sunflower oil

One big onion, sliced

2 fresh chillies, finely chopped

Handful of new potatoes chunkily sliced

1 teaspoon each of chilli power (half if you don’t want it too spicy), turmeric, garam masala, cumin and coriander

1 juicy tomato

10p sized squeeze of tomato concentrate

100ml tomato juice

Packet of chopped tomatoes

1 litre fish stock

1 packet raw prawns

5 chunks of frozen or a bag of fresh spinach

Whole grain rice


1.      Saving a little bit of the ginger, combine the rest, lemon juice, salt and fresh coriander in a bowl and put to one side

2.      Fry the onion with the little bit of ginger in the oil for five minutes on medium to high heat

3.      Add the chillies, stir

4.      Add the new potatoes, cook for five minutes

5.      Add all the spices and stir and cook on a medium heat for 3 minutes

6.      Put the kettle on

7.      Add the tomato and the tomato juice, stir around a bit for 2-3 minutes

8.      Add the chopped tomatoes, bring to a simmer and let it reduce for 5 minutes

9.      Put the rice on

10.  Add the fish stock

11.  Bubble away, stirring occasionally for 15 -20 minutes (taste a potato to check it’s cooked)

12.  Add the spinach, stir around until unfrozen or cooked

13.  Add the prawns, stir around for 3 minutes

14.  Add the lemon juice mix

15.  Serve with rice and lick your plate clean.


I must remember to get a before picture...

I must remember to get a 'before' picture...

It is hard having no money. It’s also hard to complain when the reason you have no money is because you have splurged your last £3.50 on cherry tomatoes at Broadway Market.

So this week I am on an economy drive: I am trying to last the week without doing a food shop. The cupboards are bare.

Sminorf Ice Stir Fry, perhaps?
Sminorf Ice Stir Fry, perhaps?

The curry last night: tinned tomatoes, frozen spinach, chick peas, stock, an onion and a teaspoon each of basically everything in my spice rack except dill (saving that for today) and cinnamon. Served with way too much rice, as ever.

The good thing about cooking with no money and limited ingredients is whatever happens is a nice surprise.  Necessity is the mother of all invention. I didn’t follow any recipes this week and I didn’t feel stressed about not having the right ingredients, so everything has worked out better than expected.

Tomorrow all I have to play with is McCain’s hash browns, kidney beans, cherry tomatoes and some flour. Thank God I’ve got the crumble out of the freezer!

And on Friday: A rich dish of tomato sauce and honey, roasted with the finest shop brought pesto. Served with a jus of vegemite. At your table a waiter will pour over a froth of Tabasco to enhance the subtle flavour of each competent of this rewarding meal.

And on Friday: A rich dish of tomato sauce and honey, roasted with the finest shop brought pesto. Served with a jus of vegemite. At your table a waiter will pour over a froth of Tabasco to enhance the subtle flavour of each competent of this rewarding meal.

It almost pains me to write this, as I know that part of what makes the restaurant I’m going to tell you about so great, is its feeling of exclusivity.  Everyone loves feeling like they have stumbled across something secret and special.  A little bolt hole that they don’t have to share with the unwashed hordes.

I very much doubt that the unwashed hordes have yet stumbled across this site, so I can give away this secret with some confidence.  Just round the corner from our flat is Hackney City Farm. We found it earlier this year when visiting Columbia Road Flower Market, and we instantly found our inner children; petting donkeys and giggling at enormous snoring pigs.

Photo0176 - Copy

I saw then that the farm had a cafe on weekends, and a restaurant on Thursday evenings.

On Paul’s sister recommendation (and I will be forever grateful to her for bringing it into my life) we’ve been back for breakfast several times.  Meaty sausages, rashers of bacon so thick they could almost be gammon steaks and perfect scrambled eggs help fight off lingering hangovers like nothing else.  I have been waiting for the opportunity to try the restaurant and when my mum came for supper last Thursday and I had the perfect excuse to go.

I booked a table, ringing and sending an email in my keenness.  The weekend cafe was transformed with lanterns and candles.  The menu was simple, just a couple of choices for starters and mains, with a pasta course that came in large or small.  We shared the two starters between the three of us.  We fought with our polite forks over beetroot salad, cheese, cold meats and pickles;  I could have happily had it all to myself (for me happiness and greediness are never far apart).

When we eat out the three of us scan menus for meals that will fill us up, as well as being delicious.  We agree that still being hungry after eating out is horrible. So, we all ordered the large pasta course. Tagliatelle was mixed with shredded, slow roasted pork shoulder and a reduced winey sauce. I’ve never had pork with pasta except the standard spag bol.  This was so delectable, you couldn’t rush it, forking it in quickly lost all of its rich complexity.  Instead we slowly spooned it in, our faces never far from the plate, all groaning with happy porky pasta induced pleasure.  (I am sure carbs release happy hormones.) It was BYOB, so Paul and I washed it down with a lovely (and cheap) bottle of red from the off license over the road. We then trundled home, which thankfully was just round the corner.

Not far off what we looked like after our pasta fix...

Percy tasted delicious

Today Paul met me after work. It’s such a lovely thing to be met after work. We walked towards Liverpool Street station, dodging those people that give out free papers and talking about our days (Work?! The time has come,” the Walrus said /”To talk of other things”). It was a fantastic London evening; St Paul’s and the Bank of England provided a dramatic backdrop to our mundane banter.

We were almost past it before we saw it; a restuarant board advertising 6 oysters for £5.  The board told us this was to celebrate the start of oyster season.  We both have a soft spot for oysters. For me their salty whiff of glamour has not been tarnished by over-consumption.  For Paul, they are a relatively new addition to his diet.  He describes his attitude to food as “risk adverse.” I don’t think there is anything more risky than trying an oyster for the first time. Cold, wet, slimy, expensive, resembling the aftermath of a particularly violent sneeze; they are an acquired taste.

Oh, yes, the time has come, my little friends     To talk of food and things

Oh, yes, the time has come, my little friends / To talk of food and things

Well, we certainly have acquired one.  We slipped shyly inside this City restaurant, hardly believing it could be true. 6 for a fiver! Amazing.  We ordered 6 each (on my insistence) and slurped them down with lemon juice and green Tabasco splashed on. The best thing was (apart from the price) these oysters had come from Maldon, Essex. For a morbid moment, I imagined them tottering to London, white stilettos and all, before being devoured by a modern day Walrus and Carpenter.

I, uh, weep for you. I (hic), oh excuse me  I deeply sympathise

I, uh, weep for you. I (hic), oh excuse me / I deeply sympathise

To enjoy these cheap Essex oysters head to Gow’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar.