What price do you put on good food?

I’ve spent a bit of my work time this week discussing the merits of budget beauty products versus expensive ones (I know, I get paid to think deep thoughts about this stuff. Crazy, huh?)

There’s one school of thought that claims expensive products are a complete con – at best, a rip-off, at worst, nothing more than snake oil. Then there are those that see the budget brands as even worse, because they’ll ruin your precious skin.

Personally, I have a foot in both camps – except for when you’re talking about posh scented candles, which have to be the most ridiculous thing ever invented. I mean, why don’t you just burn the money and be done with it?

I think there are parallels with how people view spending on food. Of course, in both cases economics have a lot to do with it, but it’s also a matter of priorities.

During our holiday I fulfilled a long-held ambition to go to Ottolenghi. The Small Girl and I shared this lunch box, which – along with a small bag of meringues, two exquisite cheese straws and a bottle of water – cost nearly 25 quid (about NZ$55). I nearly died! It was delicious, but crumbs, we couldn’t do that every day. Or even every week. Could you?

In our household, we spend a lot of our income on food, both because we are in a position to do so and because we choose to. Other people spend money on – well, what do they spend it on? Scented candles? Fancy cars? – we spend it on feeding ourselves and our friends.

I do most of the food shopping, which in a week might include a weekly trip to a cheap supermarket and sometimes a posh one, plus the weekend vegetable market. I prioritise buying good (that is, organic and free range) eggs and meat where I can. I grow most of our salad vegetables, even though I am rubbish at gardening. I still make most of our bread, yoghurt and muesli, partly for financial reasons but mostly because I like doing it. Some weeks I feel like I spend a lot of money, some weeks I don’t.

We don’t eat TV dinners and rarely have takeaways, unless it’s the occasional pizza with our neighbours. It’s not like we are having foie gras and champagne suppers every night – I write this having made crunchy omelets for dinner with eggs donated from a friend’s hens – but I know we are lucky. We are a small family and we don’t have to choose between paying the power bill and eating.

I know people in reasonably straitened circumstances who put a lot of emphasis on eating well, just like I know some well-off people who couldn’t care less what they eat.  #Firstworldproblems, you might say. But then, as the storm over Jamie Oliver’s new book has shown, food poverty is everyone’s problem.

What I want to know is, what do you prioritise in your household when it comes to food shopping? Do you spend more on eating out or eating in? Do you angst over organic vs ordinary veges, or do you grow your own? What would you spend more on if money was no object? What would you spend more time making if time was no object?

Me and my kitchen rules

I write this standing in my kitchen – standing is the next sitting, don’t you know? – trying to make a list of its various oddities. This time next week I’ll be far, far away (in fact, hopefully I’ll be here) as our household go on a bit of an adventure for a couple of months.

Obviously I’m beside myself with excitement, but as I write this, still in that terrible miasma of anxiety and to-do lists and hideous mess that comes with leaving the country (in some cases, just leaving the house).

More than anything, I’m hoping that the people who will be living in our house while we’re away (they’re a family of Mexican wrestling champions with a pack of snarling attack dogs), will appreciate the quirks of our kitchen. We’ve written them a list of operating instructions for the rest of the house, but I thought I’d stop short of adding ‘please be nice to all my kitchen things’. Then again, there are things I want them to know… perhaps just a top five will do it.

MY KITCHEN RULES

1. Don’t use the insinkerator – it leaks down into the cupboard under the sink where I store all my cake tins. There is nothing worse than realising that you have to clean every single cake tin you possess – or worse, not realising they are collecting mucky water for days.

2. That funny grill thing beside the stove top? It doesn’t work. It does make an excellent cake rack though.

3. Please enjoy opening and shutting the oven. We’ve had it fixed just for you and it cost so much we could nearly have bought a new oven – or a slap-up high tea for the three of us – instead. 

4. We thought about putting away various precious bits and pieces but then decided it was just too hard. So please don’t break anything. Especially the stuff from my mum’s house. Please? And don’t go scrubbing the cast iron frying pans with detergent. That glossy sheen has taken a lot of building up.

5. All useful bits of kitchen kit – wooden spoons, graters, whisks, poultry shears – are in the second drawer down. If you happen across a set of measuring spoons and a green spatula, let me know. They have gone AWOL.

Given we’re going to be itinerant for the next seven weeks, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help you with advice on what to have for dinner. If you miss me that much you can always keep up with our adventures here or here. I’ll drop in when I can – and I’ll be back, cooking stone stoup, in mid-August.

Lucy x

No-knead spelt bread

A mystery visitor changed my life last Friday. I went out for a few hours and returned home to find crumbs all over the kitchen floor and a tea towel draped artistically over the stovetop. Now, neither of these things are that unusual – our floors are usually so covered in crumbs it looks like Hansel and Gretel have been passing through and tea towels are often appropriated by a pair of small hands to make doll beds or princess dresses. But the strange formation of these crumbs, and the teatowel’s odd positioning, spoke of something else. All at once it dawned on me – the oven man had come! I jumped up and down on the spot beside the oven, both in utter joy and to test whether or not the door was going to fall open. It didn’t budge. I pulled on the door handle and it reluctantly opened, eager to spring back into position. I was so excited I took a video of myself opening the oven door and sent it to my beloved. “This is one of the nicest things you’ve ever done for me,” I wrote.

You may think this indicates that a) I need to get out more and b) that my relationship is in serious trouble, but if you’d spent the last 18 months grappling with an oven that didn’t close properly, you’d be excited too. I’ve spent all weekend marvelling at how easy it is to cook things when the oven door doesn’t fall open at whim and how quickly the oven heats up now that half the heat isn’t escaping. One of the first things I made was a spelt version of my ye olde DIY Vogels bread. Here’s how I did it.

Slices Of No-Knead Spelt Bread

No-knead spelt bread
I’m on a bit of a spelt kick at the moment, not least because I can buy organic spelt flour from a great shop just minutes away – but most supermarkets stock it now too. If you can boil a kettle and stir (not simultaneously), then you can make this bread. I use my own toasted muesli – like this one or this one – when making this but any decent bought one will suffice. If you leave it out, consider throwing in some seeds instead.

300g white spelt flour
300g wholemeal spelt flour
120g toasted muesli
2 tsp dried yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp honey
300ml milk
350ml boiling water

Put everything into a large bowl and mix well – it will be like porridge. Scrape into a very-well oiled and lined large loaf tin (internal measurements roughly 20cm x 10cm x 8cm).
Put into a cold oven and turn the dial to 50C. Leave for about 25 minutes, until the dough has risen to the top of the tin. Turn the heat to 200C and bake for another 40 minutes, until crusty on top and hollow when you tap it on the bottom.
Turn out to a rack to cool. This makes excellent toast, or you can cut it into canape-sized bits and have it with cream cheese and pickled ginger or smoked salmon.

What was the best thing that happened to your kitchen last week?

How to store feta and divide eggs

Do you ever feel like your life is being sucked down a big hole called the internet? Me too. I mean, I’m exceptionally grateful that you’re reading this, but I do wonder sometimes if we would all be less busy if we spent more time IRL* rather than online.

That said, I must thank the gods of the internet for saving my bacon on several occasions in the last few weeks. Here are my internet takeouts** this week, in the hope that sharing them here will save you precious time that you can spend lying on your sofa with a book.

1. How to store feta: We eat a lot of feta in this house, but I am forever either a) throwing some out after it’s turned furry in the fridge or b) eating too much of it to avoid it going mouldy and being thrown out. So discovering that you can store it in brine has changed my life.
All you need to do is make up some brine – use 3 tsp salt to 500ml water – and pour this over the feta in a suitably sized plastic container with a lid. The feta should be immersed in the liquid. Seal the lid on, put it in the fridge and hey presto, no more stinky, wasted cheese.

2. How to deep fry without a thermometer: On Thursday morning I bought a new candy thermometer. On Friday morning I managed to smash it. On Saturday morning I needed to make a batch of doughnuts and lacked the will or time to go and buy a new thermometer. Rather than guess, I turned to my handy Mr Google and the best tip I found was also the easiest. Plunge a wooden spoon handle into hot oil and if the oil bubbles up vigorously, it’s at the right temperature. Easy. Safe. Cheap. Brilliant.

3. How to divide an egg in half: Beat the egg until yolk and white are well combined, then measure out 1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp – it will weigh about 26g for a large egg.

4. What to do with leftover croissants: We never have leftover ones anyway, but should this happen at some stage, this is what I’m going to do with them (if you don’t have time to click the link, know this: split croissants horizontally, fry in butter. Eat.)

5. What to do if you’ve got that cold that’s doing the rounds: Thankfully I haven’t had occasion to try this turmeric cure, but I am intrigued by it.

What have you learned this week?

* See, I’ve been spending so much time online I even know the geeky acronyms. IRL is short for ‘in real life’.
** I’ve also been spending a lot of time in meetings (a place where good sense and ideas go to die), where speech is peppered with words like ‘stakeholders’, ‘takeouts’ and other corporate hideousness. Ugh.

Hello, is it me you’re cooking for?

I’ve been spending a bit of time lately looking at wedding gift lists – well, one wedding gift list in particular. One of my nieces is getting married on Friday and late last year she asked me to look at her list and see if there was any essential kitchen kit missing.

Now, I’m not sure where I stand on the whole wedding gift list thing, but when I saw hers I really wished we had had one*. There’s a copper bassine for whipping egg whites, lovely glasses, an almond cream KitchenAid and sundry other things that it would be brilliant to start married life with.

But there’s one thing that isn’t on Anna’s list that I think she really needs. Really. I just wish I’d seen it earlier…

Lionel Richie Spoon Rest
Image via LennyMud

If you know someone who could use a Lionel Richie spoon rest (or, indeed, a mug emblazoned with ‘Fifty Shades of Earl Grey’) it’s good to know this Etsy shop will fulfil their every need. I’m sure they do wedding lists…

What kitchen kit did you get – or would like to have got – when you got married? 

*I’m not saying it wasn’t great to receive approximately 30 platters – all of which we have used – but it was quite funny at the time given we lived in a tiny flat with absolutely nowhere to put them.