There's nothing quite like a challenge and it keeps us all on our toes.
I was recently accused of not really understanding what it was like to try and feed a family on a budget. The main premise was that as a butcher, I had the very best meat at my disposal at James Whelan Butchers and so no matter how bad the economy was my table wouldn't suffer. Admittedly I do have access to the best and of course I love my food and I eat well, but I reject the assertion that I cannot empathise. The challenge laid down was that two of us would cook a budget meal for a family of five to six. We were calling it the great cook off and certain rules had to be laid down.
Obviously rule number one was that I had to pay for the meat regardless of where I procured it. A bit like the TV programme Ready, Steady, Cook, while the ingredients had to be purchased we didn't have to factor in the cost of store cupboard ingredients. There was a rule about nutrition and appropriateness of the dish. For example a big bowl of salad would not be considered adequate on a cold November evening and generally the dish had to be considered relatively wholesome. Finally there was a rule that cooking had to be involved. You couldn't just stroll into your nearest German discounter and pick up a frozen ready meal and divide it up. The glove was dropped and there was no going back!
I surrounded myself with cookery books seeking advice first from the great goddess Delia. I was trying to think what if I had to do it on a tight budget seven days a week! You would need more than one recipe. The other considerations were that while being frugal out of necessity you don't want the table or plate to look or feel mean. The idea is that you can cook comfortably on a budget without that awful feeling of lack or deprivation. We do not, under any circumstances, want to give our kids the idea that they are Oliver Twist! So leaving the bowl of gruel aside – what would I cook? My own book, An Irish Butcher Shop, was also among the chosen research tomes. Without even realising it I had put quite a few 'good value' recipes into it. The steak and kidney pie recipe is tasty and always goes down well, the meatloaf is very budget conscious, and chilli con carne stretches a long way and the myriad of things to do with chicken also fall within a good price range. There were many more too.
I settled on a chicken dish for a number of reasons. The first thing we all think of for a good value meal tends to be mince! Now mince is truly great, a versatile ally that can be conjured into many different dishes, but I felt that red meat would be expected of me and I don't like to be too predictable. Along with the chicken I bought some carrots, some onions, some leeks and a small bag of potatoes. With a homemade pastry my plan was to make a chicken pie with mashed potatoes for a main course plus, just to impress, I would use the carcass of the chicken to make a homemade chicken noodle soup as a starter. It worked out really well and I scored high staying within a pretty decent budget. I think in total my entire two course meal came to €11.30. That's less than €2 per head for a family of 6, and everyone was stuffed by the end of it.
It was my friend's turn. As I had suspected beef was his main meat. I knew it would have to be stewing beef or mince. However I was expecting him to travel the road of stew or perhaps even a bolognaise but instead he went to the other side of the world altogether and produced the finest Thai beef curry that everyone found amazing even the kids. As we arrived at his house the smell of the orient enveloped us and we were transported to Asia. The curry was served with egg noodles which worked really well in adding an authentic Asian feel. I was beaten hands down. His entire meal came to just over €7.72 – for six! Now to be fair, he did have to buy and pay for a large packet of noodles but only used half of them so only half the price was factored in and he happened to have a Thai green curry paste at his disposal in his store cupboard; but it was still impressive.
It was a simple enough dish that was more time consuming than skilful and I know he won't mind me saying that. It was a man's dish, quick and rustic in its execution. The Thai curry paste and onions were cooked on a pan for about five minutes then the chunks of beef were added, sealed and coated with the paste. A little lime juice, some stock, a tin of coconut milk and the soy sauce were added with a pinch of sugar. It was brought to the boil and then left to simmer for about two hours until the meat was tender. Once the noodles were cooked and the curry plated it was sprinkled with chopped coriander and it was just delicious. Thailand in Clonmel on a Monday evening!
So I didn't win the cook off but I did come up with some other great recipes. Bangers and onion mash, chicken with pasta, fish crumble and several others. In conversation we also decided that you could stretch the budget by one day's dinner providing the next day's lunch. For example the leftovers from a roast chicken could be made into sandwiches or a cold chicken salad for the following day. Once again the key was planning ahead.
Roast Rack of Pork with Apples
Great for a family lunch, combine it with the stuffed apples and you are onto a winner!
1 rack of pork, 2-3kg chined and rind scored
2 tablesp. olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teasp. fennel seeds, toasted
Juice and rind of one lemon
8-10 red eating apples, cored
16-20 prunes, stones removed
Glass of white wine
Selection of root vegetables - parsnips, carrots, potatoes (8-10 of each)
8-10 red onions
3 tablesp. olive oil
2-3 tablesp. runny honey
A day ahead, if possible, mix the marinade ingredients and spread over the pork joint. Leave in the fridge overnight.
Heat the oven to Gas Mark 6, 200C (400F). Place the pork on a roasting tray, season well and roast for 2 hours.
Reduce the oven temperature if necessary when the crackling is crisp and well browned. Stuff the apples with prunes and add to the meat tray withthe glass of wine. Continue cooking for another 35-40 minutes until the pork and apples are fully cooked. Roast the vegetables at the same time - toss them into olive oil and seasoning, place them in another tray in the ovenand cook for 45-50 minutes. Twenty minutes before the end of cooking time, drizzle the pork, apples and vegetables with the runny honey.
Lift the pork and apples out of the roasting tray and keep warm. Boil up the juices with a knob of butter, check the seasoning. Carve the pork and serve with the stuffed apples and roasted vegetables. Leftovers are very good cold in a sandwich with the stuffed apple mashed up.