I thought that it might be fun to share some of my “use it up at all cost” experiments here, making use of just what happens to be in my fridge, freezer and/or store cupboard. Although I rarely plan ahead regarding food, for me the game right now is to try and make everything I have last as long as possible so that I don’t have to shop again any time soon. I’m not self-isolating but I have seriously bought into the social distancing message and the easiest way to reduce risk to everyone is minimize trips to supermarkets. This is going to be more of a challenge as time goes on, and my freezer empties and I over-use my potted herbs, but I am intending to enjoy that challenge.
The freezer part of my fridge-freezer is not really big enough for my needs, particularly as I have always had the habit of batch-cooking meals and freezing them for days when I don’t feel like spending time in the kitchen. It’s a matter of making sure that whenever I take something out and make a space, I cook something from items in the fridge to put back in the freezer, which is a good way of ensuring that fresh food is used and not thrown away.
For the first time in a fortnight, I was compelled to go food shopping for on Friday, sporting latex gloves and maintaining a rigid 2m distance from all other shoppers, and everyone seemed to be acting responsibly. I had been doing okay for meat and fish in the freezer but was very short of fresh veg and dairy, and there was plenty of both available.
As I already had some very old veg kicking round, just sad, random odds and ends that I needed to use up, my priority was to find ways of using those. For one thing I haveMaris Piper spuds that are sprouting terribly (even though I keep them cool and in the dark) because you can only buy them in huge packs and I don’t use them that often. Two rather superannuated leeks, a bit dry at the ends, and some just-starting-to-wrinkle mushrooms were still usable. A single courgette was perfect, but well past its sell-by date. If you are staring at some rather sad, must-be-used and apparently incompatible ingredients in your fridge, and wondering what on earth to do, you might try typing some of those ingredients into the BBC Food website’s search facility, an absolute mainstay of mine to find recipes that use up random ingredients: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/search.
A curry seemed to be called for. So today’s extravaganza was an ersatz chicken curry, Patak’s Korma paste from a jar, which is such a cheat but is a very handy store cupboard ingredient. I messed around with it to make it a lot spicier, hotter and un-Korma like, and added Greek yogurt instead of coconut, which I detest. It could be done equally well with lamb, beef, pork, king prawns or mixed veg.
After tossing the chicken thighs in oil, browning, I added six cardamoms and seriously good amount of cumin to the pan, then the roughly diced onions, courgette, an elderly spud and and two stray mushrooms that I found, bewilderingly, in the salad draw. Courgette is a wonderful component, as it soaks up the flavours terrifically and has a lovely texture of its own. Usually I reduce the onions to a pulp prior to adding, but as I had the paste, and to make the meal go further, I diced them to use them as a veg rather than a base. There was a tiny thumb of dried ginger left over in the fridge, so that went in. I tossed it all together for a few minutes, and then added the korma paste and water. No fresh chillis, but the dried ones did the trick, and there was hot chilli sauce on standby. Half an hour before the end I tipped in a dollop of the yogurt and some leftover baby spinach leaves.
In spite of the lack of fresh coriander, the result of all this somewhat arbitrary activity was really rather delish, with a good squeeze of lemon juice over the curry, and all served with a dollop of divinely creamy Greek-style yogurt (from a producer in North Wales, Llaeth Y llan) mixed with mint and finely diced cucumber, a sort of Greek-Welsh raitha. The Spar in Tywyn is usually a very good source of mint and other fresh herbs, not sure how they are coping at the moment. The whole thing was incredibly faux, but I seriously enjoyed it. By having used the extra odds and ends of leftover geriatric veg to fill out the chicken, I have enough for another meal.
Saturday was my birthday, and I usually celebrate by going out to dinner, but under current conditions the best of the remaining options was to stay put, so I treated myself to a roast, which is not usually a one-person meal. I had a rack of lamb in the freezer, mint growing in a pot in the garden (spectacularly early for its height and spread, but full of flavour), an ancient spud for roasting, a leek, leeks being obligatory as an accompaniment to lamb in my book, a pack of slightly yellowing tender stem broccoli (it is quite new but doesn’t last well in the fridge), two Chantenay carrots, halved (which do last brilliantly in the fridge but were distinctly on the edge), an old spud for roasting, and some lamb stock from the freezer.
The briefly pan-fried lamb was provided with a crust (whizzed-up fresh and panko breadcrumbs, lemon zest, anchovy, parsley, rosemary, a clove of garlic and capers), stuck on to the lamb with Dijon mustard. When I run out of lemons, I am going to try replacing lemon zest with sumac, a dried and ground berry from the Mediterranean that has a strong citrus hit and is great on salad and chicken.
The mint and caper sauce, with a dollop of wholegrain mustard was swiftly compiled, and the lamb was roasted in a medium oven for 20 minutes, emerging pink in the middle. The home made lamb gravy came out of the freezer, and I put in a sprig of rosemary for extra flavour.
There was plenty of lamb left over for another day, and I made too much mint sauce so froze the rest down. It freezes really well as a back-up for when fresh mint is unavailable. The lamb bones also went into the freezer, for making stock when I have enough other ingredients.
Whilst the lamb was cooking I boiled up the rest of my ancient spuds, mashed them with butter, milk, home-grown chives and parsley, and batch-froze them. Then I simmered and peeled some ageing and squidgy tomatoes, mushed them in the food processor and put them in the freezer to use as a base for Mediterranean sauces.
Basically, I spent most of my birthday cooking :-). I haven’t done that for a long time, and it was terrific fun. A very Happy Birthday to me!
Chicken bamya; although a vegetarian version with aubergine, courgette and potato chunks, hard boiled eggs and mild chillis is also good. I had two filleted chicken thighs that I needed to use up so did a meal that I usually do with lamb, which I first fell in love with in Egypt and, when I returned, re-invented for myself. It should be marinated overnight, but the chicken needed using so it only had a couple of hours. It still tasted great. The great advantage of it is that it is peasant cooking, one-pot and easy, superb done in the slow cooker. Bamya means okra/bhindi, but a common substitute is green beans. As it happens, I had some frozen Turkish okra in the freezer, but when they are gone they are gone, because my father buys them for me from a specialist shop near where he lives. Ditto for the last mild green giant Turkish chilli that went in. The spices, a harissa mix and a ras al-hanout mix are all usually available in supermarkets, and I cannot imagine that there’s a rush on them even at the moment.
The chicken thighs are browned whole and then added to a baking dish or the slow cooker. Onion, garlic and chillis are diced and cooked in oil until translucent, when the spices are added. After a few minutes, whizzed-up or finely-chopped skinned tomatoes are added to the pan. These are heated for a few minutes to allow the flavours to merge, and then join the chicken. A crushed ginger cube to stand in for fresh ginger (fabulous, from the frozen section in Morrison’s if you ever get to one) was also stirred in. The additions of dried limes and preserved lemons are just a matter of taste, but if I leave them out I wouldn’t dream of eating this without a big squeeze of lemon juice over the whole thing. The okra, fresh or frozen, go in just 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Fresh okra should be topped and tailed. If using green beans instead, they need about an hour.
Great served with couscous (I buy Ainsley Harriot packs that take just a couple of minutes to cook), plain white rice or a Greek type salad with lots of mint. I like coriander sprinkled over the top of the bamya too, but it’s not everyone’s taste, and mint is a good substitute with this dish. A topping of dukkah or pine nuts provides some additional texture. My addiction to Greek yogurt means that a dollop that always goes well, but if I have mint and cucumber I always take the time to make a raitha/tzatziki. I only ate half of it, so put the rest in the freezer
I dined on part 2 of Friday’s fun curry, served simply with rice and the rest of the mint and cucumber raitha (finely chopped mint and cucumber in good Greek yogurt). As there was rather less than half of the curry left over, I hard-boiled an egg, halved it, and heated that up in the curry. A hard-boiled egg in a curry is always a knock-out and is great for making up volume, as are green beans, courgettes, potatoes and, of course, okra if you can ever get hold of them. The spinach had melted into the sauce, imparting its deep flavour, and everything else had survived perfectly. The flavours had matured, and it was just as good as, if not better than, Friday’s original.
Lovely to have wild garlic at the moment, and it can be used for all sorts of things. It is excellent in soups and stews, can be used wherever you use spinach, and is excellent made into a pesto, just like basil, which can be stored in the fridge or freezer. I grow it in a pot, because it can take over your garden like a small army. Tossed into good quality pasta (mine was Famiglia Rana mushroom and mascarpone tortellini, originally bought some time ago from the Aberdyfi Village Stores and lobbed in the freezer), I had it with some finely chopped very crispy bacon on top, just one rasher, and parmesan grated over the top (another item that lasts well in the fridge). On the side I had a small tomato, wild garlic and onion salad, with a sprinkling of capers over the top. It was all so simple but seriously hit the spot.
On Wednesday I felt like something dead simple, very British, very understated. Sausages, eggs, bacon and a few mushrooms, with a huge dollop of German medium-strength mustard. A special edge was that the sausages were pork and Welsh laverbread, from the Aberdovey butcher, an absolute favourite of mine. They are long, very slender sausages, so it’s important not to over-cook them. Happiness on a plate.
Soup. Big soup. Avgolemono, which in Greek means egg-lemon, is surprisingly filling, and I always struggle to get through a bowl of it, even though I serve it as a meal on its own and is a lifetime favourite. It is made with good quality chicken stock. I used one from the freezer that I had made from a leftover roast chicken carcass, but the usual way of doing it is to poach fresh chicken. The other key ingredients, if you base this on one serving, are three tablespoons of lemon juice, an egg, loads of parsley and (the element that makes it a main meal), a handful of rice. Rick Stein chops poached chicken into his, but I prefer it without.
The rice is cooked in the stock, with a lid, until ready. Whilst the rice is cooking, the lemon juice and egg are whisked together with a hint of cayenne, a little salt and a pinch of sugar to balance the lemon. I usually do this with just the yolks, but I noticed that Rick Stein does it with the whole egg and a bit of butter, so I tried it and it worked well, thickening the soup more efficiently. The trick with this dish is to add spoonfuls of the hot stock to the room temperature egg and lemon mix, stir it well, repeat, stir well and repeat until the egg and lemon is warmed through and won’t separate. Then pour the whole lot back into the stock and rice pan and heat very gently with the chopped parsley, being careful not to bubble it, or it will separate. It is so easy to make, has been a favourite of mine forever, and it hit the spot today after a day bullying the garden into shape.
The lemons are running out fast!
I cheated. I had spent the afternoon scraping moss off my garage driveway with a trowel, and I seriously didn’t have the energy to cook anything. Averdovey fish and chips would have been my go-to solution. Instead I cheated in a different way. In my freezer was half a sizeable beef and ale pie. I married that with a rich beef gravy and, because it was irresistible, a simple side order of baked beans and HP sauce. Bliss. There is something very decadent about baked beans, and I always eat them with a mixture of pleasure and guilt. Guilty pleasures are often the best. An infrequent but much loved treat.
A more than averagely British week on the cooking front. Normally my cooking is dominated by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, but from a purchasing point of view, the excellent fresh veg available the week before last, and the need to select stuff that would last in the fridge, suggested that traditional British fare would be best, and I think that my curry comes into that category as I cannot see a native of India recognizing it as remotely related to the real thing. It has made a surprising and pleasant change. Thinking about the week, having changed overnight from an ad-hoc whenever-I-need-to shopper to a once-a-fortnight-except-in-emergencies shopper, I have come to the following conclusions.
- Thank goodness for a freezer that, small as it is, resembles a Tardis. Doing an inventory of everything that it contained was essential to forward planning and matching freezer contents against fridge and cupboard contents. Amazing the items I found stuffed into the very back.
- I ended up eating or cooking (for the freezer) a lot of chicken because I had put a whole pack of six thighs into the freezer instead of splitting them into separate bags. I have nothing against eating a lot of chicken, but it would have been a lot less hassle to be able to take out just what I wanted to use.
- Tender stem broccoli does not keep well in the fridge, cauliflower and mushrooms are a lot better, but leeks, pointy cabbage, baby carrots and onions are the real keepers
- With one-pot meals like stews, casseroles, curries and pies, cooking more than you need and freezing down the rest is great for saving time later on and ensures that fresh ingredients are used up.
- In an effort not to deplete supermarket shelves, I bought half my usual number of eggs (usually 12) and lemons (usually 8), and bought fewer other items too, which with hindsight was probably a mistake as there was no shortage of either in that particular store. Had I used common sense, I would probably have avoided the shops for another week.
- Worse, I left my shopping list at home, meaning that I forgot fresh ginger, chillis, potatoes, flour and spring onions, or substitutes. Aaargghh! My shopping list is more important than ever, and needs to be updated as soon as essential ingredients are used up.
- Pots of herbs rock. If the supermarkets are still selling them, just re-pot them into bigger pots to give them room to grow, and give them food and water, and you’ll have them for the entire summer if you treat them kindly.
- Life without bacon would/will be seriously difficult to negotiate 🙂 It’s inexpensive, great in its own right, and can be chopped up and chucked into so many things for additional flavour.
- The BBC food website search facility is wonderful for finding ideas for using up leftovers