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Food prices are set to rise steeply, but don’t worry…

Posted Sep 21 2012 9:02am

A predicted 14% hike in food prices prompted me to tinker with seeing how much food I could get for an outlay of not very much, as a way of countering the increase.

The crisis is apparently in the US meat market, where herds are being slaughtered early because of a record-breaking drought. Why this will affect prices so much here I have no idea, but it seems it will. I’m not sure how much we import from the US in terms of meat – I’ve certainly never seen it offered for sale – but I suppose we import grain and maybe vegetable produce (I stocked up on bread flour when this crisis first made the news). Of course, the 14% increase isn’t caused purely by the drought, it’s an artificial construct of the commodities speculators who, as a species, should be exterminated in the public interest.

Anyway, a rummage in the bottom of the fridge turned up a pack of mini plum tomatoes, 2 long, sweet, red peppers, a pack of 3 largish courgettes, all a tad past their best, plus a 250g pack of runner beans, and a large Echalion shallot, about as big as a medium onion, both fresh this week. I like shallots, as they contribute more flavour than most onions, and the Echalion variety is large enough not to be too fiddly to handle.

The shallot, finely diced, was sweated in a little olive oil and butter, to which I added the peppers, deseeded and finely chopped, the tomatoes, sliced, and, when all had softened, the courgettes, wiped, topped and tailed, halved then sliced on a diagonal. Not deseeded, as I wanted the soft centres to dissolve and slightly thicken the sauce (which would, I hoped, give it a rather nice silky texture), The runner beans, also wiped, were topped and tailed and sliced on a diagonal; they went in before I started on the courgettes, as they take longer to cook.

When everything was added to the pot, I tossed in some dried oregano, seasoned it with home-made celery salt, a tablespoon of liquid chicken stock (Knorr Touch of Taste), and added boiling water, just enough to NOT cover the courgettes, which would contribute liquid of their own as they cooked.

The whole thing was left to simmer until everything was tender, the runner beans taking very much longer than I thought they would, as they turned out to be elderly and tough, even though they hadn’t needed de-stringing – clearly the season is pretty much over.

Once the bean pods were al dente, I seasoned the pot with black pepper (celery salt already in there of course), and stirred in a generous tablespoon of Bisto Caramelised Red Onion gravy granules. These are veggie-friendly as are many, if not most, Bisto products (some are even vegan-friendly). And served myself a large bowlful. Very nice it was, too, though it had little in the way of protein.

To what was left in the pot – another good bowlful – I added dark soy sauce, fish sauce, and a little sesame oil, completely changing its character. I’ll probably have that for lunch today.

So, considering it used up veg which would have had to be thrown out in a couple of days anyway, I’m extremely pleased with the result and got two large meals for well under a fiver. I resisted the temptation to toss in a can of butter or cannellini beans, as I wanted to keep the dish light.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, a chicken breast, sliced into strips as if for a stir-fry, would have been a very useful addition. Given what free-range chicken breasts sell for these days (£14.99 per kg), it would have added substantially to the overall cost, but stretching it to three meals would compensate (when I said I had a big bowl, I meant big).

For a veggie option use 2 or 3 Quorn pretend chicken breasts, likewise sliced and 1 Kallo organic veg cube, dissolved in hot water** before adding, instead of the chicken stock.

**Don’t drop straight in. They don’t dissolve particularly easily, and can sink to the bottom and burn. Knorr stock-pots, or gel-pots, or whatever they’re called this week, add little but salt in my experience, especially the veggie version. Touch of Taste beef and chicken are very good, the veggie one is disgusting!

Either version of this dish can be bulked up by serving over a handful of lightly crushed small potatoes (I’m rather fond of crushed potatoes – they absorb flavour nicely, and add substance, at a minimal cost in added work), or noodles, as below.

All things considered, I’m impressed with the results, especially as it was just thrown together on the spur of the moment (I often get the best results this way). Leaving the courgettes with their seeds did, indeed, add a silkiness to the sauce, as well as little jellified clumps of seeds which were quite pleasant, and the orientalised version will, I’m sure, be even better, especially if I bulk it up with a handful of soft, sticky, Udon noodles (in which case I’ll have it tonight, not for lunch).

I normally avoid special offers of perishables, unless they can be frozen, but in this case it paid off, and it’s certainly something I’d happily make again, but with added protein, either chicken, as above, or braising steak, sliced very thinly into strips.

My original thought had been to make this disparate and unpromising selection of veg into a curry; I’m glad I didn’t, now. It would have been tasty, of course, but the delicate flavours and textures of the individual veg, which came through nicely, even the courgettes, would have been lost in a curry.

It also enables meat to be stretched much further than usual. A chicken breast is a decent meal for one with some veggies, but in a dish like this will feed three, as would the same amount of braising steak (minced, and padded out with veggies and pulses, a little meat can be made to go a very long way, without actually feeling you’re being short-changed).

I, at least, have been eating this way for years, using meat as a protein and flavouring ingredient, not the centrepiece, and it works well. I still have scope for reducing my meat – and fish – intake even more, though, and if food prices increase as much as predicted, I’ll certainly do so, as well as making my own bread more often, as I’ve got rather lax about that, and making rolls rather than loaves, which suits my diet better.

Don’t forget, we only need a couple of ounces of protein a day, from all sources, and here in the West we routinely eat far too much, usually in the form of meat. I don’t, as I’ve made clear, believe that vegetarianism will save the world , but eating far less meat would be a step in the right direction. After all, you don’t  need that 32oz steak.

Nobody does.


NB: Yesterday evening my kitchen was suddenly invaded by flies. This was a major problem last year, so over the winter I installed an ultra-violet bug zapper (the u-v light attracts flies, which get zapped on an electrified mesh). Worked very nicely.

After dark, leaving the kitchen light off, the zapper on and the door open, the light attracted and zapped a few flies that had got into the living room, too, so I was quickly fly free again, without the use of toxic chemicals.

It also showed that the zapper worked best when it was the only light source in the room. So, as it can be moved to any room, if flies are a problem, leaving it in an otherwise darkened room overnight should fix things.

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