Talking of envy (see Wednesday’s post) the other people I tend to get a bit green-eyed over are those home cooks who are so organised they manage to plan and then shop for their week’s meals in advance. I know such people do exist because the other day I found a shopping list in my back garden that must have drifted over the wall from one of my neighbours’ carrier bags. On the front was a list of items to be bought and on the back, seven thoughtfully planned evening meals, including pudding at the weekend, all in beautiful handwriting, of course.
Bet she irons her knickers too, I thought.
I do try and plan ahead but usually can only manage two or three meals at the most. It doesn’t help that the kids will often spring a surprise playdate on me so they are either absent from tea altogether or I have extra mouths to feed, or that my husband has a client dinner that he’s forgotten to tell me about. I regularly have to try and crowbar a joint of this or a fillet of that into my groaning freezer because there’s no one around to eat (except me and I’m quite content with a bowl of porridge if I’m on my own. That, or a curly wurly).
It also doesn’t help that I choose to do all my planning, not sensibly at home in front of my pile of cook books and newspaper clippings, but during my weekly sessions at the swimming pool. Daft I know, but swimming – the only exercise I manage to keep at because it doesn’t make me all red and sweaty – is so brain-achingly boring, that instead of counting lengths or watching the second hand, I use my time in the pool to focus on the really important stuff, a.k.a. what to cook for tea.
Sometimes this works well (I was going to write ‘swimmingly’ there but stopped myself just in time) and by the end of the hour, I have not only planned the week’s meals, but mentally booked a summer holiday, redesigned my kitchen and come up with a half workable solution for
world peace shoe storage. More often though I will be rudely dragged, coughing and spluttering, from my Kirstie-style handmade reverie by some fuckwit who is flagrantly flouting the rules of pool etiquette*.
Take Monday morning for example. Oddly for mid-January, the pool is empty, except for me and my sad little thoughts about what to serve with that night’s pork chops. That is until a large, stony-faced lady plops in next to me, seemingly oblivious to both my presence and the fact that the rest of the pool is free, and proceeds to do backstroke, very slowly and very badly, flailing around like a demented windmill. I could be gracious of course and change lanes myself, but no, the red mist of pool rage descends, obscuring my view of the moral high ground, so I plough on belligerently, despite being smacked on the head each time our paths cross.
Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of saying that once the rage sets in, any meal planning goes to shit. The upshot is I spend an hour wandering aimlessly around Sainsbury’s on my way home from the pool and return with a random assortment of foodstuffs which look like they belong in a mystery box on Masterchef. On such occasions, world peace, or at least a system for shoe storage, looks more achievable than the possibility of even one coherent supper, let alone a week’s worth.
As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I tire very easily of cooking the same stuff week in week out, but unless it’s your full time job or you are a bit weird, you are never going to be able to put a brand new dish on the table every night. What you can do however, is cheat a bit by adding different sauces to your usual meat and two veg. Your family will believe you’ve gone to the effort of creating something new but in reality all you’ve done, once you’ve bunged a couple of chicken breasts and jackets in the oven, is spend five to 10 minutes whizzing up a sauce.
So with chicken, I might make a sauce with creme fraiche and tarragon, with lamb or pork belly, a salsa verde, or a cider and mustard sauce to pour over pork chops. However, these often require a little forward planning in that you have to have bought the ingredients (creme fraiche, herbs, cider etc) in order to make them. Unfortunately, since my in-pool planning had been sabotaged, Monday’s Bag for Life contained none of the above. But what I was pleased to see among the pile of completely useless ingredients (black sesame seeds (?), smoked salt flakes (??), mirin (???)) was a jar of grilled red peppers. Right, I thought, romesco.
Romesco is the sauce equivalent of your favourite scarf, you know the one that goes with absolutely everything and makes any outfit just a bit better (I don’t own one of these but I want one). Catalan in origin, it is made from whizzing up nuts, red peppers and stale bread so is quite storecupboardy (a word, no?), and is quick and versatile. It’s lovely alongside grilled meat, fish or even eggs, or drizzled over roasted veg and can be kept in a jar for a week or so in the fridge. The following is adapted from a recipe from Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Eat (adapted in the sense that I halved the amounts then bunged everything into a processor rather than taking Anna’s more considered approach, and then served it with pork chops, of which she would definitely not approve, being a veggie. So thanks but also, sorry, Anna.)
- 2 roasted red peppers from a jar (about 120g) or homemade (grill peppers all over until blackened, put in a food bag and leave to cool, then peel off burnt skin and deseed)
- 50g skinned almonds
- 25g skinned hazelnuts
- 1 slice of good stale white bread
- 1 clove garlic finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
- 2 tsp sherry vinegar (if your jarred peppers come in vinegar you might want to leave this out)
- small pinch chilli flakes
- small pinch of saffron strands steeped in a little boiling water
- 1 heaped tsp tomato puree
- about 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 180°C fan. When hot, roast the nuts on a tray for about 10 mins, until golden.
- Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and fry the torn up bread pieces until golden. Add the garlic and smoked paprika and cook for another minute (be careful that the garlic doesn’t burn otherwise your sauce will taste bitter).
- Transfer the nuts, toasted bread and peppers to a food processor and blitz to a coarse paste, then add the chilli, the saffron and its steeping water, tomato puree and a splash of extra virgin olive oil and blitz again. Taste and add more oil, salt, pepper and vinegar (if using) as needed. If you don’t want it too oily, but it’s a bit thick, you can loosen it with some water.
*A note on pool etiquette:
- Please shower before entering the pool. Your fellow swimmers do not want to taste your deodorant or hairspray or worse (ew!).
- Do not steal another swimmer’s float, especially if it is obviously their own and not the pool’s, because it doesn’t have any teeth-marks and has their name Sharpied all over it IN BIG LETTERS.
- Front-crawlers (particularly of the male variety): please mind where you put your stupid BIG stupid SPLASHY HANDS.
- Mothercluckers: do not give your pre-schooler free reign of the ADULT pool. Seriously. Being jabbed in the face with a noodle is not cute or funny. And there’s a kids’ pool, like, right there.
- Do not stop for a lengthy catch up with fellow
shirkersswimmers in the middle of the pool. Have you not heard of a café?
- Do not steal another swimmer’s towel (it’s extremely humiliating to stand poolside, shivering your arse off through your threadbare Speedo while the lifeguard tries to find you a replacement).
- No bombing or petting (obvs).