Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Fraicher's Guide - Part 1

When you start off cooking for yourself for the first time, there are always a multitude of questions to be asked concerning various topics, from what kitchen utensils you should own to what you can and can't freeze. Below are my top-tips for freshers, an odd assortment of advice that attempts to answer some of those questions and give you a few tips to help you on your way. This is in no way exhaustive, so if you have any tips of your own, I'd love to hear about them.

What You Should Own

This section is relatively unnecessary, as most mothers will have filled an MPV with all the equipment that they are certain you cannot survive without. And even what you (miraculously) don't already have is bound to be owned by one of your flat mates. Still, it can't hurt just to go over the basics again. There may even be something you've missed off your list...

  • Sauce pans – at least 3, of varying sizes and preferably with lids.

  • Frying pans – Two would be useful – one big and one small.

  • A Wok – Not the obvious choice, but I managed to get a 25cm non-stick one for about £2.50 from Asda last year. It's been invaluable.

  • A mixing bowl. Even if you're not going to be doing much baking, one of these will come in use at some point.

  • A measuring jug – A good glass Pyrex one is relatively inexpensive, but you can get plastic ones for even cheaper.

  • An oven tray – or two. I recently got a 33cm Tesco's Value deep roasting tray for less than £1 . I had a flat one before, which is fine – though it did get me into a sticky situation once (excuse the pun) when some sausages and the accompanying fat decided to alight the tray whilst I was trying to remove them from under the grill. Hopefully that problem won't occur with the deep tray...

  • A sieve – always useful for when draining rice etc., or as an inferior substitute for a colander.

  • An oven/casserole dish – great for making pasta bakes which are easy, cheap, filling and (can be) healthy.

  • A chef's knife – aside from all the normal cutlery, make sure you own at least one decent sized chef's knife. These don't have to cost a lot and make chopping so much easier than those little knives. (There's a great knife-skills video tutorial here)

  • A chopping board or two – whether plastic or wooden doesn't matter too much, just make sure you have a couple – you will need them!

  • A peeler and tin-opener are very useful too.

  • Oven gloves – Doesn't really need explaining...

The Store Cupboard

This one's quite straightforward really. You should always have a certain amount of ingredients in your store cupboard for two reasons: One, much of your cooking is likely to involve/require these ingredients, and two, in case of an emergency – you've run out of food and can't make it to the shops, for example. The following list contains the basics that everyone should own:

- Dried Pasta
- Dried Rice and/or noodles
- Salt and (black) pepper (black tastes better and recipes always seem to ask for this)
- Sugar
- Olive oil
- Tinned/chopped tomatoes
- flour
- Some sort of dried herbs are always useful (such as oregano)
- Garlic

Supermarket Shopping

With many universities, you won't have a choice as to which supermarket to shop at – there'll be the one that's nearest and most convenient, and that's it. But if you have a choice it's worth thinking about. If you're going to be shopping at a supermarket for three years (or more) shouldn't you get something back for it? Many people at my university shop at the local Asda because it's close and it's big. I tend to shop at the smaller and slightly further away Sainsbury's as, among other things, I collect Nectar points, meaning I'm slowly earning free food!

Sell-Bys and Bulk Buys

One of the first things you'll realise about shopping for one person is that it is a pain in the pan-seared posterior. Nearly everything is cheaper in bulk, but as there's only one of you, you don't need bulk. Another problem is that even if you do decide to buy in bulk, do you have the storage space? And then there are sell-by dates. If you can store it, can you eat it before it goes off?

Whilst on the topic of sell/use/consume/eat/scoff/munch-by dates, it's worth realising that these dates are only relative – for some foods at least. Supermarkets are legally obligated to put a use-by date on their foods, so they'll put them there whether strictly necessary or not. Some foods are fine past their date; for example I had a pack of grated mild cheddar that went well past the date but was perfect. Tins also are almost immortal. With foods such as fruit and milk, you can tell when they're past their prime because they smell, taste and/or look bad. But don't mess with meat - eat it within the date. Overall, just use common sense, and don't hold me accountable if you get ill from eating something mouldy(!) - I'm not saying ignore these dates I'm just saying that some of them are a little on the pessimistic side.

Going back to bulk buying, sharing shopping with your flat-mates is an obvious solution to the shopping-for-one problem. However, you probably wouldn't want to do too much as it could get quite complicated what with owing each other money and whatnot. Trying to split big milk bottles evenly could be quite difficult too. A good compromise is to buy foods such as pasta in bulk and split the costs, and then do the rest of your shopping yourself.

Economy Gastronomy

One thing many people, even students, are often dubious about is the economy range of any supermarket. But students are on a tight budget, and so often feel forced into the cheap ranges (unless you're like my good colleague Fred the Friendly Viking, who is probably unique in being the only student in the U.K. to shop at Waitrose).

But take heart, there is little need to be afraid of these foods. Some of the economy range, it has to be said, isn't that great but most of it is absolutely fine; it's just cheaper because it simply hasn't got the fancy packaging, or in the case of fruit and veg, everything isn't neat and uniform in size and shape. If you're unsure, all you have to do is read the ingredients, and if there's anything you don't like (or sounds alien) you don't have to buy it. But you'll probably find that cheap stuff doesn't even have to have lots of artificial flavourings, colourings, preservatives, or insanitary additives – as I discovered with my Sainsbury's Basics Meat Lasagne. The only bottom range food I tend to be avoid is sausages – A quick glance over the back of the pack reveals only about 42% of the sausage is actual pork. Grim.

So in short, just read the packet; see where it's from and what's in it and you should be able to make a good judgement. Economy ranges aren't all bad.

Another thing you will discover is that it's actually more expensive to eat healthily. Whereas a good packet of custard creams will only cost about 30p, a bag of bananas will cost over a pound. And that's just one very small example. Just don't be tempted to save a few pennies and eat unhealthily, because though your wallet may thank you, your body won't .

Just a couple more tips:

- Always write a shopping list (and plan meals ahead). That way you won't forget anything, and if you stick to it you won't go beyond your budget.
- Eat before you go. If you shop when hungry you'll end up with all sorts of confectionery in your trolley, and no recollection of buying it.
- If you shop closer to closing time there's more likely to be reduced items that are near/on the sell-by and needing to be cleared.

Part two to follow shortly, covering following recipes, inspiration and advice for cooking itself.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Summer's Last Hurrah

It seems like admitting defeat to mention it, but we cannot deny the fact that summer is slowly drawing its last breaths before it plunges into hibernation for the next eight to ten months.

Still, we can't really complain as, august aside, we've had a pretty good summer (for British standards, anyway). The culinary highlights of this fairer part of the year have mainly been sea-food orientated for me: from a delicious smoked salmon wrap on the Dutch island of Texel, to the legendary Anstruther fish and chips on the Fife coast in Scotland; from raw herring and onion in the Hague, to a sublime (if not slightly overpriced) white crab and chilli linguine in Porthleven.


Anyway, reminiscing aside, this recipe really comes at the wrong time of year. Really I should have waited until late spring/early summer to post it, but unfortunately I'm not that patient. So instead I'm labelling this as a last hurrah for summer, a 'not going down without a fight' type attitude to the last dregs of the warmer part of the year. (Looking out of the window, however, that attitude does admittedly seem a little futile).

The recipe is an almost-success. I'd hope that once placed in the fridge it'd set, but it didn't. As a result you have to place it into the freezer and then remove about 15 -25mins before consumption. Still, it taught me an important lesson about the solidity of chocolate and it tastes good to boot, so it was worth it in the end!!

White Chocolate, Strawberry and Mint Truffle Cake


Serves: 8 (or more, see below)

Price: 44p per slice

Time: About an hour, if you're as slow as me


140g white chocolate

3 large fresh strawberries

1 small handful of fresh mint (about 5g)

8 digestive biscuits

115ml double cream

55g unsalted butter


  1. Firstly, blitz the digestives in a blender and melt 30g of the butter. Mix the digestives and butter to create a 'wet sand'. Line an 18cm cake tin with grease proof paper. Empty the digestives and butter into the tin and smooth over the bottom to create your base. Place in the fridge.

  2. Next, chop your strawberries into small pieces. The shape doesn't really matter and they don't have to be uniform in size. Now do the same with your mint. A good technique for chopping the mint leaves into small strips is to pile 3-5 on top of each other, and then roll them up (as if rolling a minty cigarette). Then simply chop the roll thinly.

  3. Next, break up the chocolate and put it into a mixing bowl. Add the remaining 25g of butter. Pour the cream into a sauce pan and put on a medium heat. It should boil quite quickly.

  4. Once boiled, pour the cream over the chocolate and butter. Mix gently (try to avoid creating bubbles) until it all becomes a yellowish gloop (it doesn't look very appetising at this stage, but taste a bit and you'll change your mind!). Now simply mix in the strawberries and mint.

  5. Remove the base from the fridge and pour the mixture on top. Now place in the freezer to set. Remove about 15-25mins prior to eating.

    Two further brief notes about this:

    - One, it is really rather rich, so you won't need a large portion as a dessert.

    - Secondly, because of this richness you can cut it into small squares or circles or slices and serve as a bite with tea or coffee.