With more than half a million people relying on food banks in the UK, the discussion has, of course, ignored the underlying problem of uneven wealth distribution and turned, instead, to the notion of food waste. OK, fair enough, we can do that. This is the food strand of X&HT, after all, and as a nation we do bin a lot of food. AT a rough estimation, over £500 worth of grub per person goes from the supermarket to the fridge to the bin without going near our plates every year.
There’s plenty of speculation as to why that happens. Everything from the proliferation of ready meals, to over-cautious Use By dates. I don’t have a catch-all answer. It’s a complex situation that deserves more than a soundbite. But I can tell you about how I deal with the food that passes through my kitchen.
I’m a great believer in using what I have, and thinking about how I can stretch it out. Part of that comes, I think, from frugal habits that I picked up in college, when I shared with three other blokes in a crumbling rental in Bournemouth. You can feed four people pretty cheaply when you’re cooking big casseroles and stews. I learnt to shop with an eye on bargain veggies and cheaper cuts of meat and fish.
I also learnt the virtue of cooking more than you need. Leftovers are easy to turn into quick midweek meals. You can freeze your leftover stews and ragus. From frozen, they’ll reheat in a hot pan in minutes if you forget to defrost them — just make sure anything you heat up that way is properly, bubbling hot all the way through. And don’t forget, you can always bulk out leftover stews with extra treats like lentils or bits of bacon. While you’re at it, don’t forget that cooked rice and stale bread freezes well. The rice is brilliant for quick egg-fried rice, and old bread is an essential ingredient. Think croutons, breadcrumbs, or even the base of a bread pudding.
For me, the ingredient that sums up this approach best is the roast chicken. A treat for Sunday becomes the base for dinners well into the week. Once the chook has cooled, I strip the carcass, picking out all the goodies, then simmer the bones with peppercorns, a celery stick and a carrot or two to make stock. This stuff beats any Knorr cube into a cocked hat. You have the base for chicken soup, risotto, a curry, the start of a casserole or a quick sauce to slosh over pasta. Try this: slice some potatoes and onions, layer them in a shallow dish, pour over some stock and bake for 45 minutes until everything’s soft, golden and bubbling. Voila, potato boulangerie.
Or, you know, just have a chicken sandwich. It’s your roast. Do what you want with it.
The point I’m trying to make is that to my mind, waste in the kitchen comes from a lack of confidence in knowing what to do with leftovers, and binning veg as soon as it looks a little limp. This, frankly, is down to a lack of food education. I never had the chance to take domestic science at school, and it worries me that a lot of kids are denied that chance. I think knowing how to make the most of the food in your kitchen is an essential life skill, and will serve you well for the rest of your life. I have a lot of fun when I’m cooking, and get a real sense of pride when I throw something tasty together out of really uninspiring ingredients.
If we’re not going to have a sensible discussion about the root causes of food poverty in the UK, then the least we can do is try to allieviate the symptoms. Buy what you need, and use what you’ve got.