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One Mangetout at a Time

25 mussels

I think we all know how I felt about Jamie’s comments about poor people in Britain, but just before I fell asleep, I panicked and jolted awake in horror. What if he was right and me writing off Sicilian peasant cuisine in south west London was short sighted? After all, my mantra about food poverty is that there is no one size fits all answer to such a complex problem and there was me, who does have a market just up the road ignoring the advice.

Luckily it was Wednesday ,when any batch cooking from the weekend tends to have run out, since I have a rule to only eat 2 portions of anything and freeze the rest so I don’t put myself off my staples and keep food enjoyable. I was also feeling well enough to get out of the house before half day closing in Brixton market to buy mussels, cherry tomatoes, pasta and those mangetout that attracted so much attention.

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Dear Jamie Oliver…

(Update: After writing this piece, Miss South shopped for, and made Jamie Oliver’s much-debated meal with mussels. tomatoes, pasta and of course, mange tout. Was it possible to buy the individual ingredients, and did it cost just 60p? Find out here.)

So tell me why I should listen to you on ‘Money Saving Meals’ when it’s clear that you don’t really understand poverty in the UK? Do you have any special knowledge that the 9 million households who will migrate onto Universal Credit don’t have about the day in day out grind of making ends meet? And why do we have to put up with being derided and criticised yet again? We’ve got the Department of Work and Pensions and the coalition government for that usually…

In this piece, you skirt very close to blaming poor people for just not trying hard enough. Now, I think I’ve covered this before here and I have no great urge to rehash the points (although I’m poor and I do know that a hash makes an inexpensive meal at least), but I’m staggered by your lack of responsibility here Jamie.

One of the biggest reasons we can’t all live the life of a Sicilian peasant with our handful of mussels and darling little pasta dishes is that our shopping options have been decimated by the supermarkets which now account for about 90% of food shopping in the UK. This would include the supermarket chain that you advertised for 10 years. And the other five or six that stock your ready made pasta sauces and branded foods.

This is a situation where supermarkets have filled the breach where people no longer got taught Home Economics or cookery at school by telling them cooking was really really hard and that life would be more simple if they just bought this pre prepared item. They branded and bagged everything we ate and turned it to profit over anything more profound. And you encouraged it by slapping your face and your name on everything from grow bags to magazines because it made you money.

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Dan Dan Noodles

Sunday morning saw me up and alert early for once and off to Brixton’s Farmers’ Market. I was hoping to pick up some rhubarb, but it might be a little early in the season for it here in London. I did however pick up some venison mince in all its rich ruby red glory. The low fat content and good quality appealed to me, but I had no firm plans on what to do with it.

I meandered home and sat down with a coffee and a fresh pretzel from the market to read the Observer Food Monthly, chuckling to myself at their amazement that people, especially chefs, ever eat alone when I espied a recipe for Dan-Dan noodles that looked like it would work perfectly with my venison mince. These could be described as the Chinese equivalent of spaghetti bolognese, since they combine noodles and meat, but with a delicious warming chili kick. I first had them at the fabulous Baozi Inn in Chinatown, but despite loving them, I had never thought to make them myself. I have no idea if this Jamie Oliver recipe is authentic or not but it gave me something to work with…

1 beef or chicken stock cube

500g minced beef

2 tbs runny honey

300g wheat noodles

4 handfuls of mixed green veg(Chinese cabbage, sprouting broccoli, bok choi, spinach)

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and very finely chopped

3 tbs dark soy sauce

2 tsp freshly ground Szechuan pepper

5 tbs good-quality chilli oil (see below)

2 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced

1 lime, quartered, to serve

Crumble your stock cube into a large pan of water and get it on the heat. Add the beef to a dry pan and, on a medium to high heat, keep moving it around until it’s golden and crunchy, which will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Pour away any excess fat, then add the honey and toss until all the mince is nicely coated. Cook for about 30 seconds, then take the pan off the heat.

Stir your noodles into the boiling stock and move them about a bit so they don’t stick together. Cook according to the packet instructions. Shred your cabbage into 1cm strips, quarter your bok choi and snap up the broccoli spears. When the noodles have 1 minute to go, throw in the prepared greens to blanch them. Drain the whole lot in a colander, reserving a mugful of the cooking water. Tip your noodles, veg and the water back into the hot pan.

Add your garlic, soy sauce, Szechuan pepper and chilli oil. Give it all a good mix with tongs and divide among 4 bowls. Sprinkle over the crunchy beef , finish with a scattering of spring onions and serve each dish with a lime quarter to squeeze over.

Once I got over the irony of the recipe being for 4 people in an article about eating alone, I used Marigold Bouillon powder to make the stock as it is easier to measure for one person than a stockcube. I left the honey out because frankly sweetened savoury dishes give me the heebie-jeebies and I didn’t have any bok choi, so I substituted some curly kale instead. Apart from the fact I also reduced the amount of chili oil hugely, the rest of the recipe was pretty similar.

The venison mince dry fried beautifully, becoming deliciously crumbly in the pan on a high heat, due to the lack of the usual watery fat you get in regular beef mince. Beef or pork mince would have needed draining and more cooking to achieve the right texture to go with the noodles. I misread the recipe slightly and stupidly only reserved a cupful (or 120ml) of the cooking liquid rather than the mugful suggested, meaning my finished dish had very little liquid, but this didn’t spoil it in anyway. It was still a delicious combination of soft slurpy noodles with crumbly nuggets of full flavoured meat, crunchy leaf vegetables and the refreshing chili kick you would expect from Szechuan food.

On top of that, it created very little washing up and is a marvellously quick recipe for using up the last little bits of cabbage or broccoli lurking in the back of your fridge. All in all, a perfect one person meal, especially as you can customise the chili to your own level each time, which is just the ticket on a cold winter day!