Credit crunch, credit crisis, recession or whatever you want to call it, everybody’s been tightening their purse strings over the last 18 months.
Of course, this has had a serious impact on entertainment, and that includes how much we spend on eating out. Knowing that hard times are here, I’ve cut back on luxuries like Sunday lunch at my favourite pubs or hanging out with friends at our favourite restaurant in London’s Chinatown, and have been shopping for food more strictly.
In London, quite a few posh restaurants have shut down, many because former big-spending clients from the banking sector have deserted them, or because companies have cut back on business entertainment like lavish Christmas parties and breakfast meetings.
Interestingly, I read a survey that said some of the first places to be affected by the recession are fast-food outlets – particularly “ethnic” food takeaways. I didn’t do a scientific survey, but from anecdotal evidence it seems most of the popular Caribbean food takeaways around London are – thankfully – still going strong.
I’ve noticed that the recession got people thinking more carefully about what they’re eating, and those who can cook are becoming more creative about meals. If I’d charged all the people who’ve come to ask me about Caribbean food ideas – mainly how to make jerk – I’d have a tidy wad of cash by now.
In fact, food writer Rose Prince said in an article, “I think there’ll be a moment where people will look again at what they’re choosing to eat and perhaps no longer wish to spend money on convenience foods…and finally, people might think, ‘If I cook that myself I might actually be able to save a little bit.’ So I think there are positive outcomes.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the UK supermarket chain Waitrose reported a 38 per cent rise in sales of cookware in the last three months of 2009.
Several of my friends are excellent cooks who also happen to be very good at making tasty dishes out of the sparsest ingredients. I think we learnt from our mothers, who often had to come up with ingenious methods to make ends meet. I’m not surprised many of my Caribbean friends who live here in the UK say they haven’t found it difficult to adjust to cooking in the recession.
People used to laugh at the way I would eschew prime cuts of meat for cheap cuts like oxtail, pork belly and lamb neck fillets, but now butchers and supermarkets realise that people are turning to these cuts and they’re not so cheap any more.
My friend Heather, who can spot a good deal from a mile off, hit the nail on the head when she said, “People need to look around more when they shop. You don’t only have to buy the usual goods, but you have to get some extras that you could keep in the cupboard or your freezer that could enhance any basic dish.”
These wise words got me thinking of compiling a list of items (below) that could transform the simplest of dishes and turn them into something special.
Whenever I read about cooking in hard times, a key point that comes up is avoiding wastage. Long ago, I used to hear people referring to dishes made with leftover food as macafouchette – an old-time patois word.
My favourite example of avoiding waste is using an entire chicken. If I roast a chicken on Sunday, by Monday evening the parts I have not eaten become elements of a chicken stir-fry or a chicken pie. And if there’s still any meat left over, I make a chicken salad with lots of mayonnaise, capers, chopped coriander, and some hot paprika. After that, I use the carcass for making chicken stock.
Another simple solution for leftovers is adding some tinned fish or leftover baked fish – preferably salmon or tuna – to leftover mashed potatoes with seasoning, and coating them in breadcrumbs to create yummy fishcakes.
Money might be tight, but for a lot of folks, the recession provides a golden opportunity to gain a better insight into food and eating.
Franka’s item list
One of the key ingredients in Caribbean cooking is ground or “green” seasoning. It’s very simple to make: just whizz up some chive, parsley, cilantro, thyme and garlic ground with a bit of lemon juice, water and a pinch of salt.
Coconut milk: Can anyone underestimate the value of coconut milk? Typically, used in callaloo and Trinidad’s rice dish pelau. But it can also be used in breads, as a base for desserts, and to enrich curries.
Curry powder: In addition to the obvious curry dishes, curry powder can be used to spice up salad dressings and can also be rubbed on meat for an additional boost of flavour.
Peas and pulses: Tinned peas are cheap and cheerful and are convenient if you don’t have time on your side. Dried peas need to be soaked for several hours or overnight before cooking. And in case you’re thinking a pressure cooker is necessary for “bursting” the peas, fear not. Just add baking powder to the water when you soak them. Use about a teaspoonful to eight ounces of peas.
Couscous: A staple in North African and Mediterranean cooking, these semolina and wheat grains can be used as a replacement for rice. It goes well with stews to soak up all the sauce and is also very good in salads.
Sweetcorn: Vegetable rice, corn pie, and chicken salad are just a few dishes to which the humble sweetcorn can be added.
Frozen roti skins: These come in two varieties, dhalpouri roti, which is stuffed with ground dal, or split peas, and paratha, which is like soft, shredded pastry. These are great to have on hand, especially if you’re doing a quick curry for a few people. In New York, London and Toronto they are available in specialty West Indian shops, but they’re widely available in supermarkets across the Caribbean.
Dried fruit: Prunes and apricots are not just for cake and desserts. The addition of those dried fruits to meat stews – especially pork and lamb – give a most interesting flavour. The Moroccans swear by it.
Nuts and seeds: Nuts like almonds and cashews are handy in salads and stir-fries. Seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin are great with roasted vegetables, salads, and in homemade bread.
Noodles: The noodles I mean are the rice noodles used in oriental cooking. They only require a short soak in boiling water to be ready to use. They’re fantastic in soups and broths.
Recipe: Franka’s stewed pigeon peas
This is a dish I started doing a few years ago, based on a dish I saw made by a TV chef. I simply added some ingredients and gave it a special twist. It’s a great side dish with roasted vegetables, rice and meat.
1 large onion, chopped
2 tbsp oil
3 tbsp fine sugar
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tin pigeon peas, approximately 400g
400ml coconut milk
2 vegetable stock cubes
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp green seasoning
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground coriander
Few sprigs of thyme
1 tsp pepper sauce (or more if you want kick)
Salt to taste
Pour oil into a deepish pot over a medium flame, put in chopped onions and cook until translucent, about four to five minutes.
Sprinkle with fine sugar and cover the onions directly with parchment or baking paper. Lower heat and cover pot.
Let cook until the onions begin to caramelise, about ten minutes.
Remove parchment, add garlic and stir, then add peas and stir until properly mixed with the onions.
Add coconut milk and enough water to cover peas, stock cubes and tomato paste, and cook for five minutes.
Add remaining ingredients and let simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened.