I don’t normally post my Chez Chef column here, but last week I interviewed Jack Monroe aka A Girl Called Jack, and she is so inspiring that I thought I’d share it on these pages…
Chef chef Q+A, Metro: Jack Monroe
As a single mother living in abject poverty, Jack Monroe, 26, began blogging about her struggles to cook and eat on a budget, and the hardships of pawning her belongings to feed her young son, almost three years ago. She soon discovered she was not alone, as her blog, A Girl Called Jack, amassed a huge following and she has since published a cookbook on ultra-budget eating, as well as now writing about food and campaigning against poverty and food hunger. She lives in London with her partner, Allegra, and their two children.
Describe your kitchen…
My girlfriend, Allegra, is also an author of several cookery books and a chef – so it’s busy! Every wall is covered in counter-to-ceiling shelves, and everything has a place. Any space not covered in vinegars and spices is plastered with kids artwork and treasured photos. The large farmhouse table in the middle is surrounded by chairs and cushions, none of which match, and a teetering pile of cookbooks balances in one corner next to a dresser piled with mismatched and eclectic crockery.
What’s your favourite thing about your kitchen?
It’s the social hub of our home – from family breakfast with our two children to meetings during the day, recipe testing, working together, and drinks with friends in the evenings, it’s definitely the most used room in the house, and that’s what makes it special.
How did you get into cooking?
When I started writing about food on my blog, determined to try to cook well for myself and my son despite only having about £10 a week to spend at the time (due to benefit delays, I was unemployed and had some difficulties with my housing benefit…) I was using ingredients like kidney beans that I had little experience with other than throwing them in a chilli, simply because they were so cheap.
I looked up recipes online and made cheap versions of ones I had in recipe books, and felt proud that I was learning something new – and got a lot of messages from people in similar situations saying how useful they found it. When you don’t have a job it’s easy to sink into a spiral of feeling worthless and useless, so it helped me feel like I was achieving something.
What’s your most used kitchen gadget and why?
My hands! I’m a physical cook, touchy feely, I’m sure there’s a better word for it but I can’t think what it is. I like to knead bread, none of this fancy bread maker nonsense, peel garlic, tear up mushrooms, squash the juice from lemons and limes, I like to know my food, it’s mine. How can you tell an avocado is ready if you don’t caress them gently in the supermarket? How do you pick the juiciest lemons if you don’t pick them up and squeeze them?
What do you eat at home?
Breakfasts are generally porridge or eggs or sausage sandwiches or pancakes on weekends, followed by fruit and yoghurt. Lunches are usually a smorgasbord of whatever’s kicking around in the fridge, cheese and cold meat and pickles and leftovers and a bit of toast, with some fruit and more cheese… Cheese is a winner in our house! Dinners range from risotto to curry to stews or pasta.
What’s your best advice to encourage more people to cook at home?
It doesn’t have to be complex or showy – a lot of my recipes are very quick and you can substitute ingredients for ones you like or tend to have in the house – just try it and don’t be disheartened. The BBC Good Food website is a good place to start.
Do you have a favourite fast and easy meal that you could share with us?
Carrot, cumin and kidney bean burgers – recipe from A Girl Called Jack – on my blog.
What are your must-have ingredients, why?
Kidney beans for a cheap protein to bulk out soups, make curries and stews. Chopped tomatoes for sauces, pasta, curry, tagines, casseroles – I panic if I don’t have any in the house…
Your favourite restaurant?
Perhaps slightly biased but Blackfoot in Exmouth Market, for the camaraderie as well as the pork.
Your favourite cookbook?
I don’t have just one!! Bought, Borrowed and Stolen by Allegra McEvedy, Plenty by Ottolenghi, Kitchen by Nigella Lawson, Tender by Nigel Slater…
Currently I’m loving Cucina by Angela Hartnett and The River Cafe Cookbook by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.
Who has inspired you?
Allegra, long before we met. But I owe a huge thank you to Rory, who taught me lots of tips and tricks to make life easier, rescued my crispy garlic, showed me the right way to zest a lemon, and got me through a very difficult shift after I’d had some bad news.
Guilty food pleasure?
Sweet potato mash with chilli and cheese, cooked with the skins on, mashed with a f***ing ton of butter, eaten from the pan. It’s in my first book as Tragedy Mash; it’s got me through heartbreak, work stress and bad days galore.
What would your last supper be?
Where do you shop for food?
We grow some bits – herbs and tomatoes and potatoes and spinach and rainbow chard were all very successful this year. There’s a very good market round the corner, some brilliant ethnic food shops for spices and unusual fruit and vegetables; and day-to-day it’s the supermarket.
Best tips for shopping and eating on a budget?
Downshift a brand at the supermarket – if you always have premium brands then try the supermarkets own, if you use those then use the basic or value range. If you really can’t stomach it (after you’ve tried it) then change back, but there will be products where you can’t tell the difference.
Buy green veg frozen as it’s cheaper and lasts longer so you’ll waste less, and check out tinned and dried fruit for the same reason, it all counts towards your five a day.
And if you’re eating out, check online at somewhere like Groupon before booking a restaurant, you can make savings on meals out from all sorts of restaurants, from burger joints through to Michelin starred restaurants.
How can we waste less food?
Bread can be blitzed into breadcrumbs, dried and stored. Salad can be whizzed into a pesto with herbs, garlic, oil and cheese – yes, any soggy salad will do. Catch things before they turn and freeze them if they can be frozen, and always check your fridge before you go shopping.
What do you do with left-overs?
Well they’re ‘rollovers’ in my house, no such thing as a leftover! Rice becomes rice cakes for breakfast, porridge can be made into porridge pancakes, leftover curry is extended with a can of tomatoes or made into soup.
This article appeared in Metro on 20 January 2015.