Jack Monroe is a 25-year-old mother from Essex, and she’s on a mission to help everyone cook good food at home – regardless of how much they have to spend. “Anyone can make MasterChef food if they have £150 to play with. It really takes effort to make decent food on a small budget.” She speaks from experience. Her award-winning blog, agirlcalledjack.com, chronicles with honesty and wit Monroe’s life as a single, unemployed mother of a toddler as she struggled to keep them both afloat, and eating well, with almost no money.
Monroe’s recipes are now being handed out by food banks, and she is an influential, unusual voice in the media, where we rarely hear from those affected by the recession and welfare cuts: “My food is political and my politics tends to be quite food-related. They are quite meshed together,” she says.
Monroe never expected to find herself penniless. She lived in the seaside town of Southend and loved her work in the 999 call control room of the Essex fire brigade. She earned £27,000 a year, and lived in a rented flat with her son Jonny, now three. When she left her job in November 2011 – after a long battle to cope with changes to shift work that were adversely affecting her son – she expected to get another one right away. Months later she had applied for 300 jobs and got just two interviews. “You start to wonder what is wrong with you,” she says.
She started blogging on local politics early in 2012, having been outraged by a Conservative councillor’s statement that “druggies, drunks and single mothers” were ruining Southend’s town centre. “I started going to council meetings to see who these people are who are making decisions about my life, when they clearly don’t know what my life entails.” The local paper, the Echo, started to use Monroe’s blog material when they couldn’t send their own reporters.
But her financial situation was worsening. Breaking point came one day in July last year. She opened the fridge and saw nothing but some cold pasta, which she fed to her son. Monroe went to bed hungry and woke up to no breakfast. Her blog post – Hunger Hurts – makes harrowing reading. “Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one Weetabix and says, ‘More mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawnshop first, and how to tell him there is no bread and jam.”
Writing the post was cathartic. Monroe turned despair into positive action. She scraped together £6 (“every penny in every pocket”) and went to the supermarket. “I picked up tomatoes, kidney beans – I went round until I had run out of money. I felt ashamed with a basket full of the ‘basic’ [cheaper] range, wondering if people were looking at me differently.”
She had always enjoyed cooking, and started to get creative, using ingredients she could afford and the herbs she grew on her windowsill. She began to post recipes that worked well (and were a hit with her son) on her blog. “A lot of recipes have lengthy ingredients; I have hacked back what I don’t think is essential. I just give people a base to work with.” Monroe has been able to feed herself and her son for £10 a week this way – and she is grateful for a referral to the local food bank. “I started to build the recipes from what I was getting from the food bank. I would pick up pulses, carbohydrate, and you can have unlimited fruit and vegetables.”
Monroe is passionate about food and food education. “People get in touch to say they would never have dreamt of trying an apricot curry or making their own bread.” Having seen too many people spend meagre resources on expensive, chemical-laden ready meals, she wants to see cooking skills reintroduced on the national curriculum for all children.
The political blogging has paid off – Monroe has landed a trainee journalist position on her local paper. She’s also working on a cookbook that will show other families how to eat well for very little money. Now she’s back on her feet, there’s no stopping her: “I almost feel like a food missionary. I have this amazing thing I have found – I am a bit evangelical about it.”
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts
Mamma Jack’s chilli
serves 4 for £1.18, or just under 30p per portion
75g dried black beans, 16p (£1.09/500g)
75g dried haricot beans, 16p (£1.09/500g)
1 onion, 5p (part of a 20-piece vegetable selection, £1)
75ml red table wine, 34p (£3.48/750ml)
1 carton chopped tomatoes, 35p
3 squares dark chocolate, 6p (31p/bar with 15 squares in a bar)
Shake of paprika, 3p approx (£1.19/50g)
Shake of cumin, 2p approx (80p/46g)
1 small chilli, free (grows on my window ledge)
1 vegetable stock cube, 1p (10p for 10)
● First, soak your beans! Pop them in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave to soak for 8+ hours. I do mine in the morning so they’re ready for dinner in the evening.
● Evening/meal preparation time. Drain and rinse your beans and bring to the boil in a small saucepan. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir occasionally. These will need to cook for about 20-30 minutes, depending on how “well soaked” they were.
● Meanwhile, peel and dice the onion and add to a large sauté pan with the chopped chilli.
● Add the wine, chopped tomatoes, crumbled stock cube, paprika and cumin, and simmer all together on a low heat.
● When the beans have softened, drain and add to the sauce. Add the chocolate and stir until the beans are heated through and the chocolate is melted.
● I serve mine with a large baked potato (5p, part of a 1.25kg mixed vegetable bag) but sometimes do it with rice (3p for a 75g portion, 40p/1kg rice).
Founder, After Hours pop-up dessert bar, 25
“Until a couple of years ago, I worked in the City as a management consultant. When I was younger I worked in a local kitchen at weekends, and when I got to the City I still wanted to work in food. Organisation is really important in both careers but other than that they are very different; I’m dealing with practical issues rather than working out what to do with a data set. It’s also really difficult to make money in food: I pay my rent with part-time work but I can’t afford to lose money on the events.
Eventually I want to be a restaurateur, and you have to start somewhere. This is a great way to practise. With After Hours I thought it would be great to have restaurant-quality desserts, made by a talented young chef, but in a relaxed environment like a coffee shop. You can go for a burger beforehand, and then come to us for £20 and three courses of dessert.
I work with a few different up-and-coming pastry chefs; for the past two months it has been Farokh Talati, who used to be at The Fat Duck.
We get a mix of clientele, couples coming on dates, and big groups. It has been quite popular with the ladies.”
After Hours is taking part in Feast, July 4-July 7 at Brewer’s Yard, near Brick Lane, London E1; www.wefeast.co.uk
By Farokh Talati
Drop of violet essence (optional)
50g caster sugar
4 gelatin leaves, softened
360ml whipping cream
Olive oil biscuit
100g caster sugar
175g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 egg yolks
40ml extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp vanilla essence
150g raw pistachio kernels
Extra strawberries, sliced
Coriander cress (optional)
● For the olive oil biscuit, place the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until light and fluffy. Add the flour, baking powder and salt to the bowl, and beat again until fully incorporated. Finally, add the egg yolks, olive oil and vanilla to the bowl and beat until a moist dough is formed. Don’t overwork the dough at this stage, or the biscuit will be tough. Remove from the bowl, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
● Preheat the oven to 160C. Remove the biscuit dough from the fridge and roll out until 1cm thick. Using a pastry cutter, cut rounds 3cm-4cm in diameter and place on a non-stick baking tray, spaced apart to allow for spreading during cooking. Bake for 8 minutes until lightly golden, and transfer to a cooling rack. Once cooled, place in a bowl and crush with the end of a rolling pin to make coarse biscuit crumbs. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
● For the mousse, hull the strawberries, place in a food processor and blitz until a smooth purée.
● Add 150ml of the strawberry purée, violet essence, caster sugar and soaked gelatin leaves to a pan and heat until the sugar and gelatin are fully dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in 350ml of the reserved strawberry purée (reserving the remaining purée to garnish the plate). Refrigerate for 1 hour, until the purée is set to a jelly.
● Remove the strawberry jelly from the fridge and whisk until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Fold the strawberry jelly into the whipped cream until fully incorporated and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. The mousse can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 days.
● To serve, place 2 tablespoons of the biscuit crumbs in the centre of a plate or wide bowl. Top with a generous spoonful of strawberry mousse. Garnish with chopped pistachios, fresh strawberries, a couple of leaves of coriander cress and some of the reserved strawberry purée.
Proprietor, Brunswick House Café and Rita’s Bar & Dining, London SW8, 28
“This summer we ran ‘Palazzo Peckham’ in an old boatwright’s workshop at the Venice Biennale. It was a project of ludicrous ambition, a collaboration between, on the one edible and quaffable hand, Grace Welch, my brother Frank, the chef Andrew Clarke and I – and on the other, more visual one, the curator Ollie Hogan and a bunch of international artists managed by the Hannah Barry Gallery.
The Venetians are tough people, and while we were welcomed warmly by farmers, butchers, fishermen and winemakers, the machinations of the various councils we pleaded our case before were as byzantine as the Venetian gothic architecture of the Doge’s Palace. We took a Peckham menu – jerk pork, fried chicken, rum slushies – found incredible Venetian produce to cook it with and, though we lacked space, time, and for the most part anything properly resembling a kitchen, we did it.
My biggest project this summer is the impending birth of my daughter. Everything else will pale in significance. However, I will also be working very hard on the launch of the new Rita’s, and I’m planning at least one dinner on the roof at Frank’s Café & Campari Bar with Andrew Clarke to bring what we took from Peckham to Venice back again.”
Karam & Sunaina Sethi
Chef and sommelier, Trishna, London W1, 29 and 26
Karam: “The builders are working on our new restaurant in Mayfair. It’ll be called Gymkhana, and it is inspired by my visits to the old colonial Raj clubs in India. Gymkhanas were the social and sport clubs set up by the British for high society; you’d find tandoori, snacky food, beers and gins, and a packed-out bar. I want to replicate that place where people are having a good time. We haven’t done anything new for four years so it’s fun working again on design concepts.”
Sunaina: “I was working in management for HSBC in Germany when my brother [Karam] opened Trishna in Marylebone. When I came back I worked at the restaurant but found my passion in the wine and got my qualifications. I’ve had fun developing the wine list for The Pearson Room [a brasserie in Canada Square], and am getting into sherries. I want to go to Istria in Croatia; recently my favourite reds and whites have been from the Kozlovic vineyard there.”
www.trishnalondon.com; Gymkhana is due to open in early August
Chef-patron, Bone Daddies ramen bar, London W1, 34
“I’ve been cooking high-end Japanese food at places like Zuma and Nobu for the past eight years. I wanted to do a restaurant at the same level but finding a site was tough. I got so frustrated that I went knocking on doors myself; after six months I finally got the keys to Bone Daddies.
I’ve been passionate about ramen for years. Like others I was frustrated that you could get great ramen in Hong Kong and LA but not in London. A bowl of ramen has to be delicious. I want to be able to taste the stock, to have some gelatin out of the bones to stick my lips together, I want the noodles to be firm. But there’s no such thing as an authentic ramen. Even in Japan it is changing – chefs are putting cheese on ramen and adding curry flavours.
With our new site, Flesh & Buns, we want to continue the message that Japanese food doesn’t have to be super-serious: in Japan you can sit on a beer crate and have grilled chicken and cold beer, it’s not all stiff and formal. The restaurant will be interactive – you’ll come in and rock music will set the tone, there’ll be a frozen margarita machine with yuzu flavours, plated sashimis, grilled yakitori chicken, tempura prawns, sushi rolls, then hirata buns where you can pick a filling – roasted baby chickens, sea bass, duck and pork – and build up your bun with pickles and sauces. It’ll be somewhere between Korean barbecue and Peking duck.”
Flesh & Buns opens in mid July; 41 Earlham Street.
Bone Daddies, 31 Peter Street, London W1; www.bonedaddiesramen.com
Hiyashi chuka is an example of wafu chuka, or Chinese-style Japanese food, and means “chilled Chinese”. Served cold with colourful toppings, it’s a light and refreshing summertime take on ramen.
Ingredients for cold noodle sauce
500g light soy sauce
300g rice wine vinegar
30ml sesame oil
300g chicken stock (used to cook the pulled chicken and then reduced by three quarters)
1 small handful bonito flakes
Salt to taste
● Combine all ingredients, heat just to a boil, allow to cool. Strain through a muslin cloth. Chill.
Shredded omelette (4 best-quality eggs)
Salt to taste
200g canned and drained cooked bamboo
10ml sesame oil
100ml soy sauce
2g chilli flakes
400g pulled chicken: breast or thigh cooked in stock, then pulled off the bone in strips, dressed with egg marinade
110g (per person) fresh ramen noodles
200g beansprouts, blanched
100g drained canned corn
1 large carrot cut into match sticks
1 tomato, quartered and sliced into wedges
4 small bunches of salad leaves, eg Mizuna
3 finely sliced spring onions
(Refrigerate until the last minute)
● Combine eggs with the salt. Pour half the mixture into a lightly oiled pan and spread into a thin omelette. Repeat. Roll the two omelettes and slice finely.
● Stir-fry the bamboo in the sesame oil until dry. Add the other ingredients, stir-fry again until almost dry and set aside.
● Cook noodles in boiling water (no salt), transfer to iced water to stop the cooking and chill. Drain well.
● You’re ready to finish the dish: have all ingredients laid out ready to use quickly.
● Divide the noodles between 4 chilled bowls, top with omelette, beansprouts, bamboo, chicken and other vegetables. Add the chilled dressing.
Chef and co-founder, Pitt Cue, London W1, 24
“Our biggest project this summer is sorting out our new farm in Cornwall. We started rearing pigs for Pitt Cue on my parents’ farm in Winchester but a friend has a farm near Launceston in Cornwall, where our butchers are based, so we decided it made sense to move them down there. We have three breeds: Tamworth, Middle White and a really cool pig called the Mangalitsa.
We fenced off a few acres of woodland, and it’s an idyllic place: there are pheasants and a wild stream, and a couple of the pigs roam completely free, they’re the mascots of the farm. Some you do become attached to but I find it hard not to see them as dinner.
At the restaurant, now we’re getting whole carcases in from the farm, we’ll be doing a lot more sharing dishes, including a whole cured and smoked pig’s head for four people, with lots of garnishes – and an apple in its mouth.
I’ve become quite good friends with the Mangalitsa exporters in Austria and I would love to run a workshop here with them in pig butchery; they’re just amazing at what they do. This September in London we’ll also be involved in food festival Meatopia; I imagine it’ll be a lot of fun, and a lot of eating and drinking.”
35ml rye whisky
20ml lemon juice
750ml sugar syrup (500ml boiling water, 500g caster sugar)
50ml ginger ale
● Pour freshly boiling water on to the sugar and stir until it dissolves. Leave to cool, then pour into sterilised bottles.
● Shake the whisky, Cointreau, lemon juice and sugar syrup in a Boston shaker with ice, then strain over ice in a tumbler. Top up the glass with the ginger ale.
● Garnish with thin slices of cucumber and add two straws.
Recipe from “Pitt Cue Co. The Cookbook” (Mitchell Beazley, £20)
Chef-patron, Machneyuda, Jerusalem, 34
“My first restaurant, Machneyuda, is inside the biggest market in Jerusalem – my cooks go out and pick up whatever is fresh and write the menu from scratch. We were the first market-to-table restaurant in Jerusalem – when we opened everyone was talking about it.
The idea with this summer’s Jerusalem Season of Culture was to take a food truck to a different location every day and meet a famous native of the city – a soccer player, politician, author – in a place close to their heart. Then we’ll open the truck and sell a dish they have requested – for example, the politician Rubi Rivlin wants us to cook eggplant and tomato stew, which he remembers from his childhood. We’ve made the truck really colourful: you can spot it from anywhere in the city.
I’m excited as we’re also going to open a restaurant in London: in Jerusalem we have a good vibe and we’re going to try to translate that. We’ve talked a lot about the London scene with our friend Yotam Ottolenghi.
Jerusalem Season of Culture Food Truck, July 17-August 9; www.jerusalemseason.com/en
Co-proprietor, Shobbrook Wines, Australia, 32
“In 2000, aged 18, I went to Italy for a vintage to a little vineyard in Chianti, and almost within a day I’d worked out I’d want to go back there: I liked the idea of putting a year in a bottle. Grapes are like a diary, you can see if things were good or were tough. I got a visa and stayed in Italy for six years.
In 2007 I decided to go back to Australia, to my family’s farm and vineyard, and I started to make wines there. The sunshine is different, as are the soils and varieties, so it took a while for the wine to be expressive; 2012 was the first year that I thought really tasted of our farm.
We’ve had lots of interest from Quebec and Finland; the Australian dollar is quite strong and it’s making export difficult. The idea is to show these northern places that we’re doing something exciting.
We reinvest anything we make back into the business – we only started it with A$5,000 (£3,000) and it doesn’t take long for that to disappear. Within 10 years I want to be able to support ourselves – and my habit of going back to Italy.”
Founder, Kerb Food, a London street food collective, 37
“Selling food on the street is one of the oldest industries in the world and it has one of the lowest barriers to entry. But the problem we’ve got is all these incredible entrepreneurs coming along and there’s not enough space for them. The number one question I get asked is, ‘How do I get a pitch?’ Lots of the markets are risk-averse and say they’re full and that there’s a waiting list – there doesn’t seem to be much room for manoeuvre. People say there’s a street food revolution but I don’t think it is one until the spaces are more flexible.
Kerb markets normally operate on private land (at King’s Cross, the Gherkin and UCL). So it’s really exciting that the Greater London Authority has recognised what we’re trying to do and given us some funding. Over the summer we’re going to do three Saturday markets in Granary Square in King’s Cross. We’re working with Central St Martin’s students on how to present the space, we’re bringing in amazing producers from nearby, and there will be a Bloody Mary bar and a vodka barge on the canal. There will be lots of collaboration around the idea of food and community.
Our ideal would be to do similar things in other parts of London: I’m trying to kick-start street food around Peckham – people are prepared to travel across the city to try new things, and it doesn’t all have to happen in east London. In the 1990s people got wasted on drugs, now they get wasted on food.”
Kerb Saturdays begin on 29 June 29 at Granary Square; www.kerbfood.com
Chef-proprietor Fäviken, Järpen, Sweden, 29
“In Sweden the core tradition in summer is midsummer [which falls this weekend]; people dance and jump like frogs around the maypole, and there always seems to be plenty of herring and aquavit. Then there are the crayfish parties: crayfish boiled with dill and beer is one of the true southern Swedish classics.
I’m hoping to go to Greenland this summer for a new book I’m writing, a kind of bible of Nordic cooking. I’ve already been to the Faroe Islands, which was fascinating – they were so isolated for so long that they have maintained many of their food traditions. I had dinner with a Faroese family in a suburb outside the capital, and every house there had a shack outside for meat and dried fish. They have fermented puffin for a weeknight dinner.
At Fäviken we have lots of summer projects: we found an old variety of tobacco to grow and to collect seeds from; next year the tobacco will be cured and then fermented in oak barrels. I’ve also bought a little brewery, a tiny little thing that produces 55 litres at a time. We’re going to grow our own barley and thresh it, dry it and malt it on site; it’s going to be very interesting.”
Magnus Nilsson will be appearing at Taste of London at Regent’s Park June 20-23; www.tastefestivals.com/london