I wrote before about the role of convenience food in everyday life. It would be great if we could prepare everything from scratch but life’s just not like that. I do appreciate the modern TV chefs who recognise that the benefits to be had from homemade sometimes doesn’t outweigh the benefits. There is a line between almost religious pursuit of homemade food and the extreme apathy of a takeaway lifestyle. Most of us are somewhere in between and probably aspire towards the former. If we are honest do we always make our own custard, mayonnaise, stock, puff and filo pastry, pasta and gravy?
Part of this is about the quality of alternatives these days. When chefs are recommending Marigold vegetable stock, Hellmanns’s Mayo and using dried pasta why would you take a different path?
The TV programme Eat Well For Less picks up on this theme a little. It trades premium brands for supermarket’s own brands and advocates cooking it yourself rather than buying in the ready meal. At the level of saving money and being nutritionally sound it does a good job but I just can’t get away from the old adage – it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. In the current straitened times there is no argument with saving money but if the only reason we eat is to stock up on vitamins it challenges my view of pleasure and civilisation.
The programme also challenges the widely held view that everything from Marks and Spencer’s and Waitrose chilled counters is special through filming blind tastings. We’ve all seen the news features where the discounters have produced a great-tasting product which trumps the equivalent from their pricier neighbours. Certainly quality ingredients play a big part in resulting flavour but just as important are the recipe and the use of seasoning – neither of which are the big ticket ingredients.
On an episode of Eat Well For Less a couple who were wedded to marinated chicken meals from Waitrose were confounded by it being presented in neutral packaging. They instantly thought it was a cheap and nasty substitute. The dish in question was the Chicken Breasts in Ras el Hanout, Preserved Lemons and Apricot. When I saw it on the shelves with drumsticks and thighs I couldn’t resist a taste.
The serving suggestion on the packet was to out the mix in a casserole and add a can of chopped tomatoes before cooking for 40-45 minutes. The packet suggested 89% meat which is encouraging, followed by the quartered lemons and dried apricots. So far so good – everything is as it should be. However the dish is made by the seasoning and spices and the pack doesn’t reveal what happens next. There is a fundamental challenge here. A can of tomatoes is a lot of liquid and a delicate flavour. I had doubts from the start about the spring being able to cut through the mixture to make something tasty.
The short answer is that the dish failed. It was bland and, to be honest the hint of spices is worse than no spices at all. It did taste fresh and there was plenty of lemon in it. I don’t think the chicken was particularly great. I must admit, I know it is more tasty than breast meat but drumsticks are not great eating (too much rubbery texture for my liking). Something with a longer slowing cooking time with a tad more seasoning just may have turned it around. This wasn’t the taste of Morocco I was expecting.
Ps As an aside, we had the other half of the meal reheated last night. With some softened onions and garlic, spiced with ground coriander, paprika and allspice, topped with some pomegranate seeds after a further 40 minutes slow cooking it was almost OK. Shouldn’t have to do it but sometimes you need to rescue the dish.