"all the major factors that are needed to make a good affordable school dinner also apply to a mindful, clever cook at home. Availability, accessibility, regionality, affordability, simplicity and a tasty product are the key." Jamie Oliver
Continuing with my lack of inspiration, here we are with a lucky dip book - Jamie's Dinners, (David picked it out for me) with a rather youthful looking Jamie Oliver on the cover and featuring photographs of himself and wife with just two, or is it three?, children here and there throughout the book. He now has five and the oldest is 18 and he is looking a little more solid and careworn these days. During that series he made recently in response to COVID19, he was definitely looking just a tiny bit stressed and certainly older and also a lot plumper, although he has actually slimmed down somewhat in the last couple of years or so..
And yet it seems like only yesterday that he burst on to the celebrity chef scene. Since then he has had triumphs and failures, and probably never more so than with this book.
The book came out of his experiences trying to improve school dinners in England. That was one cooking series that I managed to watch, coming as it did, soon after his Fifteen experiment in training difficult unemployed youth into being master chefs. I suspect that Fifteen has gone by the board - certainly the Melbourne version ended in disaster when one of the budding chefs set fire to the place. I tried to find out because I knew that a Foundation had been set up to continue the work, but I'm not at all sure that it still exists.
I also don't know what happened with his attempt at improving school dinners. It was certainly an experiment that at the time, and as shown in the series, was fraught with problems, ranging from lack of government support with money, the ignorance of the cooks and the reluctance of the children to try anything new. A quick look has shown that a lot still needs to be done, with the government being slow to come to the party, but also great strides have been made and continue to be made. Here in Australia, where actually we do not have school dinners, Stephanie Alexander, and others, have also invested a lot of time and effort into improving children's relationship to food.
And yet, in spite of all his setbacks, including the disastrous failure of his restaurants, he continues to keep going trying to inspire us all to cook well at home, and to improve our buying habits.
"Why should you have standards when buying? Because you're going to put this food in your mouth and swallow it and you'll do this two or three times every single day of your life. Everything you eat contributes to you being happy, or fit, or lethargic, or full of energy, or susceptible to colds and flu, or being able to think better and hold your concentration. Your hair, your fingernails, your height, your skin, everything you are is made from the food you eat."
You can mock Jamie Oliver easily enough but I have to say that he is one of my food heroes, simply because he has put enormous effort and enthusiasm into trying to change ordinary people's eating habits. Yes the Essex accent is a bit full on, but my guess is that he keeps it because it allows him to reach more 'ordinary' people. I'm sure he doesn't have to talk like that. I used to talk like him and no longer do. Accents are easily changed - well in your own language anyway. I'll never lose my English accent when I speak French or Italian.
So what recipe did I alight upon? Well as it happens a perfect one to demonstrate how easily you can produce something sumptuous. Possibly not as cheap as some, because we are talking about pork loin here, but then again, he thinks that people do not prioritise their spending correctly, and gives an example, of when he was young, his friends not wanting to go out and spend money on a good restaurant meal, preferring to go to a night club and spend more on just drinks, even if they really had very little money. As he says:
"I don't think it always comes down to money, I think it's a priority thing."
The recipe is called Slow-roasted spiced pork loin with black-eyed beans and tomatoes. It's a sort of tray bake really and includes just about every element of modern trendy food. If you wanted an example of early 21st century food this is it. And think about it. It is a truly posh looking meal, in a trendily rustic sort of way. And yet it is well within the capabilities and the budget of an ordinary housewife without a lot of time. Well maybe a weekend dish because it does take a bit of time to cook.
First of all there is the fact that it is pork. I believe pork is now the second most popular meat here in Australia, although I wouldn't want to swear to that. And if we are talking economy it is certainly, after chicken, the cheapest meat around and possibly the one that gives you most bang for your buck. Delicious too and the pork that we get here is very high quality. Today at Coles boneless pork loin is selling at $12.50 a kilo. They don't seem to have it with the bone in. But here is something else that indicates how fashions influence price. Boneless pork belly - in my youth a cheap cut, is $20.80 a kilo. Over $8.00 a kilo more! But then pork belly is required for all those pulled pork things.
So pork is the first thing. Then there is the 'slow-roasted'. I wonder when that came into fashion? For slow-roasted definitely is a thing. In the past we would just say roasted - now slow-roasted, is somehow better. Spiced - oh yes - in my youth one didn't spice pork. The most adventurous thing you might do was stuff it with packet sage and onion stuffing. Now you rub a spice mix into it, and in this instance the mix contains smoked paprika. Not just paprika - smoked paprika. The onions are red, there is chorizo sausage - now when did that burst on to the scene? Plum tomatoes, not just tomatoes. I never even knew that plum tomatoes existed back then, although that's probably because I didn't really pay attention to what was in tinned tomatoes. And weirdly, I somehow thought they were always in tins, and never eaten fresh. How ignorantly childlike I was! Black-eyed beans - so very health foody. Then there are chillies, flat-leaf parsley (not the curly parsley of my youth), lots of garlic, red wine vinegar and sour cream. I have to say it all sounds truly delicious - and easy too. You roast the pork a bit first, with the spices, cook the onions, chilli and chorizo a bit, add your tomatoes and beans, etc, cook them up a bit, put the meat back in and finish cooking slowly for an hour or so in the oven. As I said - a kind of tray bake. All it lacks is greens, but then it's exactly the kind of dish you would serve with a salad. And for carbohydrate, a tortilla or pita bread is suggested - again very modern. Yet, of course, also very ancient. Indeed the whole dish is somehow reminiscent of ancient South America. No good if you are vegetarian or vegan of course. But there are plenty of vegetarian dishes scattered throughout the book.
Like all cookbooks it's carefully designed. Because it's Jamie Oliver it's slightly slapdash and breezy with quirky little drawings and drawn, rather than printed text, but nevertheless filled with gorgeous and very classy food photography. Scattered throughout are pictures of Jamie off duty as it were, with his, then small, family, with friends and with the dinner ladies who became such stars in that school dinner series, plus some of the schoolchildren too. It's an image that is very effective. Since then he has churned out at least one cookbook a year, as well as plunging into this and that venture, crusading on all sorts of food related things, and yet still seeming to have a happy marriage - well at least a marriage as happy as anyone is likely to achieve. Is it all a front? Who knows. Anyway I might make that pork next time I have the family over to dinner. Maybe some time soon if Dan allows us.