x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Pick your food battles

Sometimes shop-bought convenience foods are a great time-saver, but often you can't beat the real thing – and it's usually not that tricky to make from scratch.

Fresh pesto, made with extra-virgin olive oil, toasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese and basil, is incredibly versatile.
Fresh pesto, made with extra-virgin olive oil, toasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese and basil, is incredibly versatile.

Life is hectic, time is short and sometimes, convenience is key. When it comes to cooking, though, this can be something of a double-edged sword. We only need to acknowledge the existence of instant mashed potatoes, tinned mince and canned pies to realise that the concept of convenience food can be taken too far.

Will a pancake courtesy of a packaged mix ever taste as good as one made from scratch? And when said pancake's only ingredients are flour, eggs, milk and a pinch of salt, is there a need for the product in the first place? Are we really too busy to grate our own cheese – the sealed plastic bags sold in supermarkets would suggest so – and don't we care that by not doing this ourselves, we sacrifice a whole lot of flavour?

This does tend to be the case with many of the more convenient of convenience foods: they may save us time, but all too often, quality levels also take a nose dive. That's not to say that shop-bought goods should be completely avoided. It's just useful to consider which items can be made at home easily, relatively quickly, with superior results and often at a reduced cost.

Think of it as picking your battles: fresh pasta tastes wonderful and making it from scratch is highly satisfying, but this does require time and effort, particularly if you don't have access to a pasta machine. So, at 7.30pm on a Tuesday evening, when you're surrounded by hungry friends or family, rather than attempting to make your own hand-stuffed butternut squash and sage tortellini, reach for a packet of good-quality dried penne.

Instead of dousing the pasta with ready-made sauce, however, sauté sliced garlic and onions in a little oil until soft and translucent, add a tin of tomatoes, a teaspoon of sugar (to counter any metallic taste) and bring the contents to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, adding a handful of basil leaves and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil at the end of the cooking time. This provides you with a quick, nutrient-rich sauce that only costs a few dirhams.

While keen cooks will enjoy pottering about the kitchen and making their own puff pastry, thanks to all the folding, rolling and chilling involved, this is a time-consuming practice. If you're looking to knock up a quick goat's cheese tart or want to make a simple pie with the leftovers from yesterday's roast chicken, reaching for the ready rolled stuff is perfectly acceptable. Likewise, a curry made from a ready-mixed paste probably won't taste quite as good as when you roast and grind the spices yourself or personally pulverise the coriander, but as a midweek meal solution, it works just fine.

Certain items are almost always worth making from scratch, though, and make sense in terms of quality, flavour and finances. Stock is a classic case in point here. A broth made from scratch cannot help but taste better than the salty, yellow liquid that results from dissolving a cube of powder in hot water. Simmering the bones from a roasted chicken carcass with vegetables (carrot, leek, onion and celery - one or all) is a frugal, sensible means of producing sustenance from something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Salad dressing is another simple item that is well worth making yourself. Many ready-made offerings are too sweet, have a strange, slightly synthetic aftertaste, often contain flavour enhancers or preservatives and are higher in calories than you might expect. Most importantly, though, they more often than not do not taste particularly great. Vinaigrette - in its simplest form a mixture of oil and vinegar, usually in a ratio of 3:1- made with good-quality ingredients is a far superior way to dress your lettuce leaves. It is also very easy to jazz this basic recipe up through the judicious application of mustard, honey, garlic or chilli, the use of different oils and vinegars or the addition of various herbs and spices.

And speaking of ways to liven up a salad, homemade mayonnaise, all golden and glossy (a stark contrast to the white sterility of the mass-produced stuff), spiked with lemon juice to cut through the richness and laced with a touch of mustard, is a revelation. Mayonnaise has a reputation for being difficult to make, causing even the most competent of cooks to baulk at the thought. The reason for this is simple: it curdles very easily. Preventing this from happening isn't difficult, though: make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature and most importantly, add the oil to the egg yolks very slowly at the start, to ensure that you produce a stable emulsion. For a full recipe, turn the page to Oasis.

Pesto is another favourite staple. A half-finished jar or two is likely to lurk in many a cupboard or fridge door, and with good reason: it is a highly versatile ingredient. While I'm not suggesting that you throw your stash away, do pause to consider the average shelf-life and the preservatives that are added to ensure this. When made fresh, pesto looks and tastes like an elevated version of itself. Muddle together 250g of basil leaves, a finely chopped garlic clove, two tablespoons of toasted pine nuts and three tablespoons of finely grated Parmesan in a pestle and mortar or blitz in a food processor. Gradually, add 275ml of extra-virgin olive oil, season to taste and store in the fridge until needed. Stir the result through pasta, drizzle over roasted chicken, freshly cooked fish or boiled new potatoes, thin the pesto down with lemon juice and use it to dress a salad, combine with cream cheese to make a dip for crudités or use it as an alternative to butter in sandwiches.

Likewise, hummus is another one of those items that we tend to pluck from supermarket shelves with abandon, without perhaps realising just how simple it is to make. If you want to use dried chickpeas, this requires forethought, but no great effort: the chickpeas need to be soaked overnight (with a little baking soda to help them soften) and then cooked in fresh water until tender. When you're in a rush, the tinned version works well, too. Simply add the chickpeas to a food processor with a squeeze of lemon juice, a couple of tablespoons of tahini, half a garlic clove (optional) and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Blend until smooth, season with salt and black pepper, and your hummus will be ready for dipping in less than five minutes.

At dinner parties in France, it is considered perfectly acceptable, even sensible, for the host to serve a shop-bought dessert. Take note, though: these tend to be beautifully decorated tarts purchased from smart patisseries, rather than frozen apple pies or mass-produced Swiss rolls. This practice makes sense: if you're going to present guests with a ready-made pudding, splash out on something special. If you decide to cook from scratch, do just that. Combining the contents of a box of powdery cake mix with a splash of milk or oil, baking it in the oven and pretending (especially to yourself) that it is homemade is not the same thing - the processed taste and dry texture of these concoctions is an instant giveaway.

A simple sponge cake made from fresh eggs and real butter smells lovely when it's baking in the oven, tastes even better and takes very little time to make. Crucially, it will also be free of artificial flavourings, stabilisers and preservatives.

To make the cake in the photograph, cream together 170g butter with 170g caster sugar until light and fluffy, then gradually add three eggs to the mixture, beating well after each addition. Carefully fold in 170g of self-raising flour, one teaspoon of baking powder and 150g mixed berries. Transfer to a lined loaf or sandwich tin and cook in a preheated oven (190¿C/fan 170¿C/gas 5) for 25 to 30 minutes or until the cake springs back when pressed. The type of fruit can be varied to suit tastes or omitted entirely, in which case a slick of vanilla icing on the top wouldn't go amiss. Alternatively, simply dust with icing sugar before serving. Either way, a slice or two eaten warm from the oven should be enough to convince even the most sceptical of people that sometimes, homemade really is best.