Jack and no frills
Only a few years ago, Jack Monroe had a budget of just £10 a week to feed herself and her baby son.
But when her blog, A Girl Called Jack, which detailed the thrifty meals she cooked, gained in popularity, Monroe went from being a skint single-parent to being dubbed the ‘poster girl for austerity’ by newspapers across the world.
Such is the success of her writing that the blog — which she started as a response to a local politician’s spiteful comment about single parents — has now been turned into a cook book, also called A Girl Called Jack, and Monroe’s fronting a new Sainsbury’s advertising campaign. Clearly, it’s all quite a lot for the 26-year-old from Southend-On-Sea to take in.
“I get a lot of messages from people saying that the blog is really inspirational and has changed the way they shop and think about food, or they’re cooking different things for the family or learning to cook,” explains the mother-of-one, who often bakes with her three-year-old son and her partner’s three-year-old daughter.
“[The blog] reaches out to people on so many different levels, it’s amazing really. I didn’t set out to do any of this, I was just doing what I did and I’m constantly humbled and overwhelmed by how much people have seemed to have taken to it.”
While life is looking rosier for Monroe, who is an active campaigner for Oxfam and Child Poverty Action Group, at her lowest point she “deliberately isolated” herself, because “I didn’t want to admit to people how bad things were”. If her success has proved anything, she says, it’s that people are naturally supportive and kind.
“I haven’t done this all by myself,” she says. “I’ve done this with a lot of help, love and support along the way, and one of the things that has really hit home in the last year is that people are inherently kind and good, and I think I’ve seen the very best side of human nature.”
Now in a better position, with her first book well received, it would be easy, you’d think, for Monroe to splash out on her weekly shops. But she’s eager to maintain her thrifty habits, and confidently rattles off the prices of store cupboard essentials, quickly pointing out a price increase for tinned tomatoes.
“My cooking hasn’t changed,” she says. “I still cook and eat the same way I did but there’s less anxiety around it now. I know I’ll open the fridge and there’s food in there. I’ve not abandoned my principles; I still cook using basic food, I use leftovers and I cook seasonally.
“The only thing that has really changed is that I’ve started to think about ethical eating. I’m very lucky that the tea, chocolate, sugar and bananas at the supermarket I shop at are all Fairtrade and that’s right down to the basic range.”
But she’s acutely aware of the pressures people living on the breadline are under.
“I now buy free range eggs and meat, but when I was living on £10 a week I knew it was not possible and that’s fine,” she explains. “I’d never dream of telling people what to do; I just make the suggestions and say this is what I do.”
If you fancy trying some of Monroe’s meals, here are three recipes from A Girl Called Jack.
Jack’s simple fish pie (Serves 4-6)
1 large onion
A handful of chopped fresh thyme
350g skinless river cobbler or other firm white fish
350g skinless smoked haddock
300ml whole milk, plus extra to mash the potatoes
50g hard strong cheese
30g butter, plus extra to mash the potatoes
2 heaped tbsp plain flour
2 mugs of spinach leaves
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Wash and dice the potatoes and bring to the boil in a large saucepan of water. Reduce to a medium heat and cook until tender.
Meanwhile, poach the fish. Peel and quarter the onion and put into a large saute pan or saucepan with the thyme. Add the fish, cover with the milk, and poach on a low heat for around eight minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, take out the fish and onion pieces and place on a plate. Flake the fish with a fork. Reserve the poaching liquid to make the sauce with later.
Boil or poach the eggs in a small saucepan for six minutes. Drain and carefully spoon on to the fish plate.
Check the potatoes, they should be very soft by now. When cooked, drain the potatoes and tip back into the saucepan. Mash with a little milk and butter. Grate the cheese into the mash and stir well to melt through.
Melt the butter in a milk pan over a low heat and add one tablespoon of the flour. Stir well with a wooden spoon to make a thick paste. Add the other tablespoon of flour and repeat. Now take a tablespoon of the reserved poaching liquid and stir it into the paste until well mixed in. Repeat, gradually adding more liquid, until blended together in a thick sauce. Add the spinach, stir to wilt, then tip in the cooked eggs, mashing them with the back of a fork to break up. Add the onion then the flaked fish and mix everything together well to coat in the sauce.
Spoon the fish mixture into a large ovenproof casserole dish then top with the potato mash, starting at the edge of the dish and working inwards, using a fork to fluff up the top. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, until the mash is golden and crispy on top.
Love soup (Serves 2, of course!)
3tbsp vegetable oil
Zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon, or 1 tbsp bottled lemon juice
1 clove of garlic
Small piece of fresh ginger (approximately 1cm) or 1 tsp ground ginger
A fistful of fresh coriander
A fistful of fresh parsley, plus extra to garnish
2 large carrots
1/2 a vegetable stock cube
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. First make the marinade for the vegetables. Measure the oil into a teacup, jug or other small receptacle. Finely grate the lemon zest into the oil. Peel and crush the garlic, and peel and grate the ginger, then add them too. Finely chop the herbs into the mixture. Squeeze the lemon juice in - as much of it as you can squish out - stir together and set aside.
Peel the onion, chop into quarters and place in a roasting dish. Wash then chop the carrots into thick rounds and add to the roasting dish. Peel and dice the potato and put it in too. Pour the marinade over the top and shake to coat the vegetables. Pop the roasting dish into the preheated oven for an hour or so, shaking occasionally to loosen the vegetables and re-coat them in the marinade.
When the carrots and potatoes are tender, remove the vegetables from the oven and tip into a food processor. Dissolve the half stock cube in 500ml of boiling water and pour this stock into the food processor (to cover the vegetables). Blend until smooth, and serve with a flourish of parsley and a smile.
Paddington bear sponge puddings (Makes 6 small puddings or 4 large ones)
70g butter, plus extra to grease the muffin tins
A splash of lemon juice
100g self-raising flour (or 100g plain flour and 1 level tsp baking powder or bicarbonate of soda)
8 heaped tsp marmalade plus extra to serve
Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas 3. Place the butter in a microwaveable dish and heat on the defrost setting for 30 seconds until soft. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar and lemon juice, and cream them together until well combined. Break the eggs in, then add the flour. Mix well with a fork or wooden spoon to create a smooth, glossy batter.
Lightly grease each of your muffin tins with a little extra butter to stop the puddings from sticking to the sides - which will ruin a seriously good dessert! Dollop a generous blob of marmalade in the bottom of each tin. Divide the batter among the tins, spooning it on top of the marmalade until each tin is approximately two-thirds full.
Cook in the centre of the preheated oven for 30 minutes. The puddings should be risen, light and golden, and should come away from the tin easily. Serve with extra marmalade warmed through to make a sticky sauce!