There are some people in this world who are so full of common sense, you end up hanging on their every word, just to soak up each drop of practical wisdom spouting from their mouths. Kerryann Dunlop is one of those people.
Take her thoughts on smart shopping, for example: “A value bag of eight peppers for a pound may not be perfect or the prettiest of the bunch, but they taste exactly the same as the one pound each peppers and they’ll go a hell of a lot further.”
You won’t catch her buying those “pretty little nets” of three onions either, when they’re much better value loose.
The 30-year-old mum-of-two knows better than most about cooking well, and on a tight budget. As one of Jamie Oliver’s original Fifteen apprentices, she learnt from the best, and even found herself cooking for Tony Blair twice (“he remembered me!”) as a result.
Now, she’s just written her first cookbook, thanks to her popularity on Jamie’s Food Tube, the cooking YouTube channel Oliver launched last year.
The Family Cook Book is chock full of delicious and simple recipes to make for and with kids, and Dunlop says her secret weapon is what she calls the “batch” cook — making loads of something to freeze, saving time later.
Her versatile Hidden Vegetable Pasta Sauce is a great example. One big batch can be used for pasta dishes, pizza sauce, with meatballs, in chilli or lasagne, and even to make soup.
“You can eat really well on a strict budget, that’s the idea I want to share with everyone,” Dunlop assures. “I’m not rich, I’ve got a day job [she’s a cook at a Montessori nursery] and two young children [her daughter’s seven and son is nine] and I make my own ready meals, I don’t buy them.
“I cook loads of stuff at the weekend, chuck it all in the freezer, then when I come home after work, I pop something in the oven and you’ve got a really good dinner for pennies — and I know what’s in it.”
Dunlop learned from her own mum the importance of cooking “proper” meals for her children: “She was a single mum, she never had a husband bringing in loads of money and it was always on a budget.
“But she made sure that we ate well as children, we never had any of that processed stuff, it was always good food, cooked from scratch.
“Mum made something the other day, pasticcio, a Greek peasant dish, with macaroni on the bottom and bolognese sauce with nutmeg, yoghurt and eggs — when it sets, you can cut it into chunks. I was like, ‘Oh my God, Mum, this tastes like my childhood!’ It was a real throwback.”
Whereas her mum was a real “worrier” and would only allow her daughter to watch from the sidelines in the kitchen, Dunlop has always been keen for her kids to get really involved in the process, so they appreciate their food even more.
“On Pancake Day this year, they made their own pancakes from scratch; they made the batter, tossed them, plated them up — the only thing I did was oil the pan and supervise. And you should have seen the satisfaction in their eyes.”
She believes we don’t give kids enough responsibility in the kitchen (“They’re capable of so much more than we give them credit for”) and thinks children are never too young to start learning to cook.
“I do cooking lessons once a week at nursery and the one and two-year-olds can slice, chop, peel and mix. You can’t have a conversation with them, but they can make a salad!”
Here are three recipes from Dunlop’s new book to cook with — or without — your little ones.
CHILLI CON VEGGIE (serves 10)
2 medium onions, peeled
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 medium leek, trimmed
1 long fresh red chilli
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp ground cumin
2tbsp ground coriander
2tbsp smoked paprika
1/2 a cinnamon stick or 1tsp of ground cinnamon
2tbsp dried oregano
1 whole nutmeg, for grating
2tbsp tomato puree
250g dried green lentils
250g dried red lentils
2 x 400g tins of red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 x 400g tins of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
1.2L organic vegetable stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Finely chop the onions, garlic, leek and chilli (I leave the seeds in, but deseed if you prefer) and place into your largest, heavy-based pan over a medium heat with the oil. Fry for about five minutes, or until softened. Add the spices, dried herbs and a good grating of nutmeg, then fry for two minutes - if it’s a little dry at this point, simply add a splash of water to help it out. Stir in the tomato puree and cook for a further two minutes.
Stir in the lentils, beans and chopped tomatoes, then add the stock (I try to use homemade stock, but if you’ve only got stock cubes, that’s fine too). Bring it all to the boil, then reduce to a low heat and let it bubble away for at least one hour, or until thickened and reduced, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes, then season to how you like it.
I like this with rice or on a jacket potato, scattered with coriander leaves and with lime wedges and a dollop of soured cream on the side. This is one of my all-time favourite dinners.
TURKISH COUSCOUS SALAD (serves 8)
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp smoked paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium red onion, peeled
1 medium cucumber
2 ripe tomatoes
1 fresh red chilli
1 bunch of fresh mint, leaves picked
1/2 a bunch of fresh coriander, leaves picked
1 bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
1tbsp tomato puree
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Zest and juice from half an unwaxed lemon
Place the couscous, cumin, paprika and a big pinch of salt into a bowl. Stir to combine, then pour over just enough boiling water to cover the couscous. Cover the bowl and leave for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, finely chop the onion, cucumber, tomatoes and chilli (I leave the seeds in, but deseed if you prefer). Finely chop the mint and coriander leaves, and the parsley (including the stalks).
Mix the couscous up with a fork, then stir in the tomato puree until well coated (I do this with my hands - it’s messy, but quite therapeutic!). Add all the chopped vegetables, chilli and herbs and mix well. Stir in the oil and the lemon zest and juice, then season to how you like it. Serve as a side with grilled meat or fish . You can also eat it on its own if you want a light meal or snack.
BANANA BREAD (makes 20 squares)
190g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
450g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
300g caster sugar
2 large free-range eggs
5 medium ripe bananas, peeled
1/2tsp sea salt
1 whole nutmeg, for grating
2tsp baking powder
190ml whole milk
1tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.
Grease a 25cm x 35cm baking dish with butter and dust it with flour.
Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy (I use an electric hand whisk for this, but a wooden spoon is fine - it just takes a little longer). Whisk in the eggs, then mash the bananas well and stir into the mixture, along with the salt and a few gratings of nutmeg. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a separate bowl, then fold half of it through the banana mixture. It may be a little thick, so whisk in half the milk to help loosen it up. Fold through the remaining flour, then mix in the remaining milk and the vanilla extract.
Pour the banana mixture into your prepared dish and spread it out evenly with a spatula. Bake in the hot oven for about one hour, or until golden and cooked through. Check if it’s ready by poking a skewer into the centre - if it comes out clean, it’s done, otherwise cover with tin foil and return to the oven, checking every five minutes or so until cooked.
Leave to cool in the dish for 15 minutes, then turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing up into squares and serving with a nice glass of cold milk. Keep any leftovers in an airtight container for up to three days.
The Family Cook Book by Kerryann Dunlop is a Jamie Oliver Food Tube book, published by Penguin, priced £7.99. Available now. Check out Dunlop’s videos on Jamie’s Food Tube channel (www.youtube.com/user/JamieOliver)