I picked up Jack Monroe’s Cooking on a Bootstrap when I was out hunting for chocolate. I meant to give it to a niece who recently started university: it seemed a perfect fit for a cash-strapped young person in charge of their own diet for the first time. But I so enjoyed the writing that I wanted to cook from it myself. I did, liked the recipes and decided to keep it.
Sorry Corrie, I owe you one!
Real, authentic self
I heard someone say ‘just be your real, authentic self’ when talking about pod casting and rolled my eyes. I’m a bitter cynic and thought they were using too many words to say ‘be yourself’*. However. The thing that made me keep Cooking on a Bootstrap was the writing, the way the very real, authentic self that is Jack Monroe came through in the recipe introductions. Jack’s funny, warm and generously shares life experiences with the recipes.
Cheap, easy, delicious
Cooking on a Bootstrap has a collection of recipes for cooks with limited means. The secret ingredient in quite a few recipes is time. It takes time for flavoures to develop and mellow, for sauces to reduce and thicken.
I tried Jack’s version of tarka dahl, one of my favourite dishes but one I never get quite right. Mine is always gritty and a bit flat. I used red lentils for once, hoping that would be quicker than the split yellow I usually use. It might have been quicker but it still took several hours. This taught me something: even dahl, seemingly so simple, needs attention and time – time and more time – to become all that it can be. The result was delicious and I want to make it soon again. Tarka dahl, rice and gram cake makes a wonderful Sunday brunch, perfect for rainy days.
Not all recipes are time consuming, some are fast and simple. What they all do is look at the ingredients you could put in and then rationalise out the expensive ones. Jack uses sardines in a number of creative ways (the next time I’m cooking for just me I’ll try the sardine puttanesca) and is clever at swapping expensive (say, olive oil or fresh herbs) for cheaper (vegetable oil and dried herbs).
Bread and tomatoes
Recipes are organised into sections, there’s one on bread, one on breakfasts and one on sweets. The rest is grouped according to main ingredient – pulses, pasta or rice, pulses, greens. I’m a lover of soups and found much to like in the soup chapter. I’m impressed that Jack’s managed to include two tomato and bread recipes. It also made me reflect on the history of food: break used to be what most people ate most of the time (at least in the parts of the world I’ve lived it’s been bread or potatoes all the way). It’s not surprising that there are so many recipes for using up bread – panzanella, bread and butter pudding, pappa al pomodoro – when it’s one of your main sources of calories.
I made pappa al pomodoro. Super-simple it uses garlic, tinned tomatoes, a little oil and stale bread and is gorgeous. Soothing, filling and tasty while also being frugal. It can be made fancier but honestly, it doesn’t need it. It made me very happy and prompted me to start a stale bread bag in the freezer.
Most recipes are for two or one which I like: there are two in our household and it’s often easier to scale up if you have guests than to half a recipe. Staple ingredients are used sensibly and creatively and there are some really tasty, fun dishes in here. One of the first we tried was the 5-minute chickpea thing, aka chickpea and spinach salad. It was very tasty and we’re absolutely having that again. It worked well with the nut burger. I’m looking for an egg-free perfect burger so will give Jack’s other burger recipes a go too. Then there’s the gram cake – a thin farinata, or chickpea flour pancake. Two ingredients (if water even counts as an ingredient) and simple method. It’s lovely stacked with chickpea curry or with anything you can think to put on top. Try it!
Cooking on a Bootstrap has a wealth of advice and recipes on how to get the most out of food on a low budget. It’s fun to read, easy to follow and gives delicious results. It helps anyone cook good food without fancy ingredients or expensive equipment. I like this book a lot and know that I’ll be returning to it for recipes and inspiration.
* They weren’t. The authentic self is a meaningful in its own right.
For each copy bought, Jack donates one to a food bank. The recipes are also available online for anyone who can’t afford the book. I can, and could also afford to pay to Jack’s Patreon so the recipes can stay online and free for those who can’t.