ARGUABLY, cooking isn’t a game. We’ve all got to eat, right? Being able to chuck stuff in a pan, heat it up and feed ourselves is a necessity, not a hobby. And preferably, what we cook shouldn’t bankrupt us. But food prices are rising, and if your culinary skills are limited, reaching for ready meals can be pretty costly.
Enter Miguel Barclay. The ex-biochemist jacked in a job in e-commerce to cook – and to only cook meals that come in under a stringent, self-imposed budget of £1 per portion – and is now on his third cookbook, Super Easy One Pound Meals, full of one-pot dinners.
His theory is that cooking and food shopping can become a ‘game’.
“It started with opening the fridge to see what there is, like [TV show] Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, but it wasn’t as fun as, ‘What can I cook for £1?'” he explains. “I’m quite scientifically minded. I like spreadsheets and calculating stuff, so it was the perfect game.”
Based in London, he’d “skive” off from his office job as much as possible, spend a tenner in the supermarket and cook all afternoon, “then just eat cold food later when we got back from the pub. My mates used to come round, so there’d be a cold lasagne, a cold cottage pie…”
Six years later, he started putting his recipes on Instagram (and now has 228k followers and counting) and got a book deal. “That’s all I do now,” he says bemusedly, “play this game every day.”
Calling cooking on a budget a ‘game’, when admittedly he’s not struggling to pay for groceries, could look insensitive, but Barclay sees what he does as “a puzzle or an equation – it’s a bit like sudoku, but more hands-on.” And he wants people to benefit from his solutions/recipes, whether it helps them get to grips with food shopping or budgeting, be less daunted by cooking, or just encourages them to be more inventive in the kitchen.
Surprisingly, he doesn’t find himself restricted by supermarkets. “I go to all of them, every single one,” he says, so you’re as likely to find him in Lidl (although he thinks there’s too much of a queue) as you are Waitrose (he’s a fan of their essentials range Arborio rice). “I treat them all equally, and it’s fun,” he says. Inform him that many people can’t stand doing the weekly food shop, he responds, with a slightly perplexed laugh: “Each to their own; I don’t really like opera!”
In Barclay’s world, food waste is also a “fun” conundrum, because “it’s an even more complicated equation to solve. Using up all the ingredients, it’s really like a jigsaw. I’m not on a crusade to stop people from wasting food, but I like the problem solving of how not to waste food.”
Recalibrating how you shop and how you think about nabbing a bargain, he says, can contribute massively to cutting down how much food you chuck away. “You can get a big bag of peppers for cheaper than one pepper, but if you’re not going to use them all and throw half of them away, then actually, they’re double the price per pepper than you thought you were spending,” he says pragmatically. “It’s about knowing what you want before you get there.”
If you really want to save money, he says, planning ahead is a must.
“You’ve got to plan what you’re going to eat and overlap ingredients every day,” so the mince leftover from your Bolognese on Monday, doesn’t go in the bin on Wednesday because you didn’t think of a way to use it up on Tuesday.
Barclay, who first got interested in cooking as a pot washer while a student, considers Jamie Oliver his biggest inspiration, but also calls himself an “anti-chef”. With no formal culinary education and a food career built on kitchen shortcuts (his couscous paella earned him a lot of online abuse: “Even my Spanish nan was like, ‘That’s not paella, that’s rice with stuff in it’,”), you can see why. However, he thinks that’s why One Pound Meals has been such a success – he’s got no fancy chef airs and graces getting in the way.
Take his attitude towards Parmesan cheese: “Some people are like, if it hasn’t been aged for X number of years, don’t buy it – but I can’t really spend £7 on a wedge of Parmesan.”
“It’s like the art world, you’ve got to be pretentious to be believed to be the best, and that’s not me. I still eat McDonald’s all the time,” he continues. “Big Mac meal all the way. Chefs are always really sneery at it – I like it, it’s a good burger.”
For his next book, Barclay’s hoping to compile a collection of £1 veggie and vegan meals, and no, he’s not tempted to experiment with 50p dinners. “£1 gives me the flexibility to use some cool stuff, I don’t want to do a cookbook that’s just lentils,” he says.
:: Miguel Barclay’s Super Easy One Pound Meals by Miguel Barclay, photography by Dan Jones, is published by Headline Home, priced £16.99. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.
£1 THAI OMELETTE
(Makes one portion)
3 eggs, beaten
Pinch of curry powder
1/4 carrot, cut into matchsticks
1/2 spring onion, cut into strips
A few beansprouts
Drizzle of soy sauce
Salt and pepper
Season the beaten eggs with salt, pepper and the curry powder. Heat a splash of sesame oil in a frying pan, pour in the beaten eggs and fry for a few minutes until 80 per cent cooked, then add the carrot, spring onion and bean sprouts to the middle, drizzle over a little sesame oil and soy sauce, then fold the omelette over the filling and continue to cook for another minute. Remove from the heat and serve with another drizzle of soy sauce to finish.
£1 PUFF PASTRY FIORENTINA
20 x 20cm square of puff pastry
Pinch of dried oregano
1/4 mozzarella ball, torn into chunks
A few spinach leaves
Salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 190C/gas mark 5 and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Using a plate as a template, cut out a big circular piece from the puff pastry square. Place it on the lined baking tray and lightly score a 1cm border around the edge with a knife, making sure not to cut all the way through. Prick the inner circle a few times with a fork (this will stop it rising in the oven).
Spread the passata on to the pastry, within the border, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the oregano then add the mozzarella and spinach. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, then crack the egg in the middle and return to the oven for another 10 minutes until the egg white is cooked but the yolk is still runny.
£1 PERI PERI TACOS
1 chicken thigh, de-boned
1tsp hot smoked paprika
1 egg-cup of couscous
2 egg-cups of water
4 lettuce leaves
Salt and pepper
Coat the chicken thigh in a mixture of paprika, a pinch each of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Pan-fry the chicken over a low-medium heat, skin-side down first, for 10-12 minutes on each side until cooked through and caramelised on the outside. Remove from the heat and set the chicken to one side.
Add the couscous to the pan (off the heat), along with the water, and stir for a few seconds to incorporate all the pan juices, then leave the couscous to rest for a few minutes and plump up. Slice the chicken into thin strips, then assemble your tacos by spooning some of the peri peri-infused couscous on to each lettuce leaf, placing some chicken strips on top, then drizzling with the yoghurt and sprinkling over some cracked black pepper.