Jamie Oliver says he wasn’t thinking of the economic crisis when he put together his new cookbook full of rock-bottom-budget recipes for dishes like hamburger pot roast and leftover curry casserole. The British celebrity chef told Maclean’s he rewrote the cookbook four times. “When I started writing it, no one had any clue about the credit crunch so it’s a complete accident.”
He was thinking instead about waging a war on obesity. Oliver’s new target demographic is the fast-food eater who doesn’t know how to cook. He hopes that his simple, cheap-to-make recipes like “A Cracking Burger”—ground beef patty with crushed-up crackers on a bun—will satiate the taste buds of those accustomed to McDonald’s and frozen dinners. His aim is to get packaged-food eaters to drop their steady diet of pre-made, high-fat meals and to start cooking affordable, tastier equivalents at home.
His inspiration comes from a real-life initiative by the British during the Second World War. In England, the government noticed that families were struggling with their meagre food rations. People had little money and limited access to only the most basic ingredients, like oats and flour and locally caught fish, nothing as exotic as truffle oil or saffron. The government called the program the “Ministry of Food” and sent out across the country thousands of British women who knew about cooking to educate the masses. Oliver dedicates his cookbook to Marguerite Patten, “one of the original Ministry of Food girls.”
The Ministry of Food, he writes, “went to the people, wherever they were, workplaces, factories, gentlemen’s clubs or local shopping areas . . . Because of this, people knew how to use their food rations properly and were able to eat and live better.”
In Britain, Oliver’s book is titled Jamie’s Ministry of Food. When it hits shelves in North America next week it will appear as Jamie’s Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals. The book coincides with the launch in Canada of Oliver’s Jamie’s Ministry of Food TV reality show, which is based on the same concept. He writes in the cookbook, “I’d like to ask you a favour. I need your help with a food movement I’ve started”—a movement he calls “pass it on.” “I need you to get personally involved in pass it on by pledging to learn just one recipe from each chapter . . . then pass it on by teaching at least two people.”
Oliver designed the recipes to be simple and easy to memorize. One recipe for oatmeal is short enough to Twitter: “Two cups quick-cook oats. Three cups milk or soy milk or water. Sea salt.” Another oat recipe for “Broiled Trout Topped with Mustard and Oats” calls for six ingredients: olive oil, two trout fillets, sea salt, Dijon mustard, two handfuls of oats and one lemon. He told Maclean’s, “I don’t think that’s a wartime recipe but oats and fish have been best mates for years, so it was just something I was playing around with when I was trying to get some interesting but easy oily fish recipes into the book.”
Several recipes call for canned tomatoes and frozen fruits and vegetables. For a recipe for a frozen fruit smoothie, he explains, “The great thing about frozen fruit is that it’s been picked at its best, at the right time, and hasn’t been forced to grow out of season, like so much of the ‘fresh’ fruit on offer these days. It’s also cheaper and far more convenient and will keep happily in your freezer for months on end.” His favourite frozen pea recipe is a kid-friendly dish of pasta shells with bacon and a pea sauce that uses two cups of frozen peas.
In a chapter on stews, he takes issue with recipes that call for browning the meat first. “I’ve done loads of tests and found the meat is just as delicious and tender without browning it first so I’ve removed this usual step from the recipes.”
While shooting the TV show, Oliver found “we were coming across people whose reading wasn’t so good.” So the book contains more pictures than text. Full-time mom Claire Hallum is pictured at her kitchen table looking pleased in front of a plate of asparagus. She told Oliver, “I never would’ve thought I’d be enjoying asparagus. I thought it was a plant that was just growing in the garden, but it’s lovely—I really like it.” Another woman couldn’t believe the results she got from his vegetable curry recipe. “I’d never done that before,” she told Oliver. “It’s always been out of a jar or takeout. And it had butternut squash in it, which surprised me as I’d never tried it before—it’s got a lovely taste.”