Jamie Oliver's 15 minute meals put to the test
HIS new book promises '15 Minute Meals’, but can a competent cook really rustle them up that fast?
My kitchen is full of smoke. I’m tossing a sizzling wok of vegetables with my left hand and searing a sirloin steak with my right. Mushrooms are browning in another pan, and a nest of egg noodles is congealing in a pot of bubbling salt water. I’m attempting a recipe from Jamie Oliver’s new book, Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals, and rather than the “delicious, nutritious, super-fast food” that’s promised, I’m feeling flustered, hungry and stressed out.
Oliver’s latest culinary offering, the sequel to his 30 Minute Meals book and Channel 4 series, has been in the shops for just five days and is ranked third on Amazon’s food and drink bestseller list. The much-anticipated volume, priced at £26 (but already down to half price online), guarantees fast, fresh meals for a family of four in a quarter of an hour.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. There’s fast food, and then there’s cooking a whole meal for four people in 15 minutes. That’s downright superhuman. I consider it barely enough time to unpack the shopping, preheat the oven and lay the table (and I like to think I’m a reasonably competent chef). But Oliver begs to differ, urging readers to “get into the spirit of shortcuts” and put his kitchen time trial to the test.
The TV chef has taken a big risk in putting together yet another time-saving recipe book. His 30 Minute Meals, though it sold more than 1.5 million copies (making it both the UK’s fastest- and best-selling non-fiction book ever), was criticised by chefs and members of the public. Some branded it a “work of fiction”, others a “myth”, claiming that the recipes took far longer than 30 minutes (some up to 90 minutes), and required complicated equipment and expensive ingredients.
But elements of this book are different. For a start, the dishes are less ambitious – rather than a main, side dish, dessert and drink, only one plate is produced. Taking heed from critics of his last tome, Oliver has preceded each recipe with a set of preparation instructions, such as: “ingredients out, kettle boiled, large pan on medium-high heat”, to avoid unnecessary rummaging in cupboards and other time-wasting. There’s also an extensive list of essentials, to make sure readers’ kitchens are well-stocked. Woe betide you if you don’t own a two-level bamboo steamer, a pestle and mortar or a box grater.
So is it really possible to make a meal in the time it takes to hard-boil an egg? The reviews so far are mixed. “I can’t chop as fast as Jamie, and found myself getting confused,” writes a home chef on Amazon. “It took about 30 minutes, even without one part of the recipe, and the method was flawed,” says one Mumsnet reviewer. Another adds: “That’s a no on two counts – expensive ingredients and taking too long.” Undeterred, I decide to give it a go.
For my first dish, I attempt the elaborate-looking sizzling beef steak, hoisin prawn and noodle bowls – a sort of oriental surf’n’turf concoction topped with sesame seeds. The first hurdle is the shopping list: with 20 ingredients, including steak and tiger prawns, my bill comes to a hefty £28.25. Although the method looks easy, simple tasks such as finely chopping the chilli, ginger and garlic take me the best part of five minutes, and there’s no mention of slicing the mushrooms or spring onions until it’s far too late, and they have to go in whole.
I’ve never tried to cook against the clock before – and I won’t be doing it again. Normally a tidy chef, I find myself throwing hot pans into the sink, flailing wildly around the worktops and spilling ingredient after ingredient down my apron. My oven timer says it’s taken me 32 minutes. However, although I failed the time-test, what I produced was certainly delicious: steaming bowls of zingy, saucy noodles topped with crispy just-done steak.
For my next recipe, I flip to the vegetarian section (there are nine chapters, including pasta, “soups and sarnies” and breakfast). Some of the dishes are laughably simple – smoked salmon twirled on top of a giant Yorkshire pudding – but others look impressive. I opt for falafel wraps with grilled veg and salsa. It’s much cheaper, costing just £7.08 for four, but I waste half an hour scouring my local supermarket in vain for harissa and pickled cabbage. I’m a bit quicker this time around, though, and 23 minutes after starting, I’m feeling smug about my plate of falafel patties, griddled vegetables and two tasty salsas to sandwich inside a steaming tortilla.
My final challenge is Oliver’s gorgeous Greek chicken, herby vegetable couscous and tzatziki. The recipe is written in his trademark chatty style: I’m told to “scrunch” the cucumber and “bash” the chicken before “popping” it all on a platter to serve. When you’re in a hurry, it’s all a bit annoying. After catapulting the vegetables into a pan, I’m in such a rush to make the dip that I grate some of my thumb along with the cucumber and waste a precious minute digging around for a plaster.
Short of growing a couple of extra arms, I’m not sure how to keep track of all the pans that are sizzling and hissing around me. At one point the Telegraph photographer has to jump in and turn down the chicken, which is blackening on one side. Minus the dill and olives (which, amid the stress of speed cooking, I forget to get out of the fridge), it takes half an hour to produce a passable, albeit messy, plate of fluffy couscous, chargrilled chicken and minty yogurt dip – all for £12.56.
These recipes are undeniably tasty, and 15 Minute Meals will no doubt top the Christmas bestseller list, with ideas that will be welcomed by busy families, cash-strapped teenagers and anyone who’s short on time. But I’m afraid that, once again, Oliver’s cookbook hasn’t quite lived up to his claim.
I’m a big fan of Oliver’s food ethos, and if this book gets more people to cook for themselves with fresh, healthy ingredients, then it’s nothing short of miraculous. But it’ll be another miracle altogether if they can do it in a quarter of an hour.
Sarah Rainey Telegrpah.co.uk