Monday 23 April 2018

Yes, I still feed my family burgers. But there's a lot of food I won't touch...

'Are chicken goujons safe to give the kids?" This is the sort of question mothers ask me, especially since the horse-meat crisis began in January. As a food writer, the story didn't take me by surprise. I live in the countryside and keep horses – one of which was destined for a meat plant before I gave it a home.

Over the past weeks I've done countless interviews for Irish and European media on the issue and, in a bizarre twist, conducted a live radio piece on horseburgers while exercising my own horse.

For me, horse meat was the perfect storm, the under-regulated horse trade exploding into a Pandora's Box of horrors for consumers. In 2009 I had spelled out these fears in the book, Basket Case: What's Happening to Ireland's food?, co-authored with my husband, journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes.

Then, as now, our warnings about the real cost of cheap food fell on deaf ears.

I'm a journalist and the mother of two young children, so I also put a family meal on the table every day. Living in the Wicklow hills may be the foodie dream, and I go to a lot of swanky food events, but our home menu is far from Masterchef.

I don't spend a lot of money on food. I keep things simple. When people ask me if something is safe to eat, I'm honest. There are some foods I just wouldn't eat, and some surprises that I would.

You will never see a ready meal in my kitchen. One spaghetti bolognese I examined recently contains only 16pc meat. Food "extenders" and "fillers" often make up the rest, adding volume and taste to sausages, burgers, ready meals and any number of things in our shopping trolleys.

The reason? They reduce food manufacturing costs by 10pc to 30pc.

I understand why many consumers buy ready meals. As a working mum, I often finish my day with cooking as the last thing on my mind.

I get round this by always having meals in the freezer. When I cook a chilli beef, ratatouille, curry, Irish stew and so on, I make twice the amount and freeze a complete meal.

This is the key to avoiding take-away on the way home from work or dropping into the supermarket in a flap and coming out with a huge bill and still nothing for dinner.

The aforementioned chicken goujons I simply don't buy or eat. I peeled open a chicken goujon last week that looked like MRM (Mechanically Recovered Meat). MRM has a texture like sponge. It is not allowed at present in European food manufacturing, but businesses get around the law by using the "Bader process" to make virtually the same thing – meat recovered from sinews and scraps from carcasses.

The safety issue for me is what's used to congeal these bits of meat back into a palatable foodstuff. I don't eat anything "reconstituted" that doesn't have muscle texture, including turkeys or chickens at carvery counters that look like footballs.

After our RTE documentary, What's Ireland Eating, aired, many people approached myself and Philip with fears about ham.

We showed a process where ham joints were boosted to a huge size by hundreds of needles pushing water and nitrates into the flesh. Processed meats, including hams and salamis, have been linked to colonic cancer. Imported rashers and ham have higher nitrite levels (up to 20pc) than are allowed in Ireland, so I always buy ham with a Bord Bia quality-assured label.

Look for ham (even packed slices of ham) cut off the bone where you can see muscle grain.

I also avoid jelly-textured cubed chicken found in sandwich bars and at deli counters, even if it's covered in a heavy Cajun or tikka dressing. Most of this chicken comes already processed from Thailand or Brazil and is rarely made from fresh Irish chicken.

Ireland imports 2.5 million chicken breasts a week. Many of these have been found by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to be gas-flushed with CO2 to preserve them, on sale with incorrect use-by dates and could be up to 10 days old and from as far away as Ukraine.

Butchers are my first choice for buying beef, but I don't buy chicken in some butchers because many imported fillets are sold loose on their counters. At the very least this poultry is stale.

I only buy chicken fillets if they are Bord Bia-certified (in supermarkets), free-range or, if I'm flush, organic.

In our house, meat is not a central part in every meal. I make a soup (curried carrot and parsnip, leek and potato) about twice a week and, yes, I add cream.

This could easily be a dinner.

So, too, scrambled eggs with tomato and basil, simple spaghetti with Irish mushrooms and pesto, cous cous or quinoa salad with mixed leaves, chopped peppers, cumin, olives and salami.

We have one child who is a great eater, the other one is more tricky. I adopt the French approach with children – mealtime choice is Menu A or Menu A. Research shows some foods, such as lettuce, have to be offered up to 21 times before they're eaten; I put it in lunchtime sandwiches, it gets picked out. Then one day it isn't picked out and is eaten from then on. So don't give up.

I buy meat and vegetables from shops in my local village, spending about €30 a week in each. I buy cupboard foods in one big shop about every three weeks in either Superquinn or Aldi. I know many Irish farmers who produce own-brand product for Aldi. I also buy a lot of their imported foods such as kidney beans, tinned tomatoes, chickpeas, chillies, herbs and spices. Choose what has the fewest added ingredients and cooks well.

Remember, the more players involved in a single food product, the more likely it is to go wrong. Yearly I buy half a lamb from my neighbour. It's butchered into joints ready to cook or freeze.

At the weekend I buy sourdough bread, Kilbeggan porridge oats, Ed Hick's rashers and eggs from the local farm shop. My family food spend is under €150 a week, not counting wine or craft beer which I splurge on now and again. If I wasn't partial to French wines and Irish cheese I would probably be the healthiest person on the planet.

So what can we do to eat safely and not pay out a fortune? Keep your food chain short and keep things simple. It takes work, but it shouldn't break the bank.

I dislike patronising advice to consumers to buy only organic or local. Find a place on the food and cooking scale you are comfortable with. Ditch Masterchef, take the pressure off yourself and cook with freshness to get taste.

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life