Once, when I was studying at Oxford, I found myself staring blankly at the ready meal aisle of M&S for over an hour. I’d come down with some horrible bug and was feeling exhausted and sorry for myself. Convinced I had no energy to cook, I thought that once, just this once, I would ‘treat myself’ to a nice ready meal. Except it turned out to be not such a treat after all. They all looked so soulless and tragic in their sterile little boxes, the portions stingy, the ingredients congealed, with the kind of matt, pallid hue that only a flimsy black microwaveable box can bestow. They all had unnecessarily unpronounceable ingredients in them. They were all far too expensive to justify their meagre contents. Paralysed with indecision, probably exacerbated by my increasingly ill and fuzzy mental state, I stood there for over an hour, wandering the aisles, trying to find something I fancied, trying to justify spending five pounds on a tiny tub of ravioli that I was convinced would only leave me hungrier, trying to urge myself to just get over it and stop being so precious about what I was going to have for dinner (I have urged myself to do this on a daily basis for nearly a decade now, incidentally - it never works).
You can probably guess how this story ends. I grabbed a can of tuna, some cherry tomatoes, a can of sweetcorn, some black olives and a red pepper, meandered home and whipped up a quick pasta with tuna sauce. I made enough to feed four and sustain myself through the following days of illness. It cost less than the ravioli packet (which, admittedly, is quite a feat, this being M&S). Not that it was ever about the cost, of course: what this was really about was the fact that cooking, for me, is never a chore. I thought I hadn’t felt like it, that a ready meal would be a convenient substitute; but what I actually needed was the satisfaction of making something quick, easy and tasty from scratch. I just don’t enjoy food as much unless I’ve had at least some hand in making it. It’s one of the reasons I’m such an annoying dinner guest – if I see an unattended pan bubbling or sizzling, I have to leap in with a wooden spoon.
For these reasons, I’m always sceptical of this new trend for ‘cooking kits’: boxes delivered in the post containing several (usually non-perishable) components for a recipe, which require you to shop for the fresh ingredients, follow the instructions and whip up something delightful with no faff and little effort. Does it really add that much labour to your evening, I ask myself, to grind some spices for a curry or blitz together a marinade in a food processor? If you have to shop for the fresh ingredients anyway, why not add the others to your basket and simply do it all yourself? It’s not like there is a shortage of recipes on the internet. Aren’t these kits just overpriced gimmicks that prey on the lazy and the inept?
When I was contacted by SimplyCook to try out some of their recipe kits, curiosity won out. My Facebook is constantly peppered with adverts for various brands of cooking boxes (as well as weight loss adverts, naturally), and I’ve always been slightly intrigued as to how they would compare to my usual style of cooking (i.e. 90 minutes spend unwinding after work with the aid of a pestle and mortar and a fiendishly complex recipe). There’s no denying they are compact and convenient: my box of four recipe kits fitted neatly through the postbox. The SimplyCook kits contain no perishable ingredients so there’s no need to worry about missing a delivery or leaving your kit to languish on the doormat while you’re away over Christmas, as I did. Inside are four little boxes, each containing three small plastic pots of spice blends, pastes, rubs, marinades, etc. and four recipe cards (mine were for Goan fish curry, Bokkeumbap, Malay laksa and Cajun spiced chicken) with appetizing photography. I like the layout of the cards: they state clearly the ingredients you need to add to the kit, complete with a tear-off shopping list, the cooking time, heat rating, calorie content, whether it’s gluten-free, and also include suggestions as to what extras you can add to the base recipe (e.g. extra seasonal vegetables or leftover cooked meat). I think this is really important, as it helps avoid waste (you can throw in any vegetables languishing in your fridge) and also encourages people to adapt and tweak a base recipe, which is a key cooking skill. The instructions are clear and easy to follow (and usually comprise only around four or five steps).
I tried the Goan fish curry and the Bokkeumbap (a Korean fried rice dish), because I handily had most of the fresh ingredients already in my fridge. The latter was filling and satisfying, thanks to the hearty spice pastes which added a real kick, although I found them a little overpowering (I would use more rice next time to balance out the flavour). I did enjoy how easy the recipe was, though – just frying some eggs and chopping a few vegetables; no need to peel and chop onions or crush garlic (one of my most hated kitchen jobs, because the smell lingers on your hands forever) or raid the spice cupboard. I added some mushrooms and peppers to the basic mix of cabbage and spring onions – the beauty of this dish is that it’s a great template for leftovers, as the recipe card pointed out. I also enjoyed the level of chilli, which I wasn’t quite expecting from something that comes in a box. I think a sprinkling of coriander might be a good serving suggestion, as everything is a little bit brown otherwise, and I think some of the instructions might need clarifying for less experienced cooks: step 2 suggests you ‘add some oil to a frying pan’, without indicating how much, and the shopping list says 120g long-grain rice, unless you already have cooked rice in your fridge, but doesn’t specify whether 120g refers to the dried or cooked weight of the rice.
Part of the joy of making a curry is the steady grinding, toasting and layering of spices, but I do understand that not everyone has the time to take pleasure in this sort of thing. The SimplyCook Goan fish curry is a very good substitute. I was sceptical as to how you could achieve the requisite complex flavour using only three pots of pre-mixed spices and pastes, but the overall dish was very good indeed. The Goan paste had a rather overpowering smell when I first added it to some onions and tomatoes, but mellowed out beautifully in the final dish. I was very surprised as to the depth of toasty coconut flavour in there from the pot of ‘coconut paste’, which definitely packed the necessary punch when combined with half a tin of coconut milk and gave that deep coconut hit which I love so much about Asian curries. The recipe also states to add the dry spices towards the end, rather than toasting them at the beginning as is common in Indian cookery, but it worked. I really enjoyed this dish: delicate chunks of cod in a thick, lightly spiced, slightly sweet and toasty coconut sauce. I added frozen peas and some shredded cabbage too. One tiny reservation: I would say that lime juice and coriander are definitely not only ‘optional’ in the finished dish. The extra squeeze of lime is what brings all the flavours together (but then I am a total fiend for lime and coriander, so I am biased).
I would definitely recommend the SimplyCook kits for people who want to branch out in their cooking and try something new. I love the range of exotic dishes and unusual spices available (you can see their range here). They would be great to keep stashed in the cupboard for those days where you need a recipe whose ingredients you can pick up from the corner shop without having to search high and low for Korean spice pastes or Cajun seasoning. They’re very easy to follow and great for lazy days where you don’t want to invent a recipe yourself or do anything too complicated. There are some dishes that just have to be cooked from scratch, spices and all, but I think these kits are clever in that they have chosen recipes that work well with ready-made pastes and spice blends, so they still pack lots of fresh, vibrant flavour. Obviously they’re never going to replace the joy of cooking a meal from scratch, for me, but I can definitely see the appeal and would happily recommend them for certain cooks and certain circumstances.
Special offer: if you would like to try your first SimplyCook box of four recipes for the discounted rate of £3 (£8.99 thereafter), head to the site and use the discount code NUTMEGS. Happy cooking!
Thank you to Anisa at SimplyCook for the recipe kits; all opinions are my own.