It happens often enough that I should know better: four or six people are coming for dinner on a weeknight. And I think that it's a great opportunity to try out that new recipe I saw in a weekend supplement. Roast duck on a school night? Lovely. What to serve with it? Spiced chickpeas would be nice. Or that Ottolenghi thing where he Middle Eastern-ises the shredded duck, serving it on corn tortillas with pomegranate jam, julienned cucumber and celery and warm, comforting butter-bean mash. Only 18 ingredients. As long as I get the duck cooked the night before and leave work on the dot, we'll be tucking in by 8pm, no problem…
Of course, things rarely pan out this way. I hadn't realised the duck needed marinating overnight as well. I can't find pomegranates. The bus home is delayed. Before I know it, it's 9:30pm. Everyone's sloshed and having a great time, but as they won't remember the food, I could have stuck to crowdpleasing bangers and mash. And while I err on the ambitious side with the dishes I attempt, I'm far from the only person to overstretch themselves in the kitchen.
"People love being cooked for, and it doesn't really matter what you do," says cookery writer and food stylist Sophie Missing. "Obviously, you want to do something lovely to be generous and show friends that you love them, but I'm happy if someone makes me a jacket potato. If we were happy to throw something together, and didn't put so much pressure on ourselves and weren't so snobbish about food, we'd see a lot more of people."
Cutting yourself some slack in the kitchen is just one of the messages of The Cornershop Cookbook, a collection that is both beautiful and useful. Missing styled the book with her co-author Caroline Craig, but its overarching theme is practicality and accessibility.
The title's a giveaway, of course. Missing and Craig are championing the riches of our cornershops, troves of often unexpected edible treasures which we don't get our hands on if we stick to the big supermarkets. For unplanned dinner parties, then, there's spicy fish stew with rice and golden plantain, beanie fish bake with salsa verde; for catch-up dinners, try halloumi and mint wraps, smoked-salmon baked eggs, or the "veggie mezze menu of joy"; for dessert there's a list of "things with ice cream", such as affogato, nuts or baked apples.
It's ironic that the most convenient stores, those closest to your home, have been out-convenienced by megastores. Part of the allure of doing one big shop is that you're likely to find everything you want, can drive the heavy shopping home, and there's an illusion of value with so many discounts, even though it's been shown that this ultimately leads to wasted, rotting food lingering in the veg drawer.
Missing and Craig suggest an alternative. You don't need to give up your supermarket shop altogether, or splash out at expensive farmers' markets, much less trundle from one independent store to another in search of specific ingredients. Instead, investigate your local shops and you could be surprised. You will very likely find a wide selection of spices, and great bunches of fresh herbs instead of those miserly plastic pockets. Cornershops stock all sorts of tinned foods: beans, pulses, tinned fish and tomatoes, as well as jars of capers and peanut butter, and packets of stock.
"I'd go to about four shops when I worked at Penguin [where the two met about five years ago, when they started work on the same day]," remembers Craig, "running between them to find lemons. We've included substitutions and optional ingredients in the book so you don't end up doing the same."
"We're lazy convenience cooks but with a real love for good food," says Missing. "Quality ingredients are obviously important, but the day-to-day reality of our lives is that we're really busy. We wanted to explore our cornershops and look into the best possible things you could make using a simple or small selection of ingredients. And if you've got a cornershop that sells fresh herbs, you're winning."
A use-it-or-lose-it mentality is required when it comes to cornershops, but the figures look encouraging. Although the BBC reported that Asian cornershops were on the decline back in 2002, with a 25 per cent fall over 10 years to less than 12,000, since then the market has grown. According to a five-year forecast from the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), the convenience-store market will grow by 17 per cent over the next five years (though this projection should be understood in relation to the predicted growth of 82 per cent and 93 per cent for discounters and online sales respectively).
The weekly shop is becoming an outdated habit, as more and more customers turn to "top-up shopping" instead, where they do a big supermarket shop once a fortnight or month, and supplement with trips to convenience stores a few times a week. Convenience stores cast a wider net than cornershops; the sector includes the many small (under 3,000sq ft) supermarkets which the big four (Tesco, Asda, Sainbury's and Morrisons) have been falling over each other to open in recent years, well aware that their customers are choosing to return to smaller shops, whoever's running them.
Missing and Craig were aware of this when they were putting their book together and testing recipes. "We tried to put as much 'traditional cornershop' in there as possible, but realistically it's often smaller shops such as Tesco Metro and Sainsbury's Local," says Missing. "If you go into a Tesco Metro you'll get salmon, chicken, beef mince and possibly turkey mince, so we tried to stick to those meats."
They didn't have strict rules for how each and every recipe should meet their cornershop credentials, but they did have parameters, such as using dry store-cupboard ingredients where possible, not being afraid of pasta, using eggs aplenty, and making the most of feta and olives. The range of ingredients available in cornershops varies greatly from region by region, if not from corner to corner, so to be inclusive, the book takes a turn through many cuisines, flirting with all but faithful to none.
The authors styled the book and it has a pleasantly kitsch sheen, with pineapples, plastic shoppers and retro labels which carry a whiff of the 1970s and a dash of Abigail's Party, but without the paucity of ingredients of that era. The peanut-butter noodles are the bastard child of a peanut-butter and sriracha toast Sophie saw in Bon Appétit magazine and a Fuchsia Dunlop recipe. There are fish-finger tacos and florentines made with Frosties, though the Rice Krispie Scotch eggs recipe hasn't made the book. There's even a tuna sandwich.
There are fancier things, too. You'll find artichoke, with linguine, and in an orzo bake; and there is chorizo, in wraps with red cabbage and stuffed into baked sweet potato. There was also an impulse to try unusual combinations, inspired by the memoir Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, which was republished by Penguin in 2012. They discovered the wonder of tinned crab and had to start limiting how many recipes anchovies appeared in.
Luckily, they kept hold of the cheap, convenient and full-flavoured Venetian spaghetti recipe (see left): anchovies and onion cooked slowly in milk and butter and wine until they're soft, sweet and unctuous, ready to be wrapped around strands of al dente spaghetti.
"People often say you should only cook with a wine you'd be happy to drink," write Craig and Missing. "Interpret this advice as best you can when faced with your local shop's selection of vintage Lambrini."
'The Cornershop Cookbook: Delicious Recipes From Your Local Shop' is published on Thursday (£18, Square Peg)
Venetian Spaghetti by Sophie Missing and Caroline Craig
Onion and anchovy might sound like an odd and even unappealing basis for a dish, but slow cooking (and butter) transform them into a rich, savoury sauce – much more than the sum of their parts. This is the sort of pasta dinner that you can probably make with the stuff you already have in the cupboard, or shop for with the scrabbled together change found down the back of the sofa.
Ingredients to serve 2
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions
125ml white wine or water
180g wholewheat spaghetti or pasta of your choice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Add the oil and butter to a saucepan and put on a low-ish heat. Halve and thinly slice the onions, and once the butter has melted, add to the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, until the onions start to turn a bit golden – make sure they don’t go too brown, though.
At this point, add the anchovies and a splash of the wine or water. Leave to cook for another 20 minutes, adding the remainder of the wine or water, then the milk, every time the onion mix looks like it is beginning to dry out.
When the sauce is nearing readiness, put a separate saucepan of salted water on to boil. Cook the spaghetti for just under the amount of time specified on the packet, then drain well (reserving some of the cooking water) and add it to the onion-anchovy sauce.
Give it all a good mix together and add a splash of the pasta cooking water if you think it needs a bit more sauciness. Cook for another minute, then season liberally with lots of black pepper before serving.
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