The horse-as-beef story broke when we were in New Zealand. As I skimmed through news from home, sitting in the sunshine, it all seemed very far away and, probably, the kind of thing that would blow over before we returned home. Twitter was alight with pun-tastic comment, a piece that John McKenna wrote for the Independent was illustrated by a pair of lads commenting “so that’s what happened to Shergar” and every restaurant blackboard became an opportunity for the staff to show off their wit.
But it didn’t stop. And it wasn’t just Ireland.
This was a story that – ahem – had legs. It still does. Since January there has been a regular stream of stories, tagging one big brand after another: Tesco, Nestle, Birds Eye, Aldi, even Ikea, all got mentions as horsemeat was discovered in processed products throughout Europe. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Processed. By big business. Who, seemingly, looked at the bottom line and figured it could go lower. In that world, food is just a commodity – rather than something that actual people actually eat – and a race to the bottom is only going to benefit the shareholders. Pity about all those people who pick up a quick meal at the supermarket, thinking that they have actual beef in their beef meatballs.
I know I’m not the only one who has compared the prices of ready-made burgers with the minced meat alongside and wondered how they can make them at that price. Now we know. They can’t.
There is a silver lining. My butcher told me happily that he’s busier than ever and it’s difficult to get your hands on a slow-cooking good-value cut like oxtail unless you’re in early. A Good Food Ireland/Grant Thornton report earlier this week makes hay of findings that small food producers are expecting more business in 2013, “with the horsemeat scandal to play a significant role in driving this growth.” With supposedly strictly regulated big business proving unreliable, people are turning to local companies that they can trust. Like their own butcher.
We eat a lot of vegetables at the cottage.
Spinach and Ricotta Balls in Tomato Sauce with Homemade Oven Fries
This is a great make-ahead meal. The tomato sauce can be made well ahead of time and frozen, the cheese and spinach balls shaped earlier in the day, popped in the sauce and then topped with cheese and baked when you need them. My two smallies love these with some homemade oven fries for dipping in the sauce. It’s also good with crusty bread for mopping and a punchy rocket salad.
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
500mls tomato passata
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Spinach and ricotta balls
150g baby spinach leaves
50g mature cheddar cheese, grated
1 ½ teaspoons basil pesto
Two handfuls grated mature cheddar or mozarella
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
Warm a little olive oil over a medium heat, add the onion and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook for 3-5 minutes until starting to soften, then add the garlic. Cook for another 2 minutes before pouring in the passata. Half fill the container with water and add it to the pan (250mls water) with the balsamic vinegar. Simmer over a low heat for 10-15 minutes, tasting and adding sugar, salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile chop the spinach finely. Mix with the cheese, ricotta, breadcrumbs, egg, pesto and season well.
When the sauce is ready, pour it into an oven-proof dish and allow to cool. To cut down on washing up, I just use the same stainless steel skillet for making the sauce and baking the finished dish. Scoop up spinach mixture with a tablespoon, shape into balls and place on top of the tomato sauce. I get 12 golf-ball sized pieces from this. Sprinkle with grated cheese – you can prepare it ahead to this stage and set it aside.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fanbake). Cover the dish with tinfoil or a lid and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 15 minutes until cheese is golden and the tomato sauce is bubbling.
Homemade oven fries
750g floury potatoes – roosters work well
Cut the potatoes – I don’t bother peeling them – into 1cm slices, then crosswise into 1cm chips. While the Spinach and Ricotta Balls are cooking, place them in cold water, bring to the boil and and boil for 3 minutes. Drain and leave to stem dry in the colander for about three minutes. Toss in olive oil and spread them out across a couple of baking trays.
After the Spinach and Ricotta Balls are out of the oven, turn it up to 240°C (220°C fanbake). Bake fries until golden and crispy, about 15-20 minutes.