Graham Head: homemade bolognese cheaper, tastier and healthier than a ready meal

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IT WAS good to learn from last week’s Tizer that “95 per cent of school meals in Northumberland are made on site from freshly prepared produce. We do not buy in processed meat products such as lasagne.”

But could we claim the same healthy provenance for the meals we provide for our children at home?

We might watch chefs, celebs and even members of the public go head to head in TV cooking and baking contests, but seem reluctant to pick up a saucepan in our own kitchens. The ready meal and the takeaway still seem to make up an unhealthy share of our weekly food intake, in spite of the contamination scares and health warnings of recent weeks.

There seems to be an assumption in the media and Government that we should not be expected to prepare meals at home. It would be too difficult, too time consuming and perhaps too expensive.

Both ‘The Telegraph’ (“Shoppers who buy cheapest food at risk”) and ‘The Guardian’ (“Nobody shops in the value ranges out of choice”) carried articles which 
implied that buying value line ingredients inadvertently exposed us to untraceable horsemeat, when in fact the blame lay with processed food, whether it be a ready meal or a burger.

No-one was suggesting that supermarkets or butchers were selling minced horse as beef. So why didn’t the Government advise us that if we were really worried, we should prepare our own meals from fresh ingredients. Just like the schools do.

In an effort to locate the beef lasagne at the heart of the horse- meat scandal of recent weeks, I visited the frozen ready meal section of two supermarkets in town and found in both frozen spaghetti bolognese on offer at £1 per portion. Remarkably cheap.

Could I better this price by cooking one of the two dishes from the raw ingredients at home? How difficult would it be?

I have good news. It is much cheaper and much tastier. You only need one saucepan; and the ability to chop an onion, open a can of tomatoes and drop spag-hetti into a pan of boiling water. All the ingredients were sourced from a supermarket for just £4.27 (40p less, if you substitute minced pork for minced beef), which is what you would pay for four frozen spaghetti bolognese meals.

I could just have bought my minced meat from a high street butcher – just a few pence more for better quality and freshness guaranteed, since it could be minced to order.

I fried the onion in a pan, added the minced meat to brown it, then added the tomatoes, tomato puree, halved mushrooms and bay leaves, and slowly simmered with the lid on until all the ingredients had merged into a rich, well textured bolognese sauce.

The result? More than six portions containing 30 per cent more meat than the ready meal.

A genuine, homemade buy-four-get-two-free offer (freeze these for another day). But just as importantly, it tasted far superior to the ready meal; I had just three small recyclable tin cans to dispose of (not a mass of packaging); and I knew precisely what I was eating.

Not so hard really and Delia, who is just launching a campaign to get us all to cook more, would be proud of me.

•Graham Head is leader of Berwick’s Slow Food group, an international volunteer organisation promoting good, clean and fair food.