Photography by Susan Bell

Mexican Chocolate, Chilli & Black Bean Soup

I knocked up this soup when I had a piteous cold last winter. It combines onions and garlic for detoxifying goodness with chillies to fire me up, tomatoes and carrots for essential vitamin C, beans for protein and chocolate because it’s a solution to almost everything. Plus dark chocolate and red wine are good for you, don’t you know? But putting all the science to one side, this is delicious, filling and surprising – so even if you don’t have a cold, make this soup!

Serves 2

100g dried black beans
1 onion
1 fat clove of garlic
1 small red chilli or a pinch of chilli flakes
a generous shake of paprika
a generous shake of ground cumin
a splash of oil
1 carrot
30ml red wine
1 x 400g carton or tin of chopped tomatoes
1 vegetable stock cube
3 squares dark chocolate (approximately 20g)
fresh parsley, to garnish

Put your beans in to soak the night before, or early in the morning if you’re going to be cooking that evening. Place them in a bowl, cover with fresh cold water and then some, and cover the bowl with cling film. Leave for a minimum of 8 hours to soak.

When soaked, drain and thoroughly rinse your beans. Put them into a saucepan with fresh water and bring to the boil for approximately 10 minutes, then turn down to a simmer.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the onion and garlic, and chop the chilli (reserving a couple of slices for a garnish), then put them all into a saucepan along with the paprika and cumin. Add the oil and cook over a low heat until the onions and garlic soften.

Wash and chop the carrot, and add to the saucepan. Pour the red wine and tomatoes in, and stir through. Crumble in the stock cube, then add the dark chocolate and 400ml boiling water. Drain the beans and tip into the pan. Stir and leave to simmer for 20 minutes, or until the carrot is tender.

If you like, pulse the soup in a blender until smooth. (I prefer to leave mine just slightly chunky, but if pulsed thoroughly, this makes a deliciously silky texture.) Serve hot, garnished with a sprig of fresh parsley and a slice of red chilli in each bowl.

Tips: Grill pitta breads with cheese inside – until it melts –and serve these dunked in the soup for a seriously tasty treat!

Swirl cream, natural yoghurt or crème fraîche on top before serving.

This recipe uses almost identical ingredients to Mumma Jack’s Best Ever Chilli, so why not make them together?

Photography by Susan Bell

Photography by Susan Bell

‘Mexican Chocolate, Chilli And Black Bean Soup’ recipe from A Girl Called Jack by Jack Monroe.

Twitter: @MsJackMonroe Facebook:

Breakfast Sunshine Buns, 6p each

Breakfast Sunshine Buns – Pineapple, Carrot and Sultana) – 49p for 8 at 6p each.



250g flour, 11p (65p/1.5kg)
1 sachet fast action dried yeast, 11p
30g sultanas, 6p (99p/500g)
1 carrot, 5p (part of a 1.25kg vegetable pack, £1)
1/2 can pineapple chunks, 16p (32p/227g)

How To:

1. Weigh the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the yeast. Finely grate the carrot in, and add the sultanas. Mix in together and make a well in the centre of the dry mixture.

2. Strain the pineapple pieces over a bowl, reserving the juice to use in a minute. Put half of the pineapple pieces into the centre of the dry mixture, and put the other half into an airtight container and pop into the fridge to snack on, or to use in another recipe!

3. Add boiling water to the pineapple juice to make up to 160ml.

4. Pour into the well in the centre of the dry mixture, and combine to make a soft, sticky dough.

5. Tip out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly – as you knead it, the pineapple pieces may break down and make the dough wetter. If this happens, sprinkle some extra flour over the dough and knead it in.

6. When kneaded, break the dough in half. Break each half in half, then each piece in half so that you have 8 pieces. Lightly knock each of your 8 pieces into a ball shape.

7. Lightly grease 8 cups of a 12 cup muffin tray. Pop a ball of dough into each.

8. Leave to rise for an hour, uncovered, in a warm place.

9. Pop into the oven at 180C for half an hour, until they are risen, crusty on top and light to touch. It should feel light when you lift one from the oven, and sound hollow when you tap the bottom. It is quite a moist bread, so can be left to cook a little longer if you prefer.

Allow to cool slightly, cut in half, butter, and eat.

I’m going to allow the other seven to cool, and I’ll pop them in the freezer….

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe

*(Prices calculated at Sainsburys, using the Basics range where available. Costs checked on date of publication against ASDA SmartPrice, Tesco Value, Morrisons Value and Waitrose Essentials. Some variation between major supermarkets but most items widely available at similar price.)

Earthy Red Wine & Mushroom Risotto, 36p.

Earthy Red Wine & Mushroom Risotto, Serves One. 36p.


Still needing easy but comforting food with this cold, I decided to go for carbs and wine and goodness… I’ve never known anyone else to use red wine as a risotto base before – that’s not to say its not been done, I’ve just not seen it – but this works beautifully. As far as comfort food goes, I had finished this, from a bowl on the sofa wrapped in a heavy blanket, before I had finished typing the recipe…


30ml Red Wine, 14p (Table Wine, £3.48/750ml)
50g Mushrooms, 12p (97p/400g)
50g rice, 2p (40p/1kg)
1/2 Vegetable Stock cube in 400ml water, 1p (10 for 15p)
Clove of Garlic, 3p (46p for 2 bulbs, avg 8 cloves per bulb)
Tsp Mixed herbs, 1p (14p for a jar)
Tomato purée, 2p (49p/200g)
Splash of oil, 1p (Vegetable oil £4.50/3l)

How To:

1. Heat a teaspoon of oil in a small frying pan, the one I used was 20cm across but I was only cooking for me!

2. Peel and finely slice the garlic and add to the pan. Chop the mushrooms into small chunks and add to the pan. Shake the herbs over and allow to cook together for a few minutes.

3. Add the rice, and stir to coat in the oil. When the rice starts to turn translucent, add the wine and tomato purée, stirring constantly to prevent any of the rice sticking to the pan.

4. When the wine is almost all absorbed, start to add the stock, a ladle at a time. Stir in until almost all absorbed, and repeat until either the stock is gone or the rice is cooked.

Add some additional herbs to taste and serve with crusty bread if you wish.

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe. Email:

*(Prices calculated at Sainsburys, using the Basics range where available. Costs checked on date of publication against ASDA SmartPrice, Tesco Value, Morrisons Value and Waitrose Essentials. Some variation between major supermarkets but most items widely available at similar price.)

Feisty Soup

I make this for myself whenever I feel as though I am coming down with a cold. you know – when you’ve got that shaky, exhausted feeling and general self-pity. Instead of spending a fortune on various over-the-counter paracetamol and lemon drinks, I drag myself into the kitchen and cook myself a cure. This is called feisty soup for a reason: it’s a bit like hot and sour Chinese soup in a way, and if this doesn’t help shift whatever is wrong with you, I’m not sure what will. I’ve combined lots of natural goodies that have antioxidant and other nutritional qualities – garlic for goodness, chillies to fire up your system, tomatoes for vitamin C and lemon and ginger to cleanse and revitalize.

Serves 2

1 onion
1 fat clove of garlic
a thick slice of ginger
1 red chilli
a splash of oil
1 x 400g carton or tin of chopped tomatoes
1 vegetable stock cube, dissolved in 200ml boiling water
juice of 1⁄2 a lemon or 2 teaspoons bottled lemon juice
a handful of parsley

Peel and chop the onion, garlic and ginger, chop the chilli, and put them all into a medium-sized saucepan with the oil. Cook on a low heat until the onion is softened. Tip in the chopped tomatoes, pour in the stock and add the lemon juice.
Chop the parsley and add to the saucepan as well.

Simmer away for about 20 minutes, until the onion and ginger have softened.

Blitz in a blender to achieve your desired consistency, I leave mine a bit chunky but it can be blended smooth.

Eat, and feel better soon!

Tips: If making this soup for little mouths, do not chop the chilli or use the seeds inside. Instead, halve the chilli down the middle and rinse it under a cold tap to remove the seeds, then add to the soup whole during cooking. Remove before blending.

Any remaining soup will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for 2 days, or in the freezer for 3 months.

The soup can be left whole and chunky as a fiery sauce to form part of a more substantial meal. Omit the stock, stir through a few handfuls of cooked prawns and some green beans, and serve with spaghetti or noodles.

‘Feisty Soup’ recipe from A Girl Called Jack by Jack Monroe.

Twitter: @MsJackMonroe Facebook:

Photography by Susan Bell.

Gigantes Plaki

Gigantes Plaki literally means ‘Really Big Beans’! I’m heading back to my Mediterranean roots with this simple but delicious dish. I can have it for dinner, then lunch the next day and pulse any leftovers into a soup. It makes me chuckle to see these spicy butterbeans retailing for almost £5 per pot in certain supermarkets, when they’re really just bigger, better baked beans. you can either soak dried beans overnight in cold water – which means they will need to be drained, rinsed and boiled vigorously for 10 minutes separately to the sauce in order to get rid of any toxins – or use a tin of ready-prepared butter beans, which is more expensive but more convenient. If cooking with dried butter beans, use only 150g. I like to serve this dish with rice and green beans as a vegetarian meal, or it is great with baked chicken or fish.

Serves 2

1 onion
1 fat clove of garlic
a splash of oil
a pinch of ground cinnamon
1 x 400g carton or tin of chopped tomatoes
a splash of lemon juice
1⁄2 a bunch of fresh basil, plus extra to garnish
1 x 400g tin of butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 vegetable stock cube
75g Greek cheese (such as feta), crumbled

Finely chop the onion and garlic and put into a large saucepan along with the oil and cinnamon. Cook on a low heat until the onion is softened, then add the chopped tomatoes and continue to simmer on a low heat for a few more minutes.

Chop all the basil stalks. Add the lemon juice, chopped basil stalks and half the basil leaves (leaving the other half aside for a garnish) and stir in, continuing to simmer.

Stir in the butter beans and crumble in the vegetable stock cube, with a little water if necessary. Stir well to dissolve.

Simmer all together on a low heat for approximately 20 minutes.
Ladle into bowls and serve garnished with the crumbled cheese and remaining basil leaves.

Tips: Gigantes Plaki can also be eaten cold as a mezze or snack, or mixed with leftover rice and stuffed into a pitta bread for next day’s lunch – it’s delicious cold and perfectly portable.

If you don’t have any basil, this is also very good made with parsley or mint…

You can make fab burgers from this mixture. Just strain off the tomato sauce, crush and add an extra clove of garlic and a pinch of dried chilli flakes, then gently mash the beans and shape into burgers with floured hands. Fry for a few minutes on each side.

Photography by Susan Bell.

Photography by Susan Bell.

Bubbles And Squeaks, 7p each.

Bubbles And Squeaks. Makes 10 bubble and squeak patties at 7p each, eat one or two or five, depending on how hungry you are. I was really hungry, so didn’t even get a picture of these. However I have half the mix left in the fridge for tonights dinner, so will fry it up and snap it later. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for ridiculously cheap food.
2 potatoes, 10p (5p each, from a 1.25kg vegetable pack, £1)
1 carrot, 5p (5p each, from a 1.25kg vegetable pack, £1)
1 onion, 5p (5p each, from a 1.25kg vegetable pack, £1)
¼ cabbage, 20p (Savoy Cabbage, 80p)
1 egg, 23p ( free range medium eggs, £1.40 for 6)
Tbsp flour, 2p (65p/1.5kg)
Tbsp lard, 4p (49p/250g)
Vegetable stock cube, 1p (10p for 10)

How To:
1. Bring the vegetable stock to the boil in a medium sized saucepan.
2. Dice the potatoes and carrots (I don’t peel mine, but this is optional) and add to the stock. Simmer for 20 minutes or until they are soft. I find prodding a knife into the saucepan is a good indicator; if it slides through a chunk of potato smoothly, you’re good to go.
3. While the root veg is boiling, take a separate saucepan and add a little lard or oil to it. Some of you may balk at the thought of using lard – I was brought up cooking eggs and bread at my grandfathers guest houses along the seafront, and we used the stuff all the time. Feel free to use some sort of oil if you’d rather, but I find slicing off a chunk of lard is a much better indicator of fat content than a nice slosh of oil. To be blunt – I use less lard than oil simply because of how it looks! Anyway… Finely slice the onion and cabbage and add to the saucepan, and fry gently until the onion is soft, stirring occasionally to allow it all to cook.
4. When the root veg is cooked, drain it and tip back into the saucepan. Add the onions and cabbage and mash together thoroughly with a masher.
5. Add the egg and flour and stir.
6. This is an optional stage but keeps it together more successfully, however if you’re in a rush and willing to keep an eye on it, it’s not essential. I scoop the mash into a bowl and refrigerate it for an hour or two to allow it to set a little. As I said, optional, but I use this setting time to wash up the pans!
7. Heat some oil/lard/fat in a frying pan, and dollop a spoon of mashed veg mixture into it. Flatten slightly with the back of a fork or spatula, and cook on a medium heat until golden and crisp on one side (depends on your hob, but mine takes about 7 minutes). Turn over and cook the other side. You may need to do these in batches, but cook until all the mixture is used up.
You might like to add cheese to the mix, if you like that sort of thing.
Also, you can use pretty much any vegetables you like in bubble and squeak. I likt to make a posh version with parsnip and red onion, when I have them both lying about. Sweet potato is also a good base, extra carrot will make it sweeter and peas will sneak extra veg into your kids. Play with it and see what you come up with.
Oh, and I had mine with a fried egg and some ketchup, but depending on your budget and preferences, you can have bubble and squeak with sausages, or roast chicken and veg, or on its own as a lunch or snack… Do what you like.

They keep cold for a few days to have with bacon and an egg as brunch, too. Or you could be a heathen, like me, and snack on them from the fridge.

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe

*(Prices calculated at Sainsburys, using the Basics range where available. Costs checked on date of publication against ASDA SmartPrice, Tesco Value, Morrisons Value and Waitrose Essentials. Some variation between major supermarkets but most items widely available at similar price.)

Photography by Susan Bell.

Chickpea, Carrot & Coriander Falafels

This recipe uses tinned chickpeas, but can also use dried chickpeas if you have them available. Dried chickpeas work out cheaper but will need to be soaked in cold water for at least 8 hours before starting the recipe, and then need to be cooked (put in a pan, cover with water and boil vigorously for at least 10 minutes before draining and using). If you have dried chickpeas, use half the quantity of tinned, i.e. 200g. I like to serve the falafels accompanied by couscous made up with vegetable or chicken stock, lemon juice and coriander, and with green beans or another green vegetable.

Makes 12ish falafels (4–6 per person)

1 onion
1 carrot
a generous shake of ground cumin
1 tablespoon oil, plus 2 tablespoons to fry the falafel
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed thoroughly
a handful of chopped parsley
a handful of chopped coriander
1 tablespoon flour, plus extra to shape the falafel

Peel and finely chop the onion and wash and grate the carrot.

Put in a frying pan, add the cumin and fry together in the 1 tablespoon of oil over a low heat for a few minutes until softened.

Tip the cooked onion and carrot into a large mixing bowl along with the chickpeas, add the chopped parsley and coriander and stir in the flour. Mash it all together with a potato masher or fork until the chickpeas have broken down into a mush. The oil from the carrots and onion will help combine the chickpeas together, but you may need to add up to 2 tablespoons of water so the mixture can be shaped.

Flour your hands and mould the mixture into about 12 golf ball shapes. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the sauté pan and fry the balls until golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside – this will take about 10 minutes.

Tip: Instead of making falafels, shape the mixture into 4 burger patties and fry on each side. These are delicious with mango chutney or ketchup.

Photography by Susan Bell.

Photography by Susan Bell.

‘Chickpea, Carrot And Coriander Falafels’ recipe from A Girl Called Jack by Jack Monroe.

Twitter: @MsJackMonroe Facebook:

Vegetable Masala Curry, 30p.


Proper Vegetable Masala Curry, 89p, serves 3-4 at less than 30p each.

This isn’t vegan. I tried but my pre-first-work-pay-packet budget just couldn’t stretch to £1.99 coconut milk versus 32p of natural yoghurt. I’ve failed my Lent experiment but I’m happy to hold my hands up and say ‘have a fabulous curry recipe’ while I feel a bit guilty about succumbing to yogurt. It was that or miss a couple of meals, and I’m sure nobody will hold it against me. Much.


1 onion, 5p (part of a 20pc veg pack, £1)
1 carrot, 5p (part of a 20pc veg pack, £1)
1 potato, 5p (part of a 20pc veg pack, £1)
1 garlic clove, 3p (46p for 2 bulbs, avg 8 cloves per bulb)
1 carton chopped tomatoes, 35p
1/2 pot natural yoghurt, 32p (65p/500g)
1 vegetable stock cube, 1p (10p for 10)
Fistful of parsley and coriander, free
Shake of garam masala, 3p approx (£1.19/42g)

How To:

1. Peel and chop the onion, and peel and finely slice the garlic, and place in a large sauté pan on a low heat with a splash of oil.

2. Chop the potato, carrot and onion (I dice mine into half inch cubes) and add to the pot, stirring. Halve the chilli and rinse the seeds out (quicker than faffing about with a knife) and add in, so it can be lifted out whole at the end to prevent little mouths getting a hot surprise. You can slice it extremely finely if you want, but life’s too short.

3. Chop the herbs and throw in, with a liberal sprinkle of garam masala.

4. Add 200ml vegetable stock, the carton of chopped tomatoes and 250g of natural yoghurt, stir through, and leave to simmer on a low heat.

5. The trick with curry – good curry – is to allow it to cook slowly and gently in order that the flavours infuse and meld together in an amalgamation of spicy goodness. I let mine simmer gently for about forty minutes, checking and adding stock or water if it starts to dry out.

Serve with plain boiled rice at around 3p per person for 75g Sainsburys Basics.

Make it posh and variations:

1. You can substitute the yoghurt for coconut milk if your budget allows for it, for a sweeter, creamier taste, or if you’re a vegan.

2. Add fennel seeds and crushed cardamom pods for sweetness – I normally would but I don’t have any to hand and this weeks budget wouldn’t allow for an extra ‘spice’ in the spice rack. I try to buy one a week to build the collection up.

3. When cooking the boiled rice, add a shake of turmeric, half a vegetable stock cube, a star anise, some scraped-out cardamom pods and a handful of sultanas for a seriously special accompaniment. Again, I’m surveying my spice rack sadly, and might put one of them on next weeks shopping list!

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe

*(Prices calculated at Sainsburys, using the Basics range where available. Costs checked on date of publication against ASDA SmartPrice, Tesco Value, Morrisons Value and Waitrose Essentials. Some variation between major supermarkets but most items widely available at similar price.)

My 49p Lunch With A Girl Called Jack: The Telegraph, 2nd March


“Food prices are soaring, and food itself, particularly budget food, is under scrutiny following the horsemeat debacle. Careful shopping and home cooking are suddenly a national priority. And with Government cuts hitting benefits, they are high on the political agenda, too.
This has driven Helen Goodman, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, to try living on £18 a week, the amount that she has calculated some of her constituents will have left to spend on food (after utilities and non-food items) once changes to the benefit system, including the much-reviled “bedroom tax”, come into force in April. She finished the experiment last Sunday, having struggled to eat a healthy diet, and admitting, “If you don’t have much money… you do end up eating more bread and biscuits than ideally you would.”
I wouldn’t argue with that. But one of the people Goodman sought advice from is a young woman who, until recently, has been managing on far less –and producing healthy, delicious food as well.
Jack Monroe, 24, is a single mother whose delicious recipes, published online, are so nutritious and thrifty that they are being handed out by food banks as examples of how to manage on next to nothing. Her blog, A Girl Called Jack, has gathered 16,000 regular readers. She has a budget of just £10 a week to feed herself and her two-year-old son, Johnny – all she has to spare after covering rent and bills. It makes the fiver I’m allowed for my weekly budget recipe in this newspaper look indulgent.
How does she do it? I emailed Monroe for advice, and an invitation to join her for lunch at her home in Southend came whizzing back. “Bring an empty stomach,” she wrote. “I’m of Cypriot heritage, we have no concept of portion control.”
Monroe greeted me at the door to her flat in a Victorian terrace, fizzing with energy, her brown eyes bright, her thick dark hair in a bob that looked almost too heavy for her tiny frame.
The scent of cumin and garlic drifted tantalisingly down the narrow stairway: but first she took me shopping at her local Sainsbury’s, where she buys most of her food. This is not, she explained, from any particular loyalty, but because it is at the end of her road and it is cheaper shopping here than forking out the bus fares to another supermarket.
Jack filled me in on her journey from a job she loved with the fire service to unemployed single motherhood, to publishing her witty, trenchant blog. “English was one of my best subjects at school,” she says. ”I was a precocious reader and I won prizes as a child – a £5 book token aged 11 for a poem I wrote in junior school, that sort of thing.” But this early promise wasn’t fulfilled and she left school at 16 with seven GCSEs, moved out of the family home and took a job in a fish and chip shop.
The watershed came early last year, with a headline in the Southend Echo & Gazette: ”Druggies, drunks and single mums are ruining our town.” Monroe fired off an angry letter which the paper published. Her friends encouraged her to start the blog, and her incisive take on local politics (she attends every open council meeting) soon drew attention. But it was the recipes that have really excited the online community, earning scores of mentions on Twitter as well as plaudits from food professionals.
Inside the superstore, Monroe marched purposefully around the aisles, seeking out the orange Basics labels of the economy range. “If you can find something in the value range, buy it,” she advised. “It’ll be no worse than anything else. A tin of branded tomatoes can cost you £1.20. A tin of value ones costs 35p. If you are cooking food from scratch those are just building blocks in your meal anyway. Nobody’s going to notice if they are handpicked, vine ripened tomatoes.”
Into the basket went a bag of root vegetables, Basics tomatoes and tinned chickpeas. Monroe, who monitors prices constantly, noted that the price of the Basics kidney beans had recently risen 50 per cent to 27p overnight.
Back at her flat, Monroe showed me into the tiny galley lined with mirrored mosaic tiles that she calls “my disco kitchen”. The cats, Miliband and Harriet (named after the Labour leader and his deputy) prowled around expectantly while she set to puréeing chickpeas for falafel, stirring up a simmering root vegetable tagine and whizzing up a deep red tomato and haricot soup with fierce competence.
It is hard to imagine her doing anything with less than an awe-inspiring energy, and the past two years have been a remarkable rollercoaster from comfortable anonymity, via the breadline, to local – and now fledgling social media – celebrity.
Back in 2011 Jack had a £27,000-a-year job she loved in a fire service call centre, a nice flat and a regular organic veg box. But after the birth of her son nearly three years ago, she was unable to negotiate flexible working or a jobshare for the changing pattern of her shift work. Her parents, who live a few miles away, helped out initially, but with the commute it proved unsustainable.
“It’s not what I had a child for, to give him 16-hour days foisted on other people.”
She left the fire service at the end of 2011 and embarked on a job search. “I applied for everything that came up, but there’s a lack of common courtesy these days. You don’t even get an email back saying, ‘Thank you for your application but you’ve been unsuccessful’.” She amassed an email folder of more than 300 applications, “which don’t include the ones I sent by post, or all the CVs I dropped off.”
She moved to a cheaper flat and signed on for benefits, but money was tight and she fell into debt. Johnny’s dad, whom she was no longer with at the time of the birth is, she says, “a brilliant father”. But he was not able to help support them. She sold her car, and regularly went to bed hungry. Then last year, desperate, she held a house sale, inviting locals in to buy everything she owned, including the television and her favourite chair.
Now her sunny flat is furnished with a few leftovers from the sale (“No one wanted the bed,” she told me), along with cast-offs from friends, and items she has found in skips. Not that you would know. Jack, it seems, is true to her name. There was an old sewing machine by the window, and one of Johnny’s baby shawls was being made into a cushion. Monroe makes patchwork quilts from old clothes, turns buttons into cufflinks and works cross-stitch pictures which she sells through her Bread and Jam Foundation to raise money for local charities. “Make do and mend” is not so much a stricture as a philosophy to Monroe.
How does she feel about the success of the blog and the recipes? “The circumstances that triggered it weren’t brilliant, so it’s nice that something good came out of it,” she says. The new local fame is more disconcerting. People check her shopping basket in the supermarket for extravagances, and she has had threatening phone calls after writing that the Union Jack needed reclaiming from Right-wing groups.
When Johnny arrived back from nursery – a gorgeous curly haired blond who chattered away merrily as he tucked into the homemade herb bread and tagine in Jack’s book-lined sitting room. ”He eats everything because that’s what he’s given,” said Monroe, adding tartly: “Some children are very indulged.”
Mind you, the food is very fine, and it’s also healthy. Monroe keeps oil to a minimum, and key ingredients are cheap tinned vegetables, root vegetables and pulses, enlivened with clever spicing and herbs from her carefully tended pots. The cost of our lunch was less than 50p each.
There’s rarely any meat – the budget doesn’t allow it – and Monroe is experimenting with going vegan for Lent. She does miss it though. “I have a tax rebate due. When it comes I’ll get a pork belly.” Not that there are no treats. As well as bread, made with ordinary plain flour, there are occasional white chocolate and peanut butter cornflake cakes for Johnny.
The secret of cheap but healthy eating is to cook from scratch, she tells me. “Most of my recipes take 15 or 20 minutes. It’s easy to do and it’s significantly cheaper than picking up a ready meal that you have to cook for 30 minutes in the oven anyway.” But with some ready meals selling for £1, surely they are cheaper? “No. My chickpea tagine is 24p a portion. Besides, I don’t know what’s in that lasagne or whatever. This way I know exactly what my son is eating.”
Life is still pretty up and down for Monroe, even though finances are carefully monitored with a spreadsheet on the laptop she has borrowed from a friend. Reading her blog a few days later I find that she has had to take her son out of nursery as she can’t afford the fees. But then she messages me to tell me she has finally landed a job as a reporter for the local paper. Ever cautious, she intends to stick to her food budget. After all, she said that none of her friends ever turn down an invitation to eat at the flat. Maybe she could ask Helen Goodman along?”

Xanthe Clay. The Telegraph, Saturday 2nd March 2013.

Sleeping Rough In A Car Park


There’s a certain poignant, sadly ironic element as I stamp on a cardboard box in a car park behind the YMCA building in Southend tonight. (For those not in the know, I’m part of the YMCA Sleep Easy event, sleeping rough for a night to raise money for youth homelessness.)

Six months ago, through a roller coaster of jobs gained and lost and benefit payments on hold and late and missed, and Section 21 notices dangled like a sword of Domacles at my landlords behest, I lay awake at night with my heating off, desperately fearful that I was going to lose my home.

Tonight I sleep outside all night, in a sleeping bag, on top of a cardboard box, with my bag as a makeshift pillow. Tomorrow I’m going back to my flat, still unheated, to treasure the luxury of a battered sofa and a bed I held onto when I sold everything I owned. Some people won’t be.

Dig deep, you can still donate after the event, and help to tackle youth homelessness. Any decent person should be horrified that some young people wake up under bridges, tucked away in doorways of high street shops, and the hidden homeless on sofas, in hostels. In today’s society, a roof is almost a luxury, and it can happen to just about anybody. I went from a £27,000 a year job to almost homeless in six tumultuous months, a whistlestop tour of errors and bad luck crashing my world down around my ears. I’m back on my feet now – but many others aren’t – and as I bed down in a sleeping bag on a box tonight, I hope that some of you will donate.

UPDATE: 2348hrs
I’ve pulled my sleeping bag over my head as I don’t want anyone else here to see me sobbing, as the reality hits and the tears come, as I realise how close to this I came. I’m here tonight, in a sleeping bag on a cardboard box on a damp car park floor, to raise awareness of youth homelessness, and raise money too. But this was almost me. And now, here, cold and pulling my hood around my ears to conserve whatever heat i can on a night literally below freezing, reality hits me like a train. This is England. This is the big fucking society. This is what thousands and thousands of people live through – no, EXIST through, because this is no life. And where are they? In doorways, on high streets, tucked into corners and on sofas and in hostels in layers and sleeping bags, cold, hungry, and homeless.

Nothing puts your life quite into perspective like spending the morning reading about it in the Telegraph, and spending your evening sleeping rough. It’s like the film Sliding Doors – I feel as though I’ve gone back in time six months or so, and this is what could have been.

I’m awake and it’s -3. The sleeping bag I had pulled over my face has slipped slightly and the jumper I am resting my head on has a layer of frost clinging to the surface. I can’t feel my fingers, my face, or my feet.
Desperately uncomfortable, I toss and turn on a now soggy piece of cardboard, pulling my hat back down over my ears, trying to get back to sleep.
A friend, John, hands me a hot water bottle, that I clutch under my chin. I curl back into a foetal position, pull the sleeping bag over my head, and wish for the morning to come.

0632: I must have drifted off to sleep eventually, as I wake with a start to my colleague calling my name, giving me a heads up that there are cups of tea available indoors. I clamber out of my sleeping bag and literally run across the car park into the YMCA building for the best cup of tea I’ve ever tasted.

We have a debrief and a short presentation. I’m still wrapped up in two pairs on tights, pyjama bottoms, tracksuit bottoms, several jumpers and a coat, but I’m shaking violently, cold to the core, rubbing my hands together, desperately trying to heat through again.
I’m invited to share my experience on the Sleep Easy Southend video diary, and I break down in tears as I describe how close I came to living on the streets myself, and my reasons for taking part.

I’m home. I stand in front of my door for a moment, keys in hand, overwhelmed by what I have in this world, and what might have been. I’m back in bed now as I write this, for a nap and to warm myself through. It’s been a long and emotional night.

I’ve done what I can, for now. Please dig deep, not for me, but for those that don’t have a home to go back to this morning.

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe