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Microwave meals: Can you cook good food from scratch?

Microwave spaghetti bolognese Spaghetti bolognese can be cooked from scratch in a microwave

Microwave dinners are often cited as shorthand for lazy, cheap and unhealthy food. But cooking campaign group the Children's Food Trust is now encouraging people to use microwaves to make healthy meals from scratch.

Love it or hate it, a home economics class has always been a great excuse to take away the tasty goods that have been cooked at school.

But at a recent workshop run by the Children's Food Trust, one child said that there was no point taking a crumble home.

"No, you can have it. I haven't got an oven," they said.

According to the Microwave Technologies Association (MTA), which represents many of the larger manufacturers, about 95% of British homes have at least one microwave.

But Rob Rees, Le Gavroche-trained chef and chairman of the trust, says there are many people for whom the microwave is in fact the only kitchen appliance they own.

Making waves:

Mexican bean soup

Stir up a spicy Mexican bean soup

Chuck together a one-pot chicken supper

Magic up microwave spaghetti bolognese

Perfect poached salmon with lemon sauce

Make a savoury muffin in a mug

The MTA says by using microwaves instead of a conventional oven, there is the potential to save money on energy bills.

"When reheating small portions of food (for up to four people), the microwave oven uses up to 14 times less energy than a conventional gas oven and up to seven times less energy than a conventional fan-assisted electric oven," a spokesperson says.

"You can cook five different vegetables, enough for two to three people, in one covered dish in five minutes in the microwave oven (900 watt) and save £5 every month on your energy bills, compared to boiling them on top of the stove in a saucepan."

For people struggling to afford energy bills, such savings could make a significant difference.

It has been reported that some people are handing back contents of food parcels from charities such as the Trussell Trust, because they cannot pay for electricity to heat the food.

Focussing on microwave cooking, says Mr Rees, is a way to encourage people on a tight budget, with little time or kitchen appliances, to cook healthier food.

It may come as a surprise to hear that a charity dedicated to developing cooking skills for children, is flying the flag for microwave meals.

However the trust's recipes are a far cry from processed ready-meals found in the supermarket.

Dry your own herbs:

Herbs next to a microwave

• You can use the microwave to dry basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, chives or parsley.

• Take the leaves off the stalks and discard any damaged leaves. Wash and pat dry the leaves with kitchen paper (not recycled kitchen paper as there may be metal traces).

• Place one type of herb on a sheet of kitchen paper on a microwave-safe-plate and cover with another sheet.

• Microwave for 30 seconds, full power. Check and repeat again until the herbs are dry - they should crumble easily. Small leaves dry quickly, so take care not to burn them.

• Store in an airtight container for up to a year.

As well as dishes commonly cooked in the microwave, such as steamed vegetables, poached fish and jacket potatoes, it suggests making spaghetti bolognaise, tortilla, chicken stew and risotto.

Microwave ovens work by producing electro magnetic waves via a magnetron inside the oven. These waves create friction in the water molecules in the food, which then causes them to heat.

The water molecules vibrate and produce heat, and, through conduction, transfer heat throughout. The same, but faster, process is used in a conventional oven.

As well as the obvious benefits of speed, energy saving and less washing up, this method of cooking can retain more of the nutrients in the food.

Mr Rees says vegetables cooked in a microwave are "steamed gently (and) they're cooked very quickly".

"They preserve their colour and their texture. The process is quicker; you're not boiling it away for hours and hours on end.

"You have the right amount of liquid in proportion to the vegetables and actually that liquid would be good to pour into the bolognaise sauce."

However many chefs and food writers disagree with the idea of cooking in a microwave.

Food writer Fran Warde says: "We've become so quick and speedy about doing things; we think 'it's fast (so) it must be good'.

When having work done to her house she lived off microwave-cooked food for about a year, but she missed the crisp finish achieved when cooking using the dry heat of a conventional oven.

"When we used it those years ago, it was soggy food. The pastry was soggy. If you heated up soups, you got uneven bubbles."

Muffins in a mug Muffins or cakes in a mug take only three or four minutes in a microwave

Ms Warde has two boys and she encourages them to cook using the grill and pans.

"I think it gets better results. It might take them a little longer, but it's quite good to slow down in life and just be calm and appreciate that you're going to eat something, instead of wanting to eat it in two minutes."

Chairman of The Guild of Food Writers Richard Ehrlich, says he uses his microwave most days of the week.

"A lot of people who are opposed to microwave cooking are closed-minded. They haven't tried it and wouldn't consider trying it, which isn't a good approach to cooking - or to anything."

Waving not drowning:

Chopping an onion

• Use less liquid when cooking stews, soups and vegetables than when cooking them on the stove.

• Cut foods into even-sized pieces when possible so that they cook quickly and evenly.

• The depth of the dish affects cooking time and evenness - food in a shallow dish cooks faster than food in a deeper dish.

• Cover vegetables to allow them to cook in the steam. Use cling film to cover, but be sure to check that the brand you buy is suitable for the microwave. Pierce the surface to prevent the steam building up.

• Take care not to overcook food in the microwave - it's best to cook in shorter bursts to allow you to check the temperature is suitable.

Source: Let's Get Cooking

He has been influenced by a book first published in 1987 called The Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka, which he says is "one of the best cookbooks ever written".

It explains which dishes are at their best when made in the microwave, and why.

Mr Ehrlich avoids some of the more elaborate recipes of the book, tending not to make whole meals but just some elements of a dish.

"The only frozen vegetable that I use with any regularity is frozen spinach, which is just great in the microwave.

"Cook some seasoning to start with, usually garlic, then add the spinach and cook it in two minute bursts at medium powder, stirring it around to even it out."

Another favourite is carbonara. The basis of the sauce, the bacon and onions, are cooked in the microwave in a bowl.

"I find it a relaxing way of cooking. You don't need to worry about timing," Mr Ehrlich says.

"It fits itself in well to the hustle and bustle of family life."

Whether experimenting with new flavours, keen to cut down on energy bills or trying to make something ordinary in half the time, the microwave has lots to offer the home cook.

Rob Rees says: "I think the majority of people that are in poverty would love to aspire to do the food of Jamie [Oliver].

"But the reality is they need help now to get them to that place where they're better equipped to do the aspirational stuff.

"Show me how to use my one pot and my one microwave, because that's all I've got."

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