Tuesday, May 08, 2007

To Use or Not to Use

Tips to save time. When cooking (but it works with other things), do as much advance preparation as you can. Have to say that having my shopping delivered saves an enormous amount of time trawling around the stores even though I might miss some offers (although you get plenty online - it is only the foods reduced because they are close to their sell-by-date that I miss). At one time, shopping for food I found very theraputic and - if I was more mobile and I had a car - I would certainly try out different stores and enjoy doing it.
Much of what we do is by habit, it helps to stand back and see if we could try a different approach. If it works re cost-cutting-cookery, it should also work in other areas.

Yesterday I found a newspaper cutting that had been saved for me when I was in hospital. It gave a daily list of foods that one person threw away during the week. Considering herself thrifty said person was amazed to read that the average mum throws away one-third of her shopping a week, so a check was made with her own discards. Having a family of four (two of them teenagers) the family shopping bill on average was £110 per week which - on the face of it seemed OK. But by the end of the week the foods she had chucked out had come to £46.37 which was almost half her budget.
Everything was listed, and as far as I could see, most of the foods she threw out could have used or frozen. Sausages with the sell-by date too close for comfort were discarded. Likewise bacon. Sell-by date always gives a day or two's grace, so both had still time to be used - the bacon certainly should keep for far longer in the fridge. The sausages could have been cooked and then frozen to be later sliced and added to pizzas or pasta dishes.
With a half a defrosted cheesecake that was left - possibly the only one thing I agree that had to be binned. But Covent Garden soup? She just didn't feel like eating it although it was OK. Again worth freezing? Half a French stick bought for sarnies (never made sarnies with a French stick) that could have been blitzed to make crumbs. Surplus coleslaw - why throw out, just force yourself to eat another salad.

Remains of a cooked turkey - she couldn't be bothered to make curry. So it was chucked. Freeze the meat AND make stock from the carcase. Half a bag of watercress - make soup. Half a tomato and pesto tart - should last longer than the sell by date. Why not make a meal with the turkey and coleslaw. Leeks, reduced in price thrown because the comment was 'they had to be eaten two days ago'. Most vegetables keep longer in the fridge than the given dates. Use common sense.
Smoked mackerel and creme fraiche. Bought to make a pate and now the fish was past its sell by date. Again - this is probably vacuum packed and should be OK for a few days longer. Can also be frozen. Like milk and yogurts, creme fraiche keeps a while longer in the fridge than you think it should.
Six free-range eggs discarded because they were past their sell-by date. Dear oh dear. If kept in the fridge I have found eggs at least a month (in truth two) past their date still sink to the bottom when put into a bowl of water. Proving they are still fresh enough to use.
Mushrooms thrown out because they were past their best. Couldn't make an omelette because she had thrown away the eggs. Chop and fry mushrooms to make duxelles - and add them to casseroles.
Too many carrots (don't tell me they have a sell-by date too - but of course everything does). These keep for literally weeks and weeks in the fridge. Semi-skimmed milk poured down the drain. Freeze it, freeze it.
A pot of basil - a few leaves used for garnish, the rest - she says - wasted! I could cry.

Remember - the sell-by date is purely for the stores protection. Once you have brought food home, the only date you need be concerned with is the use-by date and that generally allows a couple of days more useful life (especially when kept in the fridge). Just use your common sense - experience also helps. Myself, I find that bacon (kept in a special drawer in the fridge) lasts longer than the given date, as do eggs of course. Pots of cream, creme fraiche, yogurts also keep well. And cheeses. If there is a bit of mould growing on the cheese - then cut it off, the rest should be fine (we have eaten Red Leicester six months after its sell-by date). Grate any cheeses that have hardened, use like Parmesan. Best-before dates you can almost ignore as they mean very little apart from the flavour might diminish after that time. Just don't keep them forever. Some foods such a wheatflour are best eaten within the dates given. Dried pulses take longer to cook the older they are, so again best bought a packet at a time and used up with a year - two at the most. Rice and sugar do keep virtually for ever. Likewise honey.

A final warning. Although I am pretty laid back re given dates, I never EVER take risks. It is up to you what you do with what you've got and, if in doubt - throw out (rather than throw up!). Just remember the dates are there for our safety - that goes without saying but there is always a built-in safety margin purely to cover the stores and the manufacturers backs. If there was no margin - on a very hot day foods could have 'gone over' even before we get them home. In the summer, it is worth taking a cool-bag or cold box with you to the store and putting in foods you feel will benefit from keeping chilled.

Beef Carbonnade -serves four to six
An excellent family or dinner party dish as it makes the most of the cheaper cuts of stewing beef. To make it even cheaper, reduce the meat and add a lot more onions. It is mainly the gravy that makes this dish, so as long as there is some meat there, it needn't be the full amount. Ladled into individual large Yorkshire Puddings, with vegetables served on the side, this is a dish to be proud of.
1 lb (5oog) stewing steak
1 lb (5oog) onions, sliced thinly
2 tblsp. plain flour
1 pint (600ml) brown ale
1 pint (600ml) beef stock (use a cube if you wish)
2 oz (50g) dark brown sugar
pinch dried mixed herbs
Melt a knob of butter in a pan and add a little oil. Over medium heat cook the onions until golden. Drain, returning any oil to the pan. Add the beef, turning on all sides until brown. Layer the beef and onions in a casserole dish. Add the sugar to the dregs in the pan, stir and cook for 1 - 2 minutes. Stir in the flour to absorb the oil then slowly whisk in the brown ale followed by the stock and herbs. Heat slowly until thickened and pour over the meat. Cover and cook at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for 2 - 3 hours or until the meat is very tender.
Serve with potatoes, carrots and a green vegetable. Or spoon the meat and gravy into large individual Yorkshire puddings (made in sponge cake tins - or can be bought from the frozen section of the store).
If there is any surplus gravy (which I doubt) it can be frozen to add to the next (basic) beef casserole, or it can be reheated thoroughly the next day for soup. Wonderful mopped up with crusty bread.