Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Yes We Can..."

As I said in an earlier posting, at today's prices it would cost us more to put the suggested meals on the table, but also felt that with more experience now under my belt it should still be possible to keep the costs almost as low as originally by just serving different meals, and choosing more carefully the recipes I would use.
Can we still feed a family on £21? Difficult but not impossible. Can we feed a family on £25? And the emphatic answer is YES WE CAN!

Although easy enough to serve a meal that doesn't cost a lot, at least it has to give the feeling that we have eaten enough. Having to leave the table still hungry (as used to happen in restaurants when nouvelle cuisine came into fashion) is not a good feeling, and tends to lead to snacking, which - over the day - ends up more expensive than serving a larger meal with no snacks.

Have mentioned before that after 20 minutes of eating, our brain tells us we have eaten enough regardless of the calories in a meal, and as this is all to do with timing, we would be wise not to eat rapidly and swallow with hardly a chew, but move nearer to the 36 chews a mouthful that many dieticians recommend. Using chopsticks to eat a meal is another way to make a small amount last a long time. With me it takes a good five minutes to grasp hold of the first mouthful, let alone get it into my mouth.

For those interested in serving Chinese food the Chinese way, think I am correct in saying use Chinese rice, for this is very sticky and so much easier to eat with chopsticks as lumps of it can be lifted from the bowl. Served correctly in small bowls, the rice is topped with 'things' served in a variety of sauces (usually from a choice of several dishes, a little of each in turn to be spooned onto the rice) then the bowl is held up close to the chin so the chopsticks more or less shove the food into the mouth. Before I realised this, I used lift the rice and food from the table - using chopstick - so had to lift the food a couple or so feet up before it reached my mouth, the majority of it falling onto my ample bosom. Some people have the knack of managing chopsticks. Myself have not, so if I HAVE to, now use a pair that are joined at the top in a sort of fold, so that they don't drift apart and can be held and used more like pinchers. Much prefer using a fork - the English way.

Most people also feel they have had a good meal if the plate arrives full and goes away empty, as often we 'eat with our eyes", and a full plate appears as a good helping. However attractive a dish might look, one cube of meat atop of spiral of creamed potato, crossed by a couple of asparagus spears is hardly likely to satisfy our visual appetite. Although with some folk it must be enough, for many top restaurants get away with mini-meals like this. And charge the earth for them.

Hardly a 'cheffy' trick, but certainly useful for a cook to know is that anything grated (or whipped) looks a lot more than it really is. All to do with the air that has been trapped inside. Often more air than food, but it certainly helps to make a small amount look HUGE. And like a lot of things size matters.
When we realise that an airy-fairy presentation works, we can start serving meals that still satisfy, but end up cheaper than if we kept everything in its solid state.

With salads, grated carrot goes down well, even on its own with a sprinkling of seasoning. Then add a little very finely shredded white cabbage and possibly a little grated shallot to the grated carrot, and hold the lottogether with a very little diluted mayo, and we have made a light coleslaw. Make the mistake of using thicker mayo and the whole thing collapses back to more of a stodge that is filling enough but takes up less room on the plate. Not always a good idea to have a lot of plate showing.

Grated cheese is the very best way to make cheese go further. In the Goode kitchen all the ends of hard cheeses are grated up (either by using a hand grater or a food processor), mixed together and stored in the fridge or freezer. A simple green-leaf salad, boring on its own and hardly a 'filling food', is made much more appetising - and in a strange way is more filling - if the leaves are given a light oil/vinegar dressing and then tossed with a little grated cheese. A little cheese sticks to each leaf, so each leaf becomes a pleasure to eat, not something we think would be possible when it comes to lettuce. Toss with a few chopped herbs if you wish for an even more intense flavour.
One rasher of crisply fried bacon, cooled and crushed can also be added to a salad in the same way as the cheese. With anything that has a good strong flavour, once grated, shredded, or crushed, a very little can go a long long way.
It is these sort of tricks that can turn a low cost meal into one that tastes as though it not only looks more, but costs more.

By now you will be all be getting fed up with me repeating myself, but still feel I should push the meat to one side and urge readers to eat more vegetarian meals. It just makes sense, not the fact that a veggie meal is cheaper to make than a dish that contains meat, but it is also healthier. Even carnivores enjoy a vegetarian meal, and if meat has to be served, then at least serve less of it. Thin slices pf meat (as with escalopes) look more than they are, because they cover more of a plate (we don't have gaps on the plate remember), and minced meat is definitely an airy-fairy way of stretching a few ounces. Just mix other ingredients in with the grains of mince (breadcrumbs, porridge oats, rice, grated carrot....) and instead of air we add more bulk (ending up with something larger), but of the cheaper kind.

Today am giving recipes that would normally be made with meat, but this time are a vegetarian version. As with most savoury dishes, it is not necessary to stick to exact amounts. Use what you have, or try using more or less of a different vegetable. All these meals to serve four will still do so just as long as the total weight of the ingredients stays the same.
When the symbol (V) appears, alongside the name of a recipe, this shows the dish is vegetarian. (F) shows the dish can be frozen. My personal feeling is that vegetarian dishes are best made and eaten when fresh. Meaty dishes tend to freeze better.

This first recipe is for a HotPot and very adaptable for we can use different vegetables, butternut squash instead of courgettes for example. Swede or parsnip instead of turnip. Or all three if we wish. Use fresh herbs according to what we have (and what go together - basil and oregano are less harsh than rosemary), but we should try to use at least some. Alternatively add a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs. The mustard could be Dijon or English, adjust the amount according to depth of flavour. Dijon is mild, English is hot. Wholegrain sort of inbetween.
If you have a glut of fresh tomatoes, then peel these and use the flesh in place of canned tomatoes. If using canned, use either the plum or the chopped. The best pepper to use is the freshly ground black, but white pepper is often preferred - use what you have or wish. A dish needs to be well seasoned to bring out the flavours.
If you wish to include garlic, then add crushed garlic to the onions when these are nearly cooked. Garlic burns easily, so need less frying time than onions.
Anyone who misses the flavour of meat could sprinkle a beef stock cube into the casserole before bringing it to the boil.
The "Who Needs Meat" Hotpot: serves 4 (V) (F)
1 onion, chopped
2 tblsp sunflower oil
8 oz (225g) courgettes, cubed
8 oz (225g) turnip, cubed
8 oz (225g) carrots, cubed
1 green bell pepper, seeds removed, then chopped
8 oz (225g) canned chickpeas, drained
2 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
1 tblsp fresh rosemary leaves
1 tblsp wholegrain mustard
1 x 396g (14oz) can tomatoes
1 tblsp tomato puree
salt and pepper
Put the oil and onion in a large saucepan and fry until softened. Stir in the prepared vegetable and chickpeas. Gently fry for a further 5 minutes then add the remaining ingredients (except salt and pepper).
Bring to the boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 20 minutes then season to taste. Serve hot with jacket potatoes or cooked rice (preferably brown).
To freeze: cool then store in a polybox, cover and freeze.
To serve: Thaw overnight, then return to the (clean) pan and reheat, stirring occasionally.

This next recipe is a really economical one to make as - once we have the cabbage - almost all the remaining ingredients we should already have in store. If preferring to use white rice, still use the shortgrain, but this may need a little less water and cooking time.
Slightly on the sweet side for some, and possibly because of this, this is definitely a dish with man appeal. Seems they just love it!
Stuffed Cabbage, Hungarian style: serves 4 (V) (F)
8 medium sized cabbage leaves, white or green
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tblsp sunflower oil
4 oz (100g) shortgrain brown rice (risotto type)
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, chopped
2 oz (50g) sunflower or pumpkin seeds
2 oz (50g) sultanas or raisins
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (or herb of your choice)
2 tsp paprika pepper
salt and pepper
half pint (300ml) vegetable stock or water
Blanch the cabbage leaves for 3 minutes, then drain and set aside to be filled later.
Fry the onion in the oil until soft then stir in the garlic. Fry a further minute, then add remaining ingredients except the stock/water. Cook/stir for 2 minutes, then add the stock/water.
Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 34-40 minutes until the rice is cooked (less time if using white rice). Add more liquid if necessary. Check seasoning, adding more if needed.
Lay the blanched cabbage leaves out flat and place spoonfuls of the mixture in each leaf. Fold sides over towards the middle, then roll up from the end to make parcels.
Place fold side down in a shallow greased baking dish or tin, adding 2 - 3 tblsp stock or water. Cover and cook at 180C, 350F, Gas 4 for 20 mins. Serve hot with creme fraiche or soured cream.
To freeze: cool the cooked parcels, pack in a container without the creme fraiche, cover and freeze.
To serve: Thaw overnight and reheat at 200C, 400F, Gas 6 for 20 minutes. Serve with creme fraiche, soured cream.

Final recipe today is basically a vegetable gratin, in other words vegetables topped with a white sauce and breadcrumbs (although some people use grated cheese with the crumbs). Because the main vegetable is broccoli, any similar brassica (such as cauliflower) could be used instead. In the same way, any of the onion family could take the place of the leeks. As with all cost-cutting recipes, it all depends upon the price of the vegetables on the day of purchase.
Although cashew nuts are one of the ingredients in this recipe, supermarkets sell packs of mixed (and far cheaper) nuts, so these could be used instead.

The one ingredient worth keeping in the store cupboard is rice flour. This is much finer than ground rice, and when really fine is used to make sauces in the same way as cornflour - a very creamy sauce that is far less likely to split when thawed after freezing as sauces made with other thickening agents tend to do. Rice flour can also be used in baking. The best place to buy finely ground rice flour is from health food shops, although supermarkets are beginning to stock this.
Of course if you have no rice flour, use cornflour or even plain flour.
Note: celery seeds should be the culinary kind, not the seeds for sowing. Alternatively use celery salt and omit the normal salt. Why celery at all? This gives a boost to the flavour of the sauce, but there are plenty of other spices and herbs to that could be used instead. This could be the time to experiment. But experiment with caution, for cost-cutters cannot afford to make too many mistakes.
Broccoli and Leek Gratin: serves 4 (V) (F)
1 lb (450g) broccoli florets
1 lb (450g) leeks, trimmed and chopped
1 onion, chopped
half tsp celery seeds
2 tblsp sunflower oil
2 oz (50g) unsalted cashew (or other) nuts, chopped
2 tblsp rice flour
half pint (300ml) milk
quarter pint (150ml) vegetable stock
pinch grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
2 tblsp fresh breadcrumbs
Begin by steaming the veggies over water for 7 - 8 minutes. Then while cooking prepare the sauce by frying the onion with the celery seeds in the oil. After 2 minutes add half the chopped nuts and fry for a further 2 minutes.
Blend the rice flour and milk together, then stir into the pan with the vegetable stock, bring to the boil, stirring all the time, then when thickened stir in the nutmeg, adding seasoning to taste. To make a smooth sauce, blend or liquidise to a puree.
Place the hot steamed vegetables in a greased shallow casserole dish, cover with the sauce and sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and remaining nuts. Pop under a hot grill until the top is crisp. Serve hot with pasta.
To freeze: cool, cover with cling film or foil, seal and freeze.
To serve: Thaw overnight then instead of grilling, reheat at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for 30 minutes.

Most of the time we prefer to make a simple dish using no more than five ingredients. The problem with these is that most of the time the ingredients could be more expensive that we would use making a meal using more ingredients. Using a much wider variety of a small amount of ingredients - and these could be just oddments of vegetables that might end up in the bin, celery stump for example, or a 'bendy' carrot - with care taken over using numerous herbs and spices, a truly memorable meal can be made that costs relatively little.

The easiest way to deal with a 'complicated' list of ingredients is first read it through. There will probably be no more than two major items. Small amounts of a lot of other ingredients are there to add flavour and can be measured out and put in small dishes, or arranged on one plate, covered and chilled if needed, then later - when time to put them all together - it is just a matter of doing the necessary to the major ingredients then combining the rest according to the method given in the recipe. A doddle really.
All chefs and good cooks rely on this 'mise-en-place' (ready prepared ahead of time), as this saves time and labour when we it comes to the actual cooking. By the end of the day most of us are too weary anyway to begin chopping and spooning out countless bits and bobs, so preparing in advance is something we should do as often as we can.
Watch any TV programme and always the food has been weighed and measured in advance (probably by helpers and not the chefs themselves). This really works.

We all get the feeling of 'I can't be bothered', even when it comes to making goodies such as American muffins. It is not the making and baking, but the weighing out that I find tedious. So whenever possible the ingredients are weighed out the day before and left in bowls on a tray. With a boil and bake cake for instance, the fruit, syrup, fats etc can be put into a saucepan ready to heat the next day. The dry ingredients could be put into a bowl. All that then needs to be done is when ready, mix the wet with the dry. Same when making muffins.
Cake tins can also be prepared ahead, greased and lined, several days ahead if you wish, so that when making needing a tin it is there ready and waiting. Children would be happy to take that chore off your hands.