Monday, September 28, 2009

Fingers on the Pulse

Yesterday cooked the three that I had soaked overnight: red kidney beans, cannellini beans, and the chickpeas. Checking prices see that Tesco are selling the dried chickpeas at a reduced price of 43p for 500g. The other two beans still at normal price up to 80p per 500g, but other stores may sell them cheaper.
Did not weigh the beans after soaking and cooking as they all absorbed at least twice their weight in water so each 500g pack must have come to at least 1500g cooked weight, probably more, and when cooking also appeared to take in more liquid. Each type of pulse - once cooked and drained - filled 2 x 1 litre ice-cream tubs.
When all the pulses had been cooked (each taking about 45 minutes), they were drained, spread out on a baking sheet and left to dry off slightly - this helps to prevent them sticking together when freezing. Another way to help keep them separate is to drizzle a little oil over them while they are still hot in the colander and give them a shake.

Apart from the chickpeas - these having a slightly nutty flavour - the other two beans, despite one being dark red, the other white, both tasted much the same. Most beans of this type are very similar in flavour. If mashed and then blind-tasted would defy anyone to be able to say which bean they were eating. Yet the colours, shapes and sizes can be quite different. However good a dish tastes, it is more appreciated if it also looks good, and using different coloured beans really helsp.
Most of the time we fancy trying a recipe just because we see a photograph of the dish, we cannot smell it, we cannot taste it, but it looks 'good enough to eat'. So 'eye appeal' is more important that might expect. For one thing a good looking dish (of the edible kind) can tempt jaded appetites and picky children.

We have become used to seeing a specific type of bean in a dish, so chilli con carne would not be the same if white beans were used instead of the traditional red. Baked beans would not be enjoyed if made with the larger butterbeans instead of the haricot beans. When we are used to the appearance of something we do not care to see it altered. But this doesn't mean we can't change it if we wish. a bean is a bean is a bean, so use what you have.

Yesterday seemed to have an inspired moment. When it came to cooking the cannellini beans (these look similar to haricot beans) noticed a tablespoon of golden syrup in a jug that I had managed to rescue from the almost empty syrup tin. Heating the tin by standing it in hot water had softened the syrup so that every last little bit stuck to the sides and bottom was able to be poured out - or I could have added a little hot water to the tin, stirred it into the syrup and removed it that way. In the past may well have thrown an 'empty' tin or bottle out, but not these days - every last bit is rinsed out to be used in whatever way possible. Even the bottles are kept for preserves, and some of the more attractive tins used to hold pens or small flower pots..

Back to the syrup. What I was trying to say before I led myself astray was that I had decided to add the syrup to the pan with a little more water and cook the cannellini in this. Once cooked, a couple or so tablespoons of beans were removed and drained and to these stirred in a little tomato ketchup (another 'end of jar'). The end result not a million miles away from baked beans as we know them, both in appearance and flavour.

When I serve baked beans, B always wants the beans but not the sauce, and to make sure of this he has to have first bite of the cherry, and using a slotted spoon carefully drains the beans onto his plate. This means I (or any other visitors for that matter) end up with a lot of sauce and few beans , so now usually drain the can of beans through a sieve before heating or serving.
Usually I freeze the surplus sauce to later add to a spag bol or soup, but feel now that the slightly sweet cannellini beans could be reheated in this and end up looking and tasting almost like proper baked beans. Not that many would bother to do this, but when we need to cut costs, this is a very cheap and acceptable way to get beans on toast. Important to add that having before tried this approach (using cooked haricots), they didn't taste nearly as good as yesterday, and feel that it was cooking the beans in the syrupy water that made all the difference this time.

The other day watched a repeat of one of Jamie Oliver's programmes and in this he was cooking his home-grown fresh borlotti beans. These beans are extremely pretty, white flecked with red, although some of the colour is lost in cooking. What he also did was to soak some dried borlotti (any dried bean would do) in cold water in which he had tucked herbs, onion, garlic and - if I remember correctly - a cut tomato, with possibly some spice such as star anise. The idea being to give the beans a lot of different flavours that can be absobed as they soaked.
Perhaps soaking beans in beef stock (using a beef stock cube blended with boiling water) could give them a meaty flavour. This could be useful when we can't afford to use much meat, or any meat. Important to remember that all beans need soaking in COLD water for a good 12 hours before cooking. Don't add salt to the water when soaking or cooking as this toughens the skins.

Beans can be cooked in the water they are soaked in, or they can be drained and cooked in fresh water. If not soaking in flavoured water, then fresh is best for otherwise quite a bit of froth (aka scum) comes to the top of the pan and needs skimming off.
Yesterday removed quite a lot of scum as the beans started to boil, and this was scooped off and tipped into a bowl at the side. For some reason left it there and late evening B came in and asked if it was a mousse and could he eat it. The froth had not collapsed, and it did look rather pretty as slightly pink due to the red beans. Of course it was discarded, but began to wonder if even that could be used in some way. Desperate times and all that...

It was one of our famous female cooks who got herself into real trouble when she gave a recipe using dried red beans with nothing said about the initial fast boil. But doubt at that time whether anyone was aware there were such things as toxins in beans or that they needed to be first boiled at a high temperature rather than just simmered throughout. These toxins do not affect everyone, but one family was made very ill after following her recipe. The fault was found with the beans not being cooked correctly, and this ended up with the cook being successfully sued.
Since then we are all made aware that all beans should be fast boiled for 8 minutes before reducing the heat to a simmer and cooking until tender. Originally the advice was for only the red beans, but now - to be safe - best done with all dried and soaked pulses, other than those that require little or no soaking such as lentils. Always read the cooking instructions on the back of the pack, then you can't go wrong.

The first recipes today are suggestions of how to turn the ordinary into something more unusual. As with most dishes of this kind, the it is the flavoursome and interesting secondary - and relatively cheap - ingredients that help to pad out the dish, the main ingredient being usually the most expensive. For fun calling these "Fork Lift Food", as they are the type that can be just cut and eaten with a fork (or even the fingers) as a snack or with salad as a main course.

Because many of us cannot always spare time to cook from scratch each and every day, these recipes can also be frozen, and as a bonus - as most of us have microwaves - to save even more time, for once am giving this method of cooking. If preferring to use an oven, then cook the Fork Food at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for 30 minutes (or from frozen, 225C etc for 35 mins).

These 'Fork Lifts' are made using meats that have been bashed really thinly with a rolling pin between sheets of greaseproof paper or cling-film, thus making a little goe a long way. The idea is to sandwich these together with a tasty filling, cover with breadcrumbs and make them into flattish cakes. Toast the breadcrumbs before using and they will stay crisp in the microwave. If cooking the Fork Lifts in the oven, use fresh breadcrumbs.

toasted breadcrumbs:
2 oz (50g) unsalted butter
8 oz (225g) fresh white breadcrumbs
salt and pepper
Melt the butter, add the crumbs and season to taste. Spread a quarter over a microproof plate and cook on High for 2 mins. Stir to bring middle to sides then cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove, then repeat until all the crumbs have been toasted
Note: Once the butter, crumbs and seasoning have been mixed together, they could all be spread over a baking sheet and grilled/stirred until toasted.

This first Fork Lift is made using chicken breast and depending upon the size/weight of the breast usually we can get away with using two breasts, each sliced through horizontally to end up with the four pieces we need to start with.
Chicken Stack: serves 4 (F)
4 x 4 oz chicken breast (skin removed)
salt and pepper
3 oz (75g ) no-soak apricots, finely chopped
1 oz (25g) butter
3 oz (75g) mushrooms, finely chopped
4 - 6 tblsp sweet pickle (or mango chutney)
1 tsp finely grated orange rind
8 oz (225g ) toasted breadcrumbs
Cut each breast through horizontally, but not quite through and open out butterfly fashion. Flatten out to 9" x 4" (24 x 10cm) and season well. Cut each into three 3" x 4" strips.
Cover one slice with apricots, spread a second slice with a little butter and place this butter side down on top of the apricots, then top this with mushrooms, finally covering with the third piece of chicken. Tuck any overlapping ends in/round/or over.
Warm the pickle or chutney and brush this all over the chicken. Add the orange rind to the breadcrumbs and coat the Fork Lifts in this.
Microwave 2 at a time on High for 5 minutes.
To freeze: freeze uncooked, on a baking tray until solid. Then bag up, seal and label. Use within a month.
To cook from frozen: microwave on High for 7 minutes.

Bean and Sausage Stack: makes four
1 lb (500g) pork sausage meat
salt and pepper
4 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
1 x 440g (15oz) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
4 slices salami
4 tblsp mustard relish
8 oz (225g) toasted breadcrumbs
Divide the sausagemeat into four, roll out each on a floured board to 8" x 4" (20 x 10cm), and sprinkle over a little salt and pepper to taste. Cut each in half to make 2 x 4" squares.
Sprinkle each with the parsley, pressing this into the sausagemeat, then cover half the squares with half the beans (easier to manage if mashed slightly), then cover the beans with the salami. Top with remaining beans and finally with the rest of the sausage squares, pressing the edges lightly together to keep the filling intact.
Warm the relish and brush this all over the sausagemeat, then coat in the toasted crumbs.
Microwave 2 at a time for 6 minutes on High.
To freeze: as chicken recipe - above.
To cook from frozen: microwave at full power for 8 minutes.

This next recipe is a vegetarian 'cobbler' made with chickpeas, therefore a cheap dish to make. As an added bonus (do love to give bonuses) it can also be frozen.
If possible use 3 oz (75g) self raising wholewheat flour with 3 oz while self raising flour. This is slightly more nutritious than using all white flour, and also more filling (most 'brown' foods are more filling: brown flour, brown bread, brown pasta, brown rice.
This makes is a hearty casserole full of fibre. A perfect dish for cooler days.
Vegetarian 'Chobbler': serves 4 (V) (F)
6 oz (150g) self raising flour (see above)
pinch of salt
2 oz (50g) margarine or butter
3 fl oz (85ml) milk
sesame seeds
1 large onion, diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
4 carrots, fairly thinly sliced
1 tblsp sunflower oil
3 oz (75g) mushrooms, sliced
1 tsp dried mixed herbs (or two tsp fresh chopped)
half teaspoon Marmite
1 tblsp tomato puree or ketchup
salt and pepper
15 fl oz (425ml) water
400g (14oz) can (or home-cooked) chickpeas
2 tsp cornflour
2 tblsp cold water
chopped fresh parsley to garnish
First make the topping (cobblers) by sieving the flour/s and salt into a bowl. Add the chosen fat and rub this into the flour (if you wish you could also add a pinch of the dried herbs). Stir in enough milk until the dough forms a ball. Roll out onto a floured board to half an inch (1cm) thick. Cut into 1 1/2" (4cm) rounds. Sprinkle tops with sesame seeds then set aside.
Put the onions and carrots into a pan with the oil over low heat and saute for 2 minutes, then add the garlic. Cook for a further minute then stir in the mushrooms, herbs, Marmite, tomato puree, and water, add seasoning to taste. Bring to the boil, and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the chickpeas. Drain through a colander, reserving the liquid. Place the vegetables in a casserole dish.
Mix the cornflour with the water (this is called 'slaking'), then add the reserved liquid. Heat in a pan and bring to the boil, and when thickened pour this over the vegetables, then arrange the 'cobblers' overlapping, on top of the filling and around the edges of the dish leaving the centre cobbler free.
Bake for 30 minutes at 200C, 400F, gas 6 or until the topping is golden brown. Garnish with the chopped parsley.
To freeze: when cool, leave in the dish, overwrap, seal and label. Use within 3 months.
To serve: remove wrapping, cover dish with foil and reheat at same temperature for 20 minutes.

This next is a 'cheapie' that makes good use of left-overs from a roast. The recipe uses lamb, but cooked chicken could be used as this goes well with the other ingredients. If using beef you may wish to omit the cranberry and possibly use a mustard or sweet pickle relish instead.
It is always worth spending half an hour making a large batch of pancakes as (interleaved) when home-made are very inexpensive and they freeze so well, thawing almost immediately so with meat scraps and pancakes to hand, it takes very little time to prepare this dish. Much depends upon the size of the pancake as to how many the filling will 'fill', or for that matter, how much left-over meat you wish to use. So play this one by ear.
Fruity Lamb Pancakes: serves 6
ready-made pancakes
1 onion, finely chopped
1 oz (25g) butter
4 oz (100g) mushrooms sliced
1 tblsp flour
4 oz (100g) cranberry jelly
5 fl oz (150ml) stock
salt and pepper
8 oz (225g) cooked roast lamb, diced or minced
2 tblsp grated Parmesan cheese
fresh chopped mint (or parsley) to garnish
Fry the onion in the butter until softened, the raise the heat, add the mushrooms and fry for 2 more minutes.
Stir in the flour, cranberry jelly, stock, and lamb, adding seasoning to taste. Simmer for 5 minutes, then divide the filling between the pancakes and roll up.
Lay pancakes in a shallow, buttered heatproof dish, and sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top. Pop under a preheated grill to brown.
Serve with gravy and cranberry (or mint, or other) sauce. Garnish with the parsley.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chain Reaction - The Weakest Link

Was reading something about canned foods and the long shelf-life they have, so decided to check up on various web-sites to find out more. Generally the advice was all tins could be kept for at least 2 years after canning, and often well after the 'best-before' date. One site said that canned food will not be unsafe to eat, even after many years of storage, as long as the tin has not 'blown' or severely been damaged. Small dents are nothing to be concerned about as long as the tin itself has not split. Mention was given of tins being discovered in a ship that had sunk 100 years previously and the contents were still safe to eat. Possibly lost something by way of flavour, but safe none-the-less.

This was read in an old copy of Home and Freezer Digest:
"have discovered a can of salmon hidden away in my cupboard and not sure how long I've kept it - a couple of years at least. Is it still safe to eat?"
The reply being:
"Yes, indeed; as long as the can is undamaged you could carry on storing it for up to 20 years. A cool, dry cupboard will help keep canned food in good condition."

Have always known that canned fish had a 'shelf-life' of at least 6 years after canning, so even though nothing in my larder is more than a couple of years old (more like a couple of months as we used up most of our stocks prior to moving) a reader might find an old can lurking behind closed doors. Here am just saying what I read, and giving no suggestion of keeping canned food than any longer than you feel safe. But as now it has become common practice to throw all foods away when they have reached their b.b.dates, we should remember this is a very wasteful practice for they are still perfectly edible foods (unless signs show they are not) for months after. Anything still edible that is thrown away is the same as throwing money down the drain. The only 'dry goods' that I feel need using as fresh as possible are the dried pulses as the older they are the longer they take to cook, and after a few years of age may not even soften at all. On the other hand rice just about keeps for ever when properly stored.

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.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Easier When We Know How

Yesterday remembered that some many years ago the Family Circle magazine asked me to write for them, explaining how a family of four could live on £21 a week. The article ran to several pages, the lists were given of every food bought and every ingredient taken from the storecupboard. All meals for the full seven days (breakfast, lunch and the main meal of each day) were photographed and recipes given for all. It made quite a feature that proved so popular the magazine ran into four re-prints that month.

There have to be a few guidelines when it comes to foods we should be buying, whether on a budget or not. Nutrition comes first, treats come second, and only then if there is money left to buy or make them. But there is more to serving food than just to keep us alive, for ' a family that eats together stays together', and the more tempting the meals the more likely a family will wish to so. This is worth remembering, for TV snacks, pizzas nibbled while a child sits at the computer, or a single micro-waved meal eaten alone will never bring any feeling of 'togetherness' as a family. Even if students live in digs sharing with others, it is still better if all can take turns at the cooking and eat together.
Of course there are very close families who do not eat together, because maybe they work shifts or the teenage ones 'have to go out' as they so often do at mealtimes (ending up eating pizzas or burgers albeit in the company of friends, but not the healthiest option). We should all try to encourage the family to sit down for a meal together at least once a week and, if the children are younger, every day if we can. A bonus being it is usually cheaper if we cook the once, rather than preparing different meals at different times of the day.

When times are hard, food is often the only comfort. The good news being that 'comfort food' (by this I don't mean stuffing our faces with bars of chocolate) can be some of the cheapest dishes we can make. Just think of a casserole (needn't contain much meat) with lots of gravy and dumplings, or a steamed pudding with custard. Food that sticks to our ribs and leaves us feeling a 'glow' inside. And what is better than that? Even a bowl of porridge will give this feeling and as oats not only help to lower the cholesterol, they also contain something that gives us an 'on top of the world' feeling. What I call a double bonus. This 'feel-good' factor is in various foods - oats are one, peppers another. Presumably others as well although I don't know what they are - yet. Porridge is also extremely cheap to make. Extremely! A triple bonus?

There are many people who wish to reduce their food budget but do not feel inclined to cook more than they have to. This was something I came across when I had my cookery slot on Radio Leeds where one time I offered to give suggestions on how to cut costs - this to be done individually, in a person's home. Several people took me up on this and was in each case able to reduce their expenditure, but there was one lady who told me at the outset she had no intention of cooking but had to feed her husband and son, and have treats for her grandchildren when they called and she was finding it difficult to find the money.

There were very few things I could suggest other than to re-think her shopping. She had kindly allowed me to read through her check-out receipts so I knew what she bought. The men in her family appeared to want to wolf through mounds of sandwiches, and she said she had been buying 5 or 6 medium sliced loaves a week to make sarnies. My suggestion was to buy one less loaf, but all bread to be thin sliced bread (this was sold at the time and I would like to know why it still isn't), as this way she would gain enough extra slices to equal a medium loaf, which she then wouldn't have to buy.
Another thing was minced beef. This was bought from the supermarket and she complained there was always too much in a pack - but never enough in a smaller pack. So, as many of us do, ended up by using all the meat once the pack was opened. She also bought the cheapest beefburgers sold. One suggestion was to use the surplus meat in the pack to make her own burger, but on asking if she ever bought meat from a butcher she said she never had, but did pass by one on her way to the supermarket. This then led to me asking her to buy her next mince from the butcher but only the amount she really needed. Later she told me this really saved money and she also began to make her own beefburgers using butchers meat.

Here I should add that so often we always ask for 'a pound (or kilo)' of mince, diced stewing steak, liver etc, and only counting by numbers when it comes to chops, or chicken quarters....
No butcher will mind selling you 12, 11, 9, or 5 oz of anything if that is all you need. And we don't even have to think weights. Many is the time I have been so short of money that the only thing i could do was ask for '55p of minced beef please'. Butchers certainly are very used to calculations of this sort, and to them any sale is better than no sale.
We should also remember that butchers nearly always will give a bag of chicken carcases freely to those who ask, but given them a few days notice to allow them to have time to collect several for you. Sometimes you may find winglets are also in the bag, and once I found a drumstick.

Back to the checkout list. Chocolate biscuits being bought for when the grandchildren called. I suggested making biscuits, but shock, horror! No cooking please. Then suggested instead, buying the cheaper stores own-brand digestives and spreading the backs of these with the cheaper 'cooking' chocolate that melts easily (the dark and also orange-flavoured are really quite good) - for then there was VAT on choccie biccies, but no VAT on plain biscuits (this may still be the same). She did agree to try this and when I visited her a month later she was thrilled to bits. Melting chocolate was hardly cooking, and she really enjoyed spreading it on the biccies, and probably licking the spoon.

Another tip was re a non-food. She bought a huge amount of washing powder each month due to having to wash sheets daily (a medical problem), and so I suggested a quick soak then using half the recommended amount of powder, for the sheets were not really dirty, and see if this worked. It did, and she then tried reducing the amount of powder even more, ending up buying less than half the powder per month than previously.

There were one or two other 'tricks' that the lady took on board, and she certainly was able to lower her budget by several pounds over a month (and in those days a pound was worth more than it is today). Not only that, without any pressure from me, she discovered - after making some beefburgers - that she had suddenly found an interest in cooking, perhaps because she found this led to her being able to save even more money, and this alone makes the task more enjoyable.

For a couple or so years I did some 'teaching' at night-school. This again to do with cutting costs and each time students were given the 'Rule of Four' (mentioned yesterday) as their practical homework for the week, every one came back amazed at how well it had worked and how much they had managed to save. So this would definitely be how I would make a start.

Having to work with a weekly budget does make it more difficult, but not impossible. Have been in that situation myself, and also there were two times when the money never got to my purse, the first due to B working away, so could only feed myself and three small children (at that time, later we had a fourth) on the food that was left in the house. By the end of the week it was beans on toast, beans on toast, and then just beans. But we survived. More often than not, even with B providing the dosh, had only enough money to feed spouse and kids, myself making do by eating any leftovers on the plates. So I do know what it is like to be 'poor', and also to understand how difficult things can be when we know little about cooking. As was the case then with me. Had I known more, would have been able to manage far more easily and serve up better and healthier food. Thankfully these dark days did not last forever, and eventually (due again to running out of money, but this time my fault) really had to teach myself to cook, trying to struggle through a whole month without the family realising how naughty I had been re the finances (blame Christmas and several birthdays), and we all know where that has led to.

Have said this before, but worth saying again. When working from dawn until dusk trying to make just about every food imaginable, and completely exhausted because of it, remember so well that evening when - after serving a three-course meal (because it is cheaper to do this than serve two courses), one child said to me "mum, why are our meals so much better now?" My reply was "because I have been thinking more about it" - or words to that effect. Before then the money was not that short, the produce used was of good quality, at that time I was not into cost-cutting, but my cookery skills were sadly lacking. I was really only into making cakes.

The food served during that month were based on foods in stores (we did have a chest freezer and enough canned foods and dry goods to keep me going), but it was learning the best way to throw them together that I needed to learn, and also how to make something when I had run out. If I couldn't grow rice, then at least I could make pasta from scratch. I don't think anyone realised that a month of good eating had gone by with me having to scavenge almost every bit of food from somewhere. To the family it was eating meals as normal, but just better meals.

Does this mean my cooking beforehand was abysmal? I don't think it was. But a well-cooked meal, however basic and cheap the ingredients, that has thought behind it, proves that miracles can sometimes work. And this is something we should all aim to do. Think a bit more about what we cook, who we cook for, and even if (sometimes) we need to cook at all. Try to avoid getting into the rut of cooking the same meals, even if they are favourites. There are some gorgeous dishes around then are really inexpensive to make and all worth at least one try.

A good way to help cut costs is to bring the family in onto the act. Anyone into teenage years will almost certainly know about the credit crunch and how it affects the household budget. Find cost-cutting recipes that you would like to try (preferably with photographs) and then let the family choose which ones they would like you to make. If there are picky members of the family, turn it into a game. Draw up an award system where everyone has a card and can give points regarding taste, texture, flavour and what they particularly like or dislike about a dish. This can often get the small fry at least giving a nibble to a vegetable that they would normally avoid at all costs.

One way to fill our storecupboards with food we cannot normally afford is to ask for them as a birthday gift. It could be a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, or something very useful as a small bottle of brandy, rum or kirsch. Or perhaps a bottle of cooking sherry for a few drops of booze can give a cheapo meal a really luxurious flavour. We can also make our own orange liqueur using brandy, orange peel and sugar, and this would be far less expensive than to buy something like 'Cointreau'. One thing can lead to another, and asking for what we want in the culinary line (this could also be kitchen appliances) will give us a chance to make our working conditions easier, giving us 'free' food to harvest, and improving the flavour of almost everything we make.

Even the smallest steps we take to cut costs, will lead to further steps, and in a very short time we will have saved more than we could possibly expect. All we have to do is take that first step.
Most of you already have. Hope that others who have not will make a start.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

To Have or Have Not?

Cutting down the amount we eat is another way to spend less. We really do eat more than we need, for if we were able to still end up healthy when living on wartime rations, then we could still do so now. Yet having to exist on these, how many of us could cope? Or even be prepared to try.

On the other hand, wartime rations could appear to be a feast for some families. "Round About a Pound a Week" and "Working Class Wives" are two books that I have that give details of how many families lived in London in the early part of the 20th Century. Everything that was bought each week was written down, and despite practically starving, money was still spent on insurances to cover funeral expenses (for many children died due to malnutrion), and cleaning products, for however hungry they were, every woman had great pride in keeping her house looking immaculate (certainly from the outside).

Fresh milk was almost unobtainable in London in those days (during the summer it went sour before it got delivered to each door) so often the only milk was the canned condensed. A lot of bread was eaten, lard or a bit of marg bought to spread on the bread; few vegetables, and any meat was given to the man of the house.

Yet one woman managed to feed her children on a pittance. Having only the same income as the other mothers, she served up excellent food and the children were all bright eyed and bushy tailed. This was due to the fact that before marriage she had worked in the kitchen of a big house and learned how to make meals using cheap but good ingredients. So what this boils down to is the more knowledge we can gain when it comes to cooking and nutrition, the less money we need to spend to keep the family well fed.

Whatever budget we start with (and it is easier the more money we have), even with a small budget we should be able to save a few pennies (and over time pennies mount up) each week by deliberately aiming to spend less. My 'rule of four' (to be found in the earliest postings) really does work well. Briefly this suggests dividing the budget into four, then spending each quarter on each of the four 'food divisions' - meat/fish; fruit/vegetables; dairy; and finally the groceries. It is amazing how we then begin to concentrate our mind when we find we have (say) £6 to spend on meat/fish for a week. Slap me down if you must, but this is where - on a very low starting budget - a cheap chicken comes into its own.

But there are other cheap meats. Chicken livers are really inexpensive and very quick to cook. Lambs liver is another good choice. Minced meat (pref minced steak ), is another options, and buy a little of the best for mince is meat that will stretch to infinity when we know how. If a fish counter is prepared to sell fish scraps "for the cat please", then myself admit to using these to make fish pies for adult to munch through. One tip is to buy those cheapo cans of sardines (around 35p each) to use as a 'fish course' during the week. Ideally spend just a little less on each of the first three sections, then put the money saved in a pot.

With the fruit/veg 'allowance', this too can go further than we expect. Go for second grade (usually imperfectly shaped, nothing wrong with them), or any on offer. If vegetables such as lettuces, cucumbers, celery, cauliflower... are sold by unit price, not by weight, then if possible weigh them before you buy, often holding one in one hand and one in another is as good a way to find out which is heavier. Don't go by size, go by weight. A large lettuce may be full of air trapped between its leaves, so why pay for air? A firm lettuce will look smaller but weigh more.

More money can be saved if we are prepared to bring more self-sufficiency into the kitchen, as buying Channel Island milk (the only milk with visible cream) means the cream can be syphoned off to be used as single cream, or collected over a few days, chilled and 'churned' (via a blender) into butter. This leaves 'buttermilk', another 'freebie', and the milk left in the bottle, being so rich, can be watered back down to over a pint, making a version of the semi or skimmed milk (depending upon how much water is added) that we buy today. All this for only a few pence more than we would pay for a pint of skimmed milk. We can also make our own yogurt.

Groceries probably take all the allowance, and maybe some of the money saved from the previous purchases may be needed to buy what is wanted. But always keep those few pennies back. Each week.

There is much we can make when we begin home-cooking, and normally we do only enough to control the budget. There is no point in slaving away if we don't need to. On the other hand, knowing that we could make just about everything that will keep our family happy will give ourselves a life-belt to cling to, knowing that when things get hard (as is happening so often during this credit crunch) we will still be able to cope.

The one thing about home-cooking is that it is still fairly thin on the ground. So many people prefer to eat the ready-meals, or buy the more expensive 'quick-to-cook' foods. As a reader commented, youngsters love to visit her house so they can eat home-cooked food.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Take An Eggcup...

When it comes to saving money by way of home-cooking, in some ways youth has its advantages - such as endless energy - so cooking from scratch is a manageable chore. The older we are the more difficult things can be. Remember myself starting to teach myself how to cook and I was around 40 even then, but seemed to cook for four teenagers; dug, planted and harvested veggies and fruit from the garden; any spare hours my right arm was whizzing back and forth on a knitting machine, and hours spent at the sewing machine, making knitwear for all and shirts, skirts and dresses for the girls. Even seemed to find time to make sundry things to sell in craftshops. Now I find it difficult to feel inspired to make anything at all.
This does not mean I cannot still sit at a table and use the sewing machine. Also can sit at a table and paint pictures. Could sit in the garden at a table and pot up seedlings (or even do this indoors) and like I do now, sit at a table and prepare the food for baking and meals. I could even sit and read books.
Trouble is, much of the time is spent sitting and watching TV, so must make a start and use my spare time (and what a lot of that I have these days) more efficiently. Starting today.

Lord Kitchener's famous poster of the man pointing a finger at us with the words "Your Country Needs You" was meant to encourage men to sign up and fight, but it would work equally well today, and here I am thinking about women 'signing up to home-cook'.

Eggcupfuls of a wide variety of produce really are enough to make a meal such as a 'full-on' omelette, or cooked and added to rice when making a risotto. Alternatively use to make a soup, stir-fry, or even a vegetarian pie.

Another different way to make a light meal is not to use a tortilla to fold around the filling (they call these 'wraps'), but to use an outer, crisp iceberg lettuce leaf. Some leaves are almost the size of a tortilla, and - if the leaves are small - then use two leaves. Makes for a healthy snack or packed lunch, and the fillings can be varied.
One suggestion would be to lay slices of cooked chicken on a lettuce leaf, top with a slice of ham, maybe some other filling on top (sandwich spread type), and then roll the lot up like a Swiss Roll. Depending upon the filling, after wrapping and chilling, this will slice up to make attractive looking discs suitable for serving as canapes.

When slicing two tomatoes for my mid-day sarnie, tried slicing them in different directions. With one I placed the round tomato on its side and managed to get five slices from it. The second tomato (exactly the same size as the first) was placed with the stem end facing down, and - as has happened before - was able be to cut giving two extra slices. Possibly this is because the stem end is flatter, so makes the tomato easier to handle.
As the first and last slices always tend to be skin on one side and rounded with it, these often slide out of a sarnie. Well mine do. So tend to save these, put them in the fridge for a couple of days, adding other 'ends' (I eat tomatoes every day) and then chop these finely and add to bolognaise or other tomato based sauce or soup. Very finely chopped end-of-tomato, added to little finely chopped gherkin, and bound with some mayonnaise (better still salad cream) will make a good 'sandwich spread'. Other chopped veggies and herbs could also be included.

When wishing to make my own version of a favourite manufactured product, I always read the ingredients printed on the label - the one that comes first has the highest percentage, and the others follow in deceasing order - then chances are my version is not a million miles away from the original. Never quite the same, although have to admit (modestly) very occasionally better.

It was once said that a famous brand of Tomato Soup included peaches to help with the flavour. As not having bought it in years, do not know if this is shown on the label, and maybe this was just a myth, but anyone who makes their own tomato soup could try blending in a little fresh or canned peach to find out if it improves the taste or not.

Also WILL be purchasing 3 of those £2 chickens. Just think of the savings: for a cost of £6 this will give me 6 chicken thighs, 6 chicken drumsticks, 6 chicken breasts, 6 chicken fillets cut from the breasts, 6 chicken wings and three carcases to make stock that will probably give me about 12 oz - 1 lb cooked chicken flesh when picked from the bones.
There will be at least 2 pints (after reduction) of rich chicken stock, and a small pot of chicken fat (scooped from the top of the set stock - and I include chicken skin when making the stock to get more fat) that can be used for frying. As with lard, chicken fat will reach a higher temperature than most fats, so very useful when frying as the food then will be sealed almost instantly and not absorb as much fat as when at a lower temperature.

Ideally, when it comes to the working cost of above chickens, we need to ask ourselves how many meals can we make out of them. Normally 100g of protein (that is the weight of meat without bone) is more than enough per serving, but we can get away with less - especially if we take in protein in other forms during the day (eggs, milk, pulses etc) - so when it comes to casseroles, curries, or pies, chicken drumsticks and thighs will go a long way. In the same way, one chicken breast can be split in half and beaten thinly to make two escalopes (one per person), these cook rapidly so easy on the fuel. Or the 'escalopes' could be folded over a stuffing, then egg and crumbed to make Chicken Kievs. And because Kievs are 'plumped up breasts' visually they look more enticing. Ask any man.

The wings can be marinaded and baked to give a glazed coating (great eaten with salads etc). So with the flesh taken from the carcase (good for pies), we are looking at more than 24 servings from the 3 birds (this works out at 40p a head) and we can feed a lot more when we use the stock as a base for soup. The more meals we can make from the bird/s, the cheaper each portion of chicken per serving will cost.

Have always found that the meat sold from a good butcher is far and away more flavoursome than any sold in a supermarket, so worth paying top dollar for the extra quality, but to make it work for the money it has to be extended as far as possible. The more flavour the meat has the less we need to use when making casseroles, so prefer always to buy the cheaper cuts of quality stewing meat.

The one exception is chicken. A free range may have slightly more flavour (but even this is open to debate), and it is because of this - and purely for economy, knowing there the meal would not be less because of it - usually buy the cheapest (and heaviest).
The thing about chicken is that it has little flavour at all, and we can improve a dish no end by including flavour in other ways. Maybe serving the meat with stuffing balls, or spoons of cranberry jelly. We can stuff herbs, mushrooms and/or garlic between the skin and flesh of the bird before cooking, and likewise fill the body cavity with lemon shells and more herbs. We can even brush honey over the surface of the skin before roasting, or sprinkle it with a Cajun or similar spice. There is no need for a chicken to lack flavour, and it works out far cheaper and we end up with more flavour if we are the ones that add it.

In the same way, can never really notice the difference between the flavour of free-range eggs and battery laid ones. Unless perhaps when eating them plain boiled. With me it is the colour of the yolks that has more importance. The free range always seeming paler and therefore not that attractive. The colour of the yolks are important when it comes to making things like hard-boiled eggs, certainly lemon pie and lemon curd, the yellower the yolks the better.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Measure Twice, Cut Once"...

We have to try to turn home-cooking into a really enjoyable thing to do. It might be that a mother who stays at home with her small children really does find that 'going shopping' at least gets her out of the house. On the other hand, coping with small children racing round a store is enough to turn a young girls hair grey before her time, so shopping for food might be better done on-line, having the goods delivered to the door at a time convenient (perhaps after the children have gone to bed, or before if they enjoy helping to unpack). Time spent shopping can then be spent going to the park to have a good run around to build up an appetite for supper.

Likewise a person who works full time does not have the time or inclination to 'do a good shop'. More often than not foods are pulled at random from the shelves, ready-meals playing a leading role, and any foods that are quick to prepare chosen above all others. Again, ordering on-line means that time is saved that can be used to prepare a 'proper meal'.
Take advantage of home-deliveries, for these can often give us the time we need to cook when otherwise we would just have opened packages bought on the way home. Whether working or not, we are limited to the amount a trolley holds, and a large order - once every blue moon - is the quickest and easiest way to get the larder stocked up. Myself have done this more than once, and find that as I pay by credit card (getting the timing right) this can give me up to five weeks to pay for the purchases before interest is added. Assuming a family might spend £100 a week on food, this mean we could spend up to £500 in one go without noticing any difference in the budget at the end of the month (as long as we buy no more during that period). Spend £400 online and this leaves £100 to 'top up' the fresh (milk, bread, fruit and veg). Usually when buying more at any one time this widens our horizons when it comes to cooking, and the more choice of food we have the less - overall - the dishes will cost.

Here I am not encouraging anyone to spend, spend, spend. Quite the reverse, but one large, carefully thought out 'splurge' (broken down as a weekly expense should work out no more than normal and can often be less) will be the start of a life-time of economy eating that is gastronomically good.

Many supermarkets sell vouchers that can be exchanged for goods and these make a great gift for someone who is trying to make ends meet. Maybe given as an early Christmas present to allow for those treats that might normally have not been affordable, or a birthday gift for someone who is wanting to cook economically but doesn't yet have the back-up of a full larder. One thing to be cautious about - more and more vouchers have gone 'missing' when posted. Not due to the strike, but there are some people who seem to be able to sniff out vouchers (and particularly paper money) when sent through the post. Maybe it is a birthday card that feels slightly thicker than it should, perhaps some post is held against a very strong light so that the contents can be seen. Whatever, it is always best to type the label for a letter that has enclosed vouchers, send a cheque instead of cash, use a brown envelope instead of the correct white one (even if the envelope is too large compared to the card), and make it look as official as possible, then it will probably be left alone.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Making Sense of it All

(referring to a series called 'Economy Gastronomy') Well, either I am living on another planet, or there really ARE people out there who spend £400 a week feeding a family of five. Some things didn't seem to ring true. Despite most of the families living on ready-meals, the tables piled with food that had been bought during a week showed plenty of vegetables, yet the mothers never seemed to cook anything at all even these.

However the idea behind the series is sound, and in each case proved how much money an be saved once we begin to cook meals instead of buy the ready prepared. Even so, the amount that was allowed to be spent was way above what it could be, and for those striving to manage on far less, this was not much help.

In the programme there are three pointers when it comes to cutting costs.
First work out how much is normally spent. Then try to reduce it.
Secondly plan the meals for the coming week, make a list of what is needed then buy only this AND NOTHING ELSE.
Thirdly cook a large amount of a 'basic' - such as mince, casseroled beef etc, enough overall to make 15 portions, and then use this in different dishes over 3 days.

The first point I firmly agree with (having already said this many times since this blog was started).
The second point I am not so sure about. True, making a menu then sticking to it does keep us from buying the unnecessaries, but then we might be missing out on a really good offer. My way is to keep options open and first see what meat/fish is at the best price and work the menu round these. Even more 'sensible' (you may think it is not) is to build up stores when at a good price and plan meals around what we have in our larder and fridge/freezers (as mentioned yesterday). Maybe this works best for me as I have always decided what will be served for supper, usually only on the day itself, and even then often change my mind as the hours go by. With a set menu already fixed in my mind (and this I sometimes do when we have guests), this is slightly more boring for me as I like to experiment a bit. But then am not out at work, so have the time to spare.

The third point - cooking a bulk amount of (say) mince. Even that has been covered before in this blog and if you look up the recipe for "magic mince" (find this in the beef recipes towards the end of March this year), you will see it gives similar suggestions. While not a bad idea to turn it into three different dishes, feel that it might be better to just make one that week then freeze the cooked mince in separate containers and use these another week in what ever way we wish.

The episodes that I've seen so far seem a bit strange in the way that they use quite expensive ingredients when they don't need to. Artichokes went into a macaroni cheese, and half a bottle of plonk went into one of the meat dishes. Perhaps the point being made was that they could still afford to do this even after reducing their food bill by over £100 a week, and maybe this is their way of proving what I keep saying - we can reduce our food budget and still manage to eat well.
Where we differ is the food budget we have to play with. Even after saving the 'guinea pigs' such a lot of money, the folks in the prog. still had enough left to spend in a week than many have to spend in a month. Or as near as dammit.

The one thing that I thought was good was the way they made a meal to serve to guests from 'only what was left in the cupboards' , but disappointed that after the menu was decided they then allowed a further £2.50 per head to buy missing ingredients. For it is not that difficult to make a three course meal of some quality for only £2.50 a head in the first place, and how convenient that there was a joint or chicken in the fridge that had already been bought and could be used as the base of the meal. It would have been more useful if they had not had the extra money and 'made do' with only what they had.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

'Bringing Home the Bacon'

For anyone wishing to save money, it is always worth building up stores and then think of these as our own personal 'shop'. It is important to think this way, for instead of pushing a trolley around a supermarket, if we now take a basket and fill it with items from our own stores to make the dish of the day (and other culinary delights), the sense of 'shopping' is still there (if that is what you enjoy), but without the hassle and going through a checkout. Also there is no way we can get tempted to buy something else.

True, from time to time we do need to go further afield to replace the milk, butter, eggs, and salads (possibly bread if we don't make it ourselves), but simpler (and usually cheaper) to get another member of the family to purchase the necessary, for this keeps the tempting 'offers' and BOGOFS out of our sight, and if they succumb to temptation, at least we can say they have to pay for these themselves as "I didn't ask you to bring them".

Buying in bulk does cost more, but then what has been bought can - and should - last a very long time. My last bulk buy from the butcher was the week we moved here and after two and a half months only half (if that) has been used. For two of us the meat bought should keep us going for up to 6 months, so it shouldn't be difficult to save the money ready for the next bulk purchase.

It seems to make more sense (to me) to buy an assortment of meats in one go rather than a weekly joint, a few chops and some mince. Like supermarkets, butchers have 'offers' and it is worth taking advantage of any going. My personal bulk-buy consisted of a few pounds of minced steak and a slightly lesser amount of minced pork, plus a couple of pounds of stewing beef, two lamb shanks, a dozen or so large pork sausages, some lambs liver, two chickens, and four large slices of very thin rump steak. The largest single item was a piece of silverside. All these gave me the chance to serve a wide variety of dishes anytime I wish. The silverside was the only piece of meat close to a 'joint', and after slow-roasting and chilling it was sliced and frozen for sandwiches and to add to a Cold Meat Platter - with some slices left thick enough to be reheated in gravy to serve with potatoes, carrots and sprouts as a 'proper roast beef meal' once or twice over the weeks.

After getting the meat home it was divided into smaller portions, with a good handful of mince going into each small bag, and this was enough for two when making a chilli con carne, spag bol, Cottage Pie, for it is worth 'stretching' the meat by adding extra vegetables. The sausages were wrapped in pairs so that a whole 'bunch' did not have to be thawed when needed. Liver also wrapped a few slices at a time, and the shanks frozen separately.
The raw chickens were jointed and thighs, breasts and drumsticks each wrapped and frozen separately. The fillet strips from the back of each breast were chopped and bagged up and frozen for a later casserole or curry. The winglets and carcases went into the stockpot with a carrot, piece of celery, an onion and a couple of bay leaves, and water to cover. Simmered slowly for a couple or so hours this turned into good stock leaving plenty more flesh to pick off the bones to make another dish. After reducing the stock, this was frozen in small tubs.

When storing, whether on open shelves or in a cupboard, it is best to keep together ingredients that work together. By this I mean keep all raising agents, flour, dried fruits and other cake ingredients in one cupboard. Keep packs of assorted rice and pasta together in another. Line up the jars/packets of assorted dried beans, peas, lentils, pearl barley, quinoa, and other grains that form the carbohydrate part of a meal and store these together. Sauces, stock cubes, gravy mixes and spices can also form another collection. This way few things get pushed to the back of a cupboard and forgotten about and usually we don't need to spend a lot of time looking for things, we can usually remember where they are.

It costs very little (per week) to build up a good storecupboard, especially when buying only one or two products at a time. But buy something more to put on the shelves each time you shop and keep doing it until you have all you need. Once you get to this stage you will find you can stop shopping altogether for quite a long time.

What does 'lift' an economy dish is the addition of something like fresh herbs, freshly grated Parmesan, a dash of wine in the gravy, the subtle introduction of a spice or three. These may seem expensive to buy, but when thinking thrift we then grow the herbs from seeds. But if not wishing to wait, then bought plants once transplanted into larger pots (or in the ground) will grow into much larger plants. Its a bit like planting a penny and then picking a pound (£).

Buy Parmesan by the block and grate as needed. A little goes a very long way and the ends of Cheddar cheese that has been left to go hard can also be grated as a 'mock' Parmesan, or mixed with Parmesan to make it go further.

When opening a bottle of wine freeze some in ice cubes to add to a gravy or casserole. Understand that when the price of a bottle is divided by 75 the answer is usually the price of a dessertspoonful. So wine on offer at £3 a bottle works out at 4p the spoon - lets say 10p for a tablespoon of wine. This sort of brings it down to size doesn't it? Worth freezing a couple of cubes at a time.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

:Lost Your Bottle?

Many 'leftovers' can be 'deliberate', in that extra is cooked a day (or two) previously to use in another dish. My name for leftovers is 'roll-over food', and when I use part of one uncooked ingredient in one dish and the rest in another, this I call 'jig-saw' cookery - a very economical way to cook.
Here are a few 'jig-saw' ideas:
Eggs: use yolks in one dish, whites in another.
Citrus fruit: use zest in one dish, juice in another.
Cauliflower: use florets in one dish as a vegetable, core and leaves in another (making soup).
Tomatoes: use caps and base chopped finely to add to home-made sandwich spread, inner slices for salads and sarnies.
Peas in Pods: shelled peas used as a vegetable, pea pods make soup.
Root vegetables: scrub clean and use peelings when making stock, use the rest in the normal way.
Potatoes: microwave potatoes in their skins. Use the flesh to make mashed potatoes and keep the cooked skins in the freezer to stuff for another dish, or to brush with oil cut into wedges and 'roast' in the oven to use as 'dippers' when eating hummus etc.
Bread dough: make in the normal way and each time you bake a loaf save just a little back to roll out into cylinders to bake into breadsticks. The unbaked 'breadsticks' can be frozen to be thawed and baked later, or baked in the oven with the bread (for a shorter time).
Or bake a smaller loaf and use the remaining dough to make pizza bases - these can also be frozen uncooked.

A good time to make the Christmas Cake. Feeding it regularly with a bit of booze, come December it will be scrumptious.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Working Through...

As to storing oddments in the freezer. This can be tricky if something like a spare egg white, a bit of apple sauce, some chicken stock, or lemon juice. When frozen they can look very similar.
My favourite containers are small plastic tubs (yogurt/cream/creme fraiche etc) especially if they still have their lids. Using a marker pen (thick black letters), write on the container what it holds. Chest freezers are the worst, for all sorts of small 'left-overs' can get hidden in there. If I wish to freeze half a jar of curry sauce, then would freeze it in the jar, uncapped to allow for expansion, then the top put on once frozen. This way the label on the jar shows what is inside.

Really small amounts (tomato puree; chicken or beef stock; egg whites; lemon juice etc, ) are frozen in ice-cube trays (and not all at the same time), and when solid, the cubes are tipped into a labelled bag or container, and the trays can be used again for freezing something else.

When buying meat, especially minced or cubed, to keep the costs down I freeze a small amount at a time (usually enough for B and me). Putting my hand into a small plastic bag, a handful is grabbed, the bag then drawn back over the meat so it has never been handled, air pressed out and then put into a larger bag with others bags containing the same meat. Inside the bag is a piece of card on which is written "MINCED BEEF (or lamb/pork/chicken etc). Or the card might read "STEWING BEEF". Or "CHICKEN THIGHS". Keeping the contents in the one larger bag, no real labels need be used and the card can be used, and reused again and again. As can the larger bags. This way I can instantly find the chicken thighs, chicken drumsticks, chicken winglets, chicken livers, minced meats (beef, lamb, pork...), diced chicken, diced beef stewing meat, chunks of mutton, slices of lamb's liver. Believe me, a lot of meat (esp minced) look very much the same once frozen.

As to using surplus egg yolks, these could be used to make lemon curd or mayonnaise. Also yolks can be frozen, just stir them up with a little salt or sugar and freeze in egg cube trays. One cube is about equal to one yolk. They could then be used later in cooking, or added to a spare egg white (these can also be frozen) to make an omelette or scrambled eggs. Mix egg yolks with milk and flour to make pancakes or batters, and also yolks can be added when making burgers or fish cakes to help hold the mixture together. When frying anything that needs dipping first in flour, then in egg and then crumbs, use the egg yolks with a little milk for the 'eggy' part. An egg yolk added when making pastry will make it richer and suitable for fruit pies.