Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Easier Than We Think

It is the 'home-cooked' meal that always wins over the ready-made, and the more we can do ourselves, the more money we will save - and quite often this can be a LOT of money. It is important to save this money, for this can then go towards buying the more expensive ingredients of which I will be talking about later in this posting. This way we will be spending no more money than in days past, but end up eating much better meals.

Start frugally by making our own chicken stock from the chicken carcases that most butchers will let their customers have for free, and seek out a fishmonger who will also let us have a bag of fish scraps for free. Money hasn't yet left our purses and already we have the makings for the base of several good restaurant quality meals.

Although we think of them as 'binnables', chefs often use only the stalks and peelings of mushrooms to make 'duxelles' (almost a mushroom pate) that can be used to flavour soups, or used as a stuffing between the meat and pastry when cooking Beef Wellington. Chefs realise the potential of all foods, and make the most of bones, trimmings and things domestic cooks usually discard. That is what good cooking is all about. Cost does not always come into it.

Baking our own bread (even the simple Soda bread), and making soups from chicken stock and the Holy Trinity (carrots, celery and onions) that we cooks always have in our kitchens because they have a good shelf-life as well as flavour, means that we have the making for a quality starter (or light lunch) at very low cost. Different stocks, different vegetables, the variety of soups we can make can be endless. But all very good. And very, very cheap.

It goes without saying that growing our own produce and serving it within minutes of picking will be way above what many top restaurants are able to manage - unless they have their own kitchen garden outside their kitchen, like Raymond Blanc. So again, we can have quality with very little outlay.
Even if we do not have room to grow things outdoors, much can be grown on windowsills, and if nothing else, fresh herbs should be always be grown.

So far, none of the frugal suggestions above has cost more than pennies, but already we could be getting together the Michelin star basics of good dishes. Now we need to consider the more expensive ingredients that often we wish we could afford to buy but rarely do. But there is a way. The Shirley way is to make sure you get given these as gifts. For this is yet another way we can gain quality for no extra outlay.

We really need very few expensive ingredients to cook excellent meals. My basics would be keeping extra virgin olive oil (blending a little with sunflower oil to make a home-made light olive oil for cooking purposes). A block of Parmesan cheese to grate as and when needed, and - of course - butter and cream. Booze is useful addition to the good cook's store cupboards, but again - taking my tip - ask for bottles of spirits and a box of both red and white wine (even the olive oil) to be given you as presents. Why spend money when you can persuade someone else to splash their cash!

We come now to what some might call the expensive side of good cooking - the meats, fish and poultry. Despite these being on sale in the supermarket at 'affordable' prices, quality it 'aint. Supermarkets are realising that their customers are aware that the longer meat is hung the better flavour it has, and demanding this, so this too is available for a higher price. But 'well-hung meat' does not necessarily mean it was top quality in the first place. All too often farmers sell their cattle in bulk for the supermarket trade, where the 'job lot' can contain quite a number of animals that are - to put it nicely - not what a good butcher would choose. So unless the pack gives enough information, we might not be getting our money's worth.
On the other hand, a good local butcher tends to buy locally produced meat so are more aware of how it is reared.

The other week mentioned buying meat on offer from an on-line company (Donald Russell), and this has made me realise the difference really good meat can make to a meal. As a meat eater, my Beloved thinks he has died and gone to heaven. To those who think - as a cost-cutter - my sights were set too high for readers of this blog, just recall the month of January where my challenge was to use the foods we had in store and stay away from the supermarkets. Allowing myself £10 a week for survival rations (eggs, milk etc) and not needing to spend any of it at all, this alone saved £40, which paid for the meat (with money left over) so I like to think of this as yet another 'freebie'. By making 'deliberate' savings, we are now - without further cost - able to eat like kings. Almost in the Nigella Lawson league. Perhaps not yet caviar, but getting there.

Said before, and will no doubt this will say again, and again (for this has great importance in the Goode kitchen), when it come to well-hung quality meat the flavour is so intense that a little goes a long way, and when it comes to casseroles - where all the flavour stays in the gravy - then we can get away with using less meat than a recipe might state. This means because it goes further, what might seem moderately expensive in the first place, actually isn't.
As you know, we Goodes cannot afford to pay full whack for on-line meat and will probably never be able to afford paying top price for sirloins and beef fillets, veal and venison, but certainly the cheaper cuts (for braising and stewing) being less expensive in the first place, packed with flavour, and almost impossible to ruin when cooking, these - when on offer - would be my first choice and make no mistake about it - offers like these are never missed.

Although butcher's meat can be excellent, there are advantages to buying meat that has been professionally frozen at far lower temperatures than our own freezers can reach. Thawed out slowly overnight in the fridge - the meat still in its unopened vacuum pack - this will be far superior in texture than meat we freeze ourselves. Also the packs can stay on the fridge shelf for a few days before being cooked (as long as the pack remains unopened), whereas home-frozen meat is best cooked within hours of thawing.

Whichever method of freezing - meat should always thawed slowly in the fridge. Thawing at room temperature, any liquid in the liquid rapidly flows out leaving the flesh rather dry and having less flavour. Incidentally, learned the other day (TV prog) that although it looks as though it is, the red liquid that drips from meat before - or after cooking rare - is not blood (that was drained off when the beast was killed), cannot recall what they said it was, but lets call it 'juices'.

Due to the credit crunch, more and more people are 'dining in', and younger folk are finding it fun to entertain, and when it comes to giving wedding (or other anniversary) presents it is worth forgetting the flowers, cutlery and electric toasters. Instead give what people REALLY need, and what better gift could a budding (or experienced cook) receive than pots of (home-grown) assorted herbs, Or arrange to have a delivery of quality frozen meat or fish (or both) sent to the newly weds (once you know their preference and making sure they do have a freezer in which to put it). They will be eternally grateful - as will their future guests. Alternatively vouchers to purchase on-line meat and fish can be bought, so an order can be placed later.

Was going to suggest as a gift a box of assorted wines, but as most guests tend to bring a bottle anyway, why not serve theirs? At least it keeps the cost of the meal down. If teir wine is not as good as you would have liked to serve, then that's hardly your fault. Or is that a step too far in meanness? Believe me, you want mean? You haven't seen anything yet.

You may feel that a gift of home-grown herbs is not enough a present when everyone else is forking out loadsa money. But time and effort has gone into growing the herbs (we expect to pay for this when someone else has done it), and after all - it is the thought that counts. How many of us would prefer a gift that we really do want or find useful, than one that cost a lot more that ends up in the back of a cupboard and never used at all? If not a gardener, than a flourishing bay tree in a pot is as good a gift as any to a cook.

It is said that bay trees are tender and should be grown in a frost-free part of the garden, perhaps best grown in a pot so they could be brought into the porch during the winter. Well, unfortunately the one given to us as a house-warming present got neglected, and only the other day went to take a peek at it, yet despite it being against a north-facing wall of the conservatory, and no doubt the compost frozen solid (the water in the bucket next to it certainly was), it still appears to be thriving despite the snow and heavy frosts we have been having. Perhaps we have been lucky, or the bay tree is a hardier plant than we realise.