Friday, March 26, 2010

The Cost of Convenience

Yesterday, brought in the large pot of mint that looked like dead twigs. Looking very closely, noticed a few green leaves just appearing at soil level, so carefully snipped off all the dead wood. hoping that some mint would eventually grow.. The pot was left on the kitchen table all last night, and this morning some shoots are now an inch high. Unbelievable. Plenty of them too.
The chives - brought in and now sitting on the conservatory windowsill - have also grown 6" during the last week.

Yesterday, weighed the home-cooked gammon - cannot remember the pre-cook weight but it was exactly 1kg after boiling. Checking Tesco prices for packs of cooked ham, these varied - but the better quality (as I hope mine can be classed) averaged around £1.36 per 100g. As 1 kg = 10 x 100g packs, the counter price for my ham would have been £13.60p. Cooking the reduced-price (£3.50) gammon has saved me over £10.
Plenty of packs of sliced gammon now in the freezer, plus several packs of sliced cooked chicken breast, and a plateful left after B's Cold Meat Platter (yesterday's supper) for him to make his sarnies.

As you know, some conveniences foods do end up in the Goode larder, and yesterday was interested in a feature in the daily paper re the pros and cons of some convenience foods.
Firstly we have to differentiate between convenience foods and junk foods. Junk foods do not save time, you cannot do much with them, they are not good for us, they waste money.
Convenience foods are so named because they ARE convenient, and not always additive loaded. With the fast-track living that seems to be done today, who can blame us for using SOME.

The feature was entitled "Are you just too idle to grate your own cheese?" followed by "the sales of so-called 'lazy foods' have risen by 14% in the last two years". Then came a selection of foods where much of the preparation had been done (see below), showing the (labour) time we were able to save by 'being idle', but also how much more we will be paying for this convenience. The critic's rating was also given, but have to say this I did not agree with " grating (Cheddar) is a grind, so this lazy option is good value", and "peeling and dicing onions is not hard work, but messy so these are a great idea".
Do I remember some years back that liquid egg was sold in packs "to save us having to crack eggs"? These were on sale only a very few weeks for there is only so much we are prepared to be lazy for.

Would appreciate hearing your thoughts on these:
ready peel garlic:
saves 3 minutes but costs 59p extra.
Rating: 6/10

grated cheddar:
saves five minutes but costs 46p extra.
Rating 8/10

prepared (bagged) lettuce:
saved 2 minutes but costs 70p extra.
Rating: 3/10

carrot batons:
saved 6 minutes but costs 40p extra.
Rating: 4/10

diced onion:
saved 5 minutes but costs 29p extra.
Rating: 8/10

prepared broccoli:
saved 3 minutes, costs 22p extra.
Rating: 7/10

ready-whipped (aerosol) cream:
saved 10 minutes, costs 66p extra.
Rating: 7/10

ready cut apple:
time saved only 30 seconds! Extra cost 34p.
Rating: 6/10

ready-cut orange:
time saved 30 seconds. Extra cost 21p.
Rating: 2/10

very lazy chillies (in jar):
time saved 15 minutes. Extra cost 39p.
Rating: 10/10

very lazy ginger (in jar):
(no comparative costing given)
Rating: 9/10

As far as I am concerned, a convenience food has to save me quite a lot of time before it is deemed worth buying. But not only that, often ingredients in some mixes - such as spices used in small amounts - would never stand the test of time if bought in larger quantities. How often do we have to throw away spices - albeit bought in small jars - that are used so rarely that the flavour has disappeared before we have used barely more than a teaspoonful? This to me is a great waste of money (although spices shaken over soil do act as a cat deterrent), and why I tend to favour using ready made curry sauces or curry pastes. But even this has not satisfied the cook in me (a step too far in my honest opinion), and believe that now have resolved some of this problem, but more about that another day.

The reason why most of us use custard powder instead of making custard from scratch is not just because it is far easier, but considering the price of eggs and cream, a darn sight cheaper. So that is a 'convenience' product that gets 10/10 from me.
It is when we move past the powder, onto the 'instant just-add-water' custard mix, or the canned custard, and onto the aerosol custard that then becomes that bit too convenient. But having said that, have found that canned custard freezes well, and doesn't separate when thawed. So this has its uses.
Same with instant potato. This lurks in the Goode larder because - once reconstituted (pref. with milk and butter) - this also freezes well. Far better than mash made the normal way.

Casserole mixes I find very useful, even with the knowledge this is not the correct way to make a good gravy base. If cooking for a family, and certainly for guests, it would be worth taking the time to make good cheffy-style casserole, but when cooking for one (Beloved and I tend to eat different meals), it sometimes seems too much work, especially when B would never notice the difference between home-made and a casserole mix (truly he wouldn't and if he did he would probably prefer the packet version).
Perhaps this is me just being lazy, but in the past have spent a whole day preparing a delectable meal for Beloved, only to find he scoffs the lot without a word then gets up and within minutes, makes toast or sarnies to snack on. At times like this feel that he doesn't appreciate (or even realises) the work that has gone into his meal, and until he does... I take short-cuts.

On the other hand, when there is no need to use a whole packet of casserole mix - for instance making just one serving - and only part is used, the remainder is left in the packet, folded tightly, then tucked into a sealed jam jar to be used another day (or maybe twice more).

Yes, sometimes I do use 2 minute microwave rice, but only occasionally. If a quick meal needs preparing, the speedier I can get this served the better. Microwave rice helps. The only other way to quick-cook rice is to soak it for several hours before cooking - but this needs advance planning. Not always possible, and having to wait a further 15 minutes to eat his meal can sometimes be too long for Beloved. In desperation he gets himself a slice of toast "to stave off hungerpangs", and then of course has lost his appetite to enjoy his meal as I hoped he would.

With Beloved now finding that some cooking is not that difficult, he feels the microwave rice would be a great help to him (which is why he brought in six packets yesterday "cheaper if you bought three at a time" he said). Often - when wishing to make a quick kedgeree, it is useful to use a microwave rice as the base (it doesn't have to be heated in the microwave, it also works heated in a pan), then just add spices, cooked fish, hardboiled eggs, parsley... Job done. Soon hope to report that Beloved has cooked himself a proper supper. Somehow doubt it will be THAT soon. One his confidence grows he might even cook a meal for ME.

Meanwhile will continue balancing the expense of some convenience foods, by making savings where I can be in control, such as grating oddments of cheese by hand (or in the food processor), slicing, dicing onions and carrots using my kitchen knife, and buying a whole iceberg lettuce and using it as and when (much longer shelf-life than the bagged leaves), BECAUSE, have just worked out that it would cost us £1.85p more if we buy only four ready prepareds: the onion, carrot, lettuce and grated cheese. The preparation time saved would be 18 minutes max. So, using time wisely and productively this means we can save (or are worth) at least 10p per minute.

How long does it takes us to drive to the supermarket, do a big shop, then return home? Working rapidly, using a shopping list, possibly one hour (if lucky). Maybe longer if driving some distance. At 10p a minute, that is £6 an hour PLUS cost of petrol. Far. far cheaper to order food on-line (all the offers are still there, some only for on-line orders), have it delivered, and use the time saved to do some home-cooking ( or grate cheese, chop onions etc.). As with any work, when we bring time and motion into it, we find more profit (or more savings) can be made. To a cook, a kitchen is a workplace, and despite the 'work' being unpaid, the better we 'manage', and the more efficient we can become, the easier things get and the more can be accomplished. In other words we can save a lot more money if we put our minds to it.

Remember that our time DOES have a value, so we should not waste it. Unless of course we wish. Slave-driver I am not. Unfortuntely (due to age) time I now do waste. So perhaps it has come to "don't do as I do, do as I say". You won't be sorry.

It was interesting watching recent programmes about bread. In two of them was the mention of the sliced white bread that we all so love to buy (Not!). The reason why it doesn't go stale as quickly as good bread is that the 'squidgy' loaves are cooked in steam. This makes the bread light, but when cooking it also absorbs moisture, and this is one way to keep the loaves a standard weight. The same amount of dough - cooked in a drier oven - after baking would weigh less (but taste a lot nicer).

Many foods are sold that contain more water than they should - we are all familiar with chicken flesh being pumped up with water. It was only the other Christmas that we bought a reasonably sixed plump frozen turkey, and after thawing it in a cold place (our porch), so much water had thawed out we were almost paddling in it. The bird itself looked shruken, with the skin like a deflated balloon, ending up with barely enough meat on it to feed four. We would have been better off with a cheaper chicken.

We can also see water flowing into the pan when frying cheap bacon. It froths and bubbles unlike pure fat that just 'melts'. Beef that has not been hung as long as it should also contains more liquid. Most of the time it seems we are paying for water when water is not what we wish to have.
"No added water" may be on a pack, but this doesn't mean flesh therein has been 'dry-cooked'. Often meat is 'steamed' to make it moister. Even my own gammon I prefer simmered in liquid rather than roasted in the oven. Leaving it to cool in the cooking liquid keeps it that little bit moister. Seen on packs of cooked meats "Added water" usually means by way of pumping in extra after cooking. Or so it seems to me.