Sunday, September 05, 2010

Extreme Cost-Cutting

Today starts with two photos of yesterday's 'harvest' from containers in our garden. Now that food prices are rising, it is very important to realise that what can be very expensive to buy will often work out as cheap as chips when home-grown (not that chips are cheap these days).

The autumn fruiting raspberries (variety "Autumn Bliss") , planted this spring, are ripening by the day, and this is the amount picked yesterday - three days after the previous picking (roughly the same amount). We have now been gathering the berries for a while now, and still a lot more to come. Not bad for six canes, and almost certainly the amount of berries gathered - if bought - would have cost us just as much as did the canes. So in the first year they have paid for themselves. Not only that, new canes have been growing, so next year there should be an even larger crop. The flavour is wonderful, far better than any bought ones.

The tomatoes too are now cropping well, so have decided to grow more next year despite my initial disappointment. Loads more small ones to come, and one neglected plant suddenly has thrown off the four rather strange shaped tomatoes seen in the forefront. Slugs have eaten all the foliage and now attacking the fruit, so gathered them while still green. Bet this variety would never be sold in the shops. Again money-saving for it would cost more to buy the cherry tomatoes than the packet of seeds.

Did pick one courgette yesterday, as the second plant is now producing them rapidly, and several more 'babies' are growing. Even the third plant has now decided to bear at least one courgette.
The pack of courgette seeds was part of a pack of five different vegetable seeds that I was able to buy at sale price of £3 for the lot. Think these were Italian in origin.
This morning fished out the courgette packet and counted the seeds left the packet - and allowing for those sown - the packet originally held 70. To make it easy on myself, worked out that if the pack of seeds at 'sale price' worked out at 60p, then each seed cost less than 1p, and so far two of the seeds (now grown into plants) grew into plants) have now produced at least 10 courgettes EACH. Wasn't there an old saying that went something like "ten a penny?" Seems that even in 2012 this can still apply.

The main theme of today's blog is the 'feed four for £1' that I said yesterday could still be possible so decided to start working it out. Mind you, it has given me a few more grey hairs. Even so - as long as you are aware that quality flies out of the window and brands we might normally not wish to buy are used - then not quite as difficult as it first appeared.

Much depends on the foods we keep in store, and stores we need, for we cannot keep within a budget if we have to go out and buy something when we only need a little bit of it. Often it annoys me (and it shouldn't) when I see "Main Meals for a family for a week for only £30", then read down the list of all the ingredients used, and discover half of them have been costed as bits of this, and teaspoons of that... Start buying the list from scratch, and we would need to spend over £100 - or more!

So - like 'Daily Cook's Challenge', where the chefs work to a budget, and cost out every last little thing used, this has to be the only way to prove we CAN put a three course meal to feed a family for just £1. And - like DCC - a few items from the store cupboard are allowed 'free' (salt, pepper, spices, oil for shallow frying etc).

Working to a tight budget such as this is more an explanation of 'how to' rather than have the menu written in stone, for it all depends on what each of us have in our fridge, freezer, and cupboards (or grow on our windowsill or in our gardens - or even forage from hedgerows) at any one time.
What I CAN do is explain exactly how I would go about putting together a menu from what I discovered yesterday, and then explain how adaptions can be made - again according to the individual. Also important to remember that we can do much to pave the way by advance planning - in other words making the most of what we have at any one time - and drying/preserving/freezing it away to use later.
Home-made chicken stock is an example. It has been mentioned many times on this blog that most butchers will give away chicken carcases to their customers, these carcases (the more the better) make really good stock (even without the veggies) and often a few ounces of cooked meat can also be removed from the bones once the stock has been made. All quality and all 'free'.

Before I even start, there is no point in writing back to me saying "we don't wish to eat such cheap food", or we don't like spices", or "we have no garden". You want a meal for four that cost £1, so that is what you are getting. Make up your own version if you don't like it, but don't blame me if it costs more for all of us have to cut our coat according to our cloth, and what is easier for one will always be more difficult for another. Just take this as a guide to how to go about it, and maybe it will prove easier than you think.
And - as there are limits to my frugality - for the purpose of this exercise, am not counting the cost of fuel it takes to cook any of the dishes.

With a fixed amount of money to work with, begin with the cheaper courses. These will either be the starter or the pudding (often both can be incredibly cheap to make) so perhaps not surprising that my suggestion for the first course will be soup, and for want of anything better am suggesting the cauliflower soup mentioned the other day, that can be made from the outer leaves and core saved from a bought cauliflower.
This is where we should stop and have a think. Can we afford the milk for the soup? Probably if using dried milk. Do we need to use all the leaves? Not necessarily. Somes could be trimmed, the green bits going into the soup, the hard 'rib' bit in the middle than sliced and used in a main course Stir-Fry. Or would it be cheaper making a split pea soup flavoured with a stock cube? (Cheapest stock cubes work out 10p for a pack of 10 = 1p each). If we already have these ingredients in our store cupboard then we are more than half-way there.
Or we could make an almost free (and very nutritious) soup by using home-made chicken stock to which has been added chicken scraps taken from the carcase. Or blend the chicken scraps with a smidgen of butter (or marg), add a pinch of nutmeg, and serve 'Chicken Pate' with Melba Toast as a starter (see below for the price of bread).

To go with the soup we need bread/toast *well, don't NEED, but it makes it more filling). My first thought was to make Soda bread (keeping some back to use for a Bread and Butter Pudding), but after checking supermarket prices and seeing their cheapest bread is 30p for a full size loaf (white, brown, medium and thick sliced), that seems the most sensible buy (as no need then to use fuel to bake bread), and although not quality, should be perfectly good for Melba toast (with pate) or croutons ( with soup), and for Bread and Butter pudding. Still more than half a loaf left to use another day.
Another starter could be 'Piss en Lit au Lard' = this being a classic French dish made with dandelion leaves braised in a little bacon fat, with a few crispy bacon snippets. We have the dandelions in the garden, but couldn't find the price of a pack of cheap bacon (offcuts) in Tesco's website, so you have to price this for yourself.
So that's the starter sorted.

If planning a light main course, as substantial pudding might well be B & B now that we have a cheap loaf to play with. The cheapest eggs, and reconstituted milk powder adding essential protein, but a lighter dessert might be a Granita - frozen sweetened black (instant) coffee. Or maybe jelly (cheapest 19p - serves four) layered with some toasted breadcrumbs and maybe a bit of home-made yogurt.

My first choice for the main course was Falafel (made with split peas instead of chickpeas) and served with home-grown Mixed Salad Leaves (seeds free with a Lakeland Catalogue) and home-grown griddle cherry tomatoes still on the vine. Now that's class. Cheap it maybe but doesn't lack quality. But not everyone is 'growing their own' so other suggestions further on.

Here is the Falafel recipe - remembering that spices etc are allowed as 'freebies' from stores. Am also not costing the fresh mint as this too is home-grown. All I can say is - if you haven't any mint, then why didn't you grow some earlier this year? To pare costs down to the minimum, we really should put in some effort. The less money we wish to spend on a (home-cooked) meal, then we need to plan. Like January when we should be thinking about what veggies to grow. So next year start sowing those seeds, and always keep an eagle eye open for supermarket bargains (like those 4p cans of curry sauce that we now all know and love).

Falafel: to feed 4
8 oz (450g) yellow split peas
half onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed (opt)
6 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
half an egg
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
cayenne and salt and pepper to taste
Measure the split peas, then put into a bowl with twice the measure of water, cover and leave to soak for 24 hours, then drain well and mash. Mix in the remaining ingredients, then cover and chill for 2 hours before forming into small balls. Flatten each ball slightly, then fry in shallow oil on both sides until a rich brown colour.

According to what we have been able to buy cheaply, or what we grow - it might be cheaper to make a Chinese Stir-Fry, or vegetarian Indian curry. There are packs of noodles (which include a flavour sachet that can be used for something else - such as soup) for only 10p. Serve these noodles with the Stir-Fry. Make and serve chapatis or puris with the curry - instead of expensive rice.
Another reminder about that curry sauce that is occasionally on sale for 4p (yes FOUR PEE), for it has crossed my mind that if I served curried courgettes (my courgettes being 10 a penny) this could work out at less than 5p - and probably still serve four (sans chapatis).

Below is a selection of foods that are sold for really low price at Tesco - maybe other stores have even lower prices. Use one or more as a basis for a chosen dish.
Value Lasagne sheets: 30p for 250g
Value Spaghetti: 38p for 78g
Tesco Value Bread: brown and white - 30p for 800g
Oakhouse jelly: 19p pk
Noodles: 10p pack
Cheapest flour: 28p
Cheapest stock cubes: 10p pack of 10

Also made notes of how much certain products were per 100g (4 oz - this often being the amount used in a recipe). Some were canned (canned weight being more, but still cheap enough).
Cannellini beans: 16p per 100g.
Red Kidney beans: 8p per 100g
Oak Lane Baked Beans: 7p per 100g
Oak Lane Baked Beans and Sausages: 9p per 100g
Canned peas and Frozen peas: both 8p per 100g
Mushy peas: 6p per 100g

Was unable to price dried skimmed milk although different varieties/brands are on sale in the stores.

Just taking Baked Beans at the above price, cheap bread ( approx 1p per slice), and a 10p egg, quite a good breakfast of 'beans on toast with a poached egg on top' need cost no more than 20p. Yet if serving that for a 'main course' for four it would take up nearly all the £1 budget.

Maybe £1 is now far too little money to feed four, but by explaining how a filling first course, and a pudding - helps to satisfy our appetites, the main course need not be so substantial, and therefore cost little if we avoid using expensive protein. We could even serve just two courses (omitting either the starter or the pud), although it is a fact that three courses are more 'filling' even if small portions, than two larger ones.
It might well be the suggested dishes end up nutritionally unbalanced, and we don't eat our 'five a day', but on the other hand - this £1 experiment is not the sort of meal we would expect to serve every day.

The cheapest dishes will always be vegetarian, but - as mentioned above - we must not forget the chicken scraps that we can pick from a cooked carcass - these could be used in several of the dishes shown below, or be turned into chicken burgers (using breadcrumbs instead of potato), as well as chicken soup or pate.
So here are some 'cheap' suggestions for the main course.
Pan Fry Pizza
Pasta with home-made tomato or pesto sauce
Cassoulet (using cheap canned beans and sausages)

Dare say it would be possible to serve a three course meal using only 'foraged' ingredients (there for at no cost at all), and believe there are some folk out there who do like to live this way. Would that we could, but am now too old and lazy to do more than sow a few seeds and drag out my calculator to work out the costs, rather than actually making them..
However am planning to make some really inexpensive 'goodies', and will be taking a photo of each, so more cost-cutting to come.