Thursday, February 02, 2012

Counting The Cost

Deciding that I would - within a couple of weeks - need to order a SMALL amount of groceries on-line to be delivered, began writing down what was really needed. Very, VERY soon had filled one side of the back of a Christmas card (saves using 'fresh' paper), and within minutes had filled another. Very little written was what was essential...'but while I'm ordering' I thought.
Thankfully, my list has not yet been transferred to the store's website, so hope I'll have enough self-control to cross off half the order (and more) before it gets to that stage.

Each week, after I've read the trade mag, then I pass on any useful retail 'info' on to you, usually none of it to our advantage, or so it seems, for yesterday was having another of my 'thinks' and realised that perhaps we are more fortunate than we think. Despite the continual price rise of many foods, we are now blessed with such a large variety that unlike our ancestors, whose idea of frugal food was bowl of gruel or a slice of bread and dripping, we can now make the most wonderful and colourful dishes that really don't cost a lot.

In the UK we have always been blessed with quality produce, be it meat, fish, fruit or veg. In the past there was no need (or opportunity in the old days) to import 'the necessary', any that was (spices, sugar, tea, coffee, oranges, pineapples etc) usually only graced the tables of the wealthy. We made the most of what we had, and kept it simple. We may have overcooked or veg, but 'meat and two veg' was happily consume almost daily, and the only sauce used were what we called 'gravy', apple sauce with pork, mint sauce with lamb counted more as 'tracklements' than a French-style Hollandaise Sauce, Bearnaise Sauce, or one of the many other continental sauces so much loved by those over the Channel. Indeed, I have more than one (full-sized) cook book that contains only recipes for sauces made in France.

It was probably after World War II that we began to be aware of the many different style meals that have for centuries been made in other countries. Curry being one of the first to arrive on our shores, the earliest possible 'kedgeree', introduced from India and in those days served only as a breakfast dish in country mansions, the 'working class' probably never eating it.

Perhaps - because we were (in Victorian/Edwardian times) a major nation, we took our home-grown produce for granted, and as the idea (then)was eating to keep ourselves alive, not necessarily to enjoy what we ate, we never were that interested in other foods. What we had was good quality, food eaten abroad deemed not to be (if we couldn't see what a dish was made of, it could be made from anything. Yuk!). So what was the point of experimenting, or trying something new? Better safe than sorry.

Abroad, especially in a (India, Indonesia, China...) there was much poverty and only local produce was affordable, and not always a lot of that. What there was, bought or preferably foraged for, had to be made into a dish worth eating, for aa meal such as this brought comfort to a miserable life. Today we can take advantage of that. A Chinese stir-fry can be made using a very small amount of each vegetable, the more variety the better. The dish doesn't even have to include meat. The Oriental sauces are varied and great.

India too has a wide variety of curry dishes, with or without meat/poultry/fish. Often the same ingredients in each curry, and it is using different spices that gives the sauce a different flavour.
Mediterranean dishes (Italian, Greek) we have now a taste for, again the pleasure comes more from the sauce. Often we only need to add pasta. The cheapest (and often the best) dishes of all countries are what are now termed 'peasant food', the rural (and poorer) people always having to make the best use of the food available locally. In France the use of sauces is very important. Perhaps time now we realised that 'gravy' is not always the best (mind you - when a roast joint, i English gravy cannot really be bettered).

All the above 'rambling' is my way of proving that perhaps, after all, the supermarkets are doing us a favour by stocking foods that come from all corners of the globe. We moan and groan (well, at least I seem to keep doing so), at the continual 'temptations' on the shelves, but when it comes to spending more than we can afford, the fault lies more with the shopper. Nobody is forcing us to buy anything. It is always our choice, and even though there is still a lot of 'pulling our strings' done by retailers, as long as we are aware of this, we should be able to avoid being caught in their net.

By just avoiding buying the 'ready-mades', the junk food, the 'treats', and the more expensive 'fresh products' (fillet steak, sea bass, asparagus etc) and concentrate on good home-cooked 'global' recipes, we should have no problem putting memorable meals on our table, yet still be able to keep those costs down. So perhaps, time now to understand a bit more about the reasoning/costing of many of the cheaper and traditional global recipes, and work out for ourselves whether these are worth making.

Lisa commented that she'd like to being costing out her meals again, and this can easily be done if - even before we start - we mark on each packet or tin on our larder shelves, the price per oz/gr. All foods today are packed in grammes/kg (or proportions of) and so easy enough to price in smaller amounts. Supermarket websites and believe on their shelves give the price 'per 100g', this being useful if the contents of the package are small. We can also judge whether it is cheaper (that week) to buy a 100g jar of instant coffee, or whether a 200g or 300g gives better value for money.

When we find a recipe we like, the cost of each ingredient we can pencil in at the side, then add up the total. We might then find it seems to work out more expensive that we would like, so we could (especially with savoury dishes), reduce the amount of meat etc), and make up the shortfall using more of a cheaper vegetable. We can also pencil in the weight-change and the new total.

The price of fresh produce can vary according to its season, so if we write up the costings when the prices are at their lowest, they will naturally increase in the 'off season', so allow for this. Also foods that store longer, now seem to continually rise in price, so at least once a year (on the same month) we should re-price out a recipe we use fairly regularly. If we've begun 'growing our own', we could be pleasantly surprised at how much money this will have saved up.

Today am giving some authentic and traditional recipes that have always been made by thrifty housewives over the centuries, and as useful today as they have always been.
The first is 'Brodo di verdure', the basic Italian vegetable stock that they use in the making of all risottos, but can also be used as the base of a soup.
Although the ingredients are shown as made from 'whole', frugal cooks will always have made use of the 'bits and bobs' they have in store, maybe even just the peelings from some veg. It's all to do with the flavour of the, not the appearance from the start, as once cooked, the stock is then sieved. Once cooled, the stock can be frozen.

Italian Vegetable Stock: makes 1 ltr.
2 onions, peeled
6 whole cloves
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
6 carrots, trimmed but unpeeled, chopped
4 leeks, washed and chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
2 oz (50g) butter
1 tblsp olive oil
5.25 pints (3 ltrs) water
4 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tblsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Stud one onion with the cloves, then chop the second. Put the butter and oil into a large saucepan and heat until melted, then add the garlic and gently fry for a couple of minutes. Add the all the vegetables and continue cooking for 5 - 7 minutes until softened, stirring continuously (putting the lid on the pan helps them to 'steam', this aids softening, but keep the heat low and give the occasional stir), then add the water, bay leaves and herbs and bring to the boil, cover and simmer for an hour and a half.
Remove pan from heat and allow to cool for 2 hours, then return to the heat, bring back to the boil and simmer for a further 15 minutes, then strain through a fine sieve. Return the liquid to the pan, discarding the veg (personally I'd try to find a use for them), the boil the stock until reduced by half. Allow to cool completely before chilling/storing in the fridge. Freeze stock that will not be used within a few days.

Next recipe does not contain meat, so classed as 'vegetarian' (it does use eggs, cheese). Similar to the Italian 'carbonara' but without the ham. Speedy to make (esp if using frozen and thawed cauliflower), and suppose almost any pasta shapes could be used, although the wholewheat and green spaghetti used in this recipe does give the dish an extra dimension. If you have olives, then use them, if no - leave them out.
Economy tips: when opening a bottle of wine, freeze some in ice-cube trays ready to add to a dish such as this. Alternatively, white wine vinegar with a teaspoon of sugar is almost as good as.
Keep oddments of Cheddar or other hard white cheese, leave unwrapped to 'dry out', then these will grate as finely as Parmesan and can be used instead of. And grow your own fresh herbs (on the windowsill if you haven't a garden).

Demi-veg Cauliflower Carbonara: serves 3 - 4
4 oz (100g) wholewheat spaghetti
4 oz (100g) green spaghetti
2 tblsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 small cauliflower, cut into florets
4 tblsp white wine (see above)
2 eggs, beaten
2 tblsp grated Parmesan cheese
1 - 2 tblsp chopped/torn fresh basil
salt and pepper
4 - 5 green or black olives, halved or sliced(opt)
Cook each spaghetti separately in boiled salted water, according to packet instructions, then drain and keep hot whilst making up the rest of the dish.
If using raw cauliflower, blanch for 3 minutes (frozen and thawed cauliflower does not need this unless you prefer your cauli to be soft). Drain and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pan and saute the onion until softened, then add the cauliflower and wine. Put the eggs, cheese, herbs and seasoning to taste in a bowl and mix together.
When the cauliflower has heated through, add the spaghetti followed by the egg mixture, and stir continuously together over a very low heat until the eggs have 'scrambled'.
Serve hot garnished with olives - if using.

The earlier mention of the use of a good sauce to give (say) bland food a bit of a lift has given me reason to offer a really tasty tomato based recipe for sauce that is delicious served with chicken, poach fish, or just pasta. If you grow your own tomatoes (or have any frozen) you could use these to make this sauce, otherwise do as I do and open a can of plum tomatoes. "Why not use canned chopped toms? I hear you ask. Reason being that canned plum tomatoes have a richer
flavour. They used once to be dearer than chopped, now the price is usually the same, although the cheaper brands lack the density and taste of the more expensive. Buy the best when on offer.
This sauce is better in appearance if the tomatoes have have the seeds removed, easily done with canned if the flesh/juice is pushed through a sieve.

Tomato and Pepper Sauce:
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tblsp olive or sunflower oil
1 oz (25g) butter
1 lb (500g) tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 green (or red) bell pepper, chopped
5 fl oz (150ml) water or white wine
3 tblsp vinegar (pref white wine vinegar)
2 oz (50g) raisins
salt and pepper
3 tblsp tomato puree/paste
Put the oil and butter in a pan and add the onion. Fry gently for five minutes to soften, then stir in the garlic and fry for a further 2 minutes before adding the tomatoes, pepper, vinegar, raisins and seasoning to taste. Then stir in the water (or wine) and the tomato puree.
Simmer gently for 25 - 30 minutes, adding a little more water if the sauce becomes too thick. It can be served as-is, or can be pureed in a blender/food processor if you prefer it even smoother.
Worth making plenty and freezing away the surplus.

Loved the sound of your bento boxed meals Lisa. My suggestions re costing have been given above.
Reason why I add parsley to a fish dish is that (1) it is a traditional sauce we serve with fish, and (2) usually available fresh to me all year round as I grow it on the conservatory windowsill.
Dill is always a good herb to use, but not easily available at this time of year.
Thought afterwards I could have added tartare sauce to add extra 'bits' to the parsley sauce, or even just used tartare sauce to bind the fish together. Expensive though when used in any amount (I don't make my own, perhaps I should).
Your 'ham salad' sounded as though it was more a sandwich spread than a ham salad as we know it (this being sliced of cold ham served with salad leaves etc). Please tell us how you make your version.
Lucky you having an unseasonably warm temperature. Are yours always in Fahrenheit? Ours used to be but the forecasts now only show it in Centigrade (or should that be Celsius?). Yesterday was VERY cold, around -10C, with the probability (unless the wind changes) of it being even lower over the weekend.

As you are cooking for others Lisa, am presuming you don't always need to use gluten free flour etc. so here are a couple of recipes that you might wish to include in the bento boxes.

Muesli Bars: makes about 20
6 oz (175g) butter
3 tblsp runny honey
8 oz (225g) muesli
7 oz (220g) self-raising flour
2 oz (50g) light soft brown sugar
Melt the butter and honey together in a saucepan, then remove from the heat. Put the muesli, flour and sugar into a bowl then stir in the butter mixture (or if using a large enough saucepan, remove from heat and tip in the dry ingredients to mix). Mix well to combine, then spoon 'dollops' of the mix onto a lined baking tray, leaving plenty of room between each to allow for spreading, then bake at 18oC, 350F, gas 4 for 10 - 15 minutes until golden.
Remove from oven, leave to stand on the tin for five minutes, then remove with a fish slice and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Th next two recipes meal uses cooked and drained potatoes, so you could use canned new potatoes if they work out cheaper. With both meals, canned cannelloni beans could be used instead of potatoes. So use the recipe as a guide and use what you have or what your budget can stretch to.
Lunchbox Tuna Salad: serves 4
1 lb (450g) new potatoes, halved and cooked
5 oz (150g) green beans (could be frozen), cooked
2 tblsp pesto mixed with...
...1 tblsp olive oil
1 x 175g tuna, drained and flaked
few cherry tomatoes, halved
Put all the ingredients into a bowl and mix together. Store in the fridge until needed.

Lunchbox Potato Salad: serves 4
1 lb (450g) new potatoes, cooked (or canned)
2 tblsp mayonnaise
1 tblsp natural yogurt
1 tblsp chopped fresh mint or parsley
freshly ground black pepper to taste,
1 - 2 spring onions (or 1 shallot) finely chopped
2 handfuls of cubed cheese
chopped cooked ham or bacon (for protein)
Put the mayo, yogurt, herbs and pepper into a bowl and mix together, then fold in the potatoes (cut to the size you wish), the onions, cheese, ham or bacon. Store in the fridge until needed.

Final recipe really is a cheaper, and certainly traditional to this country. Myself will be making i using the thick crusty ends of a fruit loaf made several days ago (now drying out, but will blitz into crumbs). Porridge oats could also be used as part of the 'filling', it doesn't always have to be just white breadcrumbs. Certainly one of B's favourites. I should make it more often.
The lemon zest and juice really does give the tart a 'lift', or instead use an orange.

Treacle Tart: serves 6
9 oz (250g) short-crust pastry
2 fl oz (50ml) golden syrup
2 oz (50g) soft white breadcrumbs
zest and juice of half a small lemon
Roll out the pastry to line an 8" (20cm) shallow tart tin.
Melt the syrup until runny (on hob or in microwave), then stir in the breadcrumbs with the lemon zest and juice. Pour into the pastry case then bake at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for about half an hour, or until the pastry is cooked. Lovely served hot with ice-cream, but tastes really good eaten as-is, warm or cold.

Yesterday cooked a Thai-style chicken curry (pouring a jar of bottled curry sauce over two diced chicken breasts that had first been with some sliced onion, then left to simmer). Suggesed to B he adds some frozen peas so they cooked whilst he was heating up a pack of 2 minute microwave rice. Said I'd like some too "as you're trying to lose weight so want your usual large helping" (at which he sulked a bit, but brought me in about a quarter). It was very tasty, and in any case enough for me. Think I could get used to this style of easy cooking. At least it makes use of my larder stores. That's what they are there for anyway.

Suppose I'd better get on and make that treacle tart, as I'll have spare pastry, maybe a quiche as well and even some cheese straws with the pastry trimmings. But as ever - once I've got into the kitchen will no doubt change my mind.
The main meal tonight will be a beef casserole as this is the easiest way (having already cooked the beef) to serve a warming meal. Maybe today with dumplings on top (having almost run out of spuds).

The threat of a really cold spell is making me realise that unless I stock up, will really have to buckle down to make warming meals from what is left in store. Yet even this will be a challenge, and you know I like challenges, so could be the grocery order will not be sent for several days. You will get the usual blow-by-blow account of our Goode life, so watch this space. TTFN.