Saturday, January 05, 2013

Eyes Wide Open

Unexpectedly, this 'Sunday roast' challenge has really opened my eyes as to how things really are (at least in this day and age), as I'm discovering that what I used to believe is not necessarily true.

Firstly, let's deal with the important bit of this challenge, and answer the question "is it cheaper to have a Sunday roast and use the left-over meat for meals the rest of the week (give or take fish on Friday etc)?", and have to say so far it seems that as long as a chosen joint of meat is on offer (many are at the moment - at least in the supermarkets - then it does seem to be a fairly economical way to cook.

For instance, the piece of rump beef I'd bought was cut in half (one half has been frozen), and half was cooked as the 'Sunday roast'.  The cost for this half was £6.66p.  But then only two-thirds of the roasted meat has been eaten (so in real terms the meat used came to only £4.44p - the rest frozen to eat later).  Having worked out the cost of other foods eaten this week, including vegetables, several loaves of bread made, fish (for yesterday) porridge for breakfasts, soups for lunch, milk, eggs, salads (for me) etc, the total comes to under £15.  This is well below the £20 limit I had set myself, and in actuality the only 'real' money spent has been on the beef, everything else (so far) has been food I already had.

Because this 'challenge' is to find out if it was worth going back to the traditional way of cooking a Sunday roast (then using the leftovers during the week), so far it does seem to work, and work well.  The downside is that - at least for me - it did become boring to continue to use the same meat on consecutive days, and also boring for my Beloved who prefers to vary what meat he eats.

This then led me to think about why this 'roast-and-using-left-overs' worked so well in the past, and it occurred to me that really the wives/mothers/cooks in those days really had no other choice, for with no fridges or freezers, there was no option but to use up the rest of the joint each and every day (or most days). Most food cooked was grown in this country, much of it seasonal, with the choice being far more limited that today.
Memories of how good the food then tasted (organic and free-range being the norm), led me - at least - to believe that I was missing something good because we no longer had a Sunday roast.  Certainly quality and flavour seems to have flown out of the window during the last half century once the convenience foods and ready-meals arrived on the supermarket shelves, and mistakenly I believed it was the lack of 'traditional meals' that we had begun to miss.

Becoming aware that in the past we 'ate to live', and not expected to enjoy all the meals put before us (in fact 'treats' were few and far between and all the more enjoyed because of this), realised, that then - unlike now - food then was not top priority, our meals gave us our energy and kept us healthy, other than that there were better things to think about than wondering what meal to make each day.  The pattern had already been set. 

Today is it all so different, we now have a much wider choice of fresh (and dried) ingredients, and eating has now become a pleasure, especially now we have recipes from all over the world to play with.  No longer do we - as my mother used to do  - cook a meal for ourselves and family that we didn't really enjoy eating.  Eating can also be a comfort (especially in these dark and dismal days of recession).  If we can't afford to buy all we wish to eat, we eat as much as we can afford and watch cookery programmes to at least delight our eyes.

Whether or not we can afford to cook gourmet food, we still try to eat only meals that we do enjoy, and I believe that there is no-one who will cook themselves a meal that they know they (or their family) won't like.  But in my youth this is what often happened.  We had to eat what we were given, good or bad (and believe me in those days all veggies were over-cooked to the extent of being almost unrecognisable).
So we have become a nation of 'living to eat', and eating only what we wish to.  Food has become almost an obsession and despite my hoping that by returning to the past I would gain back some of the 'good life' - in all honesty only the Sunday roast has turned out to be a real treat (because we very, VERY rarely have a full roast dinner now, and then not always on a Sunday), but making traditional meals from the left-overs I found was rather depressing.  True, I didn't have to think about what to serve each day, but even that turned out to be boring, not restful and laboursaving.  How sad is that?

I've had a lot to think about this week, and another thing that worries me slightly is that everyone is different, so whatever I suggest will not necessarily suit another.  Some people enjoy eating meat and two veg, and sometimes only same meat and the same veggies.  Like every day, so learning a Sunday roast need not be expensive, would be music to their ears.  Others might prefer a much more varied diet, with no dish being served more than once during the same week - my B comes under that category.  
So my 'Sunday roast' challenge could work well for some, but not others.  At least I have learned that it can be just as cheap to buy a joint to roast than when we use cheaper cuts of meat, and at least have a roast dinner once a week to enjoy (if we have a freezer, we could freeze the surplus instead of having to use up the left-overs during the week).  But then is a 'roast' really that special? Perhaps - like most things, only appreciated when we don't have it that often.

When I first taught myself to cook (because I'd completely run out of money and had to live on the food I had in store), it was lucky that I decided to work out how much everything cost me to make.  With the help of a pocket calculator I worked out the price of each ingredient per ounce (as it was then) and wrote it on the packets or containers.  This made it easy for me to work out the cost of every ingredient used in a recipe.  Now everything is in 'the metrics' and the currency is decimal, this costing is much easier to work out.  The price of a 500g of anything is just divided by 5 to find out how much per 100g.  Easy peasy.  
Now I don't bother to do this, preferring to take the easier method of sticking to a food budget then try to just spend less of it, and this is where my 'challenges' came into their own.  No longer do I have to work out how much a meal (or anything made) costs me (unless I wish to), I just slowly stock up my larder, then two or three times a year just sit back and live of what I have. 

This past week, although I have given costings for the amount of food eaten, as the meat had been bought even before the year began - as have all the other foods eaten since then - no 'real' money has left my purse.  If I can keep using up my stores and buying very little, this will mean I should have saved about £100. 

This is where the magic happens.  Some of the £100 (say £40 or thereabouts), would be used later to buy another of Donald Russell's offers, but not necessarily this month. It could be next month or the month after,  as still have plenty of D.R. meat in the freezer.  When it does come time to buy the meat I hope to have several hundred pounds of 'food budget' unspent,  some of which will be used to restock shelves, but always, ALWAYS - even with the ever increasing food prices and organic veggies box deliveries - there will be some money left over.  

Yes, I know I keep repeating this, but new readers may have missed it the first time (second time, third time....) that I have tried to prove that by a blend of canny shopping mixed with regular 'challenges',  using up what we have rather than go out and buy something else, we should all be able to spend a lot less, and whilst doing so, end up eating meals that consist of far better quality ingredients.   There has to be a reason why this works, but so far am not quite sure myself how it comes about, all I can say is that if it works for me, it should also work for you..

Before replying to comments, one very interesting thing - that brown bread dough that didn't rise and appeared to be a complete disaster after cooking (ending up like a long shallow house brick) has turned out to be very edible after all.   I decided to cut myself a slice (it wasn't easy sawing through it!) and although the crumb was fairly dense, but not as solid as pumpernickel, when buttered and spread with a little soft cheese, tasted very good indeed.  Great also eaten with soup. In fact have eaten half the loaf already!! Wish I'd discovered this a month or so ago as it would have made perfect canape bases for the sour cream and caviare (or smoked salmon).  This has made me a very happy bunny indeed.   It just goes to show that we should never throw anything away, even if it looks as though it isn't worth eating.  Try it first (as long as it hasn't obviously 'gone off').

Your mention of the 'slow setting' on your main oven Jane W, intrigued me.  Is that a normal (electric) oven, and not a crock-pot/slow cooker?  We don't have a 'slow-setting' on our oven, although the temperature can be set as low as 50C (normally 1/4 on a gas oven would be 110C).Think that although most main ovens can be set to a fairly low temperature, the running costs would be higher than using a slow-cooker made for the purpose.   Les maybe can confirm (or deny) this.

At one time Janet I used to buy those packs of Fish Pie Mix from Tesco, but they have risen in price dramatically, and even when on offer work out more expensive than buying the fish separately. For B's Fish Risotto yesterday, used one white fish fillet from a pack of frozen 'Value white fish', one fillet from a pack of smoked haddock, and the trimmings saved from a whole fresh (filleted for me) salmon that had been bought last year, and frozen away in individual portions.   Total cost of B's fish used for his supper came to £2, and there was more fish than would have been in the prepacked 'mix'.

Thanks Eileen for telling us about the low-priced Argos slow-cooker, especially as you already have one and can recommend it, as often we feel that we should pay more to get something that works 'properly.   Have to say that those two big cast-iron-look-alike casserole pots that B brought me from (I think) Aldi (or was it Lidl?), also extremely low in price, are absolutely wonderful.  They cook as though cast-iron, but are quite light to lift,  completely non-stick inside, and really only need a wipe out rather than a wash (although they do get washed).

While on the subject of slow-cookers, it does seem that more recent models do cook vegetables satisfactorily, especially when initially set on  HIGH.  Sairy finds her veggies cook satisfactorily.  Maybe my slow-cooker ceramic 'pot' is too thick (it's removable and very heavy) to allow enough heat to reach above the base.  Carrots seem to be the one veggie that causes the most problems, and this can also depend upon the age of the carrot.  The organic carrots that I've cooked have become tender within a very few minutes of boiling on the hob, whereas supermarket carrots can take up to ten times as long to become tender.
Those that find veggies don't cook well when set on LOW, can still add veggies to the pot, but only after being partly cooked to 'al dente'.  A good suggestion is to part-cook the 'harder' veggies then bag them up and freeze, to later thaw and add to a slow-cooker, or as was suggested to me, we could use canned carrots -  these being already 'cooked' and tender.

Your 'floor furnace' sounds very useful Lisa.  In cold weather I'd be tempted to sit in my rocking chair with my feet dangling over the grating.  Interesting that you use plastic or melamine mixing bowls.  I've never been very comfortable using plastic bowls, don't know why - I've got several.  My favourite bowls are either the ceramic 'Mason' style, glass (Pyrex), or stainless steel.  I must have about 10 metal bowls of varying sizes, but of course these can't be used in the microwave.

Also interesting about reading that Cornbread is best eaten hot.  Did try to make some a couple or so times, and couldn't really enjoy it.  Perhaps because I let it get cold before it was eaten - sliced and buttered.  In a way Cornbread seems to be more like an unsweetened cake, so perhaps should be accepted as a dish in its own right, and not just as a substitute for bread.

Think in our larder we have a couple or so jars of peanut butter Margie, both crunchy and smooth.  Am loathe to bring them out as one started they get eaten up fairly rapidly.  I love peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and B like the smooth spread on toast.  It's also useful for making a satay sauce.

We have a query from an Anonymous (no other name given), as to whether a parsley sauce made using Bisto granules will freeze.   Am not too sure Anon, whether it will - by this I mean it might separate once thawed.  The only way to be sure when uncertain whether anything will freeze then thaw out satisfactorily, is to freeze a small amount, leave it at least a day (a week if possible), then thaw and see what happens.   Some sauces may 'split' but are able to be whisked back to thickness again when heated, but difficult to do this if the sauce has been added to something solid (such as meat/fish).  A cornflour based sauce normally will split during freezing.   The reason why many sauces in frozen 'ready-meals' stays thick after thawing is because - a chef once told me - a very fine rice-flour is used as the thickening agent.  Other commercial 'thickeners' are probably also used in manufactured products, but not available to the general public (however, readers may know of useful alternatives that don't split when frozen - if so, please let us know). 

Good to hear you have had a 'low-spend' this week jane, keep it up. Thanks for your suggestions as to how to deal with my two on-going challenges (they tend to contradict each other), but have taken what you said on board, and this coming week will try your suggestion of 'using up what I have', the following week then may go back to buying a joint for a Sunday roast.  By alternating the two challenges, hope then to keep my purchases low, and also use up a lot of what I have in store, at the same time still managing to eat well and save loadsa money.

Am having a real fight with myself today as had planned to go to Morrison's to see if I could find a chicken 'on offer', and maybe some other reduced items, but as I already have frozen chicken breasts and portions, and don't really need anything else, it makes sense to stay at home.  Even so I would  have enjoyed scooting around the store seeing what was reduced in price (then buying it). One of the few pleasures I have in life is to 'supermarket shop'  (for real, not on-line), but it doesn't make financial (or any other) sense to allow myself to indulge. 

Have not yet seen today's newspaper, but saw on TV yesterday the headlines in today's Daily Mail, something to do with a huge rise in food prices due to the bad weather we have had last year (and continuing).  So it makes even more sense to re-think our purchases, begin making use of the cheaper ingredients, and - of course -grow our own when we can.   Urban self-sufficiency has now to be the name of our game.  Don't just leave it to those with allotments or gardens, let us use our windowsills if that's all we have.  And cook all our meals from scratch, when we can.

With this in mind today am giving a recipe for one of the cheapest of grains - my favourite in fact.  Pearl barley.  This grain can often take the place of rice, and to me is far tastier, being slightly chewier and nutty-flavoured.   As to the other ingredients, again we can use alternative or substitutes,  the squash could be pumpkin, or even a root veg such as swede. sweet potato, or parsnip. The herb could dried (or used dried mixed herbs),  onions or shallots could take the place of leeks, garlic is opt (some people don't like it),  the chestnut mushrooms could be the normal small white mushrooms, carrots - well, we've all got those -, and the given cheese (which I so far have never bought) can be almost any hard cheese (maybe Cheddar with a bit of Parmesan?), and a good way to use up those oddments of cheese lurking in the fridge.
Barley Risotto with Roasted Vegetables: serves 4
7 oz (200g) pearl barley
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded
2 tsp fresh chopped thyme
salt and pepper
4 tblsp olive oil
1 oz (25g) butter
4 leeks, cut into fairly thick slices
1 - 2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 oz (100g) chestnut mushrooms, sliced
2 carrots, coarsely grated
4 fl oz (120ml) vegetable stock
2 oz (50g) grano padano cheese, grated
3 tblsp toasted pumpkin seeds, or walnuts
Put the pearl barley into a pan of simmering water.  Part-cover the pan and cook for about 40 minutes or until tender, then drain well and set aside.
Meanwhile, cut the butternut flesh into chunks and place in a roasting tin with half the thyme.  Season with salt and drizzle over half the oil.  Toss to coat the butternut flesh, then roast at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for 30 minutes, or until the flesh is tender and beginning to brown.
Put half the butter and the remaining oil into a large frying pan, and cook the leeks gently for five minutes, adding the garlic towards the end, then add the mushrooms and remaining thyme.  Initially the mushrooms will give out some liquid, but continue cooking until this has evaporated and the mushrooms begin to fry.
Stir in the carrots and fry for a further 2 minutes, then add the barley and most of the vegetable stock. Add seasoning to taste, part-cover pan and leave to simmer for 5 minutes, adding remaining stock if the mixture becomes too dry.  Stir in the remaining butter and half the cheese, then add the squash.  Check seasoning, adding more if you wish, then serve immediately, sprinkling the pumpkin seeds or walnuts, and remaining cheese on top.

A reminder to all that today is Twelfth Night, the time when all Christmas decorations should be taken down (said to be very unlucky if we leave them up - although the Queen leaves hers in situ until she returns to London from Sandringham in February).  If you are having a Twelfth Night party, remember to serve the traditional 'Galette du Roi' (or similar name), basically a type of flat tart made with puff pastry, in which has been hidden a bean.  The person who gets the bean is the King for the Night.  Me, I think I'll stick to watching TV and hoping that B has left enough gin for me to have a glass (with lemonade, B having used up all the bitter lemon and tonic water).

By tomorrow the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas will be over, and we'll really have to buckle down to sorting out how we can keep our costs down but still eat well.  Even saying that proves how our attitude has changed over the last fifty years.  Before then 'eating well' didn't seem to be of any significance.  Just having food (any food) to eat was welcome, and strangely it may have been war-time rationing and the need to experiment to make the most of the little food there was at that time, that began the start of a real interest in cooking.   There is nothing like discovering new ways to turn ordinary ingredients into something  enjoyable to eat, that makes us wish to continue.   If we didn't have this curiosity, and creativity, we'd still be living in caves, gathering berries and hoping that our alpha male might be dragging at least part of a mammoth into our cave to suck on raw as presumably then learning how to cook over a fire had not yet been learned.    However much I yearn to go back to living 'the good life' of the past, that is one past that I don't wish to return to, although being dragged by my hair into another cave by another alpha man does have some appeal. 

Dear oh dear.  Poor old Morecambe is still sitting under heavy cloud, and it doesn't look as though there will be any improvement before the rain hits the rest of the country.  If - as we are being warned - we have another summer (maybe continuous) of deluges of rain, it could be we end up not as one main island, but hundreds of tiny ones.  We will have to use the Pennine Way to reach one end of the country to the other.  Maybe those homes still above water will need to keep a rubber dinghy in their garage instead of a car. 
With our ground so saturated, and nowhere for the rain water to go other than settle in fields along with the water from burst river banks, who knows what could happen if the weather forecast keeps to its gloomy predictions.  

When I was a young child, got to be quite a crack shot with the catapult my dad made for me.  Perhaps time for me to take up this 'weapon' again, as believe we are allowed to kill squirrels, magpies, and maybe even pigeons - we have all of these in our garden, and all can be eaten.  We also have snails, but it would take a real disaster for me to begin cooking and eating these.  Thankfully we do have the sea almost on our doorstep, so perhaps this year would be a good time for me to get over my squeamishness and - if I wear rubber gloves - might just about manage to pick up live maggots to stick on fish-hooks, then begin to cast a line to catch some fish for supper.  Unfortunately hate handling fresh fish, especially if they still have their heads, and 'horrors' still alive.  Think I'll turn vegetarian.  But then with all that rain would there be any vegetables left to eat?

Certainly this year will be like a Pandora's box.  Nothing left but hope.  But we will struggle on. Meanwhile must my way into the kitchen to begin baking.  Hope you can join me tomorrow - if so, see you then.  And keep those comments coming. 
(By the way, whilst editing this with the help of spellcheck, the clouds have rolled away and now we have blue sky with a few high clouds and lots of sunshine.  More clouds on the horizon, but maybe they will end up elsewhere.  As I said, nothing left but hope).