Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cheap and Cheerful

Only one comment to reply.  Appreciate what you say, Les, and although we expect to pay for the time and skills used by top chefs, myself prefer to have 'food value' for money when eating out. Believe there is a year's wait to get a table when booking at Heston's, and no doubt more because of his notoriety, and to then brag that some of his 'famed' dishes had been eaten. Such as Snail Porridge. 
The one good thing about home-cooking is that we only have to pay for ingredients, all the other overheads are covered, including our skills.  We learn as many as we can, then hope to share the results with as many as possible.  Without pay, perhaps giving more love and care when making a dish than many chefs might do.
There are some chefs I feel really do express the love they feel for both food and cooking, such as  Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux Jnr.  The two Italian chefs that are on BBC 2 in the afternoons (repeat progs) also give me the same feeling that they really 'care'.  It is these cooks that inspire me to continue cooking.  Mary Berry, perhaps Hugh F.W. and even Jamie O has their moments, but the first two named Frenchmen really have that edge over the others.  Someone like Heston B seems to add no love at all to what he cooks, with only a scientific interest in what will happen if this, that or the other is done, and differently. Anyone else feel the same?

Let's get one thing clear.  When I write ''the cheapest ingredients', this doesn't necessarily mean a low quality meal would be made.  'Cheap' ingredients are exactly what it says on the box....'cheap' not 'expensive'.  So why shouldn't we use those that cost fewer pennies when their nutritional value (and often the quality) is just as good as higher priced?

Meat is an example.  The cheapest meat from a carcase (tough cuts that need long slow cooking) have a great deal more flavour than the most expensive and quicker-to-cook cuts.  Even cheaper in price can be the offal, hated by many, and so often served (at a price!) in the top restaurants, where it is not considered 'cheap' food at all as, given the 'gourmet touch', this means serving offal brings in even more profits for the restaurant.

It would be good to be able to cook meals that we like and be able to afford to go and buy 'the best' without having to count our pennies as we do so, and am - myself - fortunate enough to be able to do so when it comes to meat, buying some of the best quality meat on sale (from D.R), but as I keep saying, can only afford to buy this when on offer, and then only with the money I've 'deliberately' saved over the previous couple or so months. But worth taking the trouble to 'save' when this means we end up eating better at half the price than the average household may spend on the second-rates.

Yesterday I took a smaller than normal delivery of groceries from Tesco as I had vouchers to use up, and needed the usual milk, eggs, butter.  Also bought a 1.5kg bag of carrots (89p) and a fresh chicken (£3).  Some canned tomatoes (on offer) and baked beans.  Avocados as a treat for B and myself, and lucky with that as I'd ordered a twin pack, and two separate avocados.  They didn't have the 'singles' so gave me 2 extra twin-packs instead of the two singles, with the 'price-match' it saved me £1.80p.

Ordered a few more things 'while I was at it' (to fill up a few gaps on the shelves as they were all on offer).  Even discovered I'd been sent a free sample of Knorr Chicken Stock.  Two little tubs of jellied stock in the pack.  Not sure how much it will normally retail at, but as I used one pack to make gravy for the roast chicken supper I gave B yesterday (it needed diluting with a quarter pint of water, then boiled), have to say it was OK, a bit salty, but not nearly as good as the home-made stock that I always make from the chicken carcase.  Certainly could make about 25 times the amount of one tub,from the one carcase. So again this shows that good home-made stock, top quality (as made in top restaurants) can be counted as one of those 'cheap ingredients'.

You would all laugh at me,  I opened the bag of carrots (need to do that anyway or they would 'sweat' then go soggy, but still keep them in the bag and in the fridge or they would dry out).  Then counted the carrots.  Can't now remember how many carrots in the bag, mostly all the same size, and chose one that would be what I would use for a 'one person serving', then weighed it.  The cost of the one carrot came to just 3p!  It wasn't organic, so still what I call 'a cheap ingredient'.
Knowing the cost of one carrot, one onion, one baking potato, one parsnip, even one rib of celery. Or one tomato, one bell pepper (or even a third), an inch of cucumber, 2 radishes.... then makes it much easier for me to work out the cost of a main course, salad etc.  Most people probably wouldn't bother to do this, and normally now I don't, but when it comes to NEEDING to work out something like the recent 'challenge' (3 course meal to serve for for £3), then the only way to do it is to know the cost of every ingredient used, even to the spoonful of ketchup (if used).

Bought our usual 3 x 4 pt containers of milk, these at £1.29p each (approx 32p pint), but saw on TV yesterday that Aldi were selling the same for £1 each (25p pint).  Milk is an exceptionally good and nutritious 'food', and so can be included in my list of 'cheap-with-quality'.

It is true that we pay for the time and skills of the chef (esp the top ones), but this doesn't mean they use only the most expensive, discarding what we might normally throw away.  Perhaps the chickens they cook are free-range organics, but doubt there would be much difference in flavour between the grilled/roasted chicken skin of free range or barn-bred (chicken skin the chefs cook separately to crisp up and serve as a garnish).
I always put chicken skin in with the carcase when making stock as once strained into a bowl and left in the fridge to chill, the fat from the skin and bones then sets on the surface and can be carefully scraped away and used for frying (or making savoury pastry).  Chefs use this chicken fat, so why shouldn't we?

When I began writing my blog this morning, it was barely dawn, but could see a very thin dusting of white on the roof of the house at the back of our garden, but none on the lawn or paths.  Since then it has begun to snow a little more heavily, but still hardly visible, and now the leaves and fence tops have a light covering of white, the lawn also, but the patio outside our door is still clear, probably protected by the house and a close wall the tiled floor is slightly warmer. 
Do wish it would snow large flakes, as these are beautiful to see, but doubt very much it will do more than fall as sifted icing sugar, and not a lot anyway.  The forecast is that the snow will move away over towards the east during the day, and the temperature will then rise higher than normal for February/  So had better make the most of the almost white world out side that can be seen at the moment.  You never know, by the time I finish writing my blog today, it may already have begun to thaw.  Will have to wait and see.

As the weather has been pretty good (at least here in Morecambe) recently, had today planned to give some recipes for lighter soups, and think I will still do that for they make a good 'lunch in a thermos' to take to work.  Having said that, many places of work now have microwave ovens, so soup can be reheated in those.

Realising the great savings made when we make our own chicken stock, using this will considerably cut the cost of home-made soup, compared to using some ready-made stock (either bought in a carton or the 'jellied' variety, or - horrors - even a dry stock cube).

First soup is made using many of the veggies we use when making the stock, the flavour of these going into the stock, so the fresh veggies add even more taste.   It goes without saying that the 'shredded' chicken, will be that peeled from the carcase once the stock has been made.  Normally, there should be about 8 oz (225g) chicken flesh able to be 'gathered' from the bones of a medium chicken, and - if costing out a dish this is used in, the cooked flesh could then be counted as 'free'.
As we also try to save fuel when cooking, if you have a food processor, then use this to chop the veggies, or you could also grate them.  The smaller the pieces the faster they cook, although the soup looks more attractive if the veggies are left in tiny chunks.
The soup can be made the day before, kept covered in the fridge, then served in portions to be taken to work to be reheated.  The soup can also be frozen in individual portions. 

Chicken and Vegetable Soup: serves 4
half a pint (300ml) water
1.75 pts (1 ltr) chicken stock
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 large potato, finely chopped
4 oz (100g) sugar snap or mangetout peas, chopped
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 x 310g can sweetcorn kernels, drained
8 oz (225g) shredded chicken (see above) more if poss.
Put the water and stock into a large pan and bring to the boil. Add the celery, carrot and potato, bring back to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or until just tender (al dente).
Add the peas, onion, and sweetcorn, cover and simmer for a further 2 minutes, then remove from heat and leave to cool before stirring in the chicken.
To reheat, place in a microwavable bowl and cook, uncovered on HIGH in a microwave oven for about 2 minutes, or until piping hot.  Cool slightly before eating.

Next recipe is for another light and refreshing soup (useful if on a diet).  Use either the tiny pasta shapes sold for adding to soups, or - even better - orzo.  Orzo looks like rice, but is actually a pasta.
As with the previous recipe, this soup can be made a day ahead, to be reheated in the microwave as above.  Please note, this makes only one serving.  Increase amounts if you wish to serve more.
Pasta and Spring Vegetable Soup: serves 1
2 oz (50g) tiny pasta (risoni or orzo)
2 green beans, sliced thinly
1 small carrot, sliced thinly
12 fl oz (350ml) chicken or vegetable stock
1 tblsp shredded fresh basil leaves (opt)
Cook the pasta in water as per packet instructions, until almost tender, then add the beans and carrots and cook, uncovered for one minute. Drain, rinse under cold water, then drain again.
These can then be kept in the fridge overnight.
When ready to eat, put the pasta and veggies into a microwave bowl with the stock, and cook, uncovered, on HIGH for about 2 minutes until hot.  Sprinkle with basil (if using).

It is possible to buy special bags for freezing soup, but even if just using ordinary freezer bags, you could still use this tip as long as the open end is folded to prevent the contents leaking as it the soup freezes:  Lay the filled bags of soup flat on a baking sheet, then freeze.  When solid they stack well or can be tucked at the sides of the freezer, so taking up less room, also they thaw much more rapidly than when frozen in a block.
(For what it's worth, I often use the same approach when freezing raw minced meats) put the meat in a roomy bag, then - using a rolling pin - roll the meat flat, as thinly as possible, then place on a baking sheet and freeze.  This makes it easy to 'snap' off small amounts if that is all that is needed, and the whole 'tile' thaws out far more rapidly than if in a roll or block.)

One 'fast food' (either from a take-away or home-delivered) is a Pizza, and when we make our own we can - at least - control what goes on the topping.  With the continual horror-story of horsemeat appearing to be in many ready-made dishes, pizzas too might become under suspicion, especially as it has now been discovered that horsemeat has been sold as 'beef' from Yorkshire, and I believe also Wales.
An interesting point as arisen. My Beloved took the trouble yesterday to look up 'beef' in his dictionary, where it said this word stood for 'meat from ox or horse', so there could be a case where the word 'beef' on packaging of foods that contained horsemeat, wasn't giving wrong information at all.  It's an old dictionary, so perhaps now when we see the word 'beef', this HAS to mean the meat only from cattle.

Anyway, here is a recipe for home-made pizzas that can be made as per recipe, although myself like to make just the base, cover this with the sauce, then freeze.  Adding what 'left-overs' I have as the topping when ready to bake (cold sausages, chicken, ham, cooked minced meats.  Sweetcorn, pineapple, peppers, olives....  Always with a box of grated cheese in the freezer close by (mixed cheeses including Mozzarella, or just Mozzarella), ready to sprinkle on the top.  If using fresh Mozzarella, always dry well with kitchen paper, or it could make the dough soggy.

Whether you make a basic pizza to freeze and then add things to, or completing the pizza ready to bake, either way makes sense for if ordering one to be delivered, our home-made bake-from-frozen pizza could be cooked - and probably eaten - in less time that it would take for the 'take-away' to be delivered.  Proving (again) that our home-made can be faster than 'fast-food', and - it goes without saying - MUCH cheaper.
Freeza Pizza: serves 6
1 x 500g pack bread mix (or pizza base mix)
6 tblsp tomato pasta sauce (or passata)
few fresh basil leaves, shredded
12 cherry tomatoes halved or thickly sliced
8 oz (225g) Mozzarella cheese, sliced or grated
1 oz (25g) Parmesan cheese, grated
Make up the bread mix (or pizza base mix) as per packet instructions, then leave in an oiled bowl, covered, to rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
Knock back the dough, then divide into six equal portions, rolling out one at a time to a circle about 8" (20cm) diam.  Keep the unused dough under a damp towel or oiled cling film to prevent it drying out.
As you make each pizza base (you may need to do this in batches unless you have two baking sheets), spread the tops with 1 tablespoon of the tomato sauce, then scatter over the tomatoes, basil, and cheeses (or whatever else you fancy).  To freeze, wrap the whole thing (pizzas and baking sheet) in cling film, then freeze.  When solid you can remove each pizza carefully and re-wrap in a freezer bag.  Label if the toppings are varied. 
To cook from frozen: remove wrappings, replace on baking sheet/s and bake at 220C, 425F, gas 7 for 10 - 14 minutes until base is golden and crisp.  If you have piled on a lot of topping, then you may need to cook the pizza for a few minutes longer.

Myself do not care for a very crusty edge to a pizza (preferring the 'deep dish' type as I have 'old' teeth), and have discovered that when cooking either a home-made or (and especially a) bought 'ready-to-bake' pizza, brushing the edges of the dough with oil when ready to bake, helps to prevent the dough drying out, and although still crisps up is easier to eat.  If the pizza needs longer cooking due to 'mile-high' toppings, then best always to brush uncovered dough with oil otherwise it could end up like dry toast around the edges. 

Snow is still falling, and slightly more visible - which is nice - but still the flakes not large enough to please me (the older I get the more I want things 'like they used to be', you know, like REAL snow...). The snow falling on the different varieties of bushes/trees (cordyline, fatsia, holly, bamboo et al...) really makes each leaf stand out, and although normally prefer to see flowers, not all 'greenery' as we seem to have here, when the snow falls everything looks pretty.
Twisting my head round to look through the patio doors on my left I see the small terrace is now covered in snow.  Not deep, but covered.  It's blowing half a gale, and occasionally through the window in front of me see a huge cloud of white pass the window as the snow is blown off the tops of the fence (and next door's trees) close by. Think this is called 'blizzard conditions'.

Off now into the kitchen to make another pan of chicken stock, having peeled away as much cooked meat from the carcase as I could.  After roasting it yesterday, was able to give B a quarter chicken (leg and thigh attached) with a couple of slices of breast, some carrots and onions (these the bird was sitting on whilst it roasted, water also being put into the roasting dish to 'steam' (the whole lot covered in kitchen foil).  When the chicken was done, kept it warm by covering foil with a towel, then popped some part-boiled spuds and a couple of (thawed) sauages, plus a dish of stuffing, into the oven to cook.  All I had to do then was cook some (thawed) broccoli, and make the gravy from the free sample.   Carved some of the meat for B, plated up the carrots, onions, spuds, broccoli, added the sausages, and with no room left on the plate had to serve the stuffing still in its bowl, and the gravy in a separate jug.

Even after that big meal, B was ready for pancakes (he is such a child, he HAS to have pancakes on Pancake Day),  and as I'd already made the batter, squeezed the lemons and put out a dish of sugar, he was happy with my suggestion that he made them himself. Don't know how he got on, he'd have to make one at a time, then go back to make a second and then a third, but he said he'd managed OK.  At least it saved me the trouble.  Grateful for small mercies.

If I could learn to love to cook for the sake of it, not just love to cook to make my Beloved happy, then perhaps my skills would improve.  As B has told me many time, he does NOT care for plates with small amounts, surrounded by blobs of 'jus'.   He doesn't do 'pretty', he wants a big plateful and doesn't much care how it looks.  No point in taking time and trouble if the end result is not appreciated.  Perhaps we should hold more dinner parties.

Enough for today, fine snow still falling, but not a lot on the roofs as much has been blown away, even some of the patio tiles are becoming visible, so perhaps a thaw is already setting in.  By tomorrow, or even earlier, the snow will probably have all disappeared.
Whatever your weather, do hope you manage to keep warm, and have a warming meal when you settle down for an evening's viewing (or whatever you do with your spare time).  Tomorrow is Norma day, so it will be a late start to writing my blog, but hope to get it completed by noon.  See you then?  Do hope so.