Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Balancing Act

Without wishing to bore everyone, do feel the need to continue with yesterday's 'chat' about the actual cost of our meals versus the true cost of having to first go out and buy all the ingredients (as there will always be surplus left - and we need to be aware of this and find a use for it.   Am aware this is teaching a grandmother to suck eggs, but we can often be put off making a recipe when the cost is given and it appears (and still could be) too expensive.

Having yesterday read through one of the mags that give price-per-portion, most meals seem to be in the region of 1.50 a head, give or take a shilling or two in either direction.  There are also some 'cheapies' (under a £1) and I did see one at £5.48!!  Even then we could afford the occasional luxury meal if we do a balancing act, maybe plan the menu for a week ahead (sadly, this is something I rarely do - because it takes away some of the 'what shall I make today?' interest), serving (say) four inexpensive meals, a couple of middling ones, and one 'treat'. 

As ever, this is all to do with how much money we have to spend in the first place.  Living on the bread-line means almost that (but considering the rising cost of bread we could buy a lot of fresh produce for the price of one loaf today).  On the other hand, if we can slowly build up a store-cupboard of 'useful things' - if starting from scratch read recipes to find out the most used - then we will have most of 'the makings' already, with no need to go out and spend more.

Although (at least to me) any meal that costs over £1 seems excessive, I have to admit to not really costing a dish out these days.  Just as long as I can keep within my monthly food budget, that's all that matters.  It helps to know just how much (or little) money we do need to spend on food.

We all know that it is cheaper to feed two (costs per head) than one.  A family of four (if two are small children then call that three) will - or could - work out even cheaper.   This means that a person living alone is more likely to pay the most for their meals.  But not necessarily, there are plenty of bargains around.

Working on the average cost of a one-portion main meal (home-cooked) as £1.50, then this works out at £10.50 a week.  That's £42 a month - per person.   When cooking for two or more the monthly cost, again per portion, would be less.   Four a family of four (two adults, two children), we might be able to bring the cost down to an average of £1 a head, especially if alternating the more expensive with the far cheaper, but even then this means a total of over £100 for the month, and that's just for the main meal each day.  We have to then add the cost of breakfast, lunch and any other snacks that might be eaten.  At times like this I think cookery-mags live in cloud cuckoo land as many families don't have £100 to spend on food in the first place.   

This week B keeps asking me if I'm having a Tesco delivery soon,  he seems to feel slightly insecure without a regular delivery.  It's now two months since my last order was delivered from T, but as I have had the first of the monthly organic veg-box delivery, and B has brought in some fresh milk/eggs from Morrison's, plus one or two other items (all well within the £10 a week top-up budget I'd set myself), an knowing I can still keep going for another month at least.  But will I?  Haven't I proved the point of the challenge already?  But if I do order, it won't be until next week, and as then the second of the monthly deliveries from Riverford will arrive on Tuesday, my Tesco order will certainly be less than normal.

If anything, this current challenge of mine is proving that once we have built up a good store-cupboard, then use what we have, spending a small amount each week on 'fresh' to top-up, it should be possible to eat well for a lot less than we expect.  It's just building up the stocks that can often be difficult.  Ideally, from the start, buy a few of the dry goods each time we shop (those with a long shelf life where we use only part of a pack at any one time), in a very few months we should then have a quite a bit in store that we can then keep using.  Trouble is (and this includes me) we often forget these dry goods are bought to be used, and so leave them on the shelf while we go out hunting for more food to cook/eat that we really didn't need if we'd thought it out first. 

I have packs of lentils (green and split red), dried cannellini beans, a jar of dried chickpeas, and umpteen other jars containing all sorts of things (walnuts, desiccated coconut, preserved lemons, various sugars, flaked almonds, broken biscuits.....and the rest, all waiting to be used, and rarely are.  Time for me to take myself in hand and work through the lot.

For some reason yesterday kept throwing up 'things worth chatting about', so I kept writing them down as I discovered them.  We start with a small jar of fresh rosemary that I had cut a couple or so weeks ago from a bush in the garden,  I had too much at the time, so just shoved the remaining stalks into a small jam jar full of water.  Whether it is because the jar was put a the back of the kitchen unit under the back-light, giving it extra warmth and light, or whether this would happen anyway, but noticed yesterday (when I went to top up the jar with water), the little stems had begun to throw off roots, so will be able to soon pot them up.   We have a huge rosemary bush in the garden, so I can give the pots of rosemary away as gifts...OR (good idea this) give them to the butcher to sell (he also has a fruit and veg counter under his window outside) for him to sell, in which case he can pay me back in kind (chicken carcases, sausages etc...!!!).

Watched James Martin again, and quite liking this series (he has the most lovely eyes).  Was interested in his way of making crème fraiche -  the same way I made sour cream the other week.  Just mixed lemon juice into double cream (the mistake I made was to use double instead of single cream).   When I did this it thickened the cream so much it could be cut with a knife, but tasted absolutely wonderful, so served it with scones and jam. 

The other day made some EasiYo fruit yogurt that hadn't set as firmly as I thought.  If I'd noticed this when removing it from the flask I could have put it back with more boiling water to surround it and left it for longer.  But once chilled didn't wish to do this.  Not a problem as nowadays we can buy 'runny yogurt' for drinking, and so was able to do this with mine.  Unset yogurt is also good poured over cereals instead of milk.  Or used like buttermilk when baking.

My neighbour occasionally goes with us when we visit Barton Grange, and always treats herself to some peanut-brittle from the sweet counter, she says she cannot find it elsewhere.  I've tried the supermarkets, but they don't seem to stock it.   So yesterday decided to try making some.  I'd already got some dry-roasted peanuts in the larder, so - using the easiest recipe I could find - set about making some.  All that is needed is the same weight of peanuts and caster sugar. 

The sugar needs putting into a pan to melt, and - using 100g of each - found the sugar needed a teaspoon of water adding to help it on its way, the water would then boil away as it cooked.  When hot enough for caramel (150C/300F), remove from heat, add the nuts, then tip onto a parchment lined baking tray, press flat and leave to get cold.   It will then (and did) set perfectly.
The only problem with this is getting the temperature right.  Only experienced cooks can gauge this  without needing a thermometer.  I treated myself to a very useful one, looks like a little bedside clock, and normally used as a clock, it has a long thin wire that can be plugged in, the end being thicken metal that is either pushed into meat or put into boiling sugar syrup/preserves etc to register the heat.  Useful when roasting a large joint of me (not that I often do this), as the wire-end can be pushed into the raw joint, then placed into the oven, the wire thin enough to go outside where it will then be fitted into the little clock.  It can even be set to bleep when the internal temperature has been reached.  I have (over the years) bought three other cooking thermometers, and this one is by far the best and most accurate.

During the evening, managed to watch all the first half of 'The Taste', but nodded off during the second half.  But it was the first part that was most interesting, only in that it did discuss the use of left-overs and was pleased that the chef there mentioned how full of flavour a cauliflower stalk/core has.  I always grate this core (also the core of white cabbage) to use when cooking, it makes good cole-slaw as well, and with cauliflower leaves makes an excellent soup (when cooked in milk and blitzed).
If I can find an old-fashioned fish-monger, then will hope to be able to buy cod's heads as have often heard chefs mention using cod 'cheeks'.  We forget that cheeks are full of muscle and lots of creatures have enough useable cheek.  Ox cheeks are gorgeous when cooked with a little red wine, and pig's cheeks were always a favourite (known as 'Bath Chaps'), but rarely sold these days.  Time perhaps to start using these cheaper, but really tasty, foods before they become fashionable and the price rockets.

Was pleased to see the first of the new series of  'The Great British Sewing Bee' last night. It's good to have a change from cookery, and has got me thinking about buying myself a sewing machine.  I did have one - a big and very heavy Singer that did everything and paid for itself over the many years I used it (making the girl's clothes, and things sold to craft-shops).  Far too cumbersome for me to lift I gave it away, but miss it, and want to buy a light-weight one, then get sewing again (probably cushion covers and of course make-over my old clothes).  

My Beloved did have chicken for his supper yesterday.  I 'butterflied' a chicken breast and seasoned it on both sides with Cajun mix before frying in a little butter/oil.  When about ready I added some cooked peas, with oven-roasted vegetables (parsnips, celery, onion, red bell pepper) to complete the meal.  Colourful and well-flavoured and enjoyed by B.  
Myself had a salad of coleslaw, plus tomato, bell pepper, finely sliced shallot, and a can of tuna. Made a salad dressing from low-fat mayo with a dash of Fiery chilli ketchup.  As I'd made a lot, ate half for lunch (after I'd had my tomato soup) and half for my supper.   Weight remains the same, but at least no gain.

With me always seeking recipes that can use up what I have, and although do have dried porcini mushrooms in the larder, having dried a lot of surplus fresh mushrooms over last year, these could be used instead.  Haven't at the moment got fresh mushrooms  (B can bring me in some, or there may be some in the Riverford box next week.  Whatever - this is a good recipe to keep as it can turn 'oddments' into something that can either be used as a simple 'toast-topper' snack, or served as a starter (with more toast) when entertaining. 
If you are lucky enough to be able to buy mushrooms (often sold very cheaply in markets at the end of the week), as this will freeze, then worth making.

Mushroom Butter: serves 8
1 x 30g pack dried porcini mushrooms
1 pack butter (250g), softened
1 onion, very finely chopped or grated
2 - 3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
9 oz (250g) chestnut mushrooms, finely chopped
2 tblsp brandy
juice of half a lemon
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water.  Leave to soak, then drain and chop.
Put 2 oz (50g) of the butter into a pan over medium-low heat and fry until softened.  Add the garlic and thyme and fry for a further minute.  Stir in all the mushrooms, making sure all are coated with the butter.  Raise the heat to high and cook for 5 - 8 minutes until soft, then pour in the brandy and lemon juice.  Continue cooking for a couple or so more minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated.  Remove from heat, add the parsley and seasoning to taste, then remove the sprigs of thyme, before leaving to cool.
Mix the mushroom mixture with the remaining butter, then divide between four ramekin dishes. Chill until firm, where it will keep in the fridge for up to three days.  Or - if you prefer - cover with cling-film, place into freezer bags, and freeze for up to three months, defrosting completely before serving.
Serve each ramekin to share between two, along with freshly toasted bread and some dressed salad leaves.

Myself tend to prefer using a recipe that has few ingredients as a long list always seems so daunting (and also expensive), yet it really is the other way round.  The more ingredients, the cheaper a dish could turn out to be as most of these are added to give flavour to the main foods that perhaps have little of their own (so are inexpensive because of this).

Because I keep a fairly wide variety of both fresh and stored foods in the kitchen, am always pleased to find a recipe I can make - like today, only it probably won't be today -  but this doesn't mean to say if I haven't got all the 'makings' it still can't be made, I'd just use alternatives/substitute ingredients.

Have so say the following recipe brought Eileen to mind as I know she loves olives and also has courgettes in her freezer.  Neither are my most favourite foods, but wouldn't dismiss them if served to me. No point in always giving recipe that I enjoy when others may prefer to eat something different, so let's hope that many readers will enjoy this one.

Although the recipe shows the way to make the cheese sauce, I'm not going to slap anyone's hands if they prefer to use a packet of cheese sauce mix (but add extra grated cheese to give more flavour). I don't care what people say, if there is a convenience food that cuts the amount of cooking time away, then I'm prepared to use it just as long as the main part of the dish is made using unprocessed (like fresh) ingredients and is home-made.

Because this can be frozen for up to three months it is worth making the full batch.  Otherwise pare it down to make only as much as you need.
Cheese and Pasta Bake: serves 12 
2 tblsp olive oil
1 bag mini-peppers, cut into chunks
6 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed
1 x 500g pack mushrooms, quartered
1 ltr carton passata
16 fl.oz (450ml) vegetable stock
2 tsp dried oregano
1 jar pitted black olives, drained
1 lb (450g) courgettes, halved and sliced
freshly ground black pepper
1 x 500g pack pasta penne (or other shapes)
cheese sauce/topping:
2.75pints (1.5 litrs) milk
4 oz (100g) butter
5 oz (150g) plain flour
10 oz (300g) mature Cheddar, grated
3 oz (75g) chunk stale bread, torn into pieces
Heat the oil in a large frying pan and stir-fry the pepper for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and mushrooms and continue frying for five more minutes, then pour over the passata and stock, adding the oregano, olives and courgettes, seasoning well with pepper.   Reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, for 10 - 15 minutes, until the veggies are just tender and the sauce has thickened a bit.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta as per packet instructions, then drain and add to the above mixture..
Make the cheese sauce by putting the milk, butter and flour into a pan, heating gently, and whisking all the time until smooth and thick.  Fold in half the cheese, stirring until melted into the sauce.
To assemble the dish, pile the mushroom/courgette/passata mixture into several baking dishes, packing it down well before pouring the cheese sauce on top.   Mix together the remaining cheese and bread pieces then scatter this on top.  At this point it can be chilled and then frozen for up to three months, then thaw before baking (or allow longer baking time if from frozen).
To serve:  bake at 200C, gas 6 for 40 minutes until bubbling hot and golden on top.

Off now to watch Winter Olympics as it is the final for the women's curling (men's this afternoon). Think it is worth giving up a little of my cooking morning to enjoy watching this.  Might be able to persuade B to have sausage, eggs, beans and oven-chips for his supper, then I won't need to spend so much time preparing something more elaborate for him.  Myself will have my favourite tomato soup for lunch and salad for supper (with either canned fish, sausages or hard-boiled eggs...). 

Is it Wednesday today or Thursday? I cannot remember. All days are much the same to me now. How sad is that?  As long as I know when it will be Friday as this is the day I won't be blogging.  So if Friday is tomorrow, then you'll have to wait for Saturday before I return.  Suppose this means 'see you when I see you' (which might be tomorrow - or could be the day after).  Stop rambling Shirley, the curling will have begun, so get up and go.   Bye for now.