Far be it for a GP author to ever admit defeat, but in this particular instance, I must bow to the inevitable, once the full extent of the challenge becomes clear. Grimy Miner, you know who I am talking about. In a previous comment (which of course no one reads), I foolishly ascertained that it would be difficult to assemble 20 or so nourishing meals for £20. Being blinded by the amount of money regularly spent by yours truly on topping up the household “store-cupboard”, this led me to think about the high-cost “extras”, and cooking techniques one could adopt to keep the ever increasing food budget more manageable. Apart from the usual wisdom of purchasing in bulk, taking advantage of special offers etc., this is a skill that seems to be lacking in today’s household economy. With over £4.7 billion spent on ready-to-eat meals each year (2018 figures) , a considerable amount of household income could be saved if people cooked for themselves, rather than depend on expensive take-away and pre-prepared meals. This of course, is very much dependant on the amount of free time you have. I know Mrs R and myself in our younger days, when we were working combined 90+ hour weeks with extended commutes, we relied heavily on take away meals. We made a conscious decision when we started a family to try and cook as much as possible and not rely on such products, not just on a budget basis, but a health one as well. As a result, none of the Rookwood household could be considered gross endomorphs, and while some definite signs of middle age spread have been spotted amongst the older members, this is probably more down to our alcohol consumption and lack of regular exercise, than diet itself.
This is not intended to be in competition with Grimy Miner’s series, far from it. For that reason I will not be sharing my “top secret” recipes here, but rather this is designed a companion guide which I hope will inspire more people to cook, as I believe it is an essential life skill. It is really just a summary of my money-saving thoughts and successful culinary tips gathered over the years.
Section 1 – Store cupboard ingredients
- Dried herbs (Tarragon, thyme, basil etc.). Essential additions to sauces stews etc, current best value is to be found in Morrisons and Aldi. Schwartz herbs and spices, while excellent quality, are very expensive, often triple the cost of supermarket own brands which generally are just as good.
- Regular spices (Salt, black and white pepper, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon). To date, I have not discovered any benefit of spending more than you need to on these. Pink Himalayan salt tastes the same as the stuff that comes in plastic bottles.
- Specialised spices (Smoked paprika, garlic powder, chilli powder, curry powder, Aromat etc.). I tend to buy a decent brand name for these (Schwartz) or make my own from dried chillies, coriander and cumin seeds. If you like curries, you are far better off purchasing the dried ingredients from ethnic supermarkets which can be bought cheaply in bulk and ground in an old coffee grinder. Make a batch, and you can give away the excess to friends as gifts etc., but as they last forever, even a small bag will be considerably cheaper than the regular supermarkets. Some own brand supermarket varieties of these spices can be particularly rough, especially the chilli powder. If you can get a hold of Kashmiri red chilli powder, it is just right temperature wise for chilli and curries and adds a beautiful red colour to your dishes. Aromat, while expensive, contains traces of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), which is essential if you want to add that authentic edge to a Chinese stir fry etc.
- Wet flavourings (Lee Perrins, Tabasco, Sriracha, honey, mustard, mayonnaise, garlic or tomato puree, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, vinegar). Apart from the first three items, which generally do not have an own-brand equivalent, everything else go for the cheapest. Garlic puree has gone up a lot in price, so substitute with garlic powder or fresh garlic if you are on a strict budget. If you can get a good deal on balsamic vinegar go for it, if you boil it to death with some sugar it makes an excellent reduction sauce for vegetables or meat. A mixture of mayo, sriracha, tomato sauce and garlic powder makes for a superb burger sauce.
- Stock cubes (Vegetable, meat, fish). A variety of these are essential, but this is the only ingredient I would pay a higher price for, purely for health reasons. The cheaper own brand varieties (Aldi), have a very high salt content. The better selection the better, as these can be added to a roux to make an excellent ham, chicken or fish sauce for pie fillings etc.
- Oils (vegetable, olive, rapeseed, coconut etc.). If you are on a budget, you can get some excellent deals by buying in bulk either at major supermarkets or ethnic supermarkets. The latter three oils are the most expensive, and unless you have a special requirement (e.g. a vinaigrette or salad dressing), vegetable oil will cover most of your frying needs, but be aware that some are better than others. The flash point of vegetable oils does vary by quality, and some of the cheaper brands do deteriorate quicker in multiple frying cycles (e.g. in a deep fryer) than others.
- Padding, thickening and proving ingredients (plain and self raising flour, cornflour, easy bake yeast, porridge oats, pulses such as dried lentils, beans, barley etc.) These are absolutely essential in a store cupboard if you want your £20 note to go further. I’ve included cornflour for thickening stews and sauces etc, as it is easily dissolved in water and added to a watery casserole etc. to produce a medium thick gravy without lumps.
- Dried sides (Rice, pasta, risotto rice, couscous etc.) Buy the plain stuff, and preferably in bulk if your domestic arrangements allow for it (i.e. it can be stored in a airtight, pest and damp free environment). Do not purchase the “Chef’s specials” with the picture of a chef on front at an embarrassing mark up. Even with just the ingredients in this list, you can make a far superior, and personalised version that is probably healthier as well.
- Frozen and tinned vegetables. Both essential to padding out stews, soups and casseroles, frozen peas are probably the entry level here but just be aware that many frozen vegetables (like frozen mince and fish) might look an attractive buy in the packet, but often there is more water than ingredient. I find tinned chilli, or mixed beans and chickpeas to be an excellent additional ingredient. Frozen mushrooms, onions or spinach, less so.
- What to avoid. Anything with a chefs face or a cute cartoon character on the front would be my first suggestion, as this will be a brand mark up. Uncle Ben, his rice and sauces a close second. Cook in sauces, packet flavourings, stock pots, or ingredients that are aimed at making the cook’s life easier, are generally verboten and expensive to boot.
_Section 2 – 10 Techniques to saving money on a food budget
- Bake it. Believe it or not, unless you loiter around the supermarket bread counter at the end of the day, you can save money by baking your own bread. Anything not quickly consumed within 24 hours can be ground up in a food processor and used a coating for meat, fish, cold mashed potatoes or fried for croutons etc. Look up no-knead recipes, and you can tailor your exact style and type of bread or rolls, from a rustic loaf to hot-dog buns or pizza base. No experience required.
- Batter it. The classic Scottish method of making a meagre portion of meat, fish, or indeed any amalgam of protein and vegetables go further. A basic batter consists of plain flour, water and seasonings, a more luxurious one of self-raising flour, fizzy water or beer and seasonings. Everything from protein, unused mashed potato to onion rings, mushrooms to Mars bars can undergo this treatment. Not for the diet conscious, it does make food go further, easily doubling the serving quantity. A pack of five chicken breasts can feed 10-15 people depending on the thickness and consistency of the batter.
- Flan it. A basic shortcrust pastry of plain flour and hot water makes a simple base for a savoury or sweet tart. If you want to be closer to French cuisine, use cold water and an egg. This plus some leftover bacon, cheese an a few eggs will make a dish ample for 4-6 with some salad or chips.
- Pie it. As above, but use some protein, bang a lid on it and add a homemade roux and some pre-cooked meat.
- Roux it. Make a sauce based on melted butter, plain flour and milk, or cold stock. Great as a pie filling, or just to pad out a dish to make portions go further.
- Pad it. Vegetables, rice, pasta and porridge oats, added to soups and stews will make them go further. The oats trick works well to make mince go further.
- Crumb it. Stale bread, ground in a food processor, can be used to coat everything from meatballs to chicken and fish to add density, variety, and make the expensive bits go further. Breadcrumbs can be added to a meatball mixture and to the outside, prior to frying. When used with a flour and egg wash, this can coat everything from chicken to mashed unused, cold potatoes.
- Stock it. A chicken carcass, any unused uncooked meat bones, can be thrown in a pot or a slow cooker along with any veg that has seen better days to make homemade stock. Once strained, cooled and the far removed from the top, the resulting stock can be frozen and used as a basis for soup, stews etc. The longer it is cooked for, the more goodness that is extracted from the bones etc., but 3-4 hours will work on a low heat, preferably at least 8 or all day in a slow cooker.
- Mince it. Leftover vegetables can be finely chopped in a food processor and added to mince meat, shredded chicken etc, before being battered, crumbed and cooked.
- Bulk it. Cooking in bulk, then freezing the individual portions is a great way to take advantage of special deals on meat. Just be aware that if you buy meat on the use by date you will have to cook this immediately, and the resulting dish will need to be defrosted and reheated immediately as well, if you are to avoid the Mexican two step or worse.
Phew. I hope this gives you all some ideas, hopefully it might even give Grimy Miner some further inspiration as to how make that £20 note stretch further, especially when faced with what to do with that rather esoteric, but inexpensive ingredient lurking on the shelf. That is, if he hasn’t decided to come up with a recipe for Rookwood pie sometime in the future in lieu of this public apology …
© Rookwood 2020
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