Wednesday 30 April 2008

Back to earth

Back to Bristol last night after the usual Easyjet check-in hell. It's cold, it's grey and I have a mountain of post to get through not to mention a book and several articles to write. The wages of sin . . .

As usual when I come back from somewhere in Europe everything seems very expensive. I don't particularly want to plunge into Tesco but can't find anything I really fancy in the local shops. We made do with a frugal but hardly inspiring lunch of hard boiled eggs and sardines. At least it should boost the brain cells.

Amazingly after over two weeks in Italy I've actually lost weight. Only 500g, admittedly but I was expecting to have gained several kilos. My husband has put on just one. We've been trying to work out how and why. We ate two good meals a day. We drank wine with them (though Venetian table wine is much lighter than the wine we drink at home) We ate far more carbs than usual in the form of pasta, polenta and rice (but less bread, less cheese and less meat) And we didn't snack.

The biggest difference I think though was that we walked. And walked. After every meal. No slumping on the sofa watching telly. I'm sure that's the key.

Whether I'll be able to keep this up now we're back remains to be seen. Certainly not tonight when Liverpool are playing Chelsea . . .

Monday 28 April 2008

Venetian ways with vegetables

Looking back on my Venice trip the best value dishes have been the vegetable side dishes called contorni. The best selection was in a small veggie-focussed (rather than strictly vegetarian) restaurant called La Zucca where there's a large menu of them, mostly at 5 euros a dish. A selection of four or five made a great tapas-style meal for two. There's also no reason why you couldn't adapt the idea to entertaining at home.

Here are some of the dishes we ate there

Sauteed zucchini (courgettes) with thyme
Boiled fennel with an arrabiatta (tomato and chili) sauce with olives (above)
Stir fried carrots with soy and sesame seeds
Broccoli all' aglio, olio e peperoncino (with garlic, oil and chili)
Potato 'tortino' with courgettes, peppers and aubergines and basil oil (a bit like a roast veggie lasagne)
Rucola (rocket) rocket salad with mushrooms and parmesan (the mushrooms were sliced on a mandolin which made them look fabulous)

What's great about these dishes (apart from being economical) were how easy they were to throw together. The most complicated dish was the potato tortino which needed to be served hot - but no more difficult than a veggie lasagne. You could serve the other dishes at room temperature and they can be (and were) dressed with oil and vinegar at table.

I can't wait to get back and try them out. (Actually I probably can, given it's blazing hot here and forecast to be pouring with rain when we arrive back in Bristol tomorrow!)

Monday 21 April 2008

Frugal eating Venetian-style

I’ve now been a week in Venice and have had plenty of opportunity to suss out the cheapest way to eat. Not that anywhere in Venice is exactly cheap but there are ways of keeping your restaurant bills down.

The standard Venetian - and Italian - formula for a meal is antipasti (usually some kind of fish or vegetables here), primi (pasta, gnocchi or risotto), secondi (main course) and dolci (sweet). The obvious strategy is to cut two of those courses which is fine when the helpings are generous as they tend to be in the trats, less good in the swankier restaurants where it’s better to have a pasta and main course (oddly the starters aren’t that much cheaper than the main courses)

The idea of having a pasta course obviously makes sense when you think that it takes the edge off your hunger and you therefore need less meat or fish. Yesterday I ended up having two courses which hardly had any expensive ingredients at all - some tiny, sweet shrimps with polenta and a local dish called bigoli in salsa which is splendidly frugal - wholewheat pasta with onions and anchovies.

I just googled the recipe to see how it’s made and find it usually includes white wine or vinegar which figures - the Venetians are very keen on sweet and sour flavours. I felt it could do with something green - parsley or rocket, even. I shall have to try it when I get back. In the event we aren’t doing much cooking here.

My other great favourite is spaghetti alle vongole which is one of those recipes that demonstrates that frugal eating depends on where you live. Here clams are dirt cheap and fabulously fresh. Back home there would be little point in making the dish. The clams in my local fishmonger cost the earth and bottled clams simply don’t taste the same. You could add or substitute mussels but clams have a particularly sweet flavour.

There are also some great beans here which look like a giant borlotti bean but which taste more like a middle eastern foul. They’re used to make a muddy brown soup which looks pretty unappealing but tastes fantastic. You get so used to using tinned beans that you forget how delicious they are when they’re freshly cooked.

The other great bargain is the contorni - vegetable side dishes. You don’t really think of Venetians as having a vegetable-based cuisine but they have some terrific produce. I haven’t yet got to the market but have seen a number of the floating vegetable stalls which are piled high with the most mouthwatering veg. The other day we had the classic risi e bisi which is like a soupy risotto made with fresh peas and pea pods (traditional Venetian cooking really is quite frugal). Another one to try at home when peas come into season next month.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

The Frugal Cook is on holiday!

We're now away on a long-planned trip to Venice to celebrate a Very Significant Birthday (one of the big ones that ends with an '0') so posts are likely to be few and far between for the next fortnight. However we're staying in a flat rather than in a hotel so if I do conjure up or discover any brilliantly frugal dishes I'll let you know!
In the meantime there will be new recipes going up a couple of times a week on my student website Beyond Baked Beans so check that out if you're running low on inspiration!

Sunday 13 April 2008

Big (or small) bowl salads

The way food looks is always important, to me at least, but all the more so if you're using up leftovers. There's nothing more depressing than a pile of brown sludge. Or random bits of food plonked unceremoniously on a plate. (Better to eat it straight from the fridge, which at least has an indulgent frisson to it)

Doing even a minimum of chopping and slicing immediately makes leftovers look more appetising. As does - weirdly - putting them in a bowl (cuts down the washing up too!)

Here's a little salad I rustled up the other day from some leftover haricot beans with some chopped onion, red pepper, half a can of tuna and some chopped parsley - all except the tuna being leftovers. OK we're not talking about a culinary masterpiece here but it doesn't look too bad, does it?

I didn't even make a dressing - just drizzled over a bit of olive oil, a few drops of vinegar (hold your thumb half over the top of the bottle to control the flow), seasoned it with salt and pepper and tossed it together. Five minutes work, max.

Thursday 10 April 2008

Ways of saving on oil

I've been compiling my must-have ingredients list for the book and thinking about oil. I generally have three on the go which seems like a bit of an extravagance but here's how I justify it.

A cheap basic oil for frying which doesn't need to be olive oil. I personally like grapeseed or sunflower oil but you could use a basic vegetable oil if you were really trying to keep costs to a minimum.

A gutsy olive oil for dishes where it really makes a difference. Like a Mediterranean style vegetable stew such as a ratatouille or a pasta sauce that relies for its flavour on oil. The cheapest place to buy this isn't necessarily a supermarket (surprise, surprise). My local health food store has litre bottles (see pic) for £4.99.

A posh oil for drizzling which is admittedly a bit of an indulgence but if you really want the flavour of pure oil over, say, some really great tomatoes it's worth getting a good one. Buy it in small amounts (250 or 500ml) and store it in the dark (in a cupboard, not in the fridge)

You can also cut the cost of your salad dressings by whisking in a spoonful of water once they've thickened. (So for a basic dressing for two that would be 1 dsp wine vinegar, 3-4 dsp olive oil (the medium quality one, not the posh oil) and 1 dsp water) Cuts the calorie count too ;-)

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Buying loose and bin ends

One of the many advantages of shopping in independent shops is that you can buy exactly the amount you need. In our nearest Tesco for instance, a Metro, almost everything is pre-packed. In the local greengrocer it’s the reverse. Everything is sold loose. Quite often you only need a couple of carrots or a few mushrooms for a recipe. If you buy 500g or a kilo there’s always a danger of forgetting about them and finding they’ve gone off.

It’s the same with dried pulses and nuts. In our local health food shop they offer them both ways - pre-packed and loose and there’s a significant saving in buying the latter. Not only because the unit cost is reduced (it’s generally about 40p a kilo lower) but because you won’t necessarily use the larger amount. I bought what I thought looked about the right amount of green split peas to make the pea and ham soup we had at the weekend (235g when they were weighed up which cost me 58p). If I’d bought them pre-packed I’d have paid about £1.50 for 500g. How often do I use split peas? Not often enough to buy the larger amount.

They also sell the tail ends of the bins they need to refill, bagged up as bin ends. I bought a 135g bag of mixed nuts and dried fruits, enough for a couple of days snacking, for 62p. And 265g of good quality muesli with plenty of nuts and seeds for 66p.

Monday 7 April 2008

A very nice quiche

Of all the options for using up the remaining ham from my hock I chose a cheddar and ham quiche and a split pea and ham soup made with the scraps and the bone. The quiche should serve 6 although the two of us managed to demolish half of it yesterday, the soup 4. That makes 12 portions in total from the one £1.89 joint of meat. Result!

Here's the recipe. I'm torn about whether to advise making your own pastry. It has a better taste and texture and is cheaper than buying it ready made but not by a huge amount and it does take a fair bit of time. But the filling knocks spots off any shop-bought quiche.

Cheddar, ham and onion quiche
I suggest cheddar, ham and onion but you could vary this in an infinite number of ways depending on what ingredients you have to hand

Serves 4-6
1 tbsp olive oil
15g butter
1 medium onion (about 175g), peeled and roughly chopped
A handful of wild garlic, shredded (optional)
375g shop-bought or home-made shortcrust pastry
3 medium eggs, lightly beaten
225ml single cream or cream and milk, mixed
100-110g ham, ideally off the bone, cut into small pieces
125g mature cheddar, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400° F/Gas 5.Heat a frying pan over a moderate heat, add the oil and butter then, when it has melted fry the chopped onion for about 5 minutes until soft. Chuck in the wild garlic (which I used because I still had some), stir and set aside.

Unroll the pastry, if ready rolled, or roll it out in a circle big enough to fit a 25cm/10in diameter flan tin. Carefully lower the pastry into the tin, pressing it into the sides, trim any overhanging edges and lightly prick the base with the prongs of a fork. Line the pastry case with a piece of foil or greaseproof paper weighed down with some baking beans and bake the pastry shell for about 10 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and return the pastry case to the oven for another 4 minutes. Brush a little of the beaten egg over the part-cooked pastry base and return to the oven for another minute or two. (This stops it going soggy)

Reduce the heat to 190°C/375°F/Gas 5. Add the milk and cream to the remaining eggs and season with salt and pepper. Scatter half the grated cheese over the base of the tart then sprinkle over the onions and ham and top with the remaining cheese. Carefully pour the egg and cream mixture over the top making sure that it is distributed evenly. Put the flan tin on a baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes until the top is puffed up and lightly browned. Leave for 10-15 minutes before serving or cool completely and serve cold.

Saturday 5 April 2008

Ham hock hunting

My friend and fellow foodie Andy rang up this morning to see if I wanted to go to Bemmie (the Bristol neighbourhood of Bedminster) to buy ham hocks. Long way to go for a small piece of meat but she'd been raving about them for a while.

And goodness, she was right. There they were stacked up, freshly cooked and covered with an appetising jelly. At just £1.89 each. The butcher (D. Butt) specialises in offal and cold cuts so I bought a couple of slices of tongue as well. Total bill £2.79.

We had cold ham and tongue for lunch with a salad made from yesterday's market leaves plus a bit more of the wild garlic and chervil with a salsa verde dressing (vinaigrette with added gherkins, capers and parsley). Some boiled potatoes would have made it perfect but, as I've mentioned, carbs are strictly rationed in the Beckett household at the moment.

I can't believe how much ham there is left. Enough to make two or three of the following:

Chunky ham and mustard (or pickle)sandwiches
Scrambled eggs and ham
Ham omelette or frittata
Cheese and ham quiche (still got that cheddar to use up)
Macaroni cheese and ham (ditto)
Spaghetti carbonara with ham rather than bacon
Potted ham
Ham hash (if we'd had leftover potatoes)
Pea and ham soup (using the bone)
and probably more . . .

What's great about buying ham on the bone like this is that you get a fantastic sweet flavour and texture: big juicy chunks rather than the limp slithery slices you get in a packet.

I reckon I'll get at least another four helpings out of it plus soup which makes the cost per serving about 19p (38 cents). Plus whatever other ingredients I use but it's still a ridiculously cheap way of eating.

Roast chicken and chervil soup plans on hold now. Gave half the remaining chervil and some dried limes to Andy in exchange for the lift and some more wild garlic which she grows in her garden (I like this barter economy). Too many leftovers to justify chicken.

Friday 4 April 2008

Cheese omelette with wild garlic and chervil

Couldn't resist a visit to my local farmer’s market in Whiteladies Road. My favourite stall, Wrington Greens had all kinds of goodies including wild garlic and chervil, a herb that has an amazing affinity with eggs so had to rush back home and make an omelette. Having bought all that cheddar (see previous post) I incorporated that too but it slightly overwhelmed the delicate flavour of the herbs. Another time I'd use goats' cheese.

Serves 1

A small handful of fresh chervil or parsley
2 large eggs or 3 medium ones
2 wild garlic leaves, finely shredded, or some finely snipped chives
15g (1/2 oz) butter
40g (1 1/2 oz) grated cheddar or crumbled goats cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash and pick over the chervil, cutting away the tougher stems and chop finely. Beat the eggs adding a splash of water (about 1 tbsp), add the chopped chervil and wild garlic leaves and beat again. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Heat a medium-sized frying pan or omelette pan until hot, add the butter, swirl it round and pour in the beaten eggs and herbs, pushing them around the pan. Lift the edges of the omelette as they begin to cook, letting the liquid egg run underneath. Scatter over the goats cheese and leave the omelette for a minute to brown the base. Roll it up from the far edge and tip it onto a plate. Serve with some lightly dressed mixed salad leaves.

Having spent a pound each on the chervil and wild garlic leaves I need to find another use for them. Think I'll roast a chicken with the rest of the garlic leaves inside and make a chervil soup. Seem to remember chervil is also delicious with carrots.

New supermarket opening - a chance to stock up!

A new branch of Somerfield has opened down the end of the road. A bit of a let down really - it's not much more than a glorified off-licence but because they want to attract custom they've dropped leaflets round the area with a 10% off voucher for the opening week.

We went down and loaded up with basics like olive oil, coffee, kitchen towel and loo paper plus a huge block of cheddar for £1.99 which I was in two minds about buying as we're away again next week. But it was only 10p more than a block half its size so I now have to make our diet cheese-focussed for the next four days in order to use it up. Will report back on how it goes.

Of course the best things to buy are non-perishables you use reguarly such as tinned tomatoes, spaghetti and tuna all of which were on offer at half price.

It's worth keeping an eye out for new supermarket openings. You not only get the benefit of sharp prices in the new store but in neighbouring supermarkets who want to hang on to your custom.

Not that I'll be abandoning my small shops. I'll still stick to them for fresh produce.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

A veggie bonanza

The problem about writing this book is that you not only have to use up all your own leftovers but those of well-meaning friends.

"You wouldn't like some carrots and cauliflower, would you?" asked my neighbour wistfully. "We've just got a whole lot more in our veg box." By bequeathing them to us she feels she's not wasting them so I feel bound not to let her down. Free dinner anyway.

I scrubbed and sliced the carrots and put them in a pan with a teaspoon of mixed ground coriander and cumin and half a teaspoon of vegetable bouillon powder, gave them a stir, put just enough water in the pan that they wouldn't catch, covered them and left them on a low heat until they were tender (about 25 minutes). This is the way I normally cook carrots - you get a much more intense flavour than if you boil them.

I cut up and steamed the cauliflower, made a quick white sauce, added a bit of cheddar, decanted half the cauliflower into a shallow dish, poured over the sauce, topped it with the rest of the cheese and flashed it under the grill.

Odd combination, cauliflower cheese and carrots but it worked out fine. Potatoes would have been a good addition but we're cutting down on carbs at the moment.

I dressed the leftover carrots with a little vinaigrette, some extra coriander and cumin and some dried dill and the cauliflower with the same dressing plus some garlic, hot paprika and capers. These will make cooked salads for tomorrow with . . . er . . . I'm not sure what yet. Chopped cashew nuts or sesame seeds would go quite well with the carrots. Haven't got any fresh herbs though at the moment which would make a good last minute addition.

If I had been feeling even more frugal I could have blitzed the two veg into a soup, with the water I used for steaming the cauliflower.

And if I'd had leftover potatoes I could have made a dry cauliflower potato and carrot curry which we could have eaten with some raita and a dal. The leftovers from which (the dal) could have been made into soup . . .

Quite satisfyingly creative, frugal eating. So long as you're prepared to cook a bit.