Thursday 27 November 2008

Cut price bread

If you like good bread - which we do - you normally have to pay a fair bit for it. This country loaf (above) is normally priced at £2.50 in our local deli but my husband, who is determined to prove he's a more frugal shopper than I am, picked it up yesterday for just £1.25 because it had been left over from the previous day

Being a traditional sort of loaf it was still perfectly fresh. We froze half of it and have been using the other half for toast.

Even at the higher price it wasn't a bad buy. Large loaves are much better value than small ones for some reason. I've paid two quid in the farmers' market for a loaf half that size. (Not that I've shopped at that stall again!) Any that's left over makes great croutons and breadcrumbs - with or without an AGA ;-)

If you've got a freezer, as thank goodness we finally have, it's well worth buying cut price loaves for Christmas and stashing them away

Tuesday 25 November 2008

3 cheeses for a fiver

I couldn't resist this offer when I spotted it in Somerfield the other day even though it broke one of my cardinal rules of not buying something you're not sure you can use up. Admittedly it wasn't a bad buy. We had family staying overnight, the cheeses individually would have come to over £7 and they were all versatile cheeses - a goats' cheese, a Brie and a piece of mature Stilton from the so-called 'Best Ever' range - which one could use in any number of ways.

I managed to use up a good chunk of the goats' cheese this lunchtime with a spontaneous salad of lightly dressed leaves topped with some roughly-torn croutons, made from leftover bread I baked off quickly in the A*A (won't bang on too much about that, notSupermum!) but could easily have made when I had the oven on for something else.

The Brie, which should last a few days longer, can easily be turned into a toastie or melt and the sell-by date on the Stilton is not till the 17th so there should be plenty of opportunity to use that up. Just a shame that my husband doesn't eat cheese . . .

Sunday 23 November 2008

What's wrong with a bit of mud?

Don't know if you've noticed but one of the things that's been sneakily creeping up in price is parsnips. There was a time when they were one of the cheapest vegetables around during the winter months. Now, like many seasonal veg it seems, they sell at a premium.

Unless they're dirty, that is. Yesterday I bought a handsome quartet at my local greengrocer for just 48p a lb. In Tesco they were selling at over twice as much at £1.28 for a 500g pack. Just because they were washed.

I'd rather have my parsnips dirty, thankyou - and my carrots and spuds (£1 for 5lbs at Terry's) It only takes a couple of minutes to scrub them clean. Worth 50p in anyone's book I would have thought.

What do you reckon? Do you mind a bit of mud or does it put you off?

Thursday 20 November 2008

My 9 hour, £1.64 pork roast

OK, ok. I give in. I'm now a card-carrying member of the AGA fan club.

Yesterday I had an amazing late afternoon shopping raid on our local Somerfield which turns out to be frugal nirvana (being a noted student haunt). When we arrived at about quarter to five they were marking meat down and I picked up 350g of lambs liver for 41p and a 1.75kg pork joint for just £1.64 - both reduced by 75%.

Problem was both needed to be used by the end of yesterday. I was going to marinate the pork but reckoned, on unwrapping it, it needed to be cooked straight away. So I thought I'd risk cooking it overnight in what's called the simmering oven.

I smashed up a teaspoon each of coarse salt, black peppercorns and fennel seeds and 1/2 teaspoon ground chillies with my mortar and pestle then added 3 chopped cloves of garlic to make a coarse paste. I rubbed the joint with olive oil and smeared the paste into the meat and skin then rubbed in a bit of lemon juice (yes, messy, but fun). Then I put the joint in a roasting tin with a slosh of white wine and water, gave the meat 10 minutes in the hot oven then transferred it to the simmering oven.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I took it out this morning, 9 hours later - or whether we'd be woken by the fire alarm in the middle of the night - but it was utterly fantastic. No crackling but just fabulous, fragrant, spicy meat and loads of gorgeous pan juices which are settling as I write. Unbelievable!

The only downside was that we couldn't really eat it hot at that time of the morning though we did manage a few greedy slivers for breakfast but it will make great cold cuts and sandwiches for a couple of days. If you haven't got an Aga you could equally well do this in a very low oven - about 130°C/250°F/Gas 1/2, I would think, having given it a bit of a blast first to get it going.

Oh and the liver was good too. I made a Turkish recipe called Kebda which is simply sliced lambs' liver dusted in flour (2 tbsp) mixed with 1/2 a teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon each of ground cumin and sweet paprika, quickly fried and seasoned with lemon juice. It's nice with a dollop of yoghurt and some chopped coriander but we didn't have either and were certainly not going to spoil our feeling of smug satisfaction by buying overpriced herbs . . .

Wednesday 19 November 2008

A Slow and frugal supper

Over the years I’ve come to realise that book launches are a bit of a waste of time (a view that publishers tend to share). All the key journalists have got the book by the time it takes place and those who take the trouble to come to the launch would almost certainly have written about the book anyway. Sure it’s an opportunity to have a great party and that’s not to be sniffed at but it’s not actually necessary.

This week however we found the perfect solution - a combined book launch and celebration of frugal eating organised by the local Bristol convivium of Slow Food at the local tapas bar Ocean. What was particularly nice was that a couple of the people who had contributed a recipe to the book came along - fellow food writer Andrea Leeman (second from right in the picture) and chef Stephen Markwick of Culinaria (the one diplomatically browsing the book!)

The menu was created by chef Stuart Seth in a classically thrifty manner from ingredients he had left over from the weekend including several dishes from the book (a chicken terrine, fromage fort (a spicy, leftover cheese spread) a game pilaf, a lamb tagine and a splendid de-luxe bubble and squeak which he embellished with all sorts of leftover veg. (The picture above doesn’t do it justice)

We also had ham and split pea soup, fabulously gooey cheese croquetas (one of the best ever frugal recipes, I’m rather sorry I didn’t put in the book) and two tasty offal dishes, a casserole of lamb hearts with lentils and lambs’ liver with pinenuts, raisins and sherry which even the offal-haters in the party happily wolfed down. Oh, and a chocolate bread and butter pudding on which I was slightly less keen but I like my B & B pudding unadulterated.

He managed to produce this blow-out for just £18 a head including wine thanks to a bit of arm-twisting of two of my contacts in the wine world - The Sherry Institute and Wines of Navarra. The choice wasn’t accidental. Spanish wine has always been and continues to be great value. Sherry is one of the most underrated drinks on the planet and Navarra provides well-priced competition to neighbouring Rioja. (I’m not just saying this because they helped us out. I could easily have gone to Gallo ;-)

The whole event was not only a great illustration of the ethos of the book but very much in the spirit of Slow Food - convivial sharing of traditional home-cooked dishes. It also proved how well you can entertain on a budget and that there’s nothing wrong with basing such a meal on humble ingredients and leftovers. Result!

Monday 17 November 2008

Bargain beans

I anticipated a bit of a hiatus in blog postings after the move so had stashed away a couple of items I thought would get me by until I re-focussed on culinary matters (though we did manage to cook some pretty decent lamb chops - reduced in Somerfield - and roast parsnips last night in the dreaded AGA)

Anyway the first was about bin-ends. The other day I bought 13p's worth of red kidney beans in our local health food shop out of curiosity to see how much I would get when they were cooked up. And the answer was at least as much as you get in a 400g tin which are currently selling for about 50-60p if you buy them singly.

True, you have to soak them overnight (not time-consuming, just a matter of remembering) and cook them for about an hour - unless you have a pressure cooker and you know what my feelings are about those - but they do also taste a great deal better than canned beans.

I made a batch of Mexican-style refried beans, the recipe for which you can find, appropriately enough on my student website Beyond Baked Beans, but you could obviously also use them for a chilli or a salad. Or both, even

Friday 14 November 2008

Aaaargh - an Aga!

Since my last post we've moved to a new flat and have taken over an Aga in the process. Combined with the zillion packing cases that are cluttering up every square inch of the place the thought of cooking - or anything else remotely domestic - is a daunting prospect.

Our landlord reassured us it was easy so I'm sure we'll get used to it. My husband insisted we made Aga Toast for breakfast this morning, a legendary delicacy apparently among Aga owners. You clamp your bread between a double-sided wire toasting rack, put it for literally seconds on the hot plate and, bingo, you have the most gorgeous rough-hewn, slightly charred toast (below) It reminds me of making toast in front of an open fire.

It may take a few days for normal service to be resumed so bear with me . . .

PS Do any of you have an Aga or have you ever cooked on one? If so, some tips please about the best way to use them - what they're good at and any potential pitfalls to watch out for.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Spaghetti with bacon and cockles

Yesterday I went down to St Nicholas market to be interviewed about ‘Frugal’ by the Bristol Evening Post, an opportunity to do a bit of browsing at my favourite new food shop and cafĂ© Taste@St Nicks. They were selling Penclawdd cockles from the Gower peninsula, a delicacy you don’t often come across. I remember having them deep-fried when we were there earlier this year and they were fantastic. And at £1.80 a 100g (all you need for two) they’re a thrifty buy.

This time I thought I’d use them in a simple spaghetti sauce, a bit like a Welsh spaghetti alla vongole with bacon. And Thai fish sauce which sounds weird but just accentuates the fishiness of anything you add it to. Here’s how to do it:

Serves 2
2 tbsp olive oil + extra for drizzling
3 rashers of streaky bacon, rinded and finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 a small glass of dry white wine or water (about 75ml)
1/2 tsp of Thai fish sauce (slightly more if you use water)
100g cockles (if you can’t get fresh ones you could use a jar, though drain and rinse them before you add them to the sauce)
200g spaghetti
A small handful of parsley, finely chopped
Ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a moderate heat and add the bacon. Cook for a minute until the fat starts to run then add the onion, stir, turn the heat down and cook for about 10 minutes until the onion is soft and beginning to brown. Stir in the crushed garlic, cook for a minute then turn the heat up a bit and add the white wine and fish sauce. Bubble up for a minute then take the pan off the heat, tip in the cockles and set aside. Cook the spaghetti in boiling water for the time recommended on the pack. Spoon off 2-3 tbsp of the cooking water into the bacon and cockles then drain the spaghetti. Return to the pan, heat through the sauce, tip it over the spaghetti along with most of the parsley and toss together. Divide the spaghetti between two warm shallow bowls, drizzle over a little olive oil, add a few grinds of pepper and sprinkle with a little more parsley.

Monday 10 November 2008

The credit crunch bandwagon

A lot of people are jumping onto the budget eating bandwagon who obviously haven’t checked a supermarket price tag in their life

A press release from What Consumer? passed on by a food writer friend draws up a list of Ten Top Money Saving Tips for Food Shopping. "You will see how much the inclusion of meat in any dish drives up the price" reads tip no. 4 "Experiment with cheaper substitutes such as oyster mushrooms instead of chicken and pancetta instead of bacon." Hello! Quite apart from the fact that pancetta isn’t a non-meat substitute for bacon it’s more expensive. As are oyster mushrooms, weight for weight, than cheaper chicken cuts.

At the same time Ocado co-founder Jason Gissing is apparently telling us that sales of mince are "rocketing" as people cook more at home while little treats such as doughnuts and smoothies are “plunging”. I’m sorry, Jason, I just don’t buy that either. Most people who shop frugally include mince regularly in their repertoire already and are unlikely to double or treble their consumption. And if the economic climate is getting you down I would have thought that you were MORE likely not less, to buy a doughnut.

What planet are these people living on?

Another silly story designed to grab the headlines is Norwich Union's assertion that by 2018, we could be paying £5.35 for a pint of milk. Well, I guess it’s hypothetically possible, but it’s not very likely and if Norwich Union genuinely thinks we’re all going to rush off to stuff our savings in their low-paying accounts simply to be able to pay the milkman in 10 years time they’ve got another think coming. As the author of the piece on the MSN Money Channel points out, the amount we spend on food has actually fallen in the last 50 years. We spend just 15% of our earnings on it compared to a third just after the war.

PRs seem to have got it into their heads that any story with the words ‘frugal’ or ‘credit crunch’ in it will automatically hit the headlines. Which I suppose is good for the book and this blog so I shouldn’t complain but it does seem mildly ridiculous.

Saturday 8 November 2008


A couple of days ago my daughter and I checked out a Vietnamese noodle bar called Pho, conveniently near Oxford Circus. It specialises in Pho (pronounced fuh), an unbelievably addictive, tasty noodle soup, not flattered by the rather murky picture to the right.

The basic broth, which usually includes some kind of meat, is quite bland - you zip it up to your own taste with fresh herbs such as coriander and mint, chillies and/or chilli sauce and fish sauce. I thought they were slightly stingy about the herbs. I haven't been to Vietnam but have eaten a similar soup in Bangkok where you got a great jugful on the table. But it's tasty and, as they correctly point out, very healthy.

My Pho Tai Bo Vien which also included meatballs was £7.45, not bad for a West End lunch though probably 10 times the price you would pay in Vietnam. I suspect you could also find it more cheaply in the Vietnamese restaurants along Kingsland Road in Hackney though I haven't been down there for a while.

I've also had a go at making it at home with reasonable success - you can find the recipe on my student website

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Would you, should you eat a budget sausage?

Given that it’s British Sausage Week and Bonfire Night tonight you’d expect a few offers on sausages this week but few can be as cheap as the 88p that Tesco is charging for its discount brand Tulip.

Curious to see what you get for an 11p sausage I bought a pack of eight. According to the ingredients just 56% of the sausage is pork (compared to about 70-80% for mid-range sausages and 85% plus for premium ranges). The rest is accounted for by pork rind, and pork fat, water and rusk together with a whole load of additives including stablisers which are presumably needed to keep the whole soggy mixture together.

There’s a fair amount of salt (1.2g per 100g) plus a surprising amount of sugar (4.2g per 100g)which presumably accounted for the fact they browned so easily (see picture). Two sausages alone would account for over a third of the recommended 3g daily salt intake for a 4-6 year old.

When I fried them an alarming amount of fat also leached out of them - I spooned off about 7 tablespoons, but it has to be said the flavour wasn’t at all bad. They were a bit pappy and soft but I’ve eaten a lot worse in my time. You can see why they would appeal to a family on a really tight budget (not to mention the students who patronise that particular Tesco store).

I don’t know whether to feel pleased or sorry that they are not made from British pork but ‘EU’ pork which could come from anywhere from Holland to Romania. I doubt if British farmers could afford to do them for that price but given the financial plight they’re in I’m sorry that Tesco is willing to undercut them in this way. I'm pretty sure the 11p sausage doesn’t pay for fair wages or high standards of animal welfare.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Broccoli-stem and celery soup

If you look at the head of broccoli above you'll see about a third of it is stalk. A third, I have to confess, that I used to throw away.

Since writing the book I know better. There had to be some better use for it - and there is. It makes really good soup, along with whatever other vegetables you might have available.

You might think this is so blindingly obvious as to be laughable and always use your broccoli stalks that way but, as I said, I used to be less frugal than I am now.

You need to trim it up a bit with a sharp knife or a potato peeler then cut it into small chunks and add it once you've sweated off your other vegetables. I used onion, celery and potato in roughly the proportions of the Sad Unloved Vegetable Soup here. Then just cook the vegetables in stock until they're tender.

At the end I stirred in some chopped celery leaves (forgot to mention I set those aside too) and topped the soup with some fine slices of sheeps' cheese I had left over. (This is my new favourite way of adding cheese to soup. It melts into long gooey strands that remain distinct from the vegetables rather than turning into a monotonous cheesy gloop.)

If you call it broccoli-stem (rather than broccoli-stalk) soup people will think it's some very cool recipe that Nigella has invented.

And the rest of the broccoli? I cooked it as I often do which is to cut up the florets and stir fry them, adding about a tablespoon of soy sauce, 4 tablespoons of water and a little crushed garlic towards the end. Good hot, but oddly even better lukewarm or cold.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Pork osso buco

I feel vaguely apologetic at having to confess I've been in Waitrose again but listen, I've got a new theory. Which is that no supermarket has a monopoly on bargains, even Lidl. All have really sharp offers these days. All have lines that are overpriced. You've just got to keep your wits about you wherever you shop.

Anyway the bargain I spotted on this visit was pork 'osso buco'for £3.99 a kilo - about half the price veal osso buco would have been. The amount above (apologies to visiting veggies) was just £3.45, pretty good for more than enough meat for 4. It was free-range too.

I cooked it up with some onion, carrot, celery and fresh tomatoes I happened to have lying around, added a glass of white wine and some stock and chucked in some frozen peas at the end, an inauthentic touch that balanced the acidity of the tomatoes nicely and did away with the need for a gremolata, the finely chopped mixture of parsley, garlic and lemon rind you normally sprinkle over the dish

It was really very tasty although I'm not sure that those flavours don't work slightly better with veal. I think I'd try something a bit fruitier and spicier another time - maybe with apricots or prunes. Or cook it with onions, apples, cider and a touch of thyme or sage. Assuming I go back to Waitrose, of course ;-)