Thursday 30 July 2009

How to cut your restaurant bill

One of the few upsides of the recession is that there seem to be an unprecedented number of good deals in restaurants at the moment - provided, of course, you can afford to eat out.

Arbutus, which is one of London's most appealing restaurants, for example has a fixed price pre-theatre dinner for £17.50 for 3 courses - basically the price of a main course in a mid-price restaurant. And the food is terrific. My daughter and I kicked off with porchetta with pecorino (finely sliced, carpaccio style, served with a few leaves and a delicious dressing). She had Welsh lamb breast, pressed into a neat rectangle and served with mash and summer vegetables - just like a posh Sunday roast and I had smoked eel and tarragon risotto as a main course.

I finished with a couple of generous slices of Tomme de Savoie (to their credit as most restaurants charge an arm and a leg for cheese these days) while she had a truly classy dessert of strawberry sorbet (above right) with sliced strawberries and meringue. I honestly don't know how they do it for the price but I suppose it means they can squeeze in an extra sitting. (The restaurant opens for dinner at 5pm) Their lunchtime deal, which my son Will told me about, is even keener at £15.50

There are other tactics. Having two starters or a starter and a pud instead of a main course is a well-established ruse but I've noticed that restaurants have latched on to that and the price of starters is creeping up. Or just go for a main course. Yesterday I met with a couple of friends at another London favourite Racine and just had the steak tartare and chips (both awesome). Not having a starter, dessert or coffee probably cut our bill in half.

If you're prepared to eat vegetarian that's almost always cheaper than eating meat or fish as well.

Is this fair to restaurants while they're struggling? I'd emphatically say yes. I'm sure most restaurants would prefer to see customers who spent slightly less than not see them at all.

Has the recession affected how often you eat out and do you have any other good tips for keeping the bill down?

Sunday 26 July 2009

Remoska roast veal with rosemary and garlic

Although I can't think, given the current weather, why we ever switched off the AGA, I'm getting increasingly persuaded by the virtues of its temporary replacement, the Remoska - about a tenth the size but similarly versatile.

Tonight I rustled up a Sunday night supper from the freezer, veg rack and storecupboard- a small rolled shoulder of veal joint from the Real Veal Company I brought back from the Bristol Wine and Food Fair a couple of weeks ago and froze with assorted root veg, some home-grown rosemary and almost half a head of fresh elephant garlic that had been sitting round in the veg rack for a while.

I poked the rosemary into the meat then put it in the pan along with a quartered onion, a couple of giant cloves of garlic and a couple of carrots and switched on the cooker. 45 minutes later I turned the meat, added a slosh of white port (could equally well have been white wine) and a handful of new potatoes and carried on cooking it for another half hour. Total cooking time 1 1/4 hours, resting time 15 minutes. And it tasted like the best French country stew you can imagine.

The other day I made a meat loaf in it to this recipe. Scarily large amounts of fat came out of it (and were discarded) but the loaf itself was really delicious - and easily enough to feed six.

Apparently the Remoska uses 80% less electricity than a normal oven which makes it a frugal gadget par excellence. Perfect for the two of us (although you can easily cook meals for four in it) and for caravan or boat owners, I would imagine. (And no, I don't have any kind of commercial relationship with them!)

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Check your till receipt!

This afternoon I found I'd been short-changed by Tesco on a special offer. It's the second time in a month that's happened - that I've been aware of although there may well have been other occasions.

I bought a couple of packs of herbs on a 2 for £1 offer instead of their normal price of 82p and 79p but the full amount was rung up at the till. I thought the total was more than I expected and checked the receipt. When I took it back I found that I'd been overcharged 61p.

A similar thing happened the other day at Somerfield on a 2 for 1 deal on kitchen towel.

I'm reluctant to conclude it's deliberate - I can't think supermarkets would be so stupid as to consciously swindle their customers. Putting a positive construction on what happened there are so many special offers these days it must be hard to make sure they all get accurately logged onto the system. But had these purchases been part of a larger shop rather than a small one I suspect I wouldn't have noticed. It would be easy enough to slip by.

So I suggest, if you don't already do so, you keep track as far as possible of what you're spending and scrutinise your receipt carefully before you pay or leave the shop.

Do you have a similar experience of being overcharged?

Sunday 19 July 2009

A pinch of umami . . .

Just as I was thinking about posting on the subject of umami (following last night's delicious umami-rich supper of roast haddock and mushrooms) an animated discussion has broken out on Twitter on the virtues - or otherwise - of adding Marmite to a spaghetti sauce.

It was prompted by Nigella's discovery, revealed in Observer Food Monthly today, that adding Marmite to a classic al burro sauce makes for a particularly tasty, child-friendly meal, a tip she got from her mentor, Italian food writer Anna del Conte.

Marmite, of course, is rich in umami - the so-called 'fifth taste' (the others being sweet, sour, salty and bitter) It's a kind of intense savouriness you find in ingredients such as aged parmesan, roast chicken skin, slow roast tomatoes, porcini, fish sauce and dried seaweed like kombu and makes every dish that contains it taste lip-smackingly appetising.

The great thing about it is that it's not expensive. You only need a little to create the effect which makes it a great asset to the frugal cook's larder. Last night I cooked the simplest of dishes in my Remoska cooker (my new obsession) that involved sweating off a small onion, adding 250g of sliced chestnut mushrooms, cooking them for about 15 minutes then topping them with a couple of haddock fillets and cooking a further 6-7 minutes until the fish was cooked. The magic ingredient was a large pinch of the umami-rich poudre de ceps, I mentioned a couple of months back, which intensified the umami flavour of the mushrooms.

If you're going to France this summer look out for it in those sections of service stations that stock local food products (I think I bought mine in the Auvergne) or, if you can't wait that long buy a tin of the bizarrely named Shake O'Cini which has a similar effect. Failing that, add a little Marmite to your mushrooms - along with a good knob of butter. It might sound as weird with fish as it does with spaghetti but I bet it will work.

Do you consciously add umami to your cooking and if so, in what way? (I expect a full answer on this from Sig of Scandilicious, one of the three student collaborators on our forthcoming Ultimate Student Cookbook, who has studied the subject in depth ;-)

Monday 13 July 2009

To eat better, eat less . . .

I've made a couple of purchases in the last couple of days that were not strictly frugal but they weren't extravagant either.

One was two very small punnets of raspberries (from a farm called Pixley Berries which makes fruit cordials) which I bought from our local greengrocer. I didn't weigh them but I would doubt if they were more than 125g each which at 99p a punnet wasn't cheap. But they had auch a fabulously intense flavour you could eat them on their own so no need for cream or even sugar. Worth every penny.

I also picked up four packs of back bacon at the Bristol Wine & Food Fair for £10 (plus a very fetching pink hessian bag). I have to say I was seduced by the name - spoiltpig - but in fact it was produced by a company called Denhay whose bacon I've been buying for years. Spoiltpig is a very clever rebranding which underlines the fact that their bacon is reared humanely (it's Freedom Food endorsed). It's also extremely tasty - dry and savoury without that awful milky goo that oozes out of cheap bacon when you fry it. I had a brilliant bacon butty yesterday made with 2 rashers instead of 3 so reckon I didn't spend any more than I would normally have done. (You can apparently buy it in Morrisons and larger branches of Budgens)

It reminded me that one solution to cutting back your food budget is simply to eat less. Easier said than done, I know, if you have hulking great teenage boys or alpha males in your family but for the rest of us cutting back a bit is no bad thing. And it still remains possible to treat yourself to the foods you enjoy and support small producers who need your custom in the process.

Do you have any particular weaknesses when it comes to pricier ingredients?

Sunday 5 July 2009

My new frugal appliances

As predicted the weather has turned cold - or coldish - again so we probably could have left the AGA on but who knows what it will be like next week? And besides I'm getting quite used to our new cooking arrangements

The induction hob in particular is fantastic. I have to admit I was deeply sceptical when my husband suggested it and pretty well gave in to humour him but as usual he had researched the subject exhaustively and was (annoyingly) right: they are incredibly efficient.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them they only kick in when a compatible stainless steel pan is placed on them which then heats up very quickly leaving the surface around the pan completely cool. You can also adjust the temperature very easily - today I made scrambled eggs on ours for the first time and found it turned right down low when I needed it to. Our model, a Stellar, cost £59.95 which I thought wasn't bad at all and should apparently cost very little to run.

The other success - apart from the grill on which I reported the other day - was an old Remoska cooker I was sent several years ago when I was researching a feature and had never got round to using. Basically it looks like a baking tin with a heavy glass lid which conceals the element and works like a mini-oven.

We cooked a Spanish-style dish of cod and chorizo (above right), sweating off a red pepper with some wet garlic and the chorizo then placing the fish steaks on top. The whole thing took about 15 minutes.

It has one of those websites that claims the Remoska can cook everything including Yorkshire pudding and pizza (bit sceptical about the latter but I imagine you'd have no trouble with all kinds of small roasts and bakes. The temperature range is around 190°C-220°C) Again, it's supposed to run at a fraction of the cost of a conventional oven.

Both would be useful even if we weren't in our hobless, ovenless situation. The Stellar would be a great spare hob if you regularly have to cook for a crowd and the Remoska, which you can buy from Lakeland, would be ideal for anyone in a bedsit or a student a hall of residence who didn't have an oven. Or someone living on their own who wants to keep their fuel bills down. I'm converted.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Grilled lemon chicken and courgettes

Well the AGA is now off - phrew! - and we've got our summer cooking kit organised. Last night I gave the Cuisinart grill a run through its paces and was pretty impressed. I've only ever cooked with a George Foreman grill before which is fine for burgers but not much else - this had a much better system of heat transmission and a heavier lid which seems to cook single pieces of meat and veg more effectively.

I simply took a couple of chicken breasts, separated the fillet and sliced the remainder in half lengthwise to create pieces of a roughly even thickness. I marinated them for about an hour in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, crushed garlic and a teaspoon or so of some particularly nice mixed herbs I brought back from France last month that contained parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon (the classic fines herbes mixture the French use for omelettes). I cut up a couple of courgettes into thick even-sized wedges then rolled them in the marinade too once I'd put the chicken on the grill. Once the chicken was cooked and resting I grilled them too. The whole thing took about 10 minutes (apart from the marinating time, obviously)

I tend to be anti-chicken breasts as a more expensive cut but if you treat them this way - or cut them into strips - you can make two stretch for three people. (Not that we did . . . ) And they do cook quickly, a boon in this sultry weather. You could also cook halloumi cheese this way.

How are you coping with the heatwave? Any tips or particularly successful meal ideas to share?