We live in a lucky country where food is plentiful and few of us are truly deprived; however, reducing our food costs can help us make ends meet – even if money is not an object, there’s something rather obscene, and even irresponsible, about wasting food and eating only the expensive parts of an animal.
The most glaringly obvious way to save is to cook for ourselves – after all, convenience comes with a price tag. While most would recognise we pay a premium for restaurants and takeaways foods, there are lots of examples of so-called convenience items that we should really think twice about buying, if we really care about saving money. That pre-washed lettuce in a bag is about triple the cost of a head of lettuce and probably equates to only half a head. The same goes with baby spinach, versus bunches of mature spinach! And the list goes on. The real time saved with such items is minimal!
But for me, the real merit of being thrifty is being able to think on our feet –much like when we open our wardrobes to rows and rows of clothes, only to declare we have nothing to wear! People approach their pantries and fridges with the same blindness, declaring there’s nothing to eat, even when faced with a cupboard filled with cans of beans, tomatoes, half packets of rice, pasta and pulses, and fridges with lone vegetables. The trick is not to be put off by what might appear at first as randomness, but to group items for use in future meals, and only then to hit the supermarket to make up the surplus.
Eating more vegetables and pulses can go a long way to reducing food costs, as comparatively they’re much cheaper than proteins like meat and fish. The idea is to spread out the protein component of meals with more of these and to choose secondary cuts of meats. On a carcass of meat, cuts are divided into prime cuts, such as tenderloins and fillets, then other cuts – which tend to be more muscled and therefore do more work – which are termed secondary cuts. Because these are the harder working parts of the animal they tend to be tough to eat. Secondary is rather an unfortunate term, as they are not really second in quality at all. If anything, these cuts are far more flavoursome than prime cuts.
So, not only do secondary cuts win hands down in the flavour department, they are gentle on the purse and, when cooked well, result in an unctuous, rich texture. However, to coax both elements from them, they need to be cooked SLOWLY. Use pan-frying, that is to use high heat and a quick cooking method with something like beef shin and you’ll feel like you’re eating a boot, as the connective tissues won’t break down with quick cooking. Given time, the meat will become tender enough to cut with a spoon as connective tissues dissolve to gelatin, giving a rich mouthfeel.
Once you’ve decided on a meat cut (see my list below), all you need to do is pad it out with a mix of vegetables – this is where your stock-standard basic vegies, such as carrots, celery and onion, which are probably all lurking in the fridge, can add flavour. Chop them finely at the start and they’ll break down, contributing to the richness and thickness of your sauce. If you want discernible chunks of vegetables, these are better added between half and Athree-quarters of the way through cooking. You might want to add dried pulses: these should be soaked overnight first (or see my shortcut below), and can be added at the start of cooking, while canned beans should be added near the end as they only need reheating.
As lots of flavour can be coaxed from even the simplest ingredients, liquids for stews and braises can be as simple as – tap water! But if you have wine, beer or cider on hand, they will increase the depth of flavour, as will stock. Before cooking, check your pantry and fridge, then reach for the July issue of MasterChef magazine and turn to our Top 6 story for some inspired ideas for slow cooking!
FIVE WAYS TO EAT MORE THRIFTILY
1. Use the contents of your pantry and fridge more efficiently.
Cook all those half-opened different pasta shapes together. Simply work out their various cooking times and stagger when you add them to the cooking water, so they all end up cooked at the same time. Add canned beans or tomatoes to bulk out stews and soups. Use random vegetables to create a minestrone, or chop them, cover with water and cook, then blend for a smooth soup, perhaps thickening with a little rice.
2. Never throw away stale bread.
Process leftover bread to crumbs and freeze, or tear into pieces and toast in olive oil with garlic, then stir through pasta to add texture. Or combine with herbs and nuts for a Spanish picada (see my braised lamb recipe in the July issue’s Top 6 story) to thicken stews or soups. With very stale bread (providing you can still slice it, of course) do as the Italians would – toast it and place it in the bottom of a soup bowl, then ladle over soup.
3. Store herbs properly.
People often complain that buying herbs is expensive, or that a recipe only calls for 1 tablespoon and that they wilt before they can use the rest. The trick is ALL in the storage. To get the maximum life from herbs, wash and pick the leaves of soft herbs (such as coriander and parsley), then store on damp paper towel (covered by more damp paper towel) in an airtight container, this way the leaves will keep for up to a week. Don’t throw the stems of soft herbs away, either; these can be finely chopped and also consumed. For basil, which hates the cold, trim the ends of the stalks and store in a jug out of the fridge with a little water and a plastic bag over the top. Bunches of woody herbs (thyme, rosemary and sage) are best wrapped in damp paper towel and stored in airtight containers.
4. Use lots of pulses.
Adding pulses is a great way to bulk out dishes and provides a great source of protein, especially for vegetarians. A can of beans is convenient but only yields a cup, while a bag of dried beans for about the same price yields about six times this quantity. While chickpeas and kidney beans need overnight soaking, French-style lentils and red lentils don’t. If you’ve forgotten to soak your beans, place in a bowl and cover with a kettle of boiled water, leave to cool, then repeat once more before using. The process will take about 1½ hours as opposed to overnight and they beans will take a little longer to cook.
5. Make vegetables the hero of a dish.
Look at vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, celery and silverbeet as becoming the main component of a meal. Silverbeet is not only cheap, but you get a huge volume of vegetable for the price. Don’t overlook the silverbeet stems – they might take a little longer to cook than the leaves, but to my mind are the tastiest, sweetest part. Cabbage sautéed with fennel seeds, onion and garlic, and combined with a little feta or goat’s cheese can become the filling for a filo pie.
FIVE TIPS FOR SLOW COOKING
1. Use cheaper secondary cuts.
For beef try: beef shin (boneless it’s called gravy beef; with the bone in, osso buco), beef blade or chuck and brisket. For lamb try: lamb neck, shoulder shanks and forequarter chops. For pork try: neck, shoulder, belly and hock. For chicken try: marylands, legs and wings.
2. Invest in a cast-iron casserole.
Cast iron is not a rapid heat conductor like copper or aluminum; however, it provides even heat and once heated holds heat well. For this reason, it’s best to heat cast iron cookware for a few minutes first before adding oil.
3. Season at the end of cooking once all the flavours have developed.
Adding salt at the start is not so smart, as a lot of commercial stocks are already quite salty and, as the liquid reduces, you may find that you already have enough. Salt will also slow down the cooking time of pulses. Braises and stews with canned tomatoes might taste surprisingly seasoned, and the reason for that is that tomatoes naturally contain glutamates, so these dishes might well need less salt.
4. Thicken stews and braises.
Sometimes the finely chopped vegetables you start with produce enough body at the end. Meat can be dusted in flour and browned, thus contributing towards thickening at the end. However, I find the flour tends to burn, so I prefer to brown my meat first, then remove it from the pan before sautéing my vegetables. I then scatter these with a little flour and stir in my liquids before returning the meat to the pan. Pulses and potatoes also contribute towards thickening, and if all else fails, strain off the cooking liquid and reduce it by boiling it rapidly in a saucepan.
5. Get the temperature right.
Both the oven and stove top can be used for stewing and braising, although I have preference for the oven as the heat will be more even. Never allow the meat to boil; if you find the liquid is boiling when you check it, cook with the lid slightly ajar to moderate the temperature further.
Sophia Young is the Food Director of MasterChef Magazine.
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