Monday, 18 February 2013

Shop wisely, cook carefully, and save money

So here, as promised, are my tips for eating cheaply and well – without resorting to buying any of those “budget” processed meals that prioritise the profits of their supplier over the quality of your dinner.

1. Shop carefully. Only fall for the ‘3 for 2’ or ‘2 for £5’ offers when you know that you can freeze the extras if you don’t need them for one meal.
2. If you have a vegetable market locally, use it. The produce is much better value than in a supermarket. In the market you may buy 3 avocados for £1.00. In the supermarket you will pay that much for each one – with no guarantee they will be any better. I have opened many an expensive Waitrose avocado to find it rotten in the middle. For the best bargains, swing by your market near the end of the day. Try delicious roasted vegetables as an accompaniment to fish, meat or Spanish tortilla (see below). Take a look at Jamie Oliver’s simple recipe
3. If you buy whole loaves of bread, the larger ones are better value than the small ones. If you fear it will go stale before you finish it, cut your loaf in half and freeze one half for another day.
If you do end up with stale (but not mouldy) bread, put it through your food processor for breadcrumbs which you can freeze and use in puddings (eg treacle tart) or on goujons of fish or chicken.
4. Buy salmon from your fishmonger and ask for a whole salmon instead of individual fillets. Ask the fishmonger to cut it into fillets for you and freeze these as individual portions at home. This normally works out much cheaper than buying a few measly fillets from the supermarket. My husband fillets and portions his own fish, and we also freeze the head and skeleton for later use in fish stock or soup.
5. Be open to cheap cuts of meat. If you are not averse to offal, a chicken liver risotto is a very cheap supper (with chicken livers costing about £2.00 for a tub from your butcher). Try this BBC recipe for inspiration. 
6. Spanish tortilla is a super cheap meal – and you can make it as big as you like, depending on the size of your frying pan and the number of people you want to feed. I use guesswork – chopping enough onions and potatoes to fill my pan, and then whisking up eggs to fill all the gaps and cover the vegetables. But here is a good little recipe from Delia Smith. 
7. Make your own burgers! They are so easy and inexpensive. My friend’s mother used to bulk hers out with porridge oats. But I see Jamie Oliver uses Jacob’s Crackers. Try his recipe here
8. For a vegetarian variation on the burger theme, you can’t beat felafel  - and it’s extremely cheap and nutritious, made from a basis of chickpeas. Try Nigella’s recipe here.  
9. Home made lasagne is far more substantial and satisfying than a cheap one from a packet – and you know whether or not you’ve popped a bit of horse into it! We all have our own recipes, and I use a rich tomatoey bolognaise sauce, and make a very big lasagne which I cut into single portions and cling film for the freezer. Try here for a few other sauce ideas. 
10. Open your eyes to foreign dishes – they’re often uncomplicated to make, and inexpensive too. I love dahl and tabouleh. They’re both great accompaniments for fish, meat or vegetable dishes – but can also be eaten alone with some nice flat bread and a salad of tomatoes, cucumber and onions. I cook dal with the orange lentils, onion, garlic, ginger, curry paste and vegetable stock until they’re the consistency I like (fairly thick and completely mushy). But for more specific advice check here
Steve’s tabouleh uses bulgar wheat, tomato paste, spices, herbs, nuts and pomegranate seeds. But find other ideas here
Happy cooking!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Horses for main courses...

As a student in Paris, I remember a friend hissing across the table that the tasty steak I was tucking into didn’t come from a cow – “it’s horse!” he said. “How else could the campus afford to put it on their refectory’s subsidised menu?”
The story went that, if the meat was called “steak” on the menu, it was probably horse. If it was beef, it would have been “steak de boeuf”.... Who knows? I’m afraid I haven’t thought much more about it until now – 30 years on.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I did finish my meal – it tasted fine to me!
The other story was that, if a restaurant or butcher sold horse then it would display a horseshoe over the entrance. I don’t think it’s that unusual.
The point is, there is nothing wrong with eating horse per se. It’s common practice in many countries.
But in the UK, though we eat deer without flinching, horse is as much a taboo as dog or cat...
What matters most in the current horsemeat scandal is the deceit. For it seems unlikely that the horses illicitly making their way into our long and tangled processed food chain are specially bred for their delicious meat.
So where do they come from?
One poor woman told the Sunday Times how she was duped into parting with two of her cherished pet horses – who subsequently ended up as meat somewhere. They had been previously treated with drugs that should make them unsuitable for human consumption. But their horse passports had been faked, and the drugs were not mentioned on the new documents.
While we all want cheap food when we can get it, we also want to know that what we are eating is good and honest.
It has been pointed out by many that sugary fizzy drinks are more of a risk to our health than a bit of horsemeat, and I’m sure that if we had a culture for eating horse, and our meals were labelled accordingly, we would happily tuck into it.
But, being poor doesn’t have to mean eating substandard food. Buying cheap but genuine cuts of meat and being more creative with pulses and vegetables can make eating economically a viable option for everyone.
We all have to remember that included in the price of our bargain processed meal is not just the price of the meat but also the cost of running the factory in which it was made, the wages for the staff who made it, the box it went into, the lorry that brought it to your supermarket – and a profit for both the shop and the manufacturer... If we are expecting quality meat in the process, we have to ask ourselves how that can ever be possible.
In my next blog I will pass on some of my money saving ideas for easy home cooked meals...

Can you afford to ditch your travel insurance?

I meet many people who swear all insurance policies are a complete waste of money – but, after two experiences this week, I will never take the risk of travelling without one.
First, on Wednesday, I had to get up at 5.0am to meet my father off a plane at Gatwick – he was returning from a longed for cruise that had gone disastrously wrong.  Four weeks earlier, a day or so after boarding, at Bridgetown, Barbados, poor Dad had presented to the ship's doctor with raging cellulitis – and, when my brother, a GP, saw pictures of Dad’s leg, he told me it was the worst case he’d seen in his life. My father drained the ship’s IV antibiotics before being admitted to a private hospital in Barbados for 10 days, and then finally being discharged to a nearby hotel for another week before he was eventually fit enough to fly home. 
Even then, he arrived back in a wheelchair – and still wearing the towelling flip-flop slippers from his hotel because his ankle was too swollen for shoes...
A day after bringing Dad home, I happened to interview a young woman who, at 22, had gone off to Egypt, gaily promising her mother she had just taken out an annual travel insurance policy, when really she had done nothing of the sort – and never imagining that her visit to see her best friend in Cairo could end in calamity. Unfortunately, walking back to her friend’s apartment after dinner one night, she fell and cut her leg on a pane of glass – and it was such a major cut that she was told she may never walk again. The hospital refused to treat her until she had paid £1000 into their account, and, as she had no insurance, her parents were woken with a call from the hospital at 5.0am... Oh yes, I can imagine just how that felt! And how annoyed, as well as upset, her mother must have been. Gemma’s hospital bills totalled £3000 – all of which her parents had to find. I am glad to say that they also made her pay back every last penny.
Sure, many travel insurance policies will not cover the full cost of the clothes you lose if your suitcase is stolen... But will yours pay for you to be treated and repatriated should you need it?