Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Reducing food bills...................

Whilst catching up on some of my favorite blogs (and searching out some new ones) I noticed there was a lot of discussion going on about eating healthily, cheaply and quickly. I have already mentioned in my profile and in my previous posts that this is a concept I try to stick to so I thought I would join in the debate and add my view (for what is worth).

Like many people time spent in the kitchen (as much as I enjoy it!) can be limited sometimes. However the health and budget conscious side of me doesn't like buying ready made convenience foods (apart from the cost and healthy problems, they just don't taste as good as homemade food in my opinion). Most of my budgeting tips have come from the passion for home cooking I developed over the last 18 months and not as a need to save money in the current financial climate. It does help though! and I know we spend less per week than other couples of our age. The money we save enables us to be able to comfortably afford to eat out occasionally etc and most importantly I have fun cooking.

Here are some of the things I do to reduce costs, improve the health benefits of food and for convenience when needed:

Shop around. We shop regularly at one of the discount supermarkets to buy what we can. This includes fruit and veg that looks good quality, household products and dried goods. Although I personally couldn't imagine doing a full shop there. The rest of the weekly food shop we do at one of the bigger supermarkets. We have also bought fruit and vegetables from the market which was definitely cheaper and more enjoyable than the supermarket but we just don't have the time regularly shop this way.

Buy non-perishables in bulk when on offer. 3 for 2's, 50% off etc can really add up if you take advantage of these offers on dried goods, freezable food and tins (as well as household products and toiletries). We always have a look at what meat and fish is on offer even if we don't need it (so long as we have room in the freezer).

Reduce the amount of meat we eat. Personally I prefer to buy free-range chickens and good quality British meat. In order to do this without massively increasing our food budget we look for offers as above, make the most of a chicken (see below), buy cheaper cuts of meat (pork hock and casseroles using shin beef etc have been popular additions to our slow cooker) and have introduced some vegetarian meals in to our diet (risottos and pasta dishes mainly but baked acorn squash stuffed with cous cous was a very tasty addition to our autumn diet).

Meal plan each week before shopping. This is something I did this pretty much from the start of moving out of home, it just made sense to me. It makes writing a shopping list easier and knowing what to get out of the freezer each night. We're not too ridged with these plans as my boyfriend will often come home without things that were sold out or of poor quality or sometimes he will bring home vegetables, meats or fish that were on offer or took his fancy and the meal plan will change slightly. I cook differently on a weekend or day off to how I cook on week night (especially the ones I work late on or need to study) so it helps to have a basic plan of the week ahead but there is always some flexibility (i.e. we may eat Mondays dish on Wednesday etc).

Make the most of a chicken. As previously mentioned I only buy free-range chickens. Every couple of weeks or so (whenever time permits) I will cook a 1.5kg ish bird on a Sunday along with the traditional roast trimmings. We also have enough for a leftover chicken dish the following night (nachos, pizza or pesto and pasta are favorites but I plan on trying risotto and noodle soup soon) and sandwich filling for the two of us for 2-3 days. When time and energy permits I will use the bones to make homemade stock (or sometimes I poach the chicken for stock with less fuss) but this doesn't happen as often as I would like but I still think we are getting our moneys worth from an £6-7 bird.

Take our own lunch to work. Buying sandwiches at work can easily add up to £20 a week each and they're are usually of poor quality both taste wise and nutritionally. We take things like soups, cous cous, sandwiches, mini calzones and left over pasta bakes etc. I often feel a uninspired in this area so I am on the look out for new ideas. It needn't be too time consuming either. We make ours after our evening meal while the other starts clearing away. Things like soups and mini calzones I make in big batches on weekends or days off and freeze in portions for one.

Bake my own bread. We bought a cheap bread maker last spring unsure of whether it would be a passing desire to make our own. A year on we have only bought a handful of loafs since when time has been especially short (e.g. around Christmas and when I was ill). I am convinced the loafs I make have much less salt than store bought ones and with the massive rise in prices I think it works out cheaper (and we eat more variety than just the basic white and wholemeal loafs). I also make occasionally make bagels etc which are definitely better than store bought ones. One of the biggest ways we save is by making our own pizza's and garlic breads. It is easy to knock up a batch of pizza dough and make your own which are easily as tasty as store bought ones but cheaper, healthier and you have more control over the toppings - so get creative. I also bake my own biscuits and muffins as well when time permits (most can be frozen so I make double and freeze for when time is short).

Make meals ahead and freeze them. Every month or so I will make a large batch of bolognese sauce and freeze it in portions for 2 people. Then it makes a quick and tasty spaghetti bolognese when time is short or with a little bit more time can be turned into delicious lasagne's or cottage pie. I also cook pasta sauces, soups and pizza sauces in the same way. For convienence I also have bags of ice cubes of wine to add to recipes as needed (instead of having to open a new bottle).

Grow your own. Especially herbs! Supermarket herbs are incredibly expensive for what you get and how long they keep for. We have only a small, north facing back garden so are very limited to what we can grow however last summer we successfully grew a wide variety of herbs and salad leaves in container and even managed to get one crop of mangetout (again grown in a container) before the slugs beat us too them.

On average for the two of we spend about £35-40 a week on groceries which we are happy with, not only that but I strongly believe we eat better for it and I enjoy the time spent in the kitchen cooking from scratch!


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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Butternut squash, gorgonzola and pecan risotto

As a self confessed fussy eater. I am always looking for ways of getting more vegetables (quantity and variety) into my diet whilst still enjoying the food I eat. Risottos for me have been one of the best ways I have found.

Many people mistakenly believe risottos are difficult to cook but in my experience this couldn't be further from the truth. Believe it or not before I cooked my first risotto I had never eaten one and my boyfriend was reluctant to let me cook him one as they reminded him of rice pudding. Now 12 months or so later risotto has become a regular feature on our meal plans. Risottos can be cooked all year round. For example in the summer a lemon and rocket risotto can be enjoyable, whilst in the winter a butternut squash risotto is close to my ultimate comfort food.

The first risotto I cooked was a risotto primavera from a recipe in glamour magazine of all places. The end result was a bowl of satisfyingly, cream rice and vegetables with bags of flavour. Risottos are not only simple to make but are incredibly versatile. So long as I have Arborio rice, onion, garlic and stock cubes in my store cupboards (homemade stock in the freezer is good if I have time but by no means essential) I know I can always easily rustle up a deliciously, simple supper from the contents of the fridge or freezer. For convenience I like to have a supply of frozen white wine in the freezer for tossing in to dishes such as risottos. I also usually have bags of roasted butternut squash in chunks (that I have prepared and roasted previously) portioned up in the freezer so that I don't have to roast a squash just to make a risotto.

Jamie Oliver has many inspiring and tasty recipes for risottos on his website and in his books. Having mastered his basic risotto recipe and tweaked it a little to suit me, I now keep to this basic recipe and play around with the flavours. Feeling inspired after starting this blog, last night I decided to play around with my basic butternut squash risotto. First I decided to replace the white onion with a red onion and after finding a couple of butternut squash and gorgonzola recipes on the internet (here, here and here) I decided to give it a go. My boyfriend is a huge fan of gorgonzola (and cheese in general!) so not surprisingly there was not much left but not to be deterred I decided that I would try anyway. I followed my basic recipe adding the butternut squash with the last ladle of stock. Once the rice was cooked I removed the pan from the heat and added a few small knobs of butter, approx 8 cubes of gorgonzola around 1cm square and a handful of grated parmesan, covered and allowed them all to melt into the rice for about 5 mins. Inspired by Oprah's recipe I also decided to top each bowl with a scattering of chopped toasted pecans. The end result was a deliciously creamy risotto, with plenty of flavour and an enjoyable contrast in textures. I am not a big fan of gorgonzola on its own but I decided to try cooking with it as one of my favourite raviolis fillings is walnut and gorgonzola. So don't be put off if you don't think you like it. When used as part of a dish in small amounts mingling with other flavours the end result is yummy!


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Sunday, 15 February 2009

Valentine's day menu

This valentines day I cooked my first three course meal! I first started to get passionate about cooking 18 months ago when I moved out of my parents home and in with my boyfriend. I had learnt to cook some years earlier before going away to uni, although back then it was always the basic meat/fish and two veg, with the odd pizza (shop bought) and frozen ready meal thrown in (I was a student after all!). My cooking has certainly moved on a long way from my student days. Now the only "ready meals" I reheat are frozen batches of bolognese, stew etc that I have previously batched cooked from scratch and frozen. Even our pizzas are mostly made from scratch. What started off as enjoying cooking meals (that weren't a collection of meat/fish, potatoes and veg arranged on a plate) such as pasta dishes (you'll soon realise that although I try to cook a range of different cuisines my favorite has to be Italian) has spiralled into making my own soups, breads, biscuits etc. Yet I'd never cooked starters or desserts until yesterday.

To start there was a simple antipasti platter consisting of homemade focaccia style bread (recipe to follow) with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sun dried tomatoes, roasted artichokes hearts, parma ham and olives.

To follow there was Theo Randall's Lamb shoulder (from UKTV food's Market kitchen), which is a shoulder of lamb slow roasted with white wine, black olives, garlic, rosemary and anchovies. The recipe can be found here. There is no picture as I didn't feel it would do it justice but you'll have to take my word for it that it tasted fantastic. The meat was incredibly tender and beautifully flavoured. I served it with roasted potatoes, carrots and parsnips and some sauteed leeks and the fantastic gravy made from the pan juices.

To finish I made individual chocolate pots (recipe). They turned out absolutely delicious but were incredibly simple to make.

My focaccia style bread recipe.
(Inspired by many focaccia/pizza Bianca recipes)

Makes 2 loafs or one loaf and one pizza base.
(I often use this dough as a pizza base using 2/3 of the dough and make a Italian style bread to go with it.)

330ml warm water
1 sachet dried yeast
1 tbsp olive oil (I usually use extra virgin for bread)
500g strong white bread flour
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt

I usually cheat and make the dough in my bread machine (but occasionally when time allows I will make by hand) so have included instructions for both methods.

To make in a bread machine (follow manufacturer's guidelines as order of ingredients can differ).
  1. Pour 330ml warm water in to bread pan (with paddle in place).
  2. Add olive oil.
  3. Next measure out flour into bread pan.
  4. Place sugar and salt in separate corners of bread pan.
  5. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour yeast in to it.
  6. Place the bread pan in the bread machine and set it to the dough cycle. My dough cycle takes 1 1/2 hours and includes two kneading cycles.
  7. Remove from the bread pan at the end of the dough cycle and divide the dough.
  8. Shape into rounds which are around 1 inch thick.
  9. Place on a baking sheet, use a fork to create dimples on the top of the dough.
  10. Brush the top of the dough with good extra virgin olive oil (I like to use one with garlic in to to create extra flavour).
  11. This next stage is where you can get creative with the flavours. Some of my favorites include sprinkling the surface with dried oregano and sea salt (as in this picture) or sea salt and dried rosemary or thyme or try pushing bits of olives or sun dried tomatoes into the dough (or these can even be kneaded in to the dough at the end of stage 7 before shaping the dough).
  12. Bake in a pre-heated oven (220C, 425 F, gas 7) for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
To make by hand.
  1. Mix the water, sugar, oil and yeast in a measuring jug and leave for a couple of minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Sift the flour and salt on to a clean work surface (I sometimes use a very large bowl) and make a well in the centre.
  3. Pour half the liquid into the well and start to incorporate the flour using a fork (stirring the flour into the liquid). Add the rest of the liquid and continue to mix the wet and dry ingredients together.
  4. When you feel the fork is no longer doing the job, use clean, floured hands to continue to work all the flour and the liquid together.
  5. Knead the dough until it is smooth and springs back when gently prodded.
  6. Place the ball of dough in a large bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm room for approximately one hour (or until the dough has doubled in size).
  7. Knead the dough again to knock the air out of it, then divide the dough ready for use.
  8. Continue from stage 8 above.

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