Fine but frugal food – is it possible?August 26, 2009
I’ve come to the realisation, rather late in the piece, that the dough has run out. Renovation sure takes it out of a gal, and the latest bit of it – our backyard spritz, even done with volunteer labour, secondhand and bargain basement materials - most particularly took it out of a girl’s wallet.
I’ve been thinking for some time about how to reduce the costs of cookery, for ethical reasons as much as anything – it seems quite obscene to spend ridiculous amounts on food when so many people have none. I justify my spending on food by contributing to overseas aid organisations and so on, but still, I know our spending would make many folks gasp … however, now we’re down to the wire in this household budget the idea of frugal food is becoming less a matter of choice than necessity!
The main issue I have is how to cook a generous spread for lots of friends & family without getting that sense of dread when you check the bank balance at the ATM. I know lots of folks have discussed this before – Jules Clancy at Stonesoup, for example, has addressed it here with her 10 tips for frugal entertaining, which are fantastic.
But the very word ‘frugal’ bothers me enormously – conjures up images of cranky, skinny old women in cardigans who won’t turn the heater on in midwinter, or Dickensian bowls of grey gruel. Something in my nature just cannot stand the idea of skimping on the plate, espescially where catering for friends is concerned. Fun = generosity, both spiritual and material, as far as I’m concerned. But if it ain’t there to be shared, it ain’t there. So my challenge for the foreseeable future is how to get the goods on the plate without breaking the bank, and still make it feel bounteous.
I’m thinking that the way to do it for folks like me who work at home is to spend time, not money – on planning, shopping, cooking and growing. So here are my beginner suggestions for generous dinners that don’t cost the earth. But as you can see, even my frugal ideas are skimpy, which is where you come in. Tips, please!!
1. Cut down on meat, or lose it altogether.
I have to say our recent vegetarian dinner for 11, where the Empress’s pumpkin risotto was the highlight, cost almost nothing, apart from splurging on a couple of fancy cheeses. So … why not do it much more often? Unless you have total vegetarians at the table, it’s very easy to get good rich flavours from good oils, stocks, and meaty taste-bombs like chopped pancetta.
2. Make your own dips
Since I’ve discovered how relatively simple it is to make baba ganoush or – even easier – to chuck a can of chickpeas into the food processor with lemon juice, garlic & oil to get a whopper serving of good hummous, I don’t think I will buy those two in the pre-made versions ever again (and don’t forget beans, like the broad bean puree dippy thing here.) And the homemade versions are better than the bought ones, so it doesn’t feel like skimping. Needless to say, add stocks to the make-your-own and keep-in-the-freezer list.
3. Grow your own herbs & salad leaves
The worst culprits in the rotting-veg compartment in my fridge are always bunches of herbs and leftover handfuls of salad leaves. Once past their prime you really can’t throw them in a soup the way you can with a slightly limp carrot or stick of celery. So grow your own to prevent all this waste (as we’ve discussed before, food waste is not just costly but a horrib le environmental problem), and you’ll never need to buy more than you need (watercress, for example – what is it with those massive bunches in the shops?? I have just stuck a potful of watercress in the new fish pond, and can’t wait for the next salad if the fish don’t get it all first).
Now, my current crop of herbs grown from seed is still giving me gyp – damn things are stalled, not dying but not growing a speck either, so I’m giving them two more weeks before giving the whole thing up as a bad experiment and getting the bought seedlings in. But that said, once they’re growing properly, I find herbs and particularly salad greens so satisfying to pick and eat fresh from the plot (or pot, if you’re space constrained – a bit of good sun is all that’s required for both). And apart from the incredible taste and fine, springy texture of freshly picked leaves, I find that because of the effort of growing them, I don’t waste a single leaf.
4. Splurge on a few essentials
There are some things you can’t skimp on without just being stingy. Like bread. One good sourdough loaf goes a long way in the satisfaction stakes. Olive oil and vinegar for salad dressings is another – but only for dressings, used judiciously.
5. Don’t serve too much
Being the greedy guts that I am, I usually overcater for fear of looking like a stinge. The leftovers are almost always later devoured, so it’s not such a food waste issue, but it does bear some examination. On the weekend, with eight people at the table and roast chook on the menu, I usually would have cooked two chickens – but given two of the eight were kids with finicky eating habits, I decided to go for one. We still had plenty of chicken left over.
6. Buy seasonal
Everybody goes on about this, all the time, but it’s true. Fruits and veg in season are cheaper and better quality.
7. Set the table beautifully
You might be serving low-cost food, but it doesn’t have to look like it. A table set with shiny glassware and cutlery and ironed napkins is a beautiful thing – and a small candle or two is perfectly lovely, I reckon. I do not mean one should cram the dining table with ornaments and flowers in the hilariously over-the-top Martha Stewart style (I believe I’ve shared this monstrosity with you before!), but a well-set table immediately creates a generous, inviting air about the place.
Okay, over to you. Your comments on these, and advice on new tips, please!