Fine but frugal food – is it possible?

August 26, 2009

frugalfoodI’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!


  1. I’ve got one word for you Kimmy – pulses. We’ve been down this road before but I reckon you can make the most gloriously satisfying dishes with them, esp if the budget can run to a little bit of salty pig and some lovely olive oil. But you’ve pretty much nailed it. I’m totally with you re the dips. I’m always gobsmacked when I see those poxy little plastic containers for $5 or more, knowing you can make a VAT for half that. Same goes for chutneys and pickles. They’re fun to make, cost virtually nothing and make even the most frugal food seem fun. They’re also lovely, inexpensive gifts and people seem to like them much more than a bar of fragrant soap or somesuch.

  2. You are so right on the money re the gifts. We loove foodie gifts round here (I mean, soap. What does it say about one when a person gives you soap? Except actually my sister gave me some beautiful pomegranate soap a while back … but still. In general, let’s be clear – food beats soap every time.)

    Ms Melbournia, a recent arrival from the south, arrived here the other day with a jar of home-made labna, those incredible yoghurt/cheese balls marinated in herby oil. Oh MY. I plan to snaffle the recipe from her as soon as I can wring it from her, and have a crack myself. It is amazing stuff.

    Now, Empress, I don’t suppose you have some kind of pickle recipe for cumquats? We have been given a kilo of the beautiful little beggars but we have marmalade gifts lined up in the pantry, so no more marmalade or jam needed here. I’m thinking some kind of spicy pickly chutneyish thing? Will search …

  3. ooh, nice idea re pickled cumquats. No recipe to hand but will search too. Heard Damien Heads from Pony talking about exactly that the other day. His cumquat chutney has red onion, pears, cardamon and dried chilli and he serves it with Manchego cheese and chorizo. Nice, huh?

  4. Stephanie Alexander’s orange book has a pickled cumquats recipe p258; haven’t made it, but it must be dear to her heart because it’s also in two of her other books.

    Indian food good for feeding big group without spending too much $$ – dahl, rice, bread, a veg curry, a meat curry made w nice cheap gelatinous cut, accompaniments – a good eg of how time vs money can work.

  5. I have been thinking about this all day. Do you remember how cheap shanks used to be? Til they got gourmet’ed. So we just gourmet-ise other cheaper foods and make them trendy!

    Now, our garden is producing greens all year round – almost any type of salad green… we also have a massive crop of potatoes this year, and some lovely types. Mouth-watering and that has cost almost nothing, as our local organic food store had potatoes that had started to shoot…

    there are websites devoted to this sort of thing, such as http://tinyurl.com/nr5j5s ( interesting recipes, check it out) but gourmet to one person may not be gourmet to another.

    Boxes of tomatoes that at the end of summer are selling cheap in bulk, are useful too, as you can cook them up plain, freeze, then when required use for a huge range of things.

    I also stay on the lookout for gourmet/organic breads that are marked down. They go into my freezer for later use. Rosemary and olive bread is always a winner, even if only good enough to be made into gourmet croutons!

    If I can save on some of these basics, then i can and do afford to buy specialty items for great occasions. We are fortunate that we are vegetarians and keep chooks for eggs, so also save on the meat and good quality egg thing.

    we belong to a food co-op where we not only share in the bulk-buying of organic staples, but when our gardens are overproducing we are able to swap or share our surplus.

    I make the choice to buy organic and local foods where poss, and specialty items for gourmet occasions. We eat fairly simply between those times, and we may go without other things in life because this choice (organic/quality) is sometimes more costly. But most of all…I think it is about being creative.

    • I think the bulk idea is great too but have never really explored it. But yesterday I was in a butcher in Belmore who was selling whole lambs, butchered and packed for $6/kilo. Pitching in with a friend or two could make that work well. The other thing I love about that idea is the challenge of using cuts you might not usually have to deal with.

  6. Yes, shanks! – they started ‘frenching’ them and tripled the price. (Stephanie suggests chuck steak for curries; I like shin – gravy beef, esp if you have a nice butcher to trim it well and cut it into big chunks.)

    Meant ‘dhal’ in prev comment – came to me last night when i was awake and worrying about Leigh Sales question to Peter Garrett – when are we going to get cheaper books?! – just provocative phrasing, surely – she cannot have actually accepted nong logic of productivity commission, can she? And did PEter Garrett have white eyeliner inside the lash line of of lower eyelids?

  7. Yum, yum, yum, and yum – there’s no meanness in this lot, it all sounds scrumptious. Oh, labna. I love labna. And homemade labna? Drool.

  8. […] it for pasta sauces, salad dressings or whatever, I reckon this recipe is a contender for the frugal food post as well as just being a beautiful thing. And great to take to a friend’s when […]

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