Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Lunchbox Luxury

For the frugal, spending money on a sandwich or salad at lunchtime is just a waste. Get a lunchbox, and devote a few minutes to making your own lunch, and you can save £20-25 a week.

Now of course this could be a very bad idea indeed. One of my friends used to bring the same tuna mayo sandwich to the office every day. I would have got very bored with that very quickly. But there are lots of much nicer things you can do that don't take a cordon bleu cookery course or a degree in food engineering to rustle up.

  • bulghur wheat and couscous are useful standbys - try tabbouleh, which is bulghur with the addition of fresh mint, garlic, and spring onions, and then add some roasted vegetables or perhaps some dried fruit for interest. Get the spicing right as bulghur and couscous are rather boring on their own.
  • make your own coleslaw, using red cabbage, and add raisins, perhaps some sliced apple, maybe some nuts. You can use mayo or a vinaigrette to bind it.
  • Mixed salads are great for the office - I like a Greek-derived one with lettuce, black olives, tomatoes and feta cheese. Getting textures right is important - here, the olives add some crunchiness. And tastewise, the feta adds cream and saltiness, while the olives add a little sour note to offset the sweetness of the tomatoes.
  • If you want croutons, keep them in a separate container till lunchtime and then tip them out on the salad - they will keep crunchy then and not go soggy.
  • Pasta salads are easy to make. For something a bit different try noodles with sesame seeds and sesame oil, and add spring onions, Chinese leaf and pickled ginger or pepper.
  • Roast veg like sweet potato, red onions and pumpkin can be very tasty. Add cumin to get the right earthy flavours and put a little dressing beside the veg - I like yoghurt with a tiny amount of mango chutney stirred in.
  • It's winter. You want something hot. Your office doesn't have a microwave. Fear not - get a thermos flask. Best, get one of the wide-neck ones that lets you put chunky veg in your soup without blocking the flask. Make yourself a stew with lots of veg - carrots, parsnips, onion, potatoes, green beans - or a minestrone - lots of green veg - or my favourite, mulligatawny soup. Mulligatawny is basically a curry in soup form - start by slicing onions, and sauteing them gently with garlic and ginger, then add curry powder, then add carrots, sultanas, dried peaches or apricots, green beans, potatoes, aubergine, or whatever other veg and fruit you fancy, and when you've stirred them all round for a minute in the pan,
  • add water and coconut cream. Delicious and filling. Experiment to find your own best mixes - I did a nice one with apples, lemon juice, and extra cloves.
  • Stuff things into pitta bread. You could make your own kebab; smear the pitta with hummus for a different taste, or add your own yoghurt-garlic sauce (your colleagues may not be too pleased though). Fill a pitta with roasted veg, or salad. Stuff leftovers from your evening meal into a pitta if you're feeling lazy.
And I still haven't mentioned anything resembling a sandwich!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

In a pickle

Buying jam is not frugal. Making jam is - if you do it right.

The same for pickles - and since I've missed the jam season, let's kick off with pickles, which are more realistic this time of year since they use readily available ingredients such as apples, onions, shallots, and dried fruit.

The rules of frugal pickle making;
  • Make huge quantities. The cost of energy is high so cook with your largest pan. You can ring the changes by adding different spicing or different dry ingredients at the end, just before putting the pickle in the jar. For instance, with one chutney I made, we divided the basic mass into three - one with extra citrus juice and spices, one with added walnut pieces, and one with added dried apricots. Each 'sub-chutney' was cooked just a little longer in a smaller pan, but the bulk of the cooking was done as a single batch.
  • Keep everything scrupulously clean. This is vital! Otherwise, you'll be introducing all kinds of nasties into your preserves.
  • Remember to put the pots in boiling water for a half hour or so once the preserves have cooled down - this creates an air lock and helps preserve your chutneys and pickles for longer.
  • Look in supermarkets or on markets for cheap supplies. I got a huge, five kilo tray of tomatoes for a couple of quid recently - and ended up making large amounts of tomato ketchup and pasta sauces.
  • If you have a garden or allotment, use pickling to preserve any extra fruit or veg that you can 't eat all at once.
  • Look for free foodstuffs in the hedgerow! Blackberries and rose hips are easy to find near most town centres in the UK; so are elderberries. I know a road where sweet chestnuts fall from massive trees each side on to the road - I just have to cycle out there and pick them up!
  • Look for proper preserving jars at car boot sales. The big kilner jars, with rubber rings, are the best sort. (If you're headed to France, stop off at one of the larger supermarkets or even a Monsieur Bricolage DIY store and you will sometimes find six or ten packs of these jars on offer.)
For a bonus, here's a nice article in the Independent with some pickle recipes. Enjoy.

Knitting - frugal or foolish?

Lots of people are taking up knitting and making their own clothes under the impression that it is a frugal thing to do.

However, I'm not so sure.

On a recent foray to the local knitting shop, I found all the yarns I wanted priced at £2 a ball or more. I would have needed to spend about £30 worth to knit the sweater I had a pattern for, plus spending my own time on the project (which I could employ better bidding for work as a journalist or writing an e-book).

So the return on this investment isn't that I'd get a cheap sweater. It's that I would have an interesting craft project.

On the other hand, I *could* buy some of the yarns I see in local charity shops. A big bag for a few quid.

They're all in different colours and textures, so I would probably need to put a little stash together before I could start. But if I was going to knit regularly, it would be worth it.

I'd need to have a pretty flexible attitude to what I was going to knit. Scarves and squares, yes - Kaffe Fassett style multicolour kimonos, possibly not.

Actually I have recently put together a rather nice kimono jacket - that's easy, because it's made out of knitted squares, so no increasing or decreasing to do - using grey mohair varied with colour wool stripes. The contrast between mohair and wool introduces a nice crinkle into the texture, as well as allowing me to use up different odds and ends of colour while maintaining a unified feel.

For using up smaller amounts of wool, hats and scarves are nice. But a dreadful warning; you might want to try matching gloves. Unless you're a very confident knitter, with immense reserves of patience, don't. They are wretched things to knit. I finally lost my temper, gave up, and unravelled the pair I was trying to make. They are now part of a nice long scarf.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Free attractions

The Telegraph suggests a number of free attractions in the UK with a special focus on half term activities for children.

Many museums have free entry - and a number also have free or minimal cost activities for children and young people. Always worth checking out.

One common theme I note here is the price of car parking at many attractions. So it can be frugal to park some way away from sites, and take a one or two mile walk - or use public transport if it's available.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Baked beans - food of the gods

You can get baked beans for 17p a tin at Asda at the moment.

Okay, beans on toast. Once. After that it gets boring.

But you can do better than that. Let's try waking those tired old baked beans up!

What about baked beans with chorizo. You need a proper chorizo for this, not one of those packs of sliced sausage, because you need to chop it up into little cubes. A good spiced sausage of any other kind would work - African hot, Hungarian paprika, whatever. If you have a sausage that isn't spicy, then add some paprika and some chili to the frying oil.

Don't economise on the sausage. You need one with a good firm texture.

Fry your sausage cubes. Use a fair bit of oil and you'll see the paprika colour it nicely.

You might want to add some chopped onion. You might want to add some garlic.

Now make sure the oil is nice and hot, and add a spoonful of beans, and fry them ; then add a few more beans, and keep stirring, till all the beans are in the pot. The idea is to get the first couple of spoonfuls of beans to go a little bit crispy round the edges. Together with the sausage, that gives your meal a delightful texture, part crunchy and part smooth.

Serve up your beans. Perhaps add some fried bread croutons for fun.

Of course you can also make a chilli using baked beans and mince. Again it's the little details that matter. Go to an Indian grocer's and get a big bag of dried red chillis for this kind of cooking - I just swirl them around in a bit of hot oil, whole. (Which means they're easier to take out. No one gets a mouthful of achingly hot chilli!)

Baked beans can also make a cheat's cassoulet (though to be authentic you'd need duck, which is not frugal, and I think that's a waste of a lovely ingredient).

Friday, 31 October 2008

Fi nsihing oil

If you have wooden furniture that is beginning to show the signs of wear - particularly French polished furniture where the polish has become scratched - it's amazing how a little sandpapering and oiling can revive its looks.

Obviously, if what you've got is a real antique, you need to get the French polish professionally restored. But if you've inherited a 1950s sideboard from Mum and Dad, or fancy restoring an ex-school or ex-church wooden chair you picked up at a car boot, it's easy to do.

finishing oil or Danish oil (Rustins is good). Take care to use an oil that's designed for furniture use. Some oils you can buy are non-drying oils - means, if you sit on a chair that's been finished with this, your clothes are going to suffer. This oil is quite expensive, but it will last you for ever and ever as you only need to apply it very sparingly.
Sandpaper - a rough (180 grit) sandpaper to strip off any old polish, wax, and general grot, and then finer papers down to 360 grit for the fine finish and for sanding the first coat of oil. You may need to look around to find the finer grades - a lot of DIY stores only sell very rough paper.
cloth - at least two good sized cloths, free of lint or dust. old teatowels work well.

Start off by sandpapering

Begin by sanding off any existing varnish or polish (or paint). If it's very thick, you can use Nitromors or another paint stripper, but generally, a good hard go at it with sandpaper will give better results and has less chance of harming the wood. Then gradually use finer and finer sandpaper to get a better finish. One technique that can help is to sand in different directions, up and down with one paper and then across with the next one - when you've erased all of the scratches from the last sandpaper, it's time to move on.

At the end, use your fingers to feel over the surface and make sure it's good and flat and there are no rough spots. Your fingers are much more sensitive than your eyes, so trust them!

Now - this is important - have a good vacuum clean, and rub your piece of furniture down with a cloth, so there are no little bits of sawdust floating around to spoil the finish.

Now for oiling

Get your tin of oil. Wad up a cloth in one hand. Put the cloth to the spout of the tin, and tip the tin upside down, so the cloth gets well impregnated with the oil. Use the cloth to smear the oil over the wood - you'll be able to see if there are any patches you have missed. Let the oil dry for about a minute, then use a clean cloth to remove any excess oil. This step is important if you want a good finish - if you leave extra oil you'll end up with a far too shiny, or possibly puckered surface, that looks very bad.

You could get away with one layer of oil. But we won't. Let's be perfectionist. Leave the oil to dry for a day or so. Then take your finest sandpaper and gently rough up the surface of the oil. You're just looking to take the shine off it and provide a good surface for the next layer to bond to.

Now rub the piece down again to remove any dust, and go through the oiling process again. You might need several coats till you're happy.

Repairing is easy. A ding or a scratch? Just rub down with sandpaper, and re-oil.

Your oil finish is waterproof and stainproof. So it's a great way to finish a kitchen table, for instance. Just don't use it on wooden eating dishes - many of these oils contain chemicals you won't want to ingest. If you're re-oiling a salad bowl then use almond oil (if you have difficulties getting it, try an Indian supermarket or grocery).

Frugality or abundance

As the credit crunch hits us it's easy to think that we need to retreat into a grey world of rationing. Batten down the hatches, stop enjoying life, and spend our entire time thinking about the price of everything. Never eat enough food, never enjoy a pint of beer, just spend our entire time as Gradgrinds, either working, or sitting in the dark with the heating off, fifteen woolly jumpers on, bored because we've got rid of the telly and haven't got enough money to go out.

Well that's just not true. One of the most frugal people I know is also someone who has the most fun of any of my friends. She likes a good pint. She loves her food - she grows it on an allotment. She knits, makes her own clothes, recycles almost everything. I don't think she's deprived of anything - except the experience of getting her bank statement written in red ink!

What I want to do with this blog is to help support a lifestyle that's frugal in the spending of money and using of resources - but where style, individuality, and enjoyment are high priorities. I 'll be featuring skills that can help you get more out of life for less - from upholstery, dressmaking and basic DIY to vegetable gardening and drying your own fruit. And I'll be sharing resources on charity shops, free attractions, and finding bargains.

Remember. Just because you're not spending money doesn't mean you're not having fun!