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).