Thursday, 14 June 2012

Equipping your kitchen without blowing the budget

I'm always amazed, when I have to cook in a rented cottage or at someone else's house, how poorly equipped their kitchens are. It's nothing to do with lack of ice cream makers, deep fat fryers, professional ovens or tandooris - often, they have loads of luxuries, but the basics are missing.

First of all, get a good knife AND a knife sharpener. (You don't need a butcher's steel - Kitchen Devils does a nice little knife sharpener which works, and is safer for butterfingers. If you want to use a steel, there's a great Gordon Ramsay video on Youtube.) A good knife won't stay sharp unless you sharpen it - four or five strokes every time you use it, rather than waiting for it to get blunt.

Over time I've found the best knife is not a thin pointy one, but a larger (6 or 7 inch) fat-bladed knife with dents or holes in the sides which help stop vegetable slices sticking. Now, such a knife might cost £20-30, but you can use it for nearly everything, and it will last. Don't go for knife sets - they're not such good quality and you'll probably end up only using one or two of the knives.

Secondly, get a good chopping board that is heavy, and so won't move around on the worktop when you are chopping. (This comes from experience.)

Now for saucepans. This is where a set can cost in nicely. I use a set of stainless pans I bought from Jarrolds in Norwich - not non-stick, which doesn't last well and which you don't need for such tasks as sauteing or boiling. Find a good department store, and if (like Jarrolds) it has excellent salespeople, ask them about the pros and cons of different pans. Make a note of the ones that suit you. Then - and this is the money saving tip - WAIT FOR THE SALE. Often, you'll see particular ranges discounted down to half price.

I'd also recommend getting metal handles, not plastic. They are more robust.

To this I'd add a small and cheap non-stick pan if I wanted to do a lot of frying, for instance for breakfast bacon.

Knife, chopping board, saucepans. All of these I would get new. For some other items I've had great luck at car boots - vintage lemon squeezers in white earthenware or glass, salad bowls, butter dishes, pyrex mixing bowls and ovenware, garlic presses. But I have never seen good saucepans (other than lovely copper saucepans, which are for decoration, not use) or good knives.

Baking trays and tins, wooden spoons, and so on, I get from Poundstretcher or other cheap places. (I also have some lovely olive and orange wood utensils I bought on holiday in Turkey and Morocco, for very little - it's always worth keeping an eye open for such purchases if you're a keen cook and on your travels, though obviously it's not worth flying to Morocco just to get a few spatulas and spoons!)

Other bits and pieces which are luxuries, not vital (with one exception, for me; the spice grinder);
  • Blender or food processor. Decide what you're going to use it for, then get whatever is appropriate. You may find you only have the need for one type of equipment. I use a blender a lot to make smoothies, soups, and hummus; I hardly ever use a food processor for chopping or mixing. But then, I'm cooking for one or two people most of the time; if you have a larger family, you may find a food processor is worth the investment. Look in local charity shops which handle electronic equipment (and test it first - which is why I tend not to buy electricals at car boots); you may get a bargain.
  • Breadmaker. Useless piece of equipment. I used to have one. Now I make bread the hard way, but I have much more fun doing it, and it's much, much better bread. If you want to make your own bread, spend the money on a good mixer instead.
  • Deep fat fryer. I really recommend you stay away from these. I love tempura - I get better results from a wok than I do from a deep fat fryer. They also waste huge amounts of oil, which gets progressively nastier and then has to be thrown out. If you eat chips every night.... I would suggest life would be healthier as well as cheaper without the deep fat fryer.
  • Electric kettle. Definitely worth their while as an efficient way to heat hot water, and won't break the bank. Buy the cheapest - after all, what extra functionality are you looking for? 
  • Spice grinder. I have two of these, one for coffee and one for spices. If you do a lot of spicy cooking or make your own curry mixes, a spice grinder is a vital part of your kitchen. Yes, you can also use a pestle and a mortar...
What should you be spending? Well, I'd say you can get everything you really need to cook and still have change out of £100. That doesn't include your crockery and table cutlery, but it will give you a working kitchen and the ability to cook pretty much anything you like. And it will all be good quality stuff - though it probably won't have a chef's name on the side, or be in pretty lime green or fuchsia pink.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


Asparagus is a luxury, and this May it's even more a luxury than usual; the harvest has been poor, because of the incessant rain, so prices have shot up. But there are still ways to get your asparagus addiction fed at economy prices.

First of all, look out for roadside vendors if you live in an asparagus growing area. (I do, I'm in Norfolk.) Often these guys have extremely good prices, as they have low costs (selling from a van) - and about half of them are producers, so there's no middleman to pay.

Secondly, look out for asparagus being sold towards the end of the day. It doesn't keep well, particularly the very slender spears that form most of this year's harvest, so you may get a good deal. The other day I was offered five bunches at £1 each instead of £2.50, just to get them out of the shop.

Third, ignore the seasons and look out for jars of white asparagus in pound shops or Lidl. It keeps forever, or pretty nearly, and if you can get a jar for £1, you'll be able to cook pasta, quiches, or omelettes using it.

Having got your asparagus home, don't waste it by boiling it. There's a much better way to cook it. Roast it instead. Put it on a baking sheet, drizzled with a little olive oil, and bake it for about fifteen minutes at 190c. You don't lose half the goodness in the cooking water, and it won't go too soft. Besides, it will keep, so you can do two lots like this, and then save some for scattering on top of pasta or pizza, or for asparagus-on-toast with a little parmesan bubbled on top.

Another way to cook asparagus is in a gratin. This time you will need to put it in boiling water for just a few minutes, then drain it, put it in an oven dish, pour a little cream over, and add breadcrumbs and cheese on top with just a little butter mixed in. Grill it for another four or five minutes and it's ready.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Making your own flavoured oils

Flavoured oils are a great way delicatessens have of parting you from your money.

They look marvellous. I have a friend who has seven or eight bottles on her kitchen shelf; with chili, garlic, different herbs, they are all slightly different colours, reflecting the light like little jewels. And of course they look so much nicer than that yellow or clear plastic bottle with sunflower oil in it.

Oh yes, sunflower oil. Look, you're about to make a really strong chili oil. Why bother with having a decent extra virgin olive oil as the base? That's a waste of money.

Get some fresh red chilis. Chop them up good and small and throw them into a saucepan with sunflower oil (or whatever other oil you choose). Include the seeds if you want it really hot. Let them infuse.

Now the important part. If you just want to use the oil this week, you can cold-infuse. If you want to keep it, though, you need to bring the mixture up to just below the boil (up to 180c) - otherwise you run the risk of botulism. So hubble bubble boil and bubble, and then when it's ready, bottle the oil.

Don't despair if the oil doesn't look particularly red. The proof is in the taste, which should be satisfyingly warm.

Garlic oil can be made in the same way, and again, needs to be heated before pouring into the bottle or jar.

I've heard storage lives ranging from two weeks to two months. Certainly, shop bought oils have an advantage here.

But with the money I save on making my own garlic and chili oil, I can buy some specialised oils - walnut oil, pumpkin seed oil, and sesame oil, all of which have their particular uses and which I can't make at home.