A good pal of ours has recently started trying to do more cooking at home. This has been sparked in a large part because he has dicovered how much cheaper it is to cook and eat this way. One thing that has come to light in our discussions on this subject is that he has relatively little in the way of what I would consider to be basic everyday essentials for meal-planning. This got me thinking - I can't imagine life without our storecupboard, we bulk buy when prices are cheap, using special offers and the likes of Approved Food and the market stalls. As and when the last packet of one of the "staple" items gets started, a replacement goes on the shopping list.
So, what items do we consider essentials? Well....
Herbs & Spices: We buy in reasonable quantity, either from Ethnic supermarkets or from Fox's Spices who always have a stall at the Good Food Show. Whole spices keep well if stored in a cool dark place, and even ready ground items can be kept for a good time in this way. Cumin, Coriander, chilli (flakes and powder) and peppercorns - ideally black & green. Allspice is a fantastic addition to...well, anything really, and a mixed sweet spices is a great sandard for all sorts of baking. Through the summer I prefer fresh herbs to dried, with the exception being tarragon which we have always found difficult to grow. I do always have dried thyme and sage in the cupboard, and a generic "Italian mixed herbs" ideal for popping into a bolognese sauce or sprinkling over tomatoes before oven-roasting.
Pasta, Rice Pulses & Grains: Don't assume that the big 3kg bags of pasta sold by the supermarkets are the cheapest way to buy - quite often the "Discount Brands" 1kg bags are substantially better buys - always check the "Price per 100g" before you decide. Basmati rice - should ideally say "product of Pakistan" on it somewhere - and have that very distinctive smell...mmmm! Also long grain, Arborio, Paella and pudding rices. Dried yellow split peas make a wonderful indian dhal, red lentils are great added to stews. Cous Cous is a great quick and easy alternative to the more traditional carbohydrates - simply measure the amount you want into a bowl, add the same amount of boiling water, pop a plate over the top and leave it to steam while you prep the accompaniment. Porridge Oats - Tesco Value are exactly the same thing as the branded version. Useful for all sorts of baking; as an ingredient in bread, muffins and cakes, as a bulker in stews etc. As a handy bonus, they also make a tasty breakfast! I also always have oatmeal in - again this is useful in baking, and a handful added to a stew not only thickens but adds a gorgeous creaminess to the gravy. It's increasingly difficult to get down here in England though - I buy a bag when we are in the Hebrides and bring it back with me.
Coffee, Tea & Sugar: The first two are always bought in quantity when on offer. Coffee is one of the very few things we buy branded versions of - Ben prefers Nescafe - he has tried various alternatives but really doesn't like them as much. When we see a multibuy offer for it we buy several jars at a time. I'm more experimental with tea-bags and will generally buy whichever are cheapest - I have an Aldi own brand at the moment and honestly, I hadn't noticed the difference between those and the Tesco ones I had last time - and neither did my Mum when she drank a cup the other day! Granulated sugar is cheapest bought in 5kg bags as a rule - we use it for bread and baking as well as some preserving. If you only use it in smaller quantities though check out the pound shops, or Lidl.
Bread Flour and other baking ingredients: Bread flour seems to be one of the worst items for the supermarkets cynical pricing policy - it regularly fluctuates between 68p for a 1.5kg bag right up to over £1 - and as ever with the supermarkets where one goes, the rest will follow. We make the majority of our own bread...or the bread machine does, anyway...so any saving we can make by stocking up on this when it's cheap is welcome. I also always keep Plain and Self-Raising flour (Supermarket Value or Basic ranges), suet (for dumplings, puddings and pies) and a selection of dried fruit. Supermarket value ranges again for mixed dried fruit, dried apricots and sultanas. Bicarbonate of Soda is used for cleaning as well as baking, and is bought in bulk from the chinese supermarket. Yeast comes from Doves Farm - again via their Good Food Show stall.
Preserves: We make our own marmalade and chutneys, and trade these with Ben's Mum for Jams, jellies and fruit cheeses. A jar of home made marmalade also makes a great additional christmas gift - simply pop a square of pretty fabric over the lid, and tie with a ribbon and a gift tag.
As well as the dry goods, we always have salted and unsalted butter, lard & dripping in the fridge. Goose fat if we can get it, and sunflower, olive and sesame oils. Another fridge "staple" is a block of (preferably) extra mature cheddar cheese - the better the flavour of the cheese, the less of it you need to use. Again, buy when on offer. Soy sauce - if you can only stretch to one then get dark - masses of flavour. Vinegar - there is more to life than Malt! Balsamic - for a simple dressing for salads, white wine and cider. Aspalls do a fabulous Apple Balsamic Vinegar which makes a truly special dressing. Tins of Chick peas make a great quick humous or veggie curry, and kidney beans added to bolognese sauce bulk out and turn it in to a chilli. Chopped tomatoes are another absolute 'must have' - preferably non-value branded as you get a thicker juice in those - depends on the special offers though! Finally baked beans - Branston ones ideally - regularly available for 4 for £1 in Lidl - that's cheaper than Tesco Value!
Do you have a storecupboard? If so, what are your essential items for filling it? And just as interestingly, if you don't, why is that?
(Mosaic made, as ever, using BigHugeLabs Mosaic Maker - thanks to Sue at The Quince Tree for introducing me to this!)