Friday, 20 April 2012

Frugal Friday...

"Help!" tweeted a friend recently "what do you Tweeps cook in big batches to freeze - I need to reduce our food bills!" Naturally the reply went back "bolognese, chilli & curry!" - all standard meals in our house, and just ideal for freezing for "ready meals" on nights when we've both had long days at work. I can't be doing with the "ready meals" so readily available in the supermarkets - almost without fail they are overpriced, full of additives, and cost several times what it would cost you to make a whole vat of the meal in question, from scratch! I also find that those sorts of convenience foods taste terribly salty to me now - a sign I guess of how low-salt my own cooking tends to be!

So, if you're new to batch cooking, how best to manage it? I find my slow cooker is my best friend for cooking in bulk - when I chose it I purposely chose one rather larger than I technically needed. The one I now have will happily take 6 full 2-person portions, and has both high and low heat settings too, which allow more flexibility. I also occasionally use my big stockpot on the hob - that works best for things like bolognese sauce, which I will keep going back to and stirring regularly. For no hassle cooking, I turn to the Slow Cooker every time.

Some people swear by browning off meat and onions before throwing them into the pot, feeling that this adds flavour. Although ideally I would prefer to, we simply don't have the space to have the slow cooker out and the hob working, so I forego this step and lob everything in as it is. For a bolognese, I prefer to use chopped stewing or braising steak - mince tends to "disappear" in the long slow cooking. Same with the veg - cut everything that bit bigger than you usually would so it keeps a little texture. Remember that you're cooking multiple portions of your usual dish, and upscale the seasoning accordingly - whilst still remembering that you can add more, but not remove what is already in the pan. (If you DO find, on tasting the dish, that you have added a little too much salt, then drop some thick slices of potato in and simmer for a short while - the potato will "suck out" some of the saltiness, and can then be discarded. By the same token if a dish is a little too spicy, either a spash of cream or bizarrely a good squeeze of lemon juice helps to calm it down) On the subject of seasoning, I usually use dried herbs in my bolognese during the cooking, then add a handful of fresh towards the end. Tinned tomatoes are one of those things that seems to keep increasing and increasing in price - however it's worth keeping your eyes out for "damaged stock" being sold off on market stalls - often the "damage" is as simple as stained or torn labels, of a bit of bashing on the tin, and doesn't affect the contents in the slightest - earlier today I spotted 4 tins of Napolina brand tomatoes being sold for £1 on the market - a vast saving on the supermarket's prices. Failing that companies like Approved Food often have massive catering tins for a good price, and Lidl and Aldi are worth a look, too.

The main reasons for many people choosing to batch cook are time saving - home cooked "ready Meals" are a great bonus when you get home after a long day at work and a stressful commute and can have a home cooked meal ready in moments. However, the cost-savings are another good reason. Cooking in bulk often means you can buy in bulk, which often works out cheaper - so a large joint of a cheaper cut of meat, for example - the slow cooking will tenderise the meat of course. You can also often get away with a smaller quanity of meat - as it breaks down during the cooking process the flavours the sauce beautifully. A useful tip to stretch things even further is to add a handful of porridge oats or oatmeal - this helps thicken the sauce, and adds a fantastic creaminess to it too.

Finally - a proper "2 for the price of 1" dish to finish up with.....take one free-range chicken (Seriously, yes, they might be a bit more expensive, but you actually get flavour with a free range bird, and, managed careefully, you ought to be able to get at least 4 main meals for two from a mid-sized bird - probably more) of a size to fit snugly into the slow cooker. Cover with cold water, and add a couple of small quartered onions, a couple of carrots, sliced lengthways, a few bay leaves and a couple of chopped sticks of celery if you have it. Pop the lid on, and leave to simmer away to itself gently until the chicken is cooked right through. (The best way to test for this is to feel the breast - it should feel firm to the touch, without too much softness, and give a leg a tug too - if it moves around easily at the joint then the bird is most likely done - it goes without saying never to take a chance on an undercooked chicken - the risks are simply too high). Once this process is complete, not only do you have a beautifully succulent poached chicken, you also have a good amount of really tasty chicken stock at no extra cost.  Enjoy!


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