Cheap eats without austerity

Now that the splurge is over and the last Christmas chocolates have been scoffed, it’s time to redress the balance with dinners that minimise our debts and waistlines – just for a little while, mind – maybe until Pancake Day.

Setting a snug food budget shouldn’t mean we feel hard done by – I’m just not up for any toast sandwiches. There are a few favourite meals that use inexpensive ingredients and taste so good that no one thinks of them as austerity dinners. Some of the recipes below I avidly look forward to!

Of course, talking about how much food costs always brings us back to your supplier – from organic deli to cash-and-carry, there’s of course a wide margin. There’s also a slight stigma among foodies about buying cheap food – with producers often bearing the consequences of our more-for-less demands. But I suspect even the most earnest food campaigner’s got a few dishes that they resort to in the week before payday. There are classic ways to do this that everyone knows – I’m hoping you’ll share some of your favourites below.

Vegetarian chilli

Beans rather than beef in a chilli cuts costs down tremendously.

Let’s get it out of the way first- pulses. They really do fill a hole in your stomach without eating a hole in your wallet. Black beans, great for the slow cooker, fill flat breads or top rice and feel a teeny bit exotic – like you’ve brought them back from holiday. Dress them simply with plain yoghurt, shredded lettuce and tomatoes. Pinto beans have an equally creamy texture and make the classic refried beans for burritos. And no self-respecting chilli is complete without kidney beans. We have a motto in our house – though not yet stitched on a sampler – you can never cook too many beans. Leftovers go on jacket potatoes or in quesadillas, stuck together with a little grated cheese.

But there’s no point cooking cheap dishes if you’re going to throw half the remaining ingredients away – waste as little as possible. Leftover meals are worth planning for if you have the opportunity to cook big at the weekend, stretching your meat purchases further. Roast chicken risotto is far from an austerity dish – it’s the culinary equivalent of a duvet. Whereas shredded leftover roast lamb with a little Ras-el-hanout or harissa fried in forms the basis of fantastic wraps with shredded carrot, cucumber and lettuce.

Ingredients on the turn spawn a whole new style of cooking – I call it rescue cuisine. Banana muffins save blackened bananas from the bin and are perfect for an on-the-bus breakfast. A minestrone or curry often gets made just before the veg box arrives – hoovering up those halves of cabbage and bendy carrots.  Soft apples make comforting crumbles. I must admit to eating yoghurt after the date, but if you were at all worried – it could always be baked into a luscious cake.

As much as we’d like to say we could always remember to soak the beans the night before, or cook a big batch of soup for the week, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. There are tons of quick-and-easy recipes that use lots of ready-made food products (sauces and the like) but they quickly use up the budget. Whereas simple things like eggs are often overlooked as the ideal quick and low-cost meal. Substitute poached eggs for chicken on this warm salad of lentils and greens. Break out the Tabasco to liven up a frittata, or just scramble the little beauties on toast with mushrooms – they’re utterly lovely.


Rick Stein's artichoke pasta



Which brings us to pasta – our ten minute fall-back. Supermarkets have really raised our expectations of pasta with their fresh raviolis and the like, but it’s not a treat for me. (I like to eat a lot more pasta than they assume I do.) A little olive oil, good parmesan and cracked black pepper and a jar of grilled artichokes is a treat. There are so many ways to eat a bowl of pasta – with a few tinned olives and dried chilli flakes, maybe some fried breadcrumbs, garlic and greens, or just a healthy grating of good old cheddar – simple is never boring.

I would cheerfully eat these dishes as my staple diet (and do!) without hardship.

What are your favourite (shhh!) budget meals?


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