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Cost Effective Cooking

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Published April 8th 2020
Feed the family well on a budget

Cost-effective living doesn't have to be just for the hard times, but can be employed anytime to reach a future goal. There's nothing new about tightening the belt and cutting costs here and there, so we can look forward to that larger picture; a holiday, a car, homeownership and so on. It doesn't only apply to the food we put on the table either. It's all the little things in our daily living that surprisingly adds up and can end up controlling us. It's all about cause and effect and what our priorities are. Old school proverbs like cut your coat according to your cloth; comes to mind.

Saving starts from the little things like not wasting water, electricity and so on that amounts to being environmentally and sustainability-conscious and responsible, which is not a bad thing. Reeling back from wastage, over-consumption and not being a throw-away society is nothing to baulk at. The universe demands it. The same goes for cleaning products. You don't need to buy a cupboard full. Go back to basics. There are many economical, natural products you can make and use that are good for the environment and your pocket. You but need to google and you'll find recipes on Better Homes & Gardens; Good Housekeeping and others. You could binge-watch and learn at the same time watching How Clean Is Your House and the miracles worked with just vinegar and lemon juice.

One of the costs we can't run from are groceries to feed the family. We all have to eat and food bills are a huge ongoing chunk out of our income, though we are not helpless to do something about it. We can still eat well and economically, keeping it healthy and fresh. There are many choices in fresh and organic food, but let's face it, not everyone can afford organic food, especially if you have a large family. With no offence intended, nor promoting one thing over another, the freedom of choice is always yours, depending on your circumstances.

Being careful about expenditure doesn't mean you don't go to restaurants or have that special treat. You simply balance the dollars and cut back on some things, for a treat of the finer things in life. Or, perhaps you're at that stage in life where it heads down, bottoms up to achieve a goal and the treats can wait for later when you're more established. The reasons to be cost-effective are many and it's different and valid for everyone within their own circumstances.

I've always lived by something I was told a long time ago. To eat food closest to its natural state eg. rice over pasta, fresh over canned where we can, and so on. It benefits the body, gives us the nutrition we need for a better chance to fight off the ills in life, and as they say, food is medicine. That's not to say you don't eat pasta or canned food. All in moderation. Baked beans and tinned sardines always make good emergency food, so it's not about banning canned. Rice and pasta dishes are always a good way to spread the meal for a large family and make it economical, based on portions inline with the needs of our body.

With winter at our doorstep, you can feed a family with filling thick soups very economically. Pumpkin soup comes to mind as does a thick Indian or Italian red lentil soup with vegetables, both poured over cooked brown rice or eaten with some toast. Not having meat with every meal won't harm anyone and it keeps the environment happy. Curries and stews are also economical dishes to produce (and a winner with winter afoot) as you can make 1-2 kgs or meat go further bulked up with vegetable and potato and eaten with rice or scooped up with wraps or bread you can buy for a couple of dollars. Smaller families can pack leftovers to freeze (1-2 weeks) and have it on the ready for emergency food or when you don't feel like cooking. It saves you from spending on ready-made frozen meals.

Shopping seasonally makes sense economically and buying in bulk (not panic buying) for things you know you definitely use all the time, when it comes on special, is a good choice. Especially on the pricier items like shampoos and toothpaste for instance. Every dollar saved makes a difference, especially if you're a large family. As a customer, I support a variety of grocery shops as I live in an area where they're all near to each other, so I don't have to drive miles to go from one to the other. There's also a little fruit and veg shop in the same vicinity where I buy from as they're generally cheaper than the large supermarkets. When you're trying to save, or you're in a position where you can't afford things, you can't place allegiance to just one place, but have to do what's best for your pocket.

Even though I wouldn't advocate driving miles just to pick up a special and end up spending more in petrol, I myself do go down Springvale way once a month and do a huge shop down there. Aside from other things I get all my seafood at Springvale Central. Everything is fresh and sometimes nearly half the price for seafood compared to what's available inner city where I live. It's great for those special occasions like birthdays and Christmas and so on, or to simply spoil yourself now and again. The same goes for greens and vegetables. Being predominantly an Asian community, the variety is huge and it's thrilling learning how to use and cook different vegetables and spices. It might be worth your while to spend that $5 in petrol to save $50 for instance, if you have something similar close by.

Running through breakfast, think about buying home brand quick oats rather than pre-packaged individual sachets, then add your own sprinkling of sultanas, goji berries, sunflower seeds etc for instance. A round of sandwiches or two for lunch doesn't have to cost much to make rather than buy. The same goes for wraps with perhaps leftovers like roast vegetables, curries and such like, topped with perhaps a plain leafy salad and a dollop of yoghurt to make it interesting and a little complex. There are a plethora of choices to cook dinner cheaply.

Whole seed popcorn rather than pre-packed and ready-made is more economical to make yourself when the munchies hit. I cook mine in a bit of olive oil and sea salt, stir it through so the salt dissolves for even coating. Heat is on medium-high for starters with the lid closed and a little vent on the lid left open. I lower the heat a little once it has reached full temperature and the pot is hot. When the popping has slowed right down from a rapid machine gun popping to a few intermittent pops, I turn off the heat. While it's still hot, if it needs more salt, I sprinkle more on and stir it through. An African girlfriend of mine said she pops hers with sugar, and then sprinkles milk powder through it. Dare you?

Below I'll share with you a couple or three of my favourite recipes that keeps within the budget and is tasty to boot. My pumpkin soup I speak of is more like a Pumpkin Vichyssoise. Here is a guideline in quantities and you can adjust proportions according to the size of your family. You'll find that as you go along, you'll make your own version; perhaps without the potato, but just a plain pumpkin soup, using the same basics, or not. It's also easy to turn the humble pumpkin soup into an Asian flavoured Thai Pumpkin Soup simply by adding a can of coconut cream (I buy mine from Aldi as they're under $1 a can) and some Thai Red Curry Paste to it, adjusting heat and flavour by the quantity you use. The Mae Ploy brand is the one I use and they have a variety of Thai curry flavours. You can get them at stores that sell Asian ingredients. Even though stock cubes are used in the recipe, it can be made more delicious if you have chicken carcass or necks around to make your own stock. However, I find Massel's stock powder pretty satisfying.

Pumpkin Vichyssoise
750g pumpkin
250g potatoes
4 cups of water
3 chicken stock cubes
2 leeks or 2 large onions
1 cup cream
rock salt and crushed peppercorns according to taste
Just clean, wash and cut up your pumpkin and potatoes, add the stock cubes, leeks or onions and boil down with water. When the pumpkin and potato is soft enough, I generally mash it down with a handheld potato masher because I prefer my soups thick and a little rustic/chunky looking. Add cream and mix through. Using good rock salt and crushing whole pepper makes a whole difference to the taste, I feel.

Speaking of chicken drumsticks earlier, I generally get 12-14 pieces in a 2kg pack for $6.99 at Aldi. My family loves the Grilled Thai Chicken recipe which is so simple and doesn't use any fats at all. Yet the taste is so complex and flavourful, you'd think you put a million fancy spices in it. It's my go-to all the time and if you marinade a large quantity, or 2kg is too much for 2 people, fear not. You can grill a portion for one day and leave the other half marinating another day in all those flavours. I'd love you to try out the recipes I'm sharing and cook regularly, and tell me what you think in comments.

Thai Grilled Chicken
1 kg chicken - I use drumsticks but you can use other parts of the chook and it's optional whether you want it skin on or off.
6 cloves garlic crushed
4 coriander plants, including roots, cleaned and finely chopped
1 tbls black peppercorns crushed (not bought powdered one)
2 teaspoons salt
3 tbls lemon juice freshly squeezed

With the above quantities, you can double, triple, or quadruple the recipe. All you have to do is mix the whole marinade through the chicken and marinate overnight. If you want it sooner, it should sit in the marinade at least 4hrs minimum, but overnight is so much better, so be patient. If you're still awake, before you go to bed, just turn it over again as the marinade sinks to the bottom. When ready to grill it, be sure to pour all the chunky bits of marinade over. Grill it to crispy perfection and no, it doesn't taste or work the same when you roast it. Grill it please and eat with a fancy tomato or lentil rice (I make turmeric and salt crispy glutinous rice) and salad. If you kept the skin on, it'll be crispy skin to bite into, if you didn't, there's something else I do with Chicken Skin. Waste not, want not. I make it into Chicken Bacon.

I'm known as the turmeric and salt queen as I use that combo a lot. Let's go with Chicken Bacon first. If you're removing the skin off 2-4kgs of chicken there's enough there to make these gorgeous chicken bacon/croutons that can be sprinkled over a salad, enjoyed with a bite of rice or on its own as you would pork crackle. Just put all the skin (if pieces are too large, cut them to 2" square pieces; shape doesn't matter) into a frypan, and sprinkle with turmeric and salt to taste. No oil needed at all. I'd use a heaped teaspoon of turmeric for that quantity, and let the heat do the work. Keep stirring over the hot frypan, and as it heats up, all the fat melts away from the skin. Keep turning till chicken skin is light golden brown and remove from frypan with a slotted spoon or tongs. Don't wait till the skin is dark brown as it keeps cooking (and you could end up with burnt skin) and crisps up, when it hits the air. Some would use the fat to make chicken rice eg. flavoured with chicken fat, or you simply throw it away.

Salmon pieces with skin on (Aldi or Coles has them for $13 a pack of 4 slices of salmon) is another I cook simply with a bit of olive oil, tumeric and salt and make it into crispy skin salmon by shallow frying. A piece of salmon with a salad and some flavoured rice (I cook rice with turmeric and salt and some oil, absorption method for flavoursome rice that can be made fancy when served by topping it with fried shallots and sultanas) and bobs your uncle. Whether you eat one piece for $3.25 a head or two pieces for $6.50 a head for that special occasion; it's still cheaper than eating out.

A whole $10 cooked chook from Coles isn't a bad buy either when you have no time. A quarter each for 4 people amounts to $2.50 a head, with a bit of vegetables to go with it. In Myanmar, they'd cut up the roast chook into bite-size pieces and mix it in with noodles and garlic oil (homemade by slicing garlic and frying it in a bit of oil), salt and chilli to taste and have a cup of clear soup to go with it. It's called see-jet-khauk-swe. My mum used to cook something she called Potato Kootay.

It's basically boiled potato. Then she cooks a bit of black mustard seed in oil til it pops, then adds lots of sliced onions, turmeric and salt, and stir-fries the onions till they're just soft and transparent. The bite size chopped boiled potato is then put into the oil and onion mix and fried for a few minutes till it's heated through and everything is mixed. A big squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the lot completes the dish and it can be eaten as an accompaniment to other things or stand alone in a wrap or roti as a meal with a salad.

For dessert, I've had bread pudding made with leftover stale bread baked in shallow pie pans and topped with melted chocolate once it's cooled and served with whipped cream. Sure brings the humble bread pudding up a notch. I also make a decadent French Toast for dessert that's quick and easy to make, and everyone just loves it. It's a bonus that stale bread holds together much better so don't use fresh.

French Toast with Mascarpone
375mls milk
6 eggs
12 slices stale white bread with crust
unsalted butter for pan frying
1 cup mascarpone cheese
A jar (if you haven't any) of Rose's Strawberry Jam (UK brand)
icing sugar for dusting

Whisk milk and eggs together. Soak bread in the mix for 1-2 mins but don't let the bread get soft. Add a good amount of butter in heated (medium heat) non-stick frypan and fry both sides of bread till golden. To plate up, put golden fried bread on plate, top with a good spoonful of mascarpone and drizzle with strawberry jam. Dust with icing sugar and serve. Even though this serves six, I find that one slice of bread per person is more than enough after a big meal. You could switch it up by adding fresh strawberries or cherries on the side, also sprinkled with icing sugar, and even make you own cherry coulis instead of using the jam if you have the time and money.

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Pancakes are also easy and cost effective to make at home
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