Friday, 26 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Day 2

As you will see, if you read about Day 1, Day 2's menu on my £1-a-day Food Challenge is quite similar. In fact generating variety has proved one of the more difficult aspects of the challenge. I don't mind a certain amount of repetitiveness in my eating but I can well see that one might tire of eating the same things over and over for a period of months or even years. A reminder that the huge variety of foods at our disposal in the western developed world is something to be genuinely appreciative of. It is also, of course, now recommended for good health that we eat from as wide a range of foods as possible. On a very restricted budget that is very difficult so eating to maintain good health, as well as simply surviving, raises the stakes to an even higher level of difficulty, if you are living on no more than £1 per day for a long period of time.

I suppose to call my drained yoghurt "cheese" is stretching things a bit but it tastes like a very young, fresh, cream cheese, it spreads like cheese and it works with other ingredients like cheese, so cheese it is. I use a small jar of homemade yoghurt for this, made from a litre of UHT semi-skimmed milk from Aldi (49p) seeded with a jar of homemade yoghurt left over from a previous batch seeded with commercial live yoghurt (overall cost 13p). The cost of each jar in this second batch comes down to 9p and in a subsequent one to 8p but by then you really need to seed the homemade batch with commercial yoghurt again. For the cheese. all I do is tip a small jar of yoghurt into a sieve lined with muslin over a jug, pop a small saucer on top and a weight and leave it to drain in the fridge overnight. The next day most of the whey will have dripped through the muslin into the jug leaving a mass of creamy white cheese to use as you wish.

It's still quite loose in texture but it's very good, sprinkled with a pinch of salt and pepper on fresh homemade wholemeal bread and topped with herbs or salad or a sliced tomato.

Tomatoes, even cheap ones, are off limits on the challenge but herbs and / or cress are not. It's repetitive having the same thing for lunch each day but still good and I'm changing the plate for variety!

The thrifty spiced bun recipe is really a variant on a hot cross bun that I made this last Lent. Similar to the ones I usually make but with one or two differences and the recipe was quite susceptible to being tweaked to reduce the cost so even though Eastertide has virtually come to an end, I am afraid I am still eating Shrovetide buns!

Thrifty Spiced Buns

2tsps yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 4p
250g wholemeal flour (homeground)
250g strong white flour (Lidl) 13p
1 tsp salt 1p
50ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 5p
50g soft brown sugar (Aldi) 7p
300ml whole milk (from Aldi 4pt bottle) 13p
90ml water / whey from draining yoghurt
120g raisins (Aldi) 31p
120g homemade candied orange and grapefruit peel 12p
1 tsp ground mixed spice (Aldi) 2p
1tsp ground cinnamon (Aldi) 3p
1tsp ground anise (from a gift from a German friend I know through work; ground anise is difficult to obtain in the UK. You could use more of the other two spices or add nutmeg instead.)

Homemade candied peel is a whole different story from the commercial variety - forget those dry tubs of uniformly cubed, nondescript "mixed peel" and meet meltingly fragrant, citrus chunks that retain all the distinct aromatic qualities of the individual fruits they come from. I use the recipe in Jane Grigson's Fruit Book which is very good. The two separate boilings before you put the peel anywhere near the sugar really are necessary so that the finished candied peel is tender and not tough. You can shorten the time by using a pressure cooker - 7 minutes under pressure for each boiling. I store the finished peel in the freezer as I've found it doesn't keep very well in a jar.

I make the dough for these buns in my bread-maker, using the wholemeal raisin-dough programme. When the dough is ready, I divide it into 12 pieces, place them on non-stick baking parchment on a baking sheet and cut a deep cross in each one with a knife dipped in flour before each cut. I leave them to prove while the oven heats up to 195 C and then bake them for 14 minutes until well risen and nicely brown.

As with all my yeast baking, on taking them out of the oven, I shunt them off the baking sheet to cool on a wire rack. Fresh from the oven they don't need butter or anything else on them and what I don't immediately need, I freeze and just defrost as required. If you don't freeze them, they will go stale quite quickly but will be fine for a day or two, if you're going to toast and butter them.

Away from the £1-a-day food project I use more raisins (150g) , more candied peel (150g) and more of each of the spices (1½ tsps). I also like using almond oil and maple syrup in place of the sunflower oil and soft brown sugar but the thrifty version is good enough to make me think that this is an unnecessary extravagance.

The buns are delicious and filling without being dense. Neither are they too heavy on fat or sugar so they're a good recipe for anyone wanting to cut down, not just on cost, but also on sugar or fat.

Total cost 91p. Makes 12 buns, each costing 8p.

Chilli sin carne

224g red kidney beans, soaked overnight and cooked in a pressure cooker with 2½pts water for 20 minutes (Sainsbury's) 52p
20ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 2p
2 small red onions, peeled and finely chopped (Aldi) 12p
2 tsps chilli powder (Aldi) 5p
salt / black pepper (Waitrose) 1p
2 large (400g) tins chopped tomatoes (Aldi) 58p
c 500ml homemade vegetable stock 1p
oregano (from garden)
parsley (from garden)

To make:
In the base of a large cast iron casserole, sweat the chopped onions in the sunflower oil until softened. Stir in the chilli powder and a grinding of black pepper. Add the tins of chopped tomatoes and plenty of fresh oregano. Drain the kidney beans, saving the cooking liquid, and add the beans to the pan. Pour in the stock and about the same quantity again of the bean-cooking liquid, to make quite a sloppy mix. Add a bit of salt if you think it needs it. Bake in the oven at 170 C for about three hours or so, until the liquid has substantially reduced into a nice thick sauce. I leave the lid slightly ajar on the casserole to encourage evaporation.

Check towards the end of the cooking time to make sure the chilli is not drying out. If it seems on the dry side, you can add a bit of boiling water and leave it in the oven, or you can take it out a bit early - everything's cooked by now - just do whatever suits your schedule.

Serve sprinkled with fresh chopped oregano and parsley, on top of some rice and, if you are not on so tight a budget, garlic bread would be nice too. Freed from the constraints of the challenge I would maybe use an extra onion, and possibly a wee bit more chilli powder. A good fat dollop of tinned tomato purée would not go amiss either. You could also add other vegetables such as celery or fennel to the onions if you wanted to make it go further. For preference I would be using olive oil, not sunflower.

Total cost £1.31. Makes 5 portions each costing 26p.

For the challenge I used Aldi's cheapest possible rice which works out at 4p per 125g. The rice could have been better - I much prefer proper Basmati rice - but for 4p per serving, one can't possibly complain and I have to say that the whole thing was unexpectedly good this evening. In other circumstances it's not what I would necessarily have chosen to cook on by far hottest day of the year so far, but it kind of made up for itself, despite that. I shall be making it again away from the challenge.

Today's piece of culinary bad news relates to my rhubarb which just doesn't seem to have regenerated properly after my last picking a few weeks ago, despite being well-watered and spoken kindly to. There was just enough to make a batch of rhubarb compôte with 100g Aldi soft brown sugar (14p) - enough for six portions at 2p each so long as the servings were minuscule. I am relieved for the purposes of the challenge that there was just enough and know that next week I can buy it, if I want to. Not an option, if you have to manage on this budget permanently, I remind myself.

I had to divide it up equally into small pots immediately as I knew if I just spooned it into bowls as required, I would over-serve to begin with and run out. 10ml cream sounds no more than a token but it goes a long way as you can see in the pic. Despite this, opprobrious remarks were made at supper about needing microscopes and the fact that I appear to be serving meals for fleas! But I don't think fleas eat rhubarb...! And we're at the end of Day 2 already!

A small square of Scottish tablet to disguise the taste of that unpleasant Earl Grey tea? I think so!

Today's total is a penny more than yesterday's at 94p but still well within bounds. Now for the weekend!

E x

Thursday, 25 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Day 1

So this evening sees the end of Day 1 of my £1-a-day Food Challenge and so far, I'm surviving reasonably happily on my iron rations. Just have to see if I can keep it going! What I notice already is that the food itself is great but that some of the portion sizes are quite meagre. It hasn't been too noticeable today but I am conscious of it. And I remind myself that I only have to do this for five or six days. If I were to be living with scaled-back portions all the time, it would be a very different story. Sobering. 

Anyway, here, for anyone who may be interested, are my Day 1 details and the recipes I've devised from scratch or tweaked to fit the stringent budget. 

Breakfast is smaller than usual, but not very different from what I usually eat except that the milk to make the porridge is heavily watered down and I usually have a teaspoon of maple syrup on it instead of this new-to-me preserve, dandelion honey. (See my previous post for details.)

I often make apple purée for breakfast - I don't really like raw apple - and thought it wouldn't be too much of a problem to include a portion on the £1-a-day meal plans but even with the cheapest apples I could find (65p for a bag of seven at Aldi on their Super Six offer), it works out at 9p for a tiny bowlful. Later in the year when there are windfalls a-plenty in the garden and hedgerows, it will, of course, be free. In fact, doing the challenge now in May, I found that most fruit, unless it had been foraged and frozen last year, or grown for free like rhubarb, had to be eliminated because it was just too expensive to include. A bit of a shock as, normally, I eat a lot of fruit. Probably too much actually.

To make the apple purée, wash but do not peel or core the apples. Cut them up roughly and place in a pan with enough water almost to cover. In less frugal circumstances I often snip off an inch or so of vanilla pod, split it down the middle to expose the tiny fragrant seeds and add it to the apples as they cook which gives the resulting purée a delicious, creamy vanilla flavour but vanilla pods are off limits for this week.

Bring to the boil and simmer until really soft - about an hour. Then tip the contents (fruit, juice, skins, stalks, pips and everything) into a mouli placed over a bowl and turn the handle to press out the purée. The purée freezes well if you want to make a big batch and freeze some. I made this batch using 11 apples from Aldi's Super Six offer - a bag of 7 apples for 65p. It made 11 small portions so it comes out at 9p each.

Although I have managed to include a few Earl Grey tea bags in my budget, I had to switch to Aldi's own brand instead of Waitrose's. I have to say that it's the first completely unsatisfactory ingredient swap I've made. It tastes awful. If it's not made with floor-sweepings, it might as well be. I am supplementing it with fresh mint tea made from bright green, Moroccan mint in the garden.

I do like mint tea but it's not the same as my beloved, usual Earl Grey. Anyway at least it doesn't taste like the dregs at the bottom of a floor-washing bucket which can't easily be said for Aldi's offering on the tea front. Enough said but this will be one item I most certainly won't be buying long term.

Grain for grinding. Exactly as it came out of the combine harvester last August so it needs a bit of picking over to remove chaff, small stones and the odd dead insect but I love it - grown only yards from my front door and a free gift to boot.
Grain milled into flour, sifted and ready for baking.
The thrifty seeded roll recipe is a variation on one I often make. The ingredients are as follows:

1tsp yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 2p
270g wholemeal flour (ground at home from sack of grain given to me by my neighbour farmer last autumn) 
230g strong white bread flour (Lidl) 12p
1tsp salt 1p
8g skimmed milk powder ("Marvel" from Waitrose) 9p
10ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 1p
50g brown linseeds ("Tree of Life" from Waitrose) 14p
380ml water (plain or mixed with whey from drained yoghurt)

Total cost for 12 rolls 39p ie 3p each.

I make the dough in my automatic bread-maker on the wholemeal dough programme and then divide it into 12 rolls, place on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking paper and bake at 195 C for 14-15 minutes. Once cooked, shunt the rolls off the baking sheet, onto a wire rack to cool. 

Normally I make these with an even 50/50 split between wholemeal flour and white, a mixture of seeds such as millet, poppy and sesame, more skimmed milk powder and 30ml not 10ml of a nutty British rapeseed oil . I've stuck with linseeds because they're filling, nutritious and the cheapest seed option and I like their hidden nutty taste. Obviously you could omit the milk powder entirely but it does improve the texture of the bread and provides an extra shot of protein and vitamins which is grist to my mill this week.

I know it's a weakness but if I am to carry on functioning reasonably sweetly for the latter part of the day, I need something to eat and drink around 4.00 o'clock in the afternoon. And not a celery stick or a handful of healthy chia seeds either, I am afraid. So one of the particular challenges of these £1-a-day meal plans was that I had to factor that in, which wasn't easy. As you'll see, I've hunkered down around wholemeal-based recipes which haven't cost me anything for the wholemeal flour and are relatively light on other ingredients. It has made for slightly unseasonal menus - today has been the hottest day of the year so far in the UK - almost 30 C here in Oxfordshire - so it feels slightly incongruous to be eating a toasted muffin more appropriate for a cold winter's afternoon, but no matter. The rose-hip and crab apple jelly is a 2013 vintage. Not quite as old as my basil and cress seeds but nonetheless venerable! Because the fruit was foraged for free, I've costed it out just for the amount of jam sugar used, so it's pretty cheap for a reasonably generous serving, which is good because there's not much slack available for any butter. 

The recipe for thrifty English muffins is another variation on an existing theme. The dough is very sloppy and sticky so if you are making it by hand you might well want to reduce the liquid to make it more workable. The high fluid content is what gives the muffins their loose, light texture though. I make the dough in my bread-maker on the pizza dough setting.

For a batch of ten muffins you need:

a starter made with one eighth of a teaspoon of yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) and 180g strong white bread flour (Lidl) mixed with 170ml water and left covered for a couple of hours 9p
1 tsp yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 4p
206g wholemeal flour (home-ground as above) 
14g cornflour (Waitrose) 4p
1 tsp salt 1p
20g demerara sugar (Aldi) 3p
30ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 3p
140ml whole milk  (from 4pt bottle Aldi) 6p
c34ml water (or whey from drained yoghurt)
30g ground rice to dust the outsides of the muffins ("Whitworths" from Waitrose) 4p

Total cost for 10 muffins 43p ie 4p each.

Shape the dough as best you can (it's sticky!) into ten balls, dust them in ground rice (which helps with handling the sticky dough) and bake in non-stick muffin rings on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking paper at 180 C for c 25 minutes. 

Lift off the muffin rings (carefully - they're hot!) and as before, shunt the muffins off the tin to cool on a wire rack. 

When not on the £1-a-day food challenge I would use 174ml milk instead of milk diluted with water / whey and I usually use an organic sunflower margarine such as Biona rather than the oil.

Carrot and lentil soup with cumin and coconut milk

c 1litre homemade vegetable stock (using trimmings from any vegetables you've saved, a few sprigs of herbs eg rosemary, thyme, lovage, bay leaf, 2 tsps salt and 2 pints water) 2p
12ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 1p
2 small red onions (140g), peeled and chopped (Aldi) 9p
770g carrots, peeled and grated coarsely (Aldi) 32p
140g red lentils (Lidl) 21p
half a tsp cumin seeds toasted in a dry pan and ground (Waitrose) 5p
pinch black pepper
large tin of reduced fat coconut milk (Aldi) 79p
fresh parsley (from garden)

Total cost £1.49. Makes 6 portions costing 25p each.

To make:
Sweat the onions and grated carrot in the sunflower oil in the base of the pressure cooker. Season with the cumin and black pepper. Add the stock, lentils and coconut milk, bring to the boil and cook under pressure for 7 minutes. Release the pressure and allow to cool a bit before whizzing to a purée in a blender. Thin with extra water if necessary. Serve sprinkled with a bit of chopped parsley and dill.

In less frugal circumstances I would use more carrots - up to a kilo, quite a bit more seasoning - up to 2 tsps of cumin and plenty of black pepper. I would also use olive oil, not sunflower, to sweat the vegetables in.

So my total costs for Day 1 amount to 93p. That includes "extras" which are not strictly necessary but which I felt would make the challenge more realistically sustainable. They may be small but they have a disproportionately cheering psychological effect, especially my end-of-the-day, small, twopenny square of Scottish tablet with a cup of the unspeakable, Aldi Earl Grey tea! 

E x

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Counting down

My £1-a-day food challenge takes off in a couple of days. I've decided to run it from Thursday to Tuesday, across the weekend even though it's a Bank Holiday one. I am looking forward to it actually, if that doesn't sound a funny thing to say. Having invested a lot of time and thought and planning in the project, I want now to see if it will work in practice.

I am afraid it may be a bit boring to read, so my apologies in advance, if that's the case, but I am intending to post at the end of each day (or beginning of the following one) with a summary of my meal plan, the costs involved and recipes that I've devised or altered, to fit, or get round the demands of the challenge as well as any reflections as I go along. That is in part a kind of accountability exercise that I think will help to motivate me sticking to it, if the going gets, er, hungry! I'm also keen to record the minutiae of the challenge on a day to day level for my own retrospective reading and analysis.

So the first of these daily posts will be at the end of the week. I am also planning to do a kind of round-up post after the end of the challenge, with a collection of tips and tricks for future reference both for myself, should I be so rash as to undertake a repeat exercise, and in case anyone else might find them useful, either on a similar challenge or just generally. Thereafter normal, intermittent blogging service will resume!

Meanwhile, my preparations have been focussed this last week on ...

... some foraging...

Not for nettles which, as you will know if you read my Cucina povera post, were unceremoniously evicted before I could get to them, but for dandelions.

I always knew you could eat the leaves - they're good added with other wild green leaves to soup as their strong flavour gets muted by the heat and other ingredients but raw and travelling solo, they're quite bitter, so a few go a long way in salad.

There 's a lovely passage about a dandelion leaf salad in Serge Krebs' novel, "Aux Mains de l'Ennemi", (In Enemy Hands"), in which an English and a German soldier, Edward and Hans, strike up an unlikely friendship when they inadvertently cross one another's path behind the trenches in northern France. Edward, is wounded in the initial encounter and the pair lie up for a while in the strange territory of no-man's land, finding shelter in the abandoned farmhouses that litter the landscape. Food is scarce and they have to live off whatever they can find, mostly "pommes flétries" (withered apples) and dried up, old onions. After some days of this fare, Hans suggests collecting dandelion leaves for "une salade de pissenlits", which still grow in profusion, despite the ravages of artillery bombardment. Edward is very suspicious as to the edibility of dandelion leaves but Hans assures him that "les Français s'en raffolent" ("the French enjoy them") and that "ils sont pleins de vitamines".

Anyway, there's nothing else to hand so they pick a big bagful and hit on the bright idea of raiding the kitchen cupboards of the abandoned mill where they're holed up, for the sour dregs of a bottle of vinegar to dress the bitter leaves. On its own, the vinegar makes the leaves barely palatable but one idea leads to another and incurring very considerable risk for the sake of their precious salad, they leave the relative safety of their hiding place and manage to get hold of a bottle of oil from the cellar of another abandoned farmhouse. The bottle is almost empty and the oil that is left is turning rancid but there's enough to dress the leaves along with the vinegar and they feast incongruously but triumphantly on the results. I think you would need to be pretty hungry to enjoy this - I am hoping I will not find myself in that scenario this coming week! - but there's something very appealing about the foraged meal and the delight with which it is eaten. Bitter and tough though the leaves must have been despite the make-shift dressing, in the circumstances, the salad is a defiant and stylish solution to "ventres crispés par la faim" ("stomachs cramped with hunger").

Sorry - I am digressing; back to real life! While, as I say, I knew that the leaves were edible and also that you can eat the root of the plant - in hard times people have made a kind of ersatz coffee from dandelion root - I didn't know that you can also eat the flowers, but, to my surprise, I learn that you can.

I usually have a spoonful of maple syrup on my everyday porridge. I adore maple syrup and have to ration myself as, even away from a £1-a-day food challenge, pure maple syrup is very expensive. Even a single teaspoonful was off limits for the challenge however, so I toyed with possible alternatives - a teaspoon of soft brown sugar from Aldi would be OK, as would a teaspoonful of Aldi honey, which is ridiculously cheap compared with the price of honey elsewhere. And then I came across the idea of "cramaillotte" or "dandelion honey".

"Cramaillotte" is not a true honey, as made by honeybees, but something that tastes most disconcertingly like it, made from dandelion flowers, sugar and some citrus fruit. I was almost too late - the lawn and flower-beds have been covered in bright yellow dandelion flowers (hurray for lazy gardening!) and I thought it would be an easy matter to pick plenty. But dandelions only flower with their glorious, yellow, pom-pom heads for three days and then the golden petals turn, to the characteristic puffy seed-heads and when I went out into the garden, full of optimism, I found a sea of fluffy clocks and not nearly so many golden heads as there had been only a few days previously. I moved fast and gathered all I could find and added a few more from a bank down the lane that seemed reasonably clear of the possibility of contamination, either from traffic or dogs. There were just enough flower-heads to have a go at this recipe if I scaled back the quantities to ⅓ of the orginal. Phew!

"Cramaillotte" originates in the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France. There's not much you can teach traditional French countryfolk about thrift (my mother always tells me that it is our French peasant ancestry that encourages any thrifty family tendencies!) and this recipe is a good example of that. It's extremely good and the funny thing is that "cramaillotte" tastes exactly like real honey, even though it isn't, if you see what I mean. If you are reading this and there are still dandelions out there in your garden to gather, I encourage you to lose no time in so doing! You will not regret it.

For the recipe, I had to use the ingredients I already had in the house, as I didn't want to lose any time, having picked the flowers, so while I had a lemon (which I used in full), I had no oranges. I did however have some dried orange-peel shapes, left over from making orange-peel-bunting last year so I added some of those to the mixture. That's why the orange peel is in those little shapes in the pic with holes for threading string through.

I didn't have any of the "sucre gélifiant" (jam sugar with pectin) that the recipe asked for, either. I do use jam sugar when I make preserves - I find it takes the stress out of getting stuff to set - but I realise that it is a great deal more expensive than plain sugar so perhaps it was just as well that the cupboard was bare, as it would have pushed my budget to accommodate it. I did have ordinary granulated sugar though, so that's what I used and it's worked fine. The cost of the whole batch, (using granulated sugar from Aldi (22p), a lemon from Aldi on their Super Six Offer (7p) and the leftover dried orange peel (0p) ) worked out at 29p for around 330g. That means a teaspoonful costs less than a halfpenny, 0.43p to be precise.

The finished product is like a runny honey - it would be difficult to spread it on toast and for it to stay there perhaps but it's perfect for my everyday porridge on the challenge - more fragrant than soft brown sugar, considerably more flavoursome than Aldi's (amazingly cheap) real honey and every bit as good as any good quality, wildflower honey. I guess it would be amazing on some Breton style crêpes made with buckwheat flour or on Belgian waffles ... I'll try that next week perhaps!

The name "cramaillotte" has a quaint and convoluted pedigree. It comes from "cramaillot", a country name in la Franche-Comté for dandelions. "Cramaillot" is itself a diminutive of "cramail", an old form of the word "crémaillère" - a technical term for a notched, metal piece, or rack in a mechanism that meshes into a gear wheel. It refers to the toothed leaves that distinguish the dandelion leaves. Of course, although I'd never thought about it before, dandelion in English is simply an anglicisation of "dent de lion", (lion's tooth), which also refers to the jagged leaves and the same thing applies in German where the word for dandelion is "Löwenzahn" (lion's tooth). The other common French name for dandelion is "pissenlit" which refers, unkindly and exaggeratedly, to the diuretic properties of dandelion. Diuretic qualities apart, I believe dandelion honey was originally made to combat symptoms of "mal de la gorge", but never mind whether you have a sore throat or not, this is just delicious in its own right, so, as I say, if you have any dandelions out there for the picking...

... some searching...

We discovered that one of the bantams had disappeared and gone into broody hiding one evening so a massive hen-hunt had to be launched before night-fall in order to deprive Mr Fox of a takeaway chicken. Eventually after hunting high and low, we found her ... sitting on top of 14 lovely fresh eggs! The eggs are a bit smudged and grubby from having been laid among the goose-grass and comfrey but they're all fresh - I tested them in a jug of water - so I have some unexpected extra ammunition in the way of ingredients should I need it over the coming days. The main relief is finding the bantam, not the eggs, although she wasn't exactly pleased to be found and restored to a cosy nest box with only miserable old, ceramic, dummy eggs in place of her own clutch.

... some growing...

Even if you only have a windowsill, you can grow herbs from seed or cuttings in pots in a relatively short time, for negligible or no cost. My very-frugal-basil-plant is a case in point. He started as a single stem from a pot of basil from Aldi. I followed the instructions here and was amazed that they worked. It's much quicker to get to harvesting than growing from seed although it's taken about a month to get from cutting a single stem from the parent plant to this.

I also have a load of basil seedlings in the greenhouse, grown from very ancient, vintage seed packets dating from 2009. A surprising number of the seeds have germinated but, of course, even though they were planted over a month ago, starting from seed, they are nowhere near harvesting in quantity yet.

In addition I have dabbled with planting chervil, dill, Greek oregano, lovage, chives and caraway. All going quite nicely but not really useable yet in the kitchen. The oregano and lovage I planted because I thought earlier in the Spring that they hadn't survived the winter in their normal habitats but I was wrong - there's a happy forest of both so while the wee chaps in the greenhouse are too tiny to use, their longer established cousins in the flowerbeds are most certainly not. I've always used oregano in my cooking but I am new to using lovage - it has quite a strong celery-type flavour and is very good in stock to provide a celery component without using any celery, if you see what I mean, so it's proving a bit of a frugal friend.

I have also been growing the remnants of a slightly less ancient, but still vintage, (2010 as opposed to 2009!), previously opened packet of cress seeds in an even shorter time-frame. Who says growing mustard and cress is just for children? And despite their antique status, like the ancient basil, they've, more or less, all germinated which I've regarded as a freebie bonus. I've been saving these ugly old trays that mushrooms in the supermarket are packed in. D kindly cut them down, as the sides were too high to allow easy harvesting and they've made perfect cress-growing trays.

A few pieces of kitchen roll folded up as a base, a liberal sprinkling of seeds, regular watering and voilà! Fresh salad on tap, packed with vitamin C and minerals! I've got several trays on the go in succession so that supply will keep up with demand.

... some basic cooking ahead...

Making homemade vegetable stock for example, from the peelings and trimmings of vegetables left over from other cooking and herbs.

I've found that a tightly-lidded plastic container in the fridge keeps such vegetable trimmings fresh and useable for two or three days if I can't make the stock straightaway and the finished product is well worth the effort for adding a depth of flavour to otherwise plain dishes. As it's made from herbs growing in the garden and stuff that would otherwise go straight in the compost bucket, it is also effectively free, apart from the salt. I cook it for 20 minutes under pressure in my pressure cooker, before cooling and straining. What I don't immediately need, I freeze in washed-out, old 450ml yoghurt containers.

... and some creative hooky distraction!

More of this once normal service resumes hopefully!

E x

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Shopping - No Small Change

What are your preferred food-shopping habits? Are you a devotee of On-Line-delivered-to-your-door supermarket shopping or do you prefer to shop in person, in a bricks and mortar store? Are you loyal to one particular supermarket brand or do you vary your allegiance? Do you buy in bulk from cash-and-carry stores like Costco or their On-Line equivalents? Do you make use of the increasing number of budget supermarket stores in the UK such as Aldi and Lidl? Do you shop at a local market, farmer's or other? Do you bypass supermarkets and buy direct from suppliers, either in person or On-Line?

For most of us, the answers to these questions are largely dictated by the simple constraints of geographical convenience, available time, the nature and extent of our storage facilities and our budget as well as personal preferences.

Shopping has changed as an activity almost out of all recognition, in my lifetime. When I was a small child, growing up in the late sixties / early seventies, in a leafy suburb of North-West London, there were no big supermarkets within easy reach. Especially as my mother then didn't drive and shopping had to be done on foot, with assorted scratchy baskets and string bags in tow. Carrier bags were not then, as again now, freely offered to contain your goods. We didn't have a big freezer at home - only that little freezing compartment you used to get at the top of your below-the-counter fridge - it held an ice cube tray, a brick of frozen chopped spinach and maybe another brick of Walls' Neapolitan ice cream and nothing else. The fridge itself, (minus the space taken up by the freezing compartment), was pretty limited in capacity too. There was a walk-in larder though and plenty of cupboards for storing non-perishable foods. My mother, brought up under rationing in wartime Britain, regarded these cupboards as her insurance against prolonged siege or famine and you could have lived for months, even years, off her hoard of tins, bottled fruit and dry goods. You still can, actually! It's become something of a family joke.

Extracting stuff from these cupboards was, and still is, not a task for the faint-hearted. My mother is quite short (barely over 5') and these cupboards are both deep and lofty, so it always falls to my father, who is now not far off eighty, to climb an ancient, rickety stepladder, and rummage about in search of whatever it is that my mother is after. The required item is always at the back and only extracted after a small avalanche of cantilevered boxes and cartons heads south, which is sometimes headed off at the pass and sometimes isn't. My father surveyed this task and its attendant perils with limited enthusiasm fifty years ago and he hasn't got any keener on it since! Understandably so!

To supplement the withstand-a-siege-cupboards and the daily delivery of milk in tall, glass bottles from Harry, the milkman, my mother shopped little and often.

from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield,
(London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
Each expedition was a series of old-fashioned encounters: at Mr Baron's, the greengrocer's, the butcher's, Mr Sanders, whose shop floor was strewn with a thick layer of sawdust and where you handed over your money at a separate kiosk at the back of the shop, (for eminently sensible hygiene reasons, so that the person handling the meat didn't handle money as well), and at an independent small grocery, endearingly named, Pat-a-Cake's.

from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield, 
(London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
As a child, I used to find these shopping expeditions rather a bore - the walk was quite long for a small child and I hated helping to carry those cumbersome string bags stuffed with dirty potatoes in flimsy, brown, paper bags and heavy, green cabbages that bumped my legs all the way home. Making patterns with the toes of my sandals in the sawdust of Mr Sanders' shop while my mother bought lamb's liver, or steak and kidney, was a small compensation. Very occasionally, we were allowed to go into the sweet shop, Pratt's, and spend our pocket money on vivid, glassy lollipops, pastel-coloured flying-saucers made from rice paper, or small paper bags of sherbet lemons and pear drops, weighed out by the ounce, from big glass jars. Now, despite all the wonders of modern food supply, I look back fondly at that time and wish for it again, dirty potatoes, bumpy cabbages, scratchy baskets, cumbersome string bags and all.

Alcoholic beverages, (usually Amontillado sherry or gin, not wine), came from what my father still refers to as "the wine merchant". Shopping there was done by him, not my mother, on a Saturday morning. Sometimes, I would go with him and sniff the intriguing smells of cork, wood shavings and the faint whiff of yeasty beer that distinguished the shop. For a weekend treat, he and I might also make our way up to the independent baker, Elizabeth's, in the summer, and buy a sponge cake, sandwiched with raspberry jam and genuine, fresh cream for tea. I felt an affinity with Elizabeth's because of the name.

Shopping then was an experience straight out of the Ladybird book, "Shopping With Mother", a book I loved as a very small child. And while I never had long, fair plaits like Susan (more's the pity!), I did have a miniature shopping basket, very like hers, and my mother looked not at all unlike Susan's!

from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield, 
(London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
Shopping today is totally different. There are very few independent butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers who have survived the competition brought by the big supermarkets with their economies of scale and production. Such as there are, tend to be specialists of some kind and expensive for using every day. The choice available to us in the big supermarkets in the developed world is unbelievably wide. Take olive oil for example. In the early 1970s, olive oil BP (sic) was something you bought at Boots The Chemists in small, medicinal-size bottles. Go into any supermarket today and the range of olive oil on sale is huge - Italian, Greek, Spanish? Extra-virgin, green and peppery, mild? Single estate, blended? 500ml? A litre? No problem. It's all there. And the same applies to many other goods.

The Internet has brought supermarkets and faraway suppliers otherwise out of reach to the tips of our fingers, as we sit at home. Most supermarkets sell a good deal more than food. You can pick up clothes, bedding, kitchen equipment and more, along with your groceries in the glories of the one-stop shop. I know I am old-fashioned here, but I do not like this growing tendency. It's most convenient to be able to pick up a bottle of wine along with the ingredients for supper and non-food, but kitchen-related, stuff I can cope with, but I do not like being confronted with lawnmowers and chain-saws when I am buying milk and potatoes!

Apart from the lawnmowers-cheek-by-jowl-with-milk-and-potatoes issue, these changes are positive - far more convenient and they offer a much wider landscape for culinary creativity and I am deeply grateful for both. Working full time, six days a week, means my shopping time is limited. I don't have time to shop as my non-working mother did.  But I still hanker after those days and given half a chance, I'd snap them up again.

As I mentioned in my initial post about this £1-a-day Food Challenge, my shopping habits have changed radically over the last few weeks. I am delighted at what the changes have brought about and food-shopping has become, for the time being anyway, a bit of an adventure.

The shift has had to take place in advance of the project itself in order to make sure that instead of the normal brands I buy of basics such as flour, sugar, tea, rice, oil, etc, etc I have replaced them with significantly cheaper ones so that when I come to use them in the challenge itself, I am not inadvertently blowing my budget.

The swapping over process has inevitably taken some time and quite a lot of patient searching and sourcing and I'm glad I started it early. My go-to source of help on the quest for cheap buys has been which is a quick and easy tool for comparing prices across all the standard UK supermarkets. It didn't take more than a few minutes of doing price comparisons to realise that I have been paying way over the odds for a huge number of items. A very large proportion of what I have been buying from Ocado or Waitrose can be had for a fraction of the price elsewhere. Not everything, but a lot. I realise that I have got a bit sloppy about food-shopping and have got set in ways which, while convenient, are actually costing me a great deal of unnecessary money.

Of course, one has to be clear about whether one is comparing apples with apples or apples with pears, figuratively speaking. Soft brown sugar, for example, varies quite a bit, not just in price but in texture and flavour and I greatly prefer Waitrose's soft light brown muscovado sugar to cheaper soft brown sugar brands which don't seem to have the deep aromatic flavour of the Waitrose muscovado. But a red onion is a red onion is a red onion, if you see what I mean.

Anyway, I have been slashing my Ocado order by two thirds and have been sourcing most of my other stuff from Aldi.

It's two miles further away than Waitrose but in the scheme of things it's a comparable trip so there's no real extra cost in travelling. It's been a revelation shopping there. A basket of goods that would have cost me £35 or more in Waitrose, has come out at little over £15 at Aldi and the shopping experience itself has been slick and straightforward. There are no frills and the range of goods on sale is much smaller but all the basics are there, for a fraction of the price. I find it best to go with a balance of clear planning and a defined list of what I want but with enough flexibility to be open to picking up something in this week's special deals that maybe wasn't on the list. Some items are on the shelves this week but they won't be next week so you need to have a bit more flexibility than you would at the other big supermarkets, where there's a predictable consistency of what's on offer.

I've found that a lot of Aldi's stuff is British sourced which I like. Their vegetables are particularly good - tomatoes to die for and really fresh, bright spinach, for example. Soya milk, porridge oats, tinned tomatoes, rice, olive oil - things I buy a lot of - are fine and very much less than the price of my usual ones. You can't buy white bread flour there though, nor many individual herbs and spices. I haven't braved their meat or fish yet - we don't eat a lot of meat and when we do, I want it to be free range which, understandably for a budget store, Aldi doesn't offer nearly so much of. But all in all it's been a very positive shift and one that I shan't be reversing any time soon.

Some things I wanted to use in the £1-a-day food challenge I have had to look further afield for. Dried pulses for example. Lazy old me, I've never bothered to soak and cook dried beans and have always preferred the convenience of tins but dried beans work out much cheaper than tinned ones so were perfect for my budget meal plans. You can't get these in Aldi and actually Sainsbury's turned out to be the best cheap source, along with Lidl for lentils. The nearest Lidl to me is twenty miles away so I had to ask a kind friend with a local Lidl to get those for me. Lidl also came up with the prize for the cheapest white bread flour - 75p for 1.5kg. It's not as good as the Canadian Extra Strong flour I get from Waitrose, but mixed, approximately 50/50, with home-ground wholemeal, it's fine.

Oatmeal proved more problematic. It ought, I felt, to be a cheap foodstuff but a) it isn't as cheap as porridge oats b) it isn't nearly as ubiquitous. In the end I had to speculate to accumulate and had to order 5kg bags of medium and pinhead oatmeal from which halved the price per 100g compared to the standard supermarket one.

I had to top the order up with other stuff in order to qualify for the free delivery charge, which doesn't kick in until you spend £30, which was a nuisance, but it's all stuff that will keep and I will use.  This highlighted one of the big pinch points of the poverty trap - in order to access the cheapest deals, such as these, you need capital to lay out, up front. You will save in the long run but you need ready cash initially and that's difficult on a restricted income that, after all, has to cover items other than food such as rent, clothing, utilities etc. My father-in-law helped set up a local credit union to provide very low interest loans for people in this situation, a few years back and I've really appreciated afresh what a practical everyday difference such a facility makes.

I notice that the use-by dates on these bags of oatmeal are the end of January / early February next year and although I expect that, stored carefully, they'll be fine for a while after that, I do hope nobody goes off porridge in a hurry, or my bargain oatmeal won't be quite such a bargain after all!

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