The smell of cooking rice is so comforting to me. I love it and luckily I get to cook rice a lot. And I mean a lot! Bobby basics rice is about 44 pence a kilo bag. It has a few broken bits in but really, it's absolutely fine and in my usual up-eating stylee, I can spesh rice up very readily.
The picture to the left shows off a mega budget meal of sweet and sour rice that came in about £2 for 4 people. Peppers, carrots, courgettes and mushrooms are cut chunky and gently fried with ginger, garlic, onions and chilli to make a basic sweet and sour dish which I cut with red wine vinegar to add the sour. At the end add a tin of basics pineapple, a few bits of corn from a frozen bag and let it and bubble through. Eat with plain rice and fresh coriander. Its a great way to eat something very fresh and tasty without the gloopy sauce you buy and with the rice to mop up the sauce, its a good cheap-eat.
Other ways with rice are more of the risotto-ey variety and involve gently frying whatever you have lurking in the bottom of the fridge with the basics rice and then adding a few stock cubes, a splosh of wine or wine vinegar and leaving to bubble through into a soupy richness that you can eat spoonful by spoonful from a big bowl. Add a grating of hard cheese or some melty brie, some finely chopped herbs and a blob of butter and this is an amazingly cheap way to construct a spesh dish from a simple staple.
Some more rice-y risotto-ey flavours are roasted tomato rice finished with white wine, mozzarella and fresh basil and a stronger flavoured one with celery, blue cheese from the basics range and some toasted walnuts on the top. By starting with a very cheap base you can add on some more expensive bits and still keep the overall cost relatively cheap. Try to keep and odd ends of cheese and bung them in a freezer bag. once you've got a good fistfull lob them into any rice dish with a stock cube and some juices and bubble them well to make a good cheesy rice mix. Use this mix to stuff peppers or courgettes, fry in little cakes and eat with a fried egg and some homemade sweet tomato sauce... If you have cold rice leftover then simply fry onion, ginger and garlic, a bit of fresh chilli and then lob in the rice and some beaten egg. Stir and stir until the egg has fried and add a swill of soy sauce and you have a lovely bowl of homemade egg fried rice which you can spesh up again with some toasted cashew nuts if you need a bit more of a substantial dish... Another fave is the former rice mix but with chickpeas, tamarind and coriander added instead of the egg and soy sauce. A curry-ish style quick rice dish that goes down very well with a dollop of yoghurt on.
Of course, rice can be made to simply bulk out or mop up the juicy bits of dishes. Curries being a good example of this. A very basic potato curry is a dish I return to again and again. Ginger, garlic and onion fried with turmeric, black salt, cumin seeds and chilli. Fry until softened, add a tin or two of cheap-ass tomatoes and a load of potato chunks. Add a bit more liquid if necessary, cover, turn down and wait until the potatoes are cooked through. So, so good and very simple. Just rice and this is a massively cheap and comforting dish that can be dressed up with fresh coriander, more chilli, yoghurt, grated apple and mango or just stretched for another day with the addition of chick peas and, for an amazebombs brekkie treat,with a fried egg on top...
Cheap rice also works well when done as a sweet dish. Basics rice, basics evaporated milk, brown sugar..... a long, gentle cooking (use the slow cooker, this works really well). Finish with creme fraiche, a grating of fresh nutmeg and there you have a dreamy, creamy pudding. Keep it plain and eat it with a blob of good jam on it or add some grated apples, cinnamon and raisins. You can add cardamon, toasted almonds and a bit of rose water for a fancier finish. Another great way with this sweet rice is to add diced pumpkin (post-Halloween there are loads of mega cheap pumpkins lurking about) and cook until very tender, add a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, a teensy bit of clove and more evaporated milk. This makes a golden-hued sweet pumpkin pie that you can do in one pot and finish under the grill with a bit more brown sugar. It tastes really, really good, it's dead cheap and if there is any left you can let it go cold and slice it like a cake. Neeeeeeed!
Sunshine Super Soup: This soup is warming, golden, cheering, substantial and just what you need at the first sign of sniffles, to whack a hangover out the way or to have ready to heat through after a walk back from work when it's dark. This freezes fine so making up a batch and leaving a portion out ready to be heated for tea is a great thing to look forwards to after work. Using this super-cheap staple and treating it real good turns a budget bag of pulses into a real treat...
- Onion, garlic, grated fresh ginger if possible or dried powdered ginger at a push, a dash of dried chilli, a good bit of turmeric, cumin, coriander and fry gently in vegetable oil with a teaspoon of salt.
- Meanwhile rinse, drain and rinse again a pack of chana otherwise known as dried yellow peas. Boil until semi-soft then drain and rinse again and add to the onion and spice mix.
- Add a carton of orange juice and finish cooking the chana through.
This should turn out to be a semi-sweet, highly fragrant and creamy concoction with a warming bite at the end of a spoonful. You can make this is thick or as thin as you like, but a good cooking and maybe partially blending half of this makes the velvety texture of the chana sing through. This is a very cheap meal and can be eaten thick with chapatti or fluffy garlic naan. Even a buttered, hot pitta bread would go down well with this. It can also be topped with yoghurt, toasted almonds, coriander or extra chilli or my favourite; a stack of very crispy fried onions.
You can change the basic set up using chick peas or red lentils depending what you can get your hands on. Try vegetable stock and lime juice instead of the orange juice, or coconut milk. Carrots, parsnip and potatoes can all be added if you have them to make a thicker concoction that stretches a bit further, but to be fair, the basic ingredients are so cheap that making a bit vat of this for everyone to share won't cost more than a couple of quid.
White Bean Soup: A stock cupboard savior where a few bits can create something rather spesh... This tastes and looks a lot more complicated and expensive than it is, so it's great to give to guests that you want to enamor.
- White beans, soaked and partially cooked. These can be cannellini beans, butter beans, black eyes beans, fava beans... These tend to sell at about 3 or 4 for £1 at the Asian supermarkets so are well worth filling up your grandma shopping trolley with, dragging home and stashing... This is budget food at it's finest...
- The ubiquitous onion and garlic, celery if you have it, a peeled potato or two and a good pinch of thyme and a bit of lemon peel.
- Fry all the ingredients but don't brown them, and add in the partially cooked white beans and some stock.
- Cook through thoroughly and then remove the lemon peel and any thyme stalks then either blend into a creamy, silky soup or do half-and half for a bit of texture.
- The final ingredient is white pepper. Somehow this elevates the dish into something really decent and almost truffle-y.
Yoghurt, cream or a squeeze of fresh lemon go well on top of this soup and it can also be made with butterbeans or chickpeas. I have made a very thick and stew-y version and eaten it with a mound of fried leeks on top.
You can also serve this with a homemade pesto for a very rich and exclusive-feeling treat.
- If you toast some nuts (hazels, almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts) then grind them up with a teeny bit of raw garlic, some crunchy crystal salt and a teeny pinch of brown sugar, you should get a rubbly-textured pesto that can be spooned on top. This can be jarred and kept in the fridge for a few days and can elevate some plain cooked spaghetti with parsley and parmesan to something pretty special. Melted cheese on a crusty bread can also benefit from a sprinkling of homemade pesto. You can also use on salads or on top of couscous.
Cauliflower Cheese Soup: This is autumn fayre, to be fair and there just is something about the lower in the sky sun that gets me craving cauliflower cheese. Make it into a soup? Why the hell not!
- Onion and garlic fried until softened, a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard, then add the cauliflower florets added in with a peeled potato, some stock and bubble until all softened. YOu can use the cheapy, cheapy frozen cauliflower florets for this ad make a big batch for a couple of quid...
- Whizz through until silky then add in some grated cheese bit by bit, making sure it's all well mixed and melted. A good grinding of black and white pepper and then stick face into bowl and suck up noisily.
Carrot Soup: The mighty carrot can be paired with a number of flavours in soup and its bright colour is appetising and health-full looking and the sweetness of the carrot lends itself to a number of options. Kids seem to like carrot soup and again this is a batch-cook beast that can be resurrected from the freezer for a quick teatime meal...
- the usual onion, garlic, peeled potato and carrot with stock-theme-base here, and then you can add cumin and fennel seeds and dried chilli to make sweet-spicy soup.
- Sprinkle the final, blended result with garam dusted yoghurt for nice contrast and mop up with a hot naan.
If you want to make soups very quickly I recommend grating up the vegetables. In this way you can have a soup conjured up in twenty minutes and there is something about reducing the cooking time that leaves the ingredients tasting fresher.
This soup can also be tweaked to form a middle-eastern type of affair by adding a dash of zesty sumac, toasted caraway seeds and some finely shredded mint leaves at the end. If you want a more substantial meal then turn this dish into something super special by making a accompaniment of hot buttered pittas stuffed with a mix of fried garlic and spinach mixed with raisins and cinnamon. Just typing that sentence made my mouth water! Neeeeed stuffed pitta with that filling... Yum...
You can also eat this in a hearty stew leaving the carrots chunky and adding in grated raw ginger, turmeric and cumin when you fry the onions and garlic. Just use a little stock so it's not swimming in soup and serve with toasted cashew nuts.
Carrot soup also seems to do well when paired with grated apple; the apple thickens the soup and adds a refreshing tang to the end result. This is really good with brown bread toast with honey. Jeees, my mouth is watering again. Luckily I can see dinner crisping up in the oven as I type- tonight, we are having baked spudzzz, roasted onions and apples, grated strong cheese and spesh baked beans which are the dead cheap tinned baked beans with a dash of cider vinegar, a smidge of smoked paprika and a splodge of maple syrup... again, my way of taking a bobby basic and up-eating it with a few dashes of specialness added...
Last post I went through a few things that tend to always have shelf space in my cupboard and I hope that was useful. Building up some decent cupboard items means you can magic some staples into some specials very easily. Here are a few recipes and ideas for flavour pairings which is more how I tend to assemble things rather than specific or overly laborious step-by-steppers....
Simple Tomato Soup:
This always goes down well, and can have lots of stuff added. This can make use of either cheap tins or the squashy, fragrance-rich offerings that are about to collapse and tend to get sold very cheaply in boxes at the grocers or market (or that you fish out of the bin outside the supermarket!). They are the best ones to use but do what you can. You can batch make this and freeze it and keep it very thick and use as a sauce or of course, thin down into this delicious soup.
- Onions, garlic, bay leaves, rosemary or thyme or even a bit of mint; the herbs (fresh if you can, but dried will do) add a dimension of taste that is hugely important.
- Fry the onions garlic and herbs until soft but not coloured in olive oil with celery if you have it or if you have been reading this blog, use the frozen parsley stalks that you have saved instead of celery...
- Then add the tomatoes and some tomato puree if it seems needed. Always add a cube or two of brown sugar. Or even a spoonful of honey or jam if needs be, but tomatoes, especially the cheap ones, need sugar to bring out the fruitiness. Honestly, you'll miss it if you don't add it in. Not tons but a bit.
- Bubble away until well amalgamated and then for magic ingredient number two, a slosh of white or red wine vinegar. Even balsamic (though it might seem a little extravagant for soup but it would certainly work). This is the technical term known as the 'twang' which features heavily in my cooking. There is something yummy about the sweet-sharp combination where they add to rather than overpower the dish. So, just a slosh is needed along with some stock, to bring about a lovely melding of sweet and juicy flavours that seems to be universally greeted with enthusiasm.
- If you want to blend this then take out any stalky bits of the herbs and whizz through until silky.
I tend to eat with a swizz of decent olive oil on the top and bread toasted and rubbed with a raw garlic clove. If paired with some salty cheese or some ricotta this can make for a really nice little meal.
To make this another way you could omit the herbs and instead add chilli, crumble some cumin seeds in and maybe some smoked paprika and serve with yoghurt. Or add in a dash of turmeric and some orange juice instead of stock for a warmer and fruitier flavour. Fresh basil or bought pesto goes well with this soup and if you get some mozzarella and sandwich it between two slices of bread, squidge it down and fry in olive oil this makes an amazing cheese toastie to dip into the soup.
Another way is to omit the herbs and add in a star anise and a dash of cinnamon to make a really grown-up, smoky, complicated flavour that is super nice when you need warming up. And one more might be the apple and tomato combination where you can use apple juice instead of stock or even just make the soup and serve it with a dollop of apple sauce and yoghurt on the top. By the way, if you have some apple juice, try adding a teeny spoonful of cider vinegar to it; it tastes much better and more 'apple-y' that way and with that in mind if you go for the tomato and apple soup you can use cider vinegar for the twang.
Chickpeas, cooked rice and pasta can all be added to these soups to make them into something more filling if needs be, though I'd rather have it with some kind of toasted cheese offering.
I have a really simple message about food empowerment, food activation and self-care through foods... and that is NO ONE IS COMING TO HELP!
You either choose to empower yourselves and those around you or you get left to stretch your income further and further until you start to feel overwhelmed by the current crisis around the costs of living in the UK.... Choose to put food and nourishment as well as physical activity at the centre of your life and you will be well-fed, energised and enjoy better mental and emotional health... But YOU have to choose towards empowerment and choose not to get stuck in the loop of negativity currently peddled by the mainstream media and the current forms of governance...
There are so, so many things you can do to buck the trend and feel powerful, proud, positive and well-fed and so I'll share with you what I have learned along the way and trust that you can add to the list of ways to become empowered around food and nourishment... Once you realise that you are the only real and meaningful change maker in your life, then you have taken back control and you aren't a victim of poverty mentality anymore....
1) Do not go shopping when you are hungry! You will succumb to the temptation to buy stuff that you don't need... Simple but true... The same with your kids- feed them before you go and remember you are the parent and you choose- don't go down the aisles where there are things your kids want and make a game of putting stuff through the till to distract them from the sweeties... Also, read the ingredients list as some substances are addictive and the aim of the product is to make you buy and buy again... See the next post on recipes on how to avoid....
2) Write a shopping list. Supermarkets spend millions of pounds working out how to extract money from you. Play the game back and write a list of what you need. Remember bread, milk and eggs are at the back of the store, generally, to make you walk through other offers on your way towards things you need. Aisle-end products are there to tempt you. Two for one offers or already-bagged up items with the price easily displayed on, are there to get you to buy things you don't need or to enable you to easily see the price which can be reassuring if you only have a small amount of cash or are unsure how to work out price per kilo. You can also club together with other people and book an online shop so you can avoid the supermarket all together! If you shop and share you can often get a very cheap delivery slot and make the most of any useful two for one offers...
3) Look at the price per kilo and compare items. Look for frozen over chilled and work out what is actually cheaper. Take a calculator and actually take the time to work out what is cheapest. You can do this online before you go and whilst you are writing out your shopping list. Remember YOU have to learn how to do this because it is a key way of budgeting. If it is already bagged up with the price on, you should still look up price per kilo. Supermarkets do this because people find it reassuring to know how much it will costs, but these bags are often more expensive when you look at the price per kilo. Similarly, check out the fresh, frozen or chilled- the same items can vary massively in price per kilo.
4) If you are skint and have a while until some more money comes your way then go for the budget lines in supermarkets or shops. Simply swap down from branded stuff to budget stuff and have a good look around at what basics you can buy that will bulk up your food haul for the week or month...A kilo of budget rice from Sainsbury's is about 50 pence and you can create several meals out of this. (I'll add some recipes later in the post for making something good from this basic foodstuff)
5) Get a grandma shopping trolley- or a big rucksack! You can fill this baby up with big bags of potatoes, tins of chickpeas and lentils and drag it around from place to place easily to make your budget go further.
6) Get a days bus pass and go food adventuring.... Check out markets, Asian superstores, find out when shops reduce stuff and go and find the bins outside supermarkets and have a look what's on offer... I got a litre of olive oil the other week from a bin which was worth about £6- it had been skipped because it's label was scratched. There is no shame in bin-dipping! The shame is that vast amounts of amazing food get thrown away. Skip-diving etiquette states that if anyone approaches you and asks you to stop then please obey politely and find another bin or just wait around the corner until they have gone or come back on another day. There is never any need to be rude. But don't be deterred- bins and skips are gold mines of food empowerment. Once you see what is being thrown away you will enjoy the paradigm shift into realising that not only are you saving money, you are saving resources and the environment (and actually it is the rest of the Western world that is bonkers and you are really quite sane- and well-fed to boot!)
7) Get down to your library or go online. YouTube has videos of how to cook just about anything from a boiled egg to a pot roast, libraries have cookery books that can help. There are ap's that can give you ideas of what to make with just a few items. Educate yourself. Enjoy being enlightened. Feel good about taking back control of your way of eating and make the most of what you have got rather than focussing on what you lack...
8) Find other people to share cooking with. If you take turns in one-pot, tasty meals then you save on energy bills, you enjoy sharing and eating together, you get to have a few nights off from cooking and you can enjoy and be inspired by other people's cooking. This works well if you have kids and you can get them to play together whilst you take turns in cooking...
And look out for slow-cookers at the charity shop or car boot- these are great tools to cook cheaply and have a hot meal ready for when you get home...
9) Make friends with lentils, chickpeas, seasonal vegetables, fresh herbs in pots, squashy tomatoes, market holders, security guys at supermarkets, allotment holders, local food growers and anyone or thing that can make your money go further... Get creative and celebrate your ingenuity. If you have a windowsill, a back step or bucket then you can grow fresh herbs or some salads. Go to the library and look up how to grow things and pickle, chutney or jam things... There is so much information out there for you to use and share....Your budget bag of pasta can taste really amazing with a bit of butter and some fresh herbs stirred through... Making your own food in bulk batches and swapping or freezing them can mean great homemade, ready meals or sauces for a few pence... I'll post some recipes up later for inspiration... But there is amazing food and food-people out there, you just need to make this your focus and get going...
10) Lastly and I suppose most importantly, is LOOK AFTER YOURSELF AND OTHERS... Use food as a way to show love and care for yourself and your families... You really can make a change to your future and to your kids futures by becoming empowered around food. Nourishment is what you can add to a basic dish if you cook it with love. When you simply make the decision to start really trying to shop, cook and eat better you will be gladdened by the sheer amount of amazing resources and people there are around who share your passion... You will become food empowered!
The opinions I give here are my own and represent only me, as The Secret Kitchen but not necessarily as The Family Cafe project as we have a Board and other staff who might well disagree with what I'm about to write...
Food banks aren't sustainable. Go to any one of them and pick up the energy of people pedalling madly trying to keep up with a huge increase in demand. Food banks like St Ann's try to solve the problem by challenging benefit sanctions and sorting out the reasons why people may have no money left for food that week. They are attempting to go back towards the source of the problem but they can only do so much. We are living in the midst of a crisis around who we are, how we eat, how we consume and how we empower ourselves to change, and food poverty and food banks are the manifestation of that. Food poverty is a state of mind as much as an economic reality.
My issue with food banks is that we are attempting to mitigate the damage done further upstream by giving vulnerable people free food. People end up being referred to food banks because they are in crisis. That crisis isn't just about food, it's the crisis of our whole society where we have people actually struggling to feed themselves. Step back from this for a moment and just scratch your head and wonder how the hell a developed nation with an astonishing array of technology, science and ability has members of its own, scrabbling around looking for food? How it is that we have children who are literally starving, malnourished and stunted and how we have people rotting away in our very midst for want of love and sustenance?
What the hell has happened here? How are we living like this? I believe it's because poverty is a market. It's attempted relief sucks vast sums of public money but like the diet or pharmaceutical systems, a cure doesn't make money. For all the incredible people out there working so, so hard to help people, it's frustrating. Follow the money upstream to see the few yet very influential number of groups who we pay to solve the problems that the other companies they own create. Consuming, competitive, corrupt capitalism needs to be starved to death; it's the system that needs to be packed off with some noodles and a tin of carrots. We need to turn our back on this sham edifice where food poverty is an intended consequence of political policy.
Food banks don't work. They feed people in crisis but they don't work. Follow the problem upstream to our core social values as espoused by our current form of government. Lack, scarcity, competition: these are the issues that food banks can never be a solution to. I don't think food banks are pretending to be the solution. We all know that they are a stop gap that has arisen because of an austerity ideology that has degraded our very humanity. People presenting in food poverty suffer from the wider impoverishment of food; its commodification. They might suffer from a lack of food knowledge, or a lack of food capital, and a scarcity of available resources because of a system that over inflates the price and simultaneously degrades the incredible food resources our planet gifts us. Food banks don't work because this austerity ideology needs victims, it needs people for Michael Gove to blame. Food banks are even worse than that in my mind because its another market for the very organisations that are causing the problem. You go to the supermarket and you BUY a few more items to donate to the food bank. These supermarkets and corporate food producers have managed to make a market out of food crisis.
So, rant over. What next? Well firstly see through the headlines designed to get you angry. Peek through the bushes and notice how many amazing food initiatives are springing up. Loads of fantastic people sowing, growing, mowing, making, baking, jamming, pickling and preserving. So many great cooks who can magic a mega pan of something good out of a few ingredients. All those people who are buying into a relocalisation of the food economy as they see the benefits. The attempts at reintroducing wholesale in this country, the move towards people growing their own food. These solutions were already there; we are already able to turn this around because we already have the skills and resources to up our food game. The edifice is crumbling away and the corporate food theme park is looking shabby. I don't want to go there anymore; I want to participate in a celebration of food and an appreciation of our incredible planet's abundant resources, and trade with those people and groups who get that, and indeed the corporations that are looking to change for social betterment.
But what about those people who are so far down the food helter skelter that they will struggle to stop the downward tumble? Social eating spaces. Spaces where you can come and enjoy a meal for whatever you have in your pocket or where you can volunteer in return for a meal. Not soup kitchens, not places where everyone's skint and its miserable, not a place where you wash up because you are simply desperate. A social eating space; a warm, welcoming, homely, inclusive place to sit and eat. Fulfil your human need for nourishment. Tackle food waste and cycle your excess produce in return for a meal. I don't think it's any coincidence that we have presided over a massive reduction in the spaces where people can be social; these are spaces where people become empowered and share ideas. I truly believe that long term social eating spaces are places where people can be supported, offer support, see positive modelling, ask questions and be educated around food, become food-active and simply nourish themselves. Engagement with vulnerable, defensive, distrustful people takes time but it's a worthwhile investment. In the meantime there are lots of people who simply enjoy social eating and there is room around the table for everybody. Social eating spaces are sustainable and they make sense. Imagine a city with a social eating joint in every area? Even if we don't have cafe's using surplus, it's still pretty cheap to make a big pan of something good and share it. Just participate and show up at your social eating space and put your contribution in the bucket! It's not the solution to everything but it's a start. See you there....
I'm Vic, and I run the Secret Kitchen Cafe in Sneinton, Nottingham. This is where me or Marsha post our updates on events and other happenings.