Jamie Oliver has a new television series called Saving With Jamie, and it’s based around the idea of using up leftovers to create delicious and economical meals. We’ve only seen the first couple of episodes, but it was enough to convince me to pick up his accompanying cookbook at Costco (for $24).
Jamie’s new show had me thinking though – for most of us, whether or not we cook “from scratch” is less about money, and more about time. Years ago I wrote a post about how time IS money, and it’s particularly relevant when we’re trying to cobble together a quick meal to feed the prowling wolves.
For us, cooking at home is far easier and more rewarding than going out for dinner or ordering in takeaway, but we didn’t always feel that way – when we were younger and worked long hours, the last thing we wanted to do when we arrived home was to cook.
Even when we had a young family, mid-week meals still felt like hard work, and would often necessitate a last minute dash to the supermarket. Things only really changed a few years ago – it’s funny how life circumstances which seem hard at the time can sometimes push you down a path for the better.
These days, we shop in advance, keep a stocked freezer and pantry, grow a garden full of greens, and can almost always pull together a decent meal at short notice. Decent doesn’t mean fancy though, and most of the time our dinners are simple and (hopefully) reasonably healthy. Almost by default, this means that our food costs are much lower than they used to be, but more importantly, cooking has become a pleasant and stress-free process which we now enjoy.
Here are a few of our money-saving time-saving ideas. When the day has gone pear-shaped and it’s 5pm and we haven’t even thought about dinner, we usually end up eating one of the dishes below.
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Instant Meat Pies
Whenever I cook a stew or casserole, like the recent beef short ribs one, I shred any leftover meat and store it with the sauce in a container in the freezer. When I’m pressed for time, I simply defrost this (on the bench or in the microwave), add a few frozen peas and pour it into a pie dish, then top it with a pâte brisée pastry.
The pastry takes just minutes in the food processor and freezes well. The batch I make is sufficient to top at least two pies, so there’s usually some pastry lurking in the freezer for another day.
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Cheap and Easy Soups
These are a regular lunch for me, as I adore thick soups. At the moment, my freezer has single serves of tromboncino, chestnut and parsley soups, plus a couple of portions of pea and ham, from a batch I made recently.
My friend Johnny routinely keeps us in ham bones, but last week I had the large bone from our glazed leg to use up. I put it into a big stainless steel pot with a $1.50 packet of yellow split peas, and after a few hours of gentle simmering, I ended up with eight generous servings of luscious pea and ham soup, working out at just 19c per bowl. More importantly though, it’s absolutely delicious – on more than one occasion I’ve passed up a “better” lunch for a hot bowl of this soup…
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Stocking up on Beans
We cook with a lot of beans! The tinned versions are completely fine and very convenient, but we save even more by keeping a stash of frozen cooked beans in the freezer. We prepare a large batch every few months – the beans or chick peas are left to soak overnight on the bench, then boiled in a big pot of unsalted water until soft but not disintegrating. Apparently this process is much quicker in a pressure cooker, but I always end up with mush.
Once the beans are cooked and cooled, we pack them into meal sized portions and store them in the freezer…
Our standard “pantry dinner” is an easy (but not particularly authentic) chilli con carne – 500g mince and a large bag of beans, cooked with onion, garlic, tomato passata, garden veg, paprika and our homemade chilli paste. It makes Friday night dinners very easy!
Pete has asked me to add this tip: if you flatten out your mince as much as possible and freeze it in a vacuum sealed pack, it will defrost in minutes in a couple of inches of cold water in the sink…
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No matter how crowded our pantry gets, there is always room in there for pasta. There has to be – it’s a mainstay in our house, and an economical way to fill the stomachs of my perpetually starving sons. I can gauge how busy/frantic/stressed we are by the number of pasta dinners we have in a week, because these are the dishes we rely on when we’re really stuck for a meal idea.
We will often cook pasta instead of ordering takeaway, although when we were younger, that used to involve boiling it up and pouring over a purchased sauce. These days, we try harder – even our simplest dishes will now include a sauce made from scratch and fresh vegetables from the garden.
This easy soupy pasta has become a regular at our table – I fry together onion, an assortment of garden veg (leeks, carrots, parsley, tomatoes), add a bag of ham offcuts and either some stock or water and salt, and allow it all to simmer until the vegetables are cooked through. Small pasta and a little seasoning mix (I’m using Moroccan at the moment) is then added, along with leafy greens and a generous handful of frozen peas.
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Sandwich Pressed Simplicity
I’ve told my sons that when they move out of home, I’m setting them up with a small freezer, a set of Emile Henry cookware, and a sandwich press. We bought our café press, as it was known back then, in the early 90s and used it regularly for a while. It then languished in the cupboard for a decade or so until we “rediscovered” it a few years ago…
On many a weary evening, the press gets dragged out of the cupboard, and dinner follows shortly thereafter. If you’re looking to buy one, we’d recommend getting one with flat plates – the ridged ones leave nice marks on the food, but they’re much harder to clean. Here are a few of the dishes we make with this kitchen stalwart…
Toasted sandwiches – these are what the machine was made for, and it does a brilliant job on them. I particularly like ham, cheese and quince jelly, but both my sons adore toasted baked bean sandwiches – Big Boy has his with cheese, Small Man with Vegemite. If I’m organised, there will be homemade baked beans in the freezer, but most of the time, I just open a tin of Heinz.
Kebabs, hamburgers and rare steaks – I know it’s all sounding very George Foreman, but honestly, it works brilliantly, providing you don’t overcook the meat. And the cleaning up afterwards is a doddle.
Haloumi – no fat required to grill these to squeaky perfection.
Homemade Crackers – we turn stale pita bread into crackers by pressing them until they’re dry and crisp. The toasted rounds can then be used for fattoush salad, or served with cheese and dips. We haven’t bought water crackers since Carol taught us how to make these!
Grilled vegetables – our large 90cm oven uses a lot of energy to heat up, so it was a joy to discover how brilliantly the press could grill eggplants, capsicums, zucchinis and tromboncinos, all in a very short space of time.
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With just a little bit of planning, it’s possible to de-stress the mid-week dinner process. If you’ve got any tips or suggestions for economical and easy meals, please share them with us!