Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Christmas review

We hosted Christmas this year, for a change. Surveying the wreckage, I thought I'd review where we did well, and what was less of a success:

The good:

-The Christmas cake I made – Delia's light Christmas cake – worked out quite well, and will go into packed lunches and serve us for teas for some time to come. I now have various leftover ingredients, such as crystallised ginger, which will need a home, although the angelica ended up, most appropriately, on the top of my sister's lovely Boxing Day trifle.
-The trifle – my sister and I took responsibility for this, but she actually made it. We went for a retro one, with frozen raspberries, tinned peaches and madeira cake on the base, and the aforementioned angelica, flaked almonds and multicoloured glace cherries as decoration.
-The goose – my husband cooked the goose, which we ordered from a nearby farm shop. It was not cheap, but, with its stuffiing of mashed potatoes, (Nigella, Feast) made a great Christmas lunch and yielded plenty of leftovers.
-Wrapping paper – I finally bought brown paper and wrapped many presents with that, prettied up slightly with gold ribbon.
-The Christmas tree – topped up with some new lights and one or two extra decorations (Homebase, 49 p each), the artificial Christmas tree had its seventh year of use.
-Kedgeree followed by warmed mince pies and brandy butter turned out to be a highly satisfactory Boxing Day lunch.
-The presents: with my family, we tried a new system of exchanging stocking type presents - including plenty of chocolate- and each specifying one or two larger items we would like. I, at least, liked this arrangement.

The bad:

-My Christmas pudding, which burnt slightly and stuck to the bottom of the pudding basin, as I stupidly let it boil dry at one point.
-The mince pies: the bought ones were so good, and I so lazy, that I never got around to making any myself. (I'll probably use the mincemeat in an apple crumble instead.)
-The various defects in our home which become apparent when we have a few guests: taps that are a bit stiff, guest towels that are frayed or tatty.
-The frying pan, already nearing the end of its life, which did not survive the festivities.

The ugly:

-My artificial Christmas tree – see above...

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A Christmas present crock pot

At his request, I bought my husband a crock pot for Christmas. We're trying it out today, making chilli con carne, in a break from the Christmas leftovers. More to follow on how it works in due course....

Friday, 18 December 2009

Budgeting for the not-very-budget-oriented

I dislike spreadsheets, and it might be said of me that I am 'better with words than numbers'. The concept of a budget, as described by some experts, is therefore mildly horrifying to me. However, I am interested in making sure that my finances add up, and that I am able to pay for things that are important to me, and also to save for the future. My preferred approach is therefore as follows:

Every year or so, or whenever we have a significant change in our finances, we review and update an ongoing list of our fixed monthly direct debits, for mortgage, electricity and so forth, and make sure that this is up-to-date, looking through our bank statements to check that we have captured any changes, and giving some thought to any direct debits we might want to cancel or amend. The list of regular fixed payments includes a separate allowance for each of us, as well as payment to a 'fun', 'holiday', and 'car' jar.

The list of direct debits includes one to an 'annual bills' jar, which is calculated using a list of those bills which need to be paid less often than monthly, for instance car servicing, insurance and car tax. These are added up and the total is divided by twelve, to come up with an average monthly amount. (Money is transferred from the annual bills jar to the current account as these irregular bills need to be paid.)

We then check that the amount we have estimated for non-fixed expenses like travel and food is still appropriate, by looking through our credit card expenses for the last few months, and taking an approximate monthly average.

We check, and update as appropriate, the amount we have listed as income.

Once this has been done, we have an approximate idea of how much money we have spare each month, once essentials have been paid for.

This is where our system becomes rather chaotic; we have never found it practicable or helpful to allocate fixed amounts for different types of expenditure, but instead prefer to operate the 'pay yourself first' system. Under this, and taking account of the calculations above, we transfer out a certain amount of money to savings each month as soon as we have been paid. Sometimes we need to transfer some money back later for particular purposes, but as a general rule this works fairly well, and because the money is not sitting in the current account, it cannot be spent quite as easily. And as both savings and regular payments have been accounted for, the money spare can be used however we see fit, without us having to worry about whether we have over-spent on travel, or entertainment, or eating out, that month. (Over the last month or two, however, I have been trying to get a more precise idea of our spending, by tracking our expenditures on a spreadsheet.)

The paragraph above assumes that there is some money left over for saving once essentials have been taken into account; I will look at the question of reducing monthly outgoings in future posts, as well as the subject of self-employment and budgeting for taxes. I will also include some more expert opinions than mine on budgeting, and its value.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Cooking without waste 2: Basic recipes

This is the second guest post on frugal cooking from Jian.
Every culture and person in the world is going to have a different idea of what a basic recipe is, depending on their answers to the questions in my last post. What might be best, would be for me to talk about what we tend to use, and how we've answered the above questions.
1)Penny and I chop and change our preferred recipes a lot; this comes of reading the paper and recipe books a bit too much, I guess. Still, our basic recipes tend to stay fairly stable, mainly because they're reliable, comforting, and easily made from long-lasting ingredients.
2)I'm quite an improviser myself; I prefer to learn basic principles through practice and then never follow the recipe, and don't plan ahead much. Penny follows the recipes closely, adapting and changing based on experience and common sense, and prefers to plan ahead.
3)We cook for two. It's a very easy number.
4)We have a hob, grill, and oven. We have a kettle, toaster, food processor, blender, rice cooker, and microwave. We have a fridge-freezer. We shop at various supermarkets (Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose) and at the local farm shop, which I think came up in a previous post.
The basic recipes we most often use are:
1)Tomato sauce for pasta, which Penny's mentioned before. Basically needs onions and tinned tomatoes, which both keep well. Useful as the base for a hundred and one meals, including bolognese, chili con carne, puttanesca, jambalaya, vodka-sauce pasta, minestrone, lasagna, ratatouille, and bouillabaisse. Like all basic recipes, practice often to make it as reliably as possible; it's difficult to screw up.
2)Noodle soup. I suppose you could use a packet but really I mean good stock, probably some miso, and dry noodles (of any kind; egg noodle, ramen/lo men/ramyun/etc,, soba, thin rice noodles, thick rice noodles, udon, or even spaghetti or linguini). Add any chopped vegetables (spring onions, peppers, mushrooms, bok choy, bean sprouts), sliced grilled or fried meat (teriyaki beef, grilled or foil-baked salmon, marinated or char sui pork), and anything else that fits with the sort of taste you're going for (seaweed, won ton, a raw egg or two, coconut milk, ground peanuts, chilli peppers, lemongrass, ginger, kimchi) to endlessly customise into a quick, simple, warming meal. For a different take in the summer, try it with soba, cold clear stock, sliced cucumber and pear, and ice: nengmyun. Sometimes, though, only packet ramen will do.
3)Chips. By which I mean oven-baked thick fingers of potato, made like roast potatoes (which, indeed, basically differ only in shape and are more appropriate for some dishes, like roasts). Basically, take some floury potatoes (waxy ones will do, but work less well), peel, and cut into the shapes you want (more or less even and about 2” across for roast potatoes, or long and more like 1” thick for chips). Meanwhile, heat the oven to about 200 and put in a suitable oven dish with some oil in the bottom. Parboil for 5-10 minutes, drain, and then put back in the pan with the lid and shake about so it goes all fluffy on the surface. Add oil (and salt and pepper and even occasionally a dash of chili oil, but that's just me) in the pan and shake to coat evenly. Put in the pre-heated oven pan and cook for about 40 minutes, turning over once or twice, until nicely and unevenly browned and crispy. Serve with suitable main (sausages, with or without some good greens such as green beans or steamed green or black cabbage, or with braised red cabbage; steak, of course; home-made battered fish, occasionally), or as the main focus (chips with two boiled eggs and a nice salad or well-seasoned vegetable like beetroot, red cabbage, or mushy peas work very well).
4)Stew. Now, this takes a while, so it's not really one for the weekday evenings unless you have a crock-pot (which we don't) and can cook it all day beforehand. But diced floured meat (beef or lamb, usually), potatoes, carrots, onions, tinned tomatoes, stock, herbs, maybe some barley, maybe parsnips – hard to go wrong. I quite like making it with a herby scone topping (like a cobbler, but savoury), or with additional spices and flavours (they have to be fairly sturdy to make it through the overwhelming lovely meaty-vegetably goodness) like oranges, chorizo, or chili pepper. Still, a bit wintry and rib-sticking, you wouldn't want it every day.
5)Prepared food. Sometimes, you want to bake fresh bread and cook all day from scratch with beautiful organic local fresh ingredients. Sometimes, you just want beans on toast in five minutes. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Making things: Christmas puddings

This weekend, I made two Christmas puddings. I'd never made Christmas puddings before, but as we are having Christmas here this year, I thought it was time to attempt it. I used the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe which was in the Guardian, a few weeks' ago. The ingredients weren't particularly fancy or expensive; lots of dried fruit, suet, breadcrumbs and marmalade were the main components.

Although not time-consuming to make, the puddings needed to be simmered for six hours; they have since been topped up with brandy, and will be cooked for another two or three hours on Christmas Day.

It is a good, satisfying feeling to have the puddings ready, though of course it remains to be seen how they will taste.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Cooking without waste 1: The questions

This is a guest post; the first in a series on frugal cooking, from Jian.

Since Penny's somehow formed the opinion that I'm a fairly frugal cook, and good at using up leftovers and ingredients, she's asked me to write something about buying food economically and cooking without waste. Very topical these days. Few cookbooks seem to go out without at least a small section on how to stock your larder with most bang for your buck, and avoiding throwing away food.
I would say we throw very little food away; mostly, the waste we generate from food shopping is packaging, which is a bit of a pain. I think that in order to cook economically, one needs to ask and answer some basic questions about priorities. The main questions one needs to answer seem to be:
1)What do you most often cook, what do you most like to eat, and what do you most like to cook? The three categories do not necessarily overlap much, and it's therefore best to try and make them so as much as you can. Once you know what you will cook, you can be prepared with the right sort of ingredients, and avoid waste. It's a pain to buy a nice ingredient (like bok choy, or halloumi, or venison) that you like the look of, and is in season or on special offer, but to have to throw it away because you didn't have a plan for it.
2)How do you plan your cooking? Are you the sort of person that likes to plan a whole week's menu in advance, with cascading recipes (e.g. spaghetti bolognese to chili con carne and meatloaf, using a tomato-based mince recipe as the base), or do you prefer to improvise? This is, I suspect, as much a matter of personality as anything else, though of course you may be a very well-organised person who's rather chaotic about their cooking, or vice versa. Also, do you follow recipes closely, or do you prefer to make it up more as you go along?
3)Who do you cook for? Cooking for yourself can be wasteful, sadly, since proper cooking for one can be quite uneconomical in ingredients. Cooking for several people will raise the issue of differing preferences, and if some of them are children or eat at different times, things get progressively harder, more expensive, and more wasteful. Penny and I are in the happy position of only cooking for each other, which helps tremendously, but that won't be of much use to you.
4)What cooking resources do you have? Just a hob, or a grill as well, or an oven too? Do you have a kettle or a toaster? How about storage – a fridge, a larder, a freezer, even a chest freezer? How about less common equipment such as a crock pot, deep-fat frier, blender, kitchen mixer, microwave, sandwich-maker, or low-fat grill? What utensils do you have? Finally, what ingredients are available to you at your local shops: what's at your supermarket, do you go to farmer's markets, delicatessens, or ethnic food shops?
That all said, it's clearly going to be very difficult to give any useful advice that's generally applicable to everyone who'd like to cook more economically. I will, however, give it my best shot in future posts.