stimulating the food economy
In its own sweet way food has often been a distraction and provided comfort when times are tough. While the harsh winds of financial misfortune blow outside we can always talk about cooking. I am wondering if over the next year or two the type of posts in this corner of the blog world will change. Will there be fewer reviews of lush restaurants, imported ingredients and luxury culinary items? Will “recession food” have a come back? If so let’s hope it goes beyond the unimaginative mac n cheese (which I call “flour and snot” because lets face it, that is all it is). My hope is that more people are motivated to learn to cook, especially those who are brave enough to venture beyond processed foods.
I am reading Rebecca Huntley’s “Eating Between the Lines”* at the moment, still ploughing through the early chapters but disheartingly she keeps pointing out that nutritionally poor choices do cost a lot less than cooking from scratch. An example of cooking a family of four lean lamb rump, pumpkin and broccolini was priced at around (AU)$20 while sausages, fries and baked bean could feed the same people for $8. The first choice unfortunately may stay in the domain of the middle classes, though the size and frequency of the roast may diminish.
While we blindly make a stab at feeling better about the money we choose to spend on food, I’ve made some observations about my own journey thus far. Much of it to do with my false economising.
1. A kitchen garden sounds like a good idea but sometimes it is an expensive folly
After spending $200 on invigorating the young soil in the garden bed this year, we do have a bumper crop of tomatoes, eggplants and chillies on the way. But doing the maths of the cost of all the manure and organic fertilizers we have used, the price of seedlings and the odd plants that have died along the way (5 out of 6 strawberries, the lettuces that went to seed uneaten while we were on holiday, the odd plants the cats slept on/dug up/obliterated with their toileting practices) I know that each tomato may as well be wrapped in gold leaf.
While the 50 years old grape vine has survived many droughts and provides food free of charge, the new garden is costly. I am aware it is false economy so I love it for the vista of calming green it provides, shade for the animals on hot days, the photosynthesis it performs but I don’t kid myself it’s a money saver.
Though we have a worm farm, in the early days of starting a new bed from scratch it could not provide enough goodness to kick start the health of the soil on its own. A larger garden with space to run a couple of compost bins, rotate crops, keep some chooks for manure would be a better deal. A home rigged pipe in a barrel for run off water from the roof, sunny window sills for raising seeds and more neighbours growing food to swap our bounty would make it more cost effective.
2. Buy less, not more
Supersized food purchases work best if you have a large household and keep a keen eye on your pantry for foodstuff that is nearing its use by date.
To really save money on fresh food (a large chunk of our food budget, especially as it is organic) do some menu planning and buy only what you will get through. There is so much food wasted in this country. You can save a bundle by buying more realistic amounts of fresh food and being a bit clever with leftovers. It breaks my heart to throw lovely salad leaves into the worm farm because I didn’t prioritise using them early in the shopping week only to find them a slimy mess in the fridge when I next unpack the market produce.
And while talking of overdoing it, unless you are religious at using up the leftovers try to only cook the amount that people will eat in one sitting. In this household leftovers tend to languish in plastic containers in the fridge and end up being thrown out untouched at the end of the week.
Australians waste 3 million tonnes/$5 million worth of food every year
3. Buy in season
Ok I can be a little obsessive about this one but it is so bleeding obvious, food in season (when it is unaffected by storms, droughts and other vagaries of the weather) is the cheapest way to eat fresh produce. You need to keep adapting your favourite recipes to use what is available. Even if this does mean sometimes you have to change your meal plan, while out buying the ingredients.
As an aside, sadly I’ve had very few cherries this summer, something to do with that rain dump mid December doing nasty things to the Victorian crop and they’ve been really expensive this year.
4. Work out what you really value
I make the bourgeois, non-budget choice of favouring organic produce. It’s one of my health oriented peculiarities. It does mean sometimes that I go without (see cherries above) when prices are ridiculous. This last couple of years the cost of organic fruit in particular has skyrocketed. The SE eats lots of fruit and swears he can’t taste the difference so I now get extra conventional produce.
I don’t eat meat or dairy, one of the most costly (to the wallet and the environment) food choices. For me organics balances this out a bit. I tend to buy whole fish, which is cheaper than fillets. The bones can be made into stock and all the extra little bits of flesh (like in the cheeks) tend to get fed to the cats to bolster their wellbeing.
If I did eat meat I would probably choose organic, locally farmed produce to eat in very small amounts, infrequently. The serving size for animal protein is just the size of the palm of the hand. Not the fingers and rest of the arm as well. Most Aussies tend to fill half the plate with the stuff. While meat on the bone is said to be the tastiest, old fashioned cheap cuts like shanks have become yuppie fodder and the price has risen accordingly. Preserved meats, like ham, are not only false economy (look at the price per kilo) but also high in cancer causing nitrosamines, as well as fats and salt. Go for the good stuff that hasn’t been adulterated.
5. Eat local
Not just in buying food that hasn’t travelled half way around the world or from the other end of this vast continent but when you eat out, go local.
We eat out a lot less than the earlier days of our relationship, before the SE was a student/struggling artist. A couple of years ago the chef at our local Thai made a pointed comment about our lack of patronage, thinking we’d fallen in love with another eatery. It was hard to convince her that we loved her food and ate there as much as we did anywhere else these days. But it brings home the fact that if you patronise family run/local businesses your dinning habits can have an impact. One meal at a top name restaurant can buy me 3-5 at my favourite neighbourhood places. In tough times, who do I want to keep in business?
I know some people will disagree with me on this one but I have decided to forgo Attica, Vue and our other top spots in favour of keeping my neighbours in business. I love being part of a community. There is the woman in the noodle shop (for that rare time I get a take away) who shares stories of what she cooks for her family and will grab morsels from out the back for me to try while her husband woks up my order in a flash. The flamboyant owner of the Malaysian eatery who’ll give me a kiss, greet us by name and round down the bill each time. Our favourite waitress at the pub who also dispenses a kiss or a hug and lets you know if the specials really are special or not.
But for me the real key to reducing the cost of eating out is drinking less. The alcohol portion of the bill can easily exceed the food. But then again I am not a huge drinker and there is rather a lot of duty-free grog at home.
6. Don’t be seduced by gadgets
A good knife and a stone to sharpen it is one of my best investments. Learn some knife skills. Keep your knife in a block so it won’t dull as fast. Get someone to show you how to use a wet stone (or similar) to keep it sharp.
A heavy bottom fry pan and pot will last a lifetime if you care for them well. The cheap thin ones will just burn your food and discourage you from cooking.
Don’t go all Jamie Olive and buy the chipped cutesy crockery and serving bowls from Op Shops. Ceramics with cracks and breaks in the glaze harbour bacteria, especially casserole dishes and servers that sit or store meat and dishes with a lot of liquid. The cute unchipped ones are fine!
I still haven’t bought a tagine; I suspect the Middle Eastern dishes I cook in my trusty old cast iron pot does a fine imitation.
7. Do I really need that new cookbook?
This may be sacrilege to suggest on a food blog but I now buy very few cookbooks. When looking for new recipes I tend to google the ingredients than poor over the pages. If I really am seduced by the latest food title I have to sit and study it for a good half hour in the shop and be honest about its usefulness.
I use the library, even for new titles (yes Ed, the local library has cook books!). If I find I keep going back to the same volume then I might end up purchasing it. My library also stocks a great range of magazines (such Gourmet Traveller and Vogue Entertaining), where the new editions are kept pristine in plastic covers and comfy chairs are provided in the wonderfully air-conditioned environment so you can read (and photocopy) away to your heart’s content.
8. How much money are you drinking away?
The coffee rant about take away containers seemed to strike a chord, at least with a lot of Australians but the cost of recreational drinking really adds up. I prefer to drink coffee at home, thanks the espresso machine and my love of Columbian beans. I don’t fill in time or seek distractions by drinking coffee in a café and as I ranted – nor do I grab one to go. I drink coffee, in or out, only when I really feel like having one.
Same with alcohol. I’d prefer to sit on one or two glasses of a good local wine than guzzle a bottle.
But I know I might be alone on that suggestion!
And do people really need a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of coke when they go to the movies? Eat before leaving home and save yourself the money.
9. Do a pantry and fridge audit a couple of times a year
The fridge and pantry challenges have been a great way to rediscover and use up forgotten ingredients. Apart from the fact that the stuff goes off (especially flours and other refined grains that you mistakingly think will last for ever), looses it flavour (buy smaller quantities of herbs and spices) or the beans that could outlast a nuclear holocaust get tougher and take longer to cook - some of use have half of our annual income squirreled away in our kitchen, going to waste.
Are you economising in the kitchen? What is working for you?
* Rebecca Huntley “Eating Between the Lines: Food & Equality in Australia”. (Black Inc., 2008). In this case available free of charge on loan from Yarra Libraries