The fine art of a thrifty kitchen

Eating the last of the Sunday roast with fried rice on Thursday or freezing cheap berries as a winter treat feels, in a small way, like beating the system.

Although – I realise with a shock – it is almost a decade since I lived my life by the academic calendar, September still feels like an occasion for new beginnings. This autumn, my resolutions revolve primarily around saving money and I’m starting with a little book by Claire Leavey entitled How to Run a Thrifty Kitchen, which promises “advice from the ancestors . . . updated for modern living”.

Much contemporary wisdom on the subject involves cutting back but not here, as is clear from the first paragraph: “Cutting down what one spends upon food is not necessarily economy. Getting the same food value at less cost is.” Advice from 1932 that rings true today: Ireland is the only European nation that spends a smaller percentage of income on food than the UK. Leavey believes that instead of slashing budgets further, Britons should work on getting more for our money.

To this end, she counsels readers to switch to cooking with solid fuel, build a haybox oven, start a wormery to use up food scraps and make their own nettle wine – all of which (with the possible exception of the last, which I’ve always found to occupy the cat’s pee end of the flavour spectrum) are no doubt eminently sensible suggestions. But if you can’t run to an airy, north-facing larder, her smaller changes may be just as effective.

I don’t need to tell you to look out for special offers when you go shopping or that apples will be cheaper in October than in June – but do you need to buy anything in the first place?

Any thrift drive should start with a thorough kitchen inventory. If you’re like me, you will have several weeks’ worth of potential meals growing old at the back of the freezer or cupboard. Working out how to turn the dregs of several bags of pasta, some peas and a cheese rind into a decent dinner can be a surprisingly satisfying culinary challenge.

When shopping’s back on the agenda, remember the premium placed on convenience. Buying everything at the same shop will save you time but rarely money. Shop around. Rice, cooking oil, herbs and spices (always whole –more versatile than ground, they’ll also last longer), dried pulses and frozen seafood are usually better value at Asian grocers.

The same goes for seasonal fruit and vegetables at street markets. It’s also easier to purchase fresh meat, cheese and fish in exactly the quantity you need from a butcher, deli counter or fishmonger, rather than overbuying the pre-packed versions in the supermarket.

If you don’t have the luxury of choice locally, go online. You may need to buy in bulk but it doesn’t take much imagination to get through a bag of basmati.

Similarly, try to avoid processed foods that can be made at home more cheaply. For the price of a couple of jars of fancy pasta sauce, you could get a huge drum of tinned tomatoes, some garlic and a bay leaf and cook enough in half an hour to see you through the winter. Use your leftovers to make stocks and soups and rediscover the joys of classics such as breadand- butter pudding and bubble and squeak.

Think about fuel use, too. Invest in a tiered steamer so that you can cook several things at once. And if you’ve got the oven on for dinner, bake a loaf of bread or some vegetables for lunch at the same time.

My favourite new pennypinching gadget, however, is the pressure cooker: no longer prone to exploding, it cooks tough cuts of meat and pulses in a fraction of the time.

I’ve found such small measures not only economical but a source of profound satisfaction. Eating the last of the Sunday roast with fried rice on Thursday or freezing cheap berries as a winter treat feels, in a small way, like beating the system.

As Leavey writes, “It’s time for us to rediscover and reclaim the power to feed ourselves.” Drink, however, I’ll leave to the professionals.

 

Drag odds and ends out of the fridge and the bottom of the veg box and you could have the makings of a feast. Image: Andres Marroquin Winkelmann

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.