Frank likes to tease me about the lengths to which I will go to save money where groceries are concerned. Maybe I’ve just heeded the advice of my best cooking mentors, or maybe it’s all those years of working in restaurants, or maybe I’m just obsessed with the crime of waste, but either way, I have picked up some funny habits in my (nearly) 30 years.
1. Saving Energy. When the oven is hot, especially when it’s up to a really high heat, I like to make the most of it. I try to time things closely, especially with my teeny-tiny Irish oven, so that each dish goes in for the right amount of time at the right temperature without leaving any long spaces in between. If I’m making a roast, I try to take advantage of that heat and cook my veggies in the oven, too, and later I might throw in a dessert or a tray of cookies after the main course is done.
I do tend to take this too far on occasion… and I’m used to the eye rolls of my husband when I’m “throwing together” something to use up some more of that hot oven’s energy… but have somehow forgotten that my own dinner is sitting cold on the table or the fact that it’s now past Evelyn’s bedtime. Just because the oven is on doesn’t mean I need to make everything NOW, as if a nuclear disaster is mere moments away.
2. Wasting Fresh Fruit or Vegetables. The most expensive thing we buy at the market or grocery store, next to meat, is our fresh fruit and veg. I feel like crying each time I have to put a bunch of once-lovely produce on the compost heap. This is one thing I need to work on – while waiting for things to ripen, I forget about them for too long and they end up in the bin. Potatoes and garlic sprout in the cupboard, Ginger goes mouldy in the fridge, half a cabbage or celeriac get neglected just a day or two too long and can’t be rescued. I try to freeze wilting herbs or berries I haven’t got time to use, but even then I sometimes forget about them in the freezer and have to throw them away anyway! Tragic.
Where I sort of contradict myself on this one is when I buy produce off the clearance shelf, excited about getting a bargain and making something delicious. I’m not necessarily saving money, though, because my plan is usually one that requires other expensive ingredients like butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, booze and/or nuts. I won’t lie to you, most of my Food Saviour Complex is actually a selfish desire to bake something highly caloric. 🙂 I think all of my fruit and veg waste problems would be solved if I just learned to eat raw, eat fresh more often.
3. Cheap meat. This is one I’ve had to learn about the hard way. I am NOT an advocate of buying the cheapest, meanest cuts of meat to save money but sacrifice on taste, texture and nutritional value. I’ve been down that road and let me tell you, some kinds of meat will never be coaxed into tender submission, no matter how much pounding, basting or roasting you put in. Grissle will always be grissle – this I know, growing up on a diet of mainly deer, antelope, elk and moose. In the lean years, my mom did her best to serve us something nice from the pressure cooker, but when a deer is little and skinny and tough, no amount of chewing will ever make that lump of flesh go down your throat. (I’ve also had some tremendous meals made from fatter, healthier game meat, and I am always pining for one of my mom’s venison steak sandwiches!)
What I’ve learned is to buy GOOD meat on special, or in smaller portions. This goes for fish, too – wow, I rarely buy frozen fish anymore when there is such amazing fresh catches right here in town. I’m not too squeamish around meat, so I’ve found I’ve saved loads of money shopping for meat daily and getting bargains that are close to their sell-by date. The funny thing is, it’s usually the really nice cuts you’ll find in the mark-down area because all the cheap stuff has already been purchased. So now you can have your meat and eat it too, hee hee. Nothing wrong with buying a few of these good cuts on clear-out and freezing a few, too. I also like to buy whole chickens or legs/thighs on the bone rather than boneless skinless breasts because it’s cheaper and tastier. This also enables me to be able to buy free range or organic more often because I’m buying the less desirable and therefore cheaper cuts to begin with. But if my life was perfect and money no object, I’d shop at the butcher’s every day and get something I knew 100% would be delicious and fresh. You might pay a fraction more at actual butcher shops (at least here), but a good butcher will help you find a cut and weight to suit your budget.
I just have to remind myself of all this when I reach for the sickly grey looking packet of minced beef or chicken breasts that are store branded and coming from God knows where but half the price of the better stuff. Cheap meat isn’t always the way to go and there are tricks around the expensive products if you’re creative.
4. If I can do it better… I’ll do it. I don’t really like buying coffee out in Drogheda because there just aren’t many nice cups of java out there. I’d prefer to make it at home and know it will be good. As you know, I love baking, so I’d rather make a birthday cake here at home than buy it elsewhere. I stress myself out when baking for others sometimes, if it’s something for an event or whatever, but if I’m just baking for the love of it and I want to share, nothing pleases me more.
I am more than happy to pay good money for a wonderful meal out, though! I consider myself a better baker than cook, but I love to eat so when we can afford it or a special occasion warrants it, I don’t cringe over forking over my hard-earned Euros for a great meal. On the flip side, a bad meal will make me livid and I feel like I’ve just wasted a lot of… everything.
See? There’s a method in my madness. 🙂
Overall, I think I have the right intentions here… I could get much more serious about my food choices… and I actually do think about ethical repercussions when I’m grocery shopping (sometimes). But mostly, I just tend to consider it good practice. Why not? Why not make 3 meals out of one roast chicken? Why not buy bulk when you can? Why not walk to the market, buy local and throw any biodegradable waste onto a compost heap? Is it really such a strain? Nope.
In closing – a recipe. I bought a rather sad bunch of rhubarb the other day that had been marked down at Tesco and it inspired me to make these bars. Americans tend to mix rhubarb with strawberries or raspberries, maybe in a pie or a cake. Irish folk like to pair rhubarb with custards and crumbles. Both are yummy, but here’s a more casual way to eat Spring’s most tart fruit/vegetable, and one that is a bit easier to take with you in a lunch box. Most of the ingredients are from the larder, too, so it should be lighter on the wallet as well.
Rhubarb Apple Oatmeal Bars
2 Cups Chopped Rhubarb
1 large Apple, Chopped
1 Tbls cornstarch dissolved in a bit of warm water
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1 Cup Oats
3/4 Cup brown sugar
1 Cup flour
1/2 Cup butter (margerine can be substituted)
heaping 1/4 tsp baking soda
1/3 Cup chopped nuts, Optional
In a heavy saucepan, simmer the rhubarb, sugar, water, cornstarch and vanilla until it starts to soften. Add the apples and cook on a medium heat until it is a thick liquid with some chunks (mostly of apple). Take off the heat.
Mix up the crumbly crust with your fingers until the butter is well distributed and forming small crumbs. Press 3/4 of this mixture into a square 8×8 pan.
Pour the rhubarb and apple mixture over the top of this crust and top with the remaining crumb. Bake at 375 degrees F, 180 degrees C for 25 minutes or until slightly browned on top with an oozy filling. Cool completely and cut into squares OR serve warm with custard. 🙂