I recently had a friend ask me how I can afford all the ingredients I cook with. It’s a very good question and I thought others may also be interested. I have a chronic illness and am only able to work five hours a day. I work for non-for-profit organisations so the salary wasn’t that great to start with, when you cut it back to only five hours a day, budgeting becomes a much more important affair. For our two person household, I spend about $120 on the weekly food shopping. Sometimes that may go up to about $150 if I haven’t planned well. We eat incredibly well on this budget. My purchasing is driven by a few principles: ethically produced, organic/environmentally fair, flavourful, local and seasonal. These principles often increase the price of produce. Here’s how I think we do it.
Buy as directly as possible from the producer
I feel blessed to have such a fantastic local farmers market. Capital Region Farmers Market has rules to ensure the stallholders are the producers. But you don’t shop there if you want cheap produce. Don’t get me wrong, you can catch a bargain, but other places are better for that. What you will get is high quality produce with the knowledge that the producer gets all the benefits of the purchase. When I first started shopping at the market, there were many products I steered clear of because it seemed like they cost a lot of money. But what I found was that I was more satiated by the produce I bought. The flavour in the produce was far superior to anything else I’d eaten, and as a result I didn’t want to eat as much, I was satiated with less.
Buy birds whole
I only buy free range poultry. There’s a stallholder at my market who sells a wonderful array of free range birds. Her chickens cost about $5 more than the equivalent free range supermarket chook. The first time I bought one, I was blown away by the flavour difference. This was most notable in the chicken flavour I got from stock made with the carcass. When I did the maths, I found savings in buying the whole bird and breaking it up at home. This also forces me to eat the cheaper cuts, rather than always going for the breasts or thighs.
From one chicken, I get two tenderloins that will be used in pasta or salads; two breasts for an easy meal or three; wings, that I stockpile and cook for dude food; and a carcass that I use to make stock, which I freeze and use for soup, risotto or gravy. I also pick the carcass from the stock and use the meat in sandwiches, risotto, soups or feed it to the cat. In reality that’s an average of seven or eight single serve meals. If you bought all those cuts, sandwich meat, and chicken stock, it would cost you a lot more than the $18 the free range chicken cost you. I bet the meals from this bird would also be a hell of a lot tastier.
Do the ‘value add’ at home
Doing this value add at home really comes to the fore with something a little more indulgent like a duck. I buy a free range duck for about $28. I cut this up at home too. Ideally, I cut up my duck the day I buy it. Depending on my plans I may cure some of the parts for smoking, make stock, or freeze them. Duck stock (read value add) is a truly wonderful thing. Duck risotto is heavenly, but duck soups are also incredible. Some of the favourites I’ve made include duck wonton soup and duck consommé with shitake mushrooms. I collect the valuable duck fat from the top of the cooled stock and store it for a range of uses including roasting potatoes, and making confit. I cut the wings into the three portions and stockpile them. They’re great in a slow cooked pasta sauce, but I love to add some class to a home-made Chinese banquet by making Sichuan style crisp fragrant duck wings. Many people love duck breasts. Indeed, they’re lovely pan fried with crisp skin. I often cure them in honey and smoke them. But my favourite part of getting a duck is the legs. They make an amazing slow cooked ragu, but I nearly always turn them into confit.
Confit is a magical thing. I think it’s the ultimate ‘value add.’ For several reasons it keeps very well in the fridge: the salt cure, the slow cooking, and storing it in a layer of duck fat. When you can be bothered making nothing else you can whip it out and put it in the oven to crisp for 30 minutes, serving a mouth-watering and hugely impressive dinner with little or no fuss. I often make a simple sauce and serve it with green beans and potatoes. The day I cut up the duck (usually a Saturday, after market), I cure the legs in herbs and salt overnight. The next day, I rinse them free of the cure and pat them dry before placing them snuggly in an oven dish and topping them with duck fat. I bake them on a low heat for four or more hours, until meltingly tender. Leave the duck in the cooking fat to cool slightly. When the duck is cool enough to handle, transfer it to a container for the fridge, leaving a thin layer of fat on the duck. Allow the fat to cool completely in the baking dish and tip it back into the storage container and return it to the fridge. You should have a layer of ‘jelly’ on the bottom of the dish (allowing for this separation is why it’s important to let the cooking fat cool completely). Refrigerate this jelly and use it to make a very tasty sauce to serve with the confit. The naturally occurring gelatine is very good for you. It is high in protein and has anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing properties. Don’t let it go to waste.
Make the most of cheaper cuts of meat
I have a favourite beef supplier. I pretty much always buy from her. She keeps a small herd of Scottish Highland cattle on a small farm near Batlow, NSW. The farm is not organic, specifically because if an animal is sick, they want to be able to treat them. I have visited the farm and know the animals live a happy, peaceful life. They are respected and butchered close to home. The breed is slow growing, so it’s incredibly flavourful. I find the meat to be of the highest quality, with great marbling. I find it surprisingly tender. But it’s not cheap. So I’ve really taken to making the most of the cheaper cuts. I buy mince from her, which is packed full of flavour, use skirt steak, cheeks, shanks, ribs and other cuts that cost less, but are incredibly tender and tasty when cooked appropriately. I buy a bag of beef bones, and roast them to make stock and gravy. We splurge and get steak once every three or four months.
Make your own bacon
I only buy free range pork. Free range pork can be hard to come by, but pork products made with free range meat are even harder to come by. I also try and remove artificial ingredients from my diet. The nitrates used in commercial bacon kind of freak me out. I bought a smoker and make my own bacon from free range pork I buy direct from the farmer. I dry cure the meat over two weeks, the old fashioned way, and hot smoke it on my balcony. It lasts longer than supermarket bacon and has a far superior flavour. Also, it doesn’t shrink in the pan like supermarket bacon, and won’t end up swimming in liquid when you cook it, so it doesn’t stick to the pan. When we light the smoker, we make a day of it. I buy a heap of meat at the market and smoke all sorts of things. It’s a great way to impart natural flavour, and if you cure the meat beforehand, preserve it.
Buy staples in bulk on sale
There are a few staples we consume a lot of. Specifically, tomato passata and spaghetti. We buy these in bulk when they’re on special. Often we buy three passata bottles for $2 each. These can otherwise be up to $6 each. We have a spaghetti jar that gets filled with three family sized packets of spaghetti that we buy when they’re from 5-30% off.
We don’t really drink, so I really only buy a bottle of wine every few months and we rarely eat out. By ‘rarely eating out’, I mean it quite literally. We may go to a super fancy restaurant once a year. We may go out for laksa at our local noodle house once every three months. The take-away night that most households have is replaced in our house with Monday night pizzas, made from scratch by my very talented partner.
By making these savings, I can find a little room in the budget for special items. Additional to my $120 food shop, I may get the Bruny Island Cheese Club offer every six months. That sets me back a very pretty penny, think more than $100. I try and buy my spices from Gewurzhaus and may spend $50-$80 every six months. If I go into The Essential Ingredient, I may be in trouble if there’s money in the bank, but that doesn’t happen often.
SUSAN’S SUMPTUOUS SUPPERS’
#1 Spend your money directly with the producer
#2 Buy good quality, high flavour produce and eat less overall
#3 Buy whole birds, cut them up yourself
#4 Use the whole bird, not just the breasts/thighs
#5 Make your own stock
#6 Use the meat from the carcass once you’ve made stock
#7 Save the duck fat from the top of duck stock
#8 Make your own duck confit
#9 Learn how to get the most of cheaper cuts of meat
#10 Make your own bacon
#11 Smoke your own meat
#12 Cook well enough at home that you don’t need to eat out