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Eating for £2 a day, part six: the return of pasta

6 Jul
Pasta with aubergine, fennel and tomatoes

Pasta with aubergine, fennel and tomatoes

Sixth, and final instalment in a series of posts about cheap meals in which I feed two adults (one of which is me) things they genuinely like eating, on a budget of around £2 each per day.

First, an apology: I already blogged on pasta as part of this series. There are other cheap staples that I could (and probably should) have devoted a post to – so honourable mentions to soups, to smoked fish and sweet potatoes, and not forgetting other carbs such as the humble baked spud or the poncier bulgur wheat (aka the cous-cous I actually like).

But the fact of the matter is, if you’re spending £2 a day, you’re probably going to eat a fair bit of pasta – I’ve regularly gone through periods of living on it four days a week or more. And simple tomato-sauce based meals can get pretty repetitive – one of the most obvious pitfalls of any diet on a budget.

So it’s worth mixing them up with the likes of the dish below, which is equally good served hot or cold (or room temperature, anyway) so it’s perfect to take with you the next day. It comes from the Cranks Bible, also home to the awesome pasta fagioli recipe I posted on back in January. And if you want something a bit less vegetable-based but still suited to skintness, just Google up ‘tuna cannellini beans pasta’ and get to work.

Pasta with aubergine, fennel and tomatoes (4-6 portions; total cost, about £6)

You will need:

  • 100ml olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 fennel bulbs, cut into 3cm chunks
  • 1 large or 2 small aubergines, cut into 3cm chunks
  • 500g tomatoes, cut in quarters and seeds removed
  • 1 chilli, chopped fine
  • A few basil leaves
  • 400g pasta (the original recipe says farfalle, but shells or similar work just fine)
  • 75g grated cheese
  • Salt and pepper

To prepare:

  • Heat the oil very gently and fry the garlic until transparent.
  • Turn up the heat to medium high, add the fennel and stir for about 5mins.
  • Add the aubergine and continue cooking until softened and browned – 10-15mins. Keep a close eye (and nose) on things and stir almost constantly to prevent the garlic from catching – if this is in danger of happening then drop a splash or two of water into the pan.
  • Add the tomatoes and chilli and stir on a high heat until the tomatoes have softened, but are still recognisably tomatoes.
  • While this last bit is under way, cook your pasta then drain.
  • Tear the basil leaves into the vegetable pan add the pasta and mix together well. Serve with the cheese.

Eating for £2 a day, part five: eggs (and the only pan you need)

5 Jul
Tortilla with onion, potato, garlic, bacon, peas and broad beans

Tortilla with onion, potato, garlic, bacon, peas and broad beans

Fifth in a string of posts about cheap eating in which I feed a pair of adults (one of which is me) a selection of meals that taste good, on a budget of around £2 each per day.

About five years ago, after a breakup, I moved into a house where, by coincidence, everyone else was also a recent heartbreaker or heartbreakee. Unsurprisingly, most residents were more interested in alcohol than food, so the kitchen was not that well kitted out – which eventually drove me to buy a pan.

I made it a large heavy sauté pan with a lid – if you have one of these you can pretty much make do with just a single other thin shitty saucepan to cook rice, pasta or boiled veg in. Since then most of the types of food I make have been prepared in it at one time or another: pasta sauces, curries, risottos, some of the rice-based pulse dishes I mentioned yesterday. But the thing it’s best for is making the kind of inches-thick omelettes you can live off for several days.

Some call these by their Spanish name: tortilla, others say frittata (the Italian version, which can involve a messy additional stage of whisking ingredients into your beaten eggs). Whatever – they are one of the best of all foods for using up bits and enjoying hot one day, cold the next, and should set you back no more than £1 per portion.

If you like spices, the Indian masala omelette is also a thing of beauty that you can adapt how you want and, should you somehow get tired of all these, a wide pan is also ideal for other simple egg dishes such as the Tunisian chakchouka.

Tortilla (2-4 portions)

You will need:

  • 4tbsp oil (at least)
  • 6 eggs
  • 3-4 new potatoes, chopped
  • 2 onions or leeks, thinly sliced
  • Salt & pepper

Plus a couple of things from this list, if you have them:

  • 2-4 rashers bacon, snipped into matchsticks
  • 50g or more salami, chorizo or similar, chopped
  • A slice or two of ham, chopped fine
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2-1 cup of frozen peas or broad beans
  • 1 small courgette, cut in half lengthways then thinly sliced
  • Handful of grated cheese
  • Or whatever else you fancy – so long as it’s not tomatoes. Their juice is likely to rob your tortilla of the caramelised underside that is one of its best features.

To prepare:

  • Heat the oil over a low heat and fry the onions very gently for 15-20mins. They should be soft and sweet but not brown.
  • Meanwhile boil some water and give the potatoes 5-10mins until almost cooked.
  • Beat the eggs with salt and pepper.
  • When the onions are done, start adding secondary ingredients. Turn up the heat to medium and fry meat, garlic or fresh veg for 2-3mins; if using frozen you can just defrost it under boiling water and add to the pan.
  • Add the cooked potatoes, continue cooking a minute or two longer and mix well so everything is evenly spread.
  • Pour in the beaten eggs, shaking the pan a little to evenly distribute, and set over a medium-low heat.
  • Sprinkle cheese, if using, onto the top of the still-liquid omelette – it’ll settle near the surface – and get your grill preheating.
  • Cook for 10-15mins or until just a shallow puddle of liquid remains on top of the tortilla, then grill until golden and puffed-up on top.
  • Slice like a pizza and serve with bread and, if you have any, some salad.

Eating for £2 a day, part four: pulses

4 Jul
Simple spinach dal

Simple spinach dal gets its second run-out on this blog

Fourth in a vaguely self-important series of posts on cheap eating, in which I attempt to give inspiration to the moderately skint by preparing meals within a budget of around £2 a head per day.

If you’ve followed this blog over the last 18 months, you may have noticed that there are times when I appear to be promoting the joys of eating pulses with a near-suspicious level of zeal. This isn’t because I’m being paid to do so by the lentil-farming lobby; it’s because they offer (usually combined with rice) the cheapest and tastiest way of properly filling yourself up.

There’s one hurdle – pulses benefit from spices. For years I’ve spent 50p here, 70p there on bags of turmeric and chilli powder, cumin seed and cardamom pods – and eventually the more exotic likes of fenugreek and asafoetida – when I’ve found myself in the vicinity of an Asian grocer. For many recipes though, if you’ve got cumin, coriander, turmeric and garam masala you’re pretty much sorted – and for non-veggies, the small investment means you’re rarely stuck for a full-flavoured meal on weeks when shelling out on meat is out of the question.

As part of this week’s cheap eating exercise I’m making the basic spinach dal pictured above, featured here last year (cost: about £3 for four portions). I’ve previously covered mejaddara, and more recently have taken to its Egyptian cousin koshary – rice, lentils and pasta on the same plate may not sound appetising, but it’s a strangely addictive meal. As and when you can get your hands on more fancy-pants spices then the likes of this chickpea curry and this amazing recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi take things up another notch.

Best of all, these dishes taste even better the next day. So make twice what you need and take them to work, saving further pennies and avoiding one of my most hated tasks: preparing a sandwich pack-up when you’re knackered just before bed (or worse still, in the morning).

Eating for £2 a day, part three: simple pasta

3 Jul

Pasta with green beans in tomato sauce

Third in a series of posts on cheap eating in which I feed two adults (one of which is me) a selection of meals that taste good, on a budget of around £2 each per day.

Ever had a conversation about which carbohydrate you’d choose to live off, if you were only allowed one? It’s a tough call, but I always get a nagging feeling that pasta would be the safest bet – even if you’ve got next to nothing to put it with, you can fix up an ace, frugal meal.

The recipe below is as simple as it gets, but punches a long way above its low cost – to the point where a contented ex-housemate named it Alex’s Pasta and continues cooking it (as far as I know) to this day. Sadly I didn’t invent it – its origins are lost in the sleepless mists of my early twenties – but for two people it will set you back well under £1.50.

Other basic winners I cook every month include amatriciana (which I’ll also be eating as part of my £2 a day shop) and pasta alla Genovese (it’s illegal to still be hungry after taking down linguine and potatoes in the same dish). Also strong is a variation of the one below in which an onion is gently fried at the start, the chilli is omitted and a red pepper – grilled black, skinned and chopped – is added near the end in place of the beans.

Pasta with green beans in tomato sauce

You will need:

  • 1tbsp oil
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic
  • 1-2 chillies, fresh or dried
  • 1 can tomatoes
  • 100g green beans
  • 200g pasta – if your beans are long and thin, spaghetti or linguine are best, if they’re fatter dwarf beans then shells are ideal
  • Cheese to top

To prepare:

  • Heat the oil very gently, slice the garlic and chilli finely, add to the pan and soften (but do not burn!).
  • Add the tomatoes, bang up the heat, break up the tomatoes and bring to the boil.
  • Simmer over a medium heat for around 20 mins until a thick spicy sauce has formed.
  • Meanwhile bring a pan of water (or kettle) to the boil, pop it on the stove and lightly salt.
  • Top and tail your green beans, leaving them whole if thin or cutting into halves/thirds if thick. Pop them into a sieve and set them to boil/steam until tender over the boiling water.
  • Lift out the beans, add a dash of oil to the water and get your pasta on. When it’s nearly ready add the tender beans to the tomato sauce.
  • Drain the pasta, reserving a few teaspoons cooking water. Toss it in this, then mix up with the tomato and green bean mixture.
  • Top with grated cheese and get it down your neck.

Eating for £2 a day, part two: noodles

2 Jul

Ching-He Huang’s chilli chicken noodles

Second in a series of posts on cheap eating in which I feed two adults (including myself) different things that taste good, on a budget of about £2 each per day.

I never used to cook much Chinese food at home – sauces out of sachets and jars are often bland, gloopy or insanely sugary, and I mistakenly believed that making stuff from scratch would either require buying lots of expensive ingredients, or be very time-consuming, or both.

Eating food made by a friend who’d lived in China, and being bought Ching-He Huang’s Chinese Food Made Easy (which the following recipe comes from) persuaded me otherwise. Invest in some soy and five-spice and you’ve got the store-cupboard staples for a range of simple budget recipes – which will last months. At about £3.50 for two, this is the most expensive meal I’ll be looking at – because it’s got chicken in it.

Ching-He Huang’s chilli chicken noodles

You will need:

  • 250g chicken (I used thigh fillets – cheaper and taste better), sliced
  • 1/2 red pepper, sliced
  • 1 courgette, sliced
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 250g noodles, cooked according to packet instructions
  • 2 spring onions, sliced

And for the sauce:

  • 2 tomatoes, sliced
  • 1/2 red pepper, sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2.5cm ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 1 chilli, sliced
  • 2 tbsp ketchup
  • 5 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp sugar

To prepare:

  • Put the sauce ingredients in a blender and whizz them up smooth, then set aside.
  • Heat oil in a frying pan or wok until hot, add chicken and stir fry until browned.
  • Add the red pepper and courgette and stir fry for two minutes.
  • Put in the cooked noodles and sauce and bring to the boil.
  • Season with soy sauce and serve topped with sliced spring onion.

A diet for the breadline?

25 Jun

Over the past seven days the Guardian has run a number of articles on what it terms Breadline Britain, highlighting people struggling by, and in many cases working hard to do so, in a condition one slip away from being unable to make ends meet.

Giving the lie to the pernicious myth – ably assisted in recent times by Iain Duncan Smith – that the poor are scroungers who should try a bit harder if they want to do better for themselves, the series struck a chord with me.

Closer to the trapdoor

During the six years I worked in social housing, I read hundreds of homeless case files of people seeking a council property. Many of the neediest had been dealt a heartbreakingly shitty hand from the outset – and yes, a proportion were trying to chisel the system.

But it was always striking to see instances where a divorce, debt problems or simple misfortune had ripped the rug out from under seemingly settled lives. For many, the ongoing erosion of the UK’s welfare safety-net is bringing these kinds of scenarios nearer.

I got a milder taste of austerity after coming to Bristol last summer, thousands in debt after retraining, to start a £15,000 entry-level journalism job. On my second day I learned my team was being axed and that redundancy was imminent; my girlfriend, who moved with me, was unable to find full-time work.

We turned the situation around thanks to luck – and the privilege of having qualifications, job experience and families seemingly desperate to part with the odd tenner. But I can confirm that watching rent and bills swallow three quarters of earnings while interest on money owed ticks upwards is a bit stressful.

Eating happier

During those months, having something decent for tea was about as exciting as life got. So I was unsurprised that some of the case studies in the Breadline Britain series vented frustrations that they couldn’t manage to eat healthily.

But interestingly, next to the tales of hardship was a report on prison food, costing £1.87 a day for each adult, which hinged on the argument that good food could be prepared from fresh for “a fraction of the cost” of foodstuffs “in a packet or a tin” – and had a pronounced impact on self esteem.

Drawing a comparison between incarceration and working poverty would be glib, and stupid on a number of levels, but that £1.87 figure – the cost of four chocolate bars, and less than the minimum daily patient spend in NHS hospitals – got me thinking about how far I’d be able to cut things back, while still actually enjoying eating.

So later this week I’ll be devoting a few posts to exploring what you can do for £2 a day; it’s the kind of thing this blog was originally intended for.

On the pulse, part four: pasta e fagioli vs winter blues

16 Jan

Soup, pasta or stew? Irrelevant: it's delicious.

So today is allegedly the most depressing day of the year aka Blue Monday. Indeed, one BBC Scotland piece seemed to suggest that the combo of season and current financial uncertainty had created a candidate for the most miserable day ever.

I’m not sure I buy into any of this babble – I find much of the first six weeks or so of the year can be equally numbing. But with post-Christmas gloom and belt tightening on many people’s minds, genuine austerity cooking in Greece making international news and this blog recently looking at UK food poverty, it seemed appropriate to feature a dish that’ll give the winter blues a robust poke in the eye – owing both to the minimal impact it’ll make on your scrawny January wallet, and the fact that it’s healthy, tastes shit-hot and warms you up.

Culled and lightly adapted from Nadine Abensur’s ever-useful Crank’s Bible, this pasta e fagioli recipe packs in all the best aspects of a pasta dish (obviously), a soup and a stew.

There are many other variations to be found adding bacon, spinach or using different kinds of beans or pasta; strictly speaking you should be using dried beans, as this Telegraph recipe does, but for speed I’ve used tinned ones here. Either way, there are few more comforting meals to turn to during the darkest time of the year.

You will need:

  • 2 cans borlotti beans
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 leek, sliced
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • A few fresh basil or sage leaves
  • 600ml vegetable or chicken stock
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 medium potato, chopped
  • 1 stick celery, chopped
  • 200g pasta – small soup pasta are best but any short pasta will do
  • 2 tomatoes, cut in six pieces
  • Salt and pepper

To prepare:

  • Fry leek and onion gently until softened before adding all other vegetables. Continue cooking for another few minutes.
  • Add the borlotti beans, dried herbs and stock – you may want to include some of the can liquid from the beans for a thicker result.
  • Simmer for at least 15 minutes; meanwhile cook the pasta until al dente and add along with the chopped tomatoes and fresh herbs.
  • Give it another five minutes, check the seasoning and serve in bowls topped with grated Parmesan and the leaves from your celery, if there are any. Become a few degrees warmer and happier.

[Serves four]