A few years ago I went from being an affluent and avid restaurant-goer and home cook who spent a fortune on food to living as a homeless, hostel-dwelling member of the underclass: alcoholic, on benefits and in the care of my local mental health service. It was a bit of a shock, actually.
Still, I found I could live without many of the trappings of my former life – career, friends, car, clothes and travel etc. - but not good food. And that, when you’re hovering around the poverty line, can be an issue.
Also, most of the advice regarding cooking on a budget seems to fall into two camps. Firstly, there’s the patronising and slapdash, knocked out by celebrity chefs for the Sunday colour supplements whenever there’s a financial crisis. Secondly, there is the '100 Things To Do With Leftover Rice And A Tin Of Sweetcorn’ school of cookery writing.
I was looking for some other way - one that was more about economising in other areas of my life in order to keep on enjoying, as much as was feasible, delicious meals. I began to see that eating well on a budget wasn't so much about individual recipes but more to do with developing a new approach to how I planned and sourced my meals.
Being a skint foodie, therefore, is about following a few simple guidelines. It's about prioritising your budget - aside from utilities, I've cut out almost all other expenditure apart from food shopping. It's about how you plan your weekly menu. It's about investing time and effort into shopping. You can read more about this in the how, shopping and spending pages.
This isn't at all, let's be clear, the same as feeding yourself on as little money as possible - which is sadly the only option available for many of the most poorly paid or unemployed. If you're on Job Seeker's Allowance then, to quote from a recently leaked government email, 'you're pretty much fucked, son'.
I'm in complete accord with the Minimum Income Standard research project which 'aims to set a benchmark for minimum living standards that we should be aiming for as a society, based on what members of the public think is acceptable'. Their weekly food allowance for a single person in their latest report is £46.31. I try and budget for around £40 per week, out of a total household allowance of £60. But I'll often spend more, so the MIS figure strikes me as being just about spot on.
Some of you probably often spunk that much on lunch. Yet others will think it an exorbitant amount. The thing is, I suspect many of that group delude themselves as to what they actually spend (I most emphatically do not refer here to those under extreme hardship who quite simply have no more than £15-£20 to play with). What I mean is that the weekly cost of your food isn't just the supermarket bill. It has to include: the butcher/fishmonger/greengrocer (obviously); all non-alcoholic drinks; anything you eat or drink while at or travelling to/from work; any restaurant meals or takeaways; school lunches and pocket money that goes on snacks; anything.
Enough of all that. What about the food? Well, here's how a chicken provides (for one) four different meals plus a pan of glorious, fragrant stock, the surface glistening with little globules of fat. (As a matter of fact, the rest of the recipes on this site are also mostly for one or two people. Because that is how an increasing number of us live and I feel that almost all cookbooks, TV programmes and newspaper columns don't reflect that).
Buy the best quality chicken you can afford. From Poulet de Bresse (£15 per kg) via Label Anglais (£7.70) down to the cheapest Class A boiler (£2.39), there's an enormous choice. A reasonable compromise would be something like Asda's free-range corn-fed Norfolk chicken at £4.58 per kg.
Let's assume you've got that free-range corn-fed bad boy back in the kitchen and that a roast is first up on the agenda. Halve it lengthways and divide one half into a breast quarter and a leg quarter (or get your butcher to do it for you). Put the two quarters in the freezer for later use.
roast chicken for one (with leftovers)
15g unsalted butter, softened
salt + black pepper
3 cloves of garlic, unpeeled, smashed with the back of a knife
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme
1 onion, peeled and cut into eighths
a little olive oil
175ml of chicken stock
An onion is added to brown in the tray, to provide depth of colour to your gravy. Otherwise it can look a little insipid.
Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan. Rub the skin of the chicken with the butter and season generously. Put the herbs and garlic in a roasting tray and place the chicken half, skin side up, on top. Scatter the onion pieces around it and drizzle them with a little oil. Roast for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 190C/170C fan and baste the chicken with the juices in the tray. Roast for another 30-40 minutes or so (depending on the size of your ½ chicken), basting every 10 minutes until the skin is a deep golden colour and the juices run clear (this should coincide almost exactly with the time it takes to do your roasties - result). Remove the chicken to rest and spoon out most of the fat/oil. Place the roasting tray over a medium heat. At this point you can sprinkle over a spoonful of flour if you fancy a thicker gravy - if so, cook it off for a minute. Throw in the chicken stock, scraping and stirring to deglaze - it's important to loosen all those delicious crusty bits. Bring to a simmer and cook for a 3-5 minutes. The gravy should be a satisfyingly deep brown colour. Check for seasoning and strain into a serving jug.
Serve yourself a portion of the chicken. Apart from roasties, the only other accompaniments I tend to have are bread sauce, redcurrant jelly and watercress. Oh, and mustard. Must have mustard.
After your meal, remove the remaining portion of meat from the carcass for the next day's sandwich. Reserve the carcass for stock making. You can, of course, make your stock straight away from the half you have. But I prefer to freeze the carcass and make a stock when I've got two or more to play with. The recipe below assumes you have about 1kg of chicken carcass.
It's a very forgiving process, stock making. A chicken carcass, an onion, a carrot and a stick of celery, a few peppercorns and some aromatics and you're hot to trot. However, here's the recipe I usually follow. It's based on one from Giorgio Locatelli's Made In Italy - the only time I've seen juniper berries as an ingredient for chicken stock.
1kg chicken carcass, or wings
1 scant tsp tomato paste
1 onion, quartered
1 carrot, large chunks
1 stick celery, large chunks
1 bay leaf
3 black peppercorns
2 juniper berries, crushed
3 litres of water
Break up the carcass into large bits. Roast at 200C/180C fan for 15 minutes. Brush with the tomato paste and roast for a further 5 minutes. Put in a pot with the remaining ingredients and cover with the water. Bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the top. Simmer for three hours, replenishing with water as necessary. Cool. Spoon off the excess fat that rises to the surface, then strain into freezer containers. I'll usually freeze the stock in 500ml and 250ml tubs and also maybe freeze some in ice cube trays and keep them in a bag.
The next day for lunch make...
a fried chicken sandwich
If you haven't got any breadcrumbs to hand, and can't be arsed making any, crushed cream crackers make an excellent substitute.
a handful of leftover chicken
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp olive oil
slices of onion + tomatoes
a handful of watercress
salt + black pepper
2 slices of light rye bread
Dust the chicken pieces with flour. Dip them in the egg, then roll in the breadcrumbs to coat. Heat the oil and fry the chicken until crispy and golden. Drain. Smear one of the halves of bread with mayonnaise and add onion and tomato slices. Place the chicken pieces on top, season and squeeze some lemon juice over. Pile the watercress over the chicken. Spread the other half of bread with the jelly and complete the sandwich.
The following week make...
sautéed chicken with rosemary
1 chicken leg quarter
1 tbsp of olive oil
2 garlic cloves, squashed but intact
2 small sprigs rosemary
a glass of white wine
salt + black pepper
You want a smallish, deep-sided pan and a lid for this. I use a 20cm wok. Heat the oil and sauté the chicken skin side down until crisp and golden. Turn over and throw in the garlic and rosemary. After 5 minutes, strain off most of the oil and add the wine to deglaze. It will quickly start to bubble away. Turn the heat down low, put a lid on the pan and gently simmer for about 30 minutes. Check now and again to make sure the liquor hasn't completely dried out - add a bit more wine if needed . You want a couple of tablespoons left at the end to pour over your chicken and the mash which you'll no doubt be serving with it.
And the week after that make a mid-week supper of:
griddled chicken with a chorizo + white bean stew
a couple of small cooking chorizo sausages, in small chunks
1 garlic clove, crushed
½ onion, thinly sliced
½ red pepper, in small strips
1 large tomato, skinned and chopped
150g cooked cannellini beans
150ml chicken stock
a breast of chicken
salt + black pepper
Sweat the chorizo slowly in a pan to release the oil and brown slightly. Remove with a slotted spoon. Fry the garlic, onion and red pepper gently until starting to colour and soften. Add the tomato and beans and enough stock to barely cover. Season with black pepper and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes.
Heat a griddle until it's fairly hot. Whisk together a little oil and lemon juice and brush onto the chicken. Season. Place skin side down on the griddle and cook, turning once, until just cooked through. The chicken should be golden on both sides and criss-crossed with markings from the griddle. Spoon the stew onto a deep dinner plate, scatter over some chopped parsley and place the chicken breast on top.
Well that's it then - my first ever blog post. I hope you might find time to look at the rest of the site, if for no other reason than that there are already over 200 recipes recorded here that I think you'll enjoy. I certainly do - after all, it's what I eat all the time. This is simple everyday fare, but no less scrumptious for that.
I would also hope that you might find some encouragement here if you are living on a tight budget like me, or are a first-time or hesitant cook or especially if you are living alone (again like me) and feel that it isn't worth cooking just for yourself. It is so worth cooking for yourself. I'm off my tits on Planet Loony Tunes half the time, and I can tell you that getting back into the kitchen, laden with fruit, vegetables, a slab of pork belly, a chunk of good cheese and a bag of espresso beans acts as a wonderfully restorative anti-depressant. Food is, quite simply, the bollocks.