My friend Commodorified over at Dreamwidth is holding a ‘Cooking for People Who Don’t’ Carnival, with the theme being Food Security. There’s some really amazing stuff there, and I suggest giving it a good look. Since the whole question of What If There Isn’t Enough Food is one which is dear to my heart, you’d think I’d have something useful to contribute, but the truth is that my most poverty-stricken years were also years in which I was still learning to cook, was decidedly unadventurous, and generally not a good example to anyone. My most useful piece of advice for the culinary unaware from those years is: don’t forget to prick holes in your potato before you bake it. Especially if the oven you are using does not belong to you. Believe me, it’s very, very embarrassing when they explode, and potato innards are not the easiest thing to clean out of an oven…
And speaking of things which explode, if for some reason you decide to boil an egg in the microwave and you’d rather not have it explode, make sure you prick a hole in the shell first. This one isn’t from my own experience – the mother of one of my friends decided, in a spirit of scientific enquiry, to find out what happened if she didn’t follow the instructions in her microwave cookbook.
There is, however, more to food security than not exploding things in ovens.
Two books which I wish I’d found years before I did were The Student Grub Guide (sadly out of print these days) and The Vegetarian Student Grub Guide. These are both aimed at people who have never cooked anything in their lives, and tell you useful things like how to boil eggs, make toast, bake potatoes and cook rice and pasta – things that most cookbooks assume you already know how to do. And they have a fair number of good basic recipes, too.
Two other books that I adore are Diana Henry’s Cook Simple and Food From Plenty – both are full of recipes which require very little culinary knowledge or ability but produce amazingly flavourful results. Cook Simple is really about the art of putting a few ingredients together and then leaving them in the oven or to marinade until they are wonderful, with little hands-on work required from the cook. Food From Plenty is a good general cookbook with a lot of tips on using leftovers and making the most of cheap cuts of meat and seasonal vegetables. I’m yet to find a recipe in either of these books that wasn’t absolutely delicious the first time I made it, and I fully recommend them both.
On the frugal side of the equation, two blogs which I have found excellent for interesting and cheap recipes are Frugal Feeding and the $120 Food Challenge. Frugal Feeding is based in the UK, and the $120 Food Challenge is Australian – so you might find it more useful to follow the one in your hemisphere just because most foods are cheaper in their season, and it’s a lot easier to cook seasonally if you aren’t following a calendar from the wrong side of the globe.
And speaking of seasonal food, this is a handy thing to be aware of, food-security-wise. I go to the Farmers’ Market basically because I love going to the Farmers’ Market, but it’s also useful for getting an idea of what is in season in my area at any given time. Generally, this is the food which will also be cheaper at my local greengrocer or supermarket, and it’s handy to know what to look out for (of course, I also view Farmers’ Market shopping as increasing my food security in the long term by contributing to keeping farmers in business – one never knows what share the farmer gets of the price one pays for a supermarket tomato, but one can be confident that he or she is getting a higher share when you are buying directly from the farmer. This is, of course, an attitude I can afford to take because I do have a reasonable amount of food security – Farmers’ Markets are not always more expensive than supermarket shopping, but around here they often are.). Your supermarket or greengrocer will, however, also tend to put the seasonal foods out the front and on special. It’s worth having a few recipes in your repertoire that can work with just about any vegetable, and buying what is affordable…
My Fall-Back Pasta Recipes
My go-to recipe when I have no idea what to cook is What’s In The Fridge Pasta. The basic method is this: bring a huge pot of water to boil for pasta, and measure out 100g of any pasta you like for every person you plan to feed. Boil pasta until al dente, and drain.
While the water for the pasta is coming to the boil, heat some olive oil in a skillet and add an onion (I cut mine in halves, then half-moon slices, then in halves again), a few cloves of crushed garlic, and some dried oregano, rosemary, thyme, chilli, or whatever. I then chop up any likely vegetables I can get my hands on – zucchini, mushrooms, peppers, eggplant (best to sprinkle this with salt and leave to drain for ten minutes, then rinse before adding to the pan), leeks, carrots, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, etc, and add them to the pan. I’ll keep the heat fairly high and cook until a bit golden (incidentally, you can add tinned tuna or chopped ham or bacon or leftover cooked meat or salami or roasted vegetables, too), and then add a bottle of passata, or a tin of chopped tomatoes, or some ready-made tomato-based sauce, and stir it all around. Mix through the pasta, and serve, with cheese if you so desire. A more precise template for this recipe is here, but it is endlessly variable.
Alternatively, sauté a few veggies and pop them into a casserole dish, add any likely leftovers from the fridge (cooked meat or vegetables – roasted vegetables are gorgeous here) along with crumbled or cubed leftover bits of random cheese, or some ricotta from a tub, or even leftover hummus or babaganoush or cream cheese or any other dips, mix together with cooked pasta, put a bit more cheese on top, and bake at 180°C until browned and bubbling.
A more planned version of this is my macaroni cheese with green leafy vegetables, which you can use as a template for a pasta bake with virtually anything in it. Note that you will need to make a béchamel sauce for this, which may seem daunting, but is a very useful thing to learn, and I promise my recipe will work if you follow it.
Seven Easy Recipes Which I Make Every Chance I Get If I Am Feeling Lazy, Cheap, and in need of Vegetables
Vegetarian Chilli – this is a good, filling recipe which makes enough to feed at least a dozen people, and freezes well. You need to remember to soak the beans overnight or in the morning before you go to work, and you need to know how to chop vegetables and boil water. The beans take a couple of hours to cook, but you don’t have to supervise them.
Roast Pumpkin Soup – you need an oven and a big saucepan and about an hour of cooking time, though most of that you can spend doing something else. This recipe also has a basic vegetable stock recipe which is very useful for risottos, soups and casseroles – worlds better than anything you can buy at the supermarket, and cheaper, too. It’s literally 2 minutes of preparing vegetables, and then letting everything simmer for half an hour to an hour.
Vegetables and Cheese on Toast – this is a good summer recipe that takes about fifteen minutes from start to finish, provided you have a decent grater. Very tasty and very easy and the only expensive part is the cheese – if Gruyère is out of your budget, try Jarlsberg or a basic Swiss cheese.
Baked Potato with Hot Pink Coleslaw – this is absolutely delicious and also looks really mad and dramatic. What more could you want? Again, all you really need here is an oven and a grater and you are set.
Lentils with Rice and Onions – this is a Claudia Roden recipe which is so much better than it sounds. You can add anything you like to it, but it’s actually gorgeous plain, and we just have it with some plain Greek yoghurt on top and a few seasonal vegetables on the side.
Bean and Pepper Tacos – these are just delicious and very fast and easy to make. You can use the filling for nachos etc, too.
Balsamic Strawberries – any time strawberries are cheap, I make this. It’s dead easy, and it makes even mediocre strawberries taste incredible.