This piece was written for Mango Juice inflight Magazine, Jan 2013 (condensed version appears in the magazine)
AFTER THE WHIRLWIND of the festive season, the guests are still fluttering in and out of your door and the kids are home from school, demanding treats. How do feed your family and visitors well on a budget, now and throughout the year? We spoke to four South African food personalities for advice: a chef and MasterChef judge, a cookbook author, an urban farmer and a television food stylist.
1. Looking back, looking forward
The trend world wide has been a swift departure from excess to a focus on frugal eating, growing vegetables and herbs at home, questioning the source and conditions of the animals we consume and to cooking at home. Nose to tail eating isn’t just the domain of guests at fancy restaurants. Cooking schools are teaching students how to prepare these once less-favoured cuts. The pendulum is swinging back to the era of our grandparents (many of whom grew up during war times) and “waste not, want not” is both en vogue and necessary. The fast food generation find themselves back at the kitchen table. All of our panel credited either a mother or grandmother for inspiring their love of cooking.
“My grandmother was a great cook,” says Matt, “she was frugal and nothing went to waste. Chicken bones became stocks, scraps were saved and used in other dishes, so far removed from today’s ‘throw-away’ culture.”
Jane-Anne who has a special interest in home cooking and heritage recipe credits her mother, author Jenny Hobbs for instilling this love.
“My mum has always emphasised the importance of having regular celebratory meals with family, even when there is nothing in particular to celebrate,” says Jane-Anne.
2. Budget-beating Staples
Our panel unanimously voted for tinned beans, dried pasta and chickpeas as essential staples for the grocery cupboard. Both Matt and Zola added tinned tomatoes to the list.
“A tin of tomatoes makes an almost instant pasta sauce” says Zola.
Chef Benny advises that tinned fish such as tuna can be made into large salads with cold pasta and herbs or served with mayonnaise on baked potatoes. Start with these basics and build the meal by adding one or two other ingredients.
Jane-Anne adds, “With these staples, plus garlic, tomato, olive oil, lemons and herbs you can create lovely, substantial, crowd-pleasing salads”.
Other versatile staples that bulk up meals are rice and couscous. Add tinned sardines, eggs and all purpose flour for making pancakes, flat breads and scones to the shopping list too.
3. Freeze it
We all know that meat and poultry prices soar during the festive season.
“If you can,” says Chef Benny, “look out for specials in September or throughout the year, buy in bulk, portion and freeze. I would buy a whole lamb at this time or stuffed turkey rolls which have more substance than a whole bird.”
Matt, whose family eats a predominantly vegetarian diet, keeps choice cuts of ethically reared meat and packs of frozen corn and peas in the freezer to turn into special feasts.
“I don’t freeze a lot of food,” says Jane Anne, “but I freeze homemade stocks for use in future soups and stews, bacon and chipolatas before the December price hikes. I also freeze fresh ginger, garlic and lemon grass – great for fragrant curries when the shops are closed”.
Zola says every freezer should have puff pastry to turn into sweet or savoury roly-polys which freeze well. Pop into the oven for surprise guests.
Jane Anne’s butternut salad to feed a crowd, image with permission
4. Versatile ingredients for all year feasts
Asking a cook for a favourite ingredient is like asking an avid reader to suggest a good book. I’m inclined to agree with Jane-Anne about potatoes. From creamy dauphinoise, to crispy oven baked wedges, mash, potato salad with boiled eggs, dry-braised curry with black mustard seeds and an extender of stews, potatoes are essential.
Matt says that we should make the most of summer tomatoes and freeze or preserve the rest.
Chef Benny looks to the humble onion, the base of all soups, stews, stocks and sauces as his go-to ingredient as well as sausages for use in pastas and bakes.
“Chicken breasts are expensive,”says Zola, “Chicken thighs are more flavoursome and cheaper. Because they take longer to dry out, they are more forgiving”
BUDGET EATING TIPS
1. Plan meals and stick to a shopping list.
2. First buy staples and vegetables. Use meat conservatively
3. Buy fruit & vegetables seasonally – Zola emphasises this.
4. Freeze fruit juice to make ice lollies & bananas for smoothies for the kids.
5. Try cheaper cuts like lamb and pork neck; cut up whole chicken at home. Use bones to make stock.
6. Use luxury ingredients like strong cheeses, bacon & smoked fish sparingly to add flavour.
7. Spices, herbs, affordable nuts like peanuts and chilli will transform otherwise plain pastas, stews & salads.
8. Think out of the box – peanut butter can be used for sarmies, hot oats, homemade milkshakes & spicy satay sauce.
Zola Nene’s Merry Strawberry & Balsamic Pavlova for Budget Feasting
Serves 4 – 6
4 large egg whites at room temperature
1 cup of castor sugar
1 tsp of white vinegar
1 T corn flour
200g strawberries, hulled and quartered
4 heaped T icing sugar
2 T balsamic vinegar
2 T icing sugar
1 t vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 140C and place the rack in middle of the oven. Line a baking tray with paper and draw a large circle.
2. In a clean, medium-sized metal bowl, beat the egg whites with a clean electric mixer on medium speed. Beat until the whites form soft peaks.
3. While the beating, slowly sprinkle in the sugar then continue whisking until stiff peaks form – the mixture should be glossy.
4. Sprinkle the corn flour and vinegar on the meringue and fold in gently with a plastic spatula.
5. Now gently spread the meringue in the circle on the paper to fill in the drawn circle – Make sure the edges of the meringue are slightly higher than the center so you have a very slight well in the middle.
6. Bake the meringue for about 1 hour and 15 minutes or until it goes a very pale, pinkish egg shell color, then allow to cool completely.
7. Place the strawberries into a bowl and sprinkle on the castor sugar and the balsamic and toss gently – leave to steep for a few minutes.
8. Whisk together the cream, vanilla and icing sugar to soft peaks.
9. Assemble the pavlova by placing the meringue onto a plate, top with the whipped cream then top with the marinated strawberries.