After the carefree trolley-filling of December, my trips around the supermarket during this grey January have been quite a contrast.
With the financial hangover from December plus ill-timed car tax, MOT, insurance bills to pay (you get the idea) PLUS my annual donation to HMRC, i'm feeling that pinch.
Fortunately, I'm a food horde, with cupboards and a freezer so well-stocked with impulse buys and leftovers I could eat without shopping for most of the month. I'd need to add in fresh fruits and vegetables to offset scurvy, but my storecupboard spoils are now (finally) pulling their weight.
First up — a bottle of Creme de Vinaigre de Cidre et Miel (literally translated as cream of cider and honey vinegar) bought from a French supermarket last summer. It's a sweet vinegar syrup, not dissimilar to balsamic glaze, but lighter in colour (orange/yellow) and flavour. This, combined with - cold pressed thyme-infused rapeseed oil - picked up at a Farmer's market last summer, pepped up a grain salad with a base of buckwheat, i'd found lurking. I added some roasted veggies - butternut, sweet potato and leeks plus some dried thyme and crumbled creamy, salty feta and dinner was served.
As well as the storecupboard saviours, I'm making an effort to use up very part of every food - within reason. Carrot peelings go into the guinea pig's food bowls; every part of a cauliflower - leaves and all - goes into my soups; and potato peelings are also saved to make soup. I discovered that idea in the excellent River Cottage Love Your Leftovers by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which is packed with top tips for making use of every item in my fridge.
Two meals in the last week have given me extra naches. A last minute invitation to my lovely cousin for lunch on Sunday lunch had me scrabbling in the freezer where I dug out some chicken thighs which were turned into a version of Chicken Marbella - a kitschly-named American classic.
I've no idea why the Spanish seaside town got its place in the name, but it's a never-fail recipe and uses mostly ingredients I generally have in stock. Onions, prunes, capers, vinegar, oil, white wine (I have an old bottle of Vermouth that seems to go on and on) all went into the pot. It's always a crowd pleaser, belying the mere minutes it took to prepare. I ate the leftovers for Monday's dinner.
I found Brussels sprouts in the veg drawer, which were roasted in olive oil; new potatoes that had sat patiently for several weeks in the veg drawer were steamed, and from the fruit drawer, came oranges and a pomegranate - both of which are pretty forgiving when it comes to storage time. I sliced the oranges, scatttered them with pomegranate seeds, drizzled over spiced syrup lurking in my fridge and added colour with a handful of bright green, chopped pistachios. A last-minute feast which cost me nothing.
A few days earlier, I'd got a similar parsimonious buzz from the frittata I served some mum friends last week. All short of cash, we decided on a girls' night in. I sauteed courgettes, leeks, dill and also some new potatoes I'd unearthed in my freezer.
As It turns out the freezer is not a friend of the new potato. They emerged like tiny sponges, oozing water. However, after a slice and a gentle squeeze, they fried up fine and gave body to the egg-based supper which was somewhere between tortilla and frittata with a hint of Greek, as I had also added the end of a block of feta and some Parmesan cheese. Perfect with a leafy side salad and a bowl of steamed purple sprouting broccoli. And, (as a bonus) just as tasty, cold the next day in a sandwich.
Other top tips for budget January suppers include:
1. Couscous - hydrate it with stock (a cube is fine) then stir in salad veggies, olives, herbs, tinned fish, nuts, dried fruits, chick peas. Whatever you can find really, for a supper or lunch dish. (This works for pasta and pasta too.)
2. Tired veggies and salad leaves make great soup. Saute some onion, prep the veg and saute if they are of the root type and chuck in the salad leaves with some stock. Simmer until all is soft and blitz until smooth.
3. Pasta bakes - pasta becomes that bit smarter if you check in some veggies, stir in a sauce - tomato or pesto are both great, cover it with grated cheese and bake for 20 - 30 minutes.
4. Tins are your friend - tomato sauce can be made in minutes; tinned fish is cheap and a great multi-tasker in salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Beans are great in salads and can be blended to make healthy dips.
5. Make that bread work - sauteed mushrooms on toast make a delicious lunch or supper and cheese on toast can be elevated to rarebit status if you mix the grated cheese with mustard, Worcester sauce, milk and a smidge of flour. Don't ever throw away dry bread - blitz it to crumbs and freeze it in bags. It has endless uses - from schnitzels to crunchy toppings for pasta bakes.