I remember back in the early noughties when I headed off to uni, a bright-eyed 18-year-old full of wonder and with the very best of my mum’s kitchen liberally borrowed. I still have the wooden spoon and stir-fry paddle I selected, so worn from use that the handles are shiny and smooth under my now-practised hands. Of course, back then it hadn‘t occurred to me until the first trip to the supermarket just how much it actually cost to buy food, and I‘ve remained in something of a state of shock ever since. So budgeting, and the importance of eating well for less, became a touchstone at an early stage.*
Back then, I had a woolly idea of how to keep myself alive through food, using tips picked up by watching my mother (Asian mums don’t do recipes, you just have to spy on them – it’s a thing) and an obsession with daytime television cooking shows like Ready Steady Cook, Gary Rhodes and Delia. I still consider Ainsley Harriott one of my major cooking influences in a totally unironic way, given his casual friendly and approachable presentation of often tricky techniques and the fact that – long before Jamie Oliver started teasing us.** Ainsley was always laughing with the audience, not at them, and made cooking seem like a fun and simple thing to do rather than a mechanical make it – cook it – eat it process.
That, and he’s clearly got a good sense of humour about the internet’s obsession with him (that LAUGH tho!):
However, when it came to actual budget recipes, food writing fell into one of two camps, by and large. Either you had cheap paperbacks with cartoony characters making indescribably horrible-sounding “easy meelz” involving tins of beans, or you had large, glossy hardbacks (not student-budget appropriate) with smiley middle-aged ladies informing you about the wonder of boiling eggs. For someone who sat squarely in the not-stupid-but-wants-to-eat-well camp, the arrival of Jamie et al was a sodding WONDER. Suddenly I had grown-up, delicious-looking food to eat which wasn‘t going to drain my overdraft.
These days, the likes of Jack Monroe (whose website, by the way, is a huge boon to those with special diets eating on a budget), Ruby Tandoh and Miguel Barclay are knocking it out of the PARK with tasty, well-presented and appealing recipes which are simple to make and healthy to eat. For the novice who wants a few ideas, their websites and books are full-on essential resources.
Given that I’m now officially an Arbeitsuchendin (for such is my lot that I have to get a job for MONEY for THINGS ugh what a chore!) I need to take a little more care of myself and my wallet. So I tend to browse the internet for ideas to perk up the cheaper end of the foodie spectrum. A few ground rules apply which are probably self-evident, but I’ll include them anyway because it’s my blog and my rules, bitches!
- Meat costs more than veg. Good and ethical meat costs even more. So it’s a once-a-week treat rather than an everyday thing for me.
- In the same vein, cheap cheese and eggs are a false economy and god only knows what the ethical implications are. I try to consider the things that I SHOULD spend money on if I can and buy accordingly. Parmesan cheese, oils, spices etc will last a while so I try stretching my budget to try and get the best I can reasonably afford.
- That said, it’s your life. My choices and drivers aren’t the same as yours and I DO NOT EVER judge people who want or have to buy economy meats, dairy products and eggs. Live your best life and be kind to yourself. And remember that so-called “treats” are sometimes the most necessary and important parts of your budget on a given day/week/year.
- Dried goods like beans, grains and pulses cost less than tins but take more planning.
- Same with bread, but it’s super-satisfying to make your own so you totally should get onboard with planning ahead even a day or two and making bread. In Germany particularly, good flour is very cheap so there’s no excuse not to try making bread here.
- Tinned/preserved/frozen fruits and veg shouldn’t be sniffed at. I’d be lost without the 49-cent packs of spinach I can get from my local Edeka. And anyone who’s ever had to peel 800g of tomatoes knows that tinned are the BOMB.
- Yes nuts and seeds can be mega-expensive but they are very nutritious and a little goes a long way. So try to include them where you can and find recipes which bring out the best in them.
This weekend’s recipe is one of my budget favourites, being one of those so-simple-you-can’t-mess-it-up jobs as well as being basically storecupboard in nature. The only fresh ingredients you reeeeeeally need are herbs, and even then you *could* do without (try not to though, the basil really makes this one for me). It’s adapted from one of Rachel Roddy’s Italian recipes for the Guardian and is essentially a stew thickened and creamified (yes, that’s a word now) with a nut-based pesto. While I liked her version, I needed a boost of basil and while I applaud the use of whole blanched almonds, it just seemed unnecessary given that I only see those regularly at Christmastime. The chickpea stew can be used as a substantial pasta sauce, a filling for a vegan sloppy-joe-type sando or even just on its own with crusty bread.
As this recipe uses dried chickpeas it’s really essential to try and plan this one, but if you’re in a pinch and have forgotten everything, two tins of drained chickpeas will do. Just add them to the sauce at step 5 and remember to thin the sauce with water or light veggie stock instead of the boiling liquid. As a bonus, it’s a vegan-friendly recipe (unless (and in my case until) you serve with lashings of freshly-grated-Parmesan).
“Creamy“ Italian Pesto Chickpeas
Serves 4-6 with bread and salad
250g dried chickpeas, soaked for 12 hours or so (I usually just shove them in water the night before I want to cook them and they’re invariably fine, anything up to two days should be okay in theory)
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
1 bay leaf (dried or fresh, it doesn’t matter too much)
2 tbsp olive oil
300g fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (see step 3 cos I know you didn’t do this already), or one tin of chopped tomatoes (still in the tin with the juice)
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
– For the pesto
25g ground almonds
2 large tbsp pine nuts (around 30g or so)
1 garlic clove, peeled
A handful of parsley, finely chopped (around 3 tbsp)
A handful of basil, kept whole (around 3 sprigs’ worth of nice large bright green leaves)
Salt and pepper to taste
- [TOP TIP: you can do this step ahead of time or the day before you wanna eat if you like).] Drain the soaked chickpeas and add to a large pot with plenty of cold water covering them (at least 1 litre). Squash the garlic clove slightly by bashing it with the heel of your hand (give it a good smack) and throw into the pot with the bay leaf. Bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer, skimming off any scum which rises to the surface in the first 10 min or so. How long you’ll need to simmer will depend on the age of your chickpeas and the soaking time, so anywhere from 30 min to 2 hours is not unknown I’m afraid. It’s usually around 30-40 min for me, and the chickpeas are ready when you can easily crush one between your thumb and forefinger when testing*** When ready, take off the heat and cool in the liquid. DO NOT DRAIN.
- When ready to eat, heat a large pan with a lid over a med-high heat. Then take your onion and fry until soft and golden in the pan. It should smell really good.
- Add your tomatoes and 1 tbsp of the chopped parsley to the pan, and… you didn’t prep the tomatoes, did you. Nope, you thought you’d wing this. No matter. You have two choices. If you have a tin of tomatoes, use that. If you need to peel and chop them, it’s really easy. Score a little cross on the bottom of each tomato and pop them in a pot or jug. Pour over some boiling water, leave for 10 seconds then drain it off. The skins will slip off easily now. Then chop quickly, retaining as much juice as possible by popping each finished tomato into your jug or pot.^
- So, back to the recipe. You add the peeled chopped tomatoes to the pan (or empty in your tin if that’s how you roll) with a tablespoon of the chopped parsley, then add to the onion and cook until thickened and the tomatoes are broken down, around ten minutes. Stir regularly to help the tomatoes break down. If you need to thin the sauce, add a bit of the chickpea cooking liquid. Have a taste at this point, and if the sauce is acidic because your tomatoes are a bit underripe (happens to the best of us!), add a tsp of sugar to help balance the flavour.
- When ready, drain the chickpeas, RETAINING THE COOKING LIQUID, and add to the tomato sauce. I like to actually use a slotted spoon or small sieve to just fish the chickpeas out of the cooking pot, it’s as easy. Stir to combine and let bubble for around 10-15 minutes. If you need to thin the sauce further, add a ladle or two of the chickpea cooking liquid.
- Now it’s time for the creamy-no-cream-sauce! Take your garlic and pine nuts and a pinch of salt, and either grind together in a blender or crush to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Add the basil and continue grinding into a thick bright-green paste. Add the ground almonds and grind or stir again until it resembles thick, slightly grainy, greenish play-doh. It’s pesto Jim, but not as we know it.
- Add the pesto to the pot and stir, and marvel at how the sauce will instantly go thick and lighter in colour. Thin with more chickpea liquid if you need, and bubble for another 10 min for the flavours to meld. The chickpeas should be yielding and tasty with an unexpectedly creamy flavour from the ground pine nuts and almonds. Add the remaining parsley, then season to taste before serving! I like a LOT of pepper in this and a good seasoning with salt.
- Serve as you like – I like it with LOTS of Parmesan. It’s really good as a thick and substantial pasta sauce with penne, or just on it’s own with bread.
*For better or for worse. I lived on cheesy mashed potato at one point which honestly was not great for anyone.
** Honestly, if you call your show the Naked Chef and you don’t get your nads out you are cheating the viewer and mostly yourselves, BBC.
*** for the love of Ruby Tandoh (praise be upon her name), DO NOT PICK THIS OUT OF THE BOILING POT. Fish one out with a spoon and rinse in cool water first.
^if you forgot to peel and chop the tomatoes and need to do this now, I’d take the onions off the heat for a while.