$10 dinner challenge
Chef’s hacks for budget meals
Can a meal for four really cost just $10? Yes, finds KATE GIBBS. Cheaper cuts of meat, for instance, not only reward with bags of flavour, they’re just one of the tasty ways canny chefs advise for slashing your grocery spend.
For thrifty Australians, the accessibility of good inexpensive restaurants and food-delivery services makes ducking out for a meal or ordering-in tempting options in lieu of cooking. But do they work out cheaper than what we could make at home? Some of our leading chefs think not.
“I can order pad Thai from the local restaurant quicker and cheaper than I can make it at home,” says Monty Koludrovic, head chef at Sydney’s Icebergs. That’s the reasoning of many, he finds, on why they don’t cook. “But that’s not the whole story.”
When asked to come up with homecooked meals to feed four for $10 or less, Koludrovic, a father of two, immediately cites one of his family favourites: a Greek rice, chicken and lemon soup. “You turn leftover chicken bones into a stock, add rice and cook slowly, then add any shredded chicken you could find on the bird, a squeeze of lemon. That’s a killer meal, and it must only cost $5.Then you can go to the servo and get an Icy Pole to make up your $10.”
Cooking more thriftily means a mindset change, he says. “Instead of allocating a dollar amount to each meal, spread it over a few meals and use leftovers in inventive ways.” It’s harder to cook one meal for $10 than spending $30 for three home-cooked meals. “If you have to buy everything for a meal – you can’t buy a portion of salt, for example – knowing where the next meal in the ingredients is, that’s where you save.”
Back to his pad Thai. Koludrovic says we need to think of cooking the dish four or five times, using more of the bottled sauce or spice, the vegetables, the rest of the herbs or the noodles, and avoiding waste. “It works out a lot cheaper than takeaway when you talk multiple cooks.”
“Freezer is lord” at Koludrovic’s house. He has a hoard of snap-lock boxes of beef – usually shin – that he has slow-cooked with onions and garlic. “Cook the pieces with the bone in, and dice the meat afterwards.” He defrosts the braised meat in batches to use for Bolognese, say, by adding tomato or to make a filling for pies .They’re 30-minute meals, and the cost averages out.
For delicious. contributor Silvia Colloca, using inexpensive ingredients chimes with her Italian heritage. Grains and pulses, for instance, feature often on her table. “Expensive meat is instead used as a flavour enhancer,” she says. Buy pulses in bulk, she suggests, and use them in soups, pastas and salads.
In winter, Colloca buys loads of silverbeet at the markets. “It’s lovely in stews with cheaper cuts of meat.The leaves give more of a bite than spinach, they go further, and they have a bitter taste that’s so comforting.”
Dave Verheul, co-owner and head chef of Melbourne’s Embla, is riled by the notion that fresh food costs more than fast or processed food. He offers local greengrocers as a good shopping option for the prudent cook.The greens often last longer, he says, and have more flavour because they haven’t travelled so far and been refrigerated.
He buys cheaper cuts of meat, too. “But you can’t tell anyone about the new thrifty cut or it’s not the thrifty cut any more. Look what happened to pork belly. There’s the argument that meat should not be cheap, but I like the shanks, tails, shins – meat with personality.”
The art of preserving is a good skill for the cash-strapped. “When there’s a glut of tomatoes, you get them while they’re cheap and the flavour is best,” says Verheul. “Hold a passata day with family or friends.It’s such a cool idea.And there’s a sense of community around it, which is what food should be.”
The idea that fresh ingredients are more expensive is a “misconception”, according to Matt Moran, of Sydney restaurant Chiswick among others, who agrees they cost less and taste far better.
“I’ll try to find the best in-season ingredients and cook them fresh,” Moran explans. “If you plan ahead and choose meals that aren’t timeconsuming it’ll be better tasting, better for you, and you won’t be paying for all that unnecessary packaging,” he says.
He’s also an enthusiastic advocate of eggs and he’ll eat them at any time of day, as an omelette, in a sandwich, on toast, with vegetables or on their own. “The options with eggs are endless.”
And plan ahead, he advises. “Either cook in bulk, repurpose leftovers, or use the same ingredient in multiple meals. Menu planning really is key. Use inexpensive ingredients in multiple ways throughout the week. Roast chicken for dinner, chicken salad for lunch, chicken soup from the bones later in the week.”
As well as ingredients such as rice, grains, pasta, dried beans and fresh vegetables, the cheaper cuts of meat – beef shin, cheeks, skirt, intercostals and ham hocks, for instance – are recommended by the canny chefs for budget-conscious cooks.
“Swap out prime cuts,” Koludrovic emphasises. “Tinned tuna – I’ve only just got it across the line with my youngest boy,who’s four.He has avocado and tuna on corncakes for breakfast. Little weirdo. And we do tuna, corn, pea and potato cakes, like rissoles, for dinner. Nobody’s going to tell me that rissoles are too expensive.”