$10 din­ner chal­lenge

Chef’s hacks for bud­get meals

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

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