So here goes – I shall have to repurpose one of my large empty potato tins as a hat to avoid the comments from outraged food purists after this one, but my skin is fairly thick, I can take it. Do you ever see a fancy-pants ingredient in a recipe and think you can’t make that dish without it? You’re wrong. As was I, til I started fiddling about a bit (oo-er!) This is my list of discoveries so far, feel free to add your own in the comments below!
Tahini: instead of using this expensive sesame seed paste, add peanut butter thinned with a little water. (I have Nigella to thank for this, her peanut butter hummus recipe put the idea in my head!)
Juniper berries: I shamefully admit I have a tiny pot of juniper berries in my cupboard. They’re about four years old, have moved house many, many times with me, and I used them once to marinade some pork and they’ve even lurking at the back of my cupboard ever since. They’re probably not edible but I keep them as a dusty reminder that fancy ingredients aren’t worth it!! If you have a recipe that asks for juniper berries, use rosemary instead.
Whole grain or Dijon mustard; For gods sake, it’s mustard. I use the Basics English mustard in everything, to marinade a gammon joint, in a ham sandwich, to pep up a chicken casserole or Bombay potatoes. It’s 25p a pot and practically lasts forever, and the scant end of a teaspoon is usually all you need. If you can afford to buy every variety of mustard on earth, feel free, but good old basic English mustard works just fine.
Risotto rice: It’s shorter. And fatter. And still tastes like rice. So for about a seventh of the price, buy the basic long grain stuff instead, and eat seven times as much. Risotto is the food of the gods, an edible receptacle for all of the odds and ends in the fridge and hard bits of cheese and few lonely withered veg. If you see something in the fridge that you’re contemplating putting in the bin, put it in a risotto instead. Trust me. And don’t let a fancy overpriced bag of rice stand between you and a great dinner.
Pudding rice: ditto the above sentiment. If you use long grain rice, and make it into a pudding, then in my books it’s a ‘pudding rice.’ Enough said.
Mangetout: Use frozen green beans. Or fresh green beans if you can buy them cheaper than frozen, but I’m a firm advocate of the Frozen Green Bean. Handy to have kicking about to throw into pastas, risottos, curries, to dip in stuff, to lightly fry in a little cumin and that good old English mustard. Sod you, mangetout. I mean, you’re yummy and all, but we don’t all have a local market we can pop down to and “just buy six mangetout”.
Fresh spinach: Fresh spinach is a pricey way to buy it. That 200g bag might look like a lot in the fridge, but in dinner it shrivels down to almost nothing. For the same price as those few wilted lonely leaves adrift in your saag aloo, you could pop out four little circles of frozen spinach, and still have 90% of the bag left. I love frozen spinach, I do. Not so great in salads, mind, but good in daal, curry, pasta, tagines, etc. Use it liberally. Grow big and strong. Et cetera.
Fresh lemons: Again, an expensive way to buy it. For most recipes, you can substitute fresh lemons for a shake of bottled lemon juice, a storecupboard staple. I’ve never made a lemon drizzle cake that’s been met with “this doesn’t taste like it has freshly squeezed artisan lemons in.”
Fresh limes: Ditto limes and lime juice, although fresh limes are nice for squishing over curries, but a shake of lime juice would do the same job.
Bread mix: Bread mix is flour with a little bit of sugar, baking powder and oil added to it, and about a quid for the trouble. I buy the basics flour at 65p for 1.5kg, and when I go to make bread, I add a bit of sugar, a bit of baking powder, and sometimes some oil to it.
Chilli oil: Make it. Add some chilli flakes, powder, or the freshly sliced stuff to some oil, stir it, and either cook with it or refrigerate it for a few hours if using as a salad dressing.
Basil oil: See chilli oil.
Coriander oil: See chilli oil.
Thyme/sage/oregano/rosemary: Use the basics ‘mixed dried herbs’ for 30p. They’re great in pasta sauces, pizza, to baste a chicken, and far cheaper than buying them all individually, and not much of a compromise. You still get that ‘herby’ taste you were after.
Cooking chocolate: The cheapest value range chocolate will do. Use it as a base for chilli or to make cornflake cakes with, grate it over porridge, melt it and stir it into frozen yoghurt, break it into chunks and bake it in sweet bread…. I’ve now banned myself from buying Sainsburys Basics white chocolate, as it’s more delicious than any other white chocolate I’ve tasted, and that 100g bar just vanishes in my house…
Olive oil: I used to use olive oil on everything, liberally, with some excuse in my head about being part Mediterranean and backed up by all the celebrity chefs emoting about how wonderful it was. Then I couldn’t afford it any more, so I switched to sunflower oil. And, er, it’s delicious. In fact, my food doesn’t all taste of claggy olive oil any more. If you’re squeamish about putting it on salads, add a shake of lemon juice or white wine vinegar, and there you have a simple salad dressing. Just like those simple salad dressings you get in the shops. Which brings me to my next point…
Salad dressings: Instead of buying salad dressings, make your own. Mix sunflower oil with white wine vinegar and a scant dabbed-end-of-a-teaspoon of mustard, and there you have it. Variations on the theme are up to you; Google is your friend. There’s a world of salad dressing recipes out there, and you won’t have bottles of it going crusty in the fridge any more.
Instant porridge: Not really an ingredient but I’m really warming to my theme here! I covered this in a recipe, making ‘super express portable porridge.’ It’s life changing. Well, for at least one person I know, anyway.
Milk: I’m going to extremes here, but a £1.01 packet of powdered milk will firstly last for far longer than a 2 pint bottle will, and secondly makes up at more milk! I’ve never actually measured a bag of it out to see how much milk I can get from one bag, but it’s seemingly bottomless. Use it to make a white sauce, to pour over cereals, just generally in place of milk.
Sweet potatoes: Whenever a recipe calls for sweet potatoes, I use carrots instead. They’re orange. They’re a root vegetable. They’re cheap. They’ll do.
Parmesan: I use the basics range ‘Italian hard strong cheese’ for around £2.30 for 200g. It’s what it says on the front, hard strong cheese. Grate it finely to sprinkle on pasta, or use a vegetable peeler to make those ‘shavings’ that sell for around £2 for a measly pot.
Marinated olives: Buy cheap olives. Put them in the fridge with a glug of oil and a splash of lemon, maybe even some minced garlic. Chill for a few hours. Enjoy.
Avocado: Banana. Sounds bonkers but you’re replacing a mushy sweet vegetable with a mushy sweet fruit. It works for me.
Fresh pineapple: Use the tinned stuff. It’s about 30p and you don’t have to spend half an hour wrestling the skin off the thing.
Vanilla essence: very nice and all, but I’ve been making cakes without it for years and nobody ever says that my cake is horrible. So there.
Fettuccine, tagliatelle, etc: Use spaghetti. The other two are nice but essentially long slurpy pasta is long slurpy pasta. Great for thin sauces and carbonaras and pasta alla Genovese. Not so great if one costs you five times as much as the other.
Cream: Use yoghurt, and a little sugar if you’re that way inclined. Add the yoghurt once you have taken the pan off the heat, to prevent it from splitting.
Caster sugar: I never use caster sugar. I just use sugar sugar. It’s fine. It’s sugar.
Right, that’s all off the top of my head. Have I missed anything? What do you love to cook with but maybe can’t afford to buy right now? Maybe you’ve got a recipe you want to try but can’t get hold of one of the ingredients? Get in touch below and I’ll see what I can do to help!
All text copyright Jack Monroe.
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