This is by no means an exhaustive list, but, as a cookbook author who specialises in cheap and cheerful, easy recipes, these are the staples that I try to have in my cupboard at all times. Many a good meal starts with a can of chopped tomatoes, and many a bad one is rescued with a dash of bottled lemon juice and a smattering of salt and pepper.
(I’m currently trialling a partnership program with the budget supermarkets that I shop in for my recipes. If you click the links in the recipes I may earn a small commission, but don’t just click for the sake of it as they’re wise to that! As ever, I don’t promote anything I don’t genuinely use and love myself, but if you do online shopping at either of the Big Two, you might want to check out my recommendations)
A tin of tomatoes: Starting at 29p for 400g, or 30p for 500g of passatta, a tin of tomatoes is a storecupboard staple. You can use it as the base for a curry sauce, a puttanesca, added to some stale bread for a pappa al pomodoro, or a panzanella. You can blitz it cold for a gazpacho, eat them on toast with lots of pepper, or crack an egg into it for an approximation of a shakshuka, or Turkish baked eggs. I always start to panic slightly if there isn’t a tin of tomatoes in the cupboard; and the cheap ones are just as good as the premium brands for cooking with.
Tomato ketchup. (42p.) Use it in place of purée in recipes and get over yourself. It’s salt, sugar, vinegar and tomato all in one handy squeezy bottle. The cheap stuff is absolutely fine. Splodge it in Bolognese, soups, lasagne, pasta bakes, everything. Tastes like childhood, which I find kind of comforting at the best of times.
Some kind of pulse (30p/400g): A tin of kidney beans, chickpeas, or a bag of red lentils will stretch out any leftovers into a more filling meal. Cooked long and slow, kidney beans can become a creamy dal makhani, or if you’re in a hurry, a quick veggie burger. Chickpeas can be blitzed into hummus, fried as a snack, mashed into a falafel, or used to bulk out a salad.
Rice (45p/1kg): Rice is a brilliant, and filling, storecupboard staple, especially for using up scrag ends of veg, leftovers, and dregs of wine. Almost anything can be made into a risotto; just a splash of stock, a good patient stir, and whatever you have to hand. Try my beetroot and red wine, mushroom, or many others for inspiration. Ordinary long grain rice will do for risotto, although the purists may try to tell you otherwise.
Baked beans, 23p: A can of baked beans can be dumped into a casserole, stirred through a homely shepherds pie, can extend a hotpot or casserole or adds a little childish whimsy – and protein – to a can of tomato soup. They’re my secret weapon, and the cheaper, the better.
Flavours: Curry powder (70p/100g, Rajah brand, Asda) and Dunns River All Purpose Seasoning (95p/100g, Tesco) are pretty much all you need on the spice front; one delivers an earthy ochre blend of garam masala, cumin, turmeric and mustard notes, the other, coriander, paprika, salt and heat. Used individually, they bring their own song and dance to the table, but combined, they’ll make your dinner into something eastern-inspired and spectacular. If you have the cash to splash, pick up some mixed dried herbs and chilli flakes to throw into the mix too.
Salt (35p) or stock cubes. In my £10-a-week-food-shop days, I only bought one or the other, grinding stock cubes into a jar to use in place of salt in cookery. These days I can afford to push the boat out for once, but the jar of stock powder remains on the side as a seasoning for all kinds of savoury dishes. Doesn’t work so well in biscuits, though.
Dried milk powder: (£1.20) Communal fridges are notorious for theft; I’ve lived in HMOs and shared houses and know that milk is worth its weight in gold. Bypass all of the politics by either passive-aggressively getting some UHT stuff that nobody will want to touch, or a bag of dried milk powder that doesnt need to be kept in the fridge. You simply add it to cold water and shake it up to make milk when you want it, or stir it directly into tea and coffee.
Lemon juice/malt vinegar (60p/39p): Acid is a core element in my cooking, for science reasons as well as flavour ones. It balances the palate, brightens earthy flavours, brings a dish together in a way I can’t quite articulate. If something tastes a bit bland, boring or not quite there yet, I sling a generous dash of lemon juice into it to give it some life. Works every single time.
Beer. (£1.10/4x440ml, Sainsburys Basics): You want your basic, value range bitter, and keep it out of the fridge to resist the temptation to drink it, because believe me, you don’t want to. Use it for whacking a bread together, knocking up a sausage casserole, making a gravy for a pie, inexplicably sexing up a chocolate cake, and hundreds of other uses besides. Cook rice in it with scrappy leftovers, cook cheap cuts of meat it it low and slow until it’s tender, add a splash to soup. This also works with half-drunk bottles you find the morning after the night before, but you might not want to tell your housemates.
Stuffing. (25p/80g). Stuffing is my best kitchen secret. I use it on top of a Mac n cheese or lasagne, to thicken soups and add flavour, to batter nuggets and anything else that needs a crispy coating. I add it to mince to make a sausagey mixture, pad out meatballs with it, falafels, and anything else I can think of. I keep a jar of the cheap kind next to my cooker and use it liberally wherever I want a nice herby kick and a bit of crunch or thickness.
I’ll be back soon with the ‘equipment’ list – but spoiler, it’s going to be pretty short!!