Monday, 29 October 2012

Store cupboard alchemy...

...for a Monday night.

 On Monday evenings I host a ladies bible study/prayer meeting/discussion group in my home. At my church we call these Connect Groups. They are a valuable way to build relationships and develop connectivity in a pretty large church. About 8 ladies come to my group, and I have to say that knowing these women has enriched my life far more than any amount of money ever could.

 I like to offer a little something to go with a cup of tea or coffee as people arrive. Nothing very elaborate is required, and most weeks a packet of biscuits is the height of my culinary offering! However, since its half term, which means I'm not at work, and since its almost payday and my purse is feeing very light, I decided to bake something using ingredients I have to hand instead.

 I have a recipe, written on a rather stained and dog eared scrap of paper, which I've been making for years. It makes a sort of a flapjack-y style bar, with a layer of jam in the middle. It is a really, really reliable recipe, well liked by everyone who tries it, it is easy to adapt depending on what you have in the cupboard, and the high oat content means you can almost convince yourself that it is healthy ;-)

 The original name for the recipe s Apricot Oat Bars, but as you will see, this isn't always an appropriate name. I wish I could remember where I found this recipe, to give credit where credit is due, but I'm afraid I cannot.

155g margarine
250g soft brown sugar
220g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
155g oats
250g apricot jam.

First, cream your marg and sugar together in a bowl until light and creamy. I use a hand held electric whisk for this. A wooden spoon would do the job eventually, but would take longer. Honestly, I most often use cheap soft margarine for this. Real butter would be delicious, but that's not often an option in my budget. As far as sugar goes, I've used all sorts. Sometimes the soft brown called for in the recipe, sometimes Demerara, sometimes caster, sometimes plain old granulated. Sometimes a mixture of all sorts of odds an ends, depending on what was in the cupboard. They will alter the taste and colour of the bake, but they all work! One of the beauties of this recipe is that it is very forgiving of substitutions.

Then, beat in the bicarbonate and the flour. I have forgotten the bicarbonate a couple of times. You still get a decent end result, but it is heavier and denser. Plain white flour is almost always what I have to hand, so is what I use. I made it with half white, half whole meal once, and that was lovely too.

Then stir in the oats. Last time I made this, I realised I was about 60g of oats short, so I threw in a couple more tablespoons of flour and hoped for the best. The texture was different, of course, but it was still lovely.

 Press half the mixture into a greased and lined tin, approx 18x28cm. Don't worry about the precise size of your tin, this isn't the sort of bake that needs an exact size. I don't bother to line my tin, I just grease it well with some veg Poland a pastry brush. It always comes out fine.

 Spread with jam. I don't think I've ever weighed out the jam. A few dollops to cover with a generous layer will do. I'm not really that keen on apricot jam, so I have not used it often. Any jam at all will do. I'm lucky enough to have been given some jars of homemade bramble jam, so that's what I used today. I have used other things though, such as a jar of mincemeat, left over from Christmas, a jar of cranberry sauce (also a Christmas leftover, of course), some stewed apple - it really depends what I have to hand.

 Bake at about 160c (in my fan oven, at least) for approx 30 minutes, until its nice and golden. Leave to cool in the tin, cutting into portions after about ten minutes. It's quite a sturdy bake, and holds together well. It keeps in a tin for a good few days - certainly, we've always finished it before it ever needed throwing away!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Snug as a bug... my warm cosy bed.

 Growing up, we had no heating at all upstairs. Bathing was a hasty business in cold weather, and no one lingered for long on the loo either! Downstairs, the lounge had underfloor heating, and on really cold nights we would sometimes 'camp' downstairs rather that face the frosty bedrooms.

 In my house now we have radiators in all the rooms upstairs, but very rarely turn the ones in the bedroom on. Our house is pretty well insulated, with double glazing, and just doesn't get all that cold, most of the time. Also, the hot water tank is in one bedroom, and hot water pipes run through the other, and heat up both rooms quite significantly. I prefer a slightly cooler bedroom, so I'm happy without the heating on. I do like to be nice and cosy in bed though, and there are a number of frugal ways that I achieve this.

1. I don't expect to be able to sit around my house in shorts and a t-shirt in December, and I don't expect to go to bed wearing next to nothing either! I love my pyjamas, and I'm always really happy to receive more for Christmas or my birthday. A pair of socks helps too, and if I need to put an extra t-shirt on under my pjs then I will. When we go camping I take a fleece hat to wear in bed. I've never actually needed to wear one at home, but I suppose I could! Warming up any bed clothes before you put them on is a good idea, either by putting them on one of the radiators downstairs for a bit, or wrapping them around a hot water bottle.

2. I use as many quilts and blankets as I need to to keep warm. My daughter sleeps in a single bed, but has a double quilt so that she can wrap herself up. Single quilts leave too many gaps and drafts!

3. I try and make sure that I'm warm before I get into bed. A bath warms me up quickly if I am cold, and then I can dry quickly and jump into bed. A warm drink before bed helps too.

4. Hot water bottles are great. But don't stop at one. We own four altogether, and on really cold nights I put them all into my daughters bed half an hour before she turns in. I wrap them up in her pyjamas and bed socks, so that they are nice and warm to put on.

5. I must confess that I really, really, really love my electric blanket. I turn it on five minutes or so before I get into bed, and only leave it on for ten minutes or so once I get in, but it makes such a difference!

6. You really can't beat another person in the bed with you to share body heat! A hug from my husband is worth a dozen electric blankets! And a dog or two laying across your feet certainly keeps them warm, although being unable to move is a bit of a downside ;-)

I am really looking forward... my dinner tonight.

 When I walk through my front door tonight I will be able to smell my dinner cooking. This morning, before my eyes were even fully open, I dumped some stewing steak, sliced onions and mushrooms into the slow cooker. I sprinkled a couple of stock cubes in there, and poured hot water from the kettle over the lot.

 I know for a fact it will be delicious. I've got some carrots to go with it, and some sprouts (even though they are evil!). If I can find the energy, I might peel some spuds and have mashed potatoes too, but if I can't I will be more than happy to settle for a chunk of crusty bread.

 Even better, there will be enough left over to have for dinner tomorrow night, probably with a jacket potato.

 I love my slow cooker. It makes life so much easier knowing that dinner  will be ready and waiting for me whenever I want to serve it. I love that it makes the cheapest, toughest cuts of meat tender, flavoursome and delicious. I love that although I have plenty of fancier, more elaborate slow cooker recipes, just a bit of meat and stock and a few veg can be transformed into something good to eat.

 Slow cookers don't allow liquid to evaporate, so the gravy will be very thin. I usually thicken it up by adding a little cornflour, slaked in a tablespoon or two of water, but a sprinkle of potato flakes stirred into the gravy can also do the job.

Things to do when you're broke...

...and bored, and its cold and wet outside!

 Master the art of Origami. Google will offer you a huge range of sites giving instructions, from the most basic to the most complex. All you need is some paper, and this could be pages torn from old magazines, catalog use, junk mail etc. depending on the dexterity of your child, this could be a suitable activity for all ages from about seven or eight years up.

 Wrap up warm, and go visit the nearest library. I can pass a very happy half hour (or more!) choosing books to take home. I can try books that I would never normally buy, because I'm not spending any money on them. If I hate them, I've lost nothing. If I enjoy them, I may have found a new favourite author. My daughter is a bit too old for most of the kids activities on offer at our local library, but when she was younger we went along to all the free craft and story activities they offered.  
She also thoroughly enjoyed choosing a big pile of books to take home. My local library has a fairly limited selection of DVDs, CDs and audio books, but I have borrowed a number of them, completely free of charge.

 Have a pamper session, using items you already own. Warm up a little olive oil (or plain old vegetable oil) and massage it into your hair and scalp. Wrap your head in cling film, then a warm towel. Leave it for ten-fifteen minutes, then shampoo it away. Make yourself a face pack out of some natural yogurt mixed with oats, ora mashed up banana. Lay back and relax with slices of cucumber on your eyes for ten minutes, then rinse of the face pack. Use an old pair of tights, or a dish cloth, or a square of muslin if you're the kind of person who has squares of muslin to hand, to fasten up a few scoops of oats. Run a bath, and let the oats soak in there (very good for dry skin). Take a look on YouTube for make up tutorials, and use the make up you already own to get the 'look' of a particular celebrity.

 Share you skills/ talents and make your own YouTube film! Show other people how to bake a cake, introduce them to your pet hamster, talk them through how you have organised your sock drawer, sing them a song, whatever you like!!!

 Clear out your junk drawer.

 Make a list of who you will send Christmas cards to, and start making them.

 Play a board game.

 Invite your friends round to play board games with you. Serve tea and toast to snack on. If they offer to bring snacks, or wine, let them!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

How can I help....

...when I have so little to give?

 One of the struggles of living on a really tight budget is feeling unable to help others. It is really difficult to see people in need and no that there is literally no wriggle room in the budget from which to give. But there are ways to help. Here are a couple of ideas...

 Give things you no longer need to charity shops. As my daughter has grown out of clothes, shoes, toys, books etc we have been able to pass them on to charity shops. Very close to us is a charity shop which supports a local hospice. I may not have spare cash to donate to the hospice, but I know that they can use my donations to raise money. I was given lots of clothes recently, but some of them didn't fit or were not my style, so I donated them. I don't like clutter or 'stuff', so I often have a few bits to take to the charity shop.

 Last year I helped my daughter organise a coffee morning to raise money for an amazing charity that  helps children in Colombia. We served tea, coffee, juice and hot chocolate, along with 3 or 4 varieties of home made cakes. We probably didn't spend more than £10 altogether. We invited friends to come along, and to make any donation they wished. Lots of people came, and we all enjoyed a lovely, relaxed time. When we emptied the money box at the end of the day, we had raised more than £50!


....the meat!

 Minced beef is a real staple, frugal food. You can make so much out of it, it regularly finds its way into my shopping basket.

 But even minced beef can be pricey, and it is also quite a high point option on the weight loss plan I follow, so I do try to stretch it if I can. Here are a few suggestions;

 Add plenty of chopped, fried onion, mushrooms and grated carrot to a tomatoey sauce. You will still get plenty of flavour from the mince, and they add a good texture along with vitamins and fibre.

 If I'm making a chilli, I usually add a couple of kinds of beans, so that the bean to meat ratio is about 50/50.

 When making a shepherds pie, I mix in plenty of veg like diced carrot, swede, peas etc.

 Whatever I'm making with the mince, I often stir in a handful or two of orange lentils, and a handful or two of oats. These soak up all the flavour, and no one ever notices that they are there. I sometimes mix beef mince with soya mince, too.

 All of these options make good quality minced beef go further, and add useful nutrients too.

Uses for free rosemary...

 A little while ago someone gave me some sprigs of rosemary from their garden. I used it in a number of ways...

1. I added a little chopped rosemary to two packs of reduced price green beans (20p per packet) that I cooked until soft with a sliced onion and a tin of chopped tomatoes. I portioned this out into 3 plastic tubs, topped them with a little crumbled feta cheese, and put them in the freezer to take to work for lunch.

2. I had some friends over for lunch on Sunday, and I wanted to serve another vegetable, but I didn't have time to go to the shops again. So, I opened a couple of tins of butter beans, and warmed them through in some olive oil flavoured with a sprig of rosemary. I had never done that before, but they were absolutely delicious!

3. Inspired by the success of the butter beans, and The Italian vibe coming from Nigella Lawsons new series, I made a white bean and pasta soup, using up a couple of onions, a potato and some chicken stock from the freezer. I flavoured this with rosemary and bay leaves. When it was cooked, I mashed it up a bit, added a splash more water and the last of some small pasta shapes. I cannot tell you how good it tasted!!! Sometimes a meal tastes so such greater than the sum of its parts - and this was one of those times :-)

4. I made a rinse for my hair by boiling some water in a pan along with some rosemary stalks and a few leaves. I poured it into a jar, and left it to cool. While cooling, I dropped the shell of a juiced lemon into it. I strained it and used it to rinse through my hair after shampooing.

5. I cooked some chicken breasts in a simple tomato sauce, flavoured with a sprig of rosemary.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A flexible, fall-back...

...frugal meal.

 About twenty years ago I bought a cook book from Kwik Save supermarket. Kwik Save doesn't exist anymore, but there are a few recipes in the book which I still use. One of them is Tuna Mornay. Now, the actually recipe calls for a layer of rice, a layer of tinned tuna, and a layer of curry sauce. I really don't like the idea of the curry sauce, but the recipe was the inspiration for a dish that we eat quite often.

 First, I cook some rice in my electric rice cooker. I love my rice cooker, I really do. Without it, I'm rubbish at cooking rice. I don't often weigh the rice, but I guess between 60-100g of dried rice per person is about right.
 The cooked rice is layered in the bottom of an oven proof dish, mixed with some sweet corn, or some peas, or some mushrooms, or nothing at all, depending on what I have to hand. I prefer to mix plenty of veg in, but sometimes I don't have any available. In that case, I will try to serve salad on the side, or have fruit for dessert.
 On top of the rice goes a layer of fish. Usually, this is a drained tin of tuna or two, but it might be some tinned salmon, or some cooked, flaked white fish. On top of that goes a layer of white sauce, made with butter/spread, flour and milk. Actually, I've found that if I'm short of milk, I can replace up to half of it with chicken stock (or chicken stock cube and hot water!) and it will still taste good. On top of the white sauce goes some grated cheese, or some breadcrumbs, or both, or neither.
 The whole thing can either be chilled quickly and then thoroughly reheated (you cannot be too careful with rice), or put straight into the oven to warm through and make the topping golden.

 My family all enjoy this, and it is so flexible that it enables me to use whatever I have to hand. It's also something that I can prepare in advance, which I find really useful.

Why I pay to be weighed...

Every Wednesday evening I pay a nice lady called Janet £6.25 for the privilege of standing on her scales. I have a perfectly good set of bathroom scales at home, so surely paying Janet is a waste of money?

 Well, not for me. Being frugal isn't just about spending as little as possible, it is also about getting value for my money. My weight loss class gives me value for money. I get a sensible plan to follow, leaflets and booklets each week, rewards like stickers and key rings to reward me for weight loss achievements, and a half hour motivational talk each week. It isn't as though I get told anything new -  I fully understand the principles of healthy eating, but that's not really the point. The meeting provides accountability, and that's the one thing I cannot provide for myself! More self-disciplined people than me can lose weight all on their own, but I am a realist. I know from experience that without the accountability that Janet provides I would not stick with it, so for me that £6.25 really is money well spent!

Making the most of...

...what you have.

 A few days ago I was mooching about the local Co-op, looking for any price reductions. Down the freezer aisle I came across a half price BBQ pack, containing sausages, burgers and BBQ chicken wings. Original price £5, I paid £2.50. Well, it certainly isn't BBQ weather, but I knew I didn't have to BBQ them!

 I served up burgers in homemade bread rolls for tea on Saturday evening, topped with onions, and a bit of salad. They weren't the greatest burgers ever, but they were tasty and didn't shrink much. My daughter was thrilled - for some reason she always seems thrilled when we are eating actual meat, as opposed to quorn or lentils. I don't think I use lentils that often, but maybe I do....!

 Some of the sausages made a hearty Sunday morning breakfast for my daughter and my husband, and then most of the rest went for sausage, mash and veg for tea on Monday. I was left with one sausage remaining. I could have just served it up on Monday, but I didn't, and used it instead for my daughters breakfast on Tuesday. One sausage, a couple of mushrooms and a slice of bread. Just enough for a breakfast.

 The chicken wings made an appearance for tea last night, with rice and cabbage stir fried with one Nigella seeds.  I cooked some extra rice, and mixed it up with a little leftover bit of honey and mustard salad dressing. Some chopped up cucumber went in. If I'd had more salad stuff, I would have used it, but I didn't so I made do with just cucumber. There was a bit of cooked chicken in the freezer, not really enough to fill a sandwich, but enough to add taste and protein to the salad. I thought it could use a bit more crunch and texture, so some peanuts went in next. That is my husbands packed lunch for today. He gets fed up of sandwiches, but his office doesn't have a microwave at the moment so I cannot sent leftovers from dinner, which he would prefer.

 I still have two burgers left. I think I'll use them tonight. I've made a great big pot of bean and pasta soup, flavoured with rosemary (a gift from a lady at my weightwatchers class) and bay leaves (from the garden). It smelled amazing while it was cooking last night, I cannot wait to eat it for diner tonight. However, my husband really doesn't consider soup to be a 'proper' dinner. I hope that if I serve it alongside a beef burger in a bun he will think its substantial enough. I have a few apples that need using, so maybe I will make a little apple crumble for pudding. Surely no one could grumble about a meal like that!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

I just cannot bring myself to...

...really enjoy porridge. It sounds like it should be appetising; a big, steaming bowl of hot porridge, with dried fruit, a generous sprinkling of brown sugar, maybe even a dollop of golden syrup. But no matter how hard I try, I just cannot summon up much enthusiasm for it. At best, I am ambivalent about it. At worst, it makes me feel vaguely sick.

 Which sort of makes me feel like a bit of a failure in the frugal department. Just about every frugal website in the world waxes lyrical about the virtues of oats as a breakfast food. Undoubtedly, they are a cheap meal. Equally undoubtedly, they are also easy to prepare, keep you full for ages, and are astonishingly good for you. Sadly, though, I just cannot bring myself to like a hot bowl of porridge, no matter how cold or grey or wintry the morning.

 However, all is not lost! I have found a way of preparing oats for breakfast that I actually enjoy! I take a couple of spoons of oats, and put them in a breakfast bowl. I add a spoonful or two of dried fruit (such as sultanas). Then, I cover them with milk, pop the bowl in the fridge and go to bed. By the morning, the oats and the fruit have soaked up the milk and they are smooth and juicy and all round lovely. Try it, if you don't believe me! Complete perfection would involve a banana sliced on top, but sometimes perfection just cannot be had, and I enjoy the oats anyway. The friend who gave me the idea for cold soaked oats also suggested soaking the oats in apple juice instead of milk. I keep meaning to try it, but I'm far more likely to have milk in the house than I am apple juice, so it hasn't happened yet. I did once grate an apple into the oats just before eating, and that was nice, but not as nice as the banana. And it left me with a grater to wash. If I use dried mixed fruit, and sprinkle a bit of cinnamon on top, it tastes and smells a bit like Christmas :-) if I don't have any dried fruit in the house, I might squirt some golden syrup on it to sweeten it instead.

Frugal Christmas wrapping...

...that doesn't look cheap.

 A couple of years ago I bought a great big roll of brown wrapping paper. It cost about a fiver, and I'm still using it! I think it makes presents look really classy, and because it is neutral I have used it for every event, including birthdays and weddings. Once the gifts is wrapped, I tie it up with string, and add a brown card parcel tag. I bought a huge pack of those from a newsagents a long time ago, and it seems like they will last for ever! The gift looks pretty cute and 'retro' just like that, but I do like to add a bit more embellishment. A couple of holly leaves snipped from the garden, and tucked into the string looks cute, and is very Eco-friendly, of course. A little bauble or two that won't fit on the Christmas tree looks great. In fact, you can buy them so cheaply from supermarkets and pound shops that getting a few just for wrapping is a pretty frugal option. After Christmas lays year I bought a pack of little wooden cut out shapes from Paperchase. There is no way I would have paid full price, but they only cost a few pence and they will look great on this years gifts. Usually, though, I try not to buy embellishments. I would much, much rather use what I have to hand. I don't buy ribbon, but I save whatever bits come my way, including those bits sewn into clothes to help them stay on hangers. They hang out of your clothes annoyingly, so I often snip them off. I don't throw them away, though, because they might come in handy for fastening around small gifts. I save tissue paper, and use that to wrap gifts. I have a few little self-inking Christmas stamps that I sometimes use to decorate the parcel tags. I often use a gold pen, or a nice bold, black felt tip pen to write the tag. I can't do real calligraphy, but I do my best to make my handwriting an attractive feature.

 After Christmas last year I bought some make your own cracker kits very cheaply from Hobbycraft. I intend to make some nice crackers to go on the table or Christmas lunch, but I have more than I need, and it occurs to me that they would make a great 'wrapping' for small gifts, such as little scented candles.

I always cook from scratch...

...except when I don't!

 Without a shadow of a doubt, cooking from scratch is much, much more frugal than buying per-made, convenience foods or ready meals. However, sometimes I have to work late, or forget to take what I need out of the freezer, or just don't have time to squeeze in a shopping trip. On those occasions, a convenience food or ready meal can be a whole lot more frugal than my other option, which is to get a take away.

 I try hard to plan carefully and not let that occur very often, but when it does happen there are a couple of quick, easy meals that I can fall back on. Pizza is the first thing that springs to mind. In my book, there is no such thing as a bad pizza! Having a couple of frozen pizzas to hand can be a budget saver, providing me with something quick and easy to dish up. Even buying pizza from the local shop and cooking it at home is just as quick, and a lot cheaper than buying a take away. Also, pizza makes a good meal to offer any unexpected guests.

 A jar of pesto and a packet of pasta in the cupboard means that I always have a quick meal on hand. I can usually scrape up a bit more to add to it, such as some veg, cooked with the pasta (even if its just a few peas out of the freezer), or some grated cheese, or a couple of chopped up bits of ham, or a tin of tuna, but even if I have nothing else, no one in my house would turn their nose up at pasta and pesto.

 Convenience foods can sometimes be more frugal than the alternative, but I need to be careful that they don't become a regular part of the menu!

The most frugal decision I ever made...

...was to get rid of the TV!

 As a family, we were aware of how much of our time TV was swallowing up, and at the back of our mind was a growing sense of unease. We try to be careful about the influences we allow into our lives, and found that quite a lot of the things we saw on TV didn't really reflect our standards. So, we decided to say goodbye to Sky, and to disconnect the arial.

 Now, we're not some Amish-wannabes, you understand! In our household (of three people!) we have one laptop, one notebook, two iPads and three smart phones, so we have no shortage of Internet access. We watch things on 4oD, BBC iplayer, YouTube etc. We also enjoy watching DVDs. However, even with all of these options, we still don't spend anything like as much time staring mindlessly at the screen.

 So what's frugal about that?

 Well, the first christmas without TV, my daughter sat down with a paper and pen to make her 'list'.

"2 guinea pigs" was as far as she got.

 With no exposure to adverts, she had no desire for 'stuff'. I genuinely hadn't realised how much materialism seeps into us through the TV. In my experience, watching TV really does contribute to a sense of discontentment. Perhaps children are more sensitive to this than adults. They lack the sophistication and life experience to see through the advertisers tricks. But are we really as sophisticated as we think we are?